In the middle of a drab cluster of warehouses just east of the Flagler railroad tracks near downtown Fort Lauderdale, color flies in every direction and a series of faces stare out: aliens, a vivid purple punk-styling of David Bowie-meets-Jem and the Holograms sexpot, a quasirealistic depiction of London gangster Reginald "Reggie" Kray.
The 60- by 12-foot mural blazing across the front of the Bubble — an esoteric music-cum-art venue in a neighborhood that formerly housed hipster staples like the Mudhouse and has condo-development row inching closer and closer from the south on NE Fourth Avenue — is loud, freakin' surreal, and full of movement and curiosity. Created by local artist Francesco LoCastro, the mural is the first thing people see before they walk in the door, and it seems to capture better than any other piece the spirit of the Bubble.
The painting collects characters as eclectic and unpredictable as the creative types who gather between these walls every week. Over the past year, the Bubble has been a home to a diverse cast of local artists, filmmakers, fashion designers, and musicians. Even a puppeteer.
Now, the space — its official, clunky title is Independent Working Artist Network Concept Production Facility (IWAN) — that has helped solidify a "scene," whatever that means, for lowbrow-chic schmoozers, nihilists, and social misfits in a city that, frankly, hasn't had one in years, celebrates its one-year anniversary this weekend.
"We wanted something like Churchill's that wasn't Churchill's," cofounder Garo Gallo says, referring to the historic venue in Miami's Little Haiti district. "We wanted the arts on an unedited level. We knew so many people that wanted to do so many different things. But they didn't have an outlet."
Each high-ceilinged room gives way to exhibits of aesthetically pleasing junkyard-pile sculptures, abstract paintings, and dioramas. Out in the uncovered backyard is a bright-yellow stage covered in stars.
Walking through, you're as likely to run into modern Americana skateboard-culture kids as you are Miami Noise legend and producer Rat Bastard or Bobby Load, lead singer of the celebrated '90s South Florida grunge outfit Load. A core group of people contributes exhibits regularly, even if it's oft-overlooked by the community at large. And spectators, musicians, artists, writers, bloggers, your token oddballs, they all form an animated net of support, and this Saturday, the Bubble will celebrate its anniversary with the same spirit that's made it such a great place to take in local culture.
An impressive, diverse lineup of bands will play the event, held over two days in three locations: first the Bubble, then the Poor House, then Sunday at the Jib Room. Among the bands participating are new-school Margate punkers the Shakers, politico-rappers of the undead Zombies! Organize!!, Christian indie outfit Alexander, instrumental metal band Manifest Test Subject, and occasional-cross-dressing singer/songwriter Trav. Works by local artists such as Undergrounds Coffeehaus' Japanda, Paul Oliveri, owl-enthusiast Rachel DeJohn, and Bubble staple Lisa "Coma Girl" Parrott will litter the walls.
In a region that struggles to find a singular identity, the Bubble incorporates anyone willing to think and to say something about the surrounding world. From hosting the feminist art revue "Trouble With Girls," a pinup photography exhibit by Shroud Eater bassist and all-around badass Janette Valentine, to displaying provocative pieces by animal-rights painter Olga Dziembowska, the Bubble supports artists with substance, perhaps filed under cultural runoff by other galleries.
Before founding the Bubble, Gallo and Yvonne Colon developed their approach to boosting local culture during a decade of showcases at bars better known for dollar-drink specials than art and music. The now-defunct Karma Lounge, the seedy strip-joint Gum Wrappers, and the dilapidated Fort Lauderdale Saloon all benefited from their hard work at some point. Some of these projects ended in disappointments, but it's hardly for a lack of effort. In fact, along with the weekend's planned festivities, the longtime promoter couple is something to toast to.
"They've been around for so long," says Courtney Hambright, who maintains local blog Mood Vane and contributes to New Times. "And they've maintained relationships with people who are the local crowd, people who maybe grew up here. People who are interested in original creative output. Not only do they have a large network of people to work with; they maintain those relationships." Hambright was part of a group of about 20 people who helped gut the warehouse over three months of renovations — they filled two giant Dumpsters with palm fronds, children's furniture, lamps, garbage, and a few tons of red roofing tiles.
After one year at it, the Bubble faces criticism common for any new venture. But any jabs regarding organization or business acumen on the parts of Gallo and Colon aside, Broward County is all the better for having them and their creations around. More than most, they fight the good fight for artistic freedom, for helping the underdog — for the freakin' puppeteers. They practice what they preach regarding artistic independence (LoCastro was given carte blanche control of the mural) while retaining a sense of community in each event.
After all, if a scene is anything, it's community: local enthusiasm for locals in all their manifestations. Here, if you don't like the way things are run, get involved and make your case. Without the Bubble, Broward County's artistic community would seem a little less real or weird or genuine or honest or innocent. Hopefully, the space stays around for a while. Already, when South Florida's 20- and 30-somethings look back at what happened during the past year, they can feel like the scene, whatever it is, was authentic and was created just for them — whoever they are.