Lunatarium Lunacy
February 1, 2002

Why is the city's most promising independent venue closed? Will it be back? When? And if so, will it be any good?

The hardest thing about throwing events in New York City is finding the space for them. That means the most successful independent promoters are the ones who either have access to a regular venue, or the ones who can turn out the rare new space.

While new clubs like Luxx, Northsix, and Warsaw open all over Williamsburg and Greenpoint, independents still have a hard time finding venues, much less good ones. In the past year, the search for a regular space -- or even large rooms for one-off events -- has led some groups into filthy basement warehouses, still-sweaty meat-packing plants, or big buildings with shady landlords.

All of this is why the massive Dumbo space known as the Lunatarium seems so extraordinary. The breathtaking 18,000 square-foot venue, with its 30-foot ceilings and its perfect East River skyline view, opened with two events in July 2001. Eventually it became a regular weekend venue, and it was used by a small group of Dumbo promoters working with independents like Blackkat, SEAL, and DJ Spooky.

That was until three weeks ago, on January 11, when a small fire started on the sixth floor of the building during an ambient party called Airport. The fire department came, put out the small trashcan blaze, and left. Two hours later, representatives from the New York City Social Club Task Force arrived and started writing violations.

Several fines later -- for alcohol, for dancing, for occupancy -- the party was shut down. (Irony alert: Yes, fined for dancing at an *ambient* event; apparently there were about 20 people grooving to a DJ spinning jungle in the small room, while approximately 800 in the main space were standing, sitting, and talking.) The Lunatarium is now closed and scheduled events -- except for a Run-DMC gig that happened last week -- have been cancelled. Now its bookers are scrambling to get the permits they need to open up again. It's not an easy task, and it's not cheap either.

Back in July, the Lunatarium was a completely raw space, all brick columns and shoddy electricity, nine floors up and served by a large, temperamental freight elevator. It had hosted an art show, but it was mostly being used for storage.

It was first rented for parties by two groups, including and a small group of promoters who had been throwing regular parties in their Dumbo lofts. That second group, Dumboluna (after the name of their first event in the Lunatarium) now includes Sebastian Holzmeister, Mark Winkel, and Carlos Granda.

Dumboluna worked out a deal with the landlord of the Lunatarium and began to have regular parties in the space. Eventually, they got the landlord to agree to rent it to them for a month at a time and they began booking events. They would either put together their own line-ups of DJs and artists, or they would let a group come in and take over the space for a night. Sometimes they did "co-productions," which were often essentially the same thing as letting a group come in and take over the space -- or at least the creative aspect of it.

All of this was being done on the down low. There were permits for wine and beer, and some for assembly, but the place was far from legal; they didn't have the rare New York cabaret permit that allows dancing, for instance.

Mark Winkel says that this wasn't by design. "The only reason we were throwing the outlaws was because none of us had money. We were trying to get the money to be legit," he says.

To some extent, the space was working. By all accounts, the New York Decompression party -- thrown by the group of New York Burning Man aficionados who call themselves the Society for Experimental Arts and Learning (SEAL) -- was a massive creative and commercial success. It featured fire spinners, large-scale inflatables, propane sculpture, bands, DJs, and hundreds of costumed partygoers.

Blackkat also threw successful events in the space, including the carnival-themed Fabulon and the Mythos Halloween party. Both parties made full use of the venue in a way that couldn't happen in a club, bringing in large metal sculpture and rides, big games, and pyrotechnic shows.

Not all of the events worked. DJ Spooky booked and performed at a string of Friday-night shows that had problems with sound and attendance, especially at the start. And Winkel says a show with DJ Hell and the witchy string band Rasputina was a near disaster.

In general, though, things were going well. It was, if nothing else, a venue -- an option. Parties like Airport, which was organized by Shel Kimen to showcase ambient musicians and cozy, conversation-oriented sculptural environments, were just beginning to hint at what could be done with the space.

