PORTLAND IS A CLIQUEY TOWN. There are the hipsters, the hippies, the trustafarians, the bike riders, and the coffeehouse crowd. Things are easily decipherable, in a cliquey, district-centric way, and it feels sort of like a John Hughesian high school: simple, defined categories of jocks, cheerleaders, nerds, rebels, weirdos. Until recently, each of these collectives have been content to live and work and play amongst themselves, eschewing any and all other groups.
Then Backspace had to open and mess everything up.
Backspace defies an easy definition. It might be the type of place that slashes were invented for, like this: Backspace is a videogame center/internet café/art gallery/ coffee bar. You can go to Backspace to play videogames. Or look at art. Or check your email, or sober up after going out drinking. Or, as Eric and Kris Robison, the brothers who opened the place are hoping, you can go and do all of those things.
A more conventional place like this wouldn't be a place, but places--a separate coffee house, art gallery, game center. But Backspace is anything but conventional.
"It kind of goes back to being an artist, and not wanting to create the traditional game center," Eric says. "The traditional game centers [are] just like offices, with little cubicles and computers."
"And florescent lights," Kris interjects. "With computers just lined up. And I guess a lot of gamers don't really care about that stuff, but I kinda thought that it was."
Kris pauses, then the words rush out of him.
"I don't know, there's so much art in these games, and it just seemed like they weren't respecting that aspect of gaming, you know?"
"Yeah," Eric agrees. "And as an artist, I like to play games, but I've never really been a gamer. But some of these games, you look at them and you're just like 'Wow.' Like the environments and the art and the colors it's really amazing what these people are doing, and that it's part of this game."
A VIRTUAL TOUR
The synthesis of virtual and real art is the common ground between the two seemingly disparate cultures the brothers are attempting to bring together. Those who enter the 4,000-square-foot industrial space in Old Town are instantly greeted by a coffee bar and a lounge-type area, complete with pool table, which then flows into a section filled with rings of networked computers specifically designed for top of the line internet and LAN gaming. Not four feet from the computer monitors hang canvases and photographs, and art installations sit in corners and along walls. Even in "the console room"--a dark room outfitted sparsely with a couch, an Xbox, and a projector--two paintings lay against the brick wall, ready to be hung.
The console room--soon to be outfitted with at least one more console, either a Nintendo GameCube or a PlayStation 2--might be the most dramatic gaming feature of Backspace. With the projection screen, there's nothing quite as cool as playing Tony Hawk 4, flawlessly pulling off a trick like a 540 Switch Method, and watching it all projected on the wall in massive, four-by-six-foot glory. There's a flip side, though: I quickly discovered there are few things as depressing as being unable to avoid the monstrous display as I failed to pull off a 360 Madonna--pixelized blood has never been so inescapable and humbling.
In short, Backspace--which opened July 3--is what brothers Eric and Kris Robison had in mind when they decided to open an "entertainment mecca." In addition to the art and computers, free internet access is on its way, courtesy of techno charity Free Geek, and customers can access the extra open network lines and full wireless network with their own laptops, or bring in their own games to play in the console room. Also present is a line of 25-cent old school arcade games, with classics like Centipede, Joust, Defender, and Ms. Pac Man.
"It's going to be pretty interesting," says Kris of how the different groups might come together, while Eric admits "there's an idealistic factor" to the idea of bringing together art snobs and geeks.
"As we were thinking about what kind of place we wanted, we wanted a space where people [could realize that] it's not just about playing games--it's about interaction," says Eric. "It's kind of an experiment of creating a space where people can step away from the game and there's interaction, there's coffee, there's good art."
"Monthly, we want to be part of the art walk," says Eric, referring to several other galleries that have opened nearby. "More and more people are going to start realizing that the art walk is moving a little bit south. And it's different," he says, looking around at Backspace's current displays and smiling. "It's more edgy art. It's not the Pearl."
BEWARE THE ART SNOB
The brothers are aware their plan might backfire--if the art intimidates the hardcore geeks, or if the games cause art snobs to snub Backspace, their experiment could be a short-lived one.
"Maybe the older artists [will hesitate]," Eric admits. "But when [Backspace guest curator] Shannon Richardson brought in some artists, as soon as they saw the spot they didn't seem to care that there were computers in here. They were just like, 'Oh, this is a great space.'"
The brothers are also planning a "working painters' showcase" where artists will work within Backspace, so customers can watch them and the evolution of their paintings. They're also optimistic about possibilities of tournaments with other gaming centers and game showcases.
"We would love to have game developers in here," Eric says, and he adds that there are also plans to have consistent live music, starting with a DJ every two weeks.
"We recognize the risks," he adds. "We could have rented a little 600-square-foot place with computers in it and probably made good money. Instead, we got nearly 4,000 square feet that we're totally risking financially. I don't know. We'll see if we can make it work."
If the brothers can make it work--which would entail not only balancing the diverse elements of pop culture they're bringing together, but also convincing Portlanders that Backspace's unique fusion is one worth supporting--then Backspace and what it represents could prove enormously important and insightful to Portland's cultural scene.
"I think we'll do fine. I think people will come and get into the vibe of it," Eric says. "Worst case scenario, if people don't show up and we can't go on we've still made a space that we love, and that we're really proud of."
Backspace is at 115 NW Fifth Ave. (503) 248-2900, hours are Sun-Thur: 11 am to 12 am, Fri-Sat: 11 am to 4 am
Photos By Zak Riles