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Culture & Artsby Doug Birch9:29 amApr 25, 20120

Welcome to the Copycat

Unreal Estate: Revealing portraits of the residents of a Baltimore arts landmark.

Above: The Copycat building, arts incubator, artists’ asylum and star of cracking new video

With their mesmerizing video “Welcome to the Copycat,” two residents of the loft building of the same name on Guilford Avenue have profiled their happy home, giving the world a quirky window into Baltimore’s very unofficial arts incubator and artists’ refuge.

It is, it seems, a hit.

“The reaction has been overwhelming,” says Rob Brulinski, a 23-year-old photographer, who, with business partner Alex Wein, 22, produced and directed the film, which explores the spaces created by the community of city artists living in the century-old brick structure.

“I get emails every day from people all over the country asking to move into the building. I have to tell people I’m not the management.”

In a single 15-minute take, videographer Tyler Davis and his steadycam follow residents up and down stairs and elevators, down blank white corridors and finally into a series of alternate universes: a fascinating sequence of studio and apartment spaces – the comfort zones the Copycat’s resident artists have built for themselves in the shell of part of the old Crown Cork & Seal bottle cap factory.

The Copycat, which takes its name from an advertisement displayed for years on a billboard on the building’s roof, began to convert into quasi-legal loft space in the 1980s.  Today, it is one of the cultural landmarks in the city’s evolving Station North arts district.

Brulinski and Wein, who run their Wild Horses Studios photography business out of the Copycat, first set out last year to produce a book documenting the building’s history and profiling its residents, with Brulinski writing the text and Wein shooting the pictures.

 Sigrid Larsen, 25. (Photo by Alex Wein)

Sigrid Larsen, 25. (Photo by Alex Wein)

They ended up photographing about 130 of the building’s 140 or so artists and residents for their 160-page book, which doubled as Wein’s senior thesis at the Maryland Institute College of Art and goes on sale  in June. Here’s the " target="_blank">Copycat Project’s KickStarter fundraising appeal, which raised $5,400.

Wein says his portraits of the artists in their lofts were influenced by the work of Canadian artist Jeff Wall. “The way he mixes a photographic tableau, which is the staged scene, and his use of natural and artificial light in creating this alternate realism, is what really strikes me,” he says.

Brulinski says he wanted to document life in the Copycat in a book because he was struck both by the sense of community among residents and the mystery of their private lives in the building’s maze of loft spaces. Open a door, and you may find a recording studio, a kick-boxing dancer or an artist using a skateboard ramp.

“The building itself is its own little microcosm,” Brulinski says. “It’s its own little world. It doesn’t shun the rest of the world, but it doesn’t require it either.”

Playing With Voyeurism

Only after they had done a lot of work on the book did Brulinski and Wein decide to make a video, because they felt it would help give outsiders a better feel for the texture of life in the building.

In part, Brulinksi says,  the video’s style was inspired by the 2002 Russian film “Russian Ark,” shot in a single take in the Hermitage Museum of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. The film carries viewers on a physical trip through the vast tsarist-era building, as well as a metaphorical journey through Russian history and art.

The filmmakers decided to shoot their video without dialogue or narration, in part to add to the sense of mystery.  “I really wanted to play with the question, is the viewer a part of this building or (is he) a voyeur?” Wein says. “Sometimes the viewer is acknowledged. The camera brings the viewer into the actual space, an apartment, and you are there. At other times you are like a ghost passing through walls.”

At first glance, the Welcome to the Copycat video may look like a simple point-and-shoot project. But that doesn’t do it justice: it’s been carefully choreographed. Davis keeps the camera moving until there is motion within the frame, so the viewer’s sense of forward momentum never stops. Some of the “natural” sounds of the building – banging pipes, for example – were recorded and dubbed in later, Brulinski says.

Monroe Reeves

Painter Monroe Reeves, one of the Copycat’s residents. Photo by Alex Wein

The Copycat project is part of Wein’s senior thesis for his undergraduate degree from the Maryland Institute College of Art. It goes on sale on Wild Horses’ website in June. In the meantime, the artists hope to arrange a theatrical screening of the film in Baltimore this summer.

“Alex and I made the video,” Brulinski says. “But I feel like the residents made that movie. Without them, we couldn’t have done it. It’s a testament to what (this) community is.”

For more on the city’s arts and culture, visit The Brew’s new Coming at You calendar of events.

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