Volume 48 Number 21
GOLDIES “What was the latest? Afro-futurism? Afro-futurism,” says Lalin St. Juste, songwriter and lead singer in the East Bay band The Seshen, of how the somewhat un-categorizable band has been categorized by critics most recently. “Which we’re kind of OK with. It makes me think of, like, a silver afro.”
“Or, you know, like we trade in afro futures,” says keyboardist Mahesh Rao, between bites of chips and salsa, eliciting a burst of laughter from his bandmates. “Electro-soul is OK too. We were calling ourselves electro-pop for a while, but then Paris Hilton came out with a record a while back that she was calling electro-pop, and I was like, Lalin, we gotta take that off our business cards.”
Call them what you will. The sounds this seven-piece band makes are captivating, layering the soulful, Erykah Badu-reminiscent vocals of St. Juste and the musical theater-trained Akasha Orr — whose smile you can hear in her voice — with precise electronic samples, dub sounds, R&B guitar grooves, bass lines that beg to be bumped out your car window at a stoplight, and percussion that seems to borrow from at least three continents.
It’s both sexy and a little nerdy: immersive, inviting, warmer than your weirdest Radiohead, but with a chilled-out, dreamy, late-night sensibility and spirituality. It’d be just at home on an indie-rock mix as, say, Beach House, but it’s hardly background music — there’s just too damn much going on. Live, the Seshen is committed to a specific blend of electronic elements and “humanity…I think we have something really human and warm, because of the vocals, live drums, other human elements,” says percussionist Mirza Kopelman. Regardless, the band’s setup is far from straightforward; St. Juste’s custom pedal board looks like it could power a small plane. “Sound guys hate us,” offers synchronizer-sampler Kumar Butler.
People often don’t quite know what to do with them, Seshen members are the first to admit. They’ve been labeled “world music” in the past simply because, as far as they can tell, they’re seven people representing a wide range of ethnicities. But especially following the release of last summer’s spaced-out, sped-up trip-hoppy, drum-and-keyboard-driven single “2000 Seasons,” which revealed a more upbeat sound than The Seshen’s self-titled 2012 debut, hip-shaking seems to be a common reaction.
Guardian photo by Saul Bromberger and Sandra Hoover
“Some songs are meant for sitting and relaxing,” says St. Juste, “but in general, we want people to dance.” Bigger crowds and stages have followed. Playing Oakland’s Hiero Day last year, band members were overwhelmed to hear that some of their local childhood hip-hop heroes were Seshen fans, too.
It’s a rehearsal evening, which means members are sprawled around their studio — the tricked-out den of an El Cerrito house that St. Juste, producer-bassist Aki Ehara, and Orr all share — with snacks and beers and their notes about the most recent mixes of their upcoming EP, due out this spring. There’s a dartboard in one corner; a campy poster featuring the winged angel version of Michael Jackson dominates another, while D’Angelo stares across the room from an LP cover.
Just past a tiny enclave marked by a photo of Ehara’s grandfather is the producer’s recording and mixing setup — the band does it all, quite literally and very meticulously, in-house. The value of Ehara’s determined focus on the subtleties of a mix cannot be overstated, say his bandmates. In honing the band’s sound, says Ehara, he’s influenced by delving into the history of electronic music, he says, going back to John Cage and early BBC radio electronica. “That, alone, opened a whole other door for me.”
“I’ve played in a lot of bands, and I’ve never been in one that pays this much attention to detail,” says drummer Chris Thalmann. “Everyone has a really high level of expectation for what we put out there.” That perfectionism is starting to get attention: In January, they inked a deal with Tru Thoughts, an independent label out of Brighton, UK. After the EP comes out, the big plan for 2014 is to tour more — pack themselves into a 15-passenger van and find out if they get along as well on the road, stinky socks and all, as they do at home.
“We do have to corral ourselves back into working sometimes,” says Orr. “It is pretty amazing that with this many people we all really get along, but we do. We have fun, and we love each other. That part’s organic.”
“I think that’s part of what sets us apart from some electronic acts,” says Kopelman. “We’re seven people making something together. Not, you know, a mustachioed hipster on a laptop.”
TABLEHOPPING It’s time for another installment of wine country overnighters — perfect winter getaways without the crowds (and price surges)! Now we’re heading to historic St. Helena, which draws throngs of people to its charming main street of shops and restaurants. Downtown, however, has always been a little short on accommodations. The recently renovated Wydown Hotel (1320 Main St, St. Helena. www.wydownhotel.com) is changing that. This boutique hotel has 12 rooms, big fab beds, and a comfortable residential vibe that’s contemporary and stylish. (Try to get a luxury corner room if you can).
Then there’s always the nearby and stunning Meadowood (www.meadowood.com), the ultimate in luxury resort accommodations — if you can splurge — and its downtown sister property, Southbridge Napa Valley (1020 Main St, St. Helena, www.southbridgenapavalley.com), which is more affordable and has spa facilities. If you want something a little secluded from downtown, there’s the Wine Country Inn (1152 Lodi Lane, St. Helena. www.winecountryinn.com), a spacious property with beautiful vineyard views, although the look and feel can be a bit suburban.
After you check in, go for an amble down the main drag. You’ll want to pick up some handmade chocolates from Woodhouse Chocolate (1367 Main St., St. Helena. www.woodhousechocolate.com) which is styled like a jewelry shop. Pick up a single bite for yourself — pistachio for me! — or a box for later (like caramels with fleur de sel).
Thirsty? Always. You can visit the new Orin Swift tasting room (1325 Main St, St. Helena. www.orinswift.com) and taste a portfolio of full-bodied reds, a few whites, and China Doll rosé. If it’s a cocktail you crave, cheers, you can head to Goose & Gander (1245 Spring St, St. Helena. www.goosegander.com), which not only offers damn good cocktails thanks to bar star Scott Beattie, but there’s also a cozy basement bar to enjoy them in (a fun spot at the end of the night, with a killer burger). Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch (738 Main St, St. Helena. www.longmeadowranch.com) also has a busy bar, and you can snack on cheddar cheese biscuits with your bevvie, plus other bar bites. Oh, and there’s a happy hour Mon–Fri 4pm–6pm.
It’s time for dinner. Head to La Condesa (1320 Main St, St. Helena. www.lacondesa.com/napa), an import from Austin which is rocking a new Mexico City-meets-Northern California menu from chef Chris Mortensen. (If you haven’t been here for a while, it’s time to give it another chance.) Once you have margaritas on your table, skip the guacamoles and go for the stellar tortilla soup and the fluke ceviche with potato, and mains like the juicy oak-grilled chicken, and the stuffed poblano chile (absolutely delicious, and vegetarian!). Dessert is all about the house-made ice creams — get a couple.
Other dinner options: drinks and bites at Bar Terra (1345 Railroad Ave, St. Helena. www.terrarestaurant.com/BT) the more casual offshoot of Terra from Hiro Sone and Lissa Doumani of Ame here in SF, and the welcoming Cook (1310 Main St, St. Helena. www.cooksthelena.com), a local favorite for house-made pastas and hearty, seasonal mains. If it’s a steak you crave, the answer is Press (587 St. Helena Hwy, www.pressnapavalley.com), which also has a very deep wine cellar.
The next day, grab a coffee and hang with the locals at Napa Valley Coffee Roasters (1400 Oak Ave, St. Helena. www.napavalleycoffee.com). And then I recommend going for a walk in the vineyards — you’ll see plenty of neighbors out with their cute dogs. Your brunch should be on the terrace at French Blue (1429 Main St, St. Helena. www.frenchbluenapa.com), another place worth a revisit: There are new owners and a new chef. My brunch dish of oak-grilled trout with poached eggs and crisp rösti potatoes was smashing, ditto my mother’s eggs Benedict, which featured a light hand with the dill hollandaise. The meal made me want to head back for dinner soon.
Last tip: Before you hit the road, you’ll want to pick up some freshly made English muffins from Model Bakery (1357 Main St, St. Helena. www.themodelbakery.com), along with anything else that catches your eye in there. Be careful.
Marcia Gagliardi is the founder of weekly tablehopper e-column www.tablehopper.com. Get her app: Tablehopper’s Top Late-Night Eats. On Twitter: @tablehopper.
GOLDIES At a recent edition of the Business — his weekly comedy showcase at the Dark Room Theater — Sean Keane is fulfilling one of stand-up’s most cherished rituals: skewering the absurdities that inconvenience our daily lives.
Like BART seats, for instance. “Who’s the person with the bright idea of making BART seats out of carpet?” Keane asks, before re-creating one possible scenario for an uproariously-laughing audience: “Sir, I think we should use carpet, as much carpet as possible, carpet on the floor, carpet on the seats, carpet that we scavenge from an elementary school in the ’70s. And it should be as absorbent as a sponge. Every spill, every odor, every terrible thing that happens on a BART train should be preserved for eternity. And for cleaning we’ll shut down the whole system for six hours a night and lightly sweep it with a broom.”
Keane’s specialty is the observation beat. The self-described “baby-faced man with the body of a dad” deftly riffs on the various mishaps and oddities he encounters. With his sports-announcer voice, he spins comedy gold from that time he ate at an Ethiopian-Irish food truck, or witnessed the announcement of Osama bin Laden’s death on ESPN, or found himself having to react to a stranger’s curiosity about his “I’ve Got Beaver Fever!” T-shirt (true story: he used to coach a middle school swim team with a beaver mascot).
