When we think about contemporary art, white walls, large canvases and Manolo Blahniks come to mind. What about the creativity, the voices and the movements within our communities now?
The bay area, Oakland and San Francisco respectively, have a rich artistic tradition embedded with empowerment, love and activism. Community is a practice in dialogue, a practice to preach what we know and sharing how we grow. More and more it seems, underground art communities are coming into fruition. Underground art spaces have a rich history of providing safe spaces of collaboration and congregation.
There is a non-traditional/non-conformist ideology and community permeating the bay area. Testaments of current constructed underground alternative spaces are thought to be a result of real estate politics. Although this is a factor, these “safe spaces” function outside normative cultural values and their legacy has deeper lineage and innate purpose.
The legendary Cockettes in the 1960s Haight Ashbury scene were known for their loosely formed commune and theater troupe lifestyle. This was the hippie acid love revolution, embodying complete freedom and expression. At this time, the bay area was home to more than 300 communes, all-participating in the heightened countercultural trend to refute the money economy while aspiring to a utopian lifestyle. This same period birthed the infamous beat movement with Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlenghetti and many others. They also set up many underground pop-up readings and participated in as well as contributed to the counter culture movement that was expanding throughout the nation at that time.
The consistent message and energy of these spaces then and now is unmistakable. There is a compelling urge to communicate in a real and genuine way: subtracting the frivolities of money, consumerism and status. Art for art’s sake eliminates the chaos often associated with traditional modes of viewing art.
I spoke with Arrington West, the creative director of the newly established art collective, Black Mail. There is a lot of grief within West’s immediate art community and for many others, one can’t help but wonder why? “Even though I’m an artist, I see this and it hurts.” West lamented. Whether it is the passing of artists, the lack of resources or the feeling of not being a voice in the larger dialogue of the changing realities of the city, it continues to affect the way these collectives and alternative spaces operate. Black Mail seeks to provide and create a dynamic of collective resources and opportunity for everyone. In a time and in a city where art seems to be less and less a part of the larger conversations, it is now when art and art communities are most vital. Black Mail has had two shows so far and each created an environment to allow artists and viewers to explore the themes of community, brotherhood and to combat the media’s idea of being a black male today. “Black Mail exists to remind everybody that SF hasn’t lost its culture, that its people, our people care about what happens to our city. Through this show we, along with the artists, will help SF bring black back” stated West.
Their first show was held at the Luggage Store gallery, which also launched the careers of Barry McGee, Ed Templeton, Margaret Kilgallen, , Shepard Fairey and many others. These artists were involved in similar alternative art spaces/ideologies in SF during the 1990s. Looking back at these projects, the general outlook and mission of underground spaces and collectives today is similar to the work of that generation. “The mission is to continue being a platform to cultivate artists of color: to be an incubator for the next generation as well as connecting to the previous generation.” said West.
In thinking about empathy, art, vulnerability, expression and communication, it is clear that the intention for many of these artist run spaces and underground venues is to engage the community in new ways and to be a resource, bridging the gap of accessibility in regards to class and race.
It’s an energy that compounds, that cultivates and allows people to find inspiration and growth. Find solace in environments that promote everyone to simply make, as a way to question, to process and to make sense of it all.Painter and poet Brent Wilson recently started a new space with a mission that is rooted in accessibility and participation, remembering that community is developed through the individual people who comprise it. With these sentiments of space, community and cultivating conversations, Wilson recognized, “any place where people take the risk of opening to expose their inner more vulnerable self should be treated with respect and reverence.”
I met Brent Wilson in May 2015, when we both participated in a pop-up art show in Chinatown called “Inhabit”, curated by Sean Silk. The space was an old ginseng distribution building with three floors and we utilized it all for zines, clothing, artwork, installation and poetry readings. I recently participated in a 100-year Dada anniversary show at his new space, Streamline café/salon, which was a collaborative show with gallery 60six.
It’s a café that has a public art space in the back and the programming does not have restrictions. They plan to represent as many medias as possible: conceptual, AV, printed, spoken, 2-D & 3-D visual arts.
As artists, thinkers, and makers, we need forums such as these to breathe and freely share a mental space that is normally hidden from the day-to-day urban landscape. This determination to make and display work is akin to a deeper innate truth that characterizes the creative lineage of San Francisco. Hosting events in garages, homes and vacant commercial spaces is necessary to keep the city’s pulse flowing.
The last space I talked to was Gallery Y2K, located in the Rockridge area of Oakland. Y2K began as a gallery in the home of Annalee LaPreziousa, Liam Sanborn Petterson, Mariel Eplboim, and Ryan Molnar in the beginning of 2016. Y2K came into being as a result of the limited opportunities confronting Bay Area artists and creative individuals.
Their programming isn’t exhibition-centric, but more targeted to the needs and aspirations of the Y2K members. They focus on different projects and opportunities presented to them. Some fashion designers from their clothing shop wanted to do a runway show, which they planned and held in Madison Square Park. In this way, there is flexibility to do a multitude of things and by doing so they expand the idea of an art space by functioning outside of one physical location.
“Galleries and museums have been defined as resolute and concrete spaces. We believe that not all art spaces need to have a physical location, and not all art galleries are sustainable. In our current economic climate, finding affordable housing is a rare commodity, so building an inclusive creative artspace is vital” stated Y2K.
With spaces/groups like Y2K, Streamline and Black Mail there is a shift in the way art is perceived and understood. They are all questioning their environment and how their actions play into the general exclusivity of the art world. Perhaps these spaces help us slow down in the way we are looking and experiencing the world. A return to essentials: communities of passionate people, inspiration, growth and a desire to question and find meaning within our experiences.
Cities, people, art etc. are always in a state of flux. Perhaps there are no absolutes in living and creating. Therefore, zones infused with creative freedom and love become incubators for ideas and action. In this way we keep ourselves alive and engaged in a larger, more meaningful dialogue. Utilizing mental and physical space to be present in questioning the realities of our times, questioning desires, fears, loves and dreams, in an attempt to learn how to be human, how to become who we are.
“Art should have intention of moving people…to heal and to make dialogue.”
Images by salt, tailored heritage and Mao Sakurada Reich