Volume 48 Number 28
THE WEEKNIGHTER Sutter Station doesn’t give a fuck. In fact, it has been steadfastly sitting on Market Street, not giving fucks since 1969. That’s before BART existed, before Tales of the City came out, and before the Beatles broke up. The United States was still tangled up in the Vietnam War when Sutter Station first opened its doors to show San Franciscans what not giving a fuck looked like.
Sutter Station is a weird and wild place. And I don’t mean weird like “Ooh, look at him, he’s walking down the street in a tutu.” And I don’t mean wild like a bunch of drunk bros screaming WOOO when their friend takes a shot. I mean weird in a disconcerting way and wild in the sense that you may genuinely get your ass kicked for acting stupid. Sutter Station is a working class bar somehow still in the heart of downtown San Francisco where Budweiser is always $3 and sometimes people get physically tossed out the back door. Those people generally deserve it, too.
There’s a legend about Sutter Station. There was once a lingerie show there. That’s it. That’s the whole legend. Stepping inside the joint you can tell that’s enough. Sutter Station is like if a Tenderloin dive bar walked over to the Financial District for a change of scenery and decided to stay. You ever sat down in a bar in the TL and said, “Gee, I wish there was a lingerie show here”? That’s my point. Some legends are legends for a reason.
Sutter Station isn’t all hard motherfuckers though, as the week draws on the crowd gets pretty diverse. People who say they “work in the FiDi” pop in for happy hour beverages, filling some of the tables with women in pencil skirts and men with their shirts tucked in. Both these genders wear North Face fleeces for some reason.
You do actually see some of these same people during other hours as well. Sometimes the ones with a drinking “preoccupation” dip in for a liquid lunch where they know none of their colleagues will find them, while others hang out far after happy hour tipsily making friends with people they’ll ignore when passing on the street the next day. Sutter Station attracts all kinds for different reasons. It attracts me for the free pizza they put out on Fridays.
As real bars keep disappearing, only to be replaced by more and more craft cocktail joints, the importance of spots like Sutter Station grows. Bars are supposed to be where you unwind, have a drink, and let the day slide off you. They are there to help make merry, make friends, make lovers, make amends. I like a really nice cocktail just as much as anyone, but even more so, I like just having a drink and seeing what happens from there. The beauty of Sutter Station is that anything can happen from there. As spots like Sutter Station become harder to find in San Francisco, I can’t help but give a fuck. Luckily, Sutter Station doesn’t.
Stuart Schuffman aka Broke-Ass Stuart is a travel writer, poet, and TV host. You can find his online shenanigans at www.brokeassstuart.com
Our city is showing no signs of slowing down with new late-morning options. What can I say, we’re obviously a city that likes to stumble out to brunch! Last week, I clued you in to the brand new brunch service at the stylish and very delicious Verbena (2323 Polk St., SF. www.verbenasf.com) in Russian Hill. Now, the full menu has been released, and it’s a doozy. On the eggy tip, there’s a fried egg sandwich; a spin on the restaurant’s broccoli and cheddar dish with soft-cooked eggs; a pork trotter terrine with fried quail eggs and chile oil, and poached eggs with duck ragout and peas. Or you can get sourdough pancakes and French toast. Hope for an outdoor table, while a brunch cocktail (made with good, real booze!) is a sure thing. 11am–2:30pm.
If you’re in the Marina, Café Claude Marina (2120 Greenwich St., SF. www.cafeclaude.com) is a cute option for weekend brunch, with a bistro-style menu offering classic French croque madames and croque monsieurs. And just to mix things up, there’s a savoyard with bacon, béchamel, tomato, and greens. More classics like pain perdu and omelets fill the bill, although sometimes all you need is a burger — get a fried egg on it, bien sur.
BALLIN’ ON A BUDGET
Newly open this week in Hayes Valley is Souvla (517 Hayes, SF. www.souvlasf.com), whose owner is nobly trying to bring some awesome souvlaki to our city. Greasy late-night street meat, this is not. Of course there’s a California spin on the ingredients: The lamb shoulder is local — and wait until you taste it all covered in a harissa-spiked yogurt, nestled into a soft and pillowy pita — and the chicken, also off the spit, is Rocky Jr. and super juicy, topped with “Granch” dressing with fennel and citrus salad, pickled red onion, pea shoots, and mizithra cheese tucked inside.
Pork shoulder souvlaki with feta and cherry tomatoes will please any carnivore. And vegetarians, you can get a roasted white sweet potato version. No matter what, everyone has to get the Greek fries, lemony and oh so savory. Dessert is all about frozen yogurt with baklava crumbles and syrup, along with four other toppings too. There are also a variety of Greek wines and beers, cheers. The space was previously intimate Japanese restaurant Sebo, but now it’s all sunny and light, with lots of tile, and white and grey metal stools. Grab a seat at the communal table, the high-top tables, or bar in the back, or perch at the indoor-outdoor bar at the front, perfect for our warmer days. Hours are Tue–Sun 11am–10pm.
Okay, so not only is Off the Grid back at Fort Mason (Fort Mason Center, 2 Marina Blvd., SF. www.offthegridsf.com) on Fridays, but its events at the Presidio have also returned. If you’re a daytime picnic fan, you’ll want to experience Picnic at the Presidio (11am–4pm). Food trucks and food stands representing local eateries — Wise Sons, Sugarfoot Grits, Cholita Linda — have everything you need for a tasty lunch. Order adult beverages like Bloody Marys and Kentucky Mules that you can enjoy “blanket-side.” And after you start getting your swerve on, maybe it’s time to play some bocce or horseshoes. There are also cornhole tournaments, a DJ, and you can even purchase a sweater if Karl the Fog shows up at the party.
On Thursday evenings, don’t miss Twilight at the Presidio (Main Parade Ground, Lincoln Blvd. at Montgomery, the Presidio), 5pm–9pm, with lantern-lit cabanas, fire pits and Adirondack chairs, live music, a gorgeous sunset view, and cocktails. Yeah, if you’re looking for a spot for a perfect date, this is pretty damn choice. There are 10 trucks rotating biweekly, including El Sur, Red Sauce Meatballs, and The Chairman — and you can even have waited service at your cabana or fire pit.
By Micah Dubreuil
Sitting cross-legged on a pillow on the hardwood floor of a bare room in East Oakland, Korean-born, conservatory-trained composer JooWan Kim is doing two things that aren’t usually paired together: Conducting an elaborate, traditional tea ceremony and expressing his passion for N.W.A. Kim thrives on unexpected combinations: The composer, who spent seven years in Berkeley studying Zen meditation and Taoist internal alchemy (breathing exercises, he explains), has just finished his second of three arrangements of songs from Enter the 36 Chambers, the Wu-Tang Clan‘s seminal 1993 debut.
Kim leads Ensemble Mik Nawooj (his name backwards), a composer’s ensemble that could be termed a hip-hop orchestra, a chamber rap group, or maybe just the oddest band west of the Mississippi. Kim simply says: “We play pop music.” Of course, most people don’t imagine a pop group consisting of flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, a Soprano opera singer, upright bass, drums, and two MCs.
Most people are not JooWan Kim.
The result is a sound that juxtaposes the rapid-fire staccato of rap with the bombastic percussiveness and dramatic tension of western classical music. It’s unapologetic and truly like nothing else.
