The San Francisco-based arts and technology organization, Gray Area, is coming out on top. A major player in the West Coast digital creativity scene, for the past seven years, the non-profit initiative has been supporting a cutting-edge pool of talent that runs parallel (and often perpendicular) to the powerhouse Bay Area tech industry. Thus, it was high time for foundation to celebrate its ever-nascent tour de force by offering, a few days ago, the first—but not the last—edition of the Gray Area Festival, a four-day-long celebration that showcased conferences, performances, workshops, and an exhibition bringing together a few of the most influential and brightest players in the industry.
In addition to exploring how the meeting point between art and technology forges and shapes Web 2.0+ culture, the event was also an occasion to celebrate its successful funding campaign (which you can support here) to take over an historic downtown theatre and transform it into their headquarters, as well as a media arts center and cultural incubator.
Two of the four days were devoted to reflections and exchanges, which brought together a strong roster of artists, visionaries, scientists, technologists and other curious aficionados, including Stamen Design founder and CEO Eric Rodenbeck, Co-Founder of Wired Magazine, Jane Metcalfe, co-founder of the Processing framework, Casey Reas, as well as Senior Curator of the Department of Architecture & Design as well as the Director of R&D at the MOMA, Paola Antonelli, to name but a few, to tackle social, cultural and creative subjects who participated in shaping the creative landscape in the digital and post-digital era.
These intense days of reflection concluded with audiovisual performances and evening shows that allowed the audience to discover new works and appreciate the best of what's being done in terms of digital creativity. Finally, while a day of workshops closed the event and offered a smart educative and practical approach, the Free Art & Technology (F.A.T.) Lab collective presented F.A.T. GOLD, a retrospective exhibition of past works, curated by Lindsay Howard.
To gain deeper insights into Gray Area, The Creators Project spoke to San Francisco-based artist, designer, technologist, and co-curator of the event, Barry Threw:
The Creators Project: Hi Barry. Can you briefly introduce the origin & aim of Gray Area?
Barry Threw: Gray Area is a seven-year-old organization with a mission to create positive social impact through applying art and technology to education, civic engagement, and public programs. It was founded by Josette Melchor, Chris Delbuck, Chloe Sladden, and Peter Hirshberg as a gallery focused on giving exposure to artists working in digital mediums.
Our inaugural exhibition was OPEN, in 2009, featuring Casey Reas, Camille Utterback, and Stamen Design (all at this year's festival). This show exemplified our vision that carries through to today: technology, community, openness, civic engagement.
Our initial location in the under-privileged Tenderloin/mid-Market district solidified our commitment to civic innovation. Working with the MIT Senseable Cities Lab, we began to explore how aesthetic inquiry can play a functional role in everyday life, and drive technology invention. These research adventures led to the Urban Prototyping festival, which seeded the concepts for the recent Market Street edition, and many more offshoot events worldwide.
We’ve embraced this idea of cultural incubation to germinate radical concepts and release them into the wild. A recent Creative Code Fellowship recipient, Taurin Barrera, developed an environmental data visualization and sonification piece called Aethera, which used DIY collection devices he designed to monitor environmental metrics around the city. In collaboration with our international partner Swissnex, these devices were fabricated in hackathon-style events in seven cities to provide a global collection apparatus for the Data Canvas project, focused on empowering citizens to sense and make sense of the environment.
Artistic work, invention, hacking, civic engagement, and performance together make a holistic creative practice that creates positive energy shifts in a community. Our role in catalyzing and supporting this kind of work I’ve come to refer to as "Venture Culture"—putting the proper resources into concept design and prototyping at early stages not to reap profit, but to realize cultural potential.
You recently succeeded in funding a campaign to take over the Grand Theater and turn it into your headquarters. Congratulations! As the festival more or less was in celebration of this victory, did this event meet your expectations? How do you think attendees have received it?
Thank you. We’re excited about our new space, right in the heart of the Mission District. It’s a 10,000 square foot 1940 Art Deco theater complete with education and workshop facilities, co-working space and studios, a bar, and a full stage for performances and screenings.
The festival was not only to unveil the space and celebrate the success of the "Revive The Grand" crowdfunding campaign, but also to firmly establish San Francisco as an epicenter for forward-looking art and technology in civic, educational, and aesthetic practice. Throughout the four-day festival, over 2,000 people came through the Grand Theater. We had over 60 presenters from diverse disciplines, and it was a pleasure bringing them all here to cross-pollinate and share ideas.
I can imagine this event was the first edition of a yearly festival. Why do you think Gray Area needed its own festival, and what are the benefits of the event for the foundation? What will this festival bring to the already strong arts and tech-dedicated festival landscape?
We have talked about the need for an annual art and technology festival since we collaborated with The Creators Project in 2012 at Fort Mason and our Warfield facility.
We didn’t feel that there was a festival looking holistically at how the confluence of art and technology benefits culture, city, and commerce. Many are focused on specific niches; performance art, data visualization, coding, etc. We wanted to consider a higher level view of how art can play a functional role in society. We won’t be satisfied until there is an artist on every company board, and a technology-aware curator at every museum.
