In a transient college town, Andrew Chadwick has kept Action Research going for over 10 years.
Four hooded figures shamble up to a stage bathed in pink and blue lights at the Limin Room, a performance space located off NW 6th Street.
A cloak is removed, revealing a woman in ghostly makeup. She dances around the crowd, then drops her tambourine, hanging limp. She falls to the floor and writhes.
“We’re gonna burn it up tonight,” said Jenna Balfe, lead singer of Donzii. “I can feel it.”
Donzii was one of the performers at the 182nd show of Action Research, a series of ongoing noise and experimental music shows that began in 2007 when then 33-year-old Andrew Chadwick set out to provide a home for the transient scene. Despite the hardships associated with building and maintaining an active music scene, Chadwick just organized his 188th show. Even as established venues have closed or prominent performers have moved away, Chadwick kept two or three shows going a month on average.
At each show, Chadwick is in the center of the action. Towering over most people, his eyes are fixed on his camera, recording the performances that he uploads across three YouTube channels. The weirder the performance, the wider his grin.
Chadwick prides himself on having brought order to the experimental noise scene in Gainesville, but he wasn’t always this involved. “I was in the punk hardcore scene,” he said. “I used to have a record label, but as far as noise and experimental, it was always something happening elsewhere.”
Noise music developed as part of the avant-garde art movement of the early 20th century, but it wasn’t popularized until the mid-1970s alongside the rise of heavy music genres like industrial and punk. Noise isn’t music in the traditional sense but rather a cacophony of shrieks, feedback, sound bites, static, distorted beats and buzzing presented within a musical context.
“There’s always a certain unexpectedness of what’s going to happen and a diversity of sound,” Chadwick said. “There’s a good energy.”
Gainesville had a noise scene before Action Research came along, but it was mostly limited to house parties and local acts. Chadwick would mail-order noise records and go to shows every now and then, but he wasn’t a regular performer or organizer in the scene. That changed in 2005 when Chadwick traveled to the International Noise Conference, an annual noise and experimental music convention held at Churchill’s Pub in Miami, where he got the idea of hosting shows with short, intense, back-to-back sets.
“Once I saw that anything was possible and accepted, I came home and just put it all together,” Chadwick said. “Being connected to it in a live setting makes a big difference.” He played his first noise show in Gainesville three weeks later.
As he continued to frequent experimental shows, Chadwick met and befriended Hal McGee and Chris Miller, both Gainesville residents. McGee was performing in and organizing experimental and noise shows since the ‘80s, and Miller founded the electronic show series Electronic SubSouth. Though they’re no longer involved in organizing Action Research, the two helped Chadwick build the show into the experimental hotspot it is today.
Miller suggested Chadwick give his shows a name and number them, and the trio came up with the title at a later brainstorming session. Wikipedia defines “action research” as a “reflective process of progressive problem solving led by individuals working with others in teams,” but Chadwick only learned of the definition later on.
The first Action Research was held June 7, 2007, at a now-closed car installation center called Install Bay. Today, in addition to its experimental sound, Action Research is known for its unusual locations.
“You want to do a show inside a bathroom? I’ve seen that,” Miller said. “You want to do a show underneath a sheet so no one can see you? I’ve seen that. You want to do a show inside a broken car? Whatever. You just plug in, check your levels and go.”
Action Research shows have occupied a gutted city bus, a boat, a dark hallway in an abandoned building and a Panacea, Florida beach at midnight. Some shows overtook houses, shaking floors with the force of a jumping crowd. Other shows pumped rooms full of fog thick enough to obscure the person next to you.
“Someone told me once that the best Action Research show is always the most recent one,” Chadwick said. “That’s the way you want to go.”
“ONCE I SAW THAT ANYTHING WAS POSSIBLE AND ACCEPTED, I CAME HOME AND JUST PUT IT ALL TOGETHER. BEING CONNECTED TO IT IN A LIVE SETTING MAKES A BIG DIFFERENCE.”