Kim, who moved to the US from Korea at age 20, had a somewhat different upbringing from your average hip-hop enthusiast. “My parents listened to classical music, and just like all Asian kids, I had the choice of playing piano or violin,” he says. ” I liked the piano.” He emigrated to study at Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music, then followed it up with a masters in composition from the SF Conservatory of Music. It was while at the Conservatory that Kim first began experimenting with a classical/hip-hop hybrid, presenting the first live piece “as a joke” in 2005. He began to consider doing it seriously when the performance received some unexpected attention from local press and musicians.
His first experience as a hip-hop listener, however, was less encouraging. “I hated them. I hated them so much, with a passion,” Kim says of the first songs he heard. Not a native to the language, he struggled to interpret the music. As his English began improving, however, his attitude towards hip-hop changed. “Once I realized the social context and the kind of things that they were saying, it blew me away. I could understand the necessity in the music — it’s a very sincere and powerful expression,” he says. “If you listen to concert music, it doesn’t have the same urgency,” says Kim, who has decided to prioritize making music for a broad audience (what he calls “pop”).
A broad audience is indeed front and center for EMN. The orchestra is returning to Yoshi’s Oakland on April 17 to preview the Wu-Tang arrangements, in addition to an upcoming residency at the Red Poppy Art House. The group has been performing in rooms normally considered rock clubs — Milk Bar, Brick & Mortar Music Hall, The New Parish — and are raising funds for their debut EP.
Kim’s hardly alone in his embrace of cross-cultural pollination. To celebrate their 21st anniversary, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts commissioned the orchestra to arrange a total of six pieces for a November show called Clas/Sick Hip Hop II: 93 Til’ (a nod to local hip-hop legends Souls of Mischief, and the significance of the year 1993 in hip-hop). YBCA Director of Performance Marc Bamuthi Joseph affirms: “It is part of my gig to authentically recognize hip-hop as a great canonical American form.”
Joseph picked Kim as an arranger for his project in part because of his fresh perspective, coming from Korea and the conservatory — “there’s a playfulness that’s possible,” not being weighed down by certain historical precedents, he says. Though Joseph recognizes the s substantial history of both hip-hop and classical music in the Bay Area, he says he wasn’t entirely surprised that it took an outsider to fuse the two.
“When I came here, I realized it was very different in the sense that pop music was deeply associated with subcultures,” explains Kim. “Koreans don’t have that. Europeans don’t even have that either, in terms pop music. I thought that was weird, so I continued to listen to whatever I wanted to.” What marks EMN as unique is the marriage of classical techniques to this omnivorous disregard for cultural authority (a definitively hip-hop attitude).
Indeed, JooWan Kim has a bit of a rebellious streak. “I decided to add drums and MCs to make people pissed off, and certainly I did,” Kim says of his first performance with the Ensemble. As he walks over to a grand piano to play selections of Wu-Tang’s “Shame on a Nigga,” there is a striking contrast between Kim’s clear delight in ruffling feathers and his calm, controlled demeanor, maintained through two to three hours of meditation each morning — a practice Kim began after studying with Taoist master Hyonoong Sunim at the Zen Center in Berkeley.
Kim believes meditating has transformed both him and his music. “It’s the most valuable thing I’ve ever done,” he says. “I don’t feel angry or depressed that often anymore. I’m at a point where I can let things pass.”
He reflects on the artistic potential that has opened up as he finishes his tea. “A lot of times people have it backward in terms of understanding art or music — that you’re learning all these techniques and then you’ll somehow write this great music,” he says. “It’s actually the other way around. All these qualities that you have, anger or depression or love: they come out in the music. That’s why people who didn’t learn anything about music can write great music, because they somehow overcame themselves.”
Thu/17, 10pm, $15
510 Embarcadero West, Oak.
LEFT OF THE DIAL It’s a question most musicians are all too familiar with. If you tell someone at a party that you’re a working musician, that person is inevitably going to ask — after a few polite questions about your hardcore band/classical jazz quartet/street-corner performance art where you alternate reading Blake passages with playing the accordion — “So, you have a day job?”
In a city like San Francisco, especially, the answer is almost always “yes.” And there’s no shame in that! Bartender, barista, Whole Foods cashier, teacher, graphic designer, marijuana dispensary employee — I’ve heard all of these in just the last month or so of musician interviews. A person’s gotta eat.
And then there’s Tim Marcus. On a recent, rainy Tuesday afternoon, the guitarist was hunkered down in a small bedroom-turned-electrical engineering workshop in the Lower Haight apartment he shares with his girlfriend. Marcus, 35, is one of the most sought after steel guitar players in the Bay Area. He spent the latter half of the aughts with the now-defunct (but much loved) San Francisco Americana band Or, the Whale. A few hours after this interview, he’ll be playing Amnesia with alt-country rocker Tom Rhodes; two days later he’s heading out on the road for a three-week East Coast tour with San Francisco folk songstress Kelly McFarling. But right now he’s at his day job: Flanked by stacks of glass tubes, fuses, and various tiny metal parts whose purpose we can only guess at, he’s building an amplifier. And not just any amplifier. An amplifier of pedal steel dreams.
As the founder, owner, and sole employee of Milkman Sound, Marcus has created a living from building toys — and he’s the first to call them that — for musicians who are just as choosy as he is.
“I started playing guitar when I was 10, and played in bands all through middle school, high school, college,” says Marcus. “I started doing it professionally in the early 2000s. And there just wasn’t what I’d consider to be a boutique option [for amplifiers] for pedal steel guitars. If you drive a car, most people buy a Ford or a Subaru, but you have the option to buy a Ferrari. As a pedal steel player, in particular, you really wound up shoehorned into buying Fords and Chevrolets, things that are made for [regular] guitar players.”
He gained the technical know-how required to build amplifiers from a couple places. Back East, he worked for a company that did repairs on audio-visual equipment, where he’d hand off old or unused parts to a friend who built amps in exchange for his tutelage. After moving out to San Francisco, Marcus went to work for BBI Engineering, an SF company that installs AV and theatrical systems for museums “and other places that use automated amps, where you walk in, push a button and everything happens,” he says. “I learned a lot about making things that work well, that aren’t going to break if they’re subjected to kids poking at them day, in day out.”
Frustrated at being unable to get the clarity and quality of sound he wanted out of his guitar, Marcus started small, ordering the best parts he could find — some vintage, some new, with a priority on materials made in America — to build one amplifier for himself. He still has it (it’s sitting in a custom Milkman slipcover in the corner of the workshop, which, Marcus notes, is more easily navigated than usual — he just shipped out a bunch of amps) but he’s revamped that first one more times than he can count.
He’s an admitted perfectionist as well as a workaholic, he says, but it runs in the family: the name “Milkman” is a nod to his longstanding family business in Connecticut, starting with a small dairy farm his great-grandfather bought and built out. “The spirit of my great-grandfather was like ‘I’m going to sell something that I make,’ and my family’s always continued that,” says Marcus. “That definitely plays a role in my work ethic.”
Since he built that first amp four years ago, he’s been crafting custom amps for guitar and steel players all over the country. He does every part of production himself — friends have asked to help so they can learn, but he’s “crazy OCD about doing everything” with his own hands — and he builds each amp to a customer’s specifications, one at a time. He’s branched out into amplifiers for regular guitarists, and for bass players. Each amp takes him a couple of days to build, and then he tests it meticulously by (someone’s gotta do it) playing guitar through it lots of different ways.
