Cover Story - Eyedrum: An oral history

How a series of scrappy loft art parties helped incite Atlanta’s underground art scene

PHOTOS: See Eyedrum’s legacy in pictures

When Marshall Avett and Woody Cornwell started shuffling furniture around their Trinity Avenue loft in the summer of 1997 to make room for a small skronk-jazz art party, it was the beginning of an Atlanta arts legacy. A year later, when their monthly parties at the Silver Ceiling, as their loft soon came to be known, grew into crowds of 100 to 150, Avett and Cornwell rented the storefront space below at 253 Trinity Ave. and christened it Eyedrum. It was the summer of 1998 and the city’s post-Olympic hangover hung like a specter over downtown Atlanta — a derelict urban frontier, ripe for a real estate blitzkrieg.

At the time, Nexus, the grassroots artist’s cooperative that once harbored Atlanta’s most rough-and-tumble artistic spirits, was growing up and transforming into the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center. Nexus’ transition left a void for raw, local arts of all disciplines. Eyedrum unwittingly filled that void with its gruff, DIY confines tucked away amid the canyons of decaying downtown Atlanta.

Eyedrum was a shining beacon in a tangled stretch of the city reaching from Castleberry Hill to what is now the Edgewood Shopping Center, wielding influence in a scene comprised of those willing to embrace music and arts that were as contemptuous as they were conscientious. Indie rock acts as varied as Oneida, Don Caballero and the Black Heart Procession to Simeon Coxe of the Silver Apples to DJ Cut Chemist all performed there amid exhibitions with titles such as The Penis Show, Switch and Liquid Smoke.

After a series of noise complaints from the neighbors, in September 2001, Eyedrum moved into the exponentially larger 3,000-square-foot space at 290 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, where it upped the volume on all of its activities. In June 2006, the organization was awarded a $30,000 Warhol Foundation grant, which funded the ‘06-‘08 arts programming.

Over time, interest in Eyedrum’s activities waxed and waned, and mismanagement brought the venerated gallery and music space to the brink of financial collapse. Massive, emergency rent parties pulled Eyedrum out of a nosedive on more than one occasion. Still, the organization remains a constant fixture in Atlanta’s underground arts scene, even after losing its lease at 290 MLK in 2010.

In the meantime, Atlanta’s emerging art community has grown dramatically. WonderRoot, the Goat Farm, the Creatives Project, Beep Beep, Mint, and Kibbee galleries, Living Walls and various other permissive, DIY-spirited arts organizations and spaces have come to dominate the local art scene. Eyedrum blazed the path for them all, but with its legacy resting now on a timeworn Castleberry Hill warehouse with no water supply, a tenuous rental arrangement, and programming regularly rerouted to other venues, Eyedrum’s future is unclear. Nevertheless, the noises that began emanating from that Trinity Avenue loft nearly 15 years ago can still be felt, resonating across the city.

For this oral history, CL interviewed Eyedrum’s co-founder, boardmembers, artists and regulars.

Marshall Avett, Eyedrum co-founder: We were doing shows in our living room, an old-school loft apartment in this rickety building on Trinity Avenue. We would basically cram all of our furniture into my bedroom, so the front room was like a gallery. And then we just invited a friend to come in and put on a one-night art show and some music. And then some people would bring food; we’d try to get a keg or something. The first night we started with maybe 20 or 30 people there. And then within two or three months it was 100 or a 150 people there. It was a little crazy. We were kind of like, “Wow! Who are all these people?”

I tried to paint the ceiling, but it was so water damaged that the paint never really took. It was gross. So we took a page from the Andy Warhol playbook and got a bunch of aluminum foil and did the ceiling, the whole ceiling was covered in sheets of aluminum foil.

I think Andrew Barker or Charles Waters came up with the name the Silver Ceiling.

The Silver Ceiling was in 249 Trinity Avenue, upstairs. And then the guy who owned the building had a space on the street. It was 253 Trinity Avenue. It became available. Woody Cornwell and I talked to him and the rent was like $800 or $900. It had a good door and windows and then the space went back, however far it did. There was also a basement component with a scary little staircase you could walk down and a little makeshift bathroom down there.

Karen Tauches, curator and artist: The Homage, which was an amazing art bar, preceded Eyedrum over in that space on Trinity Avenue. And somehow — that might be the reason I went to Eyedrum to begin with, because I was thinking it was somehow connected to the Homage, which it wasn’t. I remember a glow-in-the-dark show, someone had a piece that was using iridescent paint or something like and that and it was just an awesome party.

The most exciting thing that was happening was in the basement, which is usually the case at Eyedrum. It was a low-ceilinged, dark and lascivious place where often a make-out would occur. An indeed that night, that’s exactly what was happening.

There was stuff upstairs, but you always wanted to get down to the basement, because it was just protected in such a way. You know, Eyedrum was always a place that would say ‘yes!’ to everything. And when you give people permission to do whatever they want, both the best and the worst things happen. And the basement seemed to be this uninhibited place.

