A few weeks ago I had my first live performance for a while, and chose to do so with the help of a surrogate performer, namely the wonderfully erudite developer, æsthete and wit Lee Butterman. I’ll try and explain my reasoning a little.
1. This past year I have provoked and participated in numerous discussions concerning the state of the contemporary arts in San Francisco, attempting to wrap my head around why it is that so many promising young artists feel the need to leave the city in order to further their creative ambitions. San Francisco has a formidable counter-cultural heritage, a plethora of esteemed art schools and enviable beauty. However San Francisco also has a paltry critical infrastructure (SF is a city where people would sooner review a cup of coffee than a show), is geographically distanced from global media centers, and in the last year has been crowned as both the most expensive city to rent in and to buy in in the United States, all factors that do not facilitate an ideal environment for artists looking to increase their profile. There is a latent defeatism to those practicing on the cutting edge in this city, and there are countless examples of promising young Bay Area artists developing their practice here, and then taking those ideas to hubs like New York to go on to become highly influential cultural actors - which to a degree may validate and (self?)perpetuate the logic of deflation back out here.
The inverse is true in tech. Technically gifted people the world over flock to the Bay Area to build status and start companies in arguably the most technologically influential area on earth. The latest tech bubble is responsible for the inflated cost of living here, and a focal point for a great deal of ire from the artistic community, who somewhat legitimately observe that unlike the old money of old industry, the new money of new tech rarely trickles into the realm of the contemporary arts, the reasons for which being too long and speculative to dive into right now. Areas like the Mission District have transformed into a campus for freshly graduated, busy, very well paid, happy people in their professional element, which can be antagonizing in contrast to the dour prospects on offer to young artists.
2. So with these thoughts in mind, I came to the private conclusion that (as things stand), there is no convincing reason for an aspirant young contemporary artist to choose to practice in San Francisco. With one exception. The only convincing argument I could think of for such an artist to stay in San Francisco would be to make San Francisco itself the subject of their practice - and I think there are compelling arguments to do so. MAKE ART ABOUT TECH. There are plenty of artists who choose to use contemporary technologies to craft their work, however only a handful who choose to make tech itself the subject of their practice. Conversations about technology in the Bay Area are years ahead of most other places, and due to a culture of early adoption, the sociological, philosophical and interpersonal implications of said technologies are discernible here far earlier than almost anywhere else. Perhaps most importantly, an observant and critical artist in the Bay Area has the unique opportunity to study, critique and perhaps even impact the critical conversations happening around them. There is precedent for such a claim, John Markoff’s book ‘What the Dormouse Said’ talks of the significance of Bay Area psychedelia on the development of Stanford and Silicon Valley, and anyone who has lived in this city for more than a week can attest to the dominant aesthetic and philosophical influence of organizations such as Burning Man and Survival Research Labs.
3. So I committed to begin making work that deals with the Bay. I hold firm the belief that the arts has not yet found an effective way to speak to the technology community here, partly due to the fact that San Francisco is an socially compartmentalized city. People generally congregate in cliques, and in my experience the contemporary art world here makes very little effort to reach outside of it’s cocoon - which leads to a familiarity that oscillates between intimacy and tedium. This can result in a willful ostracism of sorts, with most arts venues assuming more the role of places of refuge from the outside world than platforms to explore and critique the world unfolding around them. This cycle leads to simplistic archetypes, particularly regarding techies, who stubbornly refuse to satisfy the tired archetype of the aesthetically challenged mole with too much money and too little of a social life.
4. I met Lee at Art Hack two months ago. We got talking about living in London, and I regretted not asking his name or number. Later that weekend I ran into he and his boyfriend walking in the Mission. I spied on him a little and wrote him my idea. Lee is refreshingly game, armed with argument and innuendo. He said yes before I had done anywhere near enough to explain my concept coherently, and I thank him for that. No instructions or materials were exchanged before the performance beyond an assurance that the process would be civil.
5. So why is he standing there with an iPad? The Lab art space is situated in the heart of the Mission, and I wanted to bring a familiar scenario of contemporary Mission culture into the gallery space, and tried to remove myself from proceedings as much as possible. Tech professionals staring at touch screen devices is a ubiquitous sight in this neighborhood, and symbolic of people’s simultaneous engagement with their(our) universe and detachment from their immediate surroundings. This is a common issue in San Francisco, with the city being the first to have issued public service announcements warning against preoccupation with mobile devices after a slew of unfortunate incidents with buses. Staring at someone staring at their device situates the viewer as present in space, and the subject as absent in that space (that is until the viewer inevitably pulls out a device of their own). Staring at people staring at mobile devices provides a window for judgment, a dynamic amplified by Lee’s placement at center stage.
Lee was on trial in multiple ways, as I was staring, relatively powerless, at him from a position above the audience. He was given a MIDI controller program with little instruction, and the license to manipulate and derail my performance in front of the crowd. I enjoyed the possibility that he would mess up, recover, surprise and be surprised - establishing empathy and rapport. I enjoyed the idea that simply focusing on someone unfamiliar (in this case doing something unfamiliar to them) long enough would expose the absurdity of the archetypes we entertain. I contemplated that perhaps the most experimental one could get would be to take the leap that Lee did, and wondered if I (or anyone else there) would have done the same for him.
After the performance, a number of people came to ask me what time I was going to perform. Unsurprisingly, Lee did a stellar job.