Lately the fire marshal seems to have eased up a bit on arts spaces. The disbanding of art events this summer began with Dean Terry’s art-music-performance event Acoustic Nerves in May, which was shut down even though the event was funded with city money. It touched off a wave of crackdowns citywide that reached a boiling point in August at a community meeting at the Dallas Public Library.
“It was traumatic; it took us months to put together," says Terry of Acoustic Nerves. On Friday, Terry put together a second show with his performance group Therefore, which was intended to respond to that debacle. The World's Safest Art Show at Beefhaus in Exposition Park was inspired by the crackdowns and the concerns voiced by the fire marshal and representatives of his office at that public meeting in August.
The impromptu shutdowns, while in the name of safety, according to the fire marshal’s office, seemed to be directly targeting arts events. Reps from his office admitted to searching Facebook and online arts bulletins looking for events that they could investigate. And the shutdowns threatened artists’ livelihoods – in many cases their spaces were closed for days, weeks or even months while they worked to become compliant, which often required large, costly fixes.
There aren't reports of rampant shutdowns anymore, and many of the art spaces that were in a headlock with city offices over zoning and certificates of occupancy are quietly finding resolution within those offices. But there hasn’t been an across-the-board solution for the deficits in zoning laws that make it impossible for many of these art spaces to operate as they see fit and to still be in compliance with their certificates of occupancy issued by the city, which allows them to operate.
“[The World's Safest Art Show] is not necessarily a protest,” said Terry on Friday. “We thought there was some absurdity in the presentation given by the fire marshal at the public library a while back. There was use of fear tactics to justify the sudden shutdowns ... saying the artists are going to burn up and be dragged out in body bags … I’m paraphrasing.”
During the meeting, the fire marshal pointed to a nightclub fire in Rhode Island in 2003 as an example of what he’s trying to prevent. The performers illegally used pyrotechnics around combustible material and people were trapped inside the club. One hundred people died and many more were injured. Despite the unlikelihood of pyrotechnics being used in art spaces, people in the fire prevention community expressed fear that something similar could happen in a Dallas gallery space.
At the meeting, a lieutenant fire marshal said they didn’t want to encounter a situation “where we’re bringing bodies out. … Where’s the art then? It burned up.”
On Friday, Therefore was outfitted in hazmat suits, respirators and safety goggles. Patrons were asked to wait outside to be walked through the space in pairs to prevent overcrowding, and a line formed down the block. The location of the show had been kept secret until the day of, when it was revealed to be Beefhaus, an art gallery and project space on Exposition Avenue, which is now operating with a proper CO.
“It's a creative response directly inspired by what's going on and what happened to us,” said Terry. “Art events are pretty tame, right? So I thought, what if it was much, much safer? I took the idea to an absurd end.”
All of the art had been removed from the space and replaced with a slightly modified quote from the lieutenant fire marshal: “Where is the art now?”
“There's a lot of satirizing bureaucracy and safety [in the show],” said Patrick Romeo of Beefhaus. “[Fire officials] are always referencing the club in Rhode Island that burned down. ... It was a huge tragedy but that was because there was fire inside — a pyrotechnic show. It has nothing to do with art shows with 10 people milling around drinking a beer.
“We put these super bright lights in the front,” he continued. “It looks like Guantanamo Bay to make it seem like you're the one being watched as part of this weird bureaucratic panopticon thing — being shuffled through an art space like cattle.”
The structure for the performance was loose and improvisational. Performers wearing suits emblazoned with “DASD” — or Dallas Art Safety Division, a made-up organization — helped visitors into hazmat suits and guided them through the space, carefully directing their movements.
The entire spectacle was filmed and projected onto walls in the space, as well as streamed live on Facebook.
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“Creatively, it’s designed in loops,” said Terry.
Performers would call out a series of actions with code words via walkie-talkies. Some of the actions included dropping to the floor face-down during a 10-second “blackout” and facing the wall with their hands in the air.
Terry wanted the World’s Safest Art Show to be an art happening reminiscent of the 1960s and the Dada movement, which is celebrating its 100-year anniversary. Dadaism was characterized by anti-bourgeoisie and anti-war public gatherings and demonstrations, rejecting reason and logic, and prizing nonsense, irrationality and intuition.
“The purpose of a Therefore show is to tug at the supposedly rational structures that frame our everyday thinking and experience and hopefully dislodge them temporarily, creating disorientation,” said Terry. “The performers were trying to extend the idea of ordinary physical safety to a more deep, existential safety. Everything was cover for the chaos of the world.”