It was never silent and it was hardly contained. Even its walls seemed to make noise. In the face of robbery, eviction, fire damage, bureaucracy, and all manner of highly stacked odds, the Silent Barn inhaled and tried and held on as a DIY institution in New York for 12 years before shutting its doors at 603 Bushwick Avenue on April 30. Its heptagon-shaped stage was tossed into a dumpster and salvaged for parts by neighbors. The signs in the front windows came down: “REST IN POWER PHILANDO CASTILE,” in one, and “ALL AGES WELCOME,” in another. The P.A. was sold.
But in the weeks leading up to the closure of Silent Barn—a venue close to my own heart, where I booked shows sometimes and lingered often—I witnessed little sentimentality among its dozens of collective members. Instead, I heard a focused dialogue on what could have been done better, on what could be learned, a resistance to self-mythology. I witnessed a continued reckoning with gentrification that had come to define the experience of participating in Silent Barn at any level—a reckoning that feels, or should feel, inextricable from the grassroots music culture of any major American city today.
Nothing about Silent Barn seemed plausible in 2018. In sheer scale, it was wildly ambitious. Its grounds intermittently housed a stage for music, art galleries, artist studios, multiple recording studios, fringe theater, Ditko Zine Library, a combination barber shop/record store called Deep Cuts, an analog synth shop called Detective Squad, a free shelf, a bar, and a mobile home in the backyard featuring a humble reading room called Mellow Pages. The local groups Color Scenes and Bushwick Street Art used a cherry-picker to cover the entire building in vibrant murals by over 60 New York–native artists. Free classes and markets often filled the main space, as did Sunday sessions with Educated Little Monsters (aka ELM), a local group headed by Jaz Colon, in which native Bushwick youth learn to dance and use music, primarily hip-hop, to reflect on their lives.
Silent Barn was a sprawling complex of a DIY venue, but it had no significant financial backing. One of the only normal things about it was its faulty funding model, which relied almost entirely on event tickets, drink sales, and the rent of its tenants. It was organized with a nonhierarchical, collective structure inspired by Occupy Wall Street, and it existed in the era of Black Lives Matter. It aimed to be visible enough to attract participants from diverse backgrounds and it did.
Energies collided, making Silent Barn feel like a living collage. Founding member Kunal Gupta compared its “hyper-actively shared space” to the Indian city of Kolkata. Silent Barn was a place that defied easy logic, even worked against it. “I do remember initially not quite understanding what this space was,” says Mitski, who played there many times early in her career. “I’d never experienced anything like it before. It was a venue, but also people lived there and made art right there, and people got their hair cut there, and people recorded music there, and filmed there, and held all sorts of meetings and classes there… All in this one space!”
There was a little navy-blue, wooden loft in the backyard of Silent Barn—kind of a punk treehouse—where you could climb up a ladder and sit and watch everything. This was my favorite place to hang out at Silent Barn, maybe my favorite place to hang out in the world. Amid the chaos, this small perch seemed to acknowledge that at a place like Silent Barn, a person might want to take 10 minutes to be alone. I would sit and stare at the stringed lights and the spray-painted colors and the kids, I’d hear the moving parts of Silent Barn all humming together—someone recording in the studio, a show in the main space, a kitchen performance seeping down from the window three stories above, cars on the street, people milling about between it all. It was a great New York movie in real time. It changed constantly.
“I can’t think of another space that figuratively and literally handed the keys to such a radically large number of people,” says founding member Joe Ahearn. “A lot of Silent Barn’s power came from the constant overlap and proximity of many, many competing ideologies and values. It brings things to the surface that would have never existed before. This is not just what is so valuable about Silent Barn, this is supposed to be what is so valuable about New York.”
There was a tacit understanding at Silent Barn that a DIY venue in a city must actively and always serve its immediate community. In recent years, more kids who grew up in Bushwick and nearby neighborhoods of Bed-Stuy and Brownsville came to the space, often for rap shows booked by ELM affiliates or by local collective Cypher League. “To me, that’s when it finally started feeling like a real New York space,” says Nina Mashurova, a Pitchfork contributor and integral member of Silent Barn since 2013. I was astonished, in February, by a kinetic performance from Brownsville rapper I.O.D. “There’s gonna be a day when you feel lonely in the world—hit me up,” he said from the stage. “There’s only one time you get on this planet. You only get one home. I feel home right now.”
Silent Barn moved to Bushwick in December 2012, after its original, quasi-legal space in Queens—which hosted the likes of Grimes, Dirty Projectors, and Future Islands early in their careers—was raided by police, robbed, and evicted. A Kickstarter campaign raised $40,000 to open its second iteration with the goal of becoming a fully up-to-code venue and community center.
“It was always in this weird in-between space where it wasn’t anarchic enough to be edgy-cool but also not sleek enough to be professional,” Mashurova says. “The city doesn’t really care about art spaces. We did everything by the rules, to a fault—got all the permits, did all the paperwork, put in all the fire extinguishers, filed workers comp. The city just gave [future Manhattan art emporium] the Shed $75 million dollars. They never gave us anything.”
In its five years at 603 Bushwick Ave., Silent Barn solved some equations that have long befuddled underground music cultures: it became legal and it paid its employees. If you spent enough time at Silent Barn, though, you became privy to how difficult and haphazard things always were. The space was constantly hanging on by emotional and financial threads. People were exhausted, angry, and sad. It felt like a space at once reflecting reality and trying to create new ones, and trying encompasses failure.
