Associations Signal to Noise

Signal to Noise is a conversation published exclusively for ArcPost

Kristina Lee Podesva:
In 1984, a group of interdisciplinary artists formed The Lab in San Francisco to create a place for experimentation in the production and exhibition of work in mixed media. Can you talk about who these artists were and how they got together? What compelled them to found such an organization? Were there other like-minded spaces in operation at the time within the Bay Area?

Eilish Cullen:
The founding artists of The Lab were Alan Millar, Laura Brun, John DiStefano, David Mighell, and Tammy Logan. Several of the founders met at an experimental arts program at San Francisco State University where they attended school in the early 1980’s. During this time, the programming was rooted in practices of experimental music, early media art, and performance, reflecting the interests and activities of the founders. The Lab’s location was on Divisadero Street in a two-story commercial building in the Western Addition neighbourhood of San Francisco. The performance space featured a 1,200-square-foot hall and eventually they added on a gallery space, perhaps in response to similar activities taking place around the city that encouraged a cross-media multi-arts platform approach to production and presentation. I strongly feel that New Langton Arts (founded in 1975) was locally the organization most closely aligned with the mission, vision, and goals of The Lab.

Artists’ Television Access, or ATA, opened the same year as The Lab, but other like-minded organizations such as Intersection for the Arts and Southern Exposure were founded generations earlier, forming in the mid-sixties and mid-seventies, respectively, and ”SF Cinematheque”: was founded in 1961 even earlier than the rest.

I am sure that all of these organizations were taking cues from sister orgs in New York like The Kitchen, which Woody and Steina Vasulka began as an artist collective in 1971 and later became a non-profit, interdisciplinary organization. It’s important to note that a type of renaissance occurred within many of these arts organizations as funding streams improved. Throughout the mid eighties to 1990, aided in no small part by the NEA, The Lab became financially stable and created the position of executive director and eventually carved out a full staffing structure. In time, these organizations formed solid identities that set them apart from one another – in this sense, The Lab differs a great deal from other non-profit spaces in that it has always been mutable; It has never been easily defined outside of inherent experimentation across multiple disciplines and a primary focus on emerging artists. Several years ago, in preparation for The Lab’s 25th Anniversary, we started researching other organizations with the name, “The Lab” and discovered that many of these organizations were quite similar in scope and vision. These commonalities are interesting because all of the various Labs in the world are untethered. They are not tied to any kind of specific definition outside of being an experimental arts laboratory, and many of these “Labs” are working with artists/art forms that are kindred spirits to the artists and projects shown at San Francisco’s Lab.

Perhaps another important distinguishing characteristic of The Lab is that in lieu of a more traditional artistic director role a programming committee structure emerged that oversees the artistic program. A rotating committee of board members, staff, and artists from the San Francisco community historically has made the majority of programming decisions. As a result, The Lab has never had one unified top down vision, enabling a more fluid approach to the programming.

The Lab’s mandate privileges not only emergent, multi-media work, but also emerging practices, extending opportunities to “under-represented” artists, writers, musicians, among others who wish to push experimentation in their projects. Why has the focus been on emergent work and artists? Is it still a focus and if so, can you provide some examples of how it has continued to play a role in The Lab’s programming? Has the concept of supporting under-represented artists changed over the arc of the organization? For instance, does this concept of under-representation mean something differently now than it did in 1984?

The Lab has never been very institution-like in essence. I would say that the concept of championing under-representation is perhaps even more necessary in the 2010’s then in the early 1980’s as other experimental art spaces in the San Francisco Bay Area have closed (New Langton Arts and 21 Grand have closed their doors permanently for example) or become more conservative/safer/more institutional or bureaucratic in their programming choices. Many of the non-profits have been forced to develop a more conservative mandate for the purpose of receiving grants but also to comply with a more general trend in the Bay Area, which prioritizes artworks that are commercially viable, serve the community, or have extensive educational components. In many ways, there are fewer options or venues for artists now then there were in the early eighties. What I find interesting is that a number of hybrid spaces have popped up (some lasting longer than others) including galleries, project spaces, and spaces in people’s homes – Margaret Tedesco runs 2nd Floor Projects which immediately comes to mind. Her project space is tremendously thoughtful in scope. Margaret is an amazing artist and performer with strong ties to the Bay Area arts community. She was on the curatorial committee for the New Langton Arts from 1999 – 2006. Her approach recalls some of the best programming and curatorial handiwork of the experimental non-profits in their heydays. I think temporary projects are great, but it does concern me that fewer institutions are supporting experimental work and the project spaces that do support experimental art are often short-lived because they don’t have the financial support to be truly viable.

Although there is no dedicated space for experimental sound performance, there is an increasing need for a San Francisco-based venue to consistently feature experimental sound performance. In response, The Lab established ongoing performance sound events with partners Noise Pancakes and 23five to showcase performers active in the local experimental sound community. Although The Lab has always presented new aural developments and experimental approaches to acoustic and electronic performance, it has become more of a priority in the past few years. The Lab is now, more or less, the go-to destination in San Francisco for artists and curators working in the field of experimental sound performance and we are dedicated to the continued development and presentation of sound performance in the public arena.

The Lab has always been committed to supporting work that is non-commercial and we always ask artists to consider site-specificity when proposing work, which I think is important because it grounds both audience and artist in their individual experience at The Lab and allows them to identify with its space in a more personal way. By prioritizing site specificity in our submission calls and outreach measures, we encourage artists to use location as a compositional element.

