Eraserhood: PhilaMOCA serves as a blank canvas for rising artists

Standing in what once upon a time was a showroom for tombstones, the Philadelphia Mausoleum of Contemporary Art (PhilaMOCA) is alive and kicking thanks to the city’s thriving underground arts community. The multipurpose art venue hosts more than 250 events each year such as fashion showcases, musical performances and film premieres. With a negotiable rental fee and plenty of physical space, PhilaMOCA offers an outlet for rising local artists and an opportunity for people to experience new styles of creative exhibition.

The history of PhilaMOCA’s location warrants its own screening at the makeshift theater on 531 N. 12th St. Built in 1865 as a one-stop-shop for cemetery needs, the structure housed Finney and Son, a three-generation, local business which operated until the late 1960s. For about 15 years, the building sat in industrial purgatory until an undocumented college student sculptor claimed residence. Then in the mid-2000s, Mad Decent founder DJ Diplo transformed the dwelling into his record label’s headquarters and eventually the home of annual mega concert Mad Decent Block Party. Christina Aguilera, Shakira and M.I.A. are just a few of the superstars to have recorded in the studio during the Mad Decent era. When Diplo established a national presence, the budding music producer moved out west and rented the building to PhilaMOCA founder Gavin Hecker in 2010. Hecker fleed to New York City two years later, leaving the independent arts hub to current director Eric Bresler.

“The first year and a half of PhilaMoca’s existence was Do-It-Yourself basement show type based, a lot of West Philly bands, Kensington and Fishtown area indie bands,” Bresler said. “My immediate goal upon starting here was to expand that to become more multipurpose, to embrace more art. That’s what led us to our current status as an all-purpose art space.”

Glancing at a map will indicate PhilaMOCA occupies North Philadelphia; however, frequent visitors refer to the surrounding area as the Eraserhood. Nicknamed after the 1977 horror flick “Eraserhead,” the concrete jungle-esque neighborhood inspired legendary film director David Lynch who lived in the Callowhill section during the 1960s. Lynch’s surrealist portrayal of the post-industrial urban landscape was his first feature film and ultimately attracted a cult following. Although shot in Los Angeles, the film’s setting has been called North Chinatown, the Loft District, and the Callowhill Industrial Historic District.

However, present-day residents affectionately refer to the area as Eraserhood—a nod to Lynch’s non-affectionate impression. While city blog Philebrity takes credit for popularizing the Eraserhood moniker, blogger Bob Burhin has explored the area and analyzed its elements on Eraserhood: Twisted Views of a Demented Square Mile. PhilaMOCA pays tribute to its neighborhood’s pop culture presence with a 14-foot mural of Henry Spencer, Eraserhead’s protagonist, attached to the roof.

Various posters of screenings and concerts deck PhilaMOCA's walls.
Various posters of screenings and concerts deck PhilaMOCA’s walls.

One never knows what’s on tap at PhilaMOCA: the variety of scheduled events can be checked out on the studio’s website.

“A lot of the events I do appeal to me personally, and I don’t often take into account the interests of the general public,” Bresler said, “So we are a very niche building but it’s worked for us. Luckily there is a like-minded community out there, so I’d say that people who are into popular culture, especially the stranger, more obscure corners of popular culture—they always feel at home here.”

For instance, Monday may feature the City of Brotherly Love premiere of the South by Southwest 2014-selected documentary “Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton: This Is Stones Throw Records” with a bonus of Stones Throw founder Peanut Butter Wolf participating in a Q&A after the film.

Tuesday could include a double header of United Kingdom electronic rockers Dark Blue and heavy metal powerhouse Anxiety Hammer, with a post-concert screening of 1983’s “The Hunger” starring David Bowie.

Wednesday might offer a free admission “Hump Day” special of Japanese cinema such as 1976’s “The Youth Killer.”

And on first Fridays of the month, PhilaMOCA hosts the Philadelphia Poetry Slam where authors reveal original work and attendees judge the best of the bunch.

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PhilaMOCA hosted cult classic Birdemic 2’s DVD release party featuring several of the film’s stars.

In addition to presenting under the radar artwork, PhilaMOCA has recently begun producing its own content with the debut episode of “Mausoleum Party”—its in-house, public-access-style variety web show. Filmed in September but aired after Thanksgiving, the half-hour broadcast included an outer-space parody of “Chappelle Show’s” Negrodamus sketch, a chilling cover of Miley Cyrus’ “We Can’t Stop,” and a cameo appearance by Bigfoot. Another episode was filmed right before Christmas but has yet to be published on Youtube and PhilaMOCA’s website.

The experimental arts epicenter’s latest project will take place in April as PhilaMOCA holds a monthlong film festival screening Philly-centric movies. Coined “Cineadelphia,” the festival is the brainchild of director Bresler, whose former job was teaching Japanese cinema at Drexel University.

“The end-of-term reports were very good, but I felt like I was kind of an awkward teacher: I think I was too casual,” Bresler said. “It was a challenge to make these classical, very slow-moving Japanese films appealing to students, but I enjoyed it. It’s something I’d go back to someday.”

Text, video, and images by Emily O’Neill and John Corrigan