What Went Wrong? You Vanished in Front of Me: BAN1 and its reconstruction

5.1 / Half-Century

What Went Wrong? You Vanished in Front of Me: BAN1 and its reconstruction

By Carlos Garcia Montero September 11, 2013

Bay Area Now (BAN) is a recurring triennial conceived by the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) in San Francisco. Begun in the early years of YBCA, it intended to showcase the Bay Area art scene like never before. The first iteration of the show was planned in 1995 and presented in 1997, during an era when YBCA was still seeking its audience and its niche. Aiming to be a comprehensive look at current art in the Bay Area, the triennial was composed of a visual art exhibition and a series of screenings and performances, both indoors and out. Organized by a diverse team of curators (including Renny Pritikin, Rene de Guzman, and Arnold Kemp) that mirrored the institution’s goal of inclusivity, BAN was viewed as a defining exhibition for the still-young YBCA. From its inception, YBCA was meant to be the museum for the local, San Francisco area, with an aim towards representing diversity. To meet this mandate, the organizers of BAN aimed to build an inclusive roster of artists that would be 50 percent people of color and 50 percent women.

For young artists, Bay Area Now was something to aspire to; for mid-career artists, it functioned to validate their efforts.

For YBCA, BAN was a strategic tool; for artists, it was an important milestone. Ned Topham, the president of the board at YBCA at the time of its founding, wanted to produce a signature show to solidify and help shape the museum’s identity. But the artist Nayland Blake, who was on the board of directors, aimed to disrupt the Bay Area scene’s number-one problem: the apparent lack of criticality within the art world. This “Grateful Dead syndrome,” as Blake called it, created a stultified art scene: everyone was too polite to point out that artists had been repeating themselves for at least a decade. Blake thought it would be a courageous act for the institution to publicly draw a line in the sand and say, “We stand for this level of ambition and achievement.”1 By looking at local, young artists, BAN was the opportunity to define new ground and perpetuate innovation. For young artists, Bay Area Now was something to aspire to; for mid-career artists, it functioned to validate their efforts.

Initially Pritikin, who held the post of chief curator at YBCA, was resistant to the idea of BAN. While he was actively engaged with the generation of young artists that the show aimed to present, he also viewed YBCA as an institution attempting to reinvent museum practice for the new century. Within that context, the idea of the regional survey—not exactly a new model of exhibition making—seemed counter-intuitive. Besides that, Pritikin had seen in Boston the Institute of Contemporary Art show, Boston Now, which was resented by the local artist community as tokenism. His close relationship with Nayland Blake and Ned Topham, however, compelled him to go ahead with the triennial project. In retrospect, Bay Area Now turned out to be one of the most important shows in Pritikin’s career. 

The idea behind Bay Area Now was to stimulate the local art scene by showing the work of a generation of artists previously underrepresented in the area’s museums. To that end, the curators chose to show emerging artists who had not already been shown at YBCA. This meant that most artists picked were under forty years old. To form a broad group of young working artists, the curatorial team sent letters to every curator in the area, asking for nominations. Then they visited about seventy-five artist studios and finally arrived at a selection of artists, most of whom were in their mid-twenties.

Todd Hido. (from left to right) Untitled (Loma Vista Court), 1997; Untitled (Glencourt Way), 1997; both works chromogenic prints. Courtesy The Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, CA. Photo: Taylor McElroy

BAN’s main contribution was to identify various groups of contemporary artists working in the area during the time. In 1995 the Bay Area art scene consisted of scattered pockets of activity. While these different microcosms may not have had much overlap, cumulatively they created a pretty dynamic art scene. It included the celebrated and soon-to-be-world-recognized Mission School, the so-called high-tech artists and gay intelligentsia, and the outliers of those three groups. While the Mission School artists have become well known and are easily identified, the other groups identified by the Bay Area Now curators are less known. The “gay intelligentsia,” as coined by Pritikin, consisted of Nayland Blake, D-L Alvarez, Glen Helfand, Scott Hewicker, Cliff Hengst, and other artists related to the late David Dashiell and the prominent Kiki Gallery.2 The high-tech group included figures like Alan Rath, Jim Campbell, and Paul de Marinis, who worked with emerging technologies. The last group was made up of outsiders, artists working apart from any particular movement. These artists included Stephanie Syjuco, Todd Hido, and J. John Priola, among others. The idea of the triennial was to represent these four groups (but not all the artists mentioned were part of the show, since some had shown before at YBCA and some were already considered established in the Bay Area scene).