It’s no surprise that a unique city like San Francisco has produced such an effective observational comic. “It’s interesting how what’s unacceptable in SF is acceptable in other places,” Keane says. “The worst thing you can do is use a plastic bag. At the Folsom Street Fair, you can see guy in a full leather outfit just sitting on a street corner jacking off, but if he was jacking off into a single-use plastic bag, he’s a monster.”
Keane is also a sports fanatic. Stories from one of his blogs, sportscentr.tumblr.com, have been picked up by Deadspin and other mainstream outlets. Though he avoids incorporating wonky inside-baseball jokes into his comedy act, he’s able to combine his two passions by regaling crowds with hilarious sports-related happenings. (Like, say, his ejection from a bar after accosting someone clad in a 49ers pajama onesie.) His best sports-related gag is his hilariously accurate impression of a British commentator covering the NFL draft, and the inevitable culture clash that follows.
Keane comes from a humor-loving family that encouraged his performing ambitions. In high school, he was involved in musical theater, which he credits for helping him overcome a speech impediment and learning to properly enunciate. At UC Berkeley, he started doing stand-up, opening for touring acts like Dave Attell.
Guardian photo by Saul Bromberger and Sandra Hoover
Cal is also where he developed his material-generating process. “We had a big white board in our living room where I would write ideas down,” he recalls. “The key is to write things down everywhere. When I’m driving, I record voice memos. You kind of feel like a crazy person when you do that, and duck to the side of the street and just start dictating something into the phone. I write things out like they’re lecture notes, with a subject and heading. Jokes comes first and then wording gets fixed later.”
After doing a lot of writing and improv, Keane fully committed himself to stand-up in late 2005 and early 2006. In 2009, he co-founded the Business, which has become a popular fixture on the local comedy scene.
“The Business helped with developing our style and skills due to the regular 20-25 minute sets,” says Keane. Of his fellow Business comics — including Caitlin Gill, Nato Green, and Bucky Sinister — Keane says, “When you perform with people every week, you pick up on stuff from them and you get pushed by seeing someone go out and kill.”
“Sean is someone who makes stand up look easy,” Gill says. “He is impossibly likable, endlessly witty, and incredibly fun to watch, even more fun to be around.” One of Gill’s most memorable moments with Keane was the “Competitive Erotic Fan Fiction” show, in which Keane performed bits entitled “Riding Miss Daisy” and “Zero Dark 69.”
Sadly for San Francisco comedy fans, Keane is at that point in his career where a move may soon be necessary. “SF is a great place, but I need to get to the next level and there’s no comedy industry here,” he points out. “Your ceiling as a SF comic is two weekends a year at the Punchline, and two weekends a year at Cobb’s. To become a headliner, you have to be famous. To be famous you have to get on TV. And it’s hard to get on TV in a place that does not produce many TV shows.”
Until then, Keane’s Business is booming on Mission Street, delighting audiences every week — even those who have to ride those carpeted BART seats to get home. Catch him while you can.
GOLDIES In 1979, Sara Shelton Mann — the farm girl from the wilds of Tennessee who ended up studying with such greats as Alwin Nikolais, Erick Hawkins, and Merce Cunningham — moved to San Francisco. Earthquake country. And did she ever shake up the place. With Contraband, the collective of performers she directed until 1996, she reconfigured what the dancing body can be. Their aim, she has said, was to “make bold live theater with an aggressive, lyric physicality.”
But why San Francisco? “I was lonely in those cold winters in Nova Scotia,” she recalls; she’d been working there with a support of a Canadian arts support program. So she jumped at the chance when Mangrove (the all-male troupe that grew into Mixed Bag Productions) invited her to join it. It was here where she translated concepts like “improv-based,” “collaborative,” “interdisciplinary,” and “dance theater” into vital, raucous, and highly effective performances that inspired a whole generation of artists to wander into unknown territory. The Bay Area would not be as welcoming and supportive of experimentation in dance were it not for the ongoing presence of Sara Shelton Mann.
With Contraband, she staged pieces in theaters, warehouses, the pit of a former apartment building, an abandoned public housing project, under bridges, and on the streets, both in this country and abroad. The troupe described itself as wanting to “manifest joyous creation — reclaiming the flight of the imagination, laughter, love, truth, and evolutionary impulse.”
The works were irresistible because of the daring, the force, and the integrity of the processes that made them possible. “We believed that art could change the world,” Shelton Mann says. At the height of the AIDS crisis, Evol turned the concept of love inside out. Religare honored the people who died or became homeless after the 1975 arson fire that gutted the Mission District’s Gartland Apartments. Oracle was a painful examination of the burdens of the past. The Mira Cycles and Monk at the Met dug deep into spirituality, both individual and communal.
Guardian photo by Saul Bromberger and Sandra Hoover
“I had only one rule,” she explains. “Everybody does personal inquiry, everybody does contact, everybody sings, everybody dances, everybody writes, everybody makes images, everybody works outdoors.”
This process encouraged individual voices to emerge, allowing members of the group to go on to substantial careers of their own. Besides designers and musicians, there were, among others, Rinde Eckert; Jess Curtis (“Contraband was an amazing laboratory of group process and collaboration, always with Sara at the center,” he says); Keith Hennessey (“Working with Sara revealed me to myself, and revealed me to the worlds around me”); Nina Haft (“I like to think my work is better for having been part of that wild soup of training in the ’80s. Sara still amazes me with what she does”); and Kim Epifano (“We learned from each other as we created with Sara’s thrust of topic and mastery of metaphor. It was a place where gender did not define the physicality but a common ground of athletic love”).
Indeed, in addition to her formidable reach as an artist, Shelton Mann’s role as a teacher has been immense. The latest wave of artists to find Shelton Mann and the rare degree of mutual inspiration she offers includes many of the most persuasive dance makers in the Bay Area.
“When you’ve trained with Sara, and you’ve worked with Sara, your idea of dance really explodes,” says Jesse Hewit. “You identify what your dance is in your body.” Hewit explains the difference as distinct from a focus on mere technical perfection. “The dancing is crazy virtuosic,” he notes, “but not virtuosic in the high-kick, pointed-toe sense; virtuosic in that it’s infused with an intense energetic focus.”
Shelton Mann celebrated her 70th birthday in December, and her work shows no signs of dimming. Even in the smaller, minimalist dances of recent months she proves riveting: a lovingly rowdy duet with Hewit at Z Space during the 2013 West Wave Dance Festival; a reading at Kunst-Stoff in January for Fresh Festival — delivering a slipstream rumination on time, decay, and memory in the body, the body social, the body politic. More recently still, she had a cameo during a comic-chaotic conversation about contemporary dance in Guillermo Gomez-Peña, Saul Garcia Lopez, and Esther Baker Tarpaga’s Part 1: Dancing with Fear at Galería de la Raza.
In the last two years, Shelton Mann has been at work on a set of extraordinary solos, a series she calls The Eye of Leo. Each has been made on a different dancer, and each one thus far has premiered in the plain white box of the Joe Goode Annex.
In October 2012, the first, featuring Jorge De Hoyos, was a revelation. The limpidness of these works, their spare quality — in contrast to the exuberant sumptuousness of Contraband or even recent Shelton Mann work like 2011’s Zeropoint, made with regular collaborator David Szlasa — combined with a quivering field of contact between dancer and choreographer, represents a powerful shift in focus.
The Leo series culminates outdoors and downtown this April, in a simultaneous unfolding she calls a “mandala of magic,” The Eye of Horus. The project is more proof that Shelton Mann is working at the height of her powers. One of the country’s supreme artists, she continues to evolve — moving more than the land she adopted back in 1979, and more sensitive to the tremors beneath our feet than a Richter scale.
“She’s a very strong conduit now. A very strong conduit. I mean, I think she’s a goddess,” says Kathleen Hermesdorf, another Contraband veteran who has gone onto a formidable career of her own. “I can’t help but deify her a bit. I can’t pigeonhole her. She’s still an iconoclast; she’s still part of the avant-garde. And it still comes from so deep inside her.”
GOLDIES Creating a space for experimental contemporary dance and performance in Oakland, outside of the usual channels and roadblock$, has been an instigating, galvanizing mission for SALTA. The collective — a sharp and motivated group of seven women, all Oakland-based choreographers and dancers under 30 — has made a scene, built an audience, developed a network, enlarged an ethic, and opened up horizons in a beleaguered arts ecosystem.
They also know how to party.
SALTA was born at the same time as its monthly curated performance series, a spirited affair known during its first year as PPP (apropos of nothing), which rides high on a principle of serious experimentation in an utterly laid-back, strictly noncommercial setting.
A roving event that settles wherever the keys are handed over gratis (a surprising number of places), PPP and its progeny have showcased ragtag and newer pieces by a range of young, mid-career, and senior artists whose only brief is that they try something. While such a platform naturally embraces failure in the cause of exploration, the results have held many surprises and epiphanies.