Art and technology’s impact on culture: How do you feel about it today?
No one disputes art's or technology's impact on culture, but the overlap of the two is still widely misunderstood. Art has always been a technologically driven practice, with advances in paints, musical instruments, or building materials enabling entire aesthetics. Our closing keynote speaker, the incredibly insightful MoMA curator Paola Antonelli, succinctly rebutted the argument that video games “aren’t art” because they are created with code, by pointing out that no one would ever accuse Picasso’s work of not being art because he used paint.
With her album, Platform, Holly Herndon reinforces this point about using an artistic work as a vehicle for wider discourse around technology, politics, and philosophy. Technology is our way of manipulating and understanding our environment, and art our way of speculating about potential futures and making sense of our position in the world. However, as I discussed in my "Re-Engineering" op-ed for Art Practical, the cultural infrastructure to support this interdisciplinary work blurring lines between traditional roles is alarmingly lacking.
How did you apply this idea to your curatorial process? How did you choose the content of the festival?
After the F.A.T. Gold exhibition at Eyebeam in 2013, I called the curator, Lindsay Howard, to bring the show to San Francisco. A lot of the tech driven art here is oriented toward generative graphics or, as theorist Nick Srnicek puts it, the technological sublime. You don’t find much work looking at our relationship with technology through a critical lens as F.A.T. does through their unique mix of humor and irreverent commentary. Attendees walked through the exhibition to enter the conference area, so this was an important point of provocation and departure for all of the discussions on stage.
We wanted diverse topics, but also speaker backgrounds. Just regarding gender; we had all heterogeneous panels, and nearly half of the participants were women. Juxtaposed with a technology sector that is woefully deficient at including women, we’re proud of what we’ve done here.
We also wanted to highlight Bay Area practitioners and contextualize their work within the history of experimental culture in San Francisco, and in the global tradition of computational art. Two of our keynote speakers, Jane Metcalfe and Casey Reas, gave overviews of how the work Gray Area supports today is situated within the previous generations of artists and inventors. There is rich history here with ground-breaking artists such as Lynn Hershman and Survival Research Labs to honor.
Can you talk about the mixed-media format of the event?
Gray Area has always viewed audiovisual performance as a core to our mission. We were delighted to have A/V sets with Alessandro Cortini and Lustmord, and a dance oriented program featuring Mark Slee, Teebs, and Shigeto, along with visualists Mary Franck and Effixx.
It's both interesting and quite risky to launch such an event in a geographic area where the technology industry is already very advanced. Any difficulties working with that?
The relationship of tech to culture in San Francisco is a complicated topic we are still navigating. Back in 2013, artist Mat Dryhurst and I started a well attended program called Artup to foster dialog between the art and tech worlds. We held five major events attempting #reengineering around problem areas, and hoped that just getting everyone to talk would have beneficial effects, but vast work remains to bridge the gap.
In general, the tech sector seems to be much more interested in developing its internal culture than contributing to the milieu that birthed it. Luckily, we are blessed to work with technology partners such as Zendesk, Obscura Digital, and Stamen Design, who have an advanced relationship with community. But, I don’t think art should feel entitled to tech participation. It is our duty to create opportunities and mechanisms for tech to be involved in the rich cultural tapestry that is pre-existing, and find ways to collaborate together.
What's the next step for the foundation? Any insights?
This festival, and the theater, is just the first salvo in a deliberate strategy to catalyze a lasting art and technology presence in San Francisco, with an eye toward social responsibility.
We hope with partners in SF; like the CCRMA computer music program at Stanford, Autodesk’s Pier 9 workshop, the newly reactivated Lab, the Soundwave festival, prototyping festivals with YBCA, or the relaunched SFMOMA; or beyond like Eyebeam and NEW INC in NYC, the Studio for Creative Inquiry in Pittsburgh, the SAT in Montreal, the global Art Hack Day series, or the Resonate festival in Belgrade, to support the global cultural infrastructure around creative engineering and cross-disciplinary collaborations.
In the near term, however, we are working towards giving the Recombinant Media Labs' Cinechamber a new home in San Francisco, curated by RML's Artistic Director Naut Humon. After it lost its building in 2008, RML has been a nomadic institution, traveling to festivals around the world such as Mutek, CTM, Cynetart, and ORF Musikprotokoll, but has not had a more permanent location for development of work. We received a National Endowment for the Arts Grant to help build an immersive media theater last year which helped secure The Grand Theater. The RML Cinechamber programming will be the main public output of that initiative. The 8.8 channel surround sound system has already been installed (and tuned by Vance Galloway, who I believe is the best engineer for electronic music in the world) and the video will be coming in the next few months. We hope that this new surround cinema apparatus will both be as important a cultural touchstone for San Francisco as the original RML location, and be a playground for more groundbreaking new artistic endeavors out of the Bay.
Click here to learn more about Gray Area.