In the end, Bay Area Now exhibited the work of thirty-six Bay Area artists.3 The show was reviewed by local newspapers and by the publications Artweek and Art Papers. The local media presented the show with enthusiasm, as did the art magazines. Richard Smith from Artweek described this younger generation of artists as part of local traditions that had been present in San Francisco for the past two decades: figurative painting and assemblage. The legacy of abstraction, he noted, had been left behind by this new generation. Smith pointed out that this divergence away from abstract work was also visible throughout the country, tying the art of the Bay Area to a national trend. He thought that the Whitney Biennial of that same year “had a very similar look to [Bay Area Now]”—raising, perhaps, some validity to Pritikin’s idea of the regional survey as an outdated model.4 Jason Forrest, writing in Art Papers, reported, “Part of this show’s problem is its lack of solidly crafted conceptually strong works,” though he also stated that, overall, “This is really a great show."5

Aiming for a more emotive and participatory environment that would immerse the public, BAN shifted away from traditional modes of presentation.

Looking back at some of the works that were included in the first iteration of Bay Area Now, it is easy to see why the exhibition is considered a groundbreaking accomplishment. Aiming for a more emotive and participatory environment that would immerse the public, BAN shifted away from traditional modes of presentation. The exhibition also aimed to present new categories of art within numerous investigations of how to define the art object, often presenting it as anti-object or anti-art. Looking back at the exhibition after more than fifteen years, there are several works that stand out. The series Plasmorphica presented by Aziz + Cucher explored a synthesis of digital tools and eroticism. Presented in a sequence of large, color photos of high-tech, ergonomically designed computer accessories wrapped in a synthetic skin, these objects were contoured to fit with (or in) the human body and came with computer-connection plugs. Rebeca Bollinger’s impressively large, provocative installation comprised hundreds of greasy cookies and a steel machine that printed each sweet with a portrait of a child, from a cache downloaded from family websites. Each cookie was then placed on white cardboard and shrink-wrapped, as if for sale. Bruce Cannon’s work, Ten Things I Can Count On, engaged with both the technological and the personal. This work consisted of ten small, metal computers, each with an LCD showing green numbers that added or subtracted variables of personal interests and facts of the artist’s life. One computer kept count of the artist’s breaths, another reported the seconds since the transistor was invented, and a third machine tracked the seconds of the artist’s relationship with his girlfriend. D-L Alvarez, one of the “gay intelligentsia” artists, showed up several days before the opening, tore apart the clothes he was wearing, and used them to completely cover the railing of the grand lobby staircase. J. John Priola presented photographs of objects, each one offering a particular narrative. Todd Hido’s photographs brought the bay inside, evoking the poetic beauty and silence of a misty Bay Area landscape.

Many art critics like Forrest and Smith described the fourth group of artists in the show as employing childlike aesthetics in their works in order to address other issues, like representing suburban sprawl or the threat of AIDS. This could be seen in Stephanie Syjuco’s Dover Landscape, an artwork not meant for humans but for birds, a playful gesture manifested as a series of birdhouses that resembled dollhouses. Kathryn Spence created a giant bear of mud that at first resembled a teddy bear; after close examination, it revealed a certain sadness, probably related to its decay. Michelle Rollman also employed childhood references with Moose and Calf, presenting whimsical erotic drawings of human-animal hybrids.

Everything Out There: A Reconstruction

Often discussed and much debated are these questions: How do we define the contemporary, and how do we build an effective historical dialogue about recent works of art? I present the contemporary as a relational condition, as Richard Berger explains in his book, What Was Contemporary Art? Contemporary art can include not only newly produced works by living artists but also art works that arrive in our time from earlier moments and historical contexts. The term contemporary then relates more to coexistence rather than newness.

Everything Out There: Bay Area’s First Triennial Now, presented at the San Francisco Art Institute’s (SFAI) Diego Rivera Gallery, was a reenactment of Bay Area Now’s 1997 iteration. The exhibition was part of a collaborative project undertaken by me and other students in SFAI’s graduate program. The exhibition was part of a course, taught by the current YBCA curator Betti-Sue Hertz, which looked at exhibition history and conceptualized a theoretical Museum of Exhibitions (MoX) as a way to grapple with exhibitions of the past.6 For the first exhibition in the Museum of Exhibitions program, we approached the first Bay Area Now through an interpretive restaging. Using the work of fourteen of the original artists from BAN, Everything Out There became a show that used reconstruction as a critical practice.7 The process of reconstructing an important exhibition from the past became, for us, a critical exercise that acknowledged the historical context and triggered associations with other instances that disturbed the presumed relation between contemporary art and history. Through the reconstruction in our current context, we could challenge the past by rethinking these works and the exhibition as a whole.8

One of the first challenges was the lack of a good archival record.

Our approach to reproducing the original exhibition revealed challenges as well as some art historical biases. One of the first challenges was the lack of a good archival record. Unable to find an exhaustive archive of the exhibition, we formed a partial picture of the exhibition using a registrar’s file with Polaroid shots of the installation at YBCA and the catalog (although that was not a reliable source as some of the pieces presented in the catalog were not part of the show). Culling through media coverage of the show, we were able to find articles about the exhibition’s repercussions in the local environment. But otherwise, very little specialized literature was produced after the show. The artists were the ones who kept records of their participation and held the knowledge of the works in the exhibition.

