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Ron Ehmke connects cultural threads of new, ‘old’ Buffalo

Ron Ehmke is here to dispel the myth of the bad, old Buffalo.

As the rhetoric about Buffalo’s economic and psychological resurgence approaches a fever pitch, the veteran performance artist and observer of Buffalo’s alternative arts scene is getting ready to drop some hard-won perspective on audiences in a new performance planned for Friday and Saturday in the 9th Ward at Babeville (341 Delaware Ave.).

The show, called “Road to Nowhere: A Brief & Personal History of Alternative Space in the ’80s and ’90s,” will draw on Ehmke’s diverse experiences as a performance artist, an arts administrator at Hallwalls during its renaissance in the 1980s and an inveterate observer of the quirks, oddities and forgotten accomplishments of Buffalo’s deeply rooted artistic culture.

He described the new piece as a “remix” of three earlier monologues he performed for Hallwalls’ 20th anniversary in 1996, with added threads that connect the great underground, sub-commercial flourishing of cultural scenes he first experienced as a Buffalo neophyte in 1982 to the reviving image of the Queen City today.

“What I’ve always done is pay attention to things that other people don’t necessarily pay attention to, and I keep notes about those things and I remember them later,” Ehmke said in a recent interview. “I don’t pay attention to the kinds of things that an adult in our society probably should pay attention to, like how to change tires or oil or whatever one does with a car. I don’t really know. But I do pay attention to what has happened to Buffalo itself over the years that I’ve lived here since 1982, and I think that it’s very important to remember and preserve the stories of the past in order to inform our vision of the future and our understanding of the present.”

Because the sort of underfunded, grassroots culture that courses through Ehmke’s new piece was often created by transient personalities who have since moved on to other pursuits and sometimes far-flung places, few active writers and performers have Ehmke’s far-reaching perspective on what makes Buffalo culturally unique.

Part of that perspective, far from preaching to the kids about the work and sacrifices of their elders, is communicating a sense of the city’s decades-long tradition for embracing avant garde and experimental organizations and projects that set the stage for new grassroots efforts like the Buffalo Infringement Festival, Dreamland and Sugar Ctiy.

“This whole thing that’s sprung up about the New Buffalo, I think that’s great, but I’m noticing that built into that is the sense that there was some old, ugly Buffalo that was horrible. And that’s not my experience of the place at all,” Ehmke said. “I moved here in ’82, and I thought the art scene here was phenomenal and unlike anything else I’ve ever seen anywhere else in my various travels. It always has been, and that predates me.

“It’s great to see spaces like Dreamland and Sugar City and phenomena like the Infringement Festival, but none of those things are coming out of nowhere. There is a rich legacy. I mean, Hallwalls is the definitive artist-run space. It wrote the book on that. And then it has grown and evolved. I don’t think anyone ever dreamed that it would still be around 40 years later as an institution.”

Ehmke’s performances at 7 p.m. Feb. 5 and 6 will be bookended by sets from former Buffalo artist and musician Paul Szpakowski, who will play what Ehmke described as “the real songs of the ‘80s and early ‘90s, not the stuff that ‘80s channels play.” Ehmke, in the guise of his VJ persona Ron-D.M. Key, will join Szpakowski in the second set for a sort of retro dance party.

For Ehmke, the new performance is a way to pay tribute not only to the institutions that have been an artistic home for him, but to the people lucky enough to have participated in Buffalo’s vast creative underground.

“What I’ve been saying forever is, you can do anything you want to here. It’s just that no one’s going to pay very much attention to it,” Ehmke said. “Except for the people who really care about it, and those are the people I think I care the most about.”


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