neighborhood: williamsburg | space type: art gallery, studios, venue | active: 2004–2011
It feels a bit trite to talk about the demise of Williamsburg cool, an inevitability that only the most obtuse and culturally unaware would still argue isn’t happening, but it would be impossible to write about Monster Island—one of the last of this wave of DIY art and music spaces to succumb to the changing neighborhood—without mentioning it. Monster Island held on longer than most. Although the building will finally be torn down in October (to make room for yet another shiny new zillion-dollar high-rise, presumably), all the space’s components will be relocating elsewhere, and all the members of the collective seemed cautiously excited for a new beginning.
The two-story former spice factory is home to a massive amount of culture and art. You could reasonably call it a super-space, in the music sense of rock supergroups. There’s the Monster Island basement, one of the early DIY music spaces in the hood, among those where Todd P got his start. There are the two not-for-profit art galleries Live With Animals and Secret Project Robot, there’s Brah Records, and Oneida’s recording studio Ocropolis, and Mollusk Surf Shop, and Kayrock Screenprinting, and dozens of art studios and practice spaces. There have been hundreds of multi-media art shows over the years, and countless Brooklyn bands got their start or found their footing here, including the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, TV on the Radio, Animal Collective, DUBKNOWDUB, Golden Triangle, Ex-Models, Knyfe Hyts, K-Holes, Xray Eyeballs, Hair Jail, Invisible Circle, Try Try Try, and Divine Order of the Blood Witch, just to name a few.
One of the really beautiful things about Monster Island is how interconnected everybody is; everyone has been in a band or side project together, helped each other put up an art show, swapped studios, worked in one of the shops, lived in each other’s rooms, and just generally collaborated on everything. While I was interviewing Eli—a longtime resident, worker in the silkscreen studio, member of a couple bands, and artist with some pieces on display for the block party—he knew everyone who walked down the block, introducing me to them by listing all the bands and art shows they’d been involved in at the space over the years. It’s a really beautiful family atmosphere, and while I, like everyone, am disappointed that this Williamsburg institution is the latest to be killed off by relentless real estate development, I’m confident that all the artists and all their creativity and energy will find many more places to thrive.
brooklyn spaces: Is there something going on here basically all the time?
Eli: Pretty much. The galleries have art shows up about three weeks of every month, and there are music shows in the basement usually four nights a week. If I hang out for more than an hour, something will start to happen. Before I worked in the building I was here almost as much as I am now, working in the galleries, hanging out, helping people with their art, listening to my friends’ bands practice.
brooklyn spaces: It’s amazing how interconnected everyone is.
Eli: One of the things that’s always been exciting for me about Monster Island is the synthesis of art and music. Nobody does just one thing, and there’s always collaborations. Everyone’s in each other’s bands and makes art together. Kid Millions and I put out a book through Kayrock’s book series, and Wolfy and Kid Millions are doing a silkscreen poem book thing. Some of the hardest-working and most brilliant artists I’ve ever met are in this building.
brooklyn spaces: Tell me about a particularly memorable art show.
Eli: These Are Powers did a record-release art show that was really exciting, probably 100 people had pieces in that. “Our Town” was the group show for the 2010 block party, and everyone built their portion of “our town.” I made a headshop with Sto from Cinders Gallery; Alison from Awesome Color and Call of the Wild and Red Dawn II made a leather bar, which was horrifying, this cardboard room with large-penised muscular men, and a glory hole and glued-down empty poppers bottles. Maya made a planetarium, Chris made a comic book store, Christine who works at the silkscreen shop made all these squirrels and pigeons and put them all over the place. It was an incredible show.
brooklyn spaces: Okay, now tell me about some amazing music shows.
Eli: The weirdest show was the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ tenth-anniversary show. A lot of us have known those guys for a long time, so that show was kind of just for the fans. But it was so packed. Alex and I had to kneel on this ramp leading up to the stage and basically support the weight of the crowd on our backs for ninety percent of the set. And somehow that was awesome. Recently Oneida did a twenty-four-hour show, which was pretty insane. They played two-hour sets all night, and then at 5 a.m. they played their new record live during a pancake breakfast. Half the people had been up all night drunk, the other half were just waking up. It was one of the strangest shows I’ve ever been to.
brooklyn spaces: How about some good parties?
Eli: Every year Kayrock and Wolfy did a thing called Holly Jolly Sabbath the Sunday before Christmas. All the lights would be off, and they hung a Christmas tree upside-down and painted a pentagram on the floor below it, and we’d just sit around, drink mulled wine, get stoned, and listen to every Black Sabbath record back-to-back. Oh, and the first block party I ever came to, it was pouring rain and everything had been moved inside, and it was chaos, people packed in everywhere, just sweaty, giant craziness. I wandered from one place to another and band after band would start playing. It’s still probably the best party I’ve ever been to.
brooklyn spaces: Do you feel like being in Williamsburg, or Brooklyn in general, has influenced the space?
Eli: There’s some strong Brooklyn pride in this building. No one ever wanted this place to be something you could have in Manhattan. But at this point, being a space in Williamsburg has become a fight. When Monster Island started, there was no one on the street. There were prostitutes and people trying to pick up prostitutes, and that was it.
brooklyn spaces: So how does everyone feel about leaving?
Eli: It’s the same feeling as when you move out of an apartment, like “Oh man, I’m not going to live here anymore. But I get to live in this other place!” I mean, everyone’s sad that it’s ending, but nothing is really dying. This won’t be a place to hang out anymore, but that just means you’ll have to go to Secret Project’s new space in Bushwick or Mollusk’s new spot in Williamsburg. But still, I’m definitely keeping my keys to this building, or maybe we’ll have a key-melting ceremony or something.
brooklyn spaces: Do you have any comment about the transformation of Williamsburg, all of that?
Eli: I’m sure I have a lot to say about that, but it’s old and it’s what happens. It will keep happening everywhere until some global catastrophe. To some degree, on some level, Monster Island brought it on ourselves. You do something that helps make the neighborhood cool, and the neighborhood will get cool, more people will start showing up, and then people with money will come in and ruin it. The cool thing is always going to precede the thing that is the cause of the destruction of the cool thing. There was a long time that I was saddened by the change, but at this point I’m kind of resigned to it.