Every so often, someone digs a new well into Buffalo’s bubbling creative underground.
Most of these wells draw water for limited periods of time before becoming too difficult to sustain. These wells have names like Kitchen Distribution, Soundlab, the Vault or the still-extant Sugar City, and each dispenses a slightly different flavor of culture.
When you hear about these places, it’s best to get there and drink up as much as you can, lest you return to find them shuttered, paved over or rented out to a hair salon. One of the newest and most promising of these wells is Dreamland, a queer-friendly and racially diverse arts space and collective on Franklin Street that is about to celebrate its one-year anniversary.
The venue, which had its semi-official public coming-out party during last summer’s Infringement Festival and has hosted a series of increasingly popular events since, was launched by a loose collective of about eight artists.
Its amorphous mission is to provide a safe space for a diverse population of artists and experimenters to create and perform their work free of censorship or economic exploitation.
“There’s a massive, underlying weirdo counterculture scene here that Brooklyn can’t touch. For real,” said Dreamland co-founder Dana McKnight. “I think that it’s the cheapness of the space, obviously, but the fact that there’s a level of unpretention here, and people aren’t afraid to look like fools. We really push the envelope.”
At Dreamland, that massive, underlying weirdo counterculture has taken on a surprising and compelling range of forms. And while McKnight described its aesthetic as “conceptual, absurdist” and “Dada-esque” and said its name was inspired by “Lovecraftian lore and John Waters,” it seems clear that its programming is fairly open-ended.
There was last summer’s risque Infringement Festival event “Wet Dreamland,” a pornography-themed evening of exhibitions and performances that mixed crowds of bar-goers from Chippewa Street with the somewhat crunchier DIY art set – two groups of people that don’t often intermingle. Word about a hip-hop show later in the year spread on Twitter to a group of teenage beatmakers from the East Side, who arrived with their friends, grateful to finally have a place to show off their work.
And on a Saturday night in late January, the venue hosted its first Knockturn Alley Fest. It was perhaps the most popular and buzzed-about event in its short life, a meticulous re-creation of a “Harry Potter”-inspired landscape at which costumed suburbanites and urbanites alike bonded over their shared love of J.K. Rowling’s fantasy world. According to McKnight, attendees included “a Turkish exchange student, an Anglican female priest,” and a dishwasher from Merge restaurant who sewed a Hogwartsian cape for himself out of a tablecloth.
If all this sounds a bit bizarre, it’s worth keeping in mind how rare such cross-cultural audiences are in Buffalo, where the segmented cultural scene generally reflects the atrocious racial and socioeconomic segregation of the city at large. If art and theater venues are aspirational spaces where we create idealistic microcosms of the communities we’d like to see around us – and I believe that more fervently than I can adequately express – then Dreamland may become one of the most vital new arts spaces to appear here in years.
During the “Wet Dreamland” event last summer, McKnight said she was impressed by what she called “a massive gamut of dudebros” who attended the event, some with their girlfriends in tow.
“I feel like in the artistic community, we do this gigantic separation for the sake of safety, yes, but also, ‘They are not of the mental capacity to handle this sort of stuff. They’ll just ruin it because of their backwards misogyny.’ And they were awesome,” she said. “We try to be the polar opposite of the gay bars, which I feel like are inclusive for the sake of financial gain. We’re inclusive for the sake of emotional gain and knowledge.”
What makes the appearance of Dreamland different from some of the other DIY venues that have flitted in and out of existence over the past decade here is its front-and-center commitment to diversity.
“I think you end up with a more diverse crowd when you sort of make it known that the space is open to that sort of thing and fostering it,” said Dreamland collective member and co-founder Seth Girod. “We kind of put it out there from the beginning. We even have signs at the door to make sure people know: This is a safe space for queer people, trans people, people of color. When you make that evident, you end up just getting those sorts of people around.”
McKnight and Girod, along with the rest of the Dreamland collective, are realistic about the future of their venue. Though they’re in the process of becoming an official nonprofit with 501(c)(3) status, a necessity in order to function as an above-board venue, they don’t see their project lasting longer than three to five years.
That sort of realism is at once disappointing and heartening, an acknowledgement of how difficult it is to sustain a true DIY spirit and a bold declaration that they will use that time to make as lasting a mark as possible on the city’s culture.
They know the well they’re digging will eventually run dry. But for now: Where the most interesting parts of the underground are flowing into the mainstream, they’re flowing through Dreamland.