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A Social Sculpture on Trial: Can Ash Studios Act as a Template for DIY Art Spaces Post-Ghost Ship

Experimental art space Ash Studios took the city of Dallas to court yesterday contending that it’s role as a ‘social sculpture’ shouldn’t require the same occupancy restrictions as commercial operations. As we follow the trial through a series of essays and regularly updated reportage, we wonder: What could this case mean for other DIY spaces under siege across the United States post-Ghost Ship?


It’s December 2nd, 2016, and there’s a fire at The Ghost Ship, a DIY art space where creatives not only worked but occasionally lived; where 36 members of Oakland’s artistic community found themselves dancing their last dance. More than a local tragedy, the Ghost Ship fire was also a cause with several unforseen effects. Parents of missing adults, the California Justice Department had 20, 470 reports of missing people around that time, came looking for their children wondering if they’d found a home among the artists who’d made The Ghost Ship theirs.

Movements such as We the Artists of the Bay Area, an organization that has taken a particular interest in preventing displacement for artists as an act of advocacy,  access, and education for both the creative and broader community were formed. Other movements, took the fire as an opportunity to participate in actions tantamount to physical destruction of similar art spaces. Internet forum and Right Wing hub 4chan was used as a space to call on like minded users to report on DIY art spaces such as Ghost Ship, spaces labeled “open hotbeds of liberal radicalism.” One such post, which has been wiped from the site in accordance with a policy that limits pages for comments and timing on posts, announced that “…we must crush their nests before they can regroup!” signing off with “MAGA,” and “happy hunting.” Replies offered tips on how to go about the hunt, such as searching colleges, music forums, and Facebook groups, as well as gaining the trust of event organizers as a way to “infiltrate social circles” – these alt-right activists adapting infamous COINTELPRO tactics aimed at these social spaces. It was implied that some of the liberal radicalism stemming from these spaces included hosting Black Lives Matter meetings and other protest actions. In cities across the United States, such as Nashville, Denver, and Baltimore, DIY art spaces were shut down after reports of code violations. 4chan members claimed responsibility. Local fire marshals brought down the hammer, seeming to target art spaces in a similar fashion as the online zealots.

Now, over a year later, Dallas is seeing an increasing number of its own DIY art spaces being cited for code violations and improper COs (certificates of occupancy). Unable to follow up on the fire marshall’s recommendations about what CO to obtain – a process that usually means costly building improvements and limit the activities of spaces known for collaboration across several mediums- these spaces have been forced to cease or extremely alter the nature of the work being produced and presented inside of them.

Meeting at Ash Studios in Dallas

Ash Studios, a DIY art space and social sculpture meant for mixed use and collaboration, which was founded in the vicinity of the people it is meant to serve, is one of these spaces. The standout action taken by Ash has been their unprecedented contestation of their citation and ensuing court battle with the City of Dallas. The citation and fine of $700 was issued in March of 2017 for a performance of “Waiting for Lefty”; a performance attended by an audience of around 20 people and reviewed positively in the Dallas Morning News before the citation was issued by fire marshal Keith Wilson.

Wilson and the city of Dallas have recommended a Commercial Amusement CO, which would require exorbitant upgrades to the space, as well as specific permissions for their gatherings and activities, playing into a system that could keep Ash and other DIY art spaces in Dallas from ever operating at full capacity. Paul Saputo of Saputo Law Firm filed a motion to dismiss which was declined, but not before the Dallas based lawyer was able to make a couple of interesting points.

The request for dismissal was made on the grounds that Ash Studios is not a commercial establishment, and that no CO exists to address the specific functions of a “social sculpture.” Because of this, Ash should be able to resume as normal until a proper CO was created. In his “motion to quash” the citiation, he states that “Ash Studios is a work of social sculpture as this term is ordinarily defined and understood by contemporary artists, art historians, art critics, curators, university-level art courses, and funding bodies for the arts.” This statement was backed up further by a remarkable document acting as expert testimony by SMU Professor of Art Michael Corris, stating that “In contradistinction to other, more conventional forms of art, the majority of the artworks of Ash Studios demand engagement from the public and encourage a sustainable audience of members of the immediate community in which Ash Studios is situated. In my opinion, this interactive and community-building element is the crucial and necessary feature whereby Ash Studios produces social sculpture.”

