Visual artist Arthur Peña became king of the DIY music scene with his roving venue, Vice Palace. Like a punk vaudeville show, Vice Palace featured mixed bills of unconventional talent, and popped up in dark warehouses in all corners of the city. Peña and some of his favored artists held a panel this past Thursday at the Dallas Contemporary Gallery, and on Friday held the last official show at Club Dada.
At the gallery, noise musician Stefan Gonzalez of Orgullo Primitivo banged on a coil spring with ferocity, with lights flashing frenetically, the kind that cause seizures. Some newcomers covered their ears, while Peña looked on with mischievous approval. He's a sort of local Hades for the music underworld, who has managed to turn a counterculture project into a record label through a grant given by the city.
As Vice Palace ends its wandering after three years, Peña continues to recruit artists to Vice Palace Tapes, and plans for the release of a Vice Palace documentary. The first taping for the label took place last year, and featured pop singer Dezi 5 dancing provocatively on a large cross.
"Hopefully people will look at Vice Palace as a catalyst for something, at least as a sort of template of how to do things in the city," Peña says.
The experiment aimed to form a bridge between the art and music communities. "Nobody knows how big that gap can be more than me, and I knew something had to happen," he says. "I had the space and the ability to pull people together, so I did."
Word of mouth spread Vice Palace's reputation more rapidly than social media. There was a sort of Warhol Factory allure to the gatherings, as avant-garde singers, experimental musicians, visual artists, even fashion designers delighted the art-curious guests. "I'm down with the dirty, no doubt," Peña says of the atmosphere. "It was about a danger. It was the freaks, it was the weirdos, it was the overlooked, it was the underground," Peña says. "For me it was about making sure they had a safe place to express themselves and to experience something new."
Peña is an established artist and a visiting lecturer teaching painting at Southern Methodist University. He debuted a series of three plays earlier this year, a multimedia funeral-themed sort of personal musical. Peña says that he's achieved his purpose as an instigator, though he's not sure that the pot has been stirred sufficiently in the arts community. "I've done what I can do," he says. "I hope to think that Vice Palace is a part of that conversation of what a bill in Dallas looks like, that it should represent the city, which is diverse as fuck."
Peña, along with Gonzalez and his Outward Bound sessions at RBC, and promoter Moody Fuqua at Club Dada, have fomented the new Dallas standard of mixing diverse genres up on a bill, pairing hip-hop artists with, say, an electro-pop act, like small festivals happening any night of the week.
Peña is focused on preserving this story through the label and Vice Palace documentary. He's yet to edit two years and thirty hours worth of footage, shot by videographer Danila Usov, into a short documentary film. "You shoot the footage and then the thesis reveals itself to you," Peña says. "Narratives are coming up, the bureaucracy of the DIY community right now is part of that story. It's about Dallas and how it's adapted."
Peña is referring to the fire marshal's fixation with safety at DIY events, as the marshal began this year to shut down private art events. "Vice Palace has been illegal as fuck sometimes," Peña concedes.
But for all the rebel trappings, Vice Palace formed to build a network of artists in and out of the counter culture. "The underground scene needs the mainstream," Peña says. "It's about providing the time and effort to build that bridge between various communities."
Peña, who grew up in Oak Cliff and studied at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design, has become a community leader in the Dallas art world. Vice Palace Tapes was funded by a grant he received through the city, and he's received further funding from SMU to release two upcoming cassette tapes, which will be taped live in March at a venue open to the public. One of which will feature rapper Lord Byron.
Fuqua, a collaborator with Vice Palace, says they will further aim to focus on harnessing overlooked talent. "It's significant because it's raw and honest," Fuqua says. "Arthur is a tastemaker, he books what he loves, what he believes in."
Peña sees the arts community driven by a force rebelling against conservative southern values. "A while ago I told myself, what if the acronym DIY meant Dallas Is Yours?" Peña relates. "There's an ownership that needs to be accepted, and with that responsibility comes sacrifice, which is what this has been."
Peña is hoping that Vice Palace Tapes will be the unifying label that Dallas needs to document its sound. "Vice Palace is a story," Peña says. "And the story is Dallas."
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