Alice Bag playing a Pure Joy show in Chicago. Photo by Mars Vallon.
In 2014, Chicago punk musician, writer and editor Jes Skolnik had a vision of opening an accessible, all-ages DIY venue in the city. Some like-minded friends got on board, and together they formed the Pure Joy collective. Four years later, after learning some hard lessons about cutting through the city’s red tape, the non-profit has a renewed focus. While continuing to search for a space, the seven collective members are now putting energy into building collaborative relationships with other radical Chicago organizations by hosting a variety of events - art shows, DJ nights - around town. In doing so, they hope to start fostering the sorts of inclusive, DIY environments they always hoped would flourish at their venue. As a Chicagoan who deeply yearns for this sort of space, I recently met with Skolnik and fellow collective members Isabella Mancini and Sarah Ryczek to talk about Pure Joy and their hopes and dreams for the future.
How did Pure Joy start? How has it morphed since the beginning?
Jes: New Year’s Day 2014, I was driving by an empty bank building with my partner and we were talking about the lack of all-ages, sustainable spaces in Chicago. And I was like, what if that bank building was a show space? It just kind of snowballed from there. I started talking to Ivy Lopez and to Sarah, and our friend Carrie who I worked with at a labor union, and a few other people. We were like, the more that we think about this the more we might actually be all into doing this.
We started out with the goal of it being a show space. The idea was a lot bigger. We soon realized that this is not something that we had the resources for necessarily. We tried partnering with a couple of different organizations. Those partnerships didn’t end up working out. But the more that we talked about it, the more that we realized that the educational component of what we wanted was as big as the show space component of what we wanted. We wanted a community meeting space, we wanted a space for skillshares, and we wanted a space for young people, not just to be able to come to shows, but to be able to get arts education that they weren’t getting elsewhere in the city, especially as those CPS closures happened and programs got cut.
So we kept looking for a space and kept looking for a space and kept looking for a space.We got close on a few of them. I think Ivy looked at like over 100 spaces. I came along on a lot of them but she looked at most of them herself. We got close on 4 or 5 of them. Something always ended up kicking us in the pants the last minute - whether it was a landlord who didn’t want to do the necessary ADA modifications to the bathroom, or the fact that there is a commercial tax loophole in Chicago that allows landlords in certain areas to write off a vacant building as a complete tax write-off, as opposed to charging maybe less than that write-off in property value. There was just a lot that was stacked against us.
Last year we got really close on a space, the closest we’ve ever been. It was the right size. It was a space that had already had shows in it. And then it just sort of fell through at the last minute, like the very, very last minute. We were further than we had ever gotten. We were drawing up a contract. So we were like, you know what, we’ve been doing this for four years, clearly we need to be focusing on building community and focusing on the educational aspects of this and focusing on doing events around the city and building bridges while we look for a space, as opposed to just putting all of our energy into looking for a space. We sort of revised our mission statement, took on new people, some people left, and now we’re here. The mission has become bridge-building between arts nonprofits and the punk community at this point in time. Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.
Sarah: That’s right on the nose. It’s become extremely clear to us how difficult it is to not only lease or, at this point, we’re starting to consider buying - but just trying to start what is considered a small business in a city like Chicago. There are so many things stacked against you. The last space that we looked at, we were pretty much ready to sign a lease, and had done a letter of intent and everything else. But because of red tape with the city and no support from the local alderman, there was nothing that we could do. It just was a situation we couldn’t get around. After four years of banging your head against the wall, you’ve gotta start doing some things differently. For me, new energy is brought into it with more new people. Just different perspectives and focusing on [saying], “Okay, let’s get back out there and talk to the people we’ve always wanted to reach with this space in mind.”
It sounds like Jes and Sarah have been on board since the beginning. Isabella, how did you get involved or why did you want to get involved?
Isabella: I actually went to a volunteer meeting in 2014. There were a lot of people there, and I was like, “I don’t need to do this, there’s so many people here.” But then I spoke with Sarah last summer or fall about joining the collective, and then I did. And that was that. Booking shows in Chicago is hard. Booking accessible shows and booking shows in DIY spaces is important to me. The DIY ethic is very important. I think it speaks to our commitment to anti-capitalism as punks and in this community and on a larger level. The venue can be a really important representation of those values.
In the long term, when you get a space, do you see it as a hub mainly for punk shows?hat do you envision? What would the ideal space look like?
Sarah: We definitely do want to have an accessible, all-ages space for punk and DIY shows. We also would like to see that space used when we’re not booking shows in the evening for educational programs, skillshares, community meetings - for just about anything. We’ve seen how difficult it can be to get a space. And sometimes when we’re ready to start working on a project, there’s so many different things that can be a hurdle in getting that done. If we got a space, clearly we’re not going to be using it 24 hours a day for punk shows. We want to open it up to other people. Music education was something, in the early stages, we were supportive of and having, especially music lessons for younger kids. [And] skill-sharing how to use music gear and all that kind of stuff. We also have people on the collective and board who are more involved in arts, as far as drawing and painting and those kinds of things. I think they are also interested in sharing those skills too.