Marcus still buys parts from small US-based companies where possible, including many in California, which he says is expensive but worth it for the quality. They don’t manufacture the glass tubes that go into amplifiers in the US at all, anymore, he explains, which is a shame, because the ones produced here in the ’50s and ’60s were great — they played an unsung role in creating what we think of as the early American rock ‘n’ roll sound. (Marcus can and will explain the history of amplifiers to you, as well as the differences between every iteration of each part that goes into them, at the drop of a hat.) The majority of his cabinets come from a revered one-man shop in Nashville, though Marcus has just begun working with a family business in Oakland to try to make the operation even more local.
The price for all this care and OCD-level handiwork? Milkman amps run from $900 for a five-watt “half pint” amp to $3000 for the more powerful models. But for the musicians Marcus is catering to, that’s well worth it — last year, he sold 40 amplifiers; this year, by the end of March, he’d already shipped 20. Milkman amps have been out on tour in Eric Clapton’s band, thanks to acclaimed steel player and producer Greg Leisz taking a liking to Marcus’ simple, vintage rock ‘n’ roll aesthetic and careful technical work; they can also be heard on the most recent Daft Punk and Norah Jones records.
Maybe most impressively: Marcus seems to have cracked a code. He’s surviving in San Francisco by doing something he loves — and something that allows him to stay here as a working musician. He stopped working for his old audio-visual company about a year ago.
“I know I’m extraordinarily lucky that I’ve figured out a way to have music be something I can make a living off of,” he says. “I mean, I don’t get rich playing pedal steel. I wouldn’t be able to pay my rent playing pedal steel. If I lived in Nashville, or even LA, maybe; not here.
“But there’s also pride in that,” he says. “That’s why it says ‘Made in San Francisco, USA’ on the front. It’s not easy to do things in San Francisco, so when you do I think it’s just that much more awesome. I kind of got into the pirate ship mentality, and working for myself is great. I get up early — but I haven’t set an alarm clock in a long time.”
FILM At the moment, Scarlett Johansson is playing a superhero in the world’s top blockbuster. Her concurrent role in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin — the gorgeously crafted tale of an alien who comes to earth to capture men, but goes rogue once her curiosity about the human world gets the better of her — could not be more different in story or scope. There’s also the matter of its edgy presentation of its usually glamorous star.
“My first instinct was to cast an unknown. Somebody who nobody was familiar with,” Glazer (2000’s Sexy Beast) admits on a recent visit to San Francisco. But once he decided to film the alien’s “pick-up” scenes — in which Johansson’s unnamed character cruises around Glasgow in a nondescript van, prowling for prey — using hidden cameras and real people off the street, he changed his mind. Casting a famous face became a subversive choice that perfectly serves Under the Skin‘s disconcerting tone. “With that methodology of shooting, the surveillance with [Johansson in] disguise, and filming in the world as it was — the idea of Scarlett at the center of that, like an insect on the wrong continent, was a perfect storm of ingredients. We were well aware of how striking that would be.”
Her camouflage, which includes a dark wig, thickly-applied lipstick, and a fur jacket that immediately feels iconic, was carefully calibrated. “We didn’t want her to be too conspicuous. She needed to be just the right kind of conspicuous. It couldn’t be too overt,” Glazer explains. “The costume designer came up with what I thought was a very clever idea, which was [to clothe Johansson] like someone who’s immigrated recently to a new country and hasn’t quite learned the nuances of the way people dress. So everything was just very slightly off. And obviously we were trying to de-familiarize Scarlett. Very simply, the hair color was something that was very un-Scarlett. The makeup was very film noir-ish. It was a kind of a uniform.”
Johansson was so unfamiliar-looking that she was rarely recognized. Glazer and his crew kept their distance whenever she interacted with strangers, but they had to act fast once the “scene” ended. “Let’s say for instance she was going to go talk to that girl in the purple hoodie,” Glazer says, gesturing toward a woman nearby. “And we were filming it, covertly, and then Scarlett leaves. We’d have to then go up to the girl and say, ‘We’ve just been filming you. Can we get your permission [to use it]?’ She might already be outside and getting into a taxi, so you’d have production assistants running after people sometimes.”
Only a few of Johansson’s targets declined to participate once the setup was revealed. And though it’s easy to tell which men were pre-cast (hint: the naked ones), the scripted and improvised scenes flow together seamlessly. “We worked very hard to get the unity of those ingredients right and make the texture feel like the real world,” Glazer says.
Johansson’s character also gets naked, in scenes that will likely be among the film’s most talked-about moments. (“Seeing Scarlett Johansson Naked Got Under My Skin,” worried a blogger for Elle — a glossy mag that’s featured the star in uber-primped mode in its pages. The reason? Johansson’s unclothed body is remarkably, well, normal-looking.) “We certainly talked about the nudity in the film, but I wasn’t overly concerned about it,” Glazer insists. “What was important was that nothing in the film could be coy. We couldn’t be shy of anything. [Johansson’s] bravery as an actress needed to match the bravery of the character. It was all in the service of that — and she’s very fearless in it. The camera doesn’t get excited by her physicality, her sensuality. It’s very anatomical. In a way, I think she reclaims her image in this film.”
Under the Skin is very loosely based on the novel by Michel Farber. The film’s “feeding” scenes, in particular, are far more abstract than as written in the book. After the alien seduces a victim, he’s lured into what looks like a run-down house. The setting changes into a dark room that seems to represent an otherworldly void, with composer Mica Levi’s spine-tingling score — one of the film’s most potent takeaways — exponentially enhancing the dread.
“The book and the film are really unrelated. They’re very, very different,” Glazer says. “The idea of this film was to make something alien to tell a story about an alien. At the end of the film, I wanted her to remain as inscrutable at the end as she was at the beginning. Part of that is not to feel like you are looking at the tropes of science fiction when you go into these alien realm scenes — alien technology and engineering, and all of the stuff that you see in sci-fi films. Here, it just didn’t feel relevant to the way we were telling the story.”
So instead of a spaceship, the alien’s lair is a black screen which is actually part of the alien itself. “The alien is the absence of light, the absence of form. It’s a force, nothing more,” Glazer says.
But as the alien spends more time among humans — ducking through a night club, witnessing a tragedy on a beach, meeting a man with a deformed face, meeting another man who’s kind to her when she needs help — she begins to mistakenly believe that her fleshy, temporary form is her own.
“She’s deluded into thinking this identity is real,” Glazer says. “It’s like an ‘it’ becoming ‘she.’ It sees what’s reflected and it believes ‘That must be what I am now,’ and she goes and indulges that.”
Her confusion inspires her to abandon her mission and ditch the mysterious, motorcycle-riding figure who tracks her movements and, if needed, cleans up her messes. She leaves her kidnapper van by the side of the road and trudges into the Scottish countryside.
“Her main targets are men — so [initially] it’s important to be in a city and be around human beings. And then she flies away from that. It’s an escape, really,” Glazer says. “She ends up in the wilderness and we end up there with her. It’s important to tell the story alongside her, so we experience things with her. We’re in step with her.”
Eventually, the alien comes to understand the most human trait of all — vulnerability — in a chilling, visceral climax that evokes the body horror of early Cronenberg, a visual reference that dovetails well with the film’s clinical, Kubrickian opening scenes. That said, Glazer had neither filmmaker in mind while he was working.
“You’re trying to make an alien film that should stand apart from everything else,” he says. “It should stand alone. So for that reason, the last thing you want to do is reference other films or make it feel like it’s familiar. It’s familiar right at the beginning [of the film], before we see the shot of [Johansson’s eye]. Once we realize it’s an eye, then it becomes intentionally unfamiliar.” *
UNDER THE SKIN opens Fri/11 in Bay Area theaters.
SUPER EGO Who celebrates her 50th birthday by wallowing in a 40-gallon kiddie pool of chocolate pudding at the city’s oldest gay bar? Who grew so enthusiastic during a drag number at Trannyshack in 2003 that she bent all the way backward and broke her spine? Who flits so deliciously through the spectrum of sexuality and gender that I last heard her identify herself as an MTFTM Nearsighted Bi-Polar Bear With Vampiric Tendencies?
Who is one of our last remaining links to SF’s gloriously weird club past? Phatima Rude, that’s who. The perennial ghoulish go-go and beautiful creature is living history. After moving here in the late ’80s and flirting with the Imperial Court drag dynasty, she dived into the underground — looking, at 300-plus pounds in a blond wig, “like Divine by way of Barbra Streisand” — starting at the legendary Club Uranus among such luminaries as Jerome Caja, Michael Blue, DJ Lewis, and Michael Angelo.
“I walked into that place and knew I had found my family, I had finally found my freaks,” she told me about Uranus. “The wonderful thing about drag is you can be someone else. I never was in the closet — I never knew what that was. But in drag, I no longer had to be Kevin from Minnesota.” Her first drag number, at one of the first Trannyshacks, involved dressing in clothing from dead or dying friends, and stripping each piece off one by one.
Phatima’s also a prime example of what it takes to hold on as an artist in this town. Ladies and Gentlemen: Phatima Rude, a short film by ethnographer Paul King premiering at Peaches Christ’s essential Underground Film Festival, documents the months last year that she spent living in a van on disability insurance, after she had to leave her shared artists’ co-op.
“It was actually a good experience,” Phatima, who’s now happy to have a place in a downtown SRO, said. “It humbled and stabilized me. You become very aware of where you are in the universe when you live on the street. When my mother and I first moved here and were staying in a shelter, I remember the pastor in charge saying, ‘The hardest step is from the gutter to the curb.’ And I never forgot that.”
Now Phatima has hit another creative peak, appearing in challenging Leigh-Bowery-in-a-blender outfits at parties like future-gothy monthly Dark Room at the Stud, and making music with her band The Unicorns R Dying, or T.U.R.D. What has she learned from her journey so far? “Life is tenuous, we’re all so blessed to be here, and drag is the gateway to the world!”
LADIES AND GENTLEMAN: PHATIMA RUDE featuring an all-star drag performance tribute to Phatima, Sat/12, 9:30pm, $15 ($20 for Underground Film Festival pass). Victoria Theatre, 2961 16th St, SF. www.peacheschrist.com
AFTER BIRTH: OFFICIAL UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL AFTERPARTY Sat/12, 10:30pm, $5. Rebel, 1760 Market, SF. www.tinyurl.com/phatimaafterbirth
Sometimes you just want some engaging, melodic nu-disco house that will make you sweat without tearing out your brain. Like fellow earworm heartthrob the Magician, Italian-Belgian cutie Vito de Luca delivers in spades.
Thu/10, 9pm-late, $10–$15. Mezzanine, 444 Jessie, SF. www.mezzaninesf.com
Smart, fantastical bass-laden soundscapes from this French producer with an excellent ear. (Check new EP Apache and his ace Electronic Beats on Air mix.) With Branchez.
Thu/10, 9pm, free with RSVP at www.1015.com. 1015 Folsom, SF.
When this Chicago afro-centric house master was booted off the decks by idiots in Miami a couple years ago, it pointed up the strange polarity of dance music today. Luckily Ferrer’s deep beat goes on.
Fri/11, 9:30pm-late, $15–$20. Monarch, 101 Sixth St., SF. www.monarchsf.com
The celebrated Bulgarian sage of handmade acid grooves returns — towing crazy new machines, sing-along drum patterns, and balls-out beats, we’re sure. With Matrixxman and Jason Kendig at the fast-growing Isis party.
Fri/11, 9:30-3:30pm, $10–$15. Public Works, 161 Erie, SF. www.publicsf.com
Last weekend was alive with music, celebrating the life of Frankie Knuckles. Beloved Chicago boogie-house wiz Derrick, one of Frankie’s direct heirs, will bring even more of Frankie’s spirit down. With UK ’90s fetishist duo Bicep.
Sat/12, 9pm-5am, $15–$20. Mighty, 119 Utah, www.mighty119.com
DANCE Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is the country’s most financially successful dance enterprise. Apparently, it regularly ends with a surplus, something most everyone else can only sigh over. But the success comes with a price: it tours like no one else. That makes it hard to keep performances fresh, a repertoire fluid, and dancers focused. And yet, the dancers showed little wear and tear on this 14th stop of their current 23-city US tour.
Two reasons account for the dancers’ success. They have one of the great masterpieces of 20th century art in their repertoire, and they never hit the road without it: Alvin Ailey’s 1960 Revelations. Audiences around the world want it. Again, and again, and again. There are times when I am tempted to skip it. I never do, and I never regret it. The only piece of choreography I feel similarly about is Giselle (and that music is not half as good).
Ailey dancers are also an extraordinarily beautiful lot — fierce technicians, with immaculate ensemble work, the women as strong as the men. For speed, attack, sense of space, and range of motion, they have little competition. Most of them stay with the company until they quit dancing, so an audience feels like it gets to know them over the years.
But Ailey dancers also look like they come out of one mold — the Ailey mold. One of the issues that has plagued the company for years is the rest of the repertoire. Bringing in new choreography has been a hit-and-miss affair. Robert Battle, artistic director for the last three years, has made valiant efforts to cast his net wider. Judging from the company’s opening night at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall this year, it still is something of a hit-and-miss affair.
Aszure Barton’s LIFT and Ronald K. Brown’s Four Corners are Battle commissions from 2013. Watching these two works — the first of which clocked in at 26 minutes, the second at 24 minutes — offered radically different experiences of time passing. LIFT flattened out thin ideas long beyond their welcome, and despite Curtis Macdonald’s assertive beat, the work began to drag quickly. Four Corners spun its sturdy gossamer web to the point where you didn’t want to let it go.
Barton, whose own company performed somewhat more successfully as part of San Francisco Performances in February, appears to have looked at the Ailey dancers and decided on the kind of suit that she wanted to tailor for them. While it fit them physically, it constrained their expressivity. LIFT’s vocabulary is somewhat reminiscent of African traditions — wide stances, articulated shoulders and hips, strong flat-footed stepping, and arms that fly away when not engaged in body-clapping. But Barton didn’t succeed in pulling these elements into a coherent statement.
A prominent male trio, with powerful Jermaine Terry as its leader, appeared to search the ground for something. Often the dancers performed with their backs to us. Men and women moved in and out of the shadows, arms often flailing, feet fussily engaged when not stomping.
Two duets were oddest of all. Matthew Rushing — still dancing fabulously — and Hope Boykin engaged each other in a hysterically laughing and screaming match. Ghrai DeVore’s lips became a suction cup against Marcus Jarrell Willis’ chest, turning the two of them in a four-legged creature of uncertain origin. Is that what those male searchers were trying to escape from?
Brown’s Four Corners, apparently, is inspired by the apocalypse’s four horsemen. I didn’t see it except when some unseen forces, perhaps launched by a divine spirit, perhaps just a strong wind, appeared to animate and propel the performers on some kind of journey toward ecstasy. Brown’s vocabulary has integrated modern dance and African influences like no other choreographer whom I can think of; it has become a language that starts inside and ripples out so that every part of the body seems to sing. The dancers open their torsos in every direction, giving in to the momentum, with their flexible arms turned into wings that keep them buoyed. Yet periodically, like birds alighting, they fold them on their backs and focus on the ground ahead of them.
Rushing is the leader on the lookout for his group of congregants; eventually, he leads them in a single-file procession toward who knows where. He is joined by the regal Linda Celeste Sims and the astounding Belen Pereyra, in an earth-colored outfit that lets you see every tremor, every shift of weight, and every searching glance.
Revelations is what it is, or perhaps not. This was the first time that I remember seeing a white dancer in this quintessential tribute to African American culture. The finale of the piece once again turned into a competition between the audience and the dancers. The audience won. “Rocka My Soul” got a repeat. *
CAREERS AND ED Matt Burdette is a video game environment artist, crafting expansive alien vistas by tapping out ones and zeroes the way a painter flourishes a brush. But unlike paint on canvas, Burdette’s vistas are meant to be explored by video game avatars hunting computerized enemies.
He’s crafted trees and bushes, and paid loving attention to every stem and every leaf, but his proudest project was not nearly so serene. While employed at LucasArts he worked on a later-cancelled project: Star Wars 1313.
Burdette was tasked with blowing up a spaceship.
“They said to me, ‘This needs to look photoreal,'” he told me. “I was all, ‘Hell yeah, let’s do that.'” The video game trailer that played at the 2013 Electronic Entertainment Expo featured a laser toting hero jumping through a burning spaceship. It was hailed by the national press as the most impressive looking new video games on the horizon.
But Burdette was not always a digital craftsman. At one point, he was a pencil and paper artist.
For artists facing hard times in a dwindling San Francisco art scene, the Bay Area’s burgeoning video game industry is rife with possibility. About 100 video game studios call the Bay Area home, according to Game Job Hunter, from Electronic Arts to Zynga. And many of these studios need artists and composers. Burdette made the digital leap from traditional art by studying film visual effects at Savannah College, in Georgia.
Above is the E3 trailer for Star Wars: 1313.
“To bring a more artistic sensibility to what is maybe a technical, rigid kind of space is valuable and a lot of fun,” Burdette, 28, said.
Disney later bought LucasArts and laid off many of its staff, and Burdette found a new job at Visceral games crafting environments for Battlefield 4. But despite the video game industry reputation for grueling work hours, he still manages to find time for personal art.
Lately he’s slowly built a virtual island, like a hobbyist building a model ship during off hours.
“It was nice to come home and think, ‘I’ll make a tuft of grass today,'” he said. He then plugged his island into a new virtual reality device known as Oculus Rift, VR goggles that show the player a 3D world that looks eerily real, sensing the player’s head movements and portraying a sense of depth.
“I put on the Oculus and thought I was going to cry. You are there,” he said. “I walked up to a bush and felt physically uncomfortable, like this is impugning on my personal space.”
Burdette may get to play inside virtual worlds some artists haven’t dreamed of, but his reality is the same: Business can be tough.
He noted that many video game designers and artists are laid off after projects are complete, a standard industry practice. Most industry workers, he said, “are very much more mercenaries now.”
Some opt out of the boom and bust system altogether. Liz Ryerson, 26, is an independent game designer, visual artist, and music composer. She’s had hard times, crashing on couches and bordering on homelessness, but found a new way to raise money for her work. She now solicits support on Patreon, a Kickstarter for artists.
Thanks to contributions from fans, she has a spiffy new place by downtown Berkeley where she crafts her indie games.
“Indie game” is a nebulous phrase, of course. But if the multi-million-dollar video game Halo is comparable to the blockbuster film Avatar, Ryerson’s version of indie is closer to the DIY digital videographers of the local Artists’ Television Access. She makes video games for expression’s sake, not necessarily for profit.
Not to say Ryerson isn’t successful. She composed music for the immensely popular Dys4ia, a flash game detailing the lead designer’s gender transition. Ryerson’s own game, Problem Attic, tackles her own personal demons.
Floating crosses pursue the avatar, a stick figure, across a 2D plane. The game world resembles an 8-bit rendering of a brain merged with a nightmare, and the player must traverse frightening but intentional digital glitches. In an industry filled with shoot-’em-up games, it’s esoteric and strange, and that’s how Ryerson likes it.
“The game is definitely David Lynch-inspired, without a doubt,” she said. “Things that are more indefinable, with more of a sensibility to them. That’s what I respond to.”
A trailer for Liz Ryerson’s game, Problem Attic.
She’s mostly self-taught, sometimes building games in flash, and scoring the games using computer software like Reason. Though her design ethos couldn’t be further from Burdette’s blockbuster Star Wars games, they share a common bond: They were artists before they were game makers.
“I used to record songs and play guitar,” Ryerson said. “That was one of the biggest things I wanted to do, was be a pop musician.”
Eventually she started remixing video game compositions and posting them to the web via video game music website OCRemix. She studied film in school and made a documentary. The music from a Gus Van Sant film, the visual presentation of comic books, and the movement inherent in a game controller — all of these concepts inspire her work.
“That’s what you can do with video games, you can create these abstract, very different worlds,” she said. “You can do this more easily with video games than you can represent reality.”
Consumers spent over $20 billion on video games in 2012, according to the Entertainment Software Association. But for artists looking for an easy transition to an industry flush with cash, Ryerson and Burdette made one thing abundantly clear: The video game industry is extremely competitive.
“It’s hard to make games,” Burdette said. “You’ve got to want it real bad.”
It’s gotten so that I’m terrified of my own Facebook. Every time I refresh, it seems another artist is leaving the city. Last month alone it was two drag queens, a photographer, a painter, a couple writers, a gaggle of DJs, a singer. And actors, always actors. There have been fabulous farewell parties or simply abrupt messages. “I just bought a house in Austin.” “Think I’m gonna love Seattle.” “Chicago’s where my head’s at now.” “Any hookups with Bushwick collectives?”
You’ve got to feel some sort of perverse pride: People are actually moving to Brooklyn because it’s so hard to survive as an artist here! We win, I guess?
I’m going to get something out of the way here: Despite all the editorial handwringing and clickbait trend posts and parachuting-in journalists and $5 toasts, there is still plenty of art going on here. There’s too much, really, if you can believe it. It’s my job to try to keep track of every arty thing, and most mornings I go to bed weeping over 10-20 things I missed.
