Silent Barn: Kunal Gupta on community outreach, public meetings, and friends who stick around.

The Silent Barn‘s story is rooted in survival. In that mode, it’s easy to look inward to the exclusion of anything that doesn’t directly feed to your day-to-day existence. It’s even easier to stay there. This is all a built-up segue to why it is especially awesome that even without a physical space (keep reading for that story), Kunal Gupta and a team of community outreach folks from the Silent Barn were actively connecting with their new neighbors in the Bushwick community.

Here’s some context: The original Silent Barn location in Ridgewood, Queens was home to humans, multimedia arts projects, and a metric pile of all-ages shows. Then, in an incredible act of theft, $15,000 worth of personal belongings and Silent Barn equipment was stolen in July 2011. Not long after, the city shut them down for housing violations. The space had to close. There was a massive hole left over from their seven years as an all-ages, DIY entity that made space for everything from an experimental basement arcade to daily shows. By the end of that summer, a vision for the next Silent Barn found its sea legs. The Barn would not only reemerge into a new physical venue, but would do it legally in an effort to be a more sustainable space. A massive Kickstarter campaign raised over $40,000. Organizers sought extra funding from outside investors. There was a major call-to-action for volunteers with skill sets ranging from plumbing to accounting. After some serious search and research, the Silent Barn reopened in early 2013 at their new Bushwick spot. Since then, there has been a shift in their story. Now, it’s about strengthening: the new 3-floor space features eight living studios and over 20 working studios (a synthesizer factory! a barbershop! art in living rooms!), a recording studio, multiple performance spaces, and rotating audio and visual Barn Art that lives among the space.

This interview happened on a phone call in February 2014. A lot has happened since then which you can check out here.

What exactly is your role within the Silent Barn?

It’s a funny conversation. I used to live at the old space which was the Silent Barn, but a different project, and that was kind of a job. One of the fun things about it was that there were four or five of us who lived there– a few friends who we trusted– and any one of us could use the space for whatever we felt like. All of the work was done on volunteer time. We would do wide-reaching cross-cultural stuff. We could host music that needed a home and needed a push to grow with 5-10 person shows. And because I was the minority in the building, I had something going I didn’t even recognize. All of the shows I did had minority groups performing in them. I had no idea it was this pattern, I just thought that was what I identified with. It was about communicating “This is what this thing is like. No, we’re not against you. We’re not using you, you’re not using us. We’re actually going to be friends.” People weren’t used to that. They were used to people using one another. Silent Barn is about getting excited about whatever DIY means.

At the new Barn, we tried to set it up with a bunch of people. We split into a lot of working groups which proposed a horizontal body for what the Silent Barn is. However, these working groups have a lot of autonomy. There are different administrative groups of people who figure out the Barn, or shows, or list management, or finances— all these groups have a lot of autonomy but the exciting point is where all these converge. It’s about as horizontal as it gets. Another group is the LLC, and there are five of us on that list who are also on the bank account and all of that. We haven’t worked on that project too much in relation to the Silent Barn, but have been giving it attention while working in other groups the whole time.

 

Silent Barn Public Meeting X: Safer Spaces -- October 2013

Silent Barn Public Meeting X: Safer Spaces — October 2013

Can you talk about your role within Public Meetings?

So I’m not really involved in the curation and all that stuff. I am highly involved in individual relationships with this project. And that is complex. We’re at this place, while organic, that started because we can suddenly be public. So it’s very legal, but there is a survival aspect to it as well. It doesn’t matter if Silent Barn survives; what matters is that we don’t have to hide.

It’s such an underutilized space because people don’t understand it. Bonding is such a meaningful part of it that you forget the world doesn’t work like that for everyone else. When people visit a DIY spot and they can get involved pretty fast, that ends up involving a lot of people. In order to have inclusivity, friends, and friends-of-friends, you need to go public. Otherwise, you’re afraid of the police, afraid of everybody, afraid of reaching out. Silent Barn has the entire infrastructure of friends and bonding and community from this one group that really got it right.

I’ve been a voice of outreach and development for a while and I’ve learned some incredible stuff. But, I was one amongst so many other voices at the Silent Barn. They care, but they didn’t prioritize outreach and that’s what it all comes down to. There’s no funding and no resources except for what you want to do, so ultimately your priorities matter. So I was doing it on the ground but suddenly Silent Barn fundraising needed me and I stepped down from the Community Outreach group so it lost one of its primary voices. It’s been a great effort by that group, but due to capacity, it’s a lot different between when I’m involved and when I’m not. They have a lot to cover. As for the directorial body of Silent Barn (the LLC), I still haven’t formed an agreement of what it means within the whole system. They need a lot of overhead and they need a minority group in the group again. In there somewhere I’m going to try to throw in something that helps Silent Barn prioritize community outreach.

