Mission District’s Gray Area exists where art, technology intersect


By the time Josette Melchor had made her way to San Francisco in 2005, she had already created Gray Area, a gallery and studio space, in a warehouse in Los Angeles. But it was in the Bay Area, in a new home in the Tenderloin, where the nonprofit’s identity really came into relief.

Melchor, much as she did in Los Angeles, would spend her free time connecting with artists and curating installations. But now, to pay the bills, she also found herself doing hardware sales for a technology company. As she switched between the two — her job in tech and her work in art — the intersections between the two became more and more apparent.

“I started to see the connection between code and paint,” she says.

Thirteen years later, Gray Area has moved into and renovated the Grand Theater on Mission Street and is set to host its fourth annual Gray Area Festival, an event that draws artists from around the world.

The intersection of art and technology is fertile, but it can also be precarious, especially in a city like San Francisco where the two are often seen as diametrically opposed.

“There’s this idea that big tech is responsible for gentrification, overthrowing society with machines, all of these ideas, and they’re not necessarily grounded,” Melchor says. “We all need to know technology and how to use technology. If we don’t, we’re powerless.”

Melchor and Gray Area are trying to shift that paradigm, little by little.

Gray Area’s main focus is working with artists and teaching them how to weave technology into their practice. They do this through two programs, each held twice a year.

The first is a 10-week-long immersive class, which teaches students everything from projection mapping and machine learning to virtual reality and data visualization. The second is a six-month-long incubator program where artists who have some experience working with technology, collaborate as a cohort to produce new art.

The artists who go through the program are diverse, Melchor says. More than a couple have been drag queens and DJs, and there’s an intentional effort to make sure people of color and women are represented.

“There’s definitely this sense that we’re just these developer people, but it’s actually just people who are trying to learn how to broaden their creative practice.”

Late last month, Gray Area opened its Grand Theater for a showcase of the art produced this year in the first round of programming. At the entrance to the theater, Anastasia Victor had installed her most recent piece of art, something she called “Face2Face.”

Viewers could situate themselves in front of an iPhone and then, on a much bigger screen, they’d see themselves with a purple grid laid over their faces and so many tiny white dots tracking their movements.

They’d also see some information: Their likely age and gender, whether they were wearing glasses or had a beard. The program would take a guess, too, about their emotional state. Were they more sad than happy? Maybe they were just surprised. The values changed as angles and expressions changed.

But underneath the playfulness of it all was something darker. The program Victor used as the foundation of her piece, Amazon Rekognition, is a tool that law enforcement agencies have been eager to use to track people. But its accuracy varies, depending on who it’s watching.

“These inaccuracies most adversely affect people of color,” Victor says, adding that black women face a 35 percent error rate.

So “Face2Face” offers a warning of sorts. “We should take into account that (the technology) might not always be right and what the implications of that are,” Victor says.

This type of engagement with social issues is also key to the art that Gray Area supports.

“Art and creativity has a real role to play in the concept and development of technological innovation,” says Barry Threw, an artist who sits on Gray Area’s board. “Artists are sort of uniquely positioned to anticipate the problems that are going to happen.”

The Gray Area Festival, which begins Thursday, July 26, and runs through Sunday, July 29, is a rush of talks, workshops, performances and exhibitions, all trying to illuminate the programming Gray Area is invested in. This year there are discussions and projects about cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin, and speakers will include Jessica Lynne, the co-founder and editor of Arts.Black, a journal of art criticism from black perspectives.

Claire Evans, who might be best known for being one-half of the Los Angeles pop group Yacht but who also writes extensively about science and just published “Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet,” is delivering a keynote speech at the festival. She has had her own experiences moving between and reconciling two different pursuits, and says she’s been a fan of Gray Area for a while.

“I think it’s really reassuring, especially in a city like San Francisco, that technology can be used to pursue things beyond merely capital,” Evans says. “Technology has become big ‘T’ technology, and it helps to remember how human it is and how human it always has been.”

It hasn’t been easy, though. Gray Area functions as a nonprofit, which means funding is hard to come by. Larger arts groups assume the organization has tech backers, while tech companies see what Gray Area is doing, Threw says, as “not germane, too artsy.” As a result, the staff is small — just five people — and the organization relies on renting out its theater space two to three times a week. Then there’s the 300-person strong network of volunteers. “It literally just exists because the community wants it to exist,” he says.

Still, Gray Area is committed to holding down this space, one at the middle of two very different worlds.

“It’s a crucial spot,” Threw says. “It’s the only spot that’s going to progress the conversation.”