Volume 46 Number 46

Healthy transitions



When the Human Rights Campaign, the national LGBT rights group, released its latest scorecard, rating companies by their support for LGBT issues, the healthcare giant Kaiser scored 100 percent. In June, the company’s float in the San Francisco Pride Parade was packed with happy employees.

But as the float passed through the streets, it was met by a group of protesters. Pride at Work complained, loudly, that Kaiser — for all its efforts to work with the community — excludes transgender care from its standard policies.

“We said, let’s push Kaiser,” said Sasha Wright, an organizer with Pride at Work. “They say they’re good for the community. Let’s show them that the queer community demands this.”

It was a perfect sign of the city’s struggle with trans health care. In many ways, San Francisco is exemplary — this is a long ways from Chattanooga, Texas, where state legislator Richard Floyd tried to pass a law instituting steep fines for people who can’t prove their genders match the designated genders of public bathrooms.

And with Healthy San Francisco officials’ recent decision to cover transgender and care, it’s likely this city is leading the nation in trans health.

But that’s a limited distinction — because trans people everywhere, even here, still face sometimes daunting obstacles in getting access even to basic care. And the struggle to change that is becoming a high-profile (and increasingly successful) political fight.


Kaiser’s insurance plans are typical of the industry. In its 2012-2013 “Traditional Plan,” Kaiser lists “transgender surgeries” among the services excluded from coverage, along with massage therapy and cosmetic surgery.

And Kaiser’s not alone.

Medicare, the federal health plan for low-income people, specifically excludes transgender health care. MediCal, the state version, is required to cover trans care — but will often deny individual applications. And many of the doctors and surgeons who accept MediCal (and many don’t) are unfamiliar with transition-related care.

Then there’s plain old discrimination. A troubling number of people report being denied healthcare — not just healthcare related to their gender identity — because the doctor they saw didn’t want to treat a transgender person.

The State of Transgender California, a 2008 survey by the Transgender Law Center, found that 30 percent of transgender people in California reported that they have “postponed care for illness or preventative care due to disrespect and discrimination from doctors or other healthcare providers. Over 40 percent did so because of economic barriers.”

The study also found that 35 percent of respondents “recount having to teach their doctor or care provider about transgender people in order to get appropriate care.”

To make things worse, American health insurance is overwhelmingly employer-based — and unemployment among trans people is epidemic. A 2011 study from the National Center for Transgender Equality found that trans unemployment was double the national rate and that 47 percent of trans people surveyed had been fired or overlooked for a job.

The World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH) sets the international standard for transgender health care. WPATH states that, for many transgender people, “sex reassignment surgery is effective and medically necessary.” Hormone therapy, voice and communication therapy, as well as non-discriminatory primary and preventative care are also necessary.

But with high rates of poverty and discrimination among transgender people, affording these medically necessary procedures can be nearly impossible. Even in San Francisco, where some politicians and powerful organizations advocate tirelessly for transgender rights, many people are forced to go outside the system altogether to take care of themselves.

“We see transgender folks either not being able to make a transition, or having to spend a lot of money,” said Wright. “I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a top surgery party, but they’re common in San Francisco.”

Mia Tu Mutch, a member of San Francisco’s Youth City Services Committee who advocates for LGBTQ rights inside and outside City Hall, recently started a group that supports and raises funds for people who are transitioning.

“Me and my partner have been shocked at trans incompetency in San Francisco,” said Tu Mutch. “We’ve had several really bad instances of doctors refusing to treat us when they found out that we were trans. There’s still education needed.”

Tu Mutch said that, even though she is covered by a high-quality, trans-inclusive insurance plan, she has spent at least $10,000 out of pocket on transition related expenses.

“People are usually told, ‘get a good job, save all your money,'” she said. “But I’ve been spending 80 percent of my money on transgender related care for the past couple of years. I don’t think the whole ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ thing works.”


But the situation is starting to change. In fact, trans organizers say that the medical, insurance and political establishments — particularly in California — are beginning to realize how backward the system is and are open to dramatic changes.

“It is an exciting time,” said Dr. Dawn Harbatkin, executive director or San Francisco’s Lyon Martin Health Center, which offers free and low-cost service to trans people “I didn’t think I would see this during my career.”

Nikki “Tita Aida” Calma, program supervisor at Trans: Thrive, echoed that sentiment. Said Calma, “I’m glad to see this in my lifetime.”

Thanks to groups like Pride at Work and the Transgender Law Center (TLC), city workers in San Francisco and Berkeley are now covered by the trans-inclusive version of Kaiser’s plan. The TLC, along with Lyon Martin and Equality California, came together to form Project Health in 2010, which convinced Healthy San Francisco to drop its transgender exclusions.

Tu Mutch has also worked this year to start FEATHER, or Fundraising Everywhere for All Transitions: a Health Empowerment Revolution.

Meanwhile, lawmakers in Sacramento, and even nationally, are also chipping away at the transgender discrimination that plagues the healthcare system.

Harbatkin told us that there isn’t a specific set of services that make up transgender health care.

“Really good transgender medicine means that you are providing good primary care, that you’re treating a patient as a whole person and taking care of all of their health care needs,” she said.

Lyon Martin provides preventative care like pap smears, breast exams, and prostate exams, treatment for chronic issues like hypertension and diabetes, as well as transition-related care—services that assist transgender people in transitioning to a body that reflects their gender identity.

“The bigger part of providing good medicine is about being culturally competent, culturally sensitive,” Harbatkin said. “Knowing how to address people respectfully and with their appropriate name and pronoun. Knowing about their legal name versus preferred name, or gender markers in terms of billing issues.”

One obstacle transgender patients face is doctors who are unfamiliar with transition-related healthcare, such as hormone therapy and surgeries. But often, trans people are denied care that doctors know well and would perform on cisgender patients, simply because of their gender identity.

Then there’s the challenge low-income people face in finding doctors who accept MediCal.

Harbatkin cited the example of an orchiectomy — surgical removal of the testicles, a procedure done by urologists. Finding a urologist who takes MediCal is fairly routine.

“But finding a surgeon who would do a vaginoplasty who accepts MediCal, that is more challenging,” she said.

And some urologists might perform an orchiectomy for someone with testicular cancer — but refuse to do so for someone who is transitioning from male to female.

That type of discrimination has caught the attention of Assemblymember Tom Ammiano, and his office has been working for several years to change it.

Ammiano aide Wendy Hill has been focusing on eliminating transgender health barriers in California for years. Thanks in part to her efforts, the California Department of Insurance now interprets existing gender equity legislation to include transgender people.

“They’ve clarified a set of recommendations and essentially code sections that spell out that for the purpose of transgender, this law requires gender equity,” Hill said. “If you cover pap smears, you have to cover them for everybody. If you cover breast reconstruction or hysterectomy, you have to cover it for everybody, regardless of gender.”

Now Ammiano’s office is taking on the Department of Managed Health Care and has been documenting cases of discrimination.

“When a citizen calls the Department of Managed Health Care, their helpline, they tag the call so that they know what’s going on,” Hill explains.

“They just tagged the calls based on discrimination. But we got them to tag the calls based on gender discrimination, and then even more specifically, discrimination against transgender people.”

The sort of problem she sees: “A person goes in to be treated for what could potentially be pneumonia, but the physician is having trouble seeing this person because their papers say they’re male but they are trying to see a gynecologist.”

Hill said some of her most interesting moments have been outreach meetings with community members and local businesses.

“I’ve gone in to talk with folks and said, how many of you know someone who’s transgender?” Hill recalls. “And in Sacramento, not that many people raise their hands. And then I say, how many of you identity as transgender? And the transgender people raise their hands. A lot of people don’t know that they already knew transgender people.”

Ammiano, who created Healthy San Francisco, said he was thrilled about the program dropping its transgender exclusions. “This has been in the works for a while,” he said. “We always fully intended to make sure that everyone who needed it was covered.”

Nationally, he said, “I think it’s an uphill battle around eradicating the transphobia and getting services provided without any hassle, but there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”


San Francisco offers plenty of support. Lyon Martin is part of a network of organizations providing health-related services to transgender people.

Trans: Thrive, a project of API, serves as a drop-in center for transgender people, including many who show up there as one of their first stops after coming to San Francisco to escape discrimination and danger in their hometowns. Trans: Thrive provides counseling, computer labs, food, activities, and an all-important clothing closet to cut the extensive costs of a whole new wardrobe that better reflects a person’s gender identity.

Lyon Martin is “a federally qualified health center, so we take MediCal, MediCare, and many commercial insurances and Healthy San Francisco,” said Harbatkin. “And for patients who are uninsured, they are put on a sliding scale based on income and family size. And we continue to see people whether they can afford it or not.”

That means even people with little or no income can access transition-related surgery at Lyon Martin. This can be essential for people who otherwise would rely on MediCal.

The situation will actually be improved with the changes to Healthy San Francisco, as people who access healthcare through the program will have more options for surgeons and specialists.

In the 2008 State of Transgender California report, the TLC made a series of recommendations — and to the surprise of even the TLC staff, many have been adopted.

For example, the Affordable Care Act bars discrimination against people with pre-existing conditions — a term used to deny coverage to trans people. Most medical schools still don’t teach transgender healthcare, but on a local scale, Lyon Martin is working to train healthcare professionals and students to provide quality, culturally appropriate care to transgender patients with a residency program.

But one of the key recommendations — “Enact federal and state legislation prohibiting transgender- and gender-specific exclusions that limit access to comprehensive, quality care in public and private insurance plans” — is still a ways off.

As far as state legislation goes, said Hill, “Assemblymember Ammiano is definitely there. But the Legislature is not there yet. We don’t have enough support for that, to get a bill down to the governor.”

Kristina Wertz, director of Policy and Programs at the TLC, says that significant progress has been made on the recommendations that the 2008 report included.

“We’re really getting there,” said Wertz. “Things have changed. The world of transgender healthcare is very different than it was five. years ago.

“Right now there’s a lot of advocacy to build on the good laws that we already have and make sure they’re effectively implemented.”




Just a couple years ago, it seemed like the golden age of marijuana in San Francisco, the birthplace of the movement to legalize medical pot and a national leader in creating an effective regulatory framework to govern an industry that had become a legitimate, respected member of the business community.

More than two dozen patient cooperatives jumped through a variety of bureaucratic hoops to become licensed dispensaries, most of them opening storefront businesses that were often the most attractive, clean, and secure retail outlets on their blocks, sometimes in gritty stretches of SoMa, the Tenderloin, or the Mission.

“Pretty much everyone involved agrees that San Francisco’s system for distributing marijuana to those with a doctor’s recommendation for it is working well: the patients, growers, dispensary operators, doctors, politicians, police, and regulators with the planning and public health departments,” I wrote in “Marijuana goes mainstream” (1/28/10).

Since then, San Francisco’s medical marijuana industry has only become more established and professional, complying with new city regulations (such as changing how edibles are packaged to avoid tempting children), paying taxes and fees — and making very few waves. According to city officials, there have been almost no complaints from anyone about the dispensaries — and in San Francisco, people complain about everything.

But in the last six months, the full force of the federal government has brought the hammer down hard on this budding business sector, forcing the closure of eight brick-and-mortar dispensaries and instilling paranoia and insecurity in those that remain.

In just the past few weeks, two of the city’s oldest and most respected dispensaries –- HopeNet and the Vapor Room -– were forced to close their doors.

There’s been little rhyme or reason to which clubs get those dreaded letters warning operators and landlords to shut it down or be subject to asset forfeiture and prison time — and the officials involved have refused to explain their actions, except with moralistic anti-drug statements or unsupported accusations.

“These are people who played by the rules and paid their taxes, and now they’re being punished for it,” said Assembly member Tom Ammiano, a leader in creating a state regulatory framework to govern the distribution of medical marijuana, which California voters legalized in 1996. “This is pure thuggery. They are ignoring due process out of blind prejudice and ambition.”

Ammiano met with Melinda Haag, the US Attorney for the Northern District of California, who has coordinated the local crackdown from her 11th floor office in the Federal Building near City Hall, shortly after she announced her intentions to go after medical marijuana. He said she was like a throwback to a less enlightened era.

“In talking to Haag, not only is she a bit of a bully, but she’s totally uneducated about the issue,” Ammiano told us. When she told him that her office has received many complaints about the dispensaries, he asked to see them -– even making a formal Freedom of Information Act document request –- but she has yet to produce them. “Her duplicity is very moralistic, it’s like going back 100 years.”

Neither Haag nor anyone from the White House or Justice Department would grant an interview to the Guardian to discuss the reasons for and implications of the crackdown, or to answer the list of written questions her office asked us to submit. Instead, Haag gave the Guardian this statement and refused to respond to our follow-up questions:

“Although all marijuana stores are illegal under federal law, I decided to use our limited resources to address those that are in close proximity to schools, parks and playgrounds and operations so large that they constitute marijuana superstores. I hope that those who believe marijuana stores should be left to operate without restriction can step back for a moment and understand that not everyone shares their point of view, and that my office has received many phone calls, letters and emails from people who are deeply troubled by the tremendous growth of the marijuana industry in California and its influence on their communities.”

But in San Francisco, where more than 80 percent of residents consistently support medical marijuana in polls and at the ballot box, most people don’t share Haag’s point of view. And city officials contest many of her claims, from saying the dispensaries are “left to operate without restriction” to her implication that they promote crime or endanger children to the haphazard way she has targeted dispensaries to the characterization that many people are “deeply troubled by the tremendous growth of the marijuana industry.”

In fact, to talk to city officials, virtually nothing Haag says is true.

“We’re not getting nuisance complaints [about the dispensaries],” Dr. Rajiv Bhatia, the city’s medical director who oversees regulation of the dispensaries by the Department of Public Health, told the Guardian. “We’ve had very few complaints over the years and good cooperation with the storefront part of the regulations.”

Almost across the board, city officials and club operators praise one another and the cooperative relationship they’ve established over the last four years. Some of San Francisco’s biggest dispensaries have somehow avoided Haag’s wrath, but their once-open operators are now afraid to speak publicly, warily checking the mailbox each day. A thriving industry eager to pay its taxes and submit to regulation is being driven back underground, with all the uncertainty and hazards that creates.

“The question everyone is asking: Why here, why now, why these businesses? Nobody knows the answer,” Bhatia said. “We’re left to speculate and guess about motives.”


The federal crackdown has been stunning in both its speed and breadth, with various federal agencies coordinating their attacks. The IRS is auditing the biggest clubs and denying write-offs for routine business expenses, the DEA is threatening asset forfeiture efforts, and Haag and the DOJ are threatening prison time and court injunctions.

Underlying all of that is President Barack Obama, who pledged not to use federal resources to go after those in compliance with state law in the 17 states where medical marijuana is legal. Then, last year, Attorney General Eric Holder suddenly announced a new policy: “It will not be a priority to use federal resources to prosecute patients with serious illnesses or their caregivers who are complying with state laws on medical marijuana, but we will not tolerate drug traffickers who hide behind claims of compliance with state law to mask activities that are clearly illegal.”

When we sought an explanation and clarification from the White House Communications Office about why well-established medical marijuana collectives carefully operating under California law were suddenly deemed “drug traffickers” that wouldn’t be tolerated, they refused to answer and referred us to a statement Obama made to Rolling Stone magazine.

“What I specifically said was that we were not going to prioritize prosecutions of persons who are using medical marijuana. I never made a commitment that somehow we were going to give carte blanche to large-scale producers and operators of marijuana -— and the reason is, because it’s against federal law. I can’t nullify congressional law,” Obama told the magazine.

That simplistic explanation – which conveniently ignores how people are supposed to get this medicine – has infuriated local growers and patients. It’s particularly galling for those who supported Obama and took him at his word in the last election, and who don’t understand why he is suddenly escalating the federal war on drugs, ignoring local laws and values, and re-criminalizing their communities.


Hundreds of medical marijuana supporters gathered on Aug. 1 for a New Orleans-style funeral procession at the Lower Haight intersection near where Vapor Room had operated -– without incident and with praise as a model business from three successive district supervisors –- from 2004 until the previous day.

The mood was festive and defiant on that sunny afternoon, where advocates from both sides of the bay gathered to express solidarity with the closed clubs and resolve to battle through the recent setbacks.

“I’m feeling the fight,” Steve DeAngelo, star of the reality television show Weed Wars and head of Oakland’s Harborside Health Center, which received Haag’s shut-down-or-else letter last month, told the Guardian. “I don’t think we can allow taking a few hits to break our spirit….We started this struggle to win it and we’re not going to stop until we do.”

Local politicians and business leaders also came to offer their support.

“As president of the Lower Haight Merchants Association, I’m upset that Vapor Room had to shut down,” Thea Selby, who is also running for the District 5 supervisorial seat, told us. “The Vapor Room did a lot of good for this neighborhood and was a great business.”

Marchers, most clad in black, carried “Cannabis is Medicine: Let States Regulate” and other signs -– as well as a makeshift coffin and massive puppet depicting a scowling Haag -– and danced down the middle of the street as Brass Mafia horns belted out lively jazz tunes. By the time the procession reached Haag’s office at the Federal Building, a chill fog had darkened the skies and the mood.

DeAngelo took the bullhorn first and called out Obama directly: “Either you were lying, sir, or your employees are out of step with your policies.” Steph Sherer, executive director of the DC-based Americans for Safe Access, told the crowd, “We need to tell Obama to lose Haag or lose California.”

Ammiano and the other mostly Democratic Party politicians who spoke tried to avoid putting Obama directly into the crosshairs of the angry activists, although he did say those executing this crackdown “are harming Obama’s chances of winning.” He also urged activists to put the pressure on politicians in Sacramento and Washington DC: “We need to be a voice in reshaping what’s happened in these last few months.”

Ammiano said the crackdown “empowers the cartels and the people who use violence,” contrasting that with San Francisco’s civilized approach to regulating marijuana.

“We in San Francisco have been a model for how to regulate this industry and we have been successful. We are not going to let the federal government interfere with our rights in this city,” Sup. David Campos told the crowd.

Cathy Smith, the founder of HopeNet, who was still reeling from watching her club gutted and shuttered the day before, also sounded an angry and defiant tone, urging supporters to make their voices heard by Haag and others.

“Everybody that’s here needs to go up to this evil woman’s office tomorrow and tell them what we think,” Smith said.

The general feeling was that if the feds can target model clubs like HopeNet and Vapor Room –- which had deep community roots and generous compassionate care programs for low-income patients -– then all clubs are in danger.

“I’m very upset that we’re losing two great medical marijuana dispensaries where patients could medicate on site,” said David Goldman, a local ASA activist and member of the city’s Medical Cannabis Task Force, noting how important that is for patients who live in apartments that ban smoking.

HopeNet and Vapor Room were some of the only dispensaries in town where smoking was allowed on site, because they were more than 1,000 feet from schools, playgrounds, or day care facilities, the city’s standard. Bhatia said that’s a very strict standard in a city as dense as San Francisco, which is why only four clubs ever met it.

Yet the feds saw things differently, ostensibly targeting HopeNet because a small private school opened two blocks away last year, and the Vapor Room because the feds didn’t use the city’s standard of being more than 1,000 feet from the playground at Duboce Park, instead deciding the dispensary was a community menace because it was a little under 1,000 feet from that dog-friendly park’s nearest patch of grass.


Vapor Room founder Martin Olive was a bundle of complicated emotions on the club’s last day in business (it will still operates as delivery-only, just like HopeNet, Medithrive, and a few other shuttered clubs have done). Initially, he didn’t want to talk to us: “I’m trying to keep a lower profile because it’s scary out there now.”

But he slowly opened up and tried to describe the feeling of watching his proudest accomplishment so rapidly undone by the one-two punch of a letter from the merchant services company cutting off credit card access (just like every dispensary in the city, returning pot sales to a cash-only status) followed days later by Haag’s shut-down letter.

“It’s complicated emotions that I’m feeling -– let down, confused. At the end of the day, I don’t understand why this is happening,” Olive said. “It’s a community tragedy, it really is.”

Vapor Room was a welcoming gathering place for its members and a supporter of a variety of community events and causes.

“I’ve always treated this as if it were just a nice coffee house. I’m not an outlaw,” Olive said. “I almost forgot I was breaking federal law. It was so normal, so legitimate.”

In fact, some club owners say their establishments helped clean up rough streets. “We took care of the entire block. Before us, it was all dealers, so there’s a safety issue,” HopeNet’s Smith told me as the once-welcoming club on 9th Street near Howard was reduced to bare walls.

Patients were also feeling the pain, including a 48-year-old ex-con who said he was paroled two years ago after serving 25 years in prison for attempted murder. “I have anger issues, big time. The only thing that keeps me calm and quiet and not blowing up is medical marijuana,” he told us, seething, before praising HopeNet’s “homelike environment” and supportive community. “It’s important to sit and relax in an environment that is comfortable and safe. All this is doing is pushing us into the streets.”


Before going through his latest official misconduct battles and fighting to return to his job as the elected sheriff, Ross Mirkarimi was the District 5 supervisor who sponsored the creation of the city’s medical marijuana regulatory system, the product of a long and arduous legislative process.

“We developed the system out of stark necessity because neither local government nor state government gave a roadmap to the dispensaries,” Mirkarimi said. “Prop. 215 legalized medical marijuana, but there were no rules around it.”

After an intensely collaborative process that lasted more than a year, the city in 2005 adopted a process for licensing dispensaries that balanced the needs of this nascent industry with concerns by police, patients, disability rights activists, neighborhood groups, and health officials. Mirkarimi said that maybe it’s time for city officials to consider an idea he floated a few years ago of having the city itself directly distribute medical marijuana through General Hospital.

“I still think that’s a good idea, particularly if the feds are going to force medical marijuana dispensaries back into the dark ages.” For all his praise of the city’s dispensaries, Dr. Bhatia will admit that the industry still needed better oversight -– dealing with issues such as standards for growing and transporting cannabis, fiscal transparency, and potency and dosage standards –- but the federal crackdown has scuttled his efforts to expand the city’s regulatory system.

“This DEA action stops us from making progress on the regulation of clubs that we need to make,” Bhatia said. “There are lots of issues, but we had just finished getting the clubs into their housing.” Now the industry is being driven back underground.

Ironically, Haag and other federal officials have accused dispensary operators of profiteering, which they’ll certainly be more free to do now that local officials have lost their leverage to begin regulating the finances of the supposedly nonprofit patient collectives that officially operate each dispensary.

“That was one of the areas that we never developed the tools or capacity to look at,” said Bhatia, who proposed more transparent record-keeping by dispensaries last year, only to have the operators express concern about how the feds might use that information, which turned out to be an understandable fear.

The parking fee’s too low


EDITORIAL The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency is reviewing its policy on neighborhood parking, which is a positive step: The current system has been in place for more than 30 years and has become an unwieldy mess. But the agency needs to do more than just aggregate districts and set uniform rules; it needs to adjust the concept of preferential parking, meters, and prices to reflect the reality that San Francisco can’t afford (and shouldn’t promote) free parking.

Since 1976, the city has issued permits allowing residents of certain neighborhoods to park for as long as 72 hours on streets that otherwise offer only two-hour parking. The idea was to keep out-of-town commuters from parking near, say, a BART line and leaving their cars all day. The zones also protect neighborhood privileges near busy shopping districts and employment centers.

The zones are designated only when a majority of property owners request it. The fees for the permits are set at $104 a year.

The Examiner reported Aug. 13 that the system is in line for “a major overhaul.” And the first thing the MTA needs to do is look at the price.

Renting a garage in most city neighborhoods runs close to $300 a month. Paid parking in even outlying areas can be as much as $10 a day. A Muni fast pass costs $74 a month.

But the neighborhood parking permits in effect give a piece of the city’s streets — public property — to some residents for $8.60 a month, or about 28 cents a day. At a time when Muni can’t afford to keep its buses rolling, that’s ridiculous.

Easy, cheap on-street parking encourages more residents to buy cars, which is in direct contrast to official city policy. It’s true that the permits also allow people to leave their cars behind and take transit to work — but the cost is so low that the rest of the city’s residents, particularly the lower-income people who pay for Muni rides, are subsidizing car owners.

If the MTA could double the annual fee, it would bring in an additional $6.5 million a year, which could be dedicated to improving Muni. And at $208 a year, the permits would still be an phenomenal bargain. Car owners have been saving money for years (at great cost to the state) from the Schwarzenegger-era reduction in the Vehicle License Fee; paying some of that money back to the city wouldn’t exactly be a brutal hardship.

It’s not easy — the state mandates that local fees be set at the cost of administering the program. But if nothing else, the MTA ought to ask Sacramento for an exemption — and look for creative ways to link subsidized parking to supporting Muni. (Maybe the parking zones get all-day meters that residents can pay for in advance. Maybe create a parking benefit district. There are so many ways around this.)

The MTA screwed up badly the last time it tried to change neighborhood parking rules (in that case, meters), and any new rules will require extensive community outreach. But everyone needs to understand that free on-street parking in a crowded city with far too many cars is not some god-given right. The neighborhood parking program has a lot of benefits and we agree that it helps discourage car commuters from clogging residential streets. But the people who benefit from it ought to pay a fair fee.


Lens flair



VISUAL ART Cindy Sherman is nearly always described as a groundbreaking postmodern photographer and pioneer. The mostly excellent, just-the-hits traveling retrospective currently visiting the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is carefully curated to justify that praise. All the high points of Sherman’s prolific career are here, and her virtuosic scrambling of photographic conventions and assumptions are shown in high relief. As an act of institutional pedagogy, it’s certainly effective if not exactly revelatory.

Luckily for us, in pairing her retrospective with the “Stage Presence: Theatricality in Art and Media” group show across the hall, SFMOMA makes interesting work of recasting Sherman as primarily a performance artist who utilizes photography as a tool. “Stage Presence” curator Rudolf Frieling’s scruffy show fashions a strong lens through which to see Sherman’s work from new angles, and if you bounce from one show to the other you’ll see undercurrents drawn out by that context.

>>Drag artists re-enact Cindy Sherman portraits: view our “Tastes of Cindy” photo essay

The retrospective leads off with “Untitled Film Stills,” Sherman’s breakout 1980 series of 69 images, presented together in the show’s first gallery. These black and white photos, staged and composed to resemble European film promotion stills, show Sherman in costume and makeup inhabiting dozens of distinct, recognizable tropes and types. These are not self portraits, and understanding that point is a kind of prerequisite for digging beneath Sherman’s body of work. Although she appears in every image, Sherman is an actor playing a role. Or more precisely, she’s performing the act of recreating herself and slipping between multiple roles.

Completed when Sherman was 26, “Untitled Film Stills” sets out the major themes she would follow for the next 30-plus years: fascination with media and film, deliberate manipulation of photographic conventions, ability to stitch together and swap out identities like costumes, a flair for storytelling, and a complicated allegiance with the characters she invents.

And about those pictures. As both photographer and model for her images, Sherman appropriates, tweaks, and ultimately tries to outrun established photographic idioms. At the heart of these single-frame performances, Sherman couches the act of slipping into character within familiar conventions of portrait work — series formats include publicity stills (“Untitled Film Stills”); centerfolds (her 1981 work commissioned for and then scrapped by Artforum magazine); classical portrait painting (over represented, frankly, in this show); headshots (here, from 2000); and large-scale society portraits (from 2008). By turns creepy, gaudy, lurid, ugly, garish, and exhilarating, her photographs put up a testy fight to keep you from instantly or casually objectifying the woman or man — usually woman — in the image.

While each tableau is meant to show a persona, it’s also meant to keep you at distance. Her facial expressions throughout are steely, usually blank-ish, and they project thin personalities that reveal only slivers of the people behind them. Across series she repeats the same narrative beat in her work, namely a moment of resistance in her characters to being fully captured on film. She’s rubber and you’re glue. Your gaze bounces off her and sticks to you.

Still, don’t be fooled by what may seem to be sarcasm — she is emphatic and earnest about the complications of photography’s lies, and by extension about the sum of ways we can possibly present ourselves to each other. One of the main reasons art historians love Sherman’s work is that she injects complicated arguments into the trajectory of identity and liberation theory. In her work, you see traces of an adaptable, slippery identity that represents itself only by wearing and exchanging costumes and masks. The self in Sherman’s work is an actor that acts, and never leaves the stage. It’s not that mastery of appearances allows for the actual presentation of the real, it’s that appearances are the only thing there is. There is no presentation of the real, only the constructed reality of the presentation.

Viewed together with “Stage Presence,” Sherman’s work fills in for performance artists you might find oddly absent across the hall. She stands in for both Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy, as well as Bruce Nauman. All the same concerns that those artists (yes, male) are known for — forces played out in the body by abjection, failed desire, absurdity, and the grotesque — abound in her work. In this context it’s hard not to see both commentary on and participation with those artists in her clowns, fashion, and grotesque series. This angle is made most explicit by her work of the last dozen or so years. Less referential to film, her headshots and society portraits since the late 1990s include more plausible, abject characters whose constructed lives and identities are in various states of decay.

For another day or two, Sherman’s photographs can be seen in contrast with the exuberant Jean Paul Gaultier retrospective at the De Young Museum (closing August 19). In some ways Sherman is the yang to Gaultier’s yin, both addressing the slippery nature of identity and the performance of norms through the clothes and apparatuses of presentation. Highly recommended.


Through Oct. 8, $11-$18

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

151 Third St., SF



Off the walls



VISUAL ART As the Cindy Sherman retrospective draws huge crowds to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s fourth floor, visitors will find it the gateway drug par excellence for a neighboring show just a few steps away. Taking in Sherman’s frozen drag — in which visual art harnesses performance as both subject and tactic — is already to broach the invigorating dialogue underway in “Stage Presence: Theatricality in Art and Media.”

>>Drag artists re-enact Cindy Sherman portraits: view our “Tastes of Cindy” photo essay

The eclectic group show, curated by SFMOMA’s Rudolf Frieling, gathers choice pieces from the museum’s collection, plus some vital loans, to consider the increasing role of theatricality as theme and strategy in contemporary art since the 1980s.

It further includes a “live art” component courtesy of the museum’s curator of public programs, Frank Smigiel — a weekly performance series that continues through Labor Day weekend in a commissioned space adjacent to the gallery, a lush little jewel box of a theater-cinema designed by Bay Area artist Tucker Nichols. This week’s performance piece is a highly anticipated appearance by Los Angeles-based troupe My Barbarian: Broke People’s Baroque Peoples’ Theater, a raucous, multi-layered work that figures the American financial system as a garishly absurd spectacle of waste. (In addition to this site-specific series, a performance finale takes place October 4 in the museum’s atrium: Rashaad Newsome’s Shade Compositions, a choreographed choral work for 20 women of color.)

Whether live or otherwise, the bridging of the visual and performing arts in “Stage Presence” encompasses a truly wide range of work. Highlights include some fascinating projected pieces on view in one or another of the floor’s darkened recesses — each one furnished with a glass window allowing visual access from the gallery proper, whether or not one wants to venture into the screening room.

One of these is Charles Atlas’s Hail the New Puritan (1986), which collapses the visual and performing arts by way of a made-for-BBC faux-documentary portrait of Scottish dancer-choreographer Michael Clark, supposedly captured over the course of one monumental but half-desultory day as he and his company rehearse his New Puritan (1984). With endless interruptions and segues — and a soundtrack sharpened by ample doses of post punk’s jolly downers, the Fall (whose Mark E. Smith and Brix Smith even appear in a staged TV “interview” with Clark) — Hail the New Puritan remains a gorgeous work whose ’80s-era aesthetic (a little like Godard meets Culture Club) retains a questioning and mocking insouciance.


It’s such jubilant indifference, including toward previous standards of seriousness or taste, that has contributed to a significant turn in much new work in the 1980s. Frieling, in an email correspondence from Europe, describes it as “a moment where the historic era of performance art and conceptualism had been challenged by a more exuberant, playful, and hybrid way of working — Charles Atlas, Peter Fischli and David Weiss, or Robert Wilson [all represented in the show] being three examples from that time despite their huge differences.”

Other salient themes running through the show explore the conceptual and practical possibilities in rehearsal, reenactment, and the speech act. To this end, the installation Today Is Not a Dress Rehearsal — which repurposes video of a Judith Butler lecture and other materials from an eponymous three-day collaborative performance by Mika Tajima (with her group New Humans) and Charles Atlas in the museum’s atrium in 2009 — offers subtle food for thought amid a visual and aural repositioning of a privileged form of address.

Also intriguing along similar lines is Sharon Hayes’s restrained yet progressively enthralling four channel video work, Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) Screeds #13, 16, 20, & 29 (2003). In each of four television screens fixed with audio headphones, viewers see and hear the artist reciting from memory each of Patty Hearst’s four video messages to her parents while a hostage of the SLA in 1974, with prompting from an unseen audience each time she veers even slightly from the script. It becomes, especially in the era of Occupy, a resonant occasion for a collective act of remembering as well as re-presenting, re-creating, resituating, and reformulating an iconic but elusive link to a radical past.

“Rethinking formats of presentation is a key to many of the works and the whole show,” says Frieling. “We were ultimately interested in art works that stress this open process while reflecting about the conscious act of staging.” *


Through Oct. 8, $11-$18

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

151 Third St., SF



Mid-century modern



FILM After World War II, the hitherto miniscule U.S. market for foreign language films slowly opened up, partly due to G.I.s returning home curious about the countries they’d been stationed in. But mostly it was because bold new voices in European cinema were delivering a new realism that could be sold (even when cut by censors) as more “shocking,” “frank,” and “shameless” than anything Hollywood would hazard for years yet.

While Sweden, France, and other nations would soon catch up, the first to make a significant impact was Italy, whose artists chronicled the ruination it had to recover from after Axis defeat. Italian Neorealism, as the movement came to be called, looked like nothing else before it; even rare social-issue documentaries had been heavily doctored and sanitized by comparison. Reacting against the increasingly incongruous glamour of studio films made as war and Mussolini’s government wreaked havoc, the neorealists (largely film critics turned makers, as with the French New Wave a decade later) eschewed soundstages and trained actors for the real world. Lines between fiction and nonfiction were willfully blurred.

Leading neorealist films (which fast influenced American film noir and other genres) made a splash. That happened thanks to (or in spite of) misleading adverts for movies that were far from sexy: 1945’s Rome, Open City (resistance fighters caught, tortured, and killed by Gestapo), 1946’s Shoeshine (poor kids scapegoated by corrupt cops, thrown in prison), 1948’s The Bicycle Thief (desperate father and son lose the vehicle that provides their threadbare subsistence), 1952’s Umberto D. (old pensioner gets sick, evicted, suicidal). All these were directed by Roberto Rossellini or Vittorio De Sica, the first star neorealists.

By 1953 Italian cinema was moving on. It had begun to export bombshells (Silvana Mangano from 1949’s Bitter Rice, then Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida); soon would come the sword and sandal epics and international co-productions that would make Rome a crazy hive of commercial filmmaking. Neorealism was on its way out, but as a brand it still had familiarity and a certain market appeal. Ergo a “second generation” of directors were introduced via Love in the City (1953), a recently restored six-part omnibus feature opening for a week at the San Francisco Film Society Cinema (side note: SFFS’s residency at Japantown’s New People ends August 31; the organization plans to shift its fall programming to various local venues).

It isn’t a great film so much as a great curio, and a crystal ball forecasting where the local industry would be head for the next 20 years or more. Little of that was immediately apparent, but just months later Federico Fellini (the sole director here who’d already made several well-received features) would cause a sensation with La Strada (1954). The others, including Michelangelo Antonioni, would eventually follow with breakthroughs of their own. The two surviving today are still active — in fact Francesco Maselli and Carlo Lizzani just contributed to a new omnibus feature last year.

Introduced as “a journal created out of film rather than pen and ink” — love being the topic of its first (and last) “issue” — Love in the City announces its “Raw! Revealing! Shocking!” intentions with Lizzani’s psuedodocumentary opening “article,” a series of interviews with alleged prostitutes. The next similarly surveys women driven to attempted suicide. While the style is as yet unidentifiable, the subject of profound, despairing alienation amid the crowd could hardly be more apt for young Antonioni.

Things lighten up considerably with a delightful set piece of amorous shenanigans in a divey dancehall, demonstrating the wry observation that would make Dino Risi one of Italian cinema’s greatest comedy directors. Fellini’s equally bemused vignette finds a young reporter investigating a matchmaking agency for a humorous story sobered by the plight of the poor, earnest would-be bride he meets.

These breezy episodes are followed by the most devastating. Maselli’s Story of Caterina, co-written by De Sica’s scenarist Cesare Zavattini, follows its plain, forlorn heroine (Caterina Rigoglioso) from bad to worse — impregnated and abandoned, she can neither return to the Sicilian family that’s disowned her or work legally in Rome to support her toddler son. The extremes to which she’s driven are bleakest tragedy.

Even the most frivolous of these segments capture the realities of urban poverty with unblinking authenticity. As if acknowledging that so much realism might be bad for the digestion, Love in the City ends on its silliest (and sole upwardly mobile) note. Future Mafioso (1962) director Alberto Lattuada’s The Italians Turn Their Heads finds all Roman mankind neck craning to leer at a procession of pretty women in tight modern fashions, each granted their own distinct lounge-music theme by composer Mario Nascimbene — thus silencing the chorus of wolf-whistles that would have been their real-life soundtrack.


Aug. 17-23, 2, 4:15, 6:30, and 8:45pm (no 6:30pm show Mon/20), $10-$11

SF Film Society Cinema

1746 Post, SF






APPETITE The world has become hooked on New Nordic cuisine in recent years, thanks to Copenhagen’s Noma, often referred to as the world’s best restaurant for three years straight, sparking a global interest in all things Scandinavian and a new generation of chefs.

Before this renaissance I dined at New York City’s Aquavit, back in the days when Marcus Samuelsson was still its chef. I reveled in Samuelsson’s clean dishes and shots of the restaurant’s eponymous liquor infused with horseradish or dill. As a fan of pickled herring, cured fish, and the like, I’ve long been drawn to Germanic and Eastern European cuisines. Perhaps my love for Scandinavian food was a forgone conclusion. I dream of taking a trip to the region to eat lutefisk (air-dried whitefish), and breathe in crisp air during long hours of summer daylight.

But then Pläj (pronounced “play”) opened in SF in June, tucked behind the Inn at the Opera and within sight of City Hall. I dined there during its opening week, and have returned multiple times since. Granted, what you’re about to read is an early take. The newborn restaurant needs time to come into its own.

Yes, Pläj is a hotel dining room, and off-putting smooth jazz and clubby Euro tunes often intrude, altering the mood of a meal. But bright orange accents and fireside seating warm up the blessedly peaceful space, and service is warmly welcoming, staff attentive and gracious.

Pläj isn’t so much New Nordic or Scandinavian-style minimalist. It’s more reminiscent of Aquavit: traditional dishes interpreted with a fresh regional spin, Scandinavia by way of Northern California. Chef-owner Roberth Sundell hails from Stockholm but has been in the Bay Area long enough to be well-acquainted with local ingredients, putting them to good use in Nordic-influenced dishes.

Working my way through every dish on the initial menu, I was happiest in the Fjord-seafood section that highlighted the best parts of Scandinavian cooking. A creative “taste of herring” trio ($12) brought fish served à la ginger-smoked soy, saffron tomato, and with coriander, chile, and lime on rye crackers. Rustic bread arrived at the table, artfully served in a paper bag.

Krondill (crown dill) poached lobster is the seafood of choice for Sundell’s skagen, which is typically toast topped with a mixture that often includes poached shrimp, mayo, caviar. Beautifully reinterpreted here, lobster swam in a foam akin to bisque that was also made of lobster, with horseradish, avocado, and a hint of chili, all of it accented by white fish caviar.

Norwegian salmon belly gravlax ($9) proved to be buttery, thin slices of cured salmon over lemon crème fraîche, spicy grain mustard, and dill purée. Only the Alaskan halibut ($21) felt closer to typical: the fish came seared in herbs and partnered with shaved asparagus in a chanterelle emulsion. In a similar, though more traditional vein of meat and veg entree was the tender, porter-braised ox cheek ($22) topped with a mountain of fried onions. Other than the vibrant red, whipped beetroot the ox rested atop, the dish was well-executed, if not particularly memorable. Next time I’d go for traditional, comforting Swedish meatballs ($15), which were juicy in their pan gravy and bed of mashed potatoes, served with lingonberries and pickled cucumber that added a much-desired contrast of sweet and vinegar.

On the Hagen (“pasture”) or vegetarian section of the menu, burrata ($12) was pleasant, but its presentation was similar to countless burrata plates everywhere — heirloom tomato and greens. At least it wasn’t beets, which are obvious, overdone burrata companions. Barely-there aquavit in the vinaigrette could have set it apart if it was kicked up a few intensity levels. I found a subtle smearing of beetroot under a salad ($14) piled with Jerusalem artichoke, watercress, hazelnuts, and thinly-shaved layers of Västerbotten cheese and black summer truffles more interesting. Equally intriguing were the potato dumpling kumla ($12), dense and doughy dumplings in brown butter sauce that were savory with onion ragout and, once again, lingonberries.

Desserts ($8) are certainly pleasing — particularly the rhubarb crumble pie — but none left a major impression. Cocktails ($11) thankfully utilize Scandinavian spirits like vodka and genever (Dutch gin, often aged in wood so as akin to whiskey as gin.) Spirit-cocktail aficionados may crave more depth in a menu that leans toward sweet, subtle, and light cocktails. The Midsommar is promising: Pernod absinthe that delivers herbaceous notes to a Flor de Cana light rum, lime, and dill simple syrup. It was garden-fresh, a fine companion to seafood.

An all-Scandinavian beer list is spot-on, with pours like HaandBryggeriet Norwegian harvest ale ($14) or cheaper, refreshing Einstock Icelandic white and pale ales ($6 each.)

Pläj is a welcome newcomer to the SF dining scene — one I hope thrives as it dares to bring what we lack. What a delight it would be to form a “best of” list of Scandinavian eateries here, as we can with so many cuisines.


333 Fulton, SF

(415) 294-8925

Subscribe to Virgina’s twice-monthly newsletter, The Perfect Spot, www.theperfectspotsf.com


Friends, love, leftovers



CHEAP EATS Georgie Bundle is my new favorite person. My ever-loving bassist and keeper of my records, he has at various times during our many years of friendship impressed me with his barbecued things and bass lines. His harmonies, his goosey Christmases… He once accepted custody of some hand-me-down chickens of mine and built a coop for them on his lunch break. It was next to the steps, under the avocado tree, as if my old ex-chickens’ existence wasn’t cartoonish enough.

Well, yesterday evening we stood on those steps in North Oakland, after work, and reminisced. We have such a rich and rhythmic history, but the subject of our nostalgic reverie was a fried chicken dinner he’d cooked up two nights before.

I was there! I love it when people make fried chicken, because it’s something I have never myself been able to do. In fact I only know, personally, a handful of people who have managed to fry the chickens in the comfort and coze of their own little kitchens: Kentucky Fried Woman (obviously), Ruberoy “Shortribs” Perrotta, Wayway…

And now this. Now Georgie Bundle. Dude bought $70 worth — in fact, “bought” might not suffice — dude fucking purchased $70 worth of healthy, grass-fed Sonoma County chickens, brined them overnight, dredged them through some kind of fancy-pants specialty gluten-free flour, bathed them in buttermilk, and then flour again before they hit the hot oil.

When we joined his Southern-themed dinner party, with our Hedgehog-made cornbread and my me-made okra and tomatoes, Bundle was three paper towels to the wind, pinballing between the counter, the stove, and the sink, high on peanut oil fumes. He had a thermometer in the oil, and did the breasts all together at one temperature, and then the wings, legs and thighs at an altogether different temperature.

I don’t know if I ever hugged a host or hostess harder.

Long story short, the chicken was the best chicken ever, but this weird anti-Jesus thing happened where, after everyone had cleaned their plates and licked their fingers and (if they were me) their wrists and forearms, there weren’t any seconds.

Hedgehog is a lot of wonderful things, but “the most gracious guest in the world” isn’t one of them. When she came back outside with a second helping of Everything But, her disappointment was palpable.

Sadness, she calls it now. “Mostly I was just sad. I went up there with hope in my heart,” she said, when I interviewed her for this story. Just now, in the kitchen.

Mr. Bundle and our very dear Yoyo were sad too, and confused.

“I don’t know what happened,” Bundle said. “It seemed like so much chicken while I was cooking it.”

“It was the best fried chicken ever in the history of the world,” I said. “That’s what happened. We disappeared it. Everybody got some.”

There were so many great sides, like roasted carrots and greens and mac and cheese, that nobody stayed sad for long and everyone went home happy.

Short story long: Next day I get an email from Georgie Bundle titled, “there was MORE chicken!” He had put a whole tray of it in the oven to keep warm, and then forgot about it. And here’s where the superhero comes out in him. He offered to deliver more chicken to anyone who wanted it. “Even if you don’t email me I might just show up with some chicken,” he said. “You’ve been warned.”

I did email him, of course. I’m not proud. And it really was awesome, awesome fried chicken. But we had been chicken-sitting in Alameda when the dinner happened, or we probably wouldn’t have been invited. In fact, I’m not sure we were, technically, invited. The point is, it was an East Bay thing. And by the next day we were back home in the Mission, so I was sure there was no chance of a Late Night Trans-Bay Leftover Fried Chicken Delivery.

I took a bath.

I fell asleep, as usual, in the bathtub. And when I came back upstairs to get into bed with Hedgehog, my phone was blinking. Georgie Bundle. Are you still up, can I bring chicken? I’m in SF.

So you see what I mean about superhero? Georgie Bundle is my new favorite person.

New favorite restaurant?

Curry Boyzz

Sun.-Thu. noon-11pm; Fri.-Sat. noon-2 am

4238 18th St., SF

(415) 255-6565



Beer and wine


The trouble with demons



FILM Suspended between the deluge of superhero flicks and awards-show fodder (speaking of, check back next week for the Guardian’s fall movie preview), mid-to-late August is an outstanding time to go to your local art house, rep theater, underground cinema, or movie night in the park.

You could also seek out a pair of new movies from Asia, both opening Friday, which offer viewing experiences only similar in that they’re entirely different than anything else out there right now — or ever, in the case of Painted Skin: The Resurrection, a sort-of sequel to 2008’s Painted Skin (which one need not have seen to enjoy Resurrection).

Starring two of China’s most glamorous leading ladies, Resurrection is a lavish fantasy following the adventures of fox demon Xiaowei (Xun Zhou), who can become human only if someone voluntarily offers up his or her heart (as in, the actual blood-pumping muscle). Though she’s been rampaging cross-country trying to find a suitable man-donor, she spots a likelier candidate in Princess Jing (Vicki Zhao), who wears a delicate gold mask to conceal her scarred face. Jing has fled her royal duties to confront her true love, General Huo (Chen Kun), who is a generally nice guy and most excellent archer, but not a huge fan of the messed-up face. But wait! Supernaturally pretty Xiaowei has just the solution, and it definitely involves swapping bodies (and all-important internal organs).

But Huo is secondary here. Less a love story than the tale of a toxic friendship, Resurrection adds levity with a subplot about a demon hunter (William Feng) who falls for Xiaowei’s bird-demon sidekick (Mini Yang), and has plenty of over-the-top flair, with abundantly obvious CG and Kris Phillips’ campy performance as an evil wizard. It was a huge hit in China but will probably only reach a small audience here, so don’t miss your chance.

A different type of demon — the mental, fucks-with-your-emotions kind — infiltrates Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai, the latest from prolific director Takashi Miike. The speed of his output is nearly as dizzying as the array of genres represented in his filmography, though for Hara-Kiri, he sticks with the samurai milieu of his hit 2010 epic, 13 Assassins. That said, despite its equally suggestive-of-gore title, Hara-Kiri — which takes place some 250 years earlier than Assassins — is no limb-lopping extravaganza. Rather, it’s a surprisingly somber drama, with violence used judiciously (albeit gruesomely).

Solemn samurai Hanshiro (Ebizo Ichikawa, an acclaimed kabuki theater actor) appears before a feudal lord, humbly asking permission to commit ritual suicide in the man’s courtyard. But in this house, skepticism reigns over honor, thanks to a recent rash of “suicide bluffs” — it’s not death these downtrodden men seek, but sympathy in the form of handouts or job offers. In fact, there was a suicide bluff recently, right there in the courtyard. A young man named Motome. It ended badly.

It’s soon clear that Hanshiro and Motome are connected, and the circumstances that motivate their extreme behavior are indeed tragic and deeply felt. Miike takes his time getting there, though, and fans seeking breakneck mayhem may be disappointed. Side note: for whatever reason, Miike filmed Hara-Kiri in 3D, but it’ll be screening in old-school 2D during its local run at the Four Star.



Suspended in the groove



MUSIC Out of nowhere an isolated house groove surfaced from the ether of the Internet and touched an unexpected chord. It was called “Love Me Like This,” a throbbing re-edit of the early 1980s track of the same title from R&B group Real to Reel. Its author was an unknown British musician going by the name of Floating Points, a gerund whose aerial element reminded me at the time of another producer closer to home, Flying Lotus.

Apart from names, both applied jazz tendencies to their electronic compositions. And both were involved respectively in a loose constellation of musicians and producers, whose inspired theorizing on low end frequencies had just begun to crack apart the stale course taken by much of dance music, exploding it into countless directions.

This was the case in, at least, that nebulous sphere of grassroots creativity that many still lovingly call the underground — in which the alleged distinction between dance and head music (or, in industry parlance, between electronic dance music and intellectual dance music) just doesn’t make any sense. Is it head music dancing? Dance music getting head? How about this: dance music about dance music. That’s heady enough. And if you think I’m dancing around the issue, then I would be so lucky to have got my point across.

Putting my word games aside, Floating Points’s music hits a sweet spot. Something about “Love Me” suspends you in midair. Syncopated percussion lurches ahead, offset by a wandering snare. The song unravels joyously, arriving and departing from a series of peaks where the programmed drums and swirling vocal refrain come to be utterly overwhelmed by lush arpeggios, sweltering keys. Most of what we tend to place under the category of dance music operates precisely this formula in which claustrophobic discomfort builds and holds itself back until it’s finally spent in an expulsive release. Again and again. Floating Points, who is also called Sam Shepherd, often executes this to brilliant effect.

But something else can happen too, where the difference between claustrophobia and release is suspended. It’s as if, against all odds, you feel both restraint and letting go at the same time. And there you are, floating in the delay between them — in an extraordinarily ecstatic shuffle where the climactic drop that has become so essential to the huge financial success of EDM festival acts just doesn’t even count anymore. You’ve been taken instead somewhere else, outside of the drop’s comfort zone.

“Love Me Like This” appeared from nowhere more than three years ago, before anyone really knew the name Skrillex, before dub-step would begin to sell its signature wobble to the popular consumption of American cars and Brittney Spears’ songs. Then, Californian producers were in the midst of reinventing instrumental hip-hop, while others toyed with the boogie funk of Prince, as the sounds of UK club culture filtered into this experimental space.

I remember waiting impatiently for two specific aspects of these worlds to collide — waiting for someone to take what Dam-Funk was doing in Los Angeles with bounce driven soul and fissure it with the two-step drum patterns that made all the sub-genres splintering from and around dub-step sound so interesting. Floating Points answered my silent wish.

I exaggerate my prescience here, though, because Shepherd far exceeded whatever I could muster in anticipation. His first proper release was a seven-inch record that debuted Eglo Records, which he co-founded with Alexander Nut in London. The single’s two tracks stem from the disorienting free jazz belonging to another incessant breaker of rules, Sun Ra. “Radiality” warps Ra’s “Lanquidity” into a plosive shattering of synthetic rhythms and melodies. The way the groove lobs in time is a bit like the floating I mentioned earlier — there we are, languishing warmly in rhythm.

A couple EPs, a number of singles, remixes, and collaborations followed. On Vacuum, Shepherd shows that he can just as well make a no frills house groove. Subtle narrative arcs made up of punchy bass lines and sticky keys invite you to surrender willingly to the beat. Shadows is a bit more experimental. The extended compositions are fractured: bass lines disappear into quiet piano solos, chords dissolve into pulses spiraling in concentric circles around themselves. From these shallow swirls of sound arise huge swells of energy, only to dissipate once again.

Some of Shepherd’s most magnetic music, though, features fellow Eglo signee Fatima on vocals. She not only sings wonderfully with the Floating Points Ensemble, but has also done significant work of her own with Shepherd on production. What sticks with me most is last year’s Follow You EP, a subtle and lovely take on the intoxicating inner visions that music can conjure.

It turns out Floating Points is a classically trained musician, who only moonlights on analog drum machines and synthesizers. A great deal of his waking hours are otherwise devoted to pursuing a Ph.D in neuroscience. I assume that’s why it’s taken Shepherd this long to touch down in San Francisco for a live performance. And thanks to the curatorial teamwork between DJ Dials and Noise Pop’s Dawson Ludwig, he’ll join the eclectic bill for the upcoming Scene Unseen event.

Set among other headliners — including both the extravagant rapper, Riff Raff (who will be played by none other than James Franco in an upcoming film directed by Harmony Korine), and the showy Chicago duo, Flosstradamus — I’m not sure what to expect. Add to that set list two experimental beatsmiths from LA, Dibiase and Groundislava, as well as locals Ghost on Tape and the DJ crew KM / FM, among others, then you’ve pretty much run the risk of nullifying any categorical expectation. It’s really quite a gamble. Then again, that’s the liminal space in which Floating Points has thrived, and in which tomorrow’s music has always thrown its dice.


With Riff Raff, Flosstradamus, and others

Fri/17, 10pm, free with RSVP

1015 Folsom, SF