How are y’all organized? Do you have regular meetings? Do people have different tasks?
Isabella: Yeah, for legal purposes, we have a president, treasurer and secretary. But in practice we are non-hierarchical. We make decisions collectively. We meet once a month as of right now. We talk about the basics - finance stuff, social media, looking for a space, whatever else.
Jes: Events we’ve got coming up, and divvying up tasks for those events. Making sure everything’s covered.
Sarah: We do also have some people who are volunteering. We’ve had a lot of help from a lot of people all over the place at various points in time. And want to continue to build that volunteer pool. [And have volunteers] at shows reaching out to people in the community y to talk about Pure Joy. Also figure out, ‘Oh, this person has these skills that they want to share.’ We’re kind of collecting a database of people with different skill sets that we can bring to everyone.
Isabella: A workshop bank, to connect community organizations or groups with folks who can provide specific workshops or skillshares.
Do you want to speak a little about why it's important to have a space like this in Chicago?
Isabella: As far as a music space, I think all of us can speak to being teenagers and going to shows, or wanting to go to shows, and not being able to go to shows. Young people want shows. Young people are important to music scenes and communities and deserve to feel welcome, and to not have to ask a punk for an address. Then as far as creating a community space, we don’t want to recreate the wheel. We recognize that there are community spaces all over the city, but to have something that is explicitly radical and DIY and music-centered - we’re bringing our skills to the table to create this thing that is unique.
Jes: Those kinds of spaces, like infoshops and radical spaces, really nurtured me as a teenager. I don't know what I would have done without them. It’s really a way of paying it back and making sure that the generation of kids who are coming up now have access to those same kinds of spaces, where they can feel invested in a music community in a way that is not like, “I am just a passive observer here.” And to have access to a lot of different kinds of knowledge and a lot of different kinds of hands-on experiences.
Sarah: I feel really lucky. I’m from Buffalo, New York originally, but I’ve lived in Chicago for 18 or 19 years now. Despite the ups and downs, I’ve never been some place where there’s as many people who are around and who are invested in trying to make DIY music available to people across scenes, across ages, across every kind of divide you can think of. That’s something that I think is very special about Chicago. I’m not saying other places don’t do it, they do. But I think that just that kind of ground that I’ve been able to walk over with people here has been so amazing. And has made me view it differently. I just hope other people can have that same experience.
Jes: There are so many different pockets of DIY art and music in this city, and although we are people who come from punk and hardcore, that doesn’t mean that we’re interested in just having that kind of music in our space. We’re really interested in working with other DIY spaces and other communities, and making sure that this is a space where not just punk kids feel comfortable.
Isabella: As far as us being intentional with connecting with community organizations, we want punk and punks and our worlds to be politically conscious. And to be connected to things outside of just our bubbles or our bands. I think that’s important for a lot of us, and having a space that does more than just music, even though it’s music-focused, is a way to bridge that gap, especially if we’re creating relationships now with radical community organizations that can then use our space. And we can use their resources and have these relationships be more married than they are now.
Sarah: Not everything about punk has to be socially conscious at all times - but to me, it’s kind of hard to unwind them. But it’s very possible to be a punk in 2018, to go online and look at something and never understand the context or the politics of where that came from. Especially when I think about it over the course of time, for me, as far as feminism and that kind of space - and everybody in this collective has their own spaces that they’re coming from - I think younger people in particular who just get to see something online, if they can see it in action, if they can see people who actually do try to marry those two things like Isabella was saying - they can kind of look at it from this bigger sense from 100 feet away as opposed to like - here’s three bands I like.
I was just thinking it must be really interesting for kids today, because when we started going to shows, there was no internet really. And maybe recognizing the importance of having a physical space is not as apparent to them if they’ve never had it. Or even the idea of punk or DIY, it’s something that exists on the internet in so many meaningless ways. I just think this is kind of a tactile example.
Jes: Yeah. Especially because when you divorce the concept of DIY from the actual practice of doing it, of getting your hands dirty, it becomes much more possible for corporations to sneak in there and snake it out from under you. And be like, “Oh, the Converse store is totally DIY or whatever.”
Sarah: It’s very easy to commodify points of view right now. And if you don’t know what they are, then whew, you’re in trouble.
Isabella: I think that DIY inherently is anti-capitalist, and reading it in any other way is a misuse of what it means. DIY is not apolitical. It just isn’t. It can’t be, that’s not it’s definition. Like it is intentional, even if you are not actively participating in the act that it is intentional. It’s happening around you.
Jes: Yeah. Like why would you participate in that community if you are not actively kicking back in some way against what is being marketed to you?
Sarah: If you’re trying to “make it,” and I’m putting air quotes on “make it,” you’re probably not coming to the DIY show.
Jes: Or you’re using it as a stepping stone as we have known many people to do.
Do y’all have anything else you want to add?
Isabella: If there are any rich people who would like to buy us a space, we’re looking for like rich older punks or queers who have a lot of money lying around who want to put a down payment on a building for us.
Jes: If you super love the arts...
Sarah: You can come to every show for free. You will have a lifetime membership to everything we do.