Wickerham & Lomax remix and reimagine stories and styles from Odell's nightclub
By Bret McCabe
Mar 28, 2017 at 7:24 PM
Artist duo Daniel Wickerham and Malcolm Lomax were all of six years old when Odell's closed in 1992. The North Avenue dance club, opened in 1976 by Odell Brock, became Baltimore's legendary hot spot of the disco and house music eras. Brock hired DJ Wayne Davis to keep the dance floor moving, and Odell's parties defined what nightlife could be for a generation of local clubgoers. And yet with "DUOX4Odell's You'll Know If You Belong," a Neighborhood Lights installation that opens March 31 as part of Light City Baltimore, the 30-year-old artists Wickerham and Lomax are revisiting Odell's. They researched the history of the space. They interviewed Davis and former patrons for a series of movies that are part of the installation. They're taking fashion inspiration from some of the parties people told them about. And they had music created specifically for the project.
Just don't expect "DUOX4Odell's" to be a time capsule transporting you back in time. Wickerham and Lomax are not interested in nostalgia. They're interested in creating a bridge between club culture then with club culture now, a way to peer into the future by looking at the past.
"The show is not a documentary," Wickerham says over lunch at a Station North noshery. He's joined by Lomax and Amelia Rambissoon, the Director of Development and Operations for Station North Arts & Entertainment, Inc., the program partner on the project. She first informed the pair about Odell's and its history, shortly after its building at 19-21 E. North Ave. was bought by developer Samuel Polakoff's Property Consulting Inc. and the nonprofit organization Jubilee Baltimore. She's been helping out the duo as a de facto communications manager on this installation. Wickerham adds that "DUOX4Odell's" is "probably going to be disappointing to certain people who expect it to be a reunion with footage," he says. "It's none of those things. It's very much about a continuation of our practice, stuck right into the real roots that people have connected to the city. That was just something that we hadn't done yet and I think that was important."
Wickerham and Lomax have been anthropologists of the imagination ever since they debuted locally in 2009 and 2010 with "King Me" at Open Space and the "Museum of Modern Twink" at GLCCB. Their artistic enterprise is one of world building, reinterpreting, repopulating, and rebuilding a reality that looks and feels a bit like the one we currently share but tweaked enough that it's foreign, a little bit sci-fi. Whether it's their ongoing virtual-reality narrative project "BOY'Dega" or last spring's "Uncool" exhibition at Terrault Contemporary, the duo makes realities and artifacts that are as highly polished and culturally messy as the showroom of a luxury-brand store or a basement club—both spaces with highly coded cultures and identities. Their work is an ongoing remix of the spaces we inhabit—be that a city, a room, or a flesh-and-blood body.
With "DUOX4Odell's," the pair adds virtual ethnography to their practice. The installation is the first time they're allowing real people's stories, memories, and ideas to inform and shape their work, and they recognize the responsibility that carries. "One of the things we realized when we started poking around was how connected people still were to the memory and the reputation of the space," Wickerham says. "People loved going to Odell's and there wasn't a day that went by where we didn't run into someone who says, yes I went there, or my grandma, my mom went there. Part of the project was taking people's stories and mixing them with some fictions from our practice. We thought if we could put those two together, we could have some idea about how to think about if things are still the same, if things are different, how to think about the future of people hanging out."
"DUOX4Odell's" will be housed in the black-box space of the former Everyman Theater at 1727 N. Charles St., and will include a number of different components. Wickerham and Lomax have made six welded aluminum sculptures that suspend nine double-sided images on Plexiglass, one of which includes a disco ball. They've made three videos for the project, which includes one devoted to oral histories and their responses to those memories and two written by Lomax. And they've made a series of publications printed on bar coasters to accompany the project. And for all of these projects, they've collaborated with Elon Battle, Nate Bell, Keenon Brice, Chanel Cruz, Janea Kelly, Blairè Leòn, Kentrell Searles, Chris Reeve, and Stephen Zerance.
They've also made four freestanding, double-sided images featuring Battle, who is styled and wearing fashions inspired by some of the imaginative Odell's parties in the 1970s they heard about in interviews—such as a large peacock wicker chair, which is present in many old photos of clubgoers at Odell's. "We're riffing off what they said about a Monday night party at Odell's, which had a lot to do with a certain type of fashion," Wickerham says. "The era had to do with expressing yourself in a particular way that also had a communal element to it. That is one of the things that you'll see in physical sculptures in the show and that you'll hear in the interviews, people talking about the importance of dressing, the individual sense of self and the kind of pride and image that Odell's demanded you have—because Jackie Brock would be at the front door and she didn't let you in if you didn't look a certain way."
He's talking about the wife of the club's namesake owner Odell Brock, who passed away in 1984 from cancer at the young age of 39. Though Odell's continued until 1992 under new management—it was first bought by Philip A. Murray, who was convicted in federal court in 1987 for laundering money as part of a West Baltimore heroin business; bail bondsman Milton Tillman, Jr., reopened the club from 1990-'92—its life under Brock with DJ Wayne Davis remains its celebrated heyday. Its slogan, "You'll Know If You Belong," was both an invitation to people looking for something ordinary life couldn't offer and different enough to keep the unimaginative and uptight at bay.
