UPDATE: We published this Q&A in 2011. In light of a new crowdfunding campaign to support the work of Nonsense NYC, we’re sharing it again to encourage readers to donate to their work here.
Nonsense NYC is the email newsletter that every events, culture and nightlife publication in New York aspires to, mimics, or draws inspiration from (and we include ourselves in that mix). Each Friday installment is dense with dance parties, impromptu performances, calls for art collaborators, listings for every type of class, and a multitude of other odd and exciting happenings.
The newsletter is laid out simply in text with links, and is devoid of ads or any whiff of commercial interests. It’s the real deal, and that’s the choice of its founder, Jeff Stark, a 38-year-old artist who moved to New York in 1998, settled in Carroll Gardens, and began mailing out Nonsense in 2000. We talked to Jeff about his encyclopedic email for all that is quirky and collaborative in New York.
Brooklyn Based: Why did you start Nonsense NYC?
Jeff Stark: I’d come from San Francisco about 12 years ago and there was this great email there called Squidlist, that compiled all the other “stuff”–the warehouse parties and DIY film screenings and robot wars in parking lots. The bizarre stuff that didn’t fit in the weekly newspaper, even the alternative newspaper where I worked.
What weekly was that?
SF Weekly. I was the music editor and a feature writer.
So when I moved to New York, I was looking for that stuff and my question immediately was, ‘Where’s the Squidlist?’ And I couldn’t find it. So I started my own, in 2000. I started it with 50 friends/subscribers and I listed the stuff that they were putting on and that they were going to and asked people to send me information. Over time it grew to the point it is now. Most of the things people send me, although I do spend a lot of time looking for the special stuff that I think makes Nonsense more interesting.
So what’s a typical week like, in terms of the production schedule?
It’s really low tech and it’s really simple. Every once in a while someone contacts me about wanting to automate it for me, make some database system or whatever. But I’m really old fashioned, I send out the digital equivalent of a mimiograph. Throughout the week I get emails. I put the emails into a folder and on Thursday I start throwing all those emails into a word document, and I spend Thursday night and Friday morning massaging all that text into a column. Then on Friday morning the contributors send in their sections.
How many people are working on Nonsense?
Well each section has an editor. There’s an editor for Help, Learning, Spectre, Wishlist, and All That We’ve Met. So five people.
When did you start taking on contributors?
The very earliest list involved my friend Alita Edgar, and within the first year she was doing the Wishlist section, which is sort of the classified section–collaborators and apartments mostly. And then over time different columns came in. My newest one, All That We’ve Met, is three months old, and I call it a column but it’s more like a pull quote from Pauline Pechin’s weekly blog featuring interviews with people who do the events that end up on Nonsense.
How much time are you spending on Nonsense NYC?
8 hours a week.
Have you ever wanted to get paid for it?
Yeah, I would love to be paid for doing it. Absolutely. That sounds great, do you know anyone?!
Basically I would love for it to be a financially successful endeavor but it’s been more important for me over the years to run it and make the list that we want to make and the list that I want to see. It’s really for the people who put on events and for people who want to go to events more than anything else and that’s just always been the focus. Raising money, selling things–I’m not good at any of that stuff. But I’m okay at putting out a newsletter.
What about donations?
Three years ago, almost four now, I started taking donations, so I have the equivalent of a digital tip jar, and it’s great, it allows people to show support for the publication and it covers all the bills. There are real costs–it’s not totally free even if it’s a digital mimiograph. But just to keep it independent costs money. So I sort of have that NPR model, where I say hey, if you really like it, support it. So people do submit donations. It definitely does not raise enough for a salary or anything close to it. It raises enough money to cover the costs and pay for a new computer every couple of years.
UPDATE: Nonsense NYC is also part of a crowdfunding campaign on With Friends. You can support it here.
What do you use to send the email out?
I use a really great program called Dada Mail.
We used Dada Mail for years!
