Mass Communication

Douglas Easterly and Matt Kenyon, art professors at Syracuse University and SUNY Fredonia, are not your typical culture jammers. Easterly was raised in Alaska, Kenyon in rural Kansas, and they’re not out to patronize small-town America. Instead, they make art about the conquest of small towns by big corporations because they’ve experienced it firsthand.

Kenyon studied art under Easterly at Southeastern Louisiana State University, and the two quickly formed a bond. “We were in a town just big enough to have been taken over by Wal-Mart and fast food restaurants,” says Easterly, “and we decided that the consumer freedoms people think they’re getting at those places—like return policies, 24-hour access, drive-throughs—are great artistic fodder.” Since then, the duo has taken on nearly every company that caters to the American suburb. In 2000, the artists spent 24 hours in Hammond, Louisiana’s Wal-Mart, buying clothes, food, cameras—even developing the film—within the confines of the store. In 2003 they videotaped themselves passing the drive-through window of a local McDonald’s continuously until, six hours and $200 worth of fast food later, the alarmed employees called the police. And last year, the pair created a robot that sucks up puddles of Coke on the floor and sprays it across its exposed circuitry—drinking until it kills itself.

But of all their work, Spore 1.1 is perhaps the most elegant. A plant purchased at Home Depot sits in a machine that monitors the company’s stock valuation on the Web. When the share price rises, the plant receives water. When it falls, the plant doesn’t. Home Depot guarantees every plant it sells for a year. So, when the company’s fortunes sink, it loses not only money and investor confidence—in a gallery somewhere (the piece has been shown in the United States, Europe, and South America), it also must replace a plant. The artists aren’t looking to swindle the company. They’re calling attention to the policies that corporate competitors spend decades formulating—policies that end up shaping the American lifestyle. (One of Home Depot’s greatest liabilities is its returns policy, which cost the company $10 million a year until CEO Bob Nardelli changed it from a cash policy to a store-credit policy in 2000. Easterly and Kenyon, in their small way, are touching Home Depot’s Achilles’ heel.)

But although the artists are well received around the world (in May, Spore 1.1 travels to the Forrest City Gallery in London, Ontario), they
haven’t had much of a reception in the United States. Hopefully that’s about to change with their next project. Dismayed by the ways in which companies like Kraft, McDonald’s, and other food marketers are backpedaling away from responsibility for their most unhealthy products, Easterly and Kenyon are developing a motorized helmet that forces its wearer to chew. The user walks into a fast food restaurant, orders a burger, and punches the calorie content into the device’s onboard computer. The helmet then forces the wearer’s jaw open and shut until the calories have been burned off.

“We’ll be there for six or seven hours at least,” says Easterly, “or until the police arrive.”

Escapes: Forestiere Underground Gardens

In 1905, Baldasare Forestiere, a Sicilian immigrant weary of digging subway tunnels in New York City, purchased a plot of farm land, sight unseen, in a magical-sounding place called Fresno. After handing his meager savings to a fellow Italian, he traveled across the country to faraway California, only to discover he’d been cheated. The 40 acres he’d purchased were hardpan rock, utterly unfarmable. And so, as the sun cooked his small house and desolate property, Forestiere took up his pickax and, for lack of other options, once again went underground.

The Sicilian turned out to have a gift for impromptu engineering. Working alone, he dug nearly 100 subterranean passageways, rooms, and alcoves by hand before he died in 1946. Today, the Forestiere Underground Gardens are a monument to creative madness, elbow grease, and religious faith. Fruit trees grow upward from their dark chambers to peek through holes at the surface. Narrow passageways, 22-feet deep, wind between the rooms, cooled by convection currents. As Forestiere grew older, he abandoned aboveground living entirely, and began to pierce the walls of his subterranean compound with spyholes; from his bed he could observe visitors descending the grand stairway entrance. The gardens include a formal ballroom, a chapel, and an aquarium (now empty). Forestiere’s niece Lorraine and great-nephew Andre maintain the grounds, and they don’t appreciate anyone poking fun at their eccentric forebear. Save it for the car

TRAVEL DETAILS

Forestiere Underground Gardens is at 5021 West Shaw Avenue in Fresno, California. During the summer, the garden offers tours Wednesday through Sunday, but call (559) 271-0734 first—the schedule changes constantly. Admission is $9 for adults and $7 for students.

From San Francisco, take Interstate 5 south to the 99, and get off at exit 140. From Los Angeles, take 5 north, then 99 through lovely Bakersfield, and get off at exit 140.

Unless you love flat, featureless shopping centers, for God’s sake don’t stay in Fresno. Instead, make the gardens part of a trip to Yosemite, a scant 65 miles away. The National Park Service’s Web site sucks; instead, use www.yosemitesites.com to search for available campsites. Or, if you’re not the outdoors type, stay at the Peregrine Inn, a sprawling bed-and-breakfast at the park’s edge. If you can’t pitch a tent like a hardy woodsman, at least eat like one: The inn’s breakfast lasagna will test your mettle. Call (209) 372-8517, or visit www.yosemiteperegrine.com.

Safe House

At a concert one chilly Saturday night in March, a crowd of people wait in the lobby to speak to the man in charge. An ambitious guitarist hoping to score a gig pushes to the front to pass along a demo tape. A photographer wants to inquire about exhibiting work. And at the head of the line, three girls demand the name of the sound engineer, on whom they’ve developed a collective crush. The man in charge adjusts his glasses and sighs. It’s the kind of clamor you’d expect at any New York or Los Angeles nightspot. But something separates this from club scenes elsewhere. The girls are no older than 15. The photographer is just shy of 17. And the guitarist can’t be more than 20. By comparison, the man in charge, Aaron Jamison, exudes a serene worldliness. But he’s only 23. And this isn’t New York or Los Angeles. It’s Anacortes, Washington, at the Department of Safety.