A few dancer-choreographers spotted at past SALTA evenings: Mary Armentrout, Christine Bonansea, Abby Crain, Hana Erdman and Allison Lorenzen, Keith Hennessy, Kathleen Hermesdorf and Albert Mathias, Monique Jenkinson, and fellow Goldies 2014 honoree Brontez Purnell.
Meanwhile, an open-door policy and community-stocked bar and boutique contribute to the lighthearted, well-oiled mingling of a crowd that often goes beyond dance initiates to embrace artists, bohos, and travelers of many kinds. (The first installment, at poet Zach Houston’s space downtown back in June 2012, was already bringing together normally discrete artistic milieus. As much a social experiment as an artistic one, it’s set the tone for those that have followed.)
Guardian photo by Saul Bromberger and Sandra Hoover
SALTA has ambitions beyond the performance series. Back in June 2013, when the collective was celebrating its first birthday with the 11th installment of PPP, its members decided to take a summer hiatus from the performance series to concentrate on other projects. The plan was to reinstate it in the fall at a slower clip. But the momentum proved hard to deny, as the seven members of SALTA (who prefer to speak as a collective rather than use their individual names) recently explained.
“I think after we last talked to you in [June 2013] we were going to do our anniversary performance, and then we were going to do less. We were going to do one every three months or something. But we had people contact us. And people really followed through who wanted us in their spaces. So we couldn’t say no, in a way.”
“We got swept up.”
“Yeah, it was really great, because with some — like Transmission Gallery [last December] — there was that intent, an invitation to collaborate with the space. People were interested in what we were doing in this different way. And that just provides us with food for thought, as far as how we then invite artists to be in that space in a particular way.”
“It’s kept us interested and engaged doing these events.”
“We’ve been talking more about finding some permanent space as well.”
A permanent space?
“We aren’t going to go into details because it’s still in the works, but let’s just say we’re looking at a space in the Temescal area to do more curation, and hopefully be able to invite more people from out of town.”
“The other exciting thing for us about this opportunity is that it is a collective of collectives, here in Oakland. So it’s not just us who would be in the space but several other groups.”
“It still reflects our spirit, how we intend to be in spaces, engaging alternatively, without a big output of money. We found freedom in not doing that. It’s very specific to this opportunity, which is not set at all, but it’s a nice thing to think about.”
Among the advantages of such a move, they say, is the chance to become part of a touring network, while providing ongoing workshops and rehearsal room — “affordable open space for people to not just show work but develop.”
With or without a permanent space, SALTA’s second year is poised to expand. In April, the collective travels to the East Coast to co-curate an evening with New York’s AUNTS, another dance-performance collective (and an early inspiration), and to take part in an international symposium in Montreal on alternative models of curation in the performing arts. They’re already networking with other likeminded groups along the route, like Montreal’s Wants&Needs and the Centre for Feminist Pedagogy.
And, for the first time, they’re making a piece of their own together: an experience they call “pretty amazing and crazy.” As a process it’s also, needless to say, “as collaborative as possible.” SALTA moves in collaboration.
“Somehow we end up having this momentum. There’s this ease that just happens. We definitely work hard but with joy, I think. All of a sudden we’re rolling really fast.”
GOLDIES “Anybody want more popcorn? How about coffee?”
Ryan T. Smith is calling out to a packed audience in the oddest-shaped dance studio in San Francisco — long and narrow, like a bowling alley. The occasion is the latest installment in RAWdance’s popular bi-annual CONCEPT series, started in 2007 by Smith and partner Wendy Rein in their Duboce Triangle neighborhood.
CONCEPT is an occasion where dance watching and socializing go hand in hand. You pay what you can … and you pitch in with moving the furniture. An old-fashioned salon of serious fun but also serious art, the series has become one of the most congenial places to watch dance in SF.
And yet the project started as something like a self-help group. When Smith and Rein moved to the city, they came into an environment rich in dance theater, multimedia, text-based dance, and identity- and gender-inspired material. “This is not who we are,” Rein explains while sitting at their kitchen table. “Our dances are abstract.” And, continues Smith, “We also didn’t know anybody [at the time].”
Looking around, however, they found artists who — like themselves — had pieces that had been seen only once, or were works in progress. Artists who wanted to rework something, or just try out new material. Today, over 60 choreographers have shown at CONCEPT; anyone can apply, though the team curates the show lightly to ensure a good mix.
Another reason behind CONCEPT arises from the duo’s desire to make dance more generally accessible. “We are so tired of going to dance concerts and seeing the same people all the time,” they agree. Rein remembered a couple who just walked into CONCEPT off the street. “I just loved that.”
Guardian photo by Saul Bromberger and Sandra Hoover
They don’t complain about the lack of attention paid to theatrically demanding dance. They don’t wait for audiences — they go to them. Locally, they have performed in public spaces like Union Square and beneath the SF City Hall Rotunda.
The duo calls its choreography “abstract;” in truth, that’s something of a misnomer since there is no such thing as abstract dance. When you put a human being on a stage, abstraction goes out the back door. RAWdance derives its strength from the fact that the pieces tell stories without relying on explicit narratives. “We don’t spoon-feed our audiences. We just want to go so deep that the experience becomes visceral,” they agree.
For Two by Two: Love on Loop, they created a 20-minute dance on themselves, and then taught it to 12 very different couples who performed it over an eight-hour period in the middle of the UN Plaza. For A Public Affair, a 10-minute duet performed at the height of the dinner hour at the now closed Orson Restaurant, they condensed gestures and movements that would have looked familiar to the patrons. The Beauty Project, first performed in an empty storefront, eventually made it into a theater — but its inspirations (mannequins, a fashion-show runway) remained unmistakable.
In their own duets — still their preferred way of working — Smith and Rein often move like liquid sculptures; we see them as one even as they strive to pull apart. They were at first drawn to each other in college because choreographers so frequently paired them together. It makes sense.
Both of them are tall and long-limbed, with superb techniques. Rein looks fragile but she is fierce. “I feel more comfortably working with Wendy, trying out things that are physically bizarre, than with anybody else in a studio,” Smith says. “I trust her with my weight.”
Rein feels the same way but explains the trust also comes from the fact that “we create everything together, so we are interested in seeing the interactions between us.” Chatting with them in their kitchen, you get the sense that they are completely in tune with each other. They finish each other’s sentences like an old married couple (which they are not).
At the most recent CONCEPT series last August, RAWdance showed the beginnings of new piece, Turing’s Appel, inspired by Alan Turing, the pioneering British scientist who was driven to suicide because of his homosexuality. (The piece is set to premiere this summer at Z Space.) Dance critic Heather Desaulniers described the excerpt in terms of the questions she saw the choreographers raising: “How do constraints affect physicality; how do situations differ when change is purposeful or accidental; what circumstances make the most sense in the body?”
GOLDIES The San Francisco Art Institute’s landmark 2012 MFA exhibition sprawled through the kitschy Phoenix Hotel in the Tenderloin, partnering artists with often radically different styles in each room. Seen from one angle, it hilariously replicated one particular nostalgia-inducing area of the Internet: bright and noisy chatrooms, overflowing with random strangers, streaming with argument, affinity, and information overload.
Standout exhibitor Michelle Ramin used the opportunity to kick that proto-social media vibe up a notch: “I took one look at the closet and thought, ‘This could be a photobooth,'” she told me over drinks at the Dogpatch Saloon. “That was when every party had to have a photobooth and Instagram was getting popular. There were also a lot of issues of surveillance in the news. I wired the photobooth to the TV permanently installed in the room and displayed the resulting photographs in real time to onlookers.”
But there was one more essential element. Working with programmer Jesse MacDonald, Ramin developed a “Mask Booth” Android app that superimposed her trademark motif — a ski mask — over everyone’s face. That balaclava (menacing, deracinating, liberating, everywhere in pop culture right now, from Pussy Riot to Spring Breakers) shows up often in Ramin’s gorgeous figurative colored pencil drawings and oil paintings, which popped off the Phoenix’s walls.
The masks are donned by “privileged hip young people at leisure” and come in stark contrast to their surroundings. In Three Aliases (2011), a bemasked trio of American Apparel-ready loungers puppy-piles onto a dazzling floral sofa; a scruffy male in a pixilated shirt pushes another masked figure forward on a tricycle with almost violent glee in Joel and Jewel.
“I’m fascinated by how we mask ourselves to form our online profiles, how we develop, or overdevelop, another identity that’s really only just a part of ourselves, but that we find acceptable to share with the world. But there’s another part of ourselves that we call ‘private’ that we also hide behind a mask.” Ramin told me. “We create these dual identities, and there’s a danger of one or the other going off balance.”
“But the mask is also liberating” — Oscar Wilde’s old saw “Give a man a mask and he will tell you the truth” — “and it has its own history of transformation. It started out as something to protect against the cold, but now its come to mean many other things, from terrorism to fashion statement.”
Guardian photo by Saul Bromberger and Sandra Hoover
Ramin was born in 1982 and knew from a young age that she wanted to be an artist. After earning a Fine Arts B.A. at Penn State, she and her now-husband, who appears in many of her works, followed their art dreams to New York City. But they found the experience isolating and expensive, so they impulsively loaded up their car and moved to Portland. “We suddenly found a community, and a close circle of friends. We could work part-time and survive, have a life.” Ramin’s art from that period, of bridges and colorful landscapes, reflected that new-found connectivity and sense of home.
