Avant-Garde Incubator

Art works and genres seen nowhere else flourish at The Tank.

The blip festival may be unfamiliar to you, but for lovers of “low-bit music,” it’s the world’s premier event. Late last year, 1,200 low-bit aficionados converged on Manhattan from locales as remote as Japan, Mexico, and the Netherlands for four days to share their works, which they create using obsolete home computers and older video game consoles like Nintendos and Segas. Such devices can produce “sounds you’d never expect to hear,” says Randy Bell ’00, a co-founder of The Tank, the versatile avant-garde New York performance space that hosted the festival.

Photograph by Daniel Greenfeld
The band We Are Scientists at The Tank, with Chris Cain on bass guitar and Michael Tapper on drums

Tank shows include film and video, mixed media, music, theater, comedy (stand-up, improv, and sketch), dance, and public affairs (like political blogger panels), for starters. Located in downtown Manhattan, The Tank (www.thetanknyc.org) is “a place where the next generation can go for their avant-garde, alternative, and underground entertainments,” says a second co-founder, Justin Krebs ’00. The place does have a resolutely downtown attitude—as well as T-shirts, tote bags, and, naturally, tank tops—and has done so many remarkable things in its three years that the mainstream has taken notice, with salutes like an unsolicited $10,000 grant from the Carnegie Corporation and funding from the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. The Tank’s stature as an “absurdly irreverent, unconventional space,” as Bell puts it, is drawing attention.

Eight young artists and activists, including Bell and Krebs, all age 24 or 25, launched The Tank in May 2003 in New York’s theater district. It moved through three midtown spaces before settling into its Tribeca location, at 279 Church Street, a year ago: “This is the first time in our existence that we’re not looking for a home,” Krebs reports. The Tank stages 25 to 30 events a month and is staffed entirely by volunteers, with the exception of its full-time managing director, Mike Rosenthal. “One of the smartest things a volunteer-run organization ever did,” says Krebs, “was to hire somebody.”

Irony is familiar turf to Krebs, a summa graduate who led an improvisational comedy troupe, the Immediate Gratification Players, for two years at Harvard. He’s now a political organizer, while Bell makes documentary films. They are the curators of, respectively, The Tank’s public-affairs and film/video programming (each creative area has its own curator) and, with their robust networks, have brought more than 40 Harvard-affiliated artists to their new venue.

In addition to an open-mike evening, a show called One-Night Stands and Bad Breakups that makes light of the romantic misadventures of young adults, and the monthly Laugh Tank, the space launched a political comedy series, Laughing Liberally, that went on national tour and played Town Hall, a 1,500-seat venue in Times Square. “The Tank was the first place that I felt at home onstage in New York,” says Baratunde Thurston ’99, a stand-up comedian and author of Better Than Crying: Poking Fun at Politics, the Press & Pop Culture, who has performed there many times, as well as with Laughing Liberally. “You see actual art happening on that stage. The audiences are into it and they want you to push it; I did 9/11 jokes there much earlier than other venues. Something is always off-center at The Tank: the physical layout is off-center, and so are the performers and audiences.”

Bell, on the cinematic side, has booked a monthly series of screenings by the New York-based Harvard Film Group, led by Barney Oldfield, A.B.E. ’79, C.A.D. ’82. One documentary filmmaker screened a film running two projectors at once with a live band improvising against the images—“something you wouldn’t be able to see elsewhere,” says Bell. Last fall, James Toback ’66 showed his 2001 feature Harvard Man and discussed it with the audience afterwards. “Screenings followed by talkbacks work well here, because it’s not just a performance space, but a community space and social space,” Krebs explains. “It’s part theater, part lounge.” (Indeed, The Tank sometimes takes out temporary alcohol licenses for larger events with, for example, cabaret formats.) Bell adds, “Often, noncommercial cinema will engage or challenge the audience in unfamiliar ways, so having the director here enables them to appreciate the work in ways they might not have been able to.”

The Tank’s founders got a break at the start when their theatre-district landlord, who was planning to sell his building, gave them a month-to-month lease at very low rent. The place had a wall of glass that faced 42nd Street, “so someone described it as a fish tank. Then the ‘fish’ got dropped,” is how Krebs explains the name. The founders repaid their start-up loans within 10 months and began running in the black. “Every time we had to make a decision —a commercial choice or a creative choice—we made the creative choice,” Bell says.

Performers get a cut of the door receipts; no ticket costs more than $15 and many are much cheaper. During the day, professionals such as graphic artists and Web designers—“people who need no more to work than a laptop and a cell phone,” as Krebs puts it—use The Tank as a workspace. A weekly e-mail and the website keep audiences apprised of what is coming up, as do pieces in the magazine Time Out New York and occasional New York Times reviews. (Extended runs are rare, but several Tank shows, some lauded by the Times, have had four-week stays, and one, A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant, laterwon an Obie.)

Audiences from the Upper West Side to the Park Slope area of Brooklyn have kept coming. The Tank has become an incubator of hip, indie, up-and-comers in the arts, and some acts, like the band We Are Scientists, now with Virgin Records, outgrow the 75-seat venue. “That only helps our reputation,” says Bell. It’s not the right space for everyone; The Tank’s lighting isn’t the best, and a theater set may have to be struck immediately after a performance because a band will be playing on the stage in 45 minutes—“Or, the band will play in your set,” says Krebs, smiling.

But work, or even genres, that are not seen elsewhere can develop successfully in the safety and affordability of The Tank: it makes artistic experimentation possible. Shows that draw as few as 12 people “can still be worth doing,” Bell asserts. “Those 12 people might walk away happy and satisfied.” There is also time for the occasional party, like the one they threw in 2004 to celebrate the first anniversary of the August 14, 2003, New York blackout. That was at their original fish-tank home, which, luckily, had a courtyard, because one of the performers was a fire twirler. Daring as they are, says Krebs, “We couldn’t do that inside.”   

~Craig Lambert

Read more articles by Craig Lambert

You might also like

Harvard Overhauls Disciplinary Procedures

To cope with violations of University statement on rights and responsibilities

Harvard’s Development Chief Departs

Brian Lee to step down at end of 2024

Immigrant Workers— America’s Engine?

Harvard economist Jason Furman on immigration and the U.S. economy.

Most popular

Mechanical Intelligence and Counterfeit Humanity

Reflections on six decades of relations with computers

The Power of Patience

Teaching students the value of deceleration and immersive attention

The Way of The Blockbuster

In entertainment, big bets on likely winners rule.

More to explore

Relabeling Medical Definitions for Obesity in the United States

For obesity patients, improved treatments and a nuanced understanding of the disease may lead to better health.

How Was Brooklyn Bridge Park Planned?

Michael Van Valkenburgh and the making of Brooklyn Bridge Park

The Mystery Behind an Incan Tunic

Unraveling an Inca masterpiece’s secrets