It’s Election Day.
I’m an hour outside of the city and can almost hear the liberty bell from here. I stop at a charming little den for gas, cheescake, and an Anchor Steam. It looks like it’ll start snowing soon.
The bar is bustling. Energy centralized in the direction of an older fellow. I order my drink and turn my attention to the two screens above the bar. One is playing CNN with election results coverage. The other Animal House.
The older gentleman comes to order his drink next to me. He stands a lean 5’6 (just like me) and is coated in a red flannel shirt with a black pattern. His scruffy beard obscures his darkened skin ton but not his intense brown-eyed gaze. He looks like…no… but he can’t be.
He catches me staring at him and stumbles over to me.
“Let me tell you a story about two Mexican dumbasses who fought to transform their local art scene.”
“Umm sure. Why are you telling me this?”
“Because my over there friends have already heard this one. And besides they don’t get the point.”
See it all started when these two Mexican dumbasses found themselves at a juncture. With their crazy roommate moving out, they finally had a clean garage space waiting to be filled by the gallery they’d always joked about having. So here they were on hiatus in LA, soaking in the broad swath of the art scene that one of them was experiencing for the first time, and the other for the first in a long time. Maybe it was the multitude of stuff they saw-at one point the gallery hopped something like 20 spaces in a day-or maybe it was the fact that a good portion of it really stood out and left a mark on them, but they both agreed on the steady conclusion that the city they had learned to call home was out of the loop here. It deserved better than its current iterations. Its head was still rammed so far into the blowholes of the Mission School it had missed out on the decade that had already moved past that. “The people and places you love deserve to be treated better than they sometimes imagine they’re supposed to,” they agreed in unison.
See, one of them had just gotten back from Europe and after having exhausted a fair amount of research into the alternative arts scene of Mexico in the 90s, as well as experiencing living masterworks, contemporary and not, felt a new fire in him that was different than what he was accustomed to. The other, had in this same period, broadened his outlook and practice into far more experimental, hardcore conceptual territory with soaring results and began to nurture a keen curatorial eye for “what looks good and where and why.”
It was under these set of conditions, that in a drunken fog on a warm night in July, the notion of simply “starting a gallery” evolved into something more ambitious. With actual programming. An actual consideration for the types of shows they could have. The types of folks they could collaborate with. This sense of expansion spilled out all at once and by the evenings end had settled on a launch date for the gallery and the 4 preceding shows that would follow. All within the span of a month.
So skipping through the rigorous three weeks of beer and pizza they consumed along with another loyal and committed collaborator as they transformed the garage into a “proper” gallery, by the end of the 4th show of that trial period month, during which the space was stacked wall to wall with people (some estimates measured over a 100), they knew they had something on their hands.
But what exactly?
That was a question they would tackle almost every single time they staged an exhbition over the course of the next year. Its form would shift in disparate directions and evolve into something more whole. What would also evolve were their personal expectations for the space/experimental project site/gallery (the word for the WHAT they were operating would also always shift as well).
The question of what they were doing ran laterally next to the notion of why.
One of them was half concerned with establishing that wild energy akin to the type he’d read so much about in Mexico in the 90s. The type that broadens public outlook and perception on art. The kind of radical energy he knew the history of this all this all too romantic city was soaked in. The other half of him believed his future wife might be in the crowd of visitors and that alone was a reason to keep going.
The other was concerned with a fusion of artistic and curatorial practices. The project space as an extension of what he was exploring in his work. A closer knit group of artists that stood above the fray of the snobbery found in the gallery scene. A space that supported and propagated the type of challenging conceptual work he was interested in yet found so rarely in his vicinity.
Their legendary run that year involved stringing sausages on the ceiling, countless neighbor complaints, transforming the space to mimic an old bunker from the Headlands, installing a pink stripper pole for viewers to play with, hosting a garage sale during one of the worst rainfalls in the city’s history, having a punk band play an egregiously loud set in 4 minutes, carving a hole into the future, tossing moss into the back as a metaphor for the Techie Invasion, hosting wild after parties with strobes to keep the night from ending, entertaining a handful of bigwigs as visitors to the space, and contending with the ever-enclosing concept that they should be operating like a “real gallery.” (refer to index for more details on individual exhibitions 1038sf.tumblr.com.)
People would know their names and how they operated. “Oh you guys are having a dry throwback to minimalism in its early emergence. Awesome! We’re turning our space into an alien farm. With actual hay too!” On one particular instance, they’d impress a couple of artists from LA who’d heard about them simply by searching for “best alternative spaces in the bay area” and would come away wildly impressed with a potential contact for expansion.