Her move to Portland coincided with the rise of Etsy and the explosion of the online handmade craft marketplace, and her artworks were perfect for the medium. “I could be my own dealer, I was successful, and I suddenly had a platform that reached the whole world,” she said. But she wanted to continue developing, and started looking toward a master’s degree at SFAI, drawn to work with associate professor Brett Reichman, who would become her mentor. She funded her move to SF through an ingenious art auction that linked Etsy to eBay, and anticipated the crowdfunding craze.
Yet her Portland community still inspired. “I had been thinking about masks for awhile, inspired by [San Francisco artist] Desiree Holman’s work. While I was back home in Portland in 2010, my husband and I organized a weekend trip with a bunch of our friends to the coast. On our way out of town I had an inspiration. We drove past an outdoor store, and I stopped and picked up 12 ski masks.
“At the beach house, I asked my friends if they were OK with putting the masks on and having me photograph them — acting normally, holding hands, walking on the beach, all with ski masks on. I took a bunch of photos of them in hopes that they’d turn into a new body of work. It must’ve looked really bad to the neighbors, hipster 20-somethings riding around on tricycles with ski masks on. Because we were told not to return to the house again!”
Since drawing that series from those photographs, and another luminescent series of female nudes (often in balaclavas) in office and classroom settings that raise questions about women’s bodies in arts institutions, Ramin has begun to move on from the masks. “My most recent work has to do with escapism and complacency. I’m still taking photos of my friends, but without showing a literal mask. I want to find another way to talk about the public vs. private ‘branding’ that we all have to invent for ourselves. It’s extremely exhausting to keep up with the latest social media fads, but the reality is that it’s really difficult to remove ourselves completely, especially for artists.
“I’d be happy to ‘go off the grid,’ but a huge part of an artist’s job is to be a social networker. So I suppose sites like Facebook can be a necessary evil for us. The new direction in my art involves discussing the place at which these opposing ideas cross.”
GOLDIES “I don’t care how much equipment you have, how many laptops you’ve got hooked together — if you’re just making a bunch of trendy electronic sounds, if you don’t know melody or dynamics or how to really play an instrument… you aren’t making any music.”
The masked man known as DJ Nebakaneza is notorious for his dazzling and unsettling outfits, gonzo energy, brain-scrambling bass, and rollicking social media presence. He isn’t afraid to court controversy or speak his mind about what’s going on in dance music, either. But dig a little beneath the flash and bombast and a portrait of an artist as a young bass maven emerges, one brimming with deep musical knowledge, canny intellectual vision, disarming charm, and inspiring faith in his hometown scene.
It’s almost impossible to talk about Neb without including the rest of his Irie Cartel DJ crew — JohnnyFive, Mr. Kitt, Miss Haze, and Danny Weird. Irie Cartel has had a profound effect on the San Francisco dance music scene. But to understand just how much of an effect, we’ll need to run down a little history of what didn’t happen in the San Francisco clubs.
In the early 2000s a deep and throbbing apocalyptic sound from the grimier neighborhoods of London called dubstep started shaking the bass bins of the underground. By 2007, it was seeping into club nights here like Grime City, Brap Dem, and Full Melt, drawing critical interest and providing a nice complement to the minimal techno and disco revivalism that was also happening at the time.
But then a funny thing happened: mainstream America, apparently looking for a new arena-style rockout, hijacked dubstep, gutting it of all but its deep bass and catchy name. Pop artists adopted the sound, twisting it into a series of bowel-rumbling bass drops (nothing wrong with those, really), and it became known more for its fist-pumping frat party reputation than a reflection of the more angsty corners of urbanity. A wave of bro-step began washing over US clubs, threatening to wash out more subtle party expressions with its macho aggression.
Guardian photo by Saul Bromberger and Sandra Hoover
That onslaught was stopped at our borders, thanks to Irie Cartel, whose weekly Ritual dubstep nights kept the fun factor high (and the bass extremely low), but also made room for classic bass music sounds, experimental electronic showcases, and flights of melodic beauty. It still melted your face, but poetically. Irie also emphasized old school rave community spirit: At its height, in the basement of club Temple, the Ritual party included a community marketplace for people to sell their handmade wares and food. It was like a cosmic bass bazaar full of beautiful bass faces. “We’re all musically nerdy,” Neb says of his crew. “But we strip out all the ‘look at me’ ego that came with the mainstream dubstep scene.”
DJ Neb got into dubstep, in fact, as a fresh-faced youth who wandered into Grime City one night. “I spotted this flyer pasted to a wall and decided to check it out — it was at the old Anu club on Sixth Street at the time. And when I walked in, I was blown away by this wave of bass, these awesome sounds that seemed to be pulling me apart. I never looked back from there,” he told me over the phone, as he prepared to leave for a gig in Uruguay. “It seemed to pull together something that had been brewing in me somewhere. I’d always been into music. I started working at Rasputin Records as soon as I could, and would spend all my free time in there, too — just digging through bins and listening to music. My paycheck would go right back into those records. They used to pay me in music, essentially.
“As a kid, I played percussion. I went through a Janet Jackson and New Jack Swing phase, got really into hip-hop. I was deep into downtempo, trip hop, and rare groove when I started DJing. It was the whole ‘lounge era’ of nightlife, so I started getting a lot of gigs as a cocktail hour DJ. I even had a chillout show on KKSF, the smooth jazz radio station,” he laughed.
“But when the dubstep thing started blowing up for me, I realized it was time to create a new persona, and that’s when DJ Nebakaneza was born. I had to delete my previous existence. I made a ceremonial sacrifice of that guy.” Neb went on to host the Wobble Wednesdays show on Live 105 and rise to the forefront of forward-thinking yet accessible bass purveyors.
But now it’s 2014, dubstep has almost completely played itself out — bro-step wiz Skrillex’s latest shows have been billed as “playing the classics” — and Ritual is on hold. (“When dubstep became popular, Ritual suddenly had this massive influx of people who were drawn to the sound but had never been in a club before, didn’t know how to act,” Neb said. “They were spurned by a lot of our regulars, who closed ranks. But I was like, ‘We were all new at the party at one point, wouldn’t it be better to connect with these people?’ It was sad that our scene got so defensive. I wish we could have embraced the fear a little more. But we’re just giving everything a time out. Ritual will be back.”)
If dubstep is no longer an option, what’s a dubstep DJ to do?
Go back to the drawing board, of course. Last year, DJ Nebakaneza started releasing a series of exquisite mixes tapping into his vast knowledge banks. Each month he would take on a new, unexpected genre — yacht rock, rare disco, Dirty South hip-hop, instrumental funk, even emerging ones like half-time — and weave something magical from his roots. The Expansion Series is one of the most ambitious things I’ve heard a Bay Area DJ attempt, and it comes off pretty flawless.
“I was having an identity crisis,” Neb said. “Dubstep had kind of moved on, and I missed my crate-digging days. Playing those lounge sets — some of them were four or more hours long. That’s a lot of music. I missed being able to sneak all kinds of colors into it. I also missed playing the music that’s closest to my heart: Isley Brothers, James Brown, all that beautiful old funk and soul. I needed to break myself down a little to see how to move ahead.”
Currently, Neb is throwing a bass-oriented monthly party called Paradigm with fellow head Lud Dub. But he’s still planning his next sonic move. “I want something sexy, still with the bass, but a more ‘purple’ feel. Not the trap sound that’s been happening, but something deep and hot.”
Heavens, does that mean the edgy Nebakaneza persona will be tossed to the wind? “Don’t worry, Nebakaneza’s not going anywhere. And I’m still keeping the mask.”
GOLDIES If you want to see a filmmaker light up brighter than a brand-new projector bulb, ask him about his camera.
“For my 30th birthday, my cousin, Peter Miller, who’s also a filmmaker, sent me this big box,” Malic Amalya says of his Krasnogorsk-3, or K-3, camera. “As soon as I saw it, I was like, ‘The best present that could be in there is a 16mm camera.’ And it was! And it’s wonderful. It has different lenses, it can go at different speeds. I’ve been working with 16mm since 2006, and the process is so different than video. You have to set the focus, set the aperture. And it’s so heavy, and so expensive. Every shot that you take matters. That slowing-down really changed my practice, in making every shot intentional.”
That love of 16mm entered Amalya’s life while he was earning a filmmaking MFA from the University of Illinois at Chicago. After graduating in 2009, he spent a few years in Seattle (he’s been the Experimental Film Curator for the city’s Lesbian and Gay Film Festival since 2010) before the San Francisco Art Institute’s MA program lured him south. “I wanted to be re-engaged in the theory process,” he says.
At SFAI, he fell under the spell of legendary underground filmmaking brothers Mike and the late George Kuchar. “When I started there, I had known their work, but not super in-depth,” Amalya says. “Claire Daigle, the director of the MA program, was like, ‘You have to take a Kuchar class!’ So I took a class with Mike, and that informed my thesis in a lot of ways.”
He graduated in 2013, and his graduate thesis, “Divine Abjection,” explores the idea that artists like George Kuchar and John Waters “deploy the grotesque and the titillating to confront the violence targeted at queer bodies,” Amalya explains. “Building on psychoanalytic feminist theorist Julia Kristeva’s work on the subject, I assert that these filmmakers command their audience to either find elation within queer ‘perversion’ or eject themselves from the narrative via nausea.”
