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Betasunk? D.C.’s Eco-Artists Struggle in an Urban Jungle

By Daniel Mufson
Originally printed in Washington D.C.’s City Paper, July 30, 1993.

It’s not a disaster movie unspooling at the Blagden Alley ArtScience Warehouse home of Betapunks and ecomedia, but the multimedia infotainment and enviro-propaganda outfits are being buffeted by some bad news. The two organizations are having a hard time paying rent for the building; some of their recent events have lost money; and, two weeks ago, co-founder Sean Harris was diagnosed as having cancer of the colon.

Asked how his illness will affect Betapunks/ecomedia, Harris says, “We definitely have to find a way to market it.”

Determining where Betapunks stops and ecomedia begins is probably more trouble than it’s worth. Both groups were started by approximately the same group of people (with Harris and Eric Gravley at the fore) at about the same time, and membership still overlaps; events at the warehouse, for which ecomedia pays the rent, often involve both organizations. (For purposes of identification only, think of Betapunks as the infotainment/filmmaking organization that is supposed to make money to support ecomedia, a nonprofit agitprop organization dedicated to ecological education.)

In the two years since the groups were founded, they have produced films (Uncle Paddy’s Wake; Colon; Popé and the Alien); thrown ecologically themed art dances at the warehouse (“Resolve to Evolve”); sponsored an environmental conference, Rio de Briefing, which drew over 200 people; run an eight-week course in “ecowareness” known as e-college-e and featuring lectures, poetry, readings, and live music; and planted trees with inner-city children under the D.C. Urban Youth Ecology rubric.

Harris’ illness has led to the current lull in ecomedia and Betapunks events, but the arty anarchists’ troubles with money seem to be at the root of their current woes. Science lectures aren’t moneymakers, and the event that ecomedia expected to rais funds didn’t. Gravley estimates that ecomedia’s May 8 “Evolt” concert lost more than $1,000 (Harris says the figure is more like $2000). An April $100-a-plate fundraiser for ecomedia was canceled when it failed to sell enough tickets. And ecomedia’s attempts to raise cash by renting out the warehouse for dance parties has had only mixed success. Gravley says ecomedia has refused to host any more raves becasue the gatherings disturbed neighbors and attracted police attention.

Gravley is less than candid about the groups’ rent problems, declining to state how much of the Blagden Alley ArtScience Warehouse ecomedia is currently renting.

“I really don’t know,” he says. “We don’t have an agreement right now with the landlord—we have an understanding.” According to ecomedia’s annual report, the group paid $35,000 in rent last year and projects 1993 rent to be $19,200, based on the assumption that the entire building will no longer be rented.

Planned renovations—new heating and new bathrooms—should make renitng the building for parties and concerts easier. Gravley hopes that installation of a lighting grid and sound system will ameliorate “the schlep factor”—the added hassle incurred by organizations that rent the building. The improvements aren’t just for revenue generation, Gravley says. They will aslo make the space better for ecomedia and Betapunks events.

“Because we sort of disappeared a little bit for a while now,” says ecomedia Vice-Chair Beth Rose, “we want to send out a strong signal that we’re still here.”

In the works is a July 30 event featuring a New York band, Juice, and artist Robert Coles doing a “Human Paint Brush Project,” using the audience’s anatomy to make a painting. Rosen also says Fugazi and Emergency Broadcast Network have expressed interest in playing at teh warehouse for ecomedia in either late summer or early autumn. But the past focus on ecomedia/Betapunks-sponsored live music events, such as the Carnival Amazonas and teh Resolve to Evolve New Year’s party, disturbs Harris.

“That’s not what this warehosue was designed to do at all from the beginning,” he says. His concern is that the higher-profile Betapunks events that raise the most money might upstage ecomedia’s less glitzy, more educational endeavors.

“You can do whatever you want in the name of Betapunks,” Harris says, “as long as you do the corresponding amount of work required by ecomedia. See, nobody wants to do that, man. Everybody wants ot have a fucking party and have a good time and get laid… The people who were originally attracted to Betapunks because of Betapunks, none of them are around any longer. They wanted to party, they wanted to ahve a good time, but it just wasn’t in the books. In fact, that really slowed us up. We got a lot of people [living and working in second floor studios] who couldn’t pay rent.”

A continuation of the D.C. Urban Youth Ecology program and projects similar to the e-college-e series are the true goal, says Harris. Beth Solomon, a relatively recent addition to the art/eco collective, is working with other members on a movie about the poeple who live in Blagden Alley and preparing an upcoming, single-issue magazine called Generation Z: Virtual Politics, Sex, and Ecology for the 21st Century, which ecomedia hopes will serve as a blueprint for a book on the generation that everybody loves to define.

The upcoming project that sounds like vintage Betapunks is Harris’ “video play,” a mixed-media performance piece slated for October and titled Ugly Sister: My Live and Times Working for the Exxon Corporation. The project’s description stretches the limits of credulity. Harris claims that Betapunk hackers have stumbled upon information that “will shed light on [Exxon’s] media policy in 1989 about the Valdez incident.” As of now, production plans include spraying the “yuppie audience” with motor oil, as well as sending people up to a “naked booth” where they can pose nude with signs bearing anti-corporate slogans—all of this to be put on video and beamed, via satellite, thoughout the Western hemisphere.

Harris is also thinking of collaborating with hsi surgeon for another Betapunks production.

“I just told him, ‘Hey, how about if we do a video while we’re doing all this kind of stuff?'” says Harris. “And he looked at me and, ‘Well,’ he goes, ‘You know, how about post-operation? Maybe you could do something useful.’  And he had this very odd look in his eye; he was thinking. So who knows? Maybe I’ll be able to do something for colostomies.”

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