[Don’t believe it? Check out this week’s special series of stories on visual artists, musicians, filmmakers, and other folks who are navigating the changing scene and still making a living from their art in the city.]
Art in the Bay Area, especially, has a particularly elastic definition — we celebrate every kind of inspired expression: Burning Man art cars, robotic porn, ironic Pong hacks, random street dancing, banging on upturned mop buckets, dressing like it’s the Gold Rush in 2163. But traditional art still thrives here as well, even as the people making it may be barely hanging on.
Art is at the very center of our civic identity, but there is justified fear that it may be fleeing to the hinterlands.
I’m sorry, artists, but this is all your fault. It was the subversive inventiveness of city art, your inventiveness — underground parties, random acts of weird, insane global cuisine, WTF fashion freedom, visual bebop, ukulele tunes and rap verses beneath our windows at 4am — that made all these rich people want to move to the city in the first place. We’re living in an age of hyper-urbanization, a thrumming cosmopolitan situation that many of us long dreamed of. And now everything’s turning on us. From Paris to Hyderabad, the freaks are slowly being squeezed out.
Of course, along with their lust for gold and experience, the monied and naive bring their own culture of patronage and potential, including a ready market for aspirational “creators.” And things may be beginning to reach a strange equilibrium: For every poet leaving to commune in Grass Valley, a sofa-surfing drag queen scores a life-saving gig at a gaming conference satellite party. But to many beneficiaries of the ‘new economy,” art is merely another form of shock entertainment, not a burst of unfathomable truth, a creamy spasm of the Zeitgeist, a necessary civic virtue. Beauty’s hardly even in it, darling.
Worse, it sucks to see how much art-making has been devalued lately. The first dot-com boom snatched up artistic types and happily applied their skills toward making the Internet an aesthetic as well as an entertaining experience. Writers, visual artists, designers, philosophers, anarchic coders were eagerly courted and given pride of place. Our present ruling “visionaries,” however, seem happy just have the round peg go in the round hole. As long as something looks and feels like the other thing that got money, they’re golden.
It’s up to artists to figure out how to keep San Francisco from collapsing into some lame-ass singularity, a black hole of “everything’s amazing!!!” Already some clever adaptations are emerging, which we highlight in this issue. Diversification and education are always good. So is taking back the conversation with grand acts of wonderment or a steady practice that stealthily imprints itself on the consciousness of an era.
And hey, if you need to take a breather for a minute in Culver City — where you can have a whole house! — that’s cool, too. Like earthquakes, market-dives, and bubble-bursts, we know you’ll be back someday.
CAREERS AND ED Ah, the bright lights of Hollywood — so close, and yet thankfully far enough away to allow Bay Area filmmakers to develop their own identities. The SF scene thrives thanks to an abundance of prolific talent (exhibit A: have you noticed how many film festivals we have?), and continues to grow, with a raft of local programs dedicated to teaching aspiring Spielbergs — or better yet, aspiring Kuchars — the ins and outs of the biz.
San Francisco’s big art schools all have film programs. California College of the Arts offers both a BFA and an MFA in film, with an eye toward keeping students trained not just in cinema’s latest technological advancements, but its ever-changing approaches to distribution and exhibition. One look at the staff roster and it’s not hard to see why CCA’s program is so highly-acclaimed, with two-time Oscar winner Rob Epstein (1985’s The Times of Harvey Milk; 1995’s The Celluloid Closet; 2013’s Lovelace); indie-film pioneer Cheryl Dunye (1996’s The Watermelon Woman; 2001’s The Stranger Inside); and noted experimental artist Jeanne C. Finley, among others. www.cca.edu
The Art Institute of California has a Media Arts department that offers a whole slew of programs, including BS degrees in digital filmmaking and video production, digital photography, and media arts and animation, as well as an MFA in Computer Animation. The school, which offers a number of online courses, is affiliated with the for-profit Argosy University system and aims for “career-focused education.” www.artinstitutes.edu/san-francisco/
The San Francisco Art Institute has this to say about its programs: “The distinguished filmmaker Sidney Peterson initiated filmmaking courses at SFAI in 1947, and the work made during that period helped develop “underground” film. From the 1950s to the early 1970s, filmmakers at the school such as Bruce Conner, Robert Nelson, Stan Brakhage, and Gunvor Nelson brought forth the American avant-garde movement. Our current faculty is internationally renowned in genres including experimental film, documentary, and narrative forms.” The school has embraced new technology and offers extensive digital resources, but it also supports artists who prefer working with celluloid. 16mm and Super 8 filmmaking lives! www.sfai.edu/film
The Academy of Art University may be largely known around SF for the number of buildings it owns downtown, but it does have a School of Motion Pictures and Television that offers AA, BFA, and MFA diplomas, augmented by an extensive online program. Its executive director is Diane Baker, eternal pop-culture icon for her role in 1991’s Silence of the Lambs (“Take this thing back to Baltimore!”) Other faculty members include acclaimed choreographer Anne Bluethenthal. Students can also take classes from Guardian contributor Jesse Hawthorne Ficks, who programs the popular “Midnites for Maniacs” series at the Castro Theatre and is the school’s film history coordinator.
“I teach 11 different theory classes, including the evolution of horror, Westerns, melodramas, musicals, and ‘otherly’ world cinema, as well as a close-up on Alfred Hitchcock,” Ficks says. “But bar none, the History of Female Filmmakers class seems to create the biggest debates. Some find it sexist to emphasize gender — as artists, why can’t we transcend that concept? Except why have the majority of textbooks forgotten, ignored, or even re-written these women out of history? If the argument is that female filmmakers just aren’t good enough to be ranked alongside their male counterparts, how about watching more than one film by Alice Guy, Lois Weber, Frances Marion, Dorothy Arzner, Maya Deren, Ida Lupino, or Agnes Varda? And that’s just the first six weeks of class.” www.academyart.edu
The eventual fate of the City College of San Francisco is still being decided, but for now, its cinema department offers students a mix of hands-on (classes in cinematography, editing, sound, etc.) and theory (film theory, film history, genre studies, etc.) classes. The spring 2014 course catalog included such diverse offerings as “Focus on Film Noir,” “The Documentary Tradition,” “Pre-Production Planning,” and “Digital Media Skills.” Since 2000, the department has showcased outstanding student work in the City Shorts Film Festival, which last year screened both on-campus and at the Roxie Theater. www.ccsf.edu
Tucked into the city’s foggiest corner is San Francisco State University, whose cinema department remains strongly tied to the school’s “core values of equity and social justice,” according to its website, with a special focus on experimental and documentary films. The faculty includes acclaimed filmmakers Larry Clark and Greta Snider, and students can earn a BFA, an MFA, or an MA (fun fact: like I did!) www.cinema.sfsu.edu
On the newer end of the spectrum is the eight-year-old Berkeley Digital Film Institute, which offers “weekend intensives” to smaller groups of students. Dean Patrick Kriwanek says the school teaches “LA-style,” or commercial-style, filmmaking. “Our teachers all come from the American Film Institute or have worked on features,” he says. “We’re trying to train our kids to produce the same level of work that you’d see out of UCLA or USC grad schools — excellent work that’s thoughtful.”
