The Times Are Not a-Changin, They Have Already a-Changed

6.2 / There, We Said, and in This Place

The Times Are Not a-Changin, They Have Already a-Changed

By Chris Cobb July 9, 2014

1. The Decline of Bohemia


It's hard to say something new about how the Bay Area art establishment is falling apart. Everybody already knows that rents are skyrocketing, artists and musicians are fleeing, and a four-year art degree now costs a quarter of a million dollars. Even prominent curators are being forced to relocate because of evictions and real-estate speculation. It's enough to make any sane person wonder if the struggle is worth it. So, retreading acknowledged, it still might benefit artists to take a fresh look at what has brought the city’s cultural life to this moment, and where we can go from here.

Can I quote Bob Dylan?

"There must be some way out of here," said the joker to the thief
“There's too much confusion, I can't get no relief
Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth"1

The harsh truth is that things are changing rapidly, which has resulted in a collective sense of confusion and helplessness. It reminds me of a scene in the 1979 film Escape from Alcatraz, where an imprisoned artist finds out he won’t be allowed to paint ever again and so he uses an axe to chop off his own fingers. This profound act of self-destruction dramatizes the collective plight of the prisoners, making them realize that if they don't get off the island, they too will have whatever makes them unique taken away or crushed. Each inmate is left to consider his own disheartening future.

Fast-forward to 2014 and the San Francisco arts community is facing a similar situation, though there hasn’t been a single event to serve as a warning. Instead, the community has slowly watched the traumatic shuttering of longtime alternative spaces like New Langton Arts and Meridian Gallery, the mass eviction of galleries at 77 Geary, and the euphemistic "restructuring" of Intersection for the Arts.2 With average rent for a one-bedroom at $2,800 (a 27% increase in the last two years), staying in the city means a constant scramble to pull together enough money for housing.3 In turn, that means working jobs that are likely not art-related in order to live in a place that's probably too small. Back when the real Escape from Alcatraz happened, in 1962, rent for a one-bedroom was about 70 dollars a month ($550 in today’s dollars).4

Intersection for the Arts, at its former location in the Mission. Photo: Chris Cobb.

Although many people blame this situation on the influence of the tech industry and the sweetheart deals those companies have gotten from the city government, it's too simplistic to lay the blame on Google buses and Uber cabs, Twitter employees and Facebook middle managers.5 They are only the most visible part of a much larger change that has been building up for decades.

Let's not forget that from the 1950s through the 1970s, artists reveled in playing the role of the “disrupter” that is now seen as the purview of technology companies. The famed Bay Area counterculture grew out of art that challenged people to think for themselves and to communicate in new ways. It was a reflection of the protest culture that didn’t like students being spied on by the FBI at campuses around California; that was sick of seeing Black Panthers framed up by the police or gunned down in the streets. (Photographers Pirkle Jones, a teacher at the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI), and Ruth-Marion Baruch even collaborated with one of the Panthers, Kathleen Cleaver, on a landmark documentary series that resulted in the book The Vanguard.)

The harsh truth is that things are changing rapidly, which has resulted in a collective sense of confusion and helplessness.

Many other key radical artists came out of the art schools and showed in both private and university museums. Bruce Conner, an SFAI faculty member, made collages and sculptures about the horrors of war and then later documented early punk rockers. Paul Kos, yet another SFAI faculty member, tackled big ideas, fashioning a lens out of ice, lighting a fire with it, and then putting the fire out with the melted lens. At UC Berkeley, Terry Fox destroyed flowers with a flamethrower, protesting the horrors of the Vietnam War. Bonnie Sherk started a utopian art commune called The Farm, which, besides being a functioning farm, was a pioneering force in performance art and one of the precursors to what is now called "social practice." Art, music, poetry, performance—it all fed an intellectually hungry crowd that was hell-bent on subverting the system and changing the world.

But times change. People change. Neighborhoods change. Fair enough. Some of the changes are especially troubling, though, as the counterculture has been slowly coopted and commodified, resulting in things like Che Guevara merchandise or opportunistic "Occupy All Streets" T-shirts made by mega-mogul Jay-Z’s Rocawear line. Now in 2014, it’s unclear what fighting against the system means any more.  

