Nashville, Tennessee is considered to be one of the world’s greatest live music cities. We didn’t get the moniker “Music City USA” for nothing. Yet in a town with more stages per-capita than anywhere else in the world, homogeneity rules the roost. And not just country music. The indie rock scene is equally guilty of an unfortunate combination of whatever-it-takes ambition, scarily-good chops, bang-up presentation, and an almost-complete lack of soul. It can be very hard to find musicians willing to take real chances. When I started the Theatre Intangible radio show just three years ago, I went in search of venues that regularly booked avant-garde artists. I couldn’t find a single one. The only place that came close was the art gallery Ruby Green, but they stopped booking music performances just months before my show began.
So to find performers for my show, I had to do some leg work and go directly to the artists. At first, I was pessimistic about my prospects. But soon, a whole new world opened up to me of artists on the edges doing really incredible things, completely off the radar. There were artists making their own instruments, noise/drone bands, avant jazz-improv-ers, music collectives, psyche-folk minimalists, sound-artists, and acts that defied categorization. They were written off as “pretentious” by the town hipsters; yet they created their music with a sincerity and focus unseen in the indie-rock world. When they got the rare chance to play a show, the crowd reaction was split between disinterest and derision. Sadly, most of the performers I talked to didn’t know the other performers even existed. There was no community.
But things have gotten better. In the last three years: Charlie Rauh started the Nashville Fringe showcase at The Basement. John Brassil‘s Buzz & Click electronic festival at The End increased it’s lineup of experimental electronic artists. Little Hamilton cornered the market on noise bands. House shows at places like the Sky House often drew crowds larger and more passionate than those at the clubs. The Muse took risks on hard-to-categorize bands, even if their audiences wouldn’t. Leslie Keffer at Betty’s Bar & Grill turned a little hole-in-the-wall into one of the top places to see experimental. And Jonathan Lisenby and the crew at Open Lot turned an old warehouse into the premiere space for visual and performance art in Nashville.
This is the first in a series of articles about local venues that support the avant-garde and experimental community. Today we’re taking a look at Open Lot Nashville.
Open Lot is an artist space and performance venue in East Nashville. Having only been open for seven months, Open Lot is already booking near-capacity shows and doing so in the most unlikely of venues — a converted warehouse that has no liquor license. (It’s BYOB, which for beer snobs like me, means I can bring my Founders or Dogfishhead and not be overcharged.) I sat down with Executive Director Jonathan Lisenby to discuss Open Lot’s place in the Nashville community. (Well, ok, we didn’t exactly sit. It was an e-mail interview. Call it an e-sit.)
T: Open Lot first began in St. Louis in October 2007. What brought the group to Nashville?
J: Open Lot St. Louis began with a small group of recent graduates from Washington University in St. Louis looking for a group studio to work on art and architecture. Myself and another native Nashvillian, Blake Besharian, were a part of that project with Jordan Hicks (who is managing programming at Open Lot St. Louis now) and four others. It has always been Open Lot’s intention to spread the Open Lot idea to cities other than St. Louis, and I got my chance to bring it home to Nashville in March of 2009. My sister, a songwriter in Nashville, would come to St. Louis and say to me, “this is great and all, but I think Nashville might need this more.” I spent about four months and viewed 75 buildings looking for a space to house the studios and project space until I finally found the space we’re in now in East Nashville. It was extremely difficult, and much more difficult than it was in St. Louis, due to Nashville’s high real estate inflation and Nashville property owners lack of understanding about the project and the arts in general. After ditching several brokers, I found the perfect spot on Craigslist, of all places.
Open Lot started having meetings before I found a permanent space, usually meeting at restaurants to talk about our ideas for curating new shows for Nashville. The space we have now was built-out by those artists, many of which are still active in Open Lot, to make studio spaces and make the gallery space for our first show, ART.EDU. ART.EDU opened Open Lot’s public programming in the beginning of August 2009.
T: The Open Lot website states that you showcase compelling and contemporary art that is underrepresented in Nashville. Could you elaborate?