Outsiders might be quick to conclude that the scene is dead, as much of the experimental and noise scene thrives in houses and apartments. Many venues have either shut down or moved locations. Venues like The Laboratory and Wayward Council, that were important to the early days of Gainesville’s experimental scene, closed their doors in 2012.
“At the time, these venues seemed like the cornerstone of everything, but then the need for a new venue made us find a new spot,” Chadwick said. “I understand that not every venue is suited for a show and not every show is suited for a regular venue.”
The reasons for these closures range from financial instability and building code violations to owners simply moving away.
“It’s the transitory nature of the space,” said Joe Wolf, a new volunteer and longtime attendee. “Every music scene is kind of like waves at the beach. It’s going to crest and roll, and then there’s going to be the trough where things have a lull. When you think it’s dead, it’s not.”
Miller attributes much of Chadwick’s ability to maintain Action Research over the years to three key aspects: the spirit of total acceptance fostered at each show, a recognizable “brand” of promotion and a consistent emcee. Shows are promoted through brightly colored posters that Chadwick draws and letters by hand. Each features a grotesque, grinning monster of Chadwick’s creation. While mounds of flyers clutter business windows and telephone poles around town, you can always spot his signature doodles peeking through the mayhem.
One name appears on every poster: Frog. As a longtime experimental musician in the local scene, he opens each show. He maintains the thrill of uncertainty with a mixed bag of acts, using a performance style he describes as “almost scary but ultimately safe, like Halloween.”
Though Frog may perform anything from puppetry to good old-fashioned karaoke, he’ll always warm up the stage to spare other artists the pressure of going first.
“It gives me something to look forward to, knowing I always have a performance upcoming, and I like going first,” Frog said. “It’s reassuring.”
Frog is the only performer audiences can expect at Action Research shows.
“At Action Research shows, you see things you don’t normally see anywhere else,” said A.J. Herring, an experimental performer and volunteer. “Whether it’s people beating themselves with chains, breaking glass or rolling around on the floor, you never know what you’re going to walk into.”
Sets are rarely in the same place — a spot where an audience member was standing to watch one musician could be part of the performance space for the next.
“If something’s really beautiful, ethereal and angelic, then you’re in that experience, but also if it’s just a harsh noise that’s almost driving you insane, then that’s also taking you somewhere,” said Brooke Chekofsky, experimental performer and independent show organizer. “It could be taking you to hell, but it’s still taking you away.”
Like venues, the people involved in the scene come and go, but this is normal for a college town. The fans and fellow artists who do stick around form a tight-knit community.
“When I first started this, I wanted more people to come, but as the series went on, I realized what I really need is for the right people to come out,” Chadwick said. “You don’t want everyone to show up, you want the people to show up who are interested.”
Action Research shows are all DIY, and regulars are more than willing to help Chadwick out by setting up, working the door or just providing touring bands with a place to crash. Like Chekofsky, who performs under the name Algae Guck, not everyone in the noise scene stays on one side of the stage or the other. The scene is inherently participatory: Of the 20 or 30 people at a typical experimental noise show, the majority are musicians playing. The spirit of engagement means that Chadwick isn’t the only one putting on experimental shows. McGee hosts a series of “Apartment Shows” in the intimate space of his apartment, and local artists under the collective known as Elestial Sound are building their own recording studio on 16th Avenue and Waldo Road. Member Davis Hart owns The Limin Room, where most of Action Research’s shows are held.
“If there aren’t places like [The Limin Room] where challenging art is encouraged, then it won’t be made,” Hart said. “At least, there won’t be a scene where challenging art is accepted.”
But as long as Chadwick’s cartoons peer through the bulletin board chaos around town, there’s a space where unconventional art is alive.
“I’m thankful for the people who trust me with doing a show,” Chadwick said. “When you’re away from home on a tour, there are a lot of variables that can go right and wrong. That’s a lot of trust to put in somebody, and I appreciate when people come back.”•