On the last week of March, the owners of Secret Project Robot, a local DIY art and music space, stated their farewell after being in business for over a decade: “On April 31st, 2019, Secret Project Robot will be saying [goodbye] to our Broadway space and once again moving on to other art experiments and new awesome schemes and adventures, this will be just another leg of our 15 year journey, and we are, as always elated for the next phase of our comical missions into the absurd.”
The new business moving in, Wonderville, will be run by Death by Audio Arcade, an arcade game collective. In a month’s time, the noise-spattered floor will become something else, replaced by lines of video games in decorative arcade cabinets, operated by the new owners.
“I would hope people would see this as the same kind of space,” Mark Kleback said. Kleback is an adjunct professor at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program and boasts an old school gamer’s beard. He pays the bills by building arcade cabinets for corporate clients and festivals: “People see what we do and they get really excited about getting arcade cabinets for their office or some event.”
The collective, as its name might indicate, is where he works his indie, DIY material and in that capacity he is joined by Stephanie Gross, his fiance and a city bureaucrat who has made a personal mission of putting alternative spaces into the legal light of day. Despite the loud and notable losses that marked the first half of the past decade, the concrete churn of gentrified towers taking the place of community centers, Gross is hopeful and is among those who think that recent developments like the appointment of Night Mayor Ariel Palitz and the repeal of the fine-inducing Cabaret Law bode well for the future of Bushwick’s nightlife.
At one point, Kleback lived in the lofts on the top floor of Death By Audio and the Death By Audio Arcade. The arcade was at the iconic Williamsburg music venue, until it had been shut down by to make room for Vice Media in 2014. He had made arcade cabinets that stocked Pac Man and the like. Since leaving the space, however, he got hip with the city’s indie game community. Since then the collective has been featured at gallery shows at likeminded Bushwick venues like Elsewhere and Silent Barn, another DIY venue that shuttered last year.
Such precariousness is probably why Kleback and Gross begun looking for a space of their own. They had learned a year ago that Rachel Nelson, who runs Secret Project Robot along with husband and co-director, Erik Zajaceskowski, were looking to move from their project’s latest space at 1186 Broadway and Kleback followed with a Kickstarter that had the aim of taking over the space and turning it into Wonderville Arcade, which managed to raise $100,000 for the move.
Fortunately for fans of Secret Project Robot’s long history as mainstays in the Brooklyn underground, they don’t intend to end things. “They wanted to be more of an art gallery and less of a day-to-day music venue,” Kleback explained. (Both Kleback and Gross have long been involved in Secret Project’s history; Gross filed the Project’s non-profit paperwork in 2009.) In their statement announcing the move, the owners Nelson and Zajaceskowski wrote: “We were able to transition from the underground to a fully legal bar…however from all we gained, we feel we also lost things along the way that were particularly important to the way we have always philosophically run Secret Project Robot.”
Kleback and Gross say they intend to change very little about the establishment that Nelson had crafted in the last two years.
The art on the walls and the dense low-lit ambiance will remain, ditto the backyard, the liquor license and the sound system; no remodeling projects are planned and they hope to keep much of the staff as possible. The major change is at the project’s center, where indie noise acts like Coagulative Necrosis will be replaced by lines of elegantly designed gaming cabinets, which was lent itself comparisons to the Brooklyn-based Barcade brand.
What Wonderville adds to the scene are games developed and designed by a scene of coders and gamers who, like the DIY rock bands of yore that eschewed the major label system, have conspicuously decided to avoid the corporate triple-A video game industry. “I wanted more control over the stuff I was making,” Jane Friedhoff told Bushwick Daily. One of the games Friedhoff designed, Slam City Oracles, is among those that will now have a home at Wonderville and she feels especially connected to the DIY spirit of the collective’s origins, “In the build I made for my [Death By Audio Arcade] cabinet, the building you knock over is Vice—and that was not out of love…the achievement you get for knocking them over is ‘LONG LIVE DBA: Evict Vice!’”
Slam City Oracles, which she had presented at NYU’s annual No Quarter exhibition and has been a regular feature at Death By Audio Arcade events, has been described as “all about breaking the world” and has been compared to Keita Takahashi’s Katamari franchise. Friedhoff said the game was directly inspired by ‘90s riot grrrl culture: “[it] emphasized these values of making media that represents your lived experiences; of taking up space; and of honesty over perfection. I was hopeless with instruments but good with code, so I started thinking to myself, okay, well what might a riot grrrl game look like? How could a game embody those ideas?”
It also isn’t the only game made by the collective to have been directly inspired by indie music. A Place To Bury Strangers Pinball, an homage to the Brooklyn shoegaze band of the same name, has been a long mainstay and its programmer, Andy Wallace, plans on bringing a version of his popular space combat game Particle Mace to Wonderville as well, “There has never been a better time to make video games. What playing in a place like Wonderville offers is a community.”
Secret Project Robot will stop running 1186 Broadway at the end of April. Wonderville will begin programming events In May with a full launch planned in June.
Cover image courtesy of Death by Audio Arcade.
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