Silent Barn closed due to its unwieldy size—both of its three-story building and ever-expanding collective—and its exorbitant monthly rent of $15,500. These costs were exacerbated by a fire in 2015, which impacted insurance premiums. The leaseholders feel they made a responsible decision by admitting they ran out of money, that there is “no realistic way forward.” Hindsight is 20/20. The Barn was simply too big. DIY venues of the future should stay small. Ahearn also believes if they’d had a membership program from the very start, they’d now have an annual budget of almost $150,000—a realization that inspired his and Gupta’s startup, Withfriends, which provides membership tools for small arts organizations.
This enormity, which made Silent Barn feel epic and full of possibility, also magnified its unprecedented confluence of problems. “The sheer scale we were operating at made it a cypher for issues in the underground arts that could get otherwise ignored on a smaller-scale,” says G Lucas Crane, a sound artist (formerly of Woods) and the Barn’s eldest collective member at the time of its closing. “Would you like an example of what a DIY space can be? OK, how about at 10x the size of any of them? The failures were that much more glaring.”
Alongside Silent Barn’s financial troubles came an internal fracturing stemming from debates related to race and class. There was a disjointedness between ELM and Silent Barn. Yatta Zoker, a musician who was the Barn’s operations manager from 2016 to 2017, joined the space just as this unfolded. Zoker saw how the limits of worldviews and financial backgrounds created breaches.
“It was clear that the purpose of the space was being grappled with,” Zoker says. “The purpose was to give the space to create art, collaborate, have shows—but I think what created schisms was that the why is so drastically different for so many people, and the level of urgency was very different. It humbled me, and it made me want to listen more. That was a gift.”
Delineating Silent Barn’s weaknesses, Crane points to nearly every social issue of our time and their presence within the arts: white supremacy, transphobia, constant racial microaggressions, differences of vocabulary based on education and class, subcultural tribalism. “These are real issues that you need to confront if you want to be an at all ethical arts organization, or at least walk the fucking talk of your own pie-in-the-sky mission statement,” he says. “A big lesson is to confront these issues first. Head on. Constant, unrelenting self-critique is the most important lesson.”
The aspects of Silent Barn that are most worth celebrating are inseparable from Crane’s concerns. Silent Barn had a Safer Spaces policy; it was physically accessible; and by 2018, a venue that had been started by mostly white people was being run, in considerable part, by people of color. At the end, its residents were almost all queer, trans, nonbinary, and young. (“Kids run Silent Barn,” someone wrote in the door booth.) The programming, handled in recent years by a team of women and nonbinary bookers, reflected this: It felt like it had an intersectional feminist agenda more than any other DIY venue in 2010s Brooklyn that I can recall. Silent Barn consistently raised money for bail funds, legal defense, gender confirmation surgeries, and for organizations like Black & Pink, RAINN, Standing Rock, Make the Road, and Planned Parenthood.
If there is an undercurrent of optimism to be found at the moment, says Crane, it is in that art and empathy are often entangled. “Art, on the run, looks for the cheap rent to make its little dreams work and fucks up peoples’ lives in the process,” he says. “But ultimately, art orgs are the ones in the best position to actually listen and change because with the arts, you’re actively working within the medium of people’s feelings.”
“Let’s look to a future of more purposeful, self-critical collectives actually providing resources to the people around them,” Crane continues. “Break the cliques, smash the scenes, get distinctly IRL—forever.”
On April 14, halfway through its final month, Silent Barn hosted its annual 24-Hour Show. True to its name, the event was a full day of 30-minute sets, each lending the next a wacky, compounding energy. It took place in the apartments above Silent Barn known as 603 Upstairs, home to its artists in residence. The 24-Hour Show was like a collective conceptual art project or an endurance test or both. It was what Barn members typically call “stunt-booked,” putting together genres that would otherwise never share a bill—in this case, rap, punk, folk, noise, improv, country, DJs, poetry, Tarot, and other curiosities. A piece of paper posted up read, “Life is the real 24-hour show.”
Downstairs, the mainspace concurrently hosted a sold-out show headlined by Lætitia Tamko, aka Vagabon, with openers L’Rain and Zenizen. Tamko played her first shows at Silent Barn in 2014; at one point, she says, there was a joke among friends that Vagabon was “the Silent Barn house band.”
“Silent Barn was the place where I become a seasoned performer… a place to figure it out, and that’s crucial for artists who are making their way alone,” Tamko adds. “To headline a bill with all black women at the Silent Barn made me feel like the norms in punk communities are shifting with each woman of color and person of color who enters the space and is able to thrive.”
Spaces like Silent Barn, with their radical openness, facilitate the process of locating a sense of purpose around music, in small groups of outsiders, in real time. Artists—or people who do not yet realize they are artists, to whom the very idea of being an artist might not have occurred until entering the space—play in front of other people, conquer fear, learn vulnerability. I saw this the next morning, as the young hardcore band Decisions (another Barn house band) closed out the 24-Hour Show with an 11:30 a.m. set. The show felt like a waking dream; the circle pit looked like no other circle pit I had ever seen, all queer people and women and kids of color, thrashing and smiling through the delirium and joy of a thoroughly lived sleepless night. If there was something about Silent Barn worth celebrating, it was playing out here. Thinking of any other era of New York punk, I would rather be here.
“The present and future of DIY is black, brown, queer, and trans and if you run a space and aren’t actively supporting art from these communities, you are fucking up,” Crane says. “I’m glad to close this chapter on NYC DIY.” But kids at Silent Barn were already writing new ones.