"There Will Always Be an Underground:" Secret Project Robot Turns 10
Co-director, Rachel Nelson, sifted through over 3,000 photographs and created a giant timeline visually summarizing the experiences of Secret Project Robot throughout ten years of their existence
Newly installed photo retrospect kicked off the ten-year anniversary celebrations of the beloved Bushwick DIY art and music venue, Secret Project Robot.
First there was Twisted Ones/Mighty Robot in Williamsburg
Though Secret Project Robot is officially ten years old, its roots can be traced all the way to the year of 1998. “Before there was Secret Project Robot there was Twisted Ones/Mighty Robot. Mighty Robot was a space and video crew. That was my space and I was part of the video crew,” explains co-director Erik Zajaceskowski. “I had a space and a friend of a friend, this guy Fitz, was like ‘I wanna throw parties.’ And I was like, ‘well I have a space.’ So we [threw] a party. We started having parties at Mighty Robot, then we started having parties everywhere.”
“It was Williamsburg, it was early, everyone knew each other, everyone was in a band or a DJ. All the parties would be decorated and crazy and have a lot of art and video projections. Nobody was doing it then,” explained Erik. Twisted Ones/Mighty Robot had an entire “production” crew with them to get every little detail of the party or show right, and the whole thing became about the “art of the party.”
Co-director, Erik Zajaceskowski
Secret Project Robot opened at Monster Island
The shift from Twisted Ones/Mighty Robot came when Rachel and Erik wanted to incorporate more art into their events. “Mighty Robot was more of a music party space, whereas we imagined Secret Project Robot as an art installation space,” they said.
Under the Secret Project Robot moniker, they opened a gallery in Monster Island, a Williamsburg cultural institution housing a DIY music space, non-profit galleries, art and recording studios, practice spaces, and a variety of small shops, and in 2008, it became not-for-profit. “The main motivation was maybe to try and get funding, but we realized pretty early on that only rich people get money,” they laugh. “It has been helpful instead as a way to define ourselves because we function outside of selling art. It has also been great to have resources like materials for the arts and access to temporary beer and wine permits for our events.”
In 2011, Monster Island closed for demolition to make space for real estate development. That lot remains vacant until today and while many of its neighbors did not exist long after Monster Island’s closing, Secret Project Robot endures in its current space in Bushwick. “When Monster Island closed, we opened straight away. Like the next day,” said Erik. “I just wanted to see if we could do it. The space is never built out, there is nothing in it, it’s raw and sort of horrible.”
Co-director, Rachel Nelson.
Then came Happy Fun Hideaway
In 2013, Rachel and Erik opened a for-profit bar, gallery, and community space, Happy Fun Hideaway. Most of Secret Project Robot’s funding comes from this commercial space, without which they may have not been able to continue.
“You look at all the rents, generation of people leaving, and already Bushwick isn’t a place we could afford to be if we were trying to come in now,” said Rachel. “There has never been a time when we were never going to close, ever, but there have definitely been times when we’ve been uncertain of what’s going to happen next. There are times when you struggle with it and you persevere and you try to create a model that can survive. Maybe the non-for-profit model isn’t viable in New York City anymore.”
DIY spaces leave an indelible mark on a community. The retrospective reminds us of what Secret Project Robot has been offering. “It’s an art show that’s a trip down memory lane of all of the events, artists, and moments. Things that are really symbolic like release shows, black light parties, and posters,” Rachel shared. “We’ve been around for so long, people have forgotten some of the stuff that we’ve done. I want people to come in and be nostalgic and see that we’ve really done a lot over the last decade.”
"There is always an underground. You just don't know about it anymore."
When I inquired about their future operation, Erik paused, “Ya know what? Who knows? It’s not really like that. It’s more like one day at a time. Everything ends, I guess, sooner or later. I just want to see how long we can keep going."
"And the whole thing is that people always think that something ends or all the ungrounded spaces are closing, then ‘oh, it’s over.’ There is always someone else, some young kids that are starting something awesome. Whenever people are like, ‘there is no more underground.’ I’m like ‘there’s always an underground. You just don’t know about it anymore.’”
“You start doing stuff cause it’s really fun. You keep doing it because people appreciate it or you feel like you have to or you feel like there are still things to be done. That is still a necessary part of the world,” commented Rachel.
"I think, for us, it’s always just been about knowing that you can’t change the world. But each step of the way, you can create the world you want to live in, and you can engage people who want to do the same thing with you and participate in creating that world. It’s small wins. Changing perspectives slowly. We want to be a community of artists who make art and choose to create rather than just consume.”
Secret Project Robot is located at 389 Melrose Place, between Knickerbocker Ave & Thames St in Bushwick. See the schedule of celebratory events all summer and join them to experience the fun and freeing world they have created.