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Boiled Over: Celebrating the Life of the Cass Project

       After roughly two years of providing enriching and inspiring sound and visual art events, The Boiler Room at 500 Seneca has closed its doors and its curator Tina Dillman will soon return to the San Francisco Bay Area. A result of increasing business and gentrification to the area, the beloved hub of community art that once hosted beautiful displays and fantastic sounds will now host a kombucha brewery.
       Dillman, event planner and promoter for the Cass Project, an arts initiative based in Buffalo, has hosted music and art events in the Boiler Room since January 2017 as well as a multitude of other art events in venues and in the community. The Cass Project aims to “provide the City of Buffalo and the region, with culturally diverse artistic programming and events that engage, empower, and spark dialogue and action in creating community and rehabilitating neighborhoods.” With this project, Dillman has curated exhibits, hosted music and sound art events, and initiatedU many community art-based education and exhibition events spanning from teaching art in boys and girls clubs to creating artist residency programs. One such project included partnering artists with the Penn Dixie Fossil Park in Blasdell to create a trilobite-shaped labyrinth and develop art education programs.
       Dillman stresses the importance of the community that art creates as most important, and has done so since her days in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she turned an old storefront into a work and living space called W.E. Artspace in the late 2000s. In this space, Dillman curated visual art, music events, and performance art, fostering relationships and building community. Dillman strongly believes that “every city needs a space like that” to create opportunities for the underrepresented and eventually brought this community ambition to Buffalo in 2016, beginning the Cass Project and its galleries to host music and visual art. Among these galleries was the Boiler Room, a basement room in 500 Seneca that quickly became a headquarters for experimental music.
       To the dismay of frequent attendees, this hub of community came to an end. Earlier this fall, Dillman received an email from the property manager that her access to the space would soon be terminated, as a new prospective leaseholder would be taking control of the space, causing Dillman to have to cancel a month-long sculpture exhibition. “It’s happening; just as I felt like I was getting into the run of the programming,” said Dillman, “people don’t understand that art takes time, good ideas take time. That seems to be the misconception of these developer people. You don’t just wave a wand and art appears.”
       While the Cass Project didn’t have a written agreement to a lease of the space, losing it still came as a surprise to Dillman as she and the property manager had a “loose, undocumented understanding” of her continued use of the room, and the manager was unlikely to find a buyer who would want to put the amount of money into converting a raw space into anything much more than a space for art. Dillman reflects that potentially she “wanted something that wasn’t on the table.” While not overtly a sinister act on the account of the property manager, one can assume how business infringes on the arts, as they simply do not turn the type of profit that a trendy bacterial drink does.
       The closing of the venue and Dillman’s subsequent plans to return to California has left many frequent Boiler Room attendees and Cass Project supporters disheartened, though most reflect with great reverence for Dillman’s service to the arts. One frequent attendee of Cass Project events, Jon Clarke, says of Dillman: “Her idea of trying to connect people who wouldn’t connect otherwise: It’s really hard to do ... It was great to have that sort of energy in Buffalo.” Kind words for Dillman abound in attendees of her events. “Steel Winds” noise artist and performance attendee Carson Cain praises the work of the Cass Project: “I’m sad to see such a space go, and wish the Cass Project and all associated the best. Losing venues willing to host and support experimental music is tough, because these important places provide chances for art of the interesting, beautiful, and strange variety to survive.” Dillman certainly remains one of the most hard-working and committed supporters of the stranger sides of arts.
       Despite the unanticipated closure, Dillman was able to host a final music event in October that would prove to be an incredible send-off, featuring unforgettable performances by abstract musicians Aaron Dilloway of Detroit-based “Wolf Eyes”, Buffalo’s Steve Baczowski, and Rochester’s Martin Freeman. Freeman opened the show with an array of high-frequency drones purposely played at the upper register of human hearing made by a relatively “simple” set-up. This set-up included a modular synthesizer and a three-head cassette deck, which he used to record ambient sounds from the room and manipulate on-the-fly.
       Known for building and modifying his own instruments for the past 13 years, Freeman began his musical journey at about 16 years old by learning guitar. Freeman would soon desire more out of music and sound and began experimenting with effects and tapes, developing interest in musique concrete, an experimental form of music that stresses manipulating sounds to the point of rendering the source of sound indiscernible. Freeman attended the University at Buffalo in the 2000s and moved to Rochester later, with an experience playing and attending performances in both cities. An unexpected coincidence, one of the first shows Freeman attended was an abstract music event where Steve Baczowski, who would also play this final Boiler Room event, performed one of his highly esteemed saxophone sets, inspiring him to dive further into “weird music.” Freeman notes that there seems to be a younger, fresher crowd in Buffalo and has noticed a “less jaded” attitude toward nontraditional forms of music. A strong proponent of the legitimacy of these types of art, Freeman stresses the importance of treating these types of artists with as much respect as the visual artists revered by our culture.
       Following the final Boiler Room event, Freeman reflects on his experience working with Dillman: “It’s uncommon to find a show ran as well as that show was and to find someone who was so dedicated to presenting it in such a nice way as Tina was. That’s really important, as far as showing performers a good, attentive audience and a respect for what they do, that’s important and there needs to be more of that, also in areas where there’s next-to-no institutional support for people doing anything with sound, be it experimental music or installations, or really anything. People understand that visual art matters and is important and deserves to be supported and taken seriously, but for some reason that hasn’t really extended into weird music stuff, with a few exceptions … Tina really nailed it and I’m very happy to see what she’s going to do at other spaces; I don’t think it was really the space that was the magic.”
       Dillman echoes this sentiment in saying that “the space represents the relationships between people.”
       Since the closing, Dillman has decided to continue to uphold this community of “relationships between people” as she travels back to the San Francisco Bay Area early next year. According to the Cass Project’s November 26 newsletter: “What I can tell you as of right now, there will be a formal announcement made later in December about a fully funded curatorial residency that I’ve received in Pittsburgh. Afterwards, I will continue on a road trip that will take me through the cities of: D.C., Louisville, Kansas City, Denver, and Salt Lake City, to end up in the Bay Area by February.” While the Boiler Room itself has closed and the Cass Project discontinued, their spirits live on in Dillman’s tireless ambition to represent, advocate for, and garner attention and respect for local artists. These values have inspired in others a will to continue these pursuits. Through the help of promoters like Dillman, Freeman says that noise and other abstract artists will continue “showing people that this isn’t just a few people in a dirty basement drinking Genesees,” but an art form as legitimate as the work of great visual abstractionists like Rothko or Pollock.

written by Jesse James Kaufman

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