Portland III: The Fuse

Spring 1991

The Fuse was a real artists’ squat like they had all over Holland, or at least as close to one as you could hope to find in the states, and when Qirk told me they were interviewing for an open studio there, I just about creamed myself with glee.

Nathan had taken me to a party there two years earlier when I’d made a stop in Portland on my way to Holland, and I was awestruck. It was like an art cathedral, and the residents were its exalted clergy. I never dreamed I’d have a shot at being one of them too.

The space itself was incredible. It took up the third and fourth floors of the historical Modish Building, located downtown in a side street just off Burnside. Back in the ’40s or so, this space had been some kind of textile factory where they made flags or who knows what. All the equipment was gone, but it was otherwise just as it had been, minus a few decades-worth of wear and tear, which only added to the coolness.

There was a huge main area with parquet floors and a two-story high ceiling. The street facing side had floor-to-ceiling frosted glass windows, and the opposite wall featured a grand staircase to the second floor mezzanine. There were long work tables up there, and behind them private rooms, former offices turned studios.

The third and fourth floors of the Modish Building were officially vacant as far as the city was concerned, but in reality were inhabited full-time by this cohort of subversive artists, who had dubbed themselves and their lair The Fuse. The building’s owner was happy to turn a blind eye to their activities as long as the rent came in on time, and he received no calls from the fire marshal, who would make random inspections of the place. The fire marshal would give his stamp of approval as long as he didn’t find any hotplates or curling irons or beds; obvious signs of permanent habitation, in other words. Bed: bad. Ashtray next to a can of turpentine: no problem.

My cool older brother’s cool Fuse friends included a photographer who shot in infrared, a real belly dancer named Aziza, a homeless woman who chose not to live there, but came in only to work on her largescale spray paint and stencil cityscapes on the oversized tables upstairs. There were the Vandel brothers, legendary underground comic artists published on legendary Blackspot Comics, and several other impossibly cool people. These were serious artists, real artists, and they spoke to me as an equal at this party. I was enthralled.

With all that I had gleaned about the Fuse, I felt ready going into the big interview two years later.

Qirk and I went as a duo. He was as anxious to get out of the Hell Cows house as I was, and plus, we thought it might increase our chances of getting into the Fuse if we teamed up; our classmate Perry had already been rejected for not seeming “serious” enough. Qirk and I brought our work down to the Fuse and tried to appear very serious.

Boys90s
Boyz N da 90z! Qirk, Perry and me

We sat in a circle with a council of about five very serious Fuse residents in the big hall. None of the people I’d met before were there. I (wisely) abstained from name-dropping any of them.

The council examined our work in silence, asked us questions on other topics, told us things about being a Fuse member, mainly stressing the whole, “it can’t look like you live here” thing. Finally Clayton, a theater guy and de facto manager said, Congratulations, you made it in. Please get the rent to me on time.

Qirk and I were pretty chuffed. We got to know some of our fellow Fusians over the next few weeks, and I will admit, it wasn’t the cohesive art movement I’d expected.

There was Kat. She dyed her giant mop of hair a different color every week or so, and the shower was constantly flooding. This prompted quick showers, a good thing, but also gave everyone magenta or purple feet. Not so good. I never found out what kind of art she did, but I got a peek into her studio once, and I guessed she was working on a hyperrealistic installation called Teenage girl: obvious signs of permanent habitation.

Kat’s boyfriend Dima also had a studio, which no one got access to but Kat, and “people” he would have over. I don’t believe I ever saw the same visitor twice. Dima was a tall, gaunt goth who was always affable, and not sullen, as goths stereotypically are. His favorite topic was weapons and what you could do with them. He liked to show off his exotic knives, and once he proudly described what had happened when he’d tried out a new acquisition on himself, a 10,000 volt taser. “Threw me clear across the room.” Big grin. Black teeth. I never saw any of Dima’s art.

There was Hank, a writer who dressed like F. Scott Fitzgerald. He had the most fire marshal-proof studio of all. There was nothing in it but a huge wooden crate, like the ones they use in movies to ship tigers in. But watch this, he said to me one evening, and proceeded to undo some latches and unhinge some compartments and fold out some parts, and so on until it had turned into a bed with a closet and bureau drawers. Very impressive indeed. But why did a writer need to hide out in an immense, empty studio? I didn’t ask.

Qirk and my studio was a double space on the lower floor with the same huge, opaque windows that the big hall had. Qirk had construction skills, and quickly framed and drywalled a room divider, which gave us both ample work space and some privacy. I had my futon—couch, that is—a little innocent looking furniture, all my art-making stuff, and I was happy as a clam.

I worked on my drawings and paintings, as well as urban assemblages. The Fuse was located near the northwest industrial area, ironically named the “Pearl district”, and I would go on nocturnal scavenging missions to collect interesting raw materials for these sculptures. For instance, one night I scrounged up a large bale of curly steel drill press shavings, like the pubic hair of a giant robot, I thought. I had to be careful, because they were razor sharp, and the whole mass was dripping with oily lube from the press. The elements of humor, danger and ickiness appealed to me. Had to be good for something, I thought, once all that oil drained out.

