Art after Silicon Valley – A conversation with the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts team


Given you can count the number of art spaces in North America focused (exclusively) on art that engages emerging technology with one hand, each venue that does plays an important role. Gray Area Foundation for the Arts is a self-described “non-profit organization supporting art and technology for social good” and has been operating in San Francisco for a decade. After several years of nomadism, the org put some roots down last year when they signed a ten year lease on a historic Mission District theatre space and mounted a successful $300,000 capital campaign to renovate it. CAN was on-hand for their launch event last spring – the coinciding first edition of the Gray Area Festival – and it was a welcome breath of fresh air for the North American festival circuit. With the second edition of their festival drawing near, we engaged in a dialogue with Gray Area’s Barry Threw (BT), Matt Ganucheau (MG), Chris Delbuck (CB), Maria D’Angelico (MD), and Anna Ploegh (AP) to check in and see how the org’s various educational and programming initiatives are progressing.

↑ Eric Rodenbeck’s keynote from last year’s festival is an incisive overview of the past (and present) of art and tech on the left coast

It has been one year since Gray Area (re)christened the Grand Theatre and launched its new long-term home in the Mission District. What have you folks been up to in your new space?

BT: We’re extremely proud of our new space, it provides a lot of capabilities beyond any of our five (!) previous locations. We’ve done a lot of work on its renovation in the last year, dealing with soundproofing and technical infrastructure, building out studio and project spaces, as well as a adding a mezzanine that is home to our Cultural Incubator members.

It’s a 10,000 square foot theater, complete with co-working space, educational and workshop spaces, a bar, and full facilities for both performances and exhibitions. We have a full schedule of community meetups, workshops, panels, and symposia. We also run an eight-week Creative Code immersive educational program, providing a variety of learning opportunities centered around the creative use of technology.

We’re also blessed to be home to the eight surround sound system from Recombinant Media Labs, allowing us to program experimental sound and live A/V events with very high quality presentation. We hope to continue exploring immersive cinema and experiential media work, and have some exciting things coming later this year.

↑ The schedule and ‘onesheet’ for the Art and Machine Learning Symposium, which took place this past February

You recently hosted an Art and Machine Learning Symposium. DeepDream and StyleNet captured digital artists’ and the broader public’s imagination in the big way in the second half of 2015 and you seem to have scooped a lot of arts orgs with programming on this topic, this is quite a coup – congrats! How did the event play out?

CD: Many people who came had never been to an art event before. Several of those who purchased works had never collected art before. I think this is an amazing accomplishment in championing the values of arts funding and patronage, and sustaining the practices that facilitate them.

BT: This symposium, and the auction that accompanied it, was a flagship example of the kinds of public excitement we can generate when engaging projects that exist at the confluence of art, technology, and culture. We raised about $97,000 for Gray Area as a result of this auction, showing that there is a market for correctly positioned work.

Much wringing of hands has come from the contemporary art world due to its apparent inability to access the bank accounts of Silicon Valley. Instead of pretentiously assuming that the Bay Area is full of cultureless drones, it may be worth reassessing what the function of art is, and reorienting it toward new contexts. The DeepDream work manifested as the result of computer research into artificial intelligence and computer learning. It is an example of art objects that are created with technology as both a medium and a tool. It is also an example of how the creation of art can push science and technology development forward.

This is work that presents acute provocations about the future of technology and humanity, and reexamines the definition of art through the lens of these new techniques. Work that inhabits all these disparate areas and produces something greater than the sum of its parts speaks to sectors of culture often unserviced by the fine art world, and it was received with open arms by our community, many of whom don’t have a strong arts background.

↑ Details of Mario Klingemann’s Parting From You Now (left) and Memo Atken’s GCHQ (right), two works sold in the auction.

For the symposium, you partnered with Research at Google, which is the type of relationship you’d expect Gray Area to cultivate given Silicon Valley is in your backyard. However, In attending the Gray Area Festival last year (it was the first time CAN had covered an event in SF) we were a little surprised to learn about the gulf between the tech and startup sector and art and technology circles. Is combatting this local ambivalence part of your mission?

CD: I would say the ambivalence is not something we explicitly try to combat, we instead create programming that shows how much overlap there can be in the respective art and tech communities. Being in San Francisco, I think it’s important to highlight emerging artists and practices that utilize new mediums that are centred in technological advancement, while simultaneously paying respect to the ethos of arts culture that has been fundamental to the character of this city.

BT: It may go without saying, but there aren’t any monolithic art and tech communities, and one of the problems when beginning to discuss the overlap between these different sets of cultural practices is even getting everyone to speak the same language. As the many practitioners who use technology as a creative medium understand, the question sets up a false dichotomy.

