In the summer of 2001, readers of Nest — the outré-yet-fashionable interiors magazine — were introduced to Fort Thunder, an art commune of 11 dudes living in a warehouse in a former textile factory in Providence, Rhode Island, that would become legendary for its live punk shows and its comics, posters, and other DIY printed matter.
Nest had discovered a “freewheeling vitality” among the residents of the 7,000-square-foot space, which was covered in an overwhelming number of “objects whose last home was the sidewalk, a garbage pail, or a dumpster.” The artist and musician Jim Drain, who had moved to Providence to study sculpture at the Rhode Island School of Design, gave the first quote in the article, calling the layers of stuff a “massive collage” that had been spurred when everyone started drawing on the white walls. That tracks, considering Fort Thunder had been founded in 1995 by artists-musicians Mat Brinkman and Brian Chippendale. Inside, there was a screen-printing studio, and — in these final years before youth culture became completely digital — residents produced posters advertising bands that were playing at the Fort and throughout Providence’s underground, later memorialized in a 2006 exhibition at the RISD Museum.
Music was the other life energy running through the second-floor loft — it was Fort Thunder, after all. There were two in-house bands, Forcefield and Lightning Bolt, which could be found practicing at any hour in its rehearsal space. There was the main performing area but also a bike shop, knitting room, library, junk storage (seems redundant), eat-in kitchen, living room, and TV room. When Nest visited, however, there was just one working toilet.
Fort Thunder had a disinterested landlord and no lease and often felt like they were on the verge of getting shut down, especially in the later years. “And maybe that’s what helped form things a little bit, just knowing there was a timetable,” Drain says today. Fort Thunder closed when its residents were evicted by fire marshals in 2001.
Now a mixed-media artist and teacher, Drain was part of Forcefield, which was also an art and performance group. Anonymous and deeply collaborative, “authorship was automatically blended,” Jim said. Forcefield performed at the 2002 Whitney Biennial in psychedelic, head-to-toe knit afghans while their own art videos played behind them. The group, which included Mat Brinkman, Leif Goldberg, and Ara Peterson, soon disbanded, and a few years later, Jim moved to Miami for a stretch. (He now lives just outside of Providence.) He talked to Curbed about the transcendent experience of living at Fort Thunder.
Tell me about Fort Thunder, how you thought about it.
I think about that space from a utopian lens — it can be really problematic to put it that way — but I think it was. I like to think about how cultures start from an anthropological point of view, and it was because things were kinda closed off, where things weren’t openly talked about, but there were all these visual cues to follow, whether through fashion or through the actual artwork being made. Sort of guided. There weren’t rules but there were things to get behind.
I feel like Brian Chippendale and Mat Brinkman really defined what the space was. Everyone’s integral, but they established what Thunder was going to be about. Whenever Mat or Brian would talk about it, they would say, We’re looking for a space to make as much noise as possible at all times of the day. Whenever someone moved in, that was the initial, Alright, you’re moving in, but there are no rules except for one, and then you’d be told, You can make as much noise as you want, any time of day and you can’t object to that. That was nice. That was hard when you had a job you had to get to at 8 a.m.
There was a sort of inertia behind understanding this visual language that was happening that was informed by music. For me, drawing comics was really central to that space. For the most part, the comics that were being made — there was no text to it. And I think that really speaks to this commonality: You enter into a space and everyone’s welcome. There isn’t, like, a preexisting context that you have to understand. I felt like it was trying to be really inviting without really understanding the power structures; what it means to be inviting in a place like that. Ideally, it was that everyone was welcome, and that language was an inhibitor, and we could all understand things through music.
I think that affected how the space was set up, where we were trying to invite people and make it a really special place to see music. Another idea was that everything — all materials — were already available in the world. It wasn’t about waiting to make something, waiting for industry or manufacturing to make something new. It was about utilizing and being resourceful with what we can find, and oftentimes that meant stealing from stores. It just meant we didn’t have to go to the party store and buy decorations, but it was like, Let’s find it — oftentimes it was to the detriment of the space itself because it was just full of junk. It’s that idea of the world: If you look in a different way, you could find abundance instead of lacking.
So there were no rules, but was it political?
Maybe we made some posters for Ralph Nader, but that was the only time politics were ever talked about. I hate the word privilege, but there was a feeling like, Everyone can step outside the world and didn’t have to interact. And in that way, it sort of avoided that militancy of DIY spaces because it was like, We’re making our own rules and laws. The goal was not to impose anything on anyone, and impose is a funny word to use because it meant not being accountable for our own, like, for ourselves as human beings in the world. Like, you needed to be accountable. And we weren’t mature enough to know the difference between accountability and militancy.
Tell me about the Nest story. Were you getting attention already?
There were things we were doing collectively, and I think there was press on that. This led to a lot more, like, feature things. I think this was the biggest splash. At the time, there wasn’t Facebook either; our social media was our print work. There were music magazines back then writing about stuff — music and touring culture, DIY culture. Those would be the things we would look to: Oh my God, Fort Thunder is being talked about in this major way outside of Providence.
