At one time, long ago, people went to malls to have their many consumerist, social, and aesthetic needs met—for a price—and also, sometimes, there was a hot pretzel stand. Nowadays the work of fulfilling those needs has mostly been overtaken by the internet. It has all the mall offered, and you don't even need to wear pants to access it.

Portland's Lloyd Center has been in the mall game for going on six decades now, and has undergone a number of reinventions to stay relevant (they added the roof in the '90s, for example). Recently that’s meant welcoming refugees from Portland’s arts scene, who find themselves increasingly displaced by the city’s deeply unhinged real estate market.

Secret Room Workshop is the latest, albeit brief, addition of the art world into Lloyd’s well-trod halls. Occupying a small gallery space—across from an empty storefront that appears to have, somewhat confusingly, once sold both “R/C cars” and “jeans”—it looks stately enough to be a boutique with a couple of rumpus room touches, like a pair of colorful rugs and some combo TV VCRs playing artsy bootleg tapes on repeat. A few shelves of Secret Room’s in-house published comics and zines are displayed for sale, along with a row of vivid comics-influenced prints, bootleg VHS tapes, and micro-label cassettes. 

As a gallery, the Lloyd Center space does leave something to be desired. The lighting is harsh, there’s limited sound insulation, and the surrounding hallways give off the same vibes as one might find on a very slow day in an affluent regional airport. But that may be part of the appeal for a space like Secret Room, which by contrast feels a bit like an arty clubhouse tucked away from the main shopping torus.

The crown jewel of Secret Room's pop-up is unquestionably its risograph printer, which to the untrained eye looks like a beefy beige office copier filled with mysterious cartridges of garish pastel goo.

Risography is a kind of automated screen printing process developed by a Japanese company in the 1980s, as a way to cut costs on high volume color printing, but it’s a natural fit for indie artists looking to pump out everything from prints to zines on the cheap. The machine can produce a simple, arresting color spectrum reminiscent of early newspaper comic strips, but it’s also capable of printing fairly complex prints, given enough passes. Co-founder Cielle Charron told the Mercury that everything in the storefront, from the prints to books to the promotional flyers, went through either their riso machine or the riso of a friend.

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Secret Room's opening reception party reflected the space's ambiguity, as prospective art patrons milled around under fluorescent lights, sipped wine out of tiny plastic cups, and considered the outlandish titles of the assembled outsider art prints. But a couple days later, at a reading by cartoonist Sean Christensen, it was easier to see the space’s potential. 

About two dozen people clustered around a projector on folding chairs or sat cross-legged on a homey rug while Christensen handed out string cheese in advance of his presentation. He then inserted a VHS tape into one of the TVs and played a video of his own occasionally blinking face, which he explained would be a better candidate than he to make eye contact with. After that, he played another cassette—this one filled with lo-fi ambient techno—while he took the audience through some of his evocative ink sketches and meditative poetry on the nature of time, identity, and the Comfort Inn chain of hotels.

It was charming, there was free cheese, and it only lasted about 30 minutes; a pretty good setup for a comics presentation. Charron told me that the main impetus for renting the Lloyd space was to have a public, physical location where people could engage with art, and this is certainly that.

Secret Room plans to present a series of both readings and workshops in the coming months, including a couple holiday card workshops, in November and December, and a collaboration on using the machines for animation with Seattle riso studio Zine Hug. As with most pop-ups, the physical space timeframe is limited. Secret Room only plans to be open in the mall through. December 23. But for now,  the shop feels like a reasonably successful incursion into the mall's cavernous promenade. Plus, you can get a hot pretzel on the way out.

Secret Room Workshop, a pop-up of Secret Room Press, is open at the Lloyd Center, 2201 Lloyd Center, through Dec 23, Wed-Sat 12-7, Sunday 12-6.