J: Almost all of Open Lot’s exhibits are thematically curated with a clear conceptual thesis in mind. We treat the showcasing itself as an artwork. It’s important that we consider the cultural climate of Nashville before we decide to put on a show. If the statement of the exhibit is saturated in the Nashville audience or — more likely in a typical Nashville exhibit — just plain vacuous, we won’t do it. It would be a waste of our time. This reveals the very practical concern that motivates our exhibits. Because Open Lot members are volunteers in this effort, we can’t afford to put on bullshit programming. But there is such an amount of work that needs to be shown in Nashville, the worry of running out of things to “say” in our exhibits is an unrealistic one.
Open Lot doesn’t sell art or rely on sales to fund its day-to-day operation, so the members are freed-up to show whatever type of work they’d like to show, regardless of marketability. Despite this, Open Lot Nashville has been a surprisingly popular destination in the last 6 months, simply because we’re showing different work, un-buyable, sometimes obscene, different work. Most Nashville-based galleries can’t show what we do because they can’t pay their overhead with it. If it can’t be displayed over a couch or sit in a corner, then it won’t appear at Rymer Gallery or Gallery One or one of the many others. Zeitgeist Gallery is the one true exception to this over-arching statement, and they can show more progressive music and art because they’ve combined the gallery with an architecture and design practice that takes a bit of the overhead financial stress off. This isn’t a criticism of these galleries in any way; they are doing what they have to do to survive and, in fact, they play a role that allows Open Lot to respond. We get to have all the fun.
A good example of underrepresented work in Nashville is video and performance art. The Concrete Comedy exhibit only showcased video and performance as a contrast to the sculptural objects that the artist community associates with concrete comedy. Contemporary cinema is often critiqued in the vein of meta-narrative and contemporary sculpture is often critiqued in the vein of pun-y one-liners (“concrete” comedy), but what would happen if video were looked at simultaneously as meta, concrete, and meme-ready? You can tell that this kind of exhibit hits home when the audience, albeit a small crowd of 60, stands in the cold for two hours to watch the performances in their entirety. Concrete Comedy is a perfect example of Open Lot’s curating sensibility in that it served as a double-dose of different: video and performance art are underrepresented in Nashville, ignored really, and non-sculpture concrete comedy is passed over in exhibits in bigger cities.
Several months ago we also showcased some of Nashville’s up-and-coming filmmakers in the Heap Us ‘Round Our Ruins film screening. There are a ton of young filmmakers coming out of Watkins film school or coming here to work on music production work that are not being represented to Nashville appropriately. The Belcourt is doing what it can, and so are we, and of course there’s the Nashville Film Festival, but this is a quickly growing scene that we’ll have to adapt to meet.
Open Lot pushes collaboration as much as possible, which is a strangely absent element in a town as full of talented musicians and artists as Nashville. Two heads are usually better than one, and the collaborative curation at Open Lot shows it. Open Lot uses collaboration as a kind-of marketing tool as well, letting the distinctness of the collaborating artists bridge the gap between cliques of art-goers and scenesters. For example, the last Collaborative Performances Series installment, Session 4, featured Barry Jones and Kell Black, two video artists and musicians most native Nashvillians would find too envelope-pushing for their taste. But pair Black and Jones with accessible, yet profound, Nashville musicians Stone Jack Jones and you get a double-layered, meaningful performance that any music-lover can get into. These collaborations are often great introductions into newer forms of art, like circuit bending, aleatoric, and video art.
T: What types of musical performances are you most interested in booking? What excites you about the Nashville music community? What, if anything, do you feel is overrepresented?
J: Open Lot is committed to showing underrepresented work in general, and that representation changes from city to city. What’s shown a lot in St. Louis – noise, punk, dramatic & melodic pop, hard rock, and St. Louis-style rap (it’s not hip-hop, don’t let anybody tell you it is) – is fairly underrepresented in Nashville. This is great for both cities, because Open Lot only has to use the network set up between the two locations to book great music. For example, Raglani (Kranky Records) played an impromptu set in St. Louis that would have a much bigger cultural impact if played to a Nashville audience. JEFF The Brotherhood (Infinity Cat Records) sounds good in Nashville, but blew away the Open Lot St. Louis audience with their subtle southern sensibility.
Of course, country and pop singer-songwriters flood the streets of Nashville. We can’t even consider showcasing that kind of work; what would be the point? I’m personally most interested in showing the cutting-edge of music and to treat Open Lot as a kind of experiment room or project space, but we have to be realistic about who our audience is. If no one comes to hear the most amazing show, to me that lessens the communicative impact of the music. For Open Lot to be an effective showcasing venue for new things, we have to bring Nashville along with us on the ride. We have to transition from the mundane to the new.
There is very little in the Nashville music community that is exciting. Nashville hasn’t been about being “exciting” for as long as I’ve been alive. Nashville is about polished, composed “everyman” songs, usually executed by technically amazing musicians. Pit Nashville’s quality of musicianship against any other American city and there’s simply no contest. As a conceptual artist, I see this as a great thing, a city full of talented musicians, a painter might think of them like brushes, ready to record or perform difficult music for cheap. It’s a visionary’s dream, the most awesome workshop, but the vision itself might come from somewhere else and not Nashville. Hopefully it will come from musicians collaborating at Open Lot. The fledgling electronic artist can learn a lot about composing according to systems from an architect. Circuit benders need to be talking to sculptors. Even country songwriters can learn heart-rending emotion from the pacing of local graphic novelists like Eric Powell. That kind of interaction can only happen at Open Lot.
T: How does Open Lot fit in with the overall Nashville community? Is there anything in the general Nashville attitude towards contemporary art that you find frustrating? Refreshing?
J: Nashville’s general idea of contemporary art seems to be abstract painting, and there is a lot of it hanging around. There are some spaces, like Twist Gallery and Tinney Contemporary, that are putting up non-paintings, but these are not challenging. Again, Open Lot needs to transition the Nashville audience to the new, but I think most of these spaces showing contemporary art are taking the principle of graduation and caution too far. In general, the work I see in Nashville’s galleries is not pretentious, and I love that.
Open Lot has had an easier time interfacing with the academic community, art schools like Watkins, Vanderbilt, and Austin Peay, to name a few. I think this is because of the financial structure of the academic institution: they don’t have to sell the work they show. Many art instructors are waiting to show work at Open Lot because they can have more freedom, not needing to sell and not required to please donors.
T: Are there any other galleries or performance spaces in Nashville that you feel a kinship or “shared mission” with? Why?
J: The only space I would mention is Zeitgeist Gallery. Zeitgeist is hosting performances and talks in their gallery space that are meant to educate the art community. The spirit of the Little Hamilton Collective is encouraging, though not usually the place or the performances. I think Open Lotters feel a connection with them simply because they are also a collective, dealing with a lot of the same types of problems. Comparisons are drawn between Open Lot and the old Fugitive Arts Center. I think this might be the most compatible space with Open Lot and also explains the connection to Zeitgeist Gallery: several of the members of Fugitive are now showing work at Zeitgeist.
T: Many experimental/avant garde musicians in the Nashville community find that booking a show in most of the local rock clubs results in low attendance and lack of support from the club owners. What would they find if they were to book a show at Open Lot?
J: Booking a music show at Open Lot will probably require some kind of collaboration, or at least, that option will be encouraged by the group’s members. If a collaboration does occur, like with the Sessions, the audience will be made up of a combination of people there to see the art/artist and the music/musician. The size of the audience is doubled and audience members are introduced to a new music or art in the process. Nashville’s just not big enough to support a large avant-garde scene. We have to work together to make a larger event that appeals to a larger audience in order to get the exposure the avant-garde needs to be effective.
T: How would local artists go about submitting their work to Open Lot? What are the most common mistakes artists make when submitting their work to you?
J: Local artists should mail press kits to 1307 Jewell St., Nashville, TN 37207 or more preferably, email electronic press kits to firstname.lastname@example.org. The most common mistake artists make when submitting work is to not give enough information on themselves and why they want to show at Open Lot. Open Lot has a mission to deliver underrepresented work, and artists need to give us a clue about how their work fits into and fulfills that mission. Also, marketing avant-garde work is difficult and takes time. The more info an artist can give on themselves that we can use to explain the work to our audience, the better. Submitting proposals that involve collaboration or cross-disciplinary work is always more appealing for us to book at Open Lot.
T: What advice would you have for young artists in Nashville?
J: I see a lot of young artists try to show their work at every occasion possible, at every gallery and show. Over-exposure is bad for any artist in a town this size. Having your work associated with everything, and so nothing, can make a young artist appear schizophrenic or at the least, unfocused. Almost all full-time artists working in the United States must show their work in several cities. My advice is to research galleries or spaces that show work like yours or show the work of artists you respect and target those strategically. And apply to shows, residencies, and galleries both in and outside Nashville.
I would also recommend the young artist make only the kind of work they want to make, and not take on commissions or attempt to make commercial art right off the bat. If the young artist needs money, they have to get a separate job and work their ass off at night making their art. I’ve seen so many young artists sell themselves away, burn out, and stop making work at all.
T: Do you currently have any available studio spaces? What advantages do your spaces offer artists over other studio spaces in town?
J: Open Lot will have an opening soon. Artists should email email@example.com to ask about available spaces. The first thing most artists notice when it comes to taking an Open Lot studio space is the low cost. This is symptomatic of the community system, of several people using the building and sharing utilities cost. The community system also allows artists to share a large communal space in the center of the complex and to share tools and supplies like the wood shop. The best part of the deal is being able to group-curate the space. Anyone is invited to share ideas about how to utilize the project space, but Studio Members really have the last say. A space at Open Lot isn’t for absolutely everyone, however, because group-curation and sharing the communal tools and space are a lot of work, and require working as a team. Some artists work better in isolation.
T: Can you talk about some of your most-anticipated upcoming shows at the Open Lot Nashville? Why are they must-see events?
J: The Sessions series is an ongoing must-see for local musicians, in that the visual collaborations add startling layers of meaning to music and lyrics, sometimes supporting, sometimes equivocating.
April 16 features two must-see events back-to-back: Translation exhibit opens 6pm-9pm and then multi-instrumentalists Heresie Of The Free Spirit and Che Chen + Robbie Lee open for lutist Jozef van Wissem. These guys are absolutely ridiculous and I dare any venue Nashville to top this concert this year. And it follows what will be one of the best exhibits in Nashville, Translation. Translation is an experiment documenting the translation process from text to visual representation and from visual to textual. Artists are asked to respond to a pre-determined written piece and writers are asked to respond to a predetermined visual piece. More details on the show and how to submit work can be found here.
ART.EDU opens Friday, April 30th, showcasing the best art from middle TN’s recent art graduates (curated by Sara Davis & Patrick DeGuira). And then This Is Not Art exhibit open Friday, May 21st. This Is Not Art will be an extremely controversial show dealing with “fringe” pieces or edge studies on what is, what is not, and what appears to be Art according to several popular definitions.
T: What artists in Nashville really excite you right now?
J: Comedy/music acts like Johnny Corndawg and The Mattoid are extremely interesting to me, especially in the wake of Open Lot’s Concrete Comedy show. I am excited by super theatrical acts like Protomen, Telecommunicators, and Rae Herring because I have a strong feeling that the sensual operatic will have a role to play in forming Nashville’s new non-country music style. Speaking of forming a new style, I am extremely interested in Nashville’s musicians’ desperate struggle to form a new Nashville brand. In the wake of the success of Kings Of Leon, a new iteration of the struggle continues with Caitlin Rose, JEFF, The Features, Daniel Pujols, Those Darlins, etc., etc. trying so hard to create a brand. I am not so much interested in the music as I am interested in the want for the brand.
T: Thanks for your time.
I don’t know about you, but I’m getting really excited about Open Lot’s future here. I attended the artist collaboration series 4 a few weeks ago, and was astounded by the focus and communal-spirit of the audience. I do wish Black & Jones’ multi-screened visuals tied in more with the music being played; but then again, that’s what experimenting is all about. And what doesn’t work for me may very well work for someone else. For more information about Open Lot, check out their web site. To see Jonathan’s personal work, check out his web page.
Watch this space for write-ups about Little Hamilton, Betty’s Bar & Grill, and more. I’d love to hear your comments and suggestions for other venues to feature!