Photos by Mark Hoelscher for DCMD
Mensa Kondo, Uptown Art House’s first artist-in-residence, greeted me upon entering the venue.
The space, a quasi-warehouse gallery inhabiting a former Cleveland Park restaurant, is sparse in furnishings, save for a mini fridge and a few loose tables and chairs. Sitting down in recently activated DIY space, I spoke with Kondo and local multidisciplinary artist Jamal Gray, who are spearheading the location’s transformation into a hub for music and visual creations, about what we can expect in the near future from Uptown Art House and its curators.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity
D.C. Music Download: What went into starting Uptown Art House? Why did you decide to open another DIY space in D.C.?
Jamal Gray: It started from the work I was doing with the People’s Climate Movement at the end of March, and lasted up until the beginning of May. I was hired as the music coordinator for the march itself. What that entailed was hiring a bunch of marching bands and different musicians that could lead different portions of the event. The march happened on April 29 and it was huge, about 100,000 people or more came out. This space is where we built the banners, signs, huge ten-foot-tall puppets, and this cool covered wagon.
Post-march, we had this space until June 1, and it was going to be this huge, expensive storage space. There were locally-based artists and activists who were looking to activate this space and do some things here. D.C. is losing spaces, and there’s always this tug-of-war between the venues, the promoters, producers, and the artists themselves, as well as real estate developers, which is the other, looming kind of force in this whole debate. Things are shifting, and affordable spaces for artists are disappearing, so when I had the chance to get this space, I was like, ‘let me bring in as many of my friends that are talented to help activate it, and also open it up to the community.’ We were in the space, and the opportunity came, so here we are now.
Can you speak more to some of the local arts groups that helped activate this space and help it sustain after the People’s Climate March?
JG: Mostly, during the march itself, we had the 411 Collective, which is one of the groups that was occupying Union Arts. I also had a space in Union Arts in addition to being one of the booking agents there, so we had already built bonds through the community. But after that, in terms of art collectives, it wasn’t any one particular group that was at the helm of this. I have a bunch of friends that create, but we don’t really consider ourselves a collective in that sense. We all have works that we do together or stuff that we present together. Of course, I’m a part of CVMPTR CLVB, but our family and extended family is bigger than that, Mensa (Kondo) being one of those artists. We are working on building a coalition of artists and activists out of here.
So you see this space as extending beyond your own collective and CMPVTR CLVB, and encompassing a new collective of groups?
JG: It would be presumptuous to think that only our vision of art should be welcome in this space. I’m leading the helm as the captain, so to speak. But I definitely don’t want a space where it’s just about my squad, because that would be saying we have the penultimate view of what art is in D.C. What I want this space to be is a hub for creative action. It’s a space for collectives from all over the city and area, and even beyond this. In the original inception of this space, it was people from all over the nation. We’ll be at the helm making sure it’s a D.C. perspective, but there will be international artists, I’m hoping, hosting alongside us. That’s part of my longer vision.
After the People’s Climate March, what was the process like in hosting the first handful of events, and what has the process been since then?
JG: After the march, we had to sit down and figure out what should be done with this space and who should be leading it. There were a few local organizers who were interested in it, but it ended up being myself and co-director Sebi Tayac. It was he and myself who stepped up and saw the potential of what it can be, building off the narrative of what it was. He and I started putting together ideas and doing open houses.
It wasn’t really a firm event that we were promoting; we were trying to figure out what this could be while letting the people dictate what it could be. These walls were covered in art from a bunch of people coming in and drawing on the wall. The pieces you see here were created by people during open houses. It was easy to transition because people saw what it was, and we had these resources, so it was like, ‘come and do what you want.’ I work best from the chaos. I saw all these pieces moving at the same time, and saw what it could be, so I started to chisel away and be more direct and have a vision and concept.
Mensa, would you speak more to your role as one of the first artists hosting an exhibition here and what your role was in the open house?
Mensa Kondo: I had more of a role in the transformation of the space into more of a gallery-oriented space, because I’m the first person to have an art show here. Jamal just asked me to come by one day and I was like, ‘alright.’ I didn’t really know the full story of the space, I was just like, ‘oh it’s up in Cleveland Park, I’ll be over there.’ I guess I’m just going to put my own tone into the space with the show. I started the mural with my show in mind, with the intention of hanging my work on the opposite wall. I’ll probably be gone after my show is done, but I’ll be in and out helping with stuff.