Why does all this spell trouble for the arts? Because the fighting spirit of the counterculture gave art a sense of higher purpose and attracted a passionate, interconnected community. The prevailing contemporary art establishment—built around galleries, art fairs for jet-setting collectors, biennials, and “International Art English”—is a far cry from the days when weekly KPFA book reviews introduced the work of poets who then worked with artists and galleries to make a vibrant local intellectual scene, which in turn supported used bookstores all over the Bay and jazz clubs in the Fillmore, and helped push the culture toward progressive social movements.6

Sadly, that art ecosystem has withered away, and so has its audience. This shift has left the art scene vulnerable to an aggressive Silicon Valley culture that is wealthier and has different priorities than the old bohemian art culture that defined the city. That's what the Bay Area has to come to terms with in order to move on.

View of 49 and 77 Geary Street galleries. Photo: Chris Cobb.

2. The Rise of Burning Man


As the region’s traditional gallery- and museum-based art world has grappled with the decline of bohemia (and its audience) as well as the financial challenges of forging a viable life in the arts, another scene has slowly risen to become the vox populi of the Bay Area arts. Yes, I mean Burning Man and its maker ecosystem. It might seem implausible, but Burning Man is as much counterculture as you're likely to find in the Bay Area these days, and as it so happens, tech professionals love it.

It might seem implausible, but Burning Man is as much counterculture as you're likely to find in the Bay Area these days

It all began in 1986 as a bonfire ritual when Larry Harvey, Jerry James, and some friends burned a nine-foot-high wooden man on Baker Beach. Each summer they continued to do a burn, making the man bigger each time. When the ritual moved out to the Black Rock Desert in northern Nevada in 1990, the man was forty feet high. By 2010, over 50,000 people attended, causing the organizers to cap attendance. In 1986 it must have seemed impossible that a meditative, ritualistic practice among friends would become a genuine phenomenon and one of the most popular art events in the world.

Well, don’t say nobody warned us. Back in 1987, RE/Search Publications produced a book called Pranks that offered an alternative vision of what art was, predicting a scene that had more interest in culture jamming, hacking, playing practical jokes, and building giant robots than in staring at paintings in a museum. Related groups like Survival Research Laboratories (SRL), the Cacophony SocietyFlaming Lotus Girls, The Yes Men, Extra Action Marching BandSeemenBillboard Liberation Front, and Maker Faire came from a similar Situationist perspective: a movement that rejected passive observation as a bourgeois practice and encouraged active participation in the world. Burning Man has carried this torch (pun intended) in the decades since—in fact, “participation” is one of the ten principles that describe the Burning Man community’s ethos—and for better or for worse, it has helped create a fascinating split in the arts of the Bay Area.7

The Shockwave Cannon built by Survival Research Laboratories parked outside the LAB in 2004. Photo: Chris Cobb.

In the Burning Man universe, out in the desert, galleries and art fairs just don’t matter. Art-school validation doesn’t matter. Another of their principles, “radical inclusion,” is the opposite of the often exclusionary and intimidating art world. You don’t need to know anything about art to appreciate the festival’s spectacles, and nobody is going to make you feel stupid out on the Playa. While some Burning Man participants and organizers have had art training or careers in teaching and in galleries, just as many are not in the arts at all; they are techies, welders, car mechanics, doctors, belly dancers.

And they all love over-the-top performances and public spectacle: art as entertainment. They want to see rocket ships and cool art cars that look like giant snails or sharks. They want stuff they can light on fire and that feels exhilarating, fun, and a little dangerous. Whether the art is “good” or “bad” is irrelevant; this work does not exist within the critical frameworks of contemporary art. The point is to subvert orthodoxies, do your own thing free of judgment, and—above all—have fun.

As foreign as Burning Man's rusty metal aesthetics are to some in the traditional art world, this community is now making the art for which San Francisco is best known: ambitious, entertaining public projects that have attracted significant news coverage and community interest. Think of the Raygun Gothic Rocketship that was on the Embarcadero from 2010 to 2013, or the Hayes Valley Temple on Patricia’s Green, or Bliss Dance, the towering sculpture of a woman on Treasure Island. These are all the results of city partnerships with the Black Rock Arts Foundation (BRAF), an outgrowth of Burning Man founded to fund and promote projects (more than 100 so far) that support its aesthetics and core values. In particular, BRAF’s partnership with the Hayes Valley Arts Coalition has led to a number of popular artworks being sited at Patricia's Green, and contributed to the revitalization of the Hayes Valley neighborhood in the last decade.8 With its very focused, loyal, and organized following, Burning Man now exerts a major influence over the cultural life of the Bay Area.

