1.21 / Review

Best Of: Dena Beard

By Dena Beard August 15, 2010

The Best Bay Area Radical Art Resources

Sometimes, if we’re lucky and looking in just the right place, we come across a piece of writing, an artist, an object, or an event that works its way beyond sensory stimulus to penetrate that area of our brains that sparks analogies, controversy, desire, and discord. Thankfully, the Bay Area is a place full of hoarders, collectors, curators, and transcribers, a place that encourages eccentric archivists to open their Wunderkammers to public access, and seduces us to these venues in order to create connections. After all, it’s not the amount of media we consume that enables our knowledge, but the way that we find and reclaim it and the way that it reorganizes our worldview. The following is a small sampling of well-curated spaces that allow for this careful dissemination of information.

Prelinger Library and Archive.

In the introductory video to his film archive, Rick Prelinger describes the industry education films in his collection as “more than just a library of images showing the way we were. More eloquently than any other evidence they show the way we were supposed to be.” Megan Shaw Prelinger and Rick Prelinger place thousands of books, periodicals, and ephemera into the public domain; their strategy privileges browsing over specific queries and the biographical over the comprehensive. Encouraging visitors to bring cameras to informally “scan” documents and freely download films, the Prelingers have enabled hundreds of art projects. The Library and Archive resituates us within our media-bound narratives better than Mad Men could ever hope possible and, perhaps someday, their practice of “serendipitous browsing” will inspire an influx of freelance librarians.

The Academy of Change: Stanford’s Buckminster Fuller Archives; UC Berkeley’s Emma Goldman Archives and Black Panther Party Social Activism Sound Recording Project; San Francisco State University’s Labor Archives and Bay Area Television Archive.

Some learn to think critically first by marching, but others find that reading carefully can be an insurrectionary act in itself. It’s essential to return to the original stories of visionaries and learn how to question them; sometimes, in the process of reconsidering their methods, we learn how to reinvent them. Whether or not you agree with the aesthetics or the politics available in these special collections, it stands to reason that each offers major insights into the evolution of American radicalism. Importantly, each is available to the public free of charge for the most part—but carefully check their websites for specific hours, appointments, and circulation information.

Prelinger Library. Courtesy of Rick and Megan Prelinger, San Francisco.

Prelinger Library. Courtesy of Rick and Megan Prelinger, San Francisco.

Steven Leiber’s Basement.

Steven Leiber’s Basement is a trove of the esoteric and unabashedly specialized―this is the place for you Buren-Kaprow-Schwitters-Fluxus-Rainer fetishists! Leiber has amassed an impressive selection of books, reference material, unique objects, and editions that explore effective relationships between performance, Conceptual art, photography, music, literature, and poetry. Current coveted objects include a Bas Jan Ader catalogue from UC Irvine’s 1999 exhibition; a photo silkscreen by Nayland Blake, “Untitled (Made with Pride by a Queen)”; and editions of “Theory and Flesh,” the artists’ periodical from the ’80s. Beyond dreams of future acquisition budgets however, Leiber’s basement provides a peek into the strategies of artists struggling against an unfriendly market: the multiples, recordings, books, and one-off prints are ingenious examples of skirting the gallery system, and their price tags are testament to the validity of such efforts.

Other Cinema.

Craig Baldwin’s film series at Artists Television Access (ATA) was started in the early ’80s to promote experimental filmmaking. The solemnity ends there, however, as Other Cinema explodes with the energy of provocation, unabashed camp, remixed politics, and moving images of challenging lyricism. Recent screenings explore themes of manifest destiny (Psycho-geography), music sampling as storytelling (Remix Masters), and tactical media campaigns (Uncanny Interventions). Baldwin dissolves definitions high and low, public and private, live and recorded, and he continues to create exciting programming with low-budget fringe filmmakers. Audiences are almost religiously devoted to Other Cinema, as it is less academic than other underground theaters—the films are avant-garde, but the series is deeply resonant as a community viewing experience.

Southern Exposure and Headlands Center for the Arts.

Our conversations are always the best resources for new types of art, and environments that galvanize artists are a good place to start them. Southern Exposure (SoEx) was established in 1974 by artists and, ever since, has fully committed itself to the immense task of making a working lab. Organized alternately by international curators, local artists, or by Courtney Fink, its inventive director, SoEx’s programming responds directly to local needs: it supports emerging artists with exhibitions and grants, invites high-profile artists for public discussions, and develops arts education for an underserved youth population. Though Headlands Center for the Arts is a bit farther away, it’s always worth the journey—inviting international, national, and local artists, writers, musicians, and choreographers to commune in Golden Gate National Park fairly well guarantees interesting conversation, and that’s not counting the incredible food prepared at their community dinners. Headlands and SoEx are hands down the best ways to explore the local artist community.

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