The school also takes the practical side of entertainment into account. “I always joke that we try to be 51 percent art school and 49 percent business school, but it’s really true,” he adds. “You really have to be a business person if you want to succeed.” www.berkeleydigital.com
On this side of the bay, at Mission and Fifth streets to be precise, there’s the San Francisco School of Digital Filmmaking, which aims to “create filmmakers with careers in the entertainment industry.” Faculty members include Frazer Bradshaw, director of the acclaimed indie drama Everything Strange and New (2009) and screenwriter Pamela Gray (1999’s A Walk on the Moon). In addition to months-long programs, the school offers workshops like a crowd funding how-to (an essential area of expertise for any independent artist these days) and a single-day “boot camp-style” intro to digital filmmaking. www.filmschoolsf.com *
ABSOLUTE BEGINNING TAIKO WORKSHOP
Dance Mission Theater has kept itself going by offering some of the most cutting-edge and exciting classes around. (Even the cast of The Real World dropped in recently for some schooling on how to vogue.) Here, instructor Bruce “Mui” Ghent of the Maikaze Daiko dojo will teach you how to bang your own beat out — on very, very large drums. The rigorously physical class (dress to sweat) introduces the basics of the ancient Japanese musical art form, taught with martial arts etiquette and discipline.
April 13- May 18, Sundays, 10:30am-noon, $99. Mission Dance Theater, 3316 24th St, SF. www.dancemission.com
Be the Brando of poets, as Alexandra Kostoulas — student of famed Method Writing sage Jack Grapes — “strips away the artifice of writing, the baggage that keeps us from the most essential building block of any writing: the Deep Voice.” The class is based on journal entries which are transformed using Method Writing techniques into stories and poems. Help your writing to leap from the page and roar with fire! Or at least try something passionate and different.
April 29-June 17, Tuesdays, 6:30-9:30pm, $395. Emerald Tablet, 80 Fresno, SF. Also April 30-June 18, Wednesdays, 6:30-9:30, $395. Wework Building, 25 Taylor, SF. www.methodwritingsf.com
Give your music 3D expression — and a big boost of digital career potential — at this intensive course at Ex’pression Digital College. Students get an earful of learnin’: music production, electronic music and beat production, audio and visual composition, live performance engineering, audio engineering, recording and mixing, audio and music programming, and video game audio creation and integration. You get to make shapes with your sounds, very cool.
Classes start May 19 in Emeryville and San Jose. See www.expression.edu for more information
Downtown SF street art nexus 1:AM, aka First Ammendment (winner of a Guardian Best of the Bay Award) offers this supercool class with artist Strider. “Learn to make your ‘mark’ on the world” by designing, cutting, and spraying intricate stencils — including on your own T-shirts. Ages 14+ are welcome: This class is great for budding protesters, free spirits, and guerilla artists.
June 28, 12:30-3:30pm, $55. 1:AM, 1000 Howard, SF. www.1amsf.com
Have you heard about this whole slow food movement thingie? Nonprofit Bauman College has spent the last 25 years teaching health and wellness through holistic nutrition and culinary arts. This 450-hour course is the whole megilla — kitchen basics, farm-to-table sourcing, world cuisine, client services, therapeutic applications, and more. Everyone’s gotta eat, so the field continues to grow. Graduates can go on to work as personal chefs or start their own delicious business.
Classes start in September and are offered in Berkeley and Santa Cruz, See www.baumancollege.org for more information.
No, this program doesn’t consist of screaming at your ex. A graduate program at the California Institute for Integral Studies, regionally accredited and approved by the North American Drama Therapy Association, drama therapy draws on dramatic play, theater, role-play, psychodrama, and dramatic ritual, to free the mind and bring healing to others. “Freedom and possibility are two key words that begin to describe the essence of drama therapy. Life is finite; there are only so many experiences we can have. But in drama, the opportunities and options are endless.”
Register for fall 2014 semester by July 10. See www.ciis.edu for more information.
The Bay Area is fully engaged with the technology industry, triggering political flare-ups over Google Glass, tech buses, and larger debates over how the tech industry is morphing the Bay Area’s social and economic landscape. Meanwhile, university researchers are busily putting technology to use in service of their studies, or carefully examining how technology is shaping people’s lives.
A pair of recent events in San Francisco and Berkeley illuminate how web-based technology has become deeply embedded in everyday life, helping to shape human realms as personal and unique as emotions, brain health, and behavior.
Medical researchers at the University of California San Francisco have devised a tool they hope will advance our understanding of neuroscience and brain disease. On April 8, UCSF researchers launched a new project called the Brain Health Registry, which uses the Internet to recruit volunteer research subjects who play online brain games as part of the enrollment.
Across the bay at UC Berkeley’s Center for New Media, a recent symposium explored the implications of living in a world increasingly populated with robots and “smart” technologies that are designed to anticipate and respond to human behavior and dynamic environments. The April 4 event, called Robots and New Media, highlighted some thorny and intriguing questions about how robots “play a critical new role as extensions of ourselves,” according to the event description.
With discussion from cognitive neuroscientists about what happens to the human brain during interactions with robots, the talk also dived into questions about how much trust people should be willing to lend to emerging technologies.
Michael Weiner often wonders whether swimming in the San Francisco Bay can be credited with sharpening the mind. “I can tell you this: It sure makes you feel good,” said Weiner, who frequently plunges into the frigid bay waters as a member of the Dolphin Club.
For Weiner, a professor of radiology at the University of San Francisco who specializes in Alzheimer’s research, the curiosity goes beyond idle speculation. He’d like to conduct a clinical study to explore the impact that swimming in cold water has on mental functioning. But at the moment, he and a team of UCSF researchers are focused on a much bigger project.
Weiner is the founder of UCSF’s Brain Health Registry, designed to answer these brain impact questions by making it easier to do clinical studies. Realizing that the high cost of recruiting volunteers can slow down cognitive research, he’s turned to the Internet to build a database of volunteer subjects.
“The idea is to collect tens of thousands of people into a registry and then use it to select subjects for clinical trial,” he explained. To enroll, participants provide their names and other personal information, and answer questions about their patterns around sleep, mood, exercise, medications, use of alcohol, and other behaviors. They also take online cognitive tests provided by Lumosity, a brain-game company.
Their test results and personal information are then entered into the registry, which can be used to aid research in several ways. It can be analyzed to detect trends — for example, are there patterns suggesting a linkage between sleep disorders and poor cognitive functioning? It could be used to help researchers detect people with very early Alzheimer’s, Weiner noted. And UCSF researchers can contact registry volunteers to invite them in for clinical studies.
“I want 50,000 people of all ages within the San Francisco Bay Area,” Weiner said of his initial goal. By the end of 2017, the recruitment goal is 100,000. So far, 2,000 have signed up as volunteer subjects.
The Brain Health Registry could turn out to be a tool for facilitating long-term goals like finding a cure for Alzheimer’s. But having this giant database filled with sensitive personal information brings up at least one important question: What if there’s a data breach?
“I’ve been doing research for a long time, and never has there been a loss of data,” Weiner responded, vouching for the system’s ability to keep data safe. “I’m in there, my two children are in there.”
Carla Diana spoke at Berkeley’s Center for New Media symposium on April 4. A designer whose work involves playing around with the expressive elements of technology, she helped create a robot called Simon with a team of researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
She said the purpose of designing Simon was “to study how we can interact with the machine in the most natural way possible.”
