A recent edition of NPR’s Friday afternoon South Florida Arts Beat program featured John Richard, president of Miami’s mainstream art temple, the Adrienne Arsht Center. He was on to discuss free theater events for public schools, and in the course of the interview the term “world-class” was used more than once to describe the Center and the significance it holds for the city. In his intro to the segment, host Ed Bell called the complex “a convener and a host in a powerful way” and a key tool in “building a South Florida arts audience for the future.”
With its prime real-estate and robust resources set aside for the arts, the Arsht Center casts a symbolic shadow — as immense as the regal structure’s actual shadow — on Miami’s alternative arts scene. Whether Miami is currently experiencing an “Alternative Renaissance” — as local blogger Liz Tracy recently declared in The Atlantic’s entertainment blog, inciting much debate in the article’s comment section — the city is nonetheless lacking in an essential type of venue that is as integral to vibrant underground scenes nationwide as a megahall like the Arsht is to mainstream urban culture. (Full disclosure: In my capacity as co-head of “experimental” music label and show-book agency Roofless Records, I was one of many sources quoted in Tracy’s article.)
As I use it, a “DIY venue” refers to an art (in this case, music) space that provides an alternative to the commercial, alcohol-driven world of nightclubs and bars. These warehouses, galleries, and homes all vary, but they find commonality in a pervasive sense of freedom both social and artistic. Whereas big-rooms like the Fillmore Miami Beach, dance clubs like the Vagabond, and even otherworldly dives like Churchill’s Pub strive to give their customers what they want so they will show up and spend money on drinks, DIY venues, in their infinite iterations, are spaces for free expression, true experimentation, and direct connection between fans and artists. These spaces are also more fun, it should be said, precisely because of their unadulterated intimacy.
It may be too early to tell whether Miami is truly amid an “Alternative Renaissance”. But a few camps are working hard, often in the face of great deterrence, to provide the homegrown DIY spaces that could be their respective micro-scene’s own Arsht Center and have catalyzed other cities’ underground growth spurts. This article, the first of a four-part series, will focus on one such space.
Miami Chum Bucket
A furiously churning mosh pit signaled the formal beginning of Miami Chum Bucket. Moments before it erupted, the organizers of the Allapattah warehouse turned punk venue, distro, practice space — to name just a few intended uses — took the stage to cut a giant red ribbon and toast each other, and the assembly, with buckets’ worth of champagne. For a moment, the scene looked less like a punk rock show and more like sweaty, delirious Olympic victory.
But only for a moment. As Miami punk vets and Chum Bucket affiliates Gorilla Pussy — a trio that plays a monstrous punk-metal hybrid dubbed “powerviolence” — launched into the opening chords of their set, the scene suddenly looked very much like a punk rock show. The middle of the room became a center of gravity for the stampeding chaos of the circle pit, punk’s traditional folk dance. From that dense center, chaos unfurled like electric tendrils that flung ragdoll bodies up into the air where the crowd kept them afloat like a chippy raft in the midst of a tsunami. True believers lunged for the mic and enunciated every lyric’s syllable with righteously extended index fingers. The anarchy came in short, fast, brutal spurts, with occasional guttural, stoned breakdowns, buffeting the audience between manic moments of frenzy and brief, breath-catching pauses that resembled exhaustion more than calm.
This frenetic, physical mania was a steaming pot finally bubbling over in ecstasy after extended boiling. The Chum Bucket had been brewing since early 2010 when the key organizers — including members from bands Guerilleros De Nadie, Eztorbo, Baker Acted, and the aforementioned Gorilla Pussy — kicked off their project as a means to quell what GP vocalist Emmanuel Nanni, a.k.a. Gordo, describes as “growing dissatisfaction” with Miami’s punk scene.
“Growing dissatisfaction” is the number one punk motivation for action. The movement — both as an apolitical genre rejecting the aesthetic excess of ‘70s rock, or in any of its Left or Right Wing politicized incarnations — has always been rooted in contrarianism. In this instance, the action was the lack of a centralized institution for South Florida punks, and the reaction was to build one.
The collective undertook an impressive fundraising campaign filled with events often featuring nationally touring punk artists to generate start-up capital. That prolific stretch of quality, creative, and welcoming events helped to further attract and cultivate the audience the Chum Bucket’s would-be founders solicited for funding.
Raising more than $10,000, the campaign was an unlikely success and culminated in a top-shelf opening night with hundreds of punks and punk affiliates reveling in a bona fide punk venue. From the beginning, the Chum Bucket took cues from political institutions like ABC No Rio in New York’s Lower East Side and 924 Gilman in San Francisco’s Bay Area, both multipurpose arts and activism spaces run by radical/anarchist punk collectives that anchor their respective scenes. In its own way, the Chum Bucket represented a grassroots attempt to forge a stronger scene in Miami by providing a space in which that scene could grow and thrive.
It got off to a fast start. In the month it was at full-strength, the Chum Bucket hosted a season’s worth of touring artists, including cult punk-cabaret act World/Inferno Friendship Society and the slew of national punk and hardcore acts on its three-day 305 Fest roster.
But it was during 305 Fest, the Chum Bucket’s signature event that drew attendees from around and outside of Florida, that things went awry. Cops on patrol noticed the crowd and shut the event down for violating the space’s zoning restrictions. While the Chum Bucket, along with its distro and library, is still open and bands can still practice there, shows have come to a complete halt while it petitions the city to adjust its zoning.
Gordo describes the situation as “incredibly convoluted” and says that making the space legal may be “out of their reach.” The most frustrating aspect of this disappointing debacle may be the lease, which binds the organizers to a space they can’t use to its full potential. The Chum Bucket is currently paying its monthly rent through benefit shows at other venues.
While many of its obstacles are humdrum — every urban entity must surmount bureaucracy and expenses — the Chum Bucket is also a strong example of the woes that can stem from punk’s hyper-insular lifestyle and self-isolating political sensibilities. In other words, punks have historically built their own regional networks outside of the “mainstream” or, at least, the more immediately accessible and/or apoliticized youth culture in their locale, and the Chum Bucket is no exception.
Keeping DIY spaces open and thriving is a problem in any city. Indeed, it may be inherent to alternate spaces that they exist perpetually on the verge of going under. But in Miami, where so few such venues exist, it is especially touch-and-go, and, in order to keep their doors open, the Chum Bucket and its (very rare) ilk may have to tread into uncomfortable waters, i.e., the mainstream.
I’ve blogged in the past about the advantages Chum Bucket could glean from resources like the Knight Foundation, which, through its Arts Challenge, has funded many of the pillars of Miami’s self-declared “Alternative Renaissance” — notably, Sweat Records, Borscht Film Festival, and O Cinema. There’s no reason The Chum Bucket couldn’t join them in the halls of Knight, especially with its track record of fundraising, mobilization, and producing events for its constituents.
Hopefully, the venue’s organizers and patrons are not held in perpetual exile by their own independence — a quintessentially Miami predicament.
Part II of Miami DIY takes us to: the end. Stay tuned.