Guardian photo by Saul Bromberger and Sandra Hoover
Given his enthusiastic pursuit of education, Amalya’s career goal is no surprise. “I would love to teach experimental filmmaking or queer filmmaking. I’d like to bring in a lot of theory and academic texts into my production classes.” And he’s on his way; this summer, he’ll be teaching Kuchar films, among others, in “Transgressive Transmissions: The Art of Lo-Fi and High-Horror,” offered as part of SFAI’s public education program.
But don’t get Amalya the film scholar (interested in “messy-grotesque” work) confused with Amalya the artist (who makes what he describes as “quiet-formal” films). “The films I write about are quite different from the work I’m making,” he says. “While my interest in film theory inspires my films, and my knowledge of filmmaking informs my analysis, the distinction in genre helps separate my working styles. My writing process is analytical, while my filmmaking process is very intuitive.”
“A lot of times, my process is filming things that I’m visually interested in. A gesture that I’m interested in capturing, or colors and movement. I’m always filming different things and then sitting with them. I still have rolls of film from years ago, where I’m like, ‘Someday this is going to come together.’ And then, in the editing process, it does.”
Local filmgoers have had a chance to see Amalya’s work at venues like Periwinkle Cinema at Artists’ Television Access and San Francisco Cinematheque’s Crossroads Festival. The latter’s 2013 incarnation is where I caught Amalya’s Gold Moon, Sharp Arrow, a 12-minute exploration of social psychologist Stanley Milgram’s 1963 obedience experiment; it interweaves a re-creation of the experiment (in which participants, asked to administer electric shocks to subjects who faltered in a word game, followed instructions all too well) with shots of nature and decay — a bee’s nest, a chicken coop, smashed windows, an abandoned house. The film was created with Max Garnet, a performance artist and makeup artist Amalya shared a house with in Seattle.
“Max had the idea of working with the Milgram experiment. So I started reading up on it. On YouTube, you can watch the original footage,” he says. “We were interested in the power relationships that were played out in this experiment, and we were talking a lot about the different power engagements in our queer community in Seattle, and in the greater culture. What really captivated me was the word pairings they used in the original experiment and how seemingly arbitrary they were, but how loaded they were as far as gender norms and cultural expectations.”
Though Amalya enjoys working with others, “A lot of my filmmaking practice is me with a camera exploring different places,” he says. “My process of writing scripts, setting up shots, and editing feels very internal, and at times almost private.”
The theories of another experimental artist — musician Michel Chion — have provided further inspiration. “In his book, Audio Vision, Chion argues that sound never replicates an image, but rather adds a another dimension to the picture. [His notion of] ‘added value’ has become a mantra of sorts while I’m working. In my films, I work against illustration, as well as music videos and didactic polemics. Rather, I strive for movement, light, dialogue, and text to ricochet off each other, forging new and unforeseen connections.” *
The Goldies are silver! The San Francisco Bay Guardian celebrates the 25th annual Goldies — if you’re new here, that stands for Guardian Outstanding Local Discovery Awards — with a special issue celebrating nine emerging Bay Area artists and groups who’re producing exciting, intelligent, provocative work. Gazing into our glittery crystal ball, we predict great things ahead for their careers. And that’s not all: We also honor one veteran performer whose wide-reaching influence has been a beacon of inspiration for over three decades.
Join us and the 2014 winners Fri/21 at a GOLDIES PARTY ($10 gets you all the Lagunitas you can guzzle!) benefiting grassroots arts and culture venue CounterPULSE. Wear gold, because it’s time to shine!
COMEDY: Sean Keane
DANCE/FILM: San Francisco Dance Film Festival
MUSIC: The Seshen
PERFORMANCE/MUSIC: Brontez Purnell
VISUAL ART: Michelle Ramin
FILM: Malic Amalya
MUSIC: DJ Nebakaneza
LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT: Sara Shelton Mann
All photos by Saul Bromberger and Sandra Hoover
With DJ Primo Pitino and DJ Wam Bam Ashleyanne
Fri/21, 8-11pm, $10
Folsom Street Foundry 1425 Folsom, SF
GOLDIES Greta Schoenberg founded the San Francisco Dance Film Festival in 2008, but she didn’t realize it at the time. It began as “Motion Pictures,” a gallery show combining dance photography with screenings of Schoenberg’s “screen dance” films — short works she’d made specifically for the camera.
It was a success, so the next year, she asked other artists who were making dance films to contribute. (The dance-film genre also includes staged performances filmed for archival purposes and dance-themed documentaries, in addition to more experimental works.) The 2009 event was also a hit; it attracted the interest of the Ninth Street Independent Film Center, which was searching for a way to celebrate Bay Area National Dance Week. Schoenberg’s shorts program was a perfect fit.
“Skye Christensen — who was the director [at Ninth Street], and is now on our board — suggested that we make it into a real festival,” remembers Schoenberg. “It was her idea to call it the San Francisco Dance Film Festival, which was a little daunting. But I’m so glad I did, because I think that leap forward was just the risk somebody needed to take, and it happened to be me.”
With help from Christensen and other community arts organizations, Schoenberg assembled a volunteer staff and launched the first official San Francisco Dance Film Festival in 2010. The DIY effort worked. “We had people sitting on the floor in the lobby in our rush ticket line. We had already outgrown the [Ninth Street] space.”
An evolution into something even bigger seemed inevitable. Enter Judy Flannery, who was looking for a way to bring Dance Screen — the prestigious dance film and video competition presented by the Vienna-based International Music + Media Centre, or IMZ — to San Francisco.
“When I was first asked by this European organization if I could help them collaborate with a US dance film festival, I said the only two I knew of were in LA and New York,” recalls Flannery — until she learned about Schoenberg’s fledgling enterprise.
“I made this proposition to Greta that it would be great to get the San Francisco festival better-known. I felt she’d done this amazing thing, which was to identify a need. There wasn’t anything in Northern California that allowed filmmakers to show dance films,” Flannery says. “Plus, this is one of the most vibrant dance communities in the country, and we’re also renowned for having a super independent film community. So why hadn’t they gotten together to make dance films? This was a golden opportunity to make this a more established festival.”
She adds with a laugh, “I basically said I’d like to put it on steroids.”
Initially, Schoenberg hesitated — but Flannery won her over.
“I made this Faustian deal with Greta that I would do a big chunk of the work, alongside Greta and a lot of volunteers, to help establish the fourth festival, in 2013, as a collaboration between the San Francisco Dance Film Festival and the European Dance Screen,” she says. “I was also able to get some other artistic organizations involved, like the San Francisco Ballet and the San Francisco Film Society.”
The SFDFF’s newly heightened profile allowed for an expanded program beyond screenings, with panel presentations (on topics like digital distribution and music-rights issues) and the “Co-Laboratory” program, which paired local choreographers with local filmmakers and gave them a compressed window of time (one week!) to create a short dance film together.
“We wanted to encourage local dancers and filmmakers — who are very busy doing their own things — to go, ‘Look what happens if we work together!’,” Flannery says. “It was a wonderful way to engage the very communities we want to celebrate. This year, we want to build on what we were able to pull off last year.”
And the SFDFF’s upward trajectory shows no sign of leveling off. Plans for the future include, of course, the 2014 festival (calling all filmmakers: submissions are open through May 1), which takes place in November and will include a tribute to veteran documentarian Frederick Wiseman. Eventually, the SFDFF hopes to become a year-round organization. Expanding its audience is a key goal.
“This genre is not new — it’s been around since the early days of cinema,” Schoenberg says, citing the works of Muybridge and Maya Deren as examples. “What is new is the technology that’s available for the average dancer. Now, you can make a film on your iPhone. That’s exciting! And through these works, you can expose somebody to dance in a way that they’re comfortable with. They might not inclined to go to a live performance of an unknown contemporary dance company, but if they’ve seen a shorts program of contemporary dance works, maybe they would. As a dancer, I don’t feel like dance films can ever replace live performance. That would never be the goal. But using these films as ambassadors, and getting people to understand dance a little bit more — I think they’re an amazing tool for outreach.”
GOLDIES After being informed that Bay Guardian editors and a theater critic vetted his Goldie nomination, Brontez Purnell reacts. “I think it’s fuckin’ rad. I’m pretty into it. A theater critic? Was I criticized?”
Sitting in the backyard of his Mission District apartment, braced leg extended with crutches at his side, Purnell reflects on roughly 12 years of living in the Bay Area (his Mission digs are temporary; he’s about to move back to Oakland). A storyteller of many mediums, his injury prevents him from dancing until mid-March, which is no good since he’s the founder of the Brontez Purnell Dance Company. If you’ve lived here a minute, you might recognize him as a former Sparky’s Diner waiter, working the “drunk tank” every Saturday night.
“When I was 24, my entire dating pool had seen me dance naked or in my underwear — literally get fingered at a Gravy Train!!!! show. They’d see [me] there and think they could be mean to me like, ‘Gimmie my fries!'” He recalls this, along with other illicit memories from his time in the Oakland-based, exclamation point-loving electro clash band.