Back in the studio I hoisted it on a rope from the sprinkler pipe in the ceiling to let it drip, and it dripped the whole four months I lived there. It became a private installation piece called Pube cube with drippings that almost no one ever saw.

The Fuse threw big art happenings on First Thursdays.

“First Thursday” was an idea cooked up by William Jamison and some of the other art gallery owners in the Pearl district. To increase foot traffic/art buying, they had all agreed to have their exhibition openings on the first Thursday of each month. The hope was that it would become a thing; the public would turn out in droves for the art walk, everyone would have a good time, and sales would go up. It worked like a charm, and even spawned several stupid spinoffs in other parts of town, such as First Friday, Third Tuesday, and so on.

First Thursday was cool though, and First Thursday parties at the Fuse were the place to be for cool art people in the know.

Every month a different Fuse member or members was supposed to organize the event, and Qirk and I jumped right on the March one. We showed our own work in the gallery area, his abstract stone sculptures, and my paintings of human forms in tortuous poses. We also vetted a photographer who’d been to Indonesia to document the ritual beheading of a water buffalo with a six-footlong scimitar. Standard highbrow art stuff.

Our musical guests were the noise/experimental hip hop outfit Anal Solvent, who were joined by a performance artist, Ghetty. He was covered head to foot in nylon pantyhose, looking like a cross between a bank robber and a grub worm. While the band got busy blowing minds and shaking booties, Ghetty did twisted aerial acrobatics on a long rope over their heads. It was quite a spectacle, and the packed house enjoyed themselves immensely.

We had packed the house in spite of having blocked all but the lower third of the elevator door with a piece of plywood. It was the only way in or out (we thought), so we wanted to make sure attendees really wanted to be there. Plus, it was hilarious to hear the surprised reactions every time the door opened with a new batch of art lovers, and then watch them puffing and wheezing in their finest duds to get under this barrier before the door shut on them. There were many complaints, but no walkouts.

Our little prank was a major fire code violation, of course, and it was a good thing the fire marshal didn’t decide to pop in, because he would not have liked it at all. Also, the act that followed Anal Solvent was Crash Worship, and their whole thing was playing with fire.

Crash Worship were a pack of performing neo-tribalists from San Diego. Neo-tribalism was very big among young, fringe-dwelling white people at the time, myself included. We decorated our bodies with tattoo designs appropriated from the indigenous cultures of the world, pierced ourselves all over the place, and figured out how to make our hair into dreadlocks (cheating if you pay for it!). Crash Worship were like poster children for the neo-tribal ethos.

They emerged single file, about 20 of them, from the door in back of the grand staircase, and the audience parted for them as they made their way to the center of the dim hall. They were mostly nude but for scant loincloths and their tattoos, and smeared with mud and battle makeup. Some carried percussion implements that they thumped on, while others brandished or juggled “tribal”-looking objects in time with the beat. This was accompanied by low chanting and rhythmic gyrating.

They formed a circle. The chanting and gyrating intensified, punctuated by random yips and shrieks. Some of the tribal props were set on fire. The choreography became more erratic; the circle became more of a perverse waltz, with flaming objects flying everywhere. The noise level increased and the audience took steps backwards as the troupe gradually widened their territory.

Things reached a peak of frenzy and then abruptly stopped. All the incendiaries were doused with water and all but one of the performers merged into the crowd of onlookers.

A lone woman crouched in the center of the hall. The audience instinctively took steps forward for a better look. She had a small bundle that she swung on a rope in slow circles over her head. The low chanting and drumming resumed, only now from disparate parts of the darkened hall, which had a disorienting, “we have you surrounded” effect. The woman stood, and as she did she shrieked and set the wheeling bundle ablaze, instantly brightening the hall and titillating the audience.

The drumming and chanting and gyrating increased as before, and now the audience was getting into it, having been loosened up by the little fire scare. But wait, now the feral gal with the Molotov lariat was letting out rope little by little, widening its area of effect. As it widened, it also lowered, menacing the closest onlookers at face level.

The crowd stepped back again, but the rope extended to threaten them at chest level. They retreated again. Their primal fear was stoked, but with the drumming and all the other brouhaha, people couldn’t stop dancing. The banshee in the middle was now screaming gibberish and whipping her fireball past the people’s feet. The people were packed up to the walls as far as they could go.

The rope was played out so far that it had lost most of its tension. The fireball hit the floor and bounced amid a spray of sparks. A few genuine screams were heard. It bounced a couple more times on its way around. It was now disintegrating, leaving behind skittering cinders on the old parquet floor.