Follow Commercial Street through the heart of Anacortes, a small fishing village (population 10,000) northwest of Seattle, and you can’t miss it: a low, broad, gray building with DEPARTMENT OF SAFETY stenciled on its side in homemade orange supergraphics. Built in 1953 to house both the city’s police and fire departments, the 14,000-square-foot structure was abandoned in 1999 and lay deserted until Jamison and three fellow classmates at Trinity Western University, outside of Vancouver, stumbled onto it
a few months before graduation. Transfixed by the building’s rusted window frames and solid construction, they formed a pact to make the place an all-ages outpost. They vowed to sell any unnecessary possessions—cars, cameras, miscellaneous appliances—to fund a renovation. “We’re your average utopian romantics,” Jamison says. After agonizing over a name (they considered everything from Freedom Reigns Here to Sustainable Pretension before settling on the current title), the group arrived, tools at the ready, in June 2002.

It took five months to make the place livable, and, Jamison now admits, if they had known the extent of the work this would require, they probably would have reconsidered. Tasks like ripping out the first floor’s drop ceiling, erecting art-ready walls in the old downstairs office, filling the place with scavenged furniture, and rewiring the entire building were all-day, every day efforts. “I got used to 110-volt shocks,” Jamison says. “But I got a 220 once, and that’ll put you on your ass.”

In August 2002, the foursome opened the doors of the Department of Safety: a music venue, youth hostel, art gallery, and private residence. But the doors closed almost immediately, after a 23-band inaugural celebration, dubbed the Safety Summit, prompted the fire marshal to issue a cease and desist order and a $20,000 inventory of mandatory improvements—including replacement windows, lower gallery walls, fire doors, and exit signs—to bring the building up to code. “Liability,” Jamison says flatly,
“is a fucker.”

It was the concert space that saved them. Jeff Winston, the father of a DOS band member, stepped in to bankroll the necessities. Now, along with the velvet curtains and retro furniture, the new, inspector-approved venue sports gleaming exit signs and fire extinguishers. “Needless to say, Jeff gets into all our shows for free,” says DOS cofounder Alexander Mahan.

The building consists of an enormous double-height garage, a four-story tower originally used for drying fire hoses, and two floors of living quarters. It’s a sprawling cinder block structure built to suggest a civic institution. But on a weekend afternoon, with a band thrashing out power chords in the garage and a couple of guests nursing hangovers in the kitchen, the space has a playful,secret-society feel—a clubhouse dressed up in adult clothing.

Such precociousness is borne out by the three guest rooms—the Lacan, the Steve Horwood Memorial Room, and the Quonset—that make up the hostel. At $35 per night, the private Horwood room features a wall-mounted, motorized sculpture rigged with lights and a rusted fan. The Quonset room is a four-bunk, $17-per-person communal accommodation with lobster nets hanging from its walls. The stark, loftily named Lacan room (also private, and priced the same as the Horwood) feels like the raw-plywood equivalent of an Ian Schrager hotel. The room’s design reveals the building’s original rusted exterior window frames, now girded by a freshly painted white wall and backlit to dramatic effect. With lengthy quotations from culturalstudies mainstays like Karl Marx and Don Delillo, the DOS Web site (www.departmentofsafety.com) has the postgraduate air of twentysomething idealists who find themselves at odds with mass culture. “A lot of our college friends went off to various cities to get the jobs they’d been trained for,” DOS cofounder Tammy Masalonis says. “They couldn’t get them, they settled for something less, and now they live isolated lives. We came here to do something different.”

It all sounds very blue sky, but with a multitiered business model, the Department of Safety is self-sustaining. The four partners, none older than 25, are shrewd operating officers. Money from the hostel and concert hall covers the $1,600 rent; everything above that is reinvested (the latest improvements: a washer and dryer). “We have our state 501(c)3 nonprofit status,” Jamison says. “But we want federal status, so we can give tax-valid receipts to our donors.” The guest rooms all have Ethernet and Wi-Fi connections, and DOS publicity materials show more personality and polish than those of most commercial hotels. The art gallery, booked through January 2004, has exhibited Pulitzer prize–winning photographers and received submissions from as far away as Finland.

Miraculously, Anacortes escapes 28 percent of the rain that pours relentlessly on the rest of Western Washington. Maybe it’s the kids who are charmed. Packed with squirrelly teenagers on this Saturday night, the place remains civilized—even peaceful. Throngs have gathered outside, flirting and smoking cigarettes while the band rattles the windows from within, and the sleek ticket booth, spotlit by track lighting, has done steady business all evening. Inside, Jamison points to a 14-yearold girl in the front row swaying to the music. “She’s a harpist,” he says. “Her mom drives her to every concert so she’ll learn about stage presence.”

It’s in this environment of upbeat, youthful creativity that the DOS thrives. During a year of back-to-back concerts, even though the building abuts the new fire department’s sleeping quarters, only one incident has blemished the venue’s record: an addled punk fan from out of town grabbed a fire extinguisher and discharged it onto a neighboring church. Within a half hour, a group of high-schoolers cleaned it up—without being asked. “The guy even left the fire extinguisher there,” Masalonis says. “That made it much easier to fill the thing up again.