3. When Countercultures Collide


So far it all sounds good, right? Well, Burning Man does have its critics. Last year, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Nellie Bowles wrote an insightful article about how everyone from Elon Musk to Mark Zuckerberg has been going there (in disguise, of course):

"… almost imperceptibly over the last few years, it has become a place where CEOs, venture capitalists, and startuppers can network (while wearing, at most, swimsuits). While neither money, branding, nor barter are allowed, suddenly companies are getting funded, cofounders are meeting, and people are getting jobs right on the playa.”9

This current situation appears to be the exact opposite of the utopian, anticapitalist, and radically inclusive ethos from which Burning Man emerged. But Bowles continues: "Burning Man founders are happy about the changes—even courting them. Those captains of tech also fund the enormous temporary art installations in the city center and support the Burning Man nonprofit efforts."10

Kate Raudenbush. Future's Past, 2012; installation at Patricia’s Green, San Francisco. Courtesy of Black Rock Arts Foundation. Photo: George Post.

And that, of course, then begs the question: Is it cool to have those same tech forces contribute to pushing out the downtown art ecosystem and jacking everyone's rent up, but then at the same time giving gladly to Burning Man projects?

To quote Bob Dylan again:

"No reason to get excited," the thief, he kindly spoke,
“There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke
But you and I, we've been through that, and this is not our fate
So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late"11

The Bay Area is at a turning point in its history. While the old, bohemian art-establishment culture is having a meltdown, the tech-infused Burning Man culture is enjoying an ascendance of money and influence. And it seems that the nouveau riche prefer to spend their money not on art in galleries, but on gadgets, fine dining, and tickets to the world's best-known postmodern circus. Any hope that new money coming into the Bay would expand the art market is still that—just a hope (see the underwhelming Silicon Valley Contemporary in April).12

But turning points are known to be full of surprises. Just as friction and uncertainty can create confusion and even despair, so too can they kick-start new relationships. It's not so far-fetched to imagine the technology sector becoming a bold cultural leader, with vision and commitment that breathes new life into the city rather than unintentionally dividing it. For example, what if successful tech companies—the ones whose leaders have bought into the Burning Man/Black Rock value of art that “connect[s] community members in creation, curiosity, and wonderment”—decided to allocate one or two percent of their investment income to cultivating the arts in the Bay (as the city already does with the percent for art programs on large-scale public development projects)?13

Such forward thinking could transform the Bay Area into an international arts mecca full of energy and possibility—and nobody would feel so dismayed about their artistic future that they reach for an axe. Maybe when I run into tech titans on the Playa this year, I’ll make this pitch. 

Notes

  1. Bob Dylan, “All Along the Watchtower,” copyright 1968, http://www.bobdylan.com/us/songs/all-along-watchtower
  2. Robert Hurwitt, “S.F.’s Oldest Arts Group in Trouble,” San Francisco Chronicle, May 23, 2014, http://www.sfgate.com/art/article/S-F-s-oldest-alt-arts-group-in-trouble-5499801.php
  3. “New S.F. Rent Map Says 1BRs Now Average $2,800,” SFist, July 19, 2013, http://sfist.com/2013/07/19/another_sf_rent_map.php
  4. Bay Area Census 1960, http://www.bayareacensus.ca.gov/counties/SanFranciscoCounty50.htm
  5. Julia Wong, “San Francisco Protesters Take Aim at Twitter’s Tax Breaks,” In These Times, February 20, 2014, http://inthesetimes.com/working/entry/16326/san_francisco_city_workers_protest_twitters_sweetheart_deal
  6. Alix Rule and David Levine, “International Art English,” Triple Canopy, July 2012, http://canopycanopycanopy.com/issues/16/contents/international_art_english
  7. “Ten Principles of Burning Man,” http://www.burningman.com/whatisburningman/about_burningman/principles.html#.U5AE2K1dUQR
  8. http://blackrockarts.org/projects/civic-arts
  9. Nellie Bowles, “Burning Man Becomes a Hot Spot for Tech Titans,” San Francisco Chronicle, August 23, 2013, http://www.sfgate.com/style/article/Burning-Man-becomes-a-hot-spot-for-tech-titans-4756482.php
  10. Ibid.
  11. Dylan, “All Along the Watchtower,” copyright 1968, http://www.bobdylan.com/us/songs/all-along-watchtower
  12. Erin Joyce, “Silicon Valley Gets an Art Fair,” Hyperallergic, April 14, 2014, http://hyperallergic.com/120389/silicon-valley-gets-an-art-fair/
  13. http://blackrockarts.org/about

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