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Beyond Baroque in Venice: The Counter Motion: Venice at 100

It is 4:00 in the morning. You are wide awake and more than just a little bit restless. There is no clemency for the weary who must be incontinently inconsonant and suffer from irritable vowel syndrome.

Even the vintage Dylan, scoffed and replete with diphthongs and earnest revolution, at the rate of 45 per minute, is not enough to beguile an inert and spiteful muse. The muse which would delight in dangling everyone’s participles and leaving them pretty much blowing in the wind.

Writer’s block is upon you. With more the verve of a clogged drain, it has thwarted an even flow of ideas to seize the fruition of any creative opportunity; forcing the premature evacuation of all relevant sensory franchises. So what can a poor boy do, if not sing for a rock and roll band when his poetic license has been revoked?

If you are ever at a loss for words and if you need to renew your poetic license, take comfort knowing that, in the grand design, there is a repository of homebrewed lyrical salves and woven letter antidotes strong enough to dissolve the most resistant strain of writer’s block.

Actually, it is not so much in the grand design. The repository is in Venice. The Beyond Baroque Foundation and Literary/Arts Center, located at 681 Venice Boulevard, is a writer’s block unto itself. For nearly a half century and at the same location — the old and original Venice City Hall building built in 1906 — Beyond Baroque has suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune to chronicle the cultural and seismic shifts that have influenced all of Los Angeles. These cultural and seismic shifts bear not solely local consequences but national and international consequences as well.

For almost a decade, since 1996, the person who may be most responsible for the ablution of Beyond Baroque is Fred Dewey. Dewey, a native New Yorker and a transplant since 1984, resident of Santa Monica and, fittingly, a member of this city’s Arts Commission, is the venerable arbiter of all things lyrical and poetic. As a matter of record, Beyond Baroque is noted for and may be the largest vendor of chat books in the United States.

Chat books are low budget; self produced volumes of poetry and art. “We sell chat books from emerging and established writers and artists,” said Dewey. “In fact, Beyond Baroque may be the only place in the country that does this. We also archive them.”

As a way of countering writer’s block or the consummate intimidation of poetry or writing in general, Dewey encourages all wannabe or soon to be poets and artists to collect all of their notes and go to Kinko’s. “That is all you need to do. You start slow…circulating your stuff to friends and then you gradually work your way up.”

It is almost as if Beyond Baroque allows for an unspoken apprenticeship to bolster the skills and the confidence of aspiring yet retiring writers, poets and artists. Ironically, as much as Dewey nurtures and supports poetry and poets, artistry and artists, he himself is neither a poet nor an artist. “I gravitated here because this is a public space dedicated to culture and to reading, listening and the development of ideas.”

An experienced and successful independent film maker, Dewey charted his courses with deliberation. “I decided I wanted to make money in the film industry and write philosophy on the side,” he asserts without hesitation. “That was my plan.”

The fates have a way of mocking our agendas. “By 1991,” he laments with conviction, “I found the world of movie making quite disillusioning. It was not at all what I had hoped for.” Further, Dewey states, “The work didn’t dry up…not at all. I was getting plenty of work. I was just beginning to get really disappointed seeing what the industry does to people’s sense of what is culture and to the sense of what they are.”

Dewey calls these people conformist rebels. “This is a generic problem in America. It is certainly an interesting subject especially when you are talking about a place like Venice.” Dewey is quick to link his film experience with the avenues that led him to Beyond Baroque. “I decided that reaching five to ten to 20 million people with my movies was much less important than reaching five or six people. I would rather have an evening with five or six people and have it be solid and real with everyone interacting with each other, than having this grandiose dream of reaching the masses. So actually I am very grateful to the film industry for having taught me the value of readings with six people.”

Attracting those six people is more a proposition of word of mouth than a uniform mass media and mailing campaign. “Part of what is really remarkable about this place are the discoveries you can make here. Discovering Beyond Baroque is a part of that. People are constantly walking in here telling me they have been driving by here for years and are curious to know what we are.”

Beyond Baroque was founded in Venice in 1968 as a free newsprint “Zine.” Immediately it became a font and a channel for the 60s zeitgeist and the endemic mythology that is the city’s greatest natural resource and exportable commodity. In 1980, Beyond Baroque moved flock, paper stock and ink barrel to the location it occupies today.

