When artists Janis Goodman, Tom Ashcraft, and Peter Winant installed a series of bird habitats on a stretch of 14th Street NW a few weeks ago, they hoped their artwork would speak to the street’s transitory nature. Thanks to D.C.’s tree police, the project itself was fleeting.
Goodman, Ashcraft, and Winant call themselves Workingman Collective. For their first group project last year, the three artists snaked chalk lines through five miles of Butte, Mont. The lines were inspired by a 1914 map, which represented underground tunnels and fault lines in the old mining town. The point, Winant says, was to engage with the Butte community and “affirm the value of the place.”
And that’s just the kind of artistic philosophy curator Welmoed Laanstra was looking for when she invited them to participate in Washington Project for the Arts\Corcoran’s outdoor art-exhibition SiteProjects DC. The exhibition, which runs to July 28, spans 14th Street between P and V, features 16 artists, and includes installations as well as performances. The goal, says WPA\C executive director Kim Ward, is to take artwork beyond gallery walls to the street itself, while meditating on the changing nature of the area.
With that in mind, Goodman, Ashcraft, and Winant spent two days walking around 14th Street, observing the people and the architecture there. Goodman says they discussed the street’s various populations: day laborers at 14th and P, new-condo dwellers, and the residents who preceded them. They decided to make transience the centerpiece of their project, concentrating on migratory birds. “It’s about habitat. It’s about coming and going,” Laanstra says. “I thought the bird [habitats] were a great metaphor.”
The artists built 30 wooden habitats and bought plaques to go with them. The idea was to attach the habitats and plaques, which pictured binoculars pointing upward, to the trees’ trunks. To be sure that their artwork was environmentally sound, the artists called specialists at the U.S. National Arboretum and at the National Zoo for advice. Peter Marra, a research scientist at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, told them that nailing the artwork to the trees would be the “least invasive” option.
On June 11, Goodman, Ashcraft, and Winant donned orange jumpsuits, climbed ladders, and nailed the habitats to the trunks of trees along 14th Street. The orange-clad artists caused a bit of a stir, Goodman says; store owners stepped away from their cash registers, pedestrians paused, and chess players suspended their games to look. The artists went home exhilarated. “Everyone was so happy that we were thinking about the street,” she says.
Not everyone was happy, though. The next day, the artists returned to 14th Street to continue their installation, only to discover that seven of the plaques had disappeared. “At first, we thought people had stolen them,” Goodman says. The artists ordered replacements, but a nearby business owner told them that it wasn’t thieves who pulled down their artwork. It was D.C.’s tree police.
According to District Department of Transportation spokesperson Erik Linden, the agency employs a squad of arborists, or “arbor cops,” to monitor the health of the city’s trees and levy fines for tree-related violations. The arbor cops, part of DDOT’s Urban Forestry Administration, are “tree lovers,” he says. They love trees so much, Linden says, that if they see anything nailed to one of the trees in their care, they’ll write it up and remove it. That’s what happened to Workingman’s pilfered plaques. “One of our arborists was in the neighborhood,” Linden says, and spotted the binocular signs nailed to trees. “That’s not going to make any arborist happy,” he says. By week’s end, Goodman says, the artists were instructed to remove all the bird habitats and plaques or risk up to $100,000 in fines.
Laanstra, who has worked on the Street Scenes public-arts projects with co-curator Nora Halpern, among others, says DDOT’s public space permit process is extensive and can take “easily up to six weeks” to complete. In the case of SiteProjects DC, the organizers applied for a permit for Tom Greaves’ Compliment Machine, a 5-foot column that doles out praise through an MP3 player, but DDOT rejected that application. So it’ll be in a private parking lot at the corner of 14th and Q instead, Greaves says. WPA\C did not apply for permits for the bird habitats, Ward says, but “when we learned there were objections, all of us quickly responded to make sure they were removed.”
Goodman says the artists have found a new home for the habitats, at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, where her husband is a curator, but she was disappointed the habitats couldn’t stay on 14th Street. “We sort of feel like we were innocents who got stuck in this bureaucratic mess,” she says. “The city must be pretty desperate for funds.”
Actually, says Linden, it isn’t about money. City regulations simply forbid affixing any item to a tree, including bikes and pets.
So what can you legally do to a street tree? Not much. “You can appreciate it,” Linden says, and “maybe water it.”
Bringing Down the Warehouse
Since 2003, the Warehouse Next Door has been a home to D.C.’s punk, indie, and experimental scenes. But on July 30, the club at 1021 7th St. NW will be closed for business.
The reason, co-owner Paul Ruppert says, is crushingly high property taxes (“Billed to Suit,” 5/4). In April, Paul and his mother, Molly Ruppert, announced that the Warehouse’s property tax assessments for next year had skyrocketed. As a result, he said, the pair would consider closing all or parts of the arts complex, which includes the music venue, two black-box theaters, a gallery devoted to emerging artists, a screening room, and a cafe.
At the time, Paul Ruppert said relocating the Warehouse Next Door wasn’t just about taxes—it was about finding a location where the music would thrive. Now the Rupperts will have more time to find just such a space. On June 25, Paul Ruppert circulated an e-mail saying that, after this year’s Capital Fringe Festival ends on July 29, the Warehouse Next Door and the Warehouse Bar and Café will close.
In addition to scouting new spaces, Ruppert wrote, he and his mother will look into transforming the Warehouse from a for-profit entity into a nonprofit. Meanwhile, the theater and arts components of the Warehouse will stay put for at least a little while longer. (He says it’s likely they will move—or close—all of the artistic operations on 7th Street at some point). “It is with much regret that we announce these changes,” Ruppert wrote. “We have had a great run on 7th Street, stretching back to that first Art Romp 13 years ago.”
Shuttering the Warehouse Next Door is also a blow for D.C.’s music community, says Katy Otto. Otto booked acts at the Warehouse and played shows there with her band Problems. She says the Warehouse “was willing to take risks” with its music but remained a comfortable place for D.C.’s young music lovers to hang out. It also supported D.C.’s local scene, musician Brandon Butler says. “It gave local bands the chance to play D.C. when Black Cat or 9:30 wouldn’t book ’em,” he says. “It was a springboard.” Assrockers lead singer Pierce McManus says that, like the complex as a whole, Warehouse Next Door provided a forum for artistic cross-fertilization. In 2004, Assrockers “curated” a hard-rock exhibit at the venue called DC Rock City. The show featured posters, live bands, and a DJ, and fostered just the kind of artistic dialogue the Rupperts championed, he says. “Anytime a club in D.C. shuts its doors, it’s sad,” McManus says, and with the Warehouse, that’s especially true. “There should be more venues like the Warehouse Next Door in D.C.,” not fewer, he says.