Light in the Tunnel: Inside Dupont Underground
March 4, 2017 @ 12:00am
There are moments in life when you stumble upon something that feels remarkable, and your gut instinct is to hold on tight. As a writer, it’s those moments that can lead to the most compelling stories. On a Tuesday afternoon in late January, about 20 minutes into a private tour of a subterranean streetcar station reinvented as a creative space for the DC community, I knew I’d found a story worth telling: Dupont Underground.
I was standing with the nonprofit’s managing director, David Ross, and board member Philippa Hughes of Pink Line Project, staring down the length of a pitch-black tunnel that was suddenly illuminated by bright, kaleidoscopic projections that seemed to pulsate to the beat of the music filling every inch of the immense space. I was completely mesmerized.
Jared Bileski’s light tunnel is part of Dupont Underground’s current exhibit, Make It Work, an exploration of the different paths contemporary art can take in an industrial space. Ross curated the exhibit, and helped spark the idea for Bileski’s installation when experimenting with a projector in the tunnel during one of his many late nights directly beneath Dupont Circle.
“The space is so large, you kind of have to be in it,” Ross says. “75,000 square feet is a lot. I spent a lot of time between 1 and 6 a.m. down there trying to figure out how things worked.”
His initial involvement with the space was to record musicians and host live performances, but he’s now pursuing a full-fledged commitment to turning the web of underground platforms and tunnels into a thriving cultural facility. This transformation marks Dupont Underground’s fourth incarnation; first as a trolley station from 1949 to 1962, then as a fallout shelter in the late 60s and finally as a food court in the mid-90s, before being abandoned for years.
Ross says everything changed when he got his own key and could explore after hours; that, and the constant questions from passersby in Dupont Circle peeking down the steps, asking what the space was and when it was opening.
But in fact, the space was open last spring for the Re-Ball!: Raise/Raze exhibit, a repurposing of more than 650,000 plastic balls used in the National Building Museum’s wildly popular Beach exhibit. Under the direction of Hughes, one of our city’s biggest advocates for a diverse, engaged arts and culture community, 1400 volunteers came together to build Re-Ball!: Raise/Raze.
When the impactful community building experience ended, Ross noticed a lull in activity, and felt motivated to open the space back up to the public for tours. Different installations for Make It Work began coming together, including iGlow, a 36-foot-long glowing tunnel created by artist Hiroshi Jacobs that tourgoers are invited to walk through, and delicate wire sculptures by Reed Bmore that dangle from the ceiling of Dupont Underground and cast intricate shadows along its walls.
Ross is also collaborating with Corey Stowers (a Re-Ball! volunteer and active member of the local arts community) on a second exhibit, Up From the Underground, a collection of murals at each of the nine entrances of Dupont Underground and graffiti art in the actual tunnel. Ross reached out to Stowers after someone broke into the space and tagged it with graffiti to ask if he knew anyone who could create graffiti art. Turns out, Stowers knew a whole crew of talented graffiti artists with distant memories of tagging spaces like Dupont Underground who were interested.
“It gave the space a new identity,” Ross says. “And to be honest, it was probably one of the most interesting and rewarding experiences of my life getting to know them. Nothing was more fun than when we would wind down, and we’d all have a glass of bourbon together. I may or may not have teared up when they were gone.”
For two weeks, Ross hung out with the artists as they collaborated and bickered and chainsmoked through thick clouds of spray paint. One artist’s wife brought him sandwiches for lunch every day. Another sold cans of spray paint out of the back of his truck, piquing the interest of Dupont residents and business owners. Ross was initially nervous that Dupont Underground’s board members might view the installation as a continuation of the unwanted graffiti tagging, and walked around to the artists saying, “Listen, I need you to harness all of the talent you’ve gathered from the earth and try to put it on the wall.”
“And they did,” he says. “And it was fun.”
The mural project is ongoing, with four of the nine entrances mostly complete. Ross wanted to do something to improve them, remembering this adage from his dad: “People will treat your space as you treat it.”
“So I was like, ‘Alright, we’ve got to add something to this.’”