It’s really awesome and I love the guy. It started as an art project, the guy continues to make improvements on it. I used to use Mail Man, which is open source, but it’s like the number one program used by spammers, so if you use that software, you instantly have 2 and a half strikes against you, so I was really getting shut down by people’s spam filters. And Dada Mail helps you get past that hurdle.
And then I’m hosted by Tigertech which is a great, independent hosting company. But the first 6 issues or so was just a cc list on yahoo groups.
The fact that you were a music editor before… Do you ever want to get back to that or do any sort of music blogging?
Not at all. I left journalism seven years ago, and I’ve been happy about that decision the whole time. Journalism makes me miserable so I don’t do it anymore.
What about music–are you still going to shows?
I don’t actively go out to see shows like I used to, but I do go see my friends’ bands, I listen to new records, but I don’t follow it the way I once did.
So what’s a typical week like for you in terms of going out? I barely go out anymore now that I’m a mom, so when I see the Tip Sheet I’m like, ‘God I would love to do all these things,’ but I rarely do. What’s your nightlife schedule like?
I try to go out at the bare minimum 2 or 3 times a week, which I don’t think is enough for a person who’s sending out Tip Sheets. If I was hiring I would not hire me, but the thing I do have going for me, which is probably the same thing you have going for you, is that I went out for years and the people who were going out years ago are still doing stuff today, and you have this legacy understanding of people and shows and venues. There’s like a whole crop of stuff that I haven’t been to and I haven’t seen but there’s a lot of things that I already know from going out for years.
And I think I do what most people in New York do, which is after a while you go out to see the things your friends are doing and you support them, and I put on a lot of events myself, so I’m often working on projects as well. And I make it a point of seeing new stuff. So for example the other night I saw this completely bizarre, DIY theater/performance art about the Irish potato famine. I had no idea who the people where, it was totally fucking weird, but the energy was great and I was really happy that I went.
Is there anything you’ve seen recently that blew you away or reaffirmed your faith in New York?
You know what I’ve been doing lately is I’ve been going to really small stuff. It’s a bad time for the really big events in New York, and it’s a bad time for the spectacles that blow you away, I think. The cops and police are such a problem now. It’s so expensive to do large-scale stuff. So I’ve been going to really small stuff and even little comedy shows. The thing that makes me happy is to know that people are finding a way through the bad time.
Why do you think it’s such a bad time for nightlife?
The mayor, real estate interests, and the established clubs and bars long ago pushed the underground to the further reaches of Brooklyn. Now, police, fire, and sometimes even religious groups have decided that they are going to make sure that it will not be sustained in those neighborhoods either. It is still possible to do smaller events and larger one-offs, but anyone trying to have larger events at regular venues is attacked with one-two punches by all kinds of authorities, from the vice squad to building inspectors. The crazy thing is that if you don’t go out you have no idea that this kind of anti-party, anti-event thing is going on, or that police are wasting tremendous resources chasing kids away from a good time. But for those of us trying to bring people together, to celebrate art and create culture, it’s a constant reality. The cops think they’re protecting us from ourselves. We think we do a pretty good job of watching out for each other.
You said you also put on events. What kind?
I do plays and performances in unusual spaces and I do large-scale interactive sculptures and installations. And a lot of those are in New York and sometimes they are outside of New York or the country.
Is there anything you’re working on now?
I am actively working as a contributor to a show which is a performance and spectacle that will happen around the first major snow in the New Year. It’s by an artist named Sarah McMillan, called “Snow Migration.”
Do you know where it will be?
I can’t talk about it (laughs). It’s one of those things that you’re going to have to keep your eyes peeled for. It’s one of those small audience events I was talking about. It’s light and fast and moves quick.
Will you list it on Nonsense?
I’m not sure if I will get the chance, but I would. One of the things I think is special about Nonsense is that people still want me to list things on there that are going to be 30 people in their kitchen. I think that is extraordinary, that people still want to promote that stuff on Nonsense.
The thing I’ve been dealing with the past few years is the rise of Facebook and the Facebook challengers. You know, what’s the relevance of doing a list like Nonsense in this era where you just put your event on your network and wait for people to show up? And I think the thing that’s still valuable about Nonsense and the other lists is that there are people who still want to work and draw outside their network. I think that’s amazing, that people can throw an event in their kitchen, and want to try to get people who are not on their friend list to come.