Having produced projects at the intersection of art and technology in San Francisco for over ten years, I’ve seen many sides of this dialogue. There is opportunity for outreach and collaboration, and the onus is on everyone invested to provide those mechanisms for interdisciplinary overlap. Those in arts should learn about creative work using technology as an point of inquiry and as a medium, work that exists outside of the confines of physical space, and deals with ephemerality and spatiality in forward looking ways. Those in the technology sector should understand the vital role artists can play in design and development by creating speculative departures into realms that weren’t previously considered. Our best programs push all participants into frontier areas that are uncharted for everyone.

Much of the intransigence around these issues comes from entrenched economic models and cultural norms that preemptively close off viable paths for exploration. What does it mean for art to function within a technology development scenario, and not be relegated to a separate transcendental space? What does it mean for technology to be used for cultural development and creativity instead of strictly for solutionism and Series C? How can we take advantage of the tools and techniques of the twenty-first century to produce new modes of creative expression that can speak relevantly to our current global worldview? It’s questions like these that I believe will ultimately lead us to a richer cultural experience, and more responsible technology outlook.

How do those aspirations and nuance shape your cultural incubator program, which fosters multidisciplinary community and financial support. How is it set up exactly, and what are some highlights from its output thus far?

MD: Our Cultural Incubator has three different components each designed to support artists and creative practitioners in different ways. Our Membership program provides coworking space and peer to peer mentorship for those who want to cultivate their practice and develop a project. The program runs twice per year for six months each and at the end of that time we host a public showcase to give participants exposure as well as experience presenting and engaging with the public. Fiscal sponsorship is a more formal arrangement whereby we take a project that wants to fundraise under our 501 (c) 3 umbrella. Research Labs are multidisciplinary teams challenged to create new work around specific themes.

So thus far we’ve discussed a symposium and auction, and your efforts to attract multidisciplinary practitioners to develop their projects under your roof. Another tried, tested, and true means of community and culture building for arts orgs is educational programming. Could you summarize the philosophy driving your offerings and speak to some of your more successful or distinctive programs?

MG: We’re trying to build the community we want to work in. Our vision is a diverse, inclusive network of artists that are growing together and supporting each other in these challenging practices. We’re rapidly iterating our educational programs, based on three core principles. First, we’re ruthless about having a responsive curriculum. We change our classes regularly to teach the latest digital tools. As artists and coders ourselves, we watch the field closely to offer classes that might not be available anywhere else. Second, we choose the most reputable faculty to make every class inspiring. Our exceptional faculty are recognized for shaping their fields and practices, while also being active members of their communities. And third, affordability is really important to us. We offer college-level technology instruction for $30 per classroom hour. As a nonprofit, our first priority is educating as many people as possible; regardless of income, background, or experience.

We hold ourselves to high standards, while we’re building the scaffolding for artists to work in a supportive community. There are lots of ways to learn to code, but our focus is on strengthening both conceptual development and technical development. Much of our educational effort is focused on artists and professionals, but we also do this work with youth.

↑ From classroom to demo, Gray Area’s ‘immersive’ teaches would-be artists and designers how to produce and how communicate their vision

Our ten week immersive focuses on building the foundational skills (both tech and conceptual) needed for artists to sustain a practice. We make sure that everyone who competes that program can identify when they hit a technical roadblock, and has both approaches to digging up the right solutions online and a crew of fellow immersive alums to confer with. After leading seven immersive sessions, the crew is getting pretty big. This is the community we envisioned, and it’s really exciting.

The immersive aimed towards beefing up skills in key areas, from projection mapping to grant writing. We end that session with a public exhibition of working prototypes, so that everyone can see their idea in use in a public space. It’s a big challenge, but if this is just classroom lectures it’s just not taking the learning far enough. We have to give the concepts form, and then let the public interaction happen. From that insight and artistic practice is constructed.

↑ Robert Henke performs Lumière II last October / Jake Levitas leads a discussion on urban prototyping at the first edition of the Gray Area Festival

Earlier Barry hinted you had some immersive cinema projects in the works. Could you describe some of your coming attractions for the rest of the year?

AP: We’re a week out from our 2016 Festival! Which is a special occasion for Gray Area because it is one of the rare moments we get to bring our varied programming together. It can be difficult to comprehensively speak to how each moving part that is Gray Area – as a non-profit/venue/cultivator/gallery space –upholds our philosophical leanings and mission. The Festival is really a touchstone for each of our programs to work together to achieve goals around accessible education, civic engagement, Bay Area arts and fields related to creative coding. This year we have keynotes from Tiffany Shlian, Pablo Garcia, Gene Youngblood, Megan Prelinger and performances from Deru, EFFIXX, Pharmakon, Container and the Dutch collective Macular. The lineup covers a lot of different corners of digital arts and is well worth a look! We also have monthly workshops and creative code meetups with instruction and talks by artists actively re-defining their fields, as well as a variety of forthcoming events with partners – there are quite a few unannounced events are in our pipeline that people will have to stay tuned for.

Gray Area Foundation for the Arts | Gray Area Festival 2016

written by Greg J. Smith