Baltimore-based artist Paul Miracle, who was in Cub Scouts with Ross back in the day, tackled the first entrance last December. Ross said it was so cold that they both had to wear long johns while working on the mural, and scrape tape used while spray painting off the frozen concrete with their fingernails. Miracle’s rainbow-colored geometric mural is still a work in progress; he keeps coming back to make changes.
Tattoo artist Jay Coleman created a seascape at the 19th Street entrance after scoping out the space with his son. Artist, illustrator and designer CYCLE contacted Ross when he caught wind of the project, imploring him not to paint over his graffiti tag at one of the entrances from 25 years ago. Ross offered him one better and invited the muralist to paint one of the entrances; he even paid for his Airbnb to sweeten the deal. CYCLE’s mural has an astronaut at the center of it, and his early 90s graffiti remains intact. Street artist and filmmaker Nils Westergard came up from Richmond to paint the fourth mural, a series of women’s faces in monochromatic shades, in three days.
“People that had never met him heard he was in town and just showed up,” Ross says of Westergard’s fanbase. “We were under a grate, and people were just talking to him through it.”
Ross is putting out feelers to women muralists for the other four entrances, but plans for the ninth, “the skinny one,” remain TBD.
Dupont Underground reopened on January 6, with nearly every wave of tours selling out. Ross still records live music in the space, and hosts intimate events like Sofar Sound shows and Literaoke (writers + karaoke) nights. But he sees the space becoming home to so much more, “a place that continues to do cutting-edge, inclusive work, and to help create and really shape an artistic movement within the city.”
Hughes, who lauds Ross for being a doer and not just a talker, shares his vision. In her mind, the possibilities are endless for using the space as a vehicle for community-driven art and engagement experiences.
“It’s such a weird space that it’s asking for experimentation,” she says. “It is literally this raw space. We can literally do anything in it.”
It’s these opportunities that keep Hughes involved in the nonprofit, even after Re-Ball! ended and Ross reimagined the space for its current exhibits. The way she describes why she’s drawn to Dupont Underground, it’s almost as if the tunnel has a life of its own.
“It literally feels different as you descend. It’s a different world down there.”
And thinking big picture, she says the space reinforces that we aren’t just a city of politics and bureaucrats.
“Dupont Underground is a point on this grid of cool things happening around DC. There really is this whole world out there that people don’t think about at all. And in a way, Dupont Underground symbolizes that because it is this sort of weird, secret space.”
Hughes and Ross have been approached about everything from classical music to tap dancing, and even a political haunted house. They both love the idea of a site-specific dance performance, and other types of immersive experiences not yet explored in the space.
While leading tours, several volunteers have found journals kept by the homeless people who used to seek shelter there. Ross has considered the idea of somehow sharing those people’s stories, but not without striving mightily to track them down first to get their permission.
They both truly value the historical significance of the space, soaking up stories about what its meant to different people over the years. A man approached Ross not too long ago and said that this was his home more than two decades ago. Another man talked to Hughes at the Re-Ball! opening and told her that when he was a little boy, he used to wait with his mom for the trolley that would take him to school.
“DC has so much incredible, rich history,” Hughes says. “I feel like there’s something about the Underground. We’re digging down and seeing these incredible stories.”
She and Ross are both quick to credit architect and founder Julian Hunt with his extensive knowledge of the history of the space. Hunt says that after years abroad in Barcelona, he understood the role that architects could play in defining an urban identity.
“I just had the eye,” he says.
And like his colleagues, Hunt remains unwavering in his mission, looking directly ahead at what’s next for Dupont Underground.
“The vision is the same as it was in the beginning, unchanged: a cultural event and exhibition space to explore the future of the city, a space for the city to talk to itself and project a cultural identity of its own, distinct from the federal.”
Together, the driving forces behind Dupont Underground want to create an authentic experience within our community, bringing people together to engage in what Ross calls “a social experiment.” My interpretation? He’s writing the next chapter of the Underground’s story, and he’s inviting us to join him.
Tickets to tour Dupont Underground are $15; tours last 45 minutes. Learn more at www.dupontunderground.org.