Just when it seemed like serious fire and mass panic could break loose, the rest of the Crash Worshipers surged from the crowd into the open central space, flinging water at the she-devil and her whirling flames from skins at their sides. Simultaneously, the crazed pyro began reeling in her flaming death tether as the house lights rose and the audience broke into wild cheers of delight and relief at not having been immolated (we’d unbarricaded the elevator midway through, just in case). The drummers kept drumming and dancing, the audience joined them, and the bacchanal continued late into the night, even after the beer ran out.

Yes, we were selling pints, also very illegal, but we were able to pay the bands and cover our costs, with some left over for the next event. Some of the Crash Worshipers and a couple of Fuse people stuck around to clean up the considerable mess afterwards but even so, the effects of all that smoke and water lingered for weeks. It was a good thing the sprinkler system hadn’t been working.

Qirk and I were mighty proud of the job we’d done, but also assumed it had been a typical Fuse First Thursday party. Nevertheless, we felt pretty special to be part of the infamous Fuse collective.

The next monthly meeting was held that Sunday night. Not everyone showed up for it. Those that did congratulated us, but no one volunteered to organize the April event. Clayton, the theater guy and de facto manager, told us all to “think it over”, and then moved on to other business. Some people hadn’t paid rent yet; please keep the roof access door closed and locked as there have been homeless people nesting at the top of the stairwell; if anyone sees Kat, please tell her to unclog the shower drain and stop letting her razors fall in there. And so on.

He had one more item: he would be leaving at the end of the month. If anyone wanted to take over management, please let him know. Of course no one did.

Everyone did their own thing. We’d come together to interview prospective new members, and then reject them on vague and arbitrary grounds like, She doesn’t seem like a good fit, or, I don’t know, you know? I don’t think so. There was minimal discussion involved.

The same process applied to those that did get in, and that’s how we got Thyroid. He was just—how should I put it—out to lunch. He had a lot to say, but never said it in a straightforward way. He always mumbled, and stared obliquely into space when he spoke. And he shaved his eyebrows, in case his other mannerisms failed to convince you he was cuckoo.

Thyroid had a friend that began hanging around the main space a lot, a poet who called himself the Purple Bard. It turned out that it was he who’d been roosting at the top of the roof access stairs. He was a pungent fellow, who wore a lot of purple and loved to spontaneously bellow his awful verse for all to hear:
On the streets with no name!
Doth burn a purple flame in the heart!
And the Man knows my name…

Thyroid lobbied hard to let the Purple Bard have a studio. This was the one thing the rest of us firmly united against. Most other topics were met with apathy, including who would head up the April First Thursday event.

We ended up not having one. Clayton left without a replacement, and Thyroid stepped enthusiastically into the position, unopposed. He delegated the real responsibilities (rent and utilities payment, dealing with the fire marshal, security issues, etc.) to Seth, a soft-spoken new guy. Thyroid’s primary agenda, it turned out, was changing the name of the Fuse to “The Hand”.

Here is how he pitched it to us at the May meeting: It’s like a hand with fingers. You see. We are the fingers. It’s the Hand. It lights the fuse.

No one said anything except freshly stoned Qirk, who merely repeated with a grin, It’s the Hand. And I guess that ratified the moronic name change. Anyone who gave a shit kept silent.

That included me, for at that moment a head-on collision was occurring between what I’d thought the Fuse was, and reality. The Fuse was gone, and had been for some time. Qirk and I had only come in at the tail end of its glory, and rather than being just your typical signature Fuse event, our First Thursday had been the Fuse’s swan song. There were only a few people actually making art there anymore, and they kept to themselves. No more exhibitions or events. People partied in their studios and in the main hall, and left their trash everywhere. Few members of “the Hand” tried to conceal the fact that they lived there. It had become a regular old squat. Non-Hand people wandered in and out at will. The Purple Bard was a regular fixture, and he brought his friends.

The Fuse could’ve been a crucible, forging new generations of boundary-pushing artists and helping to put Portland on the map as an art city. I could’ve been at the center of that, even directing it if I’d wanted. But I got there too late.

I was also too early; I could draw pretty well, but I couldn’t paint. I barely had a clue about contemporary art, or how the art world worked (or the real world, for that matter), and not even an inkling of vision beyond whatever I was currently working on. I had that starry-eyed image of the Fuse, and pride at being on the inside, but no desire for leadership. I was a kid.

And the Fuse itself was too early. There was no money in Portland yet, no unsentimental push to be better and faster, to make the front page. Artists and galleries and patrons were into art for the old-fashioned reasons, which are more pure, and more passive. With First Thursday Portland galleries were laying the groundwork for an art market, and if the Fuse had come along even five years later, it could’ve been integral to that. As it was, none of this was on anyone’s radar at the Fuse. Even if it had been, they would have violently opposed it. Back then, to succeed was to sell out.

In June I moved into a little apartment with a classmate, only one block from school. I took everything from my studio at the Fuse but the big, oily clump of robot pubes. That I gladly bequeathed to the fine residents of the Hand.

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