Ulrike Palmbach. Exodus, 1997; fabric, wire. Courtesy the Artist and Stephen Wirtz Gallery. Photo: Taylor McElroy

Our work also revealed significant temporal and spatial gaps between the 1990s and now, demonstrating a dialectic of connection and difference between the reenactment and the original exhibition. Everything Out There helped recover a sense of agency by generating new narratives and representations that could eclipse dominant art-historical narratives. Our project aimed to produce new reflections on the exhibition by connecting directly with the artists, giving them a voice about their involvement. We asked in a questionnaire to the participants: What did BAN mean to you? The artists’ responses gave us insight into aspects about the original show as well as our restaging. Cliff Hengst answered, “When I was asked to participate in this project (Everything Out There), my first reaction was ‘Hell, no!’ I considered the first BAN in 1997 a failure. I had an uneasy feeling that I wasn’t really welcome and that I was expendable…My original spot in the space was taken away from me and I was given a corner of the second floor, a space that until my piece was installed was unused and forgotten…Instead of feeling elated at being involved in a major group show at the start of my career, I was set loose in the turbulent seas of depression and vulnerability…”9 Part of the aspiration, then, of Everything Out There was allowing the artists to assert agency over their own history and image.

The new captions on the walls of the Diego Rivera Gallery and the documentary film of Everything Out There transmitted these new insights, which were the most important additions that we made to the dialogue about the original show. They gave a new voice to this group of artists. This liberating trait distinguishes reenactment from simulation, repetition, and reproduction; this opportunity for reappraisal is what draws both practitioners and audiences to the remake. Not being merely repetition, the act of remaking an exhibition proposed to reevaluate the show’s contemporary relevance in a new context. Everything Out There not only told the truth and feelings of a group of artists sixteen years after the original exhibition but also expressed how the original show reaffirmed the artistic identity of the Bay Area when the dominance of New York and Los Angeles were central to the idea of American art production. Bay Area Now made an important statement about the existence of an art world in San Francisco, building a new sense of community—an actualized one. Looking back at the original show through different eyes, Everything Out There put some neglected stories back into contemporary art history.

Notes

  1. Interview with Renny Pritkin November 17, 2012.
  2. Kiki Gallery was an alternative gallery located in San Francisco’s Mission district; it had an innovative approach that stimulated gay culture and performance. In a short time (1993–95) Rick Jacobsen, the founder of the gallery, developed a provocative and vibrant program, with exhibitions that became cult favorites like Bong! (June 1994). For this show, Jacobsen transformed the gallery’s back room as a chill-out room with comfy chairs and a record player, among other eccentricities.
  3. The artists were: Aziz + Cucher, Rebeca Bollinger, Bruce Cannon, Carolyn Castano, Vincent Fecteau, Jonathan Hammer, Frederick Hayes, Stephen Hendee, Marisa Hernandez, Terry Hoff, Christopher Johanson, Margaret Kilgallen, Toni Lane, Chico MacMurtie, Ruby Neiri, Connie Oksol, Brett Reichman, Laurie Reid, Rigo, Michelle Rollman, David Small, Stephanie Syjuco, Kathryn Van Dyke, Gail Wight, D-L Alvarez, Cliff Hengst, Scott Hewicker, Todd Hido, Jason Jägel, Jon Moritsugo, Ulrike Palmbach, Melissa Pokorny, John Priola, Isis Rodriguez, Kathryn Spence, and Sandra Wong. Everything out  There… included a film by Jon Moritsugo, Mod Fuck Explosion (1994), that was part of the screening series during BAN1, but not part the exhibition in the main galleries.
  4. Richard Smith, “Bay Area Now, at the Center for the Arts,” Artweek 28 (August 1997), 23.
  5. Jason Forrest, Art Papers, November–December 1997.
  6. If you are interested in more information about MoX and Everything Out There, please visit http://moxsf.org. There you will find a short documentary about the exhibition, a photo gallery, the team’s acknowledgements, and an exhaustive description of the MoX Thesis 2 Collaborative Project at the San Francisco Art Institute.
  7. The artists included were: D-L Alvarez, Cliff Hengst, Scott Hewicker, Jonathan Hammer, Caitlin Mitchell-Dayton, Todd Hido, Jason Jägel, Jon Moritsugo, Ulrike Palmbach, Melissa Pokorny, J. John Priola, Isis Rodriguez, Barry McGee and Kathryn Spence.
  8. Even though reenactment is rooted in histories of artistic appropriation and performance and has emerged as a key cultural form of the twenty-first century, there are reasons to reject reenactment. Problems can result from rewriting history via viewpoints traditionally kept outside the dominant narratives and from deconstructing and overanalyzing the images and accounts that composed the original narratives. The possibility of direct dialogue between artists and scholars is certainly a positive one, but at the same time the relation between artist and scholar may unravel into misunderstanding, mutual resentment, or misrecognition. 
  9. Exact quote by Cliff Hengst located at http://moxsf.org/ under the “exhibition” button. This quote came out of the group of interviews conducted for Everything out There… in April 2013.

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