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EMP Collective launches a new space meant to incubate art in all its forms

Photo: Michael Northrup, License: N/A, Created: 2011:10:11 18:26:07

Michael Northrup

EMP Collective members (from left) Brad Leroy Cartwright, Carly J. Bales, Ken Jordan, Maggie Villegas, Nolan Cartwright, and Katy Dubina show off in their new Redwood Street space.

EMP, a new art space on a secluded block near 1st Mariner Arena, is not as cryptic a project as it might seem. An amorphous artist collective runs the place, and FDS, the title of the first visual arts show in the space, doesn’t do much to clear the fog. But look past the acronyms—EMP was just an early in-joke that stuck, collective members say; FDS stands for “Fuck Doing Shit”—and what lies beneath is a scrappy, ambitious enterprise.

The gallery, which opened in early October, was launched by the EMP Collective, a group of artists, musicians, writers, filmmakers, actors, and like-minded friends that formed in 2010. (At the time there were nine members; because they like to embrace new members, they say it is difficult to give a precise number now.) They intend for the gallery to be as eclectic as the collective, with everything from writing workshops to a film series to visual art shows to theatrical and multimedia performances. And they’d like EMP to be a place where artists of different backgrounds come together to collaborate. About 50 people—including actor Tony Hale, of Arrested Development, who happened to be walking by—attended the Oct. 7 opening for FDS, an exhibition of works by collective member Nolan Cartwright. The group hopes this is a sign the gallery will help enliven a somewhat desolate section of the city.

“It has a lot of potential,” says Artistic Director Carly Bales. “It kind of makes me feel like if other people were given this opportunity, we could transform the hell out of this place.”

The opportunity for this group, primarily composed of twentysomethings with other full-time work—ranging from stage managing to marketing to various forms of freelancing—came in the form of a grant from the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore (DPOB) as part of its Operation Storefront program. The program is designed to match individuals or groups seeking space with available first-floor spaces, in an effort to bring businesses and pedestrians back downtown. The collective heard early this year that they were one of roughly a dozen that made the cut, out of about 100 applicants. The base grant was $10,000. The collective was also able to negotiate a reduced rent rate for one year with the help of DPOB, and received financial help in fixing up the space. The building is a former shoe factory built in the 19th century; it has been empty for years. While its lovely cast-iron facade remains, basic elements like solid flooring and electrical outlets were missing.

After several weeks of cleaning, rat extermination, and construction, the space—a large two-room affair with arched windows looking out onto Redwood Street—is well-lit and welcoming, though still raw. The wood flooring, some of it scavenged from piles of wood in the building, is mismatched and the walls where the art hangs range from concrete block to unfinished drywall to half-exposed brick. The collective members are ecstatic. “It was always kind of a dream, a place where we could kind of take over,” says Marketing Director Katy Dubina.

The EMP Collective began as a way for a group of former Florida State University undergrads to continue collaborating despite having moved to different parts of the country. The new space has made Baltimore something of a central location for the group, but many members live elsewhere: Washington, D.C.; California; Georgia; Florida. Through the magic of the internet, the collective has remained cohesive, coming together offline as projects reach their culmination.

Like other homeless arts groups in Baltimore, EMP had dealt with the headache of trying to find even a temporary space to show their work. Their debut production, a multimedia performance piece about death called We’re All Gonna Die (“Death Spoof,” Stage, Jan. 20, 2010), ran in a warehouse space off Falls Road. Paying the rent strained the collective’s budget and renting a space for a production in D.C. early this year was even more expensive. “You don’t understand how hard it is to get a space for cheap, and with people running it who understand,” says collective member Steven Krigel, a stage manager at Single Carrot Theatre. “Usually you’re stuck with people who don’t understand why you need lighting.”

For the next year, at least, the collective won’t have that particular worry. “We’re trying to keep the space alive and lit up and things constantly in it,” Bales says. “We have it for at least a year so we need to cram in as much art as possible.”

But with rent and production costs, $10,000 can ebb away quickly, even with frugal use. EMP achieved nonprofit status in August, and is busy applying for grants, soliciting through online Kickstarter campaigns, and otherwise beating the bushes for dollars. As part of their business plan, the collective members are also renting out the basement—a large space with sealed concrete flooring and ample room for offstage prep—to performance groups. The StillPointe Theatre Initiative is the first taker. (Its “gravediggers’ musical,” Shovel in the Dirt, runs through Oct. 22.) EMP’s members hope, too, to take in a bit of money through ticket sales for special events, such as Night Sweats, their own multimedia production about irrational fears, debuting in January.

Most events at the space will be free, however. “We really want to be accessible and bring in the community and especially—kind of tying in with the Operation Storefront theme—not make it really cost-prohibitive,” Dubina says. The weekly writing workshops begin Oct. 25, and the film series will launch soon as well.

New visual art exhibitions will rotate in every five weeks; the current exhibition is a first for Cartwright, 26, as well as for the gallery. “Nolan’s never gone to school for anything,” says Producing Director Maggie Villegas. “He basically does all of this just for himself, and it keeps piling and piling and piling and he never shows it to anybody. We’ve been sitting around watching this happen and thinking this is too good not to show.”

Cartwright’s work—which easily fills the large space—is difficult to characterize because it is so varied. Along one wall run what he calls his “negatives and positives.” They are geometric shapes formed by the meticulous layering of paper cut-outs. Some form shapes out of negative space that change depending on the way light falls on them and the angle from which they’re viewed. Others form shapes out of positive space, like tiny paper Macchu Picchus. Some of Cartwright’s other work—like a striking series of movie posters designed in Adobe Illustrator—exhibit this same penchant for clean, modern lines.

But other pieces are quite the opposite. Case in point: a series of close-up photographs of insects driving cars. For these, Cartwright disassembled a DVD player and attached the lens to a camera, creating a makeshift macro lens. As for the motorists, “I got ‘em in a jar and fed ‘em for a little while just to be nice,” he says. “And eventually they died.” He then positioned their stiff bodies behind the wheel of matchbox cars, using a razor blade and toothpick.

Some of the pieces, like a drawing of a hand dripping blood (or ink?) into a bird’s mouth and a painting of a winged torso, have an amateurish, notebook-doodle quality, but that is of a piece with Cartwright’s philosophy about his work. “I don’t have time to BS anybody,” he says. “This should just be fun.”

It’s an outlook that dovetails well with the intentions of the collective as a whole, Bales says. “[His style] is sort of schizophrenic. There’s more formalistic elements . . . and then this sort of mishmash of painting and mixed media. There’s nothing pretentious about it. That’s huge for us.”

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