That heyday also corresponded to an era when the area now known as the Station North Arts District Arts & Entertainment District was a cultural hub of primarily African-American arts and entertainment. Sure, the Charles Theatre began operating as a single-screen revival house in 1979, but next door to it at the Famous Ballroom, the Left Bank Jazz Society had been inviting the country's greatest jazz artists to town for Sunday afternoon concerts starting in the 1960s. Odell Brock hired Davis away from another dance club in the area, the Carousel. Just a few blocks away, local jazz singer and national treasure Ethel Ennis opened her namesake Ethel's Place at 1225 Cathedral St. in 1984. There was a vibrant black nightlife going on around the intersection of Charles Street and North Avenue decades before the state of Maryland introduced tax credits to spurn arts-related tourism and urban revitalization.
White-creative infill into the neighborhood was already beginning in the 1980s, though. The current owner of the Copycat Building bought it in 1983 when it primarily still housed industrial tenants; as the '80s wore on and business tenants left, a few studios were built to see if artists might use the space. Artists were also moving into the nearby Crown Cork & Seal Co. building in the late 1980s; in 1997, a group of artists bought that building and started the Cork Factory. The Left Bank departed for lower Park Heights in 1984, and the Charles Theatre would acquire the Famous Ballroom during its expansion into a five-screen theater in 1999. In 1995 Everyman Theatre moved into the former bowling alley that Wickerham and Lomax are now transforming into a space that bridges the Odell's of then with Station North today. Rambissoon points out that this link resonates on multiple levels. "A lot of people talk about how Odell's was kind of a sacred space at that time," she says, comparing it to the way people today discuss the community created by the evicted tenants of the Bell Foundry, a former creative sanctuary for queer artists of color.
Wickerham and Lomax were already taking their work toward exploring a real historical space before they alighted to Odell's. They had been working on a project involving the Drinkery, the homey Read Street gay bar that had to fight the Liquor Board over its license last year following complaints from upscale residents. Lomax says they built a version of the Drinkery in CGI and were beginning to imagine it as an interactive space during the Baltimore Uprising and the curfews. When Rambissoon told them about Odell's, "we just felt that something special landed in our lap," Lomax says. "It's already fully charged with history itself. It has all that concentrated energy."
Working with real people's stories sparked Wickerham and Lomax to think about how a space like a club can function in people's lives. Clubs are often laboratories for people to experiment with who they are, how they dress, what they do, who they love—places where people learn to perform who they want to be. For the project, "I wrote four poems about the idea of Odell's," Lomax says. "Two of those specifically deal with the building that exists now and considers mourning or eulogizing what could happen or what potentially could still be there. We've been utilizing the poems almost as a compass to guide the ways to be responsible for the project. I think now you have more examples of how to perform in your life, where I think then if you were a person full of imagination and energy, you made choices to experiment to figure out how to perform your life."
Lomax adds that he doesn't like to talk too much about their work before people can see it, but he's hinting at what makes Wickerham and Lomax's work, in general, so quietly prescient. In reimagining the reality that we're currently sharing, they're also pointing out the different ways our world could be. That whiff of untapped possibility that lies dormant in the present is teased to the surface in their work, and with "DUOX4Odell's" it sounds like they're recognizing that the actual past of a Baltimore City club contains untapped possibilities that can remind us of how things could've turned out, yet haven't.
Lomax mentions that the videos in the installation are titled 'Wormholes,' a name chosen because the videos are "the way we're trying to politically work through this exhibition," he says. "The videos are a way people can move through space and time. The whole exhibition gets its title from a different place."
And that different place may have things to teach us about living with each other right now. "I think there's a moment in your life when you create an identity for yourself and a lot of the people who went to Odell's allowed that space to form how they thought about how to present themselves," Wickerham says. "It just happened to be the right time for certain people. When they were young and they were going to Odell's with all their friends, they were in the context of a variety of people of different ages and it provided a way forward.
"That is a timeless idea," Wickerham continues. "And one thing I'm sensing that is different between the past and present is a self-consciousness among people living today that didn't seem to happen at that time. That self-consciousness gets in the way of how you think about yourself, how you perform yourself. I'm hearing a lot in these interviews that that's why [Odell's patrons] are so bored today. Why didn't [today's clubgoers] learn the lessons that we learned? Why aren't they performing, experimenting, and living a variety of ways to express yourself? We all used to party together. And now we don't."
There will be an opening reception for DUOX4Odell's "You'll Know if You Belong" at 1727 N. Charles St. on March 31, 7-10 p.m. The show will run through April 8.
*An earlier version of this story stated that Station North Arts and Entertainment, Inc. is the sponsor of this project, which is incorrect. The Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts and T. Rowe Price are the project's sponsor. City Paper regrets the error.