Going back to my earlier comment that The Lab has never been very institution-like; The Lab is, however, an important springboard for artists who eventually move on to present their work at more traditional or established venues. A few recent examples include: the ZERO1 Biennial in San Jose, which featured several artists who have performed at The Lab including Laetitia Sonami and 0th. Yerba Buena Center for the Arts recently hosted a former Lab performer, Tom Russotti, in residence with a project that he developed while at The Lab. In addition, Berkeley Art Museum has created a Friday night series that regularly features performers from The Lab’s roster of artists. So, the organization has been an incubator for artists – enabling them to realize their vision in a unique space, which prepares them for wider recognition by a diversified range of audiences at more traditional venues. This type of incubator space for experimental work is crucial to the overall health of arts in the Bay Area. It’s an intermediate step that provides resources and structure for these artists to effectively realize their vision and it’s imperative that experimental work is nurtured at this level in a formalized setting.

What I find troubling is that The Lab and other sister organizations including recently closed ones still depend upon language and business models that were formed in the early eighties, but funding streams play such an important role in the language and in the programming. In the eighties, funding agencies were responding to the strength of the work itself with support. Now, as funding sources dwindle, arts organizations are forced to shape their mission, vision, and goals around the mission, vision, and goals of their funders when it really should be vice versa. San Francisco is notorious for privileging work that appears to serve “under-represented” communities, but the definition of under represented is actually quite difficult. We’ve been steadily working on a new understanding of “emerging” or “experimental” and also a new business model.

An important conversation took place shortly after New Langton closed and I’ve found it to be immensely helpful when determining what’s at stake and when considering The Lab’s role in the arts community here particularly because of the questions the contributors and Julian Meyers are asking of New Langton and more generally of arts non-profits with decades of programming under their belt. A veritable who’s who of the Bay Area arts community chimed in with some great insights, memories, well-articulated concerns, and suggestions for new directions.

Although the Lab is a San Francisco-based organization and venue, programming does not remain exclusively local. What are the geographic profiles, parameters, and reach of the organization’s projects and participants?

The Lab has regularly expanded our programming to include and highlight international residencies and exchanges, integrating San Francisco into the global arts community and vice versa. Our programming committee, collaborative partners, and staff conscientiously work to present local artists side by side with national and international artists, adding new voices to the dialogue while ensuring continued participation from our local base. Artists from Ireland, Japan, Sweden, Iran, Wales, Finland, Denmark, Switzerland (in partnership with swissnex) and England have all recently mounted well-received programs in both performance and visual art. Inherent in this type of dialogue is the debate over whether there is a commonality in the artwork of shared locations, and if so, what exactly that overlap encompasses. As our trajectory moves toward a global community and multiculturalism, it’s important to question how these lines are being blurred, and with them, the boundaries of traditional art historical categorization. Out of these pairings arises a new way of looking at the local, and questioning what it means to simultaneously be local and international at once. This mixing is beneficial in that artists and audiences see work recontextualized in proximity to something new.

In an earlier discussion, you mentioned that many members and active participants in The Lab had significantly influenced noise musicians in Japan. Could you discuss this chapter in the Lab’s history in a bit more detail?

Beginning in the late 1970’s, a lasting relationship was formed between Japanese and California-based noise artists. A survey of related activities within these two regions reveals three decades of highly influential developments and approaches to sound composition and performance. This was a pivotal period for noise music and a time that many artists and theorists refer to as its apex including artists who have been involved at The Lab. I am working on a paper using insights culled from recordings, writings, and interviews to analyze the reciprocal relationship between a burgeoning stable of California-based experimental sound artists and Japanese noise artists with the purpose of identifying the many ways in which these two distinct artistic communities have shaped one another. These artists utilize aesthetics based around radicalism and highly collaborative modes of experimentation within sound. Many of the California based artists have performed at The Lab and have also greatly inspired my research including Xome, Tralphaz, Gerritt Wittmer, John Wiese, Michael Gendreau, Scott Arford, Randy Yau, Rubber 0 Cement, Damion Romero, Joseph Hammer, Rick Potts, and Ryan Jencks.

What is the current institutional structure of The Lab? Has it changed over time? What are the challenges and opportunities inherent in this structure?

The Lab has a board of 8 – 12 members who each serve terms of up to five years. Diminished funding from foundations and government grants has hugely impacted the organization’s structure. We have continued to operate successfully due in large part to the Herculean effort of dedicated staff members, volunteers, community members, and our board. It’s a tough economic climate and the experimental arts community as a whole is losing funding. Such funding losses by necessity precipitate administrative reductions, but they have the inverse effect on our programming. There is a very real need for us to significantly expand our programming model to serve a greater portion of the community, including constituents of recently closed spaces.

In terms of funding, what kind of support does The Lab receive? Is it mainly private or public in nature?

The Lab’s funding is split fairly evenly between earned and contributed income. Half comes from three to four large fundraisers per year including an annual auction, admissions revenue, and individual donations. The other half comprises two large grants (GFTA, which is the San Francisco Hotel Tax Fund and Hewlett for the performing arts, which is a private foundation) and a handful of smaller grants that are usually project based.

The Lab
2948 16th Street
San Francisco, CA

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