Winkel thinks it will take about two months to get the Lunatarium up and running again, but his estimate seems low. It's extremely difficult to get the kinds of permits the Lunatarium would require. First, the building has to be brought up to code. Then, Dumboluna will have to obtain public assembly, liquor, and cabaret permits.

(This article will skip over the larger issue of cabaret licenses and how absurd it is that you need a permit for people to dance. There are far better, and more informative articles gathered online at Suffice it to say that the entire issue is absolutely crazy, and hanging together by a racist, archaic law that was intended to keep white kids away from jazz.)

Part of the difficulty is that the owner of a space has to wade through several state and city organizations in order to get all the right signatures. Adam Shore, who has worked extensively on cabaret laws with an umbrella anti-cabaret organization called Dance the Vote, points out that to get a cabaret license, you have to get the permit from the Department of Consumer Affairs, but it has to be signed by Department of Buildings (where some people have registered complaints), the Fire Department, the Police Department, the State Liquor Authority, and your community board.

"Each one has very specific rules of what you need, and each one keeps passing the buck until you get the other one," he says. The process can take up to two years and cost $100,000, he says.

"It's not impossible," says Shore. "It's just going to take a long time, a lot of patience, and it's going to take money."

The Lunatarium closing has brought up another question as well, and the one that everyone with even a tangential connection to the space is talking about. The best thing about the venue is that so far its bookers have been remarkably open to the New York underground (a word you have to use here even if it makes you uncomfortable). The question, then, is even if the space can get up and running again, can it possibly maintain the shambling aesthetic and the openness that allowed flaming beds, trash sculptors, relatively low prices, pyrotechnic shows, dancing past sunrise, and even a huge ambient-music event?

Not everyone was happy with the old Lunatarium. There were murmurs that Dumboluna was taking too large a cut from the door and the bar, or that they weren't following through with promises, or that they were taking advantage of volunteer labor. Not one critic was willing to talk for attribution here, but you could find public hints of this in discussions on the New York Burning Man listserve and in other online forums.

(For the record, Cory Mervis, the executive director of SEAL, says that Dumboluna played fair. And Jason Blackkat, of Blackkat, concurs, pointing out that Blackkat, after some negotiation, eventually worked out an equitable deal.)

A constant issue, of course, is that there was a lot of money involved. Most of the parties were drawing 800 to 1500 a night, says Winkel, and one thousand people at $10 a head adds up fast -- even faster when wine is selling at $4 a cup.

But Winkel insists that no one at Dumboluna is getting rich. For starters, the rent on the space is astronomical. Winkel wouldn't say exactly how much the space goes for, but he said that it is "significantly more" than the rumored $20,000 a month. (The landlord is letting Dumboluna slide while the space is closed.) There are also four-color flyers being printed, sound systems, and a growing staff of professional security guards to take a cut.

"I think that we've gotten some bad press from what we've been doing," says Winkel. "Some people don't know what we're trying to do. But forget about the time or intention -- we have no money. I'm eating peanut butter and jelly and grilled cheese. When I hear us being demonized, when I hear how much money we're [supposedly] making, it just hurts."

One of the reasons Winkel is upset is that few seem to understand exactly what Dumboluna is trying to do with the space. "Our goal is really to make this an art space that has a nightclub element of dancing," he says. "The art element is crucial. We've been featuring local musical talent. It's nice to have big names, but the idea is to showcase new talent, to give musicians and artists a place to work."

When the space is not being used for parties, Dumboluna has provided a large space for fire spinners to practice, sets to be built, and photos to be shot. Winkel wants to continue these kind of things, eventually opening up for lectures, workshops, art-making lessons, and gallery space.

Even so, the Lunatarium will have to make money, and most understand. "It's a business," says SEAL's Mervis. "As much as they want to make it a community space, it isn't. If they don't pay the rent they lose the space."

And that's the problem. If Dumboluna can go legit at all, can it go legit and be a successful art space at the same time?

"I think they have some genuine interest in the creative potential of the space," adds Jason Blackkat. "Hopefully there is some line between being a commercial club and a raw space. It looked like they were getting there."



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