Fire Inspection at Oakland Art Space Prompts ‘Renegade’ Show at Lake Merritt

Photographs by Sevin Mundo at the Lake Merritt Bandstand.  (Sam Lefebvre)

On Friday, Aug. 17, Grumpy Green was busy installing a group exhibition at the East Oakland art space known as Trash Palace when they heard loud knocking at the door. As soon as they opened it, fire inspector Miguel Villanueva planted his foot in the doorway. Green said Villanueva told them the art and furniture temporarily staged in the hallway posed a life-safety risk, giving him “probable cause” to enter the building without their permission.

Green and another artist involved in the show, Daria Lourd, debated Villanueva and another official until he decided to call his supervisor. “I asked for documents, and they said they didn’t need any,” Lourd said, adding that the landlord hadn’t notified the tenants of the pending inspection. “They said we were actually on some kind of list.”

Part of the exhibition 'Are You Comfortable?,' staged at the Lake Merritt bandstand after a fire inspection at Trash Palace in Oakland.
A banner by Aida Lizalde at the exhibition 'Are You Comfortable?,' staged at the Lake Merritt bandstand after a fire inspection at Trash Palace in Oakland. (Sam Lefebvre)

Two more officials soon arrived, as well as the space’s leaseholder, Anthony Walter, who consented to the inspection. “They came in and took pictures of everything and threatened to red-tag the place,” said Green, calling their tone accusatory. “They even stopped to take pictures of a pair of boots that had ‘all cops are bullies’ written on them.”

Villanueva, who didn’t respond to an interview request, left the tenants with a two-page report, reviewed by KQED, listing “deficiencies” related to fire extinguishers, carbon monoxide detectors, exposed electrical fixtures, and “housekeeping,” as well as orders to change the building’s “use or occupancy,” writing that it’s “not permitted for assembly.”

Billed Are You Comfortable?, the art show Green had been setting up before the inspection originally featured 16 artists “exploring queer sanctuary,” according to its flyer. The visit by Villanueva, and a fear of officials or police returning during the event, inspired the organizers to relocate the show, and they spread word of a “renegade location” to be announced the next afternoon. On Saturday at 5pm, they shared a map with a line leading from Grand Avenue to the Lake Merritt bandstand.

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“I spent four months working on a floor plan for that show,” Green said. “So I figured we should just do it outside in public at the lake—go out, take up space, and not be silenced.”

Part of the exhibition 'Are You Comfortable?,' staged at the Lake Merritt bandstand after a fire inspection at Trash Palace in Oakland.
An installation by Zelda Hazel at the exhibition 'Are You Comfortable?,' staged at the Lake Merritt bandstand after a fire inspection at Trash Palace in Oakland. (Sam Lefebvre)

At about the time police officers were shining flashlights into Trash Palace that Saturday night, looking for the exhibition, more than 50 people milled around the bandstand at the lake. With the help of a generator, music echoed and projections spilled across an improvised screen. An artist named Neut cooked on a camping stove, while another created a playpen in an effort to encourage childhood regression. “We didn’t cancel or retreat to some tiny space,” Green said. “It sent a message.” They placed a banner on the staircase, reading “ARE YOU COMFORTABLE?”

Guerrilla Davis hung photos he'd taken of Adonis Emory posing with materials inside the construction site for Brooklyn Basin—a sprawling development surrounding and, some say, jeopardizing the historic artist enclaves at 5th Avenue Point. An accompanying text, taped to the bandstand pillars, criticized city government, particularly tourism bureau Visit Oakland, for accelerating gentrification: “How are we supposed to thrive when our work and/or live spaces are threatened and pulled out from under us?”

Lourd, a DJ and producer, has helped organize workshops and other events at Trash Palace for more than a year. “It was a very queer and trans-centric space—most of the shows were based on giving space to marginalized artists,” she said. But disagreements over the future of the space, which was mostly known by word of mouth, prompted many studio tenants to move out before the inspection, she said. “It shows spaces like this are changing—if not because of code enforcement, then because of people with more money.”

Part of the exhibition 'Are You Comfortable?,' staged at the Lake Merritt bandstand after a fire inspection at Trash Palace in Oakland.
Guerrilla Davis photographs at the exhibition 'Are You Comfortable?,' staged at the Lake Merritt bandstand after a fire inspection at Trash Palace in Oakland. (Sam Lefebvre)

According to city records, a zoning complaint from Dec. 2016 regarding unpermitted residential use was marked “no violation found,” and in July 2017 officials sent a nuisance notice to the owner, Hi-Suk Dong, regarding “unpermitted special events.” (Dong, who also co-owns downtown eatery Mua, did not respond to interview requests.)

Walter, a photographer who signed a new lease days before the inspection, said that the attention from officials is motivating him to legitimize the space as a commercial studio complex with a gallery and a new name. He’s in touch with Safer DIY Spaces, an advocacy group formed in the wake of the Ghost Ship fire.

“We still want it to be queer and trans-oriented,” Walter said. “The vision is really just for it not to fall to developers.”

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