Hormuz Minina, artist: There was a really great free jazz show one night with one of the guys form the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and Randy Castello, who had been booking shows there, got into some sort of altercation with the bouncer at the bar next door. The bar that opened up next door was interfering with Randy’s aesthetic for what Eyedrum was supposed to be. They were charging for parking, so Randy jumped on the bar and threw a bunch of Art Papers magazines at them and called them all posers, and he got into a fight with the bouncer. So he came running down the stairs and hid. Shortly after, two cops came down looking for him, but then they stayed for the show. The music was so powerful.

Randy hid for like an hour before he could finally come out.

Omar Khalid, former Eyedrum board member: I first heard about Eyedrum through the Creative Music Association mailing list. I was living in Athens at the time, which must have been around 1998 or so, and received a flier in the mail announcing the German Reeds series with Hans Koch, Peter Brötzmann and, I believe, Frank Gratkowski. Wait, was it the Silver Ceiling then or Eyedrum? Anyway, I was so excited that these types of shows were happening anywhere in the South that I just went ahead and taped that partially folded flier up on the wall of my apartment. Anyone who came over and saw that thing was like, “What the fuuuuck?”

Avett: It got to the point at Eyedrum where, if it was an opening for somebody, an artist or whatever, there could be a serious overflow of crowd, because that person has a lot of fans or friends that wanted to come out for that event. Then, like, two nights later we’d have, you know, Carolina Rainbow come in to play, and there’d be like 10 people there. And then there would be some jam band and that scene would show up. Then there’d be some off night and it’d be like some local guys goofing off in the basement just kind of hanging out, talking and chilling. It was an odd mix.

Andy Ditzler, film historian and curator of experimental film series Film Love: It sort of always had that feel of definitely a gallery but also a club and not quite either of those things. It felt like a free space and the people were very approachable. So you got hooked.

Avett: I can remember all kinds of people coming in and walking down the steps to the basement, looking around, and just standing off in a corner and assessing the scene. Adam Overton co-founder of Electric Arts Alliance of Atlanta and that crew may have been freshmen at Georgia State, just trying to explore Atlanta and what it had to offer.

The thing is, almost anybody could play there if they approached us about doing shows. We were like, “OK, fine. Go play in the basement on Thursday, or something.” Part of it was, you know, giving people the freedom to do that kind of thing, to fly their freak flag and see what they could do.

As Castleberry Hill attracted more residents buying loft apartments in the increasingly upscale neighborhood, Eyedrum was attracting unwieldy crowds and putting on elaborate, unruly shows. In late 2001, Eyedrum expanded and moved into a cavernous warehouse space on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. The burgeoning indie and math-rock scenes brought in large audiences, and an art committee including Robert Cheatham, Richard Gess, Alyson Laura and others was formed to curate the direction of visual arts being exhibited in the space.

Robert Cheatham, executive director of Eyedrum 2003-2010: When Eyedrum was cranking on all cylinders, there was nothing else like it. It was a world-class anti-organization organization that actually worked. It was a lifestyle and you couldn’t just come in and not do something. There are lots of organizations like that in Atlanta but nobody carried it as far as Eyedrum — it was local and it was international.

Ditzler: A few weeks before an Electric Arts Alliance of Atlanta performance at Eyedrum Adam Overton said to me, “I want to do something with you and Robert Cheatham. I’m going to do my thing. And you do your thing. Robert’s going to do his thing. I don’t want to know what it is ahead of time. We’re just going to do them all at the same time.” I thought, “Oh, man.” I really don’t like those random kinds of things.

For his performance, Adam hung a mirror and put contact mics on clippers and razors. He clipped off his hair and began shaving. Then he cut off all his clothes and continued performing naked. So he started with long, bushy hair and a beard. By the end of the performance, the hair and the beard and a lot of his body hair were gone.

All while Robert delivered this brilliant monologue, dressed like a newscaster speaking into a camera with the monitor facing the audience. He started off saying, “I’m glad I’m here, but I’m sorry I’m doing this,” like a litany of apologies, but menacing.

I took gay pornography tapes, and I cut out all the sex parts so it was just the bad acting and strange looks into the camera. And I looped these on the wall across from Adam. Together, these three pieces created real tension in the room. That’s when I realized, “I can do this.” And we can do this. We actually have a community of people here.

Khalid: I have no recollection of my personal process of becoming a board member — I’m pretty sure Woody Cornwell invited me to a vetting meeting in 2003 — but I was a semi-regular and all of a sudden, was on the board.

Board members and volunteers were really excited to be there, contributing to something they believed in, and it was contagious. Everyone was glowing and I had never seen that before, even in workplaces where people were being paid well. And, of course, we weren’t being paid except in beer and sense of well-being.

Minina: It was always about collaboration. One night after a show, Robert Cheatham asked me to help him stick around and fix the floor — pour some concrete or something like that. We started talking and it kind of changed my life. It allowed me to find an artist side that I never realized I had.