Prioritizing that is crucial. Otherwise, promotion and outreach can tend to get kindof incestuous: you’re posting flyers in the same coffee shops, sharing events with the same people, and somehow hoping different people are going to start getting involved.

When I was able to head the group, our community outreach volunteer Leijia helped us set up a zine. That was fun. There was a Barn Exam wrapped up in the zine. Those would go to all the different parts in the neighborhood we worked with. [The exams] were supposed to convey that we actually need people all the time and anyone can join in and they will be enormously needed when they step in.

What was the beginning of Public Meetings like?

They were supposed to be our main interface with the public because we were mostly scheming about a new space, lots of internal stuff, and never really said hello to thousands of supporters at that point. Public Meetings were ways to say hello. They addressed topics that were important, but at the time I didn’t think more of it other than we have to do more conversations and large conversations– so why don’t we just build those into our programming?

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Silent Barn Public Meeting XI: Housing Law — December 2013

Why did Public Meetings have to be associated with Silent Barn at all? Couldn’t it just be curated by whatever individual who put it together? (I’m playing devil’s advocate.)

We were having a conversation more about how we were trying to become an efficient community space. We talked about problems present in the DIY world very loudly and in public, so some of that grew into a conversation on how to have public agency in surrounding issues about Silent Barn while not directing members. We were influenced by Occupy’s General Assembly which facilitated extremely large conversations. We decided that we wouldn’t go that way with Silent Barn meetings because we could barely contain conversations within 10 of us at the time, and didn’t know how to facilitate in a productive way. Public meetings could have large conversations about all actors at stake and the things we might care about in the larger picture. As we were developing, part of understanding ourselves as a community space also needed to be accountable to the community.

What is the flow of getting involved at Silent Barn like?

It’s pretty fluid once you’re involved. Whether you’re like ‘I don’t have a lot of time for this’ or ‘I really love this place and I want to run it,’ Silent Barn allows you to start within the space quickly. That’s how we got to 80 people too fast. Anyway, we exchanged these zines with our partners in the neighborhood. Leijia translated them into Spanish too. We’re working on something to describe the wonderful things about the Silent Barn and how we facilitate specific bonds and channels that allow people to get involved. I think once that’s done Silent Barn will actually be a much better representation of the Bushwick community. Their needs will be prioritized pretty fast.

For now, is the Barn Exam the main way folks get involved?

It is a primary way for people to get involved. There’s also a little bit of a friend circle, but that isn’t the main way. I like the friend circle stuff better; it’s a whole ‘nother generation of friends. It’s a different experience doing an event with a person who becomes your friend. After that, you have a person and go from there and a community would emerge. It is systematic. The Barn Exam, in a sense, is more based on outreach and strangers who show up. When we were forming, it started out with a bunch of friends and switched, very quickly, to just the opposite.

Is a structure of friends or strangers better for the Barn?

It’s about repetition. When thinking about event programming and community needs you think about a racial or some other kind of divide. Pretty much anyone in Brooklyn thinks, “Oh, we can do this right here,” so it’s not common to have a shared community space to program in and have agency over. A lack of repetition means nobody is thinking about the fact they have the ability to build a movement set up for them. And when they do start thinking that way, it’ll be a while before the thing they do matters. To make that happen you will want to build something in the friend that emerges from conversations that will make the whole process fluid. There is something crucial in liking somebody, and that person liking me, and us working together and volunteering a lot. There’s often no money for people in this. It’s not meaningful money. Actual community building, on several levels, is paying for itself.

With more of a base of strangers and less pals, are you concerned about ‘fair weather friends’?

I come from this other world that doesn’t exist in the new Silent Barn (Babycastles!) where we built an entire world on making friendships happen. Strangers are great but strangers are people you convert into friends really quickly. That’s the engine under which the whole DIY scene communes and happens. The thing you’re saying does happen a lot, but I don’t think that happens because of the fluidity of the relationship. You’ll get repeat programmers and community building all along. You’ll basically get that on a friendship based system and I’m not sure you get that without building that into the equation.

What has the response been like after opening the new space?

We still have a team that does pretty well, it’s just that I’m an artist so I have these fucking insane expectations. We’re not anywhere near what I wanna see. We just go through every possible discussion when planning so we continue to build these conversations where anyone who wants to talk about collaborating or how we ended up doing what we doing can be a part of that. We’re planning on doing more outreach because we have an enormous and capable team. It’s just about being integrated in a sensible way. In the meantime in the last year, we’re in a good place. It’s really nice to go into any place in Bushwick because people really love us.

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