But like fans of that fad, he’s moved on. He’s 31 now and for the past 10 years the music he writes, records, and performs live is for his band Younger Lovers. Its newest record, Sugar In My Pocket, recently came out on Southpaw Records.
“I don’t think anyone knew I had this background of a punk that had been playing in bands since I was a teenager,” he says, explaining there was overlap between the two music projects with distinctly different flavors, though Younger Lovers’ first album initially received a “hateful response from a lot of the gay boys around.
Everyone thought it was this flash-in-the-pan thing, but it’s something I was actually working on for a long time. It was cool to smash a lot of assumptions with Younger Lovers. People would say, ‘Wow, we didn’t know you played an instrument. We thought you were just kind of drunk and danced around.'”
People still ask him about those old shows, but he admits to not
remembering a lot of it and that some of that life bleeds over to now. “I would call myself an alcoholic.
I would never call myself a drug addict. I feel like the next set of Younger Lovers’ songs will probably be about addiction.”
Purnell is nothing if not self-aware; he points out his own patterns of over-consumption, whether it be food, men, drugs, or alcohol. But his ability to turn weakness into strength is artistry in itself. In his dance company’s The Episodes, universal themes of struggling with identity and finding oneself are apparent, but being black and gay only makes the search for acceptance that much harder.
“I romanticize the outsider. There’s always going to be this running theme of me versus the world, but it’s never so personal to me because I feel like I’m embodying the story of 100 of my friends in one voice.”
In one sequence, “Tub,” Purnell soaks a new pair of jeans while talking on the phone to a friend. The veil of humor is used to deal with heavier topics, as he segues from commentary on butch gays (or “bearded ladies,” as he likes to call them) with their trendy “Hitler Youth haircuts” and how he’s disappointed when they think he’s too effeminate for them, to his own T-cell count, to some suspiciously descriptive-drug scenarios that involve snorting heroin. Another segment recalls a “redneck teacher bitch” from his home state of Alabama, giving the class scientifically incorrect and insensitive, to say the least, explanations of where AIDS comes from.
“I never let humor interfere with what is definitely a message,” Purnell says. “Underneath it all, there is going to be that point where somebody is like, ‘Oh shit. He’s not joking. He’s joking, but he’s totally not joking.’ Humor is actually a really dangerous tool.”
His truth, he says doesn’t always set him free, but as the saying goes — sometimes it hurts. And that’s the beauty of what Purnell does: He looks at his reality, his disappointments, and his personal achievements, and he’s able to persist. He remains one of the more resilient creative forces on the scene he helped make, despite oftentimes receiving second-tier ranking to some of his contemporaries.
Does he play the victim? Well, he gets accused of it a lot, but that’s because of “people’s fucked-up views on what a victim is.” He recites a James Baldwin quote he loves: “The victim who is able to articulate the situation of the victim has ceased to be a victim: he or she has become a threat.”
In short: Purnell is not a victim — he’s a fighter. And as a singer, songwriter, musician, choreographer, dancer, and performer, he proves himself by doing all these things … and then some.
Bay Guardian News Editor Rebecca Bowe and Staff Writer Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez are being honored by the Society of Professional Journalists of Northern California with a James Madison Freedom of Information Award for “Friends in the Shadows,” our investigation of the shady ways that developers and other powerful players buy influence at City Hall.
The package of articles, prepared for the Guardian’s 47th anniversary issue of Oct. 6, used extensive public records to show how contributions to the city’s various “Friends Of…” organizations create cozy relationships between regulators and the regulated, donations that are often designed to skirt public disclosure requirements.
“Their detailed and thorough account explored a trail of money through myriad city agencies and departments,” the awards committee wrote, noting how the paper “used public records, interviews and independent research to probe how developers, corporations and city contractors use indirect gifts to city agencies to buy influence.”
The Guardian will profile the other winners in our annual Freedom of Information Issue on March 12, and all the winners will be honored at SPJ’s James Madison Awards banquet on March 20.
Facebook is binary no more.
The social media company announced via its Facebook Diversity page that profiles will now allow for a custom gender choice, a change long sought by transgender rights activists.
Traditional social networking (and even dating) websites mostly allow only the choice of male and female. But now Facebook has functionality to add multiple gender identifiers under a customizable text menu. The change was brought about through a collaboration with a number of LGBT advocacy groups, including GLAAD.
“This new feature is a step forward in recognizing transgender people and allows them to tell their authentic story in their own words,” said GLAAD President Sarah Kate Ellis, in an announcement on their website.
The new function has up to ten variable gender options: transgender, cisgender, androgynous, genderqueen, neutral, and others. The list will be added to in the future, GLAAD said.
On SFBG.com last week, we published a list of the attendees (and corporate affiliations) who were recorded as having attended stakeholder meetings with the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency to discuss that private shuttle pilot program that caused such a dustup last month. The list is a matter of public record and was submitted to the Bay Guardian by a source who wished to remain anonymous.
Google was in the room, of course, but not all attendees were affiliated with corporate shuttle providers who bus employees to their workplaces. One company, called Leap Transit, has started a private luxury bus in San Francisco that is not affiliated with any particular employer.
“Our buses are clean and our staff is friendly,” according to Leap’s website. “Sip your morning coffee in peace.” (Leap did not respond to our request for an interview about its future plans.)
Another participant who seemed a bit far afield from the transportation sector was a representative from TMG Partners, a real-estate developer. Also included in the meeting was a representative from a law firm called Morrison Foerster which has represented major tech investors such as Kleiner Perkins, according to its website, which can be found at mofo.com.
How did these individuals manage to get invites? We emailed SFMTA spokesperson Paul Rose to ask that question. He told us, “When we started the work, we received a set of shuttle sector contacts from the [San Francisco County Transportation Authority], who started looking at this issue. One of the first things we did was reach out to these companies and confirm the right contact people. We also reached out to companies who we’d heard had shuttles.”
He added, “Over time, additional shuttle service providers and companies that offer shuttles for their employees contacted the agency to let us know that they were either providing service or considering to provide shuttle service and wanted to know about our policy development process. This also grew our list. And, as we heard about new shuttle programs, we reached out the companies to make contact. Also, at meetings with shuttle providers, we also asked if there were other providers we should include. Some members of the shuttle sector brought their legal or PR reps with them to the meetings — they were not on our list.”
The Crunchies are a San Francisco-based dog and pony show for the tech industry, hosted by technology business news site Tech Crunch. But amid rising San Franciscan anger, this year’s Crunchies took on a decidedly different tone.
At the outset of the Feb. 10 awards ceremony, big-time investor and noted “Godfather of Silicon Valley,” Ron Conway, asked a question. “Raise your hand if your company is located in San Francisco,” he asked the tech employees gathered in Davies Symphony Hall.
Hundreds of hands rose across the audience. That’s San Francisco’s point of pride, and point of contention. Techies bring jobs and growth, supposedly, to the city, but also all the side effects thereof: a housing crisis, mass evictions, overpriced toast, rising unrest. Even the Crunchies’ master of ceremonies, comedian John Oliver (of Daily Show fame), took it to the techies of the city.
“You’re no longer the underdogs! It’s very important you realize that,” he said to the crowd, roasting the attendees who still laughed anyway. He even brought the Google buses into the mix. “Now you’re pissing off an entire city, not just what with what you do at work but how you get to work. It’s not easy to do that!”
Cue the Crappies, the awards ceremony for the rest of us. Hosted on the sidewalk just outside the Crunchies, the Crappies highlighted folks in tech most responsible for turning San Francisco into a playland for the rich, as opposed to a hometown for families, and put them on blast.
Twitter CEO Dick Costolo was named Best Tax Evader of the Year, in honor of the now estimated $55 million Twitter local tax break championed by Mayor Ed Lee. The man who confused attacks on the one percent with Nazi Germany, Tom Perkins, was honored for Diarrhea of the Mouth. Google was honored for driving a Bus in a Bubble. Ron Conway, the angel investor who invested early in companies like AskJeeves and Twitter, was named Angel of Death.
There are two starkly different ways to look at prostitution in the Bay Area. One view sees sex workers as victims, not just those exploited by the horrible practices of human trafficking and child prostitution, but all sex workers. The other view accepts that sex work can be a legitimate choice made by consenting adults, a job less demeaning and more empowering than many low-wage service jobs.
Those divergent perspectives clashed on the streets of San Francisco on Feb. 11 when the San Francisco Commission on the Status of Women hosted a panel discussion in the Main Public Library on "discouraging demand" for prostitution, a goal that prostitutes trying to cover their rising rents don’t share, as they said outside while protesting the event.
In the spotlight at the forum was San Francisco’s First Offender Prostitution Program, also known as "John School," which was first implemented in 1995 to curb the commercial sex trade and provide an alternative to criminal charges for those caught soliciting prostitution, much like traffic school for bad drivers.
A March 2008 study, "Final Report on the Evaluation of the First Offender Program," by researcher Michael Shively, hailed the program as a success, with claims of vastly reduced rearrest rates and high attendance numbers. In 1999, 822 people qualified to enter the program, and that had dropped to 333 participants in 2007.
Fees generated by the program totaled $3.1 million from 1999 through 2007, which was split among the District Attorney’s Office, San Francisco Police Department, and the anti-prostitution group Standing Against Global Exploitation (SAGE).
