(of experimental arts events, performances and exhibits in the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond)
A Review of the Reviewers
August 8, 1999 Pamela Z
In spite of all the recent distressing changes in the appearance and character of the neighborhoods of San Francisco, which have long been known for their diversity (economic and cultural) and for their richness in colourful, vocal, artistic communities, there is still a lot going on in this town. The San Francisco Bay Area is a place that is (and has been for as long as I can remember) wealthy with artists doing new and experimental work in all the various disciplines of visual and performing arts, and is a (possibly the) leading locality for interdisciplinary work (which we used to be able to refer to as "Multi-media" in the days before that became a corporate catch-phrase for all things computer-based). The Bay Area is said to have the largest number (not even second to New York) of "under-structure" artists. That is artists who have created their own situations and structures in which to develop and present new work without the benefit of the umbrella of any large, well-funded arts organization.
This work, though plentiful, goes largely ignored by the press, which favors work presented by arts organizations with big budgets and/or featuring artists with big names. When more adventurous work does occasionally get reviewed, the reviews tend to be dismissive at best and downright mean-spirited at worst. It's hard to say exactly why this is so often the case, but I suspect that it is for a couple of reasons. It seems to me that critics are often more interested in proving that no-one could be hipper than they are, and in listening to themselves turn one clever derisive phrase after another than they are in examining the breadth of what actually took place at an event, and how that effected the audience. It also seems to me that the papers are sending people to review shows who really despise this kind of work. It is, after all, challenging work. It is often work that is not for the faint of heart or for those who favor the conservative. I'm not saying that a reviewer should be ready to make a glowing report of everything they see, but to be fair to a genre of work, the reviewer should at least have an affinity for and a deep knowledge of that particular artform. You would not send a person who despises Ballet to review Ballet. You would never get an actual review of the event in question, just a modified list of the usual complaints about the form itself. And the critics who get sent to review classical opera are Opera Lovers! People who know opera inside and out, own huge opera collections, can name names throughout history of singers they love and singers they hate, recordings that did justice or did not etcetera.
So, our field sorely needs reviewers who love experimental work. People who are willing to go night after night to hear new music, or see experimental dance and interdisciplinary performance work. People who remember the heyday of "Performance Art" not because they read accounts of Karen inserting yams into orifices, but because they were there. Night after night. And those people exist. Lovers of Challenging Work are plentiful in the Bay Area. Sure, there are plenty of small concerts and events in back-alley galleries and grungy loft spaces with a only handful of people attending, but whenever there is a festival or marathon performance of experimental work in this town, the people show up in droves. This is really true! I'm telling you-- in spite of what you read in the paper-- New Music Festivals, Butoh Festivals, Sound Art Festivals-- I'm telling you-- pack the houses in small, medium and even fairly large venues where they are held in San Francisco. Don't let them fool you! There is a huge fan base, and they are usually uproarious in their applause and charged up with reactions to this work!
So...I would like to try to make a small contribution to this cause by posting my own reviews of the events I attend. I am a lover of this kind of work. I may not be an experienced writer-- I am a composer/performer by trade-- but it is, after all, about the work. Not about my writing. I intend to forward my reviews to all the local press (dailies and weeklies), but they will probably not publish much or any of what I send them. So I will also post them here and forward them to my community-- the amazing, brave artists doing challenging work in a "challenge-hostile" climate, and the strong intelligent audience who support that work. I'd also love to invite any other lovers of challenging work to submit their reviews as well. Send them to all the papers. They need to hear it! And send them to me, if you'd like. I want to hear it.