Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Ode to the memory of Providence's Fort Thunder

It seems just like yesterday a group of 20-something Bostonians descended one late Saturday night down I-95's New England corridor in an overpacked Nissan for some scenester action in good ol' neighbor Rhody's backyard.

I like to term this the era of not just Sebadoh, but Sentridoh, and more Folk Implosion album releases than Brooklyn has 99 Cent stores.

Over the past few years, I've found bits and pieces of websites that paid tribute to one of the most interesting collaborative art spaces to ever exist--Fort Thunder.

Unfortunately, most of the links are now outdated, so here's what I've been able to piece together.

Initialized by a renegade group of RISDI students, it became known as THE place to go to see the best underground indie music and edge-scraping art.

I'll never be able to do the visuals proper justice, but imagine for a second if you will, the darkest of old brick mills-- a 200-pound steel door echoing a sonic boom upon your entry.

You are led up 5 flights of stairs-- at each stoop, groups of rail-thin youth clad in bell-bottom cords and Silver Apples t-shirts greet your entrance.

Suddenly we turn to the right-- we enter a recording studio and loft that houses no less than 1,200 overgrown plants reaching to heavens of the 20-foot tall windows.

There's a small hallway.

You walk further... you encounter a ceiling drooped low with thousands of mangled cupie dolls in various stages of undress-- wigs and hair fall at your being-- you can easily touch each tassle that brushes against your skull.

You're led into a new room... this one, the "bicycle room"-- again, hundreds of bicycles and their parts in permanent levitation awaiting your gaze.

Next, there is a small wooden platform.

You walk and walk... and suddenly you realize it is a ramp upwards to the ceiling... you crouch... you hunch over... your back hurts.

Inching along, you are the White Rabbit in a Wonderland lit with solitary lava lamps... crawling ever so slowly, you are enveloped in a mesh tunnel-- the short walls seem to close in around you.

There is a light at the end of the tunnel-- you enter a hole no bigger than 2 feet wide. You must stretch your arms out first, and push your way through.

(I'm guessing the Providence Fire Department didn't approve...)

You are now within a black light illuminated teepee with dayglo tribal masks staring back at you, scaring the living bejesus out of you.

Upon your hastened exit, you must go back through the rabbit hole, inching your way down until you have numerous tapestries and a plastic slide launch you out the exit, now back to the very beginning.

Much in the way children take their cardboard boxes or bedroom sheets and make them into hideaways, Fort Thunder seemed to grasp the excitement enjoyed by the element of hide and seek in ways we can't begin to imagine.

Eventually Fort Thunder's artist/performance/noise art/musicians formed a collaborative known as Forcefield, and stomped through the 2002 Whitney Biennial, leaving its board of directors aghast and bad boy director Maxwell Anderson without a job.

Anderson ruffled a lot of feathers during his tenure, but in my opinion he's probably the best director they ever had-- see Bitstreams link.


I personally do not think much of artists' imaginative abilities when they use baby dolls, primary colors, "junk heaps," hair, sheets and general disarray as the basis for their work, but something about Fort Thunder was able to make each of these elements gel and not feel cliched.

(Hello every album cover from 1992-1997-- Riot grrls, you're wanted in this regard-- Barbie girls in a Barbie world-- or setting fire to the like.)

Unfortunatley, I just recently missed an ode to this fantastic era at RISD, "Wunderground."


I highly recommend clicking this link and taking the slideshow tour, including the fabulous poster works of Mat Brinkman and Jim Drain.

("Ceylon Mange" by Mat Brinkman, 2001 at right)

It really captivates and is able to transport you back to an era that many of us early to mid-30 somethings look fondly upon.

Sad to reveal, but nowadays the old grounds of Fort Thunder only hear the sounds of lead-footed soccer moms instead of distortion pedals-- it's a strip mall.

Enjoy the time portal.

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