But human trafficking and sex work have shown few signs of abating in the Bay Area, where law enforcement sources say Alameda County is one of the state’s biggest prostitution hot spots. And groups like SAGE say all sex work abuses women, whereas rival groups like the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) say it is the criminalization of prostitution that drives it underground and allows heinous practices like child prostitution to flourish.
Christina Deangelo says she’s been a sex worker since the late 1970s, and she showed up at the event to criticize its judgmental and one-sided program. "Without having even one of us on the panel, who can actually tell you [what is going on], you are killing us," she said.
The sex workers who showed up were particularly critical of panelist Melissa Farley, a controversial psychologist and researcher who spent years studying prostitution and sex trafficking. As an advocate of abolishing prostitution and a proponent of the "Discouraging Demand" strategy, Farley has been met with much criticism in the past.
Ontario Superior Court Justice Susan Himel disqualified Farley as a witness in 2010, ruling that "Dr. Farley’s unqualified assertion in her affidavit that prostitution is inherently violent appears to contradict her own findings that prostitutes who work from indoor locations generally experience less violence."
Sex worker advocates have also slammed Farley, such as blogger and activist Jessica Nicole, who says Farley "makes further manipulative and disturbing language decisions in her research of clients of sex workers," saying that Farley doesn’t "understand the complexities of the industries she is researching."
Farley has argued that prostitution is "inherently violent," and harmful both physically and mentally to the women involved. She says that her research shows that "89% [of sex workers] I spoke to want to get out of prostitution. Most see it as a last ditch effort for survival."
But many sex workers disagree, and they have grown more vocal about their stance on the business. Rather than a profession dominated by victims of forced trafficking and exploitation, they say that a large number of women and men actually like the job. But public and legal condemnation of the profession often prevents sex workers from getting help when they need it.
Workers acknowledge the dangers that go along with their profession, which they see as a major reason to at least decriminalize it and improve methods to protect workers from abusive pimps and clients.
Various studies on the subject have concluded how much more likely sex workers are to be victims of sexual and physical abuse, and have a high chance of drug addiction, more than any group of women in the world.
Sex workers spoke of the need to differentiate between indoor workers (high class call girls) and street walkers, different worlds entirely. They’re critical of Dr. Farley for writing, "while the women in street prostitution work the fields, call girls, escorts and massage parlor workers are the house niggers of this system."
The panel event showed the deep division between law enforcement and sex workers. The government’s ideal method of prosecuting what it deems indecent has not cured most vice businesses, even Casey Bates for the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office’s human trafficking division admitted at the event.
"We cannot arrest our way out of this problem," he said.
Though hardly an advocate of decriminalization or legalization of sex work, Bates does acknowledge that the issue can’t be tackled in the one-dimensional fashion as it is now. And sex workers say they need to be included in discussions about problems in their industry.
OPINION I wish I could get behind the current campaign to limit public school suspensions (“Suspending judgment, 12/3/13).
The intent is honorable. Any additional attention to the plight of black kids within our schools is laudable. But I’ve always suspected that some would think they’d accomplished something if suspension rates were evened across races, although this would have no more impact on any underlying problems than mandating racially equal grade ratios would eliminate an educational achievement gap.
I’ve also never been confident that all involved understood that removing a disruptive student from a classroom is not done primarily for that student’s benefit, but to allow the rest of the class to carry on without disruption. Unfortunately, I’m now certain that this basic understanding is not shared on the highest levels of the San Francisco Unified School District. Nationally, the Department of Education finds black students three times more likely to be suspended than whites. Why? An influential 2010 Southern Poverty Law Center publication, Suspended Education: Urban Middle Schools in Crisis, suggested “the possibility of conscious or unconscious racial and gender biases at the school level.”
That’s hardly surprising, given the long history of racial prejudice in this country. But is this what’s actually going on? San Francisco, with a suspension rate mirroring the national, gave an African American 84 and 83 percent of its vote in the last two presidential elections. Comparable statistics are not available for the city’s teachers, but it seems likely they’re at least as liberal as the electorate as a whole. This, and years of experience as a substitute teacher in virtually every subject on every grade level, tells me it’s not teachers’ racial prejudice that’s the issue here, but something much larger — and harder to tackle. Last December, the San Francisco Chronicle reported the city’s black infant mortality rate was six times that of whites (a figure not totally reliable due to the shrinkage of the city’s black population). Other markers of well-being show similar numbers. In short, the black community in San Francisco — and the nation — lives under considerable stress and, as anyone familiar with schools knows, kids don’t leave their problems at home. But causes aside, I’ve hoped that the anti-suspension efforts might at least promote useful alternatives. After all, no one sends disruptive kids home because they think it makes them better students; they do it because few schools have the resources to do anything else. An “in-school suspension” would likely be a far better alternative in most cases, but it requires people and space available to deal with those students. Unfortunately, while focusing on the vagueness of causes for suspensions such as “disrespect, excessive noise, threat, and loitering,” which the SPLC study called “behaviors that would seem to require more subjective judgment on the part of the referring agent,” the current effort seemingly ignores the need for a classroom free of things like “excessive noise” and “threat.” And it ignores the right of other students to learn in one — students likely from similar circumstances as the kids teachers feel they have to remove. San Francisco School Board President Sandra Lee Fewer is amending a proposal to ban “willful defiance” suspensions with a mandate to reduce the use of referrals — removing a student from class, but not sending them home — calling them “invisible suspensions.” And SFUSD Superintendent Richard Carranza says, “We’re talking about culture change. A culture where it’s not okay for an adult to say ‘get out.'”
I think the people at the top might benefit from a little more real life classroom face time.
There is great hesitancy around this issue, probably because of fear that protesting too loudly might mark you as part of the problem — perhaps as a racist. But if we allow an ill-considered effort to become a juggernaut, in the end it will be the most vulnerable students who will suffer.
Tom Gallagher is a substitute teacher who has served on the executive board of the United Educators of San Francisco.
EDITORIAL If you want to understand what we at the Bay Guardian and activists from the broader progressive movement mean when we say that we’re fighting for the soul of San Francisco, just peruse this issue’s 25th annual Goldies awards. The artists that we profile and celebrate are the very people that this city in now in danger of losing.
It’s never been easy for the idealists, those artists and activists whose passionate pursuits create our unique, world-renowned culture. San Francisco has always been an expensive city and creative types often have to struggle to remain here, pouring cocktails for tourists, delivering packages by bike, or helping corporations throw their parties in order to make ends meet.
But in the hyper-gentrification now underway, the city is at a tipping point. Every rent-controlled apartment that a real estate speculator takes off the housing market represents the loss of someone from the working or creative classes, each lost unit a lost opportunity to create a space for a young person with something important to say.
City Hall has gone to great lengths to keep big tech companies like Twitter and Zynga from leaving the city, offering tens of millions of dollars in tax breaks that have helped drive up both residential and commercial rents, squeezing out the individuals and institutions that aren’t motivated primarily by money. But the people who really need the help aren’t getting it.
If we simply allow the logic of the market shape San Francisco, it will lose everything that makes it great, becoming a sterile landscape of chain stores, expensive boutique restaurants, and disengaged citizens who work too hard and play too little. The Elbo Room and other great music venues will become condos, something the owners of that building are studying (but the club is strenuously resisting), something that might make economic sense even though it tears at the soul of the city.
Read our profile of Sara Shelton Mann, to whom we’ve awarded a lifetime achievement award for encouraging generations of local artists to express their creativity, thus helping the rest of us better understand and appreciate the human condition, in all its wondrous and challenging complexity.
That’s what it means to live in a major metropolis, rather than some suburban bedroom community. Cities are where we come together to engage with one another and with the struggles of our times, embracing messy urban realities rather than trying to scrub them away. This is where we figure it out, with the help of the artists and activists who are here to keep us honest and aware.
We need to find ways to preserve and expand the opportunities for creative, passionate people of all kinds to live in San Francisco. We need to make that our chief political task for 2014, as if our very soul depended on it.
San Francisco is booming, but will its infrastructure be able to keep up with its population growth?
The problem is acutely illustrated in the southeast part of San Francisco, where long-stalled development plans were finally greenlit by the adoption of the Eastern Neighborhoods Community Plan a few years ago.
The Mission, Potrero Hill, Dogpatch, and Mission Bay districts have attracted more attention from developers than any other sector of San Francisco, according to the Planning Department. Bayview and Hunters Point are also now attracting lots of investment and building by developers.
But when development projects don’t pay the full cost of the infrastructure needed to serve those new residents — which is often the case in San Francisco and throughout California, with its Prop. 13 cap on property tax increases — then that burden gets passed on the rest of us.
Mayor Ed Lee’s recent call to build 30,000 new housing units by 2020 and the dollar sign lures of waterfront development have pressed the gas pedal on construction, while giving short shrift to corresponding questions about how the serve that growth.
Infrastructure needs — such as roads, public transit, parks, and the water and sewer systems — aren’t as sexy as other issues. But infrastructure is vital to creating a functional city.
That kind of planning (or lack thereof) impacts traffic congestion, public safety, and the overall livability of the city. And right now, the eastern neighborhoods alone face a funding gap as high as $274 million, according to city estimates highlighted by area Sup. Malia Cohen.