JG: Mensa helped us paint over most of the stuff that was here, when we had to reclaim these walls, which we aren’t done with yet. Mensa one day started a mural, and it’s been a week now?
MK: Yeah I did the drawing in like, two days?
Let’s talk a bit more about the transformation of this space, because previously this was the Uptown Tap House. What was process like in converting the space from a restaurant into an open gallery?
JG: Uptown Tap House, from what I’ve been told, has been closed for two years. I don’t really hang out in Cleveland Park a whole lot? (laughs) Other than going to the Uptown Theater.
MK: I still haven’t been.
JG: You haven’t been there? It’s a good theater. It just shows one movie a time, with a curved screen; it’s tight. Anyway, when I came in it was already gutted, We hadn’t purchased anything, it was just a dusty storefront. Close enough to a warehouse. It was easy though, the People’s Climate March brought in all the resources that were needed. It was a lot of materials–paint, banners and everything. It became a working factory for art. As far as converting it, we didn’t have to do much. It was like, ‘come in and bring your vision.’ I had my own vision, and as things came together, it became clearer as to what it could look like. I’m sure the space will go through a few different transformations even while we’re here. Right now, we’re in the stage of getting ready for Mensa’s exhibition.
Can you speak to some of the other artists you’re working with regarding upcoming programming at Uptown Art House?
JG: I think the next exhibition after [Mensa’s] will be a group exhibition of digital works in projection and print, a lot of different mounted pieces in digital, a lot of projection mapping. As to which artists, as of yet, we haven’t really solidified anything. There are a lot of artists-in-residence who come in here and do work. Marc Bryant’s exhibition, Art Smash, is more of a group thing that will open July 28. Between those two, it’ll be a lot of DIY stuff. We do want to get into being a proper gallery space, while taking some of the pretentious stuff out of it. We want it to be a freeing experience… we’re not trying to be the Guggenheim, we’re not trying to be the Phillips Collection, we’re just going to be a space where it happens without too much premeditation.
What do you think separates Uptown Art House from some of the other spaces in D.C. right now?
JG: Location is the main thing. We’re in Cleveland Park, which is not a place known for its cultural community. Socioeconomically it’s not very diverse. There’s some diversity in nationality and background, but economically this is a pretty well-off neighborhood. Every other DIY space has to happen in spaces where it’s more affordable, it’s happening out of people’s houses now because Union Arts is gone. Hole in the Sky is one of the last DIY things. Spaces are closing and the music scene is happening in houses like Rhizome, Bathtub Republic and OTHERFEELS; everything is shifting. Time-wise, we’re fortunate to be in the summer when people want to come out and have this space. It’s hard to get to, but it’s really not too far though. Coming from Mount Pleasant it’s easy to get to, train or whatever.
You can take the 92 from U Street out here
JG: Exactly, take the 92 or the L2… location is what separates it. The neighborhood has been very receptive. And size; there’s no DIY spaces in D.C. this size.
Mensa, can you tell us a bit about your vision for your residency in this space?
MK: The show I’m having is opening up on the 24th, and it’s not a show that has a theme in particular, mostly because the work in it is all a part of different series. You’ll have to see the work to understand the theme, there’s not much I can put into words. In general, most of what I’ve been doing for the last few years has been esoteric landscapes and portraits. If I were to really expand on it, I could speak for a long time about each piece. It’ll be a solo show.
Obviously this is a DIY space for both music and art, can you speak to some of the musicians that will be performing here in the near future?
Do you see this space as focused more on music performances or art showcases? How do you see Uptown Art House threading the needle between the two?
JG: As far as creation goes, it will definitely be more of a space to create visual art. I’ve always been more a visual artist who brings other people in to bring their ideas into fruition. With regard to my personal work, I want to get more into performance art here, more challenging stuff. We’ve already played with projections and facepaint / make-up, but the next step is theater. We want to create some stuff here that will be a feast for senses, with music and art together. We really want this to be a creative space for all disciplines. We’re future-minded in the sense that we’re looking towards what’s next. It’s going to get more exploratory; it’s going to get deeper. This will be the place for us to try things out.
It will definitely be a place for DIY shows, traveling bands and local musicians. It’s hard for me to really premeditate things, because to really lead you need to sit back and allow things to happen. I don’t want to really say what it’s going to be as much as I want to let it develop. The final work will be based on what develops naturally.
Mensa Kondo’s exhibition Twelve Twenty One will be shown at Uptown Art House from June 24-July 1, and Art Smash will be held in late July. You can keep up to date with Uptown Art House’s events by following them on Facebook.