Speaking of expansion. It was in the summer of ’14-exactly a year after which this thing was born-that they would decide to “expand”. Aggressively. They applied for a large type deal grant, worth up to $5,000 through a local arts foundation. As with most things for these two Mexican dumbasses, it wasn’t really about the money though. Sure they would have deep pockets to pull from whenever they needed a zipcar to pull off some last minute errand, or to buy beer and wine for openings, or even to actually pay artists. But it wasn’t about that. It was about garnering the necessary street cred that other institutions and collaborators would validate them by. Yeah, everyone loves an underdog but they like someone even more if they’ve got the backing of a respected institution.
So the boys worked their butts off, across cities and through heart aches to get this all together on time. And they were confident at the end of it which was rare for these two big over-thinkers. It was the Grand-Epic-Stand-For-It-All. More than street cred and financial autonomy were at stake. One of the boys desperately needed a Bigger-than-him reason to stay in the city. There was a looming chance it would all be over after this.
I’ll skip the part where the two daydreamed for two months about landing this grant to an almost embarrassing degree and all the times they’d concoct silly and equally wild ideas for potential exhibitions. Instead let’s just jump ahead to the moment where they found out they didn’t get it. On a night just like this, an Election Night no less, when the Democrats found their destinies and certainty upturned, these two Mexican dumbasses were forced to confront a very frail future.
One called his Mom crying to her, “How can i keep living in this city if it just keeps breaking my heart?”
She emailed him with a response later on reminding him “You are a fighter! You are not a quitter. You are stronger than ever. Do not let this bad experience have control over everything.”
The other was slightly more optimistic, certainly less visibly bummed. He said it was a chance to finally answer that question they’d always been wondering about. To be truly autonomous and not be accountable to anyone except ourselves. To get weirder than ever before. Be a true Alternative to the structures in place. Retain that underdog thrust.
So the two proceeded to get absolutely hammered in one of their rooms under the same fog they did so long ago in July ’13. Singing away to Dylan and Prince, they reminisced about the thundering days that their blessed project space had brought them thus far.
“We’re at the part of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza’s journey where they fight the windmills. We still have more to go. Oh and the cat is our steed,” one of them said to the other.
Completely trashed, the two stood up to look in the mirror of their comically tiny hallway. They looked carefully and saw the poorly speckled walls, the endlessly dusty floor, the cavern back end of the gallery all staring back.
See, the gallery/garage was an extension of themselves. Running a parallel course, mimicking their movements. A necessary function and formality. And in staring back they saw what they needed to see: its current iteration and where it could lead to.
One of them looked ahead and saw a curatorial practice not bound to the ideology of contemporary art politics. Art that is pure and untainted by speculators and markets. Art that is intimate in its experience.
The other looked and bore witness to its underdog spirit. How it would could be relentlessly unselfish in its appeal to younger non-established artists. And how its perseverance would be honored by future generations looking back at this particular moment in history and the crisis the local art scene found itself in.
They continued peering ahead for a few moments more and one of them turned to the other and said quietly,
“This is their loss. Not Ours.”
They headed back into one of their rooms and plotted their next course of action. They had a whole cue of artists and ideas to pull from. A parade of cars accompanied by a night of spontaneous poetry about the nature of car crashes. An exhibition presented as an art auction that parodied current market trends. An incorporation of the oddball history of surrounding neighborhood. Melding elements of plays and theater into a that provided a showcase for local actors. A dual exhibition crafted solely for the purpose of critiquing the manner in which exhibitions are crafted solely for the documentation. A residency wherein the space and house would be transformed into a horror film. Disassembling a tech-bus and placing the remnants inside. Inviting international artists all the way from Berlin to Guadalajara and curating programing and talks that would make even the most prestigious established institutions jealous. Something with live animals.
They paused at the tail end of their six pack to let everything they’d said soak in for a moment. The one who was deeply considering leaving wondered if any of this would stick in the morning.
“What do we do tomorrow then?”
“We just keep hustling. That’s all we can do.”
At this point, the familiar looking older fellow stops his long-winded story to take a sip of his beer. He stares at the glass, swirling the foam around.
“So what happened? Did they keep going?” I inquire.
He smiles that wily coyote smile of his and says “I can only tell you that if you promise not to leave right away.”
I look at my watch. It’s far later than I’d expected and I had to keep on keeping through. But i wanted to know the end of it.
“Tell me at least. Does the one guy meet his wife at one of the openings?”
The older man laughs big and wide.
“I’ll only tell you if you stay.”
Frustrated i throw my cash at the corner and prod the door open. A swift gust sweeps through. The ground is caked in a snow that I recognize from lifetimes before. I look back and notice the older man laughing heartily with his crew. Some of them looked familiar to me, but only momentarily. I look at them and peer over to where my car is parked. My breath feels its way through the East coast night back on to me. The bartender yells at me to shut the door. I stare back at him and then to my car. The door’s hinges labor on my cold hands. A familiar song comes through the radio. The night while harsh appears inviting. A ferocious challenge. And yet…
…Another Anchor Steam sounds appealing.
For the TRUE account of this story head to: