Oddly enough, it was the martinis that placed the event in time. The scene at the Central Armature Works, a dilapidated industrial hulk just a block from such "New Downtown" landmarks as the Navy Memorial and the Shakespeare Theatre, could have happened any time in the last 20 years: A mix of art and punk spectators wandered the unfinished space, looking at paintings and sculpture, watching abstract video images, and listening to the noise being collaged by a mix of art and punk performers. Only in the mid-'90s, though, has the martini become so retro-hip as to take a place at the makeshift bar with the traditional beer and wine.
The June 8 performance, "SelfOrganizingSystem: AudioVisual Aids for the Control Challenged," was the second in a series that will continue through July 21 at Central Armature, at 625 D St. NW. The performers included such downtown mainstays as Jared Hendrickson, former manager of the 9:30 club and a member of the techno band Chemlab, and Alberto Gaitan, who's long worked with the local multimedia collaborative group Art Attack and the Washington Project for the Arts (WPA).
The organizer of the series, however, is relative newcomer Ceridwen Morris. The 28-year-old returned two years ago to the Washington area, her childhood home, after attending college in Australia and spending a few years on the fringes of the Manhattan art scene, which she says she didn't like. Formerly the manager of WPA's bookstore and the curator of "Hostile Witness," the final WPA show, Morris may just have the energy to keep an alternative art scene alive downtown.
At the moment, hopes for the long-planned downtown art district are fading. In January, the 9:30 club moved uptown, to the far edge of the new club and restaurant district at 14th and U streets NW. Soon after, WPA closed its doors and was absorbed by the Corcoran. (The WPA\Corcoran is the official sponsor of the performance series, which is being billed as an adjunct to its ArtSites exhibition program.) d.c. space is long gone, and the Fifth Column and the Insect Club recently closed. Plans to convert the Tariff Building at Seventh and F streets NW to a museum are on hold.
Though redevelopment plans for the former Woodies site at 11th and G NW, the old Hecht's building at Seventh and G NW, and Lincoln Square at 11th and E NW all include arts or entertainment space, none of those projects is currently set to break ground. While Cafe Atlantico is preparing its new home at Eighth and D NW, and the fourth annual "Arts on Foot" tour of the neighborhood is set for September, it remains to be seen if this series at Central Armature is the last gasp of the downtown arts scene, or the beginning of an ad hoc renaissance.
In spirit, at least, the Central Armature events resemble those that occurred almost two decades ago a few blocks further west, when WPA, the Museum of Temporary Art (MOTA) and other anti-institutions occupied G Street NW storefronts owned by the city's Redevelopment Land Agency. The Central Armature building, like many other small structures in the Pennsylvania Quarter/Gallery Place area, is also owned by a government agency, the federal General Services Administration (GSA). GSA got the buildings only by default, however: It inherited them when the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corp. (PADC), which was charged with remaking the area, was abruptly terminated. According to Ann Everett, deputy assistant regional administrator for the National Capital Region of GSA, the agency's plan for Central Armature and the other properties should be ready in three to four months. GSA will attempt to preserve "PADC's intentions," which included residential historic preservation and arts space.
In the late '70s, such bands as the Urban Verbs, the Nurses and the Shirkers played at WPA and MOTA, forging an alliance between art and punk that went commercial with the opening of the 9:30 club in 1980. With the Central Armature series, the punk/art axis returns to its noncommercial roots. Morris began the program by getting permission to use the building -- "You can do anything you like, as long as it's art," she says GSA told her -- and wangling $3,000 from a wealthy pal. This initial funding is being supplemented by cover charges that range from $5 to $8. Morris is also running D.C. Small, an art gallery, in the ramshackle garage at the back of the surprisingly large structure.
The building has two big first-floor spaces, as well as the garage. The front room is serving as a gallery, while the latter is the performance space. The upper floor has been ceded to the pigeons that have overwhelmed it, while "downstairs is just a jungle of terrifying things," according to Morris. Trying to fix a fuse down there, she remembers, "was like some kind of scene out of Brazil.' "
The garage-gallery, which opened Friday with a five-person group show, has a dirt floor and a chaotic array of wires and fluorescent-light fixtures dangling from the ceiling. As Morris and a collaborator cleaned it out last week, there was a boxy vintage car parked in the center space. Asked if parking would be allowed after the space became a gallery, Morris approvingly surveyed the automotive antique in front of her. "It depends on the car," she decided.
That judgment is entirely in the spirit of the performance series, which will mix up film and poetry, hip-hop and art-punk. Among the scheduled acts are local poetry-slam champion Jeff McDaniel, whose meditations on love are more Sam Kinison than Robert Browning. McDaniel's "One Man Show Part II," on June 28, will be followed by a July 12 appearance by Silvana Straw, another poetry-slam winner. Straw, who uses props, slides, and backing tapes, has a more theatrical style than McDaniel, but both write and perform confrontational material. Says Morris of poetry-slam verse, "I like this incredibly high-anxiety stuff. It's a little bit scarier than watching TV."
The Warmers, a local minimalist-rock trio that just released its first album on Dischord, the city's premier punk label, will appear July 4 in a program that also features an impressionistic film by Jem Cohen. "Lost Book Found" is a meditation on lost New York that recalls the spirit of (and is dedicated to) "Julius Knipl, Real-Estate Photographer" cartoonist Ben Katchor. Cohen, who has made rock videos and concert-backdrop films for R.E.M., is currently working on a "feature-length collaborative documentary on and with Fugazi," Dischord's best-known band. (Photographer Cynthia Connolly, whose work is included in the D.C. Small show, also works for Dischord.)
On June 29, local video-maker Jeff Krulik will show his work in a "DC/Baltimore Exchange" that also features Baltimore filmmaker Martha Colburn and performance artist Gordon Simpson. Krulik is best known for "Heavy Metal Parking Lot," a short film about metal fans congregating outside the USAir Arena (then the Capital Centre), and Simpson has an equally keen area of pop culture: His "Cereal and Sugar-Coated Ideology" is a half-serious academic analysis of the post-World War II history of American breakfast cereal that's sure to thrill anyone who remembers Quisp and Quake.
The series concludes with "Black Skin, Black Masks" on July 20 and 21. The multimedia piece, by D.C. poet Holly Bass, pays tribute to Martinique-born political philosopher Frantz Fanon with hip-hop, verse and ballet.
"In a way, it's like a trial for the future," explains Morris of the performance series. "I expect to have an ongoing relationship with the WPA\Corcoran," she says, while admitting that when she first approached the museum, "They were like, Who are you?' I had to send memos to departments I didn't know existed.
"I want to do site-specific stuff in the future," Morris adds. "The performers would deal with that space, like maybe an abandoned Pizza Hut." Central Armature Works is a bit more evocative than an abandoned Pizza Hut, though, as Morris has noticed. "I really want this space," she declares. CAPTION: Ceridwen Morris, above, is the force behind a Central Armature series of events featuring Gordon Simpson, left, Alberto Gaitan, below, and Jared Hendrickson.