I remember when Lois Maffeo came to interview. [Editor’s note: Maffeo wrote the Nest story on Fort Thunder and was herself an influential figure in this underground scene.] The problem was, I love talking about Fort Thunder and thinking about what it was as an idea, and I think everyone else did, too. Brian is a really good writer and can speak well, too, but it was hard because we were really visual people, and talking about stuff never was very easy for any of us. There was also just a real distrust of words to be manipulated, a kind of paranoia. Like fun sci-fi fantasy within the ideas floating around in Fort Thunder, too. Listening to Art Bell at 2 a.m. was a fun activity to do with everyone. The idea that if you said anything that might be turned against you was a paranoia that was shared by everyone.
What happend when it came out?
When it hit, there was kind of a buzz around it. Because I think once we were approached, we knew, Of course we’d be in Nest. I think we were pretty pumped about it.
Does your time at Fort Thunder still influence your work?
I moved maybe a couple years after the space closed. I think for a while, the inertia of the visual language of Fort Thunder defined me as a person. It came through in the artwork I was making, and it was the idea that any exhibition had to sort of be visually overwhelming and consider every single inch of the exhibition space. It’s pretty exhausting. There are artists (like AVAF) that do it really well, and continue to do it. But it became a standard for what was a successful exhibition — by how overwhelming visually it could be — and I think that came directly from Fort Thunder.
Into my 40s, I realize that clutter — it just felt like clutter — was actually debilitating to forming a thought around a lot of visual information. At this point, I’m trying to pare things down and go in the other direction.
Do you have any criticism of that time? Looking back, what did Fort Thunder misunderstand?
There was kind of a missed opportunity that I feel like we have. It’s like, when you’re talking to someone that’s a libertarian: Okay, I know you’re awesome, but there’s more to life than just you. I kind of want to have that conversation with myself back then: I know you’re really excited about these things, but maybe if you look at this different — I don’t know. I feel like the roots of, like, listening to Art Bell from a 2020 lens — conspiracy theories are really dangerous and actually problematic things to get invested in. I think back then it was entertaining to hear about aliens and UFOs and stuff.
It was helpful to have an alternative perspective on, like, Ah, the military is actually doing these tests on humans — it’s like, actually there were Tuskegee experiments that were actually being done on human beings. Why not look at that instead of making up some story. That’s my criticism of myself, looking back then.
At the time, it was definitely something we would talk about: Why aren’t there more people of color coming to the shows? And it was always like, well, there’s Fishbone, and we would name a couple of bands and be like, They’re awesome and they have people of color in the band, and, The doors are open — anyone can come in. I think it was just … you know, but you also don’t know. As a white person, you know why people aren’t coming, but it’s hard to put it together as, like, why it isn’t happening.
What’s your home like now?
We just moved in a year ago. For me, home has been — being a new dad — it’s about trying to imagine what a home is for a child, too. It’s something that my wife and I talk about and are conscientious about. We immediately put a lot of color into the space when we moved into our home. Last night, I was watching Arthur, this cartoon, with my daughter and was really impressed with the color choices, the palette that was being used in the show. [Laughs.] And I was like, That lavender would be really good as the trim for this room. It feels more domesticated than Fort Thunder, but I think for me, I came away from the space understanding color relationships much better. I’m still processing that Josef Albers sense of color relationships — it’s something I’m teaching now to high-school students. There’s actually a really good article, Tomashi Jackson, this artist, talks about color and civil rights, and how color was used to talk about skin color, and how color is always in relationship to the other color. But in terms of domestic space, I really love being around color.
There weren’t very good colors in my house growing up. I remember a very distinctive maroon and being actually kind of ashamed for the design choices my parents made — and really critical when I was a kid. Being like, Why would you choose this ugly couch? Because they could afford it.
We moved in and someone had been here for 40 years. In March, when COVID hit, we were going kind of stir-crazy. We have a lot of trees, there was a lot of trimming to do. I made a pretty funky-looking fence out of all the branches. I think anything Fort Thunder actually exists more outside. For me, gardening has been helpful mentally, like, such an awesome space to be in, and that sort of mind, that Fort Thunder mind, is going into gardening at this point.
It sounds like you still think about that Fort Thunder way of being.
After leaving Fort Thunder, I made a mistake: I thought I had taken away an aesthetic that I could apply to the spaces I lived in subsequently. But it felt hollow to try to copy something that had died. What was missing was the co-authorship and community. Fort Thunder was a community space foremost, a flawed one in that it purported equity without actively making that a possibility other than keeping the doors open. I took away an appreciation and need for collaboration. Working collectively allows you to fall into a Brion Gysin “third mind,” where the group is greater than the sum of parts and each person is challenged to be making in ego-discomfort: No one thing is mine. It is the opposite of being a sociopath and is something second nature to a musician. Empio-path?
I also think it applies visually, and Eye from the Boredoms is the true hero of this. I took away a synesthesia from Fort Thunder. My visual world and auditory one were one and the same. Music permeated the space (as a rule) and this bled into our visual work completely. It is difficult to find this in the spaces I inhabit now. I could point to a fucked-up stick fence in the yard or purple trim, but these feel like lost, shadow impulses in a domesticated animal.