You’ve been doing this for 10 years. Do you feel like there’s been any change in the types of events that you’re listing?
The thing that I think has really changed more than anything else is that the food events have become really serious and big. And I think it’s really exciting…There are so many ways to use food to bring people together and that has come out in a way that touches on so many different social interactions.
Are you a foodie?
I’m not. I love food and I like good food and I like cooking but I’m not a foodie.
What’s on your weekly reading list?
For listings or for paying attention to New York City?
I still get Time Out every week, I think it’s an amazing publication, they blow me away every week, I think it’s extraordinary, there’s no detachment or irony there. I still watch Flavorpill, I love Brooklyn Based [Thanks!]. I think Edible Brooklyn is really good. I also watch Todd P, Sleep When Dead, Gothamist, and Culturebot. And Suckapants has great photos of a lot of events that are on Nonsense as well.
I feel like a lot of publications come hard out of the gate. There have been these great lists throughout the years–New York Happenings, Extreme New York, Pogos List, Trudy–and they come up and focus on their thing really well and then they slowly fade away. What I’ve wanted to do is just stay consistent. I’ve tried really hard to just keep putting out Nonsense and to be relevant and keep making it good and adapt as well.
That’s funny that you say adapt because you seem so old-school and low tech. What do you mean by adapt?
I guess adapt in terms of the stuff that I cover and the stuff that we look at. I feel like putting the learning section on there was a big adaptation, it just was not a scene I was familiar with when I moved to New York. But I really kept getting so much desire from people to run that stuff and people were so happy when I did and more people would go to the classes. I thought like, maybe people go to a dance class every once in a while but I didn’t realize that there’s a class for everything. New Yorkers are such overachievers. So adapting to me is finding space for that.
Over the years, there was a time when I would put on any burlesque show because burlesque was a synonym for weird performance art, and then burlesque really came into its own, and kind of became its own full scene that needs its own list so I couldn’t list all that stuff. There was a time when I would cover raves and illegal outdoor dance parties–they called them “outlaws.” I used to list those because that’s kind of what was going on in 2002.
Now in the past three years all the bike stuff has come on really heavy. For me that’s adapting, it’s not like a technological thing, it’s more like what’s the focus of this list? I feel like I’ve stayed on track with what’s participatory art or culture in NYC, like where can you see, be involved, be engaged with art that encourages more of a community understanding of culture than the ‘We are professionals who perform for you,’ which I feel is the mainstream culture that New York is known for. That’s extraordinary but it’s just not what we’re about. I mean that stuff gets covered very well in the New Yorker, the New York Times and New York Magazine.
Are there particular party promoters that you really like and trust?
The people at Rubulad are some of my closest friends and I’ve worked for them for years. One of the reasons I started Nonsense was knowing about Rubulad parties, and being frustrated that I didn’t know when they were always. That party’s been going for something like 15, 16 years now through different venues and different spaces. I love the heart of those people. They keep doing it and they keep getting chased out of spaces. They believe in what they do. And I feel really warm toward anyone who’s like that. ABC No Rio is the same way, they’ve stuck through it throughout the years all in one space.
I’ve worked with and known Will Etundi from TheDanger for a million years and I think that he’s always trying to do really interesting, radical outdoors stuff. I don’t think they always work but he’s always tried to do stuff that no one else is doing. I used to be involved with the Madagascar Institute a lot, and I’m still heartened that they’re still on it. I love 3rd Ward, I love the House of Yes.
Those are all extreme DIY people who’ve been at it for years.
What makes Nonsense NYC worthwhile for you, year after year?
I know it’s probably a bit trite, but I put out the list for the love. I want to live in a city that has room for anyone who wants to participate, for anyone who wants to make stuff and be a part of something grand–a whole city. This is what I can do.
Portrait of Jeff Stark by Alex M. Smith. Interview by Nicole.