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Oni Gallery, 1998–2005

The Oni Gallery — a Chinatown alternative arts space where visitors might find a human petting zoo one night, a stubbly spoken-word artist screaming about Slayer the next — died last week from a virulent strain of Boston-bureaucratic fatalitis at its Washington Street home. It was seven.

Since its 1998 birth, the Oni was an experimental gallery that possessed what co-founder Timothy Bailey once described as an "anti–Newbury Street vision." Named after the Japanese word for "demon," the Oni was Boston’s only lasting artistic venue for the strange, the transgressive, the interactive, the inexplicable, the political, the nude, the fun, the loud, the unusual, the untried, the unclassifiable.

"The nice thing about Oni was that it was a truly autonomous space," says director Lydia Eccles in a telephonic eulogy. "We could do whatever we wanted there and no one was calling the shots except the artists."

Founded by Bailey, Count Zero guitarist Brendon Downey, and painter Cheyney Thompson, the Oni first lived in an artist-occupied building at 84 Kingston Street. After the city demolished the loft site to make way for a luxury development, Oni hopscotched between residences, finally settling into its most recent location, the fourth and fifth floors of a loft on the corner of Washington and Beach Streets, in 2001.

An unfortunate victim of post-Station-fire paranoia, the Oni was first diagnosed with bureaucratic fatalitis in November of 2003 when inspectors from the City of Boston’s Inspectional Services Department (ISD) discovered that the site wasn’t up to code while scrutinizing construction on another level in the structure. The Oni shut down for a week, and its landlord promised to retrofit the necessary adjustments. When municipal inspectors revisited the following January, those modifications still hadn’t been made, so Eccles put the art space to indefinite hiatus, relocating scheduled programming to supportive venues like the Cambridge Family YMCA’s Durrell Hall. (See "Space Invaders," News and Features, February 14, 2004.)

In the meantime, Eccles, Bailey, and a small crew of Oni-affiliated artists worked tirelessly with three ISD representatives to turn the Chinatown loft space into a legal two-floor venue with a 300-person capacity. Meticulously following the ISD’s directives, they added exit signs, modified egresses, even submitted a swatch sample of curtain cloth to prove drapery wouldn’t be flammable. But at the last minute, a fire-department official unearthed a state regulation barring "masonry buildings with wooden joists" (a term that fits the Oni’s antiquated structure) from legally holding public assemblies above the second floor. The Oni was pronounced dead on site.

"The ISD’s point is totally valid," says Eccles about Oni’s cause of death. "The major problem is that they’re a bureaucracy with no accountability."

Besides Eccles and her small crew, the Oni is survived by an aborted programming schedule that included "Overdue," a "social-studies series" of ’50s- and ’60s-era reels retrieved from the Boston Public Library’s film archives; "Diva on Demand," performer Ben McCoy’s campy spoof on late-night television; and "Demolicious," a monthly poetry/video/film offering. Also abandoned was a cinematic line-up that would’ve made every art-porn freak’s wet dream come true: Chicago artist Yoshi Suzuki’s homemade fetish porn; "soap-opera videos" from Kembra Pfahler, a gothic, S&M-style performance artist best known as the former lead singer of the Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black; and something called "Quadrascenic Porn."

"Any place else I try to go, somebody else is going to have certain ideas about taste, which I don’t like," says Eccles. "For the city and the artists in the city, this is a disaster. There’s literally no place [in Boston] where you can do absolutely anything."

Issue Date: March 4 - 10, 2005
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