Sculpture Park outside of Ash Studios

He goes on to define these activities further:

“The Ash Studios collaborative is not simply a platform for the artists who bring the ideas to the community, but a platform as well for the community. This reciprocity is a hallmark of all social sculpture and relational art, which depends first and foremost on the active and equal participation of the community. Reciprocity, in the form of community participation and shared experiences and creativity, is also the hallmark of all of Ash Studio’s projects.

Ash Studios has structured its programs and events in order to facilitate the dispersion of cultural teaching, learning, and sharing to the broader context of living.”

The people and community served, as well as the established nature and reputation of the space, built context for its importance, and Saputo spoke of the legal rights of co-founder Fred Villanueva, who was called to the stand as one of only two witnesses – fire marshal Keith Wilson was the second – to “prevent the destruction of his work,” going on to say that what the city is doing, in the case of Ash and similar spaces, is “akin to ripping up an artist’s canvas and setting it on fire.”

Group painting at Ash Studios, including co-founders Fred Villanueva (top) and Darryl Ratcliff (bottom right).

Using the presence of four walls and a roof and gathers people for events as an assertion that Ash Studios must secure the proper building CO, the judge set an initial trial date of January 3rd. As of January 3rd, Villanueva has been told by the authorities responsible that Ash is not a space that would be able to resume normal activities under a Commercial Amusement CO, a point raised by Villanueva in court when he testified that the CO seemed appropriate for a “video game parlour” under the city of Dallas’s guidelines. Not only is Ash Studios not a video game parlour, it is also not a commercial enterprise.

On January 3rd, Saputo was present as legal representation for Villanueva hours before the case would have began. Villanueva was present at court minutes after Saputo. While the court date was officially set for 8:30 AM, you’re called when you’re called in Municipal Court, and it was nearer to 10 AM when the case was actually to be presented. Witnesses for the city were not yet present; the city attorney’s response? Calling on a court statute that would allow him not to “make an announcement,” or not to participate in the trial in layman’s terms. The case was rescheduled for the end of the month. Prior to the motion for dismissal and January 3rd court date, rescheduling had become a tactic for the city, which rescheduled court dates a total of four times prior to hearing the motion, according to Villanueva.

Prior to the initial court date, Ash Studios cofounder Darryl Ratcliff said in a written statement: “Our motivation for contesting the citation has a lot to do with the greater environment of the Fire Marshals’ systematic targeting of cultural spaces and the unintended policy effect this has had. Dallas has lost at least 12 existing cultural spaces due to this policy, and there are probably dozens more that do not exist because of this policy. Dallas has lost some of its best cultural talent because of this policy, and is struggling to recruit new talent. This policy has drained Dallas of creative energy at a critical time. Creatives are afraid to invest their energy in a regulatory environment that will punish their entrepreneurism and creativity by shutting down their openings and their events and issuing fines. No other major city in America – all of whom have similar problems, all of whom reacted to the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland – is operating a punitive cultural policy to the extent of Dallas. Although we appreciate the efforts of city staff who have been working on this issue, the reality is that Dallas is substantially less interesting and culturally vital than it was before this policy was implemented.”

While Ash Studios stands alone in contesting their closure, an effort for which they received the offer of a $12 discount on the fine and no more citations as an attempt to settle, the precedent this case will set is one that affects DIY art spaces in Dallas and beyond. “This art gallery isn’t being singled out,” says the city attorney. That is true, and that is the problem. This art gallery isn’t being singled out: art galleries are being singled out. The necessity of the collaborative nature of a social sculpture is being overlooked or misunderstood by the fire marshal and courts, a detrimental action for the greater artistic and cultural communities of the entire state. To what end?

We will be updating this text as the trial progresses in what could prove to be a landmark case in the ongoing closures of DIY art spaces around the nation in the wake of the Ghost Ship tragedy, commenting on the uneasy place that experimental art spaces occupy in urban environments outside of commercialized development narratives. We will include reportage on the trial itself, statements from Ash Studios, and excerpts from the expert testimony both as a detailed look at this trial and as a potential template for others facing similar citations, fines and closures both now and in the future.

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