Terra McVoy, author and Decatur Book Festival program director: When I was living in Brooklyn, there was a place called Galapagos that was like a bar, this really cool place that has music and performances. John Hodgman gave his Little Gray Book Lectures there. When I came to Atlanta in 2004, I was looking for something akin to that. I wanted a place where I could see music shows, cool literary shows, art shows. Eyedrum was that — it really was like New York in Atlanta.

Tauches: Richard Gess, Robert Cheatham, Alyson Laura and myself got together one day to write a grant [for the Warhol Foundation]. It was one of those Eyedrum meetings — it was a free-for-all. We wrote this radical, kind of sentimental letter. We did it, wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am, and then Richard Gess typed it up and we sent it in. And lo and behold, we ended up getting $30,000. For us, we did these shows from zero. So all of a sudden I could, like, spend $1,000 or $2,000 on a show. Like, “Whoooa!” That’s huge!

How else could I have gotten, without some fancy degree from Yale graduate school or whatever, how could I have authority over a 6,000-square-foot-space? Never! People who get that opportunity at my age are people with really fancy degrees in art or extreme privilege.

McVoy: You could really get the whole gamut: visual art, performance art, and music and literary things. Vincent Gallo performed there, Ryan Adams performed there. So, you’d have these really cool acts and you’d have things that were like, “I don’t know what’s gonna be going on.”

It really brought me to the right community of creative, smart, forward-thinking people here in Atlanta. Simultaneously, I was tapping into the same community that led to the Decatur Book Festival.

In the years following the move to MLK Drive, programming, space, everything expanded, including operating costs.

Scott Burland, treasurer 2004-2009: There were these extended leases that were signed, three-year leases with built-in rent increases. It was fairly steady for a while after I took over as treasurer and I’m not sure why we agreed to the rent increases, but by the time I left rent was about $3,500 for the space.

All of the Warhol money, $15,000 a year over two years, all of that money had to be spoken for during the application process. It couldn’t be used for operating costs. So, ultimately, that went to artists, whether for honoraria or promotional expenses or so forth. I had that money in a separate account, to keep close tabs on it. There were times when we thought about raiding that account when times were tough, but we knew we couldn’t use it.

Probably in 2006 or 2007, the recession started to become the scapegoat. Who knows what it was — apathy, people not willing to give something unusual a chance, or people just didn’t have the money to come out.

The combination of rising rents, declining attendance and general economic downturn started to take a toll. Facing rising debts and near-closure in August 2009, a last-ditch fundraiser was held and raised $15,000 — enough to keep the organization afloat. Emboldened by its success, Eyedrum seemed poised for a revival. But just a year and half later, the group closed the doors on its MLK Drive location on New Years Eve 2010. Since then, board members including Robby Kee and Nathan Brown have been producing satellite events around Atlanta at locations such as the Goat Farm.

Avett: Eyedrum was a pirate ship floating in the waters of Atlanta. How it stayed afloat, why it didn’t explode, I still don’t know. We were living a charmed life. We were, I assume, serving from an illegal bar we had going on and that in itself was crazy. Why the neighbors who lived around us stayed while it happened, and grew like it did, as we put on crazier and louder shows — it was kind of cool.

Tauches: We’d have fucking wild and crazy punk shows in the back and all the art would be right there. And people who were coming for those shows didn’t have the sensitivity about fine art. And this is the experiment: art and music together. And in the end, rock ‘n’ roll won.

I’d say the worst thing that started to happen at the end for me was that the art would be destroyed. And pianos! We had two pianos destroyed just out of drunkenness. I mean, how disappointing. Somebody donates a grand piano to our space and we can’t keep it because we’re afraid somebody’s gonna come and smash it with a hammer.

Robby Kee, current board chairman of Eyedrum: Eyedrum is not exactly a small gallery. Places like Beep Beep and Kibbee do that tremendously well. One of the things that Eyedrum has is a method of curation and a larger exhibition space, and a multidisciplinary aspect that no place else has.

The interest in arts in Atlanta has grown past its original freaks, misfits and rebels group back when the area where we live now was a little more dangerous. Eyedrum was the first in this line of places that kind of took over that swath that runs from Castleberry to Edgewood and developed an arts center in the area. As it gets easier to live here, arts have become kind of the ethos of living there.

Cheatham: The place has to make a choice on which way to go. If it becomes institutionalized it will loose its old Eyedrum edge. A lot of places that become institutionalized continue to operate regardless of whatever connections it once had and then they become globalized and loose their relationship that they had with the community. Art Papers and the Contemporary are prime examples of that.

These kinds of places, like Eyedrum, have their own place, and their own values system. I always tried to discourage Eyedrum from thinking one day would grow up and become the Contemporary. They are both equally “grown-up,” but their ideologies are different.

Avett: I think whether you call it Eyedrum or you call it WonderRoot or Goat Farm or whatever, I think there’s still a place for it in Atlanta. The concept and the spirit of the place — every city should have a place like that.

MORE: See Eyedrum’s legacy in photos