That’s why Cohen went looking for help, though that’s not exactly what she found.
Cohen has asked Mayor Lee about the lack of adequate investment in critical infrastructure again and again. She asked his staffers, she asked his aides. At the Feb. 11 Board of Supervisors meeting, during the mayor’s question time, she was determined to ask one more time.
Cohen asked the mayor about how to fund infrastructure needs in the eastern neighborhoods and whether the city should use a new, rarely used fundraising option called an Infrastructure Financing District, or IFD.
“When the city adopted the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan, we were aware of a significant funding gap that existed for infrastructure improvement,” she said to the mayor. She asked if he would slow down development while the city caught up with infrastructure improvements, or commit more funding.
Cohen asked pointedly, “Would you support an IFD for the eastern neighborhoods?”
The mayor’s answer was in the foreign language known as bureaucratese, offering a firm “only if we have to.”
“Strategically planning for growth means making long-term investments in infrastructure,” he said. “And the most important thing that we can do right now is to work together to place and pass two new revenue generating bonds measures on the November 2014 ballot.”
But his proposed $500 million general obligation bond and $1 billion local vehicle license fee increase would just go to citywide transportation projects, where the city faces $6 billion in capital needs over the next 15 years, according to a task force formed by the mayor.
That’s small comfort for the people of the eastern neighborhoods, who are already ill-served by Muni and will have other needs as well. It’s a situation likely to get worse as the population there increases, unless the city finds a way to make serious new investments.
CITY VS. NEIGHBORHOOD
Development impact fees go to the city’s General Fund, paying for the planning work, building inspections, and a share of citywide infrastructure improvements. The problem with that strategy, opponents say, is that there are then no promises that the money will make its way back to the neighborhood that generated the funding in the first place.
Neighborhood advocates see a need to address the problems created by new development by capturing fees before they get to the General Fund. IFDs do just that. Though the nuts and bolts of how an IFD works are complex, the gist is this: Once implemented, an IFD sets up a special area in a neighborhood where a portion of developer impact fees are captured to exclusively fund infrastructure where the development is.
“So the idea that growth should pay for growth was the notion,” Tom Radulovich, executive director of the nonprofit group Livable City, told us. But with money flowing into the General Fund rather than being earmarked for specific neighborhoods, Radulovich said, “the infrastructure is going to come much later than the development. (The city) delivers projects slowly, if at all.”
IFDs are largely untested in California, and have only one recent use in San Francisco, on Rincon Hill, where a deal with developers cut by then-Sup. Chris Daly has morphed into an IFD created by his successor, Sup. Jane Kim. The neighborhood will now see new funding, and a new park, as a result of development there.
“This is a HUGE step towards getting the public infrastructure improvements needed to correct livability deficiencies in Rincon Hill,” read a newsletter from the Rincon Hill Neighborhood Association in 2011. “What does this mean for those of us living (here)? It means the Caltrans property at 333 Harrison Street has a short future as a commuter parking lot, because the front portion will become our first neighborhood park.”
The benefits are tangible, but putting an IFD into action is onerous. California Senate documents describe the hurdles involved: The county (or city) needs an infrastructure plan, it must hold public hearings, every local agency that will contribute property tax revenue must approve the plan, and the IFD needs to go to ballot and obtain two-thirds voter approval, a high mountain to climb.
Gov. Jerry Brown has called for lowering the voter threshold for IFDs to 55 percent in his newest budget. The mayor used the governor’s rationale as reason to avoid an IFD for the eastern neighborhoods when speaking on the topic last week. But that may not be his only reason.
“Even if we get the changes that we seek, it’s important to point out that IFDs don’t create more money for our city, they fund specific capital improvements by earmarking money in the General Fund for a particular purpose,” Lee said.
In other words, IFDs take money from a city that is already wrestling with underfunded citywide infrastructure needs. “Earmarking general funds isn’t something that we do lightly,” Lee told Cohen.
But Peter Cohen, co-director of the Council of Community Housing Organizations, put it this way to us: “Should the eastern neighborhoods be the cash cow for the General Fund?”
With more than 10,000 housing entitlements, the eastern neighborhoods are where San Francisco will experience its biggest growing pangs.
“The eastern neighborhoods are ground zero for development in San Francisco,” Keith Goldstein, a long time member of the Eastern Neighborhoods Citizens Advisory Committee, told a Nov. 14 Board of Supervisors Government Oversight Committee hearing on the issue.
Sups. Cohen and David Campos spent the majority of the meeting trying to find solutions, but none were forthcoming. Instead they were met with presentations on the neighborhood’s myriad needs, but few on how they would be funded.
Muni is also starved for resources in the area, where the T-line is notorious for its “switchbacks” that leave riders stranded before completing its run.
“This is a topic I’ve advocated a lot,” Sup. Scott Wiener told us. “When you have a growing population, these folks absolutely have to have service.”
At the meeting, Planning Director John Rahaim put the problem simply: “There’s a lack of development fee funding.” The officials that day from the SFMTA, Planning Department, and the Department of Public Works presented plans that relied heavily on state and federal funding to meet the new construction and infrastructure needs, a funding gap of $274 million.
“We’re really struggling to maintain the infrastructure the city has,” Brian Strong, director of capital planning, said at the meeting. “For the General Fund itself, we’re deferring $3.9 billion in capital projects the city deemed high priority. We just don’t have the funds.”
The Mayor’s Office didn’t respond to our questions about how to solve the problem, but Sup. Cohen said she’s hopeful he’ll support an IFD in her district.
“When we introduced the plan five years ago, we knew there was a gap in terms of what we expected to collect. In terms of development impact fees, we’re still in that place,” she told us. “I just want to get shit done.”
One report seems to agree with Cohen on the importance of IFDs. In 2009, a major report on development in the eastern neighborhoods was filed to then-Mayor Gavin Newsom. It recommended the city “commission a consultant study to inform the formation of an IFD,” saying it was the best tool available to fund infrastructure in the eastern districts.
The top signature on the report belonged to then-City Administrator Ed Lee. Now that he’s mayor, a mayor calling for rapid growth, can he find a way to pay for the infrastructure to serve those new residents?
From time to time, sources have told us at the Bay Guardian that they would love to share sensitive information for news articles, but fear they would be retaliated against or even terminated from employment if they were to do so.
We have found a way around that.
Sources who wish to retain their anonymity while sharing information they believe the public has a right to know now have the option of using an encrypted submission system to anonymously send documents to our news team.
Created by Bay Area technologists in partnership with the San Francisco Bay Guardian, BayLeaks uses the latest cryptography software to protect the identities of our sources. This is a secure, anonymous way for concerned citizens to communicate with journalists to release information.
“Politically, economically, and socially, it is becoming increasingly clear that the Bay Area is at a crossroads. We see BayLeaks as a critical first step in securing radical transparency in public discourse as the region charts its future,” said T.R. Hwang, a BayLeaks partner and deputy director of the San Francisco Committee of Vigilance, a citizens’ alliance dedicated to enhancing the public sphere through technology.
Our system uses SecureDrop, a whistleblowing platform managed by the Freedom of the Press Foundation, and Tor, an online anonymity network that has gained the trust of Internet users around the world.
The SecureDrop program originated with the late Aaron Swartz, who developed it in collaboration with Wired Editor Kevin Poulson. Swartz was an Internet activist and programmer known for hashing out inventive ways to fight corruption and promote transparency. He’s remembered, among other things, for cofounding Reddit, the online news site; and for founding Demand Progress, an online activism group known for its 2012 campaign against the Stop Online Piracy Act.
To access BayLeaks once you have logged onto Tor, type this URL into the browser: l7rt5kabupal7eo7.onion.
Now SecureDrop is managed by the Freedom of the Press Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded in 2012 that is “dedicated to helping support and defend public-interest journalism focused on exposing mismanagement, corruption, and law-breaking in government.”
To provide maximum security, BayLeaks is only accessible over the Tor anonymity network.
When connecting to Tor in order to submit documents through SecureDrop, the Freedom of the Press Foundation recommends first going to a public location, such as a library or a café, rather than using one’s home or work station where it would be easier for a third party to detect you as a Tor user.
The Tor Browser is as easy to use as other browsers. But once you have downloaded it, it masks the IP address of the computer you are working on by sending your requests through a set of computer relays to keep anyone from tracing communications back to you.
Using the Tor Browser allows you to access Tor Hidden Services like BayLeaks, which are only available over Tor and can be much more secure than ordinary websites. These hidden services have .onion Web addresses (the .com of the digital anonymity world). After you’ve submitted something to BayLeaks, journalists can use the SecureDrop system to communicate securely and anonymously with you. Once you’ve sent all documents to BayLeaks, the Freedom of the Press Foundation recommends deleting the Tor Browser Bundle, destroying any recorded copies of your codename (see “A Low Tech How-To”), and erasing or destroying any media (CD-ROMs, USB sticks) used to copy the leaked documents.
“As the old adage goes, ‘Sunlight is the best disinfectant,'” said J.D. Shutt, a BayLeaks partner and Special Initiatives director of the SF Committee of Vigilance. “We’re excited to provide a technologically robust means of bringing this basic rule of civics into the 21st century.”