By now most people have heard about the tragic fire that tore through Oakland, California, live/art space, Ghost Ship, and the terrible deaths that now number well over 30. We felt it all the way in Santa Fe, where people frantically took to social media in search of friends and as contemporaries and loved ones in the Bay Area checked themselves in “safe” on Facebook. By the time the weekend was over, news that Chelsea Faith Dolan, a musician known as Cherushii and collaborator on the soundtrack for Meow Wolf’s House of Eternal Return, was among those who died. Multiply connections like this 36 times over, and you get a slim idea of how the situation has rocked the country.
Since then, even a cursory glance at media coverage shows a veritable onslaught of blame pieces, finger-pointing tales of community complaints levied against the space in the past, click-baity “Oh, the humanity!” articles and heartless social media posts about how these people, who did technically live at and operate Ghost Ship illegally, shouldn’t have been there in the first place, which somehow means they deserved to die. Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley has even noted to the press that manslaughter or murder charges may be pressed against the building’s lessee, Derick Ion Almena. The cause of the fire hasn’t even been discovered yet, but it seems like everyone has some statement to make about the shape of renting spaces or events promotion or culture or so forth, most of which fall into a category of extreme judgment.
“There are a lot of places around the world that operate that way and they’re fine; I think this was just a freak accident,” says Meow Wolf CEO Vince Kadlubek. “We definitely looked a lot like [Ghost Ship] back when we were on Hopewell Street, and this will probably bring attention to DIY scenes around the world. This could be something that brings that a lot of criticism, but what we want is to be supportive right now.” Kadlubek says Meow Wolf is outfitted with sprinkler heads in every room, and that materials used in the permanent portions of the exhibit had to be fireproofed before installation. Additionally, he says, Meow Wolf’s newer location in the Siler Road area generally caps attendees well before it hits the maximum occupancy set by the city, and that they were already in the process of creating a fund that could provide resources to spaces similar to Ghost Ship. “It’s unfortunate that some places don’t have the funding for people to live and work in creative ways but to also have a safety net,” Kadlubek says.
We’ve reached a critical juncture in terms of how we can discover and ingest culture, and though spaces like Ghost Ship are hardly new, they represent an important shift in cultural offerings aimed at those who would shirk the status quo. The internet screams at us daily from multiple devices, the big-name musicians and DJs charge exorbitant prices, the ticketing outlets bleed us dry with absurd hidden fees and the engorged mainstream arts systems would have us believe that only they have the product we want and that it exists solely at the end of their marketing rainbow. But, as has always been the way, it isn’t the mainstream-ification of arts and music that steers our shared cultural zeitgeist, but the smaller spaces—the warehouses and storage units, the all-ages venues hidden away in homes or little out-of-the-way hovels—run by people who do it for love that have proven most vital. No amount of blame game politicking should detract from what had previously been accomplished by Ghost Ship or what will be accomplished at other such spaces all over the globe.
We can even dispel some of the harsh reactive bullshit found online if we consider events like the 2003 Station nightclub fire in Rhode Island, during which poor pyrotechnics during a show with hard rock band Great White cost 100 people their lives and injured over 100 more—all in an apparently up-to-code venue. Furthermore, the Bay Area housing crisis all but shoehorns renters into situations with multiple roommates, cramming them into unsafe or ancient buildings, run-down tenements, warehouses like Ghost Ship or, even worse, forces them to leave altogether. This compounds for struggling artists, many of whom don’t fit the societal expectations of gainful employment.
Santa Fe should be especially cautious in how it handles this information as well, because the fact is, it could have been any one of us. How many times have art shows opened or bands played in unofficial DIY spaces, admittedly smaller, but ultimately not much different from Ghost Ship? (We’ve chosen not to name most of these places because we’re sure they’re currently on-edge and could potentially face retaliation at the moment.) Without them, the art and music we love so much would have scant few options, symptomatic of a larger overall trend of “business first, artists last.”
“If we get shut down, we just learn from it, move forth and put precautions in place,” David Ahern-Seronde tells SFR. Ahern-Seronde is a local musician and one of the founders of The Cave (formerly Dave Cave), a live/work space on the Southside that hosts metal shows. He is not worried about the city targeting The Cave or its brethren. “It’s like comparing apples and oranges. … Oakland is awesome, but a much larger city,” he says.
Regardless, it is patently irresponsible and borderline cruel to assign blame to rave culture, party culture or the ethos of DIY arts. The dust has yet to settle and people have lost their lives. Numerous crowdfunding accounts have been set up in the aftermath (such as gofundme.com/ghost-ship-fire-residents-support), and the close-knit artistic community found in the Bay Area is still reeling. Do what you can as citizens of the arts and do not be deterred in your ongoing quest to create arts and music for those who don’t identify with the mainstream. Some of us have had our lives saved by venues just like Ghost Ship, and while there is no denying this tragedy, a life without such spaces and the people who build them is a life not worth living.