Thursday, September 8, 2016

seeking cheaper space and new audiences, DC artists head to maryland and virginia

Rockville might seem like an unlikely place for a queer punk show. But for artist and curator Eames Armstrong, hosting a show is a way to connect to local kids who need creative outlets. It's also a sign of how DC's art and music scenes are expanding into Maryland and Virginia.

Evening in Rockville Town Square, July 2013
A not-so-unlikely place for a punk show. Photo by the author.

From Wednesday until October 16, Armstrong will present Noise Body Music, an exhibition of queer and gender non-conforming visual artists and musicians, at VisArts, a non-profit arts center in Rockville Town Square. Next Friday, September 16, there will be a free concert in collaboration with electronic music promoters Select DC featuring musicians from around DC and the nation. The show features what Armstrong calls a "really huge range of sounds," from the "queercore punk" of DC's Homosuperior to Fire-Toolz, a Chicago band they describe as "20 different genres put together." (A closing concert October 16 will bring in Scottish artist FK Alexander.)

The show is part of VisArts' Emerging Curator Program, which pairs budding artists with mentors to craft an exhibition. Armstrong, who recently received a Master of Fine Arts degree in Studio Art at George Washington University, wanted to create the kind of show they would have wanted to see as a teenager growing up in Bethesda ten years ago. (Armstrong uses they/their/they're pronouns.)

Montgomery County has long been an extension of the DC punk scene, hosting concerts in church basements and group houses. "I did go to shows and it was such a crucial part of my weekends," says Armstrong. "Occasionally I'd go into the city to Warehouse Next Door, or other venues which have now closed."

Dreamcrusher, one of the artists performing in the Noise Body Music opening party. Photo from

Going to shows helped Armstrong embrace their queer identity. "As a person who wasn't particularly out in high school, having a queer narrative in visual art and music I didn't know about helped," Armstrong says. "I was wanting to bring those things together."

As part of the Emerging Curator Program, Armstrong led a workshop with local teenagers whose work appears in the show, and was surprised at how progressive they were about LGBT issues. "It sounds really corny, but it's remarkable how much times have changed," says Armstrong.

The Emerging Curator Program, and by extension Noise Body Music, is supported by a grant from the Windgate Charitable Foundation. But as space in DC gets more expensive, other artists and musicians are increasingly migrating to Maryland and Virginia, where there's lots of cheap, underused space for people to make things. Last year, developer Federal Realty offered up its vacant office space in North Bethesda to an experimental art festival, while the Artomatic unjuried art festival took over a vacant office building in New Carrollton.

"It's probably inevitable that artists are moving ahead of the general population into more affordable's so expensive," they say, laughing. "I know a lot more folks who are moving to PG County, with the Hyattsville Arts District, and Mount Rainier."

Shows like Noise Body Music also help connect artists and musicians with kids who can't always travel to DC to visit a gallery or see a show. "I hadn't been in Rockville in had changed so much," says Armstrong. "It was really crucial to address in some way my experience growing up there."

"I really want high school students to come," they add. "I've been reaching out to all the [student] newspapers."

Noise Body Music opens Wednesday, September 7 through Sunday, October 16 at VisArts, located at 155 Gibbs Street in Rockville. The opening concert is Friday, September 16 from 7 to 11pm. For more information, visit the VisArts website.

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