What Bay Area?

By Weiffenbach, Jean-Edith | Art Journal, Fall 1994 | Go to article overview

What Bay Area?


Weiffenbach, Jean-Edith, Art Journal


One of the attractions of the San Francisco Bay Area is its thriving alternative art culture. This is not a well-known fact, but it is recognized by the underground across the U.S. San Francisco may be thought of as too complacent or even too beautiful to support such a scene. In any case, the Bay Area is probably best known for its history as the home of West Coast Abstract Expressionism (e.g., Clyfford Still) and figure painting (e.g., David Park), as well as the 1950s assemblage group that includes Wallace Berman, Bruce Conner, Wally Hedrick, and George Herms. Within the more recent past, performance artists have thrived here: Karen Finley, now of New York and one of the NEA Four whose successful challenge to censorship has been appealed by Attorney General Janet Reno, started out here in the early 198Os. Today, Mark Pauline's fire-and-brimstone Survival Research Laboratories has a high art-world profile. But much of what's happening today has been largely overshadowed by work of the past and suffers from lack of acknowledgment and recognition.

Although still in many ways a painting town, in fact, San Francisco, and by extension the Bay Area, is a town where activists, outsiders, and the marginalized form a strong underground, overlaid by the presence of Silicon Valley's supertechnology and cyberpunk fiction. In a culture whose past is rooted in flower children, electric Kool-Aid acid, black-light psychedelic posters, the Beats, and the Grateful Dead, activism and cybernetics make strange but fortuitous bedfellows, a condition symptomatic of the hybrid media of experimental Bay Area work.

The computer/cathode-ray-tube art of Alan Rath exemplifies the supertechnology front, as do Chico MacMurtrie's computerized robots. In 1990 the Bay Area was host to a Cyberthon, an all-out blitz on virtual reality and a 24-hour high-flying marathon conference and hardware/software fair. Among the stars of the Cyberthon were such gurus as Timothy Leary--who has made a three-decade trek from the LSD culture to "futureshock"--and cyberpunk author William Gibson, as well as R.U. Serius, the founder of the magazine Mondo 2000. Also featured was a popular 195Os kitchen in the center of the hardware maze, serving high-sugar junk food around the clock.

Agencies of the Bay Area support the link between the seemingly disparate worlds of art and supertechology. Begun just last year, artist Rich Gold's innovative artists-in-residence program at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center pairs artists with technicians and researchers. Another resident-artist program is at the enviably popular Exploratorium--the San Francisco museum that is the child of Frank Oppenheimer (J. Robert's brother)--which produces temporary and permanent hands-on art/science exhibitions housed in an enormous warehouse-like space where both children and adults can roam freely. Among the resident artists have been Paul DeMarinis, Douglas Hollis, Anna Valentina Murch, Jim Pomeroy, and Mierle Laderman Ukeles. At the San Francisco Art Institute, we presented a robotics project (1991) by MacMurtrie in collaboration with computer whiz Rick Sayre, who programmed the movements of the monumental metal assemblages (fig. 1). (Fig. 1 omitted) And DeMarinis's remarkable 1993 Art Institute project, The Edison Effect, paid homage to the inventor of sound recording, which, according to the artist, has had an "irreversible effect upon the time and place of our memory."(1) Lasers in assembled machines playing old recordings created a polyphonic though muted soundscape with haunting melodies alternately revealed and obscured fig. 2). (Fig. 2 omitted)

Despite being home to the Beat Generation and 196Os counterculture, despite the presence of high-tech venues and the tough media shows put together by Robert Riley at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and in spite of Lawrence Rinder's vital MATRIX program of modestly sized solo exhibitions at the University Art Museum, Berkeley, the major Bay Area institutions remain fundamentally conservative. …

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