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Firehouse, Engine Company 31 on 87 Lafayette Street in New York | Photo by Gryffindor/WikiCommons
Firehouse, Engine Company 31 on 87 Lafayette Street in New York | Photo by Gryffindor/WikiCommons
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In May, a Manhattan Firehouse Will Become a Dance Club for a Cause

Picture of Rachel Gould
Art & Design Editor
Updated: 7 March 2018
This spring, Bring Down The Walls will transform a historic Lower Manhattan firehouse into a dance club. Helmed by acclaimed English artist Phil Collins and facilitated by New York City-based public art organization Creative Time (with the help of over 100 additional collaborators), the public art project will showcase the various links between house music and mass incarceration in a powerful, three-part undertaking.

Each weekend in May 2018, Firehouse, Engine Company 31 will host a series of free daytime programs and a nightclub after dark. In addition, an album produced with formerly incarcerated vocalists and a series of original short films accompanying each track will be available to the public.

Bring Down The Walls will ask participants to consider the correlation between dance music and the American mass incarceration epidemic.

Creative Time’s highly-anticipated spring exhibition was “born out of years of research,” as the announcement states—research conducted by Collins at correctional facilities in New York, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania, in partnership with The Fortune Society, a non-profit organization that “support[s] successful reentry from incarceration and promote alternatives to incarceration, thus strengthening the fabric of our communities.” According to artnet News, Collins “developed a particularly strong relationship with a group of men in the Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, New York, bonding with them over music.”

“All social interactions are inherently political,” says Collins, whose practice explores the confluence of visual art, pop culture, and politics. “Historically, house culture has often been a mode of resistance, opening up new understandings of community and solidarity. Its radical proposition of simply being together offers another way of engaging the conversation around the criminal justice system, which sentences discriminately and disproportionately, but impacts us all.”

The decommissioned Firehouse, Engine Company 31, now run by the Downtown Community Television Center, was strategically chosen to be the project’s site, as it’s “surrounded by the institutional pillars of the criminal justice system, including the Manhattan Detention Complex and New York City’s courthouses,” informs the press release.

During the day, workshops, lectures, and seminars led by advocates and formerly-incarcerated individuals will take place inside the firehouse to assist in educating the public about criminal justice reform. Speakers will lend their voices to a breadth of related topics, from “life on the inside” to complex musings on the pursuit of freedom. In conjunction with programs relating to the issues surrounding mass incarceration, classes will delve into the realms of house music, DJing, dance, and more. Free legal services will also be available for the project’s duration.

Come nightfall, the firehouse will become a fully-functioning dance club, “celebrating house music as a communal experience and embracing the history of nightclubs as sanctuaries of togetherness and liberation.” DJ sets and live performances will honor New York City’s world famous nightlife.

“House has, to me, always been an implicitly—and occasionally explicitly—politicized culture and mode of resistance,” Collins explained to artnet. “The American government has pursued criminal justice policies leading to an exponential rise in mass incarceration, and a devastating impact on African-American and Latino communities in particular, especially in large urban centers.

“This intensified in the 1980s,” Collins continued, “and to my mind, there is a chronological overlap between the advent of the prison industrial complex around that time and the emergence of a new dance music coming out of Chicago, Detroit and New York, from the very same disenfranchised communities targeted by regressive policies like the war on drugs and three-strikes laws.”

Bring Down The Walls will also release an album featuring vocalists who have been formerly incarcerated.

“I am keenly aware of the therapeutic power of music and knew this project would be an opportunity for me to utilize my talent in a constructive way,” said Cameron Holms, whose voice is present in the album. “I believe the people closest to a problem are best positioned to solve it.” Amanda Cruz, another featured vocalist, added, “This opportunity has helped me overcome my fear of being judged on who I am or how I sound. I plan to take this new confidence everywhere I go.”

Each recorded track on the album will be accompanied by short music videos. “Filmed in locations around New York City, these inventive and intimate portraits of the project’s protagonists highlight the vocabularies of self-representation and creativity that exist in communities disproportionately affected by the criminal justice system,” explains the announcement.

The project’s full schedule and list of speakers will be released closer to the time of its unveiling.

Bring Down The Walls will operate each weekend in May 2018 at Firehouse, Engine Company 31, 87 Lafayette Street, New York, NY 10013.