“Beyond Baroque was born out of Venice. It has grown in Venice and it is rooted deeply in the spirit of Venice, both in terms of the natural sense of freedom and the sense of scruffiness,” Dewey said with pride. “What I most appreciate is the mixture of experiment, heritage and the commitment to the public. I certainly see Beyond Baroque as a leader in evolving these new practices, which are both stable and committed to experiments and new works. Works that are loose and funky yet at the same time are rock solid. Works that are very focused.”

Dewey is quick to suggest the focus is transient. “Our focus moves about. We are definitely not focused on one style, but at the same time I think there are things that are overlooked or under appreciated that need support, more than others.”

Webster’s new pocket dictionary defines Baroque as having elaborate decoration. Whether this definition applies to Beyond Baroque is subjective. Dewey infers that is strategically kind of a strange and oblique term. “Ironically, I believe the name characterizes the cultural mission of the institution. Baroque is not necessarily a clear and forward looking style. I also see the entirety of Los Angeles as being very baroque and you can certainly say Venice is baroque for that matter.”

The term Beyond Baroque has been co-opted to become the designate for a few of the special programs or series offered by the center. Dewey says, “We have the Beyond Music Series, the Beyond Text Festival…all of which I accorded the name Beyond.” The music event is held on a quarterly basis. The Beyond Text Festival is an annual event. “I started this up a couple of years ago and I am really excited because it is all about the merging or the crossing over of text and art.

“The Beyond Text Festival is all about finding the intersections between text, writing and art. I think that to me is one way of providing a common ground between the realms of literature and art for experiment, “says Dewey. “It is all about the vitality of experiment and the interchange between artists. While Beyond Baroque is rooted in Venice, it is also a gateway for the rest of the country to come into Los Angeles. It is also a conduit for Los Angeles and Venice to reach out to the rest of the country.”

To keep pretension out of the equation is a goal of Dewey’s and for the center itself. “For the rest of the country to take Los Angeles seriously…Los Angeles must first learn to take itself seriously,” suggests Dewey. “That has been a big problem. When you are facing the notion of culture which involves millions of dollars, culture really starts at the grassroots and that doesn’t matter whether you are talking about huge cultural complexes or movies or malls or whatever. It is not about huge audiences and it is not about piles of money. It is about doing the hard day-to-day work of supporting the artists and writers.”

Citing the reasons for Beyond Baroque’s uniqueness, Dewey maintains, “it is partially because we were born in 1968. We were born out of a very democratic spirit and I think that is the Venetian spirit. Also it is just the fact the space is here and people can walk in and do stuff. There is only one Beyond Baroque in the United States and there is only one literary center in Los Angeles…and that is us.”

One of Dewey’s primary tasks at Beyond Baroque is to retrieve some of the history of Venice poetry and the Venice culture. Philomene Long, who was married to John Thomas, still lives in Venice. “I think John Thomas is one of the great unappreciated poets of the entire national poetry scene,” Dewey muses. “He, like many people in Venice, was not a big fan of publicity and not a big fan of being part of society. That is a dynamic that I think is really unique to Los Angeles, where you have this mass culture and then you have this counter motion…people who are more skeptical and are doing their hard work in obscurity. Even if you look back to the beat poets, Venice’s approach was much different from San Francisco’s approach. Venice , unlike San Francisco, was much less willing to compromise, in terms of society.”

Only time will tell whether or not Beyond Baroque will historically or successfully surf the curl of the transient sybaritic. The counter-culture is becoming an endangered species, with Venice being quite possibly its last bastion or refuge. If you would like to sample a taste of art not corrupted by compromise or lethargy, the folks at Beyond Baroque have created a free magazine which includes art and poetry and prose from an assortment of culturati and literati who brave the hazards of art and literature with skill and cadence.

Beyond Baroque, the magazine, is free to all and can be found where things of a more commercial bent may not. As a postscript Dewey opines, “I think it is really important that we stay in Venice and have the opportunity to fully actualize this mission and present it to the whole country, because it is a contribution Los Angeles and Venice can make that no one else is doing.”

Eugene Pidgeon is an actor and writer.

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