Making a Scene

Review

Making a Scene

By Matt Kelly August 3, 2015

SOMArts Cultural Center is currently exhibiting an archive of works that focuses on social justice and alternative spaces in the Bay Area. Making a Scene packs the main gallery with works from over thirty artists, spanning five decades. That abundance is both a value and a liability for this exhibition. The show presents a range of interpretations of what it means for a space to be “alternative.” Historical examples and current work have been placed side by side to create an archive of local artists for whom community offers the greatest inspiration.

Marlon Sagana Ingram. Mobile Social Institute, edition #2, 2015; installation piece; 8x10'. Courtesy of the Artist and SOMArts. Photo: Astra Brinkmann 

The display of Media Burn by Ant Farm and Chip Lord depicts the early days of performance art in California. Media Burn was originally performed on July 4, 1975, in the parking lot of the Cow Palace after many museums and art centers declined to sponsor the event. For this exhibition, a video loop plays a collage of news coverage and event footage from the spectacle. A framed storyboard of the original performance shows meticulous documenting of the proposed artwork in ink and colored pencils. 

Rene Yañez’s altar installation, Dia de los Muertos, pays tribute to Latino artists who’ve been working in the Mission district for decades. Yañez includes framed images and words of artists such as muralist Michael Rios, the Low Rider Movement, and performance artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña. These artists have all worked within their community and seen their work as an extension of their cultures. 

In Marlon Sagana Ingram’s installation, Mobile Social Imports: Beautifully Connected, he adorned a trailer-like hut with spray-can typographies and imagery, bringing into the gallery space work that is typically viewed outside. Ingram discovered that mobile-phone corporations were attempting to “colonize” central and southern Africa by giving out vouchers for free phones, although due to lack of technical infrastructure, users could rarely use the phones to talk. This series of works satirizes the idea of cell phones and corporate presence in rural Africa by becoming its own brand. Advertisements by Ingram of impractical phones like the “Mud Cell” urge consumers to “stay connected.” The inside of the hut functions as a store for these phone prototypes as well as for Ingram’s works.

Darryl Thompson. You Can Murder a Revolutionary, But You Can't Murder Revolution, 2015; mural; 8x10'. Courtesy of the Artist and SOMArts. Photo: Claire Stacy

Yañez’s assemblage brings together two central themes of Making a Scene: alternative space and social justice. Many works hold closer to one theme or the other, forming a dichotomy. One quarter of the room features works that focus on social justice, including photography from Bay Area Protest by Sunshine Velasco, Darryl Thompson’s historical re-creation (on which, see below), and the aforementioned profiles of Mission artists by Yañez. Other areas of the gallery emphasize works that concentrate on the importance of site. Some will argue this provides a diverse experience of overlapping concepts, while others have difficulty finding cohesion among the variety of works. 

The archive shows how different Bay Area artists have focused on or utilized space outside of institutions. Each work relies on its social context and holds a dense history of the circumstances of its making. Some installations fall short due to insufficient contextualization, and the sheer variety of art on display makes it challenging for the visitor to hold on to a clear narrative. Some historical works, such as Darryl Thompson’s re-creation of a historical Emory Douglas print, You Can Murder a Revolutionary, But You Can’t Murder Revolution (2015), lack a description that would establish context—in this case, explaining the work’s original significance as part of the Black Panther Movement.

Rene Yañez. Alternative History in the Mission, 2015; installation piece; Courtesy of the Artist and SOMArts. Photo: Astra Brinkmann 

Making a Scene is rich with histories of different forms of resistance to the capitalist clutches of the commercial Art World, histories that have shaped the place we call home. At the same time, the exhibition cannot escape this system, as it is partially funded through grants from large foundations such as the San Francisco Arts Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts. Making a Scene is staged within the white-walled galleries of a cultural center. Blurring boundaries between social practice and social justice, the institution and the alternative, historical and contemporary, Making a Scene brings together a large body of work that celebrates the tradition of working outside of the institution.  

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Making a Scene is on view at SOMArts, in San Francisco, through August 20, 2015.

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