Erin Petersen

Support your local noisemakers

By - Sep 9th, 2010 04:00 am
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In the beginning … (all photos courtesy of The Borg Ward)

When I first laid eyes on the space that was to become the Borg Ward artist collective, it was hard to imagine the building at 823 W. National as a fully-functioning art space. The floors were a patchwork of crumbling linoleum, chunks of drywall were strewn about and decades of previous inhabitants had left behind some very strange relics.

Formerly The Borgwardt Family Funeral home, the building saw many incarnations and failed business ventures over the years: a furniture store, a pharmacy and a corner tavern to name a few. At that time it was being used to host AA meetings.

Over the weeks and months of the blazing summer of 2007, a cavalcade of DIY carpenters and handymen (and women) lent their skills to the renovation of the decrepit two-story, swinging hammers, framing out walls and chasing wires. It seemed incredibly dangerous. And awesome.

On September 7, 2007 the non-profit Borg Ward collective was revealed to the public, and it was pretty damn impressive.

The first floor welcomed passersby into a modest gallery space. In back was small space for shows (which also hosted many a late-night dance party in those early days). There were artist studios for rent upstairs and the basement offered a place for bands to practice.

In the last three years, the collective has grown by leaps and bounds. What began as a handful of people has become a rotating group of about 20 members.

There’s typically one art opening per month and about 8-10 concerts in the same amount of time. On any given day you might walk in to see large-scale glossy prints depicting rust-tinged Americana while throbbing shoegaze pours out of the backroom.

As I sit in the gallery on a particularly quiet Saturday afternoon to chat with collective members Peter J. Woods, Holly Berg and Jay Linski, the walls are covered in bawdy ink drawings and satirical cartoons, with manic writing scrawled to and fro in black and metallic spray paint.

Post renovation. Opening night, Sept. 7, 2007

But the quiet was short lived, as yet another band practice — the third that day– was about to begin.

The Borg Ward has also garnered a well-earned reputation as one of the better — and now, the only — legit all-ages music venues.

“Having a DIY all-ages space is a complete blessing … Milwaukee had none before this,” says Peter, a longtime music promoter and organizer of the Milwaukee Noise Festival.

He notes that in years prior, there were other options for shows, like UWM’s 8th Note, but noise complaints shut that down. More recently, The Eagle’s Nest in Riverwest attempted to maintain a similar all-ages music venue, but structural issues have it closed for the time being.

“Once that happens, things get moved into the basements, and basement shows are technically illegal.”

And so most indie shows start well after curfew and in 21+ venues, leaving teens and young adults (not to mention people who just don’t care for the bar scene) without.

“I can relate to that,” says Jay, who recently turned 21, “I can remember being in high school and really wanting to go to shows at the Cactus Club.”

Most of the shows at the Borg Ward start about 7 or 8 p.m., there is no booze allowed (the collective put the kibosh on carry-ins some time ago) and the crowd can vary in age from as young as 18 to as old as 60, allowing for what Peter describes as an “eclectic melting pot.”

It’s also become ground zero for local noise groups, earning a reputation far outside of Milwaukee’s borders.

“This has become a place for noise artists in the Midwest to come to,” Peter says, “ we have a good space and a really kick-ass PA.”

Located on the main thoroughfare of National Avenue, the Borg Ward is surrounded mostly by empty buildings and vacant lots, save for The National café up the street. With so few neighbors, noise complaints aren’t much of an issue.

As we sit and reflect on how the space has been able to flourish over the years, it’s hard not to think about the many places that Milwaukee has lost since then. Paper Boat, The White Whale, The Armoury, Spackle Gallery, Echo Base, Broad Vocabulary and Fasten Collective have all shuttered within the last two years. Myriad factors were at play — the economy, licensing issues, etc. — but suffice it to say that the underground art landscape has been looking a bit dismal.

Holly credits the ever-rotating group of artists and musicians that make up the cooperative as one of the reasons that the Borg Ward has been able to stay open.

“I think because there’s a bigger community of artists involved … we all support each other,” she says, “It’s always growing, there’s always new people.”

“A lot of times it’s one person shouldering the responsibility, and they’re focusing on one specific thing — sometimes, it doesn’t work out,” adds Peter. “Whereas [at the Borg Ward] there’s music that’s happening, there’s visual art, there’s practice and studio space — bands have shot music videos and recorded albums here — all of this combines and helps to really hold this place up.”

Every last inch of the building is used (er, with the exception of one area in the basement referred to as “the body locker” — a remnant of the former funeral home), all 10 studios are occupied and anywhere from 3 to 15 bands practice there on a given day. It all adds up to a surplus of people power, with plenty of hands to share in maintaining the space — that means everything from booking shows,  gallery installations and tinkering with the furnace come winter.

“We created a formula for sustainability, and we make it a point to stay focused on that,” says Holly, laughing, “we kinda just take it one month at a time, and it works.”

The Borg Ward will celebrate its three year anniversary on Friday, Sept. 10 from 6-11 p.m. with potluck dinner and a free show featuring Owlscry, Eine Kleine Chinmuzik, Wabeno Rock Farm, Slow Owls and Bzybodies. In the gallery you’ll find Fiend, featuring 2-D works by Jesse Engelbrecht and Kyle Sartorelli.

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