Update: The Force Field art event was forced to relocate the concert and reschedule the exhibit. Read more here.
You can see Philadelphia’s illustrious past in its hulking bare warehouses, factories and buildings: the old cavernous hubs of the industrial age dotting the landscape, nestled next to ballparks and casting dark shadows over the railways. Maybe they catch your gaze as you sit on SEPTA daydreaming, looking out the windows, and you wonder what kinds of bustling, soot-covered activities used to swarm around these beasts. Behind the scrawled graffiti and broken windows, beneath the sunken roofs—maybe you’ve imagined what it’s like to be inside and have the place all to yourself.
You could put on a secret play with your friends, perform an epic concert, set up a trapeze and hang from the ceilings and walls, or just wander around with a camera, conjuring the stories that might lie behind whatever tiny bits of aging beauty can still be found amid the mess. A few of you have probably even looked for loose locks at the ground level, in an attempt to catch a dusty, 100-year-old view. But that’s a dicey proposition. Some of these monstrous warehouses, like the ones you see along the western part of Allegheny Avenue, would probably swallow you whole if you took one wrong step inside. Others have been beautified beyond recognition, housing giant apartments with stainless steel appliances.
But a few, like the Jo-Mar warehouse buildings at 3401 and 3525 I Street in North Kensington, are once again bustling with activity.
This will be where you’ll have your chance to live out those SEPTA daydreams: Come Saturday and Sunday, June 21 and 22, the Jo-Mar buildings will be the home of Force Field, possibly the biggest warehouse-based weekend-long art and music project to hit Philadelphia.
Masterminded by local artists Tim Eads and Joe Bartram and supported by the real estate development group Shift Capital, a company working to refurbish different buildings around the city, the Jo-Mar buildings, now renamed MaKen Studios, promise to shine this weekend like they’ve never shined before.
Imagine 200,000 square feet of space spread across two once-abandoned Philly warehouse buildings, filled with a ridiculous variety of artwork created by 45 hand-selected artists and groups from seven different states in the northeast. Throughout the four floors of space, plus the rooftop and garage bay, there will be food, beer from Neshaminy Creek Brewing Company and live music into the night to fuel visitors as they move through all the art. And oh, the art. Giant site-specific sculptures and installations. Interactive 3D projections. Performance pieces. If the rumors are true, there may even be some on-the-spot weddings in the elevator shaft.
Hey, why not? This empty warehouse is one of the largest blank canvasses an artist could ever dream of. Let’s get fake-married in the damn elevator shaft, check out some crazy art and then go dance on the roof with music made by plants.
The Force Field project was born about a year ago, when local artists Tim Eads and Joe Bartram caught wind of what Shift Capital, a real estate company working to refurbish various sites around the city, was undertaking at the Jo-Mar site.
Shift Capital purchased the pair of Kensington buildings in March and November of 2013. The company began renovating the space for artist workshops under the name MaKen Studios North and South—beautiful, giant studio spaces that, before long, were renting out to professional designers, artisans, creative professionals and makers of all kinds.
“Manufacturing built the community around this building,” says Cait Kenny, the MaKen Studios project manager, “and we’re trying to get back to that a little bit, on a smaller, local scale, with lots of busy creative people filling the building again.”
Conscious of how such real-estate investment can lead to concerns about gentrification, the MaKen crew has deliberately sought to work with local laborers whenever possible, even though it is not always an option. “Collaboration is key for our community development work,” Kenny says. The company has plans to create a nearby tree-lined green space; is working with groups like Philadelphia Urban Creators to create a rooftop garden for local food and educational usage, and they are working very closely with local community activist and filmmaker Jamie Moffett to “brainstorm ideas on improving the neighborhood for local community members and our tenants.”
More recently, MaKen Studios partnered with neighbors Gary Randazzo of Diamond Furniture and Jamie Moffett of Kensington Renewal to clean and secure an abandoned lot of nearby Rand Street, which had been a magnet for crime. The lot cleaning is part of a larger Kensington Renewal initiative; they’ll soon liven it up a little with help from local artist and AIGA member Robb Leef as part of AIGA’s Design for Good project.
“Our idea isn’t new,” Kenny says. “We’re not innovators. We’re enthusiasts and suckers for architectural integrity and community identity preservation. We’re developers with a moral compass, and we’re also suckers for manufacturing and art.”
Eads, 38, and Bartram, 25, quickly got excited about the possibility of installing artwork at the Jo-Mar buildings—maybe, say, a site-specific piece on the roof? Eads, a colorfully dressed, Willy Wonka sort of installation artist known for his playful sculptures, machines, prints and fabric works, has exhibited his full-sensory-experience installations in galleries nationwide from Philadelphia to Los Angeles—projects, for instance, like Species of Spaces, a site-specific installation at Rebekah Templeton Gallery in which Eads took over the whole room and created an “overwhelming visual, aural and gastral experience” out of bright-colored paint and fabrics, ropey sculptures, kaleidoscopic prints, homemade potato chips and live music generated by the mechanisms of the installation itself. He’d been considering approaching CultureTrust of Greater Philadelphia, the nonprofit responsible for providing administrative support to such cultural initiatives as Hidden City Philadelphia and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, with a proposal for a new personal project. But after he and Bartram met and hit it off with the key players at MaKen, they started thinking bigger.
“I was living in Detroit during grad school, so I had been thinking about abandoned factories for a while,” Eads says. “More importantly, the space pulled me in. Something had to be done that was memorable.”
And so they conceived Force Field. Its name born from a shared appreciation for science and ambiguity, the project was designed with the desire to “give this opportunity to artists, to do something that they haven’t done or seldom do,” Bartram says. “We wanted to provide that opportunity to use this building and this space and this sort of event scenario—to be pushed, to be challenged.”
They also see it as a template for the future. “Philadelphia is so ripe for this type of project,” Eads says. “Philly is such a unique city in the sense that it’s in a post-industrial state, but doing well financially.” (Well being a relative term, obviously.) “It’s in the Northeast so it has an abundance of culture, and there are great art schools here, so it’s saturated with young artists willing to take risks.”
He and Bartram pitched the idea for the Force Field showcase to CultureTrust last September, after Eads had met with them a couple times to discuss their ideas. Their support made it possible for the two artists to obtain the necessary insurance, connect with construction service providers, write contracts and employ a small staff. And an online fundraising campaign through Indiegogo helped them raise $4,885 in May and early June—enough money to pay the participating artists.