It is evening at The Red Poppy Art House. A neat circle of chairs sits in the center of the old storefront that is the space. Around it is a larger oval of chaos pushed to the corners: empty boxes, jumbled furniture, heaps of paper, sheets of canvas, pointy sticks, dented buckets. Ella Fitzgerald is playing on the stereo.
The small group gathered here is engaged in the delicate art of organizing an event that has been purposely designed to be difficult to organize. MAPP – also known as the Mission Arts Performance Project, is coming up on Saturday, June 5th. It’s an attempt to turn every garage, living room, and backyard in the few blocks surrounding the Red Poppy into a performance space, free and open to the public. It fails, of course, says Todd Brown, the Red Popppy’s director and founder. But in trying to reach that goal every two months, interesting things have happened for the seven years that it’s endured.
Amidst all of this decentralization is Brown – a tall Nordic-looking guy in painty overalls, and MAPP’s creator, though not organizer. He possesses a particular kind of sarcasm that is so flatline and deadpan its delivery that it instantly reveals him as an import. Indeed, Brown is sixth generation Vermont – an artist emerging from a long line of non-artists. “Early on I didn’t know what I would do with my life.” Brown says. “I was indecisive. What I did know is that one of my joys is connecting people with each other.”
MAPP is geographically constrained on purpose, in order to create an event whose primary goal is to deepen the connections between neighbors, rather than create a popular event for outsiders (though outsiders are drawn in, inevitably.) “MAPP is a way to meet the people who’ve lived next to you for years,” says Carl Pisaturo, a droll, geeky man who works by day as an applications engineer at Stanford. The performers at his apartment are, he says, are “mostly robots.” He builds them himself.
“Sometimes a musician,” he adds. “But no bands. There isn’t enough room. With all the robots.”
Luis Vasgoz Gomez is a self-described activist, painter, reiki master, shaman, and poet. He hosts events in his living room, in which he does things like tell visitors that MAPP has been banned by the Department of Homeland security (a few of them believed it.) “I’m coming from Colombia,” says Vasgoz Gomez. “If you want to say something there you’d better know where to run, and where to hide.”
Robert Marosi Bustamante turns the nearby space where he normally teaches summer school programs into a venue called The Secret Garden. At his favorite MAPP event, two dancers – one Russian, one Brazilian - asked him for some compost and proceeded to dance with it, very very slowly.
In the course of trying to connect people like these, Brown has opened an arts space, hosted exhibitions, taught classes in classic Argentine tango, started MAPP, and co-founded Nefasha Ayer, a music ensemble with an Ethiopian-American musician called Meklit Hadero. It’s Nefasha Ayer that Brown is most known for: he and Hadero shared an artists residency at the DeYoung, doing painting, installation, composition, and the occasional performance. “I used to tell people that I was going to become a painter to support my career as a musician,” Brown says, so deadpan that it takes a while to realize that he’s joking.
Once upon a time, Brown had a day job that involved working with groups: among them adolescents, and people in the county prison system. On the evenings and weekends he held theater and music events in his garage. Eventually the garage became his life. “When I felt like I was an artist,” Brown says, “It was like going down the list of options. It was the last thing left. Just a title for ‘I’m going to create my own path.”
Brown grew up in Brandon, Vermont, in a town of approximately 3,917 people. His family had lived there for six generations. “Vermont is one of the whitest states in America,” says Brown. “I discovered the rest of the world through music.” He discovered the world through Bob Marley, to be precise – loving the music, but with “no idea of the reality that it was from.”
It sparked enough of an interest that he enrolled in a class on African American literature as an undergraduate at the University of Vermont. From there, he says,”Pandora’s box was opened. I had to relearn history all over again. When you’re part of the dominant culture, it’s hard to look outside of that. It’s like driving a car, instead of moving on your own. You’re protected, but you also see less. The same is true of art.”
MAPP is an experiment in stripping away protection. “The Mission has around 47,000 people,” he says. “That’s larger than the largest city in Vermont. And the nature of this neighborhood is to be both a neighborhood, and international in origin. The idea of having it concentrated is about making something more intimate – about building stronger bonds. It’s about creating a vibrancy in this neighborhood that reflects the world we would like to live in.”
Brown first co-signed a lease on this spot seven years ago. It was an empty room – a vacant storefront that had until recently been a business that wired money to El Salvador. Brown started to peel up the linoleum. Chipping down through it was like going back in time. “We dug down to 1940s linoleum, 1920s linoleum,” he says. “We stopped when we hit wood.”
He was unclear as to how he was going to pay the rent. He taught classes, held musical events, sold paintings. “All of these years,” he says, “my question has been – ‘How can a place be an arts center and still exist, without becoming an arts organization?’”
There are people who don’t necessarily think of “organization” as something to directly avoid. Brown is the other kind of people. “I got the sense that he was the kind of person who, when he had an idea, did it. And then whatever happens happens,” says Vasgoz Gomez. “Which means that I knew that he was the kind of person that I could work with.”
To prevent any one person from having to assume the burden of organization, makes MAPP’s decentralized design one with purpose. Each garage, living room, and backyard is responsible for coming up with its own lineup. Factually, no one has any idea what is going on in any space other than their own. There are organizers at places like Sunrise Restaurant, the Million Fishes Art Collective, and others, that organize without ever attending meetings. Brown did not attend any meetings for over a year.
This arrangement is complicated, but utopian. It may have begun at the Red Poppy, but the ideal is to have an event without a center – rather, an ever-evolving space of exchange among the many. “We had seventeen venues last time,” says Todd Brown. “I send out email and I still don’t know who’s doing anything.”
“My choir uses a Google group,” says Camille, an artist who just moved into a studio in the area and is attending the meeting for the first time. “It’s very handy.” There is some discussion. It is established that MAPP already has a Google group. It is also established that not everyone checks it. Or is interested in ever checking it. The organizers take this in stride.
Also at the meeting is Mina Girgis, who runs Zambaleta, a music school. There is Rafael, a musician who plays guitar, base, and accordian in “seven or eight different bands,” and Brian, who is organizing a hip-hop open mike – both came to the most recent MAPP, and were inspired to organize lineups of their own. There is Don, who has a cabin with a piano, but needs a dance floor “The tango dancers tell me that they can’t pivot properly on concrete,” he says, anxiously.
Rafael is here, he says, “Because music scenes self-segregate.” He leans forward, and gestures towards Girgis. “I’m sorry man, can I just ask you…What is your ethnic background? I can’t figure it out.”
“Egypt,” says Girgis.
Rafael looks confused, “But I thought Zambaleta was…?”
“It’s Egyptian,” says Girgis. “It’s a spontaneous street party. One where everyone brings their instruments out of their house, and begins singing and dancing. The word is ethnically ambiguous. Like me.”
As Girgis prepares to leave, Brown presses a painting into his hands. Girgis looks delighted. “It’s about Abu Ghirab,” says Brown. “Oh,” says Girgis, slightly crestfallen. “I was going to hang it over my bed.”
Girgis only moved to the Mission a few years ago – long after he became involved with MAPP and Red Poppy. MAPP is part of why he chose to locate Zambaleta here as well. “It connects people,” he says. “The Mission looks totally different afterward. Like you put on glasses. And now I prefer to keep them on. All the time.”
Next to the window is another canvas, ridged and shadowed with accumulated paint, clearly a work in progress. The most recent layer is a plain, flat white. Scrawled onto it with blue Sharpie are the words, “Why not use nothing and begin? Just like that?”