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The Ministry of Bad Decisions: Now accepting yours

Updated: Jun 5

 

Think it might be a bad idea? File it with the Ministry of Bad Decisions. Just look for the clerk with the plague doctor mask.

 

In George Orwell’s 1984, the Ministry of Truth propagates lies; the Ministry of Peace, war; The Ministry of Love, fear; and the Ministry of Plenty, scarcity. The Ministry of Bad Decisions? It oozes good ideas.

TV-Head by Anna Martel @mirthfulartsandvintage

“This house is full of tinkerers,” said Anna Martel, the most tenured current member of the Ministry, a queer art house located on the corner of Cherry Street and Highland Ave. The house and adjacent studio have been run as a residential collective since 2000. It has housed musicians, drag performers, writers, actors, models, and more. Currently, it is home to four people.


The watchful eye over their work is not the tracking stare of Big Brother, but, rather, the telescoping gaze of a TV-head mannequin within another TV-head mannequin. His posse is a party of humanoids, their forms a montage of technology, toys, and eras. A doll sports a cloche terrarium head, a Zenith clock radio wears a flower crown and is supported by a stuffed animal body with robot-like hands. 


Martel draws on a background in theater and costume and set design to create these mannequins. Her creations all have humanlike qualities to them. The Zenith’s wide-set clock eyes and pinched fingertips exude shy curiosity; leaned in a corner with hand in pocket, the cloche terrarium head is aloof, though surely watching everything through his 360-degree glass.


“I’ve always loved the interplay between theater and everyday life, and my [mannequins] allow me to access that.” said Martel. “They serve as community members that enjoy nothing more than to sit outside and surprise passersby.” 


During Somerville Open Studios from May 4-5, visitors explored the Ministry’s studio, which was transformed into a gallery for the weekend. In addition to Martel’s collection, the walls displayed the charcoal and India ink figure drawings of Ministry member Michael Tyler.

Drawings by Michael Tyler @theechurchofmanlove

That weekend, a mannequin with collaged newspaper skin stood between a wall of Tyler’s art and a collection of vintage fashion images. She was uniformed in red sunglasses, a plague doctor mask, and a horned baseball cap. Around her neck hung a drop box where guests could submit their potential bad decisions with the knowledge that—if ill-advised enough—they might be displayed in the studio window. 


The Open Studios event was an experiment in finding new ways for the Ministry to engage with the public and build community, elements that have remained central to the collective despite other changes brought on over two and a half decades.


The collective, first called Serendipity, was founded in 2000 when Peter Gast and his wife purchased the house to live in with a group that included a writer, a tutor, and a game designer. As a computer professional himself, Gast had the financial resources to purchase the house and storefront from Barbara and Joseph Russo, a retiring married couple who had used the property since the 1960s to raise a family and run a wedding supply store. 


At the time, rent was set to match the rate of mortgage payments and associated costs. Gast had lived in collectives since graduating college and valued the strong sense of community found there and around Somerville. “It is that social network that I have always found very supportive and empowering in my life.” Sharing costs equally also helped facilitate a community dynamic within the house. “My wife and I would always have our landlord hats and our roommate hats very clearly differentiated,” said Gast. 


The Gasts left Serendipity in 2004, when they learned they had their first child on the way. The founding family tried to keep rent prices tied to expenses and to keep the house tenants connected to the studio. 


Bundling the properties has a twofold purpose. The studio does not have its own bathroom, so its tenants have, historically, used the house’s facilities. But the arrangement also promotes a flexible working relationship between the landlords and the tenants. 


Some years the Gasts have supported tenants through hard times, and others the tenants have added value to the property by taking ownership of improvements to the space. The result of providing the space at cost, Gast said, has been ‘very stable tenants and very engaged tenants, and a sense of cooperation that I have been very proud of.” 


Over a decade, the other original members of Serendipity also moved on, moved out, and were replaced by new housemates. Martel said the last of them left in 2011 and the new medley of residents decided it was time for a rebrand. This was when the collective was coined the Ministry of Bad Decisions, or MiniBad to follow the rules of Orwell’s newspeak. 


In addition to its changing slate of residents, the house used to welcome transient occupants. Before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, Martel said it was a space to host and facilitate connection between artists in and around Somerville. “We had lovely little events as well as serving as hosts for artists traveling for events like Honk! It was a truly beautiful time of community, mutual aid, and interconnecting.” 


Similarly, the studio has taken on many roles over the years, sometimes accommodating the creative aspirations of collective members and sometimes hosting outside ventures. It has been transformed into a tutoring space, a massage parlor, and Whole Tone Music Academy.


“You name it, we’ve had someone who does it living here or working out of the studio,” said Martel. 


Today, MiniBad operates differently than many residential collectives and has taken a break from hosting non-members. The housemates set loose expectations for each other. There are no daily or weekly labor requirements and task divisions are molded to accommodate each person’s unique situation. “In its current form, MiniBad is serving as a space of quiet and introspective healing,” said Martel. 


The studio is in a transition phase as its members percolate ideas for using the space and ways to foster new public engagement. 


In the past, some of that engagement happened naturally as Somervillians’ appreciation of creativity met the Ministry’s public displays. Perched on a cabinet outside the house for a while, Martel’s TV-head mannequin attracted a foot-traffic fanbase. One day, he took a tumble and had to be medically evacuated. His absence sent concern rippling through the neighborhood.

Humanoid by Anna Martel.
Martel's plague-doctor clerk during SOS.




















“When he fell and was in the house art hospital for a while, there would be people being like ‘oh my god, where’s your mannequin,’ like, ‘is he okay? What happened to him?’” said Martel.


TV-head was okay thanks to the excellent care received at MiniBad Hospital. He looked in fine health during Open Studios, posed casually outside the Ministry to welcome—and perhaps watch over—visitors. 

 

The Ministry of Bad Decisions is on Instagram @theministryofbaddecisions and runs the Facebook group “The Ministry of Bad Decisions”

 

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