Simon is cute and looks like a doll. With an all-white head and torso designed by Meka Robotics, a San Francisco-based robotics company that was recently acquired by Google, Simon has expressive droopy eyes outfitted with cameras, light-up ears that flop up and down, and mechanical hands that grip things.
He (it?) is programmed to track people as they interact with him, understand spoken sentences, and respond with expressive sound and movement that mimics human social behavior. Diana said the robot was designed with diminutive features on purpose, as a way of conveying that he has a lot to learn.
Diana is a fellow at Smart Design, where she oversees the Smart Interaction Lab. Her work isn’t just about making machines — it’s also about studying how people interact with smart technologies, and thinking carefully about things like how the “personality” of a machine can excite people, motivate them, or push their buttons, so to speak, by designing for a sensory experience.
Asked during the question-and-answer period about the ethical implications of designing machines meant to reach people on an emotional level, Diana acknowledged that this is precisely what smart technology designers are up to.
“It’s the responsibility of the designer to realize that we are doing that,” she replied. “We are creating entities that have the ability to manipulate humans’ emotions. And that’s that.”
WELCOME TO THE MACHINE
Mireille Hildebrandt, a lawyer, researcher, philosopher, and professor who flew in from the Netherlands to speak at the symposium, offered a big-picture view of what it means for people to interact with “smart” technologies or robotic machines, and she threw out questions about the overarching implications.
“We’re moving toward something called ubiquitous computing,” she explained. “The environment starts to adapt to your assumed, preferred preferences.”
Common examples of this adaptable technology abound on the Internet: Targeted advertising is based on individuals’ unique preferences. Google search tries to guess what you’re looking for before you finish typing.
What happens when this kind of “smart,” predictive tech goes beyond the computer screen? In some cases, that’s already happening: Think facial recognition technology that can scan an environment to detect a specific person. A less creepy example is smart appliances such as thermostats or robotic vacuum cleaners.
Bringing it up a notch, Hildebrant asked the audience to imagine that everyone had a personal robot. “What if your robot does some A/B design, testing your moods, susceptibility to spending, voting, and other behaviors?” she asked. “What if your robot is online with its peers, sharing your behaviors to improve the user experience? … However smart they are, they aren’t human. They have no consciousness, let alone self-consciousness.”
In a robotic environment, she said, “You can be calculated. When I, as a robot, act like this, then [a person’s] behavior will likely be like that. … We would have to realize that they are continuously anticipating us.”
To live in this kind of souped-up environment brings up big questions, Hildebrant said: “Who’s in control? What’s the business model? And how will it affect our privacy?”
By Hanna Johnson
OPINION When people hear that I’m bidding farewell to the tech industry — a career that appears to be gaining momentum at a salary that allows me to sustain myself in San Francisco — they invariably speculate about the reason.
The reputation of the industry is that it’s not always hospitable to women, but that hasn’t been my experience. I’ve had a number of excellent mentors, cheerleaders, and colleagues of both sexes who have supported me during the three years I’ve spent in tech.
No, my decision to leave tech, at least for now, is that I’ve become disillusioned with the lack of vision, belief, and risk-taking. While this industry is known for those very characteristics, it shouldn’t be. Tech has developed tunnel-vision around the realities, challenges, and possibilities of the real world. This complacent acceptance of the status quo does a disservice to everyone, most of all its own community.
There is a deep irony embedded in the culture that guides and defines the tech industry. It prides itself on being “disruptive,” but it has left the major challenges we face as a society and planet — environmental degradation and climate change, growing income disparity, education, and health care — largely untouched, in favor of “sexier” spaces like messaging, gaming, social networking, and eCommerce.
It may be the prerogative of the leaders in tech to decide what they will work to address, but when one considers the data (something tech heads claim to value above all else) — threats to the environment are growing faster and more dire than we can even wrap our minds around — it seems obvious that we must direct our attention, resources, and innovation toward solutions.
But all the tech world talks about is the latest app and how much it might sell for. The privilege woven into the tech industry has blinded us to the issues that will be insurmountable soon, if they’re not already, and there is no sense of urgency around any of it.
Not all the challenges are environmental. Our city is filled with the victims of harsh, societal violence. The magnitude and severity of the suffering — people laying face down in the sidewalk, passed out over and under bushes; cardboard camps set up where they strive for some modicum of community; human feces on the sidewalks — would signal a major societal flaw in a developing country, let alone one of the richest cities in one of the richest countries in the world. Something is clearly, deeply broken.
Most of my tech mentors share my passion for having a positive impact on the world — doing meaningful work to put a dent in the massive environmental and social issues that face us. That desire is often what attracts us to one another.
But these people tell me that there will be no job that will meet every level of my need pyramid. My urge to spend my working hours addressing these issues is understandable, they tell me, but unrealistic and naive. Best to continue down the path I’m on, which will be challenging, interesting, and lucrative — if lacking in altruism.
The tech industry has a vision problem. How else do you explain the claim that there is nothing we can do to address problems that we have no choice but to solve? Why can’t we entice bright, passionate people to work on these causes and reward them with opportunities that continue to inspire and sustain their life in this city?
The tech industry could dedicate some of its vast resources, brain power, and prestige to help address the major issues we face. But I’m struggling to remain in an industry that seems so clueless that these challenges even exist and are important — significantly more so than Facebook’s latest billion-something-dollar acquisition.
So I’m leaving tech, for now at least, to go shake up my perspective, nurture my imagination, and deconstruct what I’ve learned to be true and possible. But I hope to be drawn back. The people I’ve worked with in the industry are vibrant, intelligent, and passionate. Given the chance to work with these people on the issues we should be caring about, I’d take it every time.
Hanna Johnson worked in tech marketing, follow her new journey at TheRoadsToRoam.com.
At the San Francisco Board of Supervisors on April 1, an environmental appeal hearing on the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s commuter shuttle pilot program elevated the so-called Google Bus into a powerful symbol with two narratives — of gentrification and displacement, or the misguided belief that tech workers are to blame for those trends in San Francisco.
Those weren’t the only divergent tales to emerge at the seven-hour long, emotion-packed hearing. While the buses were praised as good alternatives to San Franciscans driving to work in the Silicon Valley, there was also a surprising level of consensus that they’re causing conflicts at local bus stops and need to be better regulated by the SFMTA.
The tale of the Google Bus as told by the tech industry is this: the buses ferry the workers of a bourgeoning economic sector in a city that now leads the world in innovation. At its most basic, the Google Bus reduces wasteful driving, an environmental boon to the region.
But activists decrying displacement have beaten down a Google Bus effigy in the form of a piñata, and the morning before the hearing, protesters in clown costumes blockaded another Google Bus. Their tale of the Google Bus is about monstrous private transports that hurt low-income San Franciscans by clogging up Muni stops and driving up the price of nearby housing.
Protesters dressed as clowns blockade a Google bus the day the CEQA hearing was held.
In this increasingly economically polarized city, A Tale of Two Cities is oft-mentioned in progressive political circles. But now A Tale of Two Google Buses has become the story of the moment, a story whose moral depends on one’s perspective.
SILENT ON SHUTTLES
Carli Paine, who manages this and other pilot programs at the SFMTA, listened to over an hour’s worth of public complaints about the shuttles at the hearing before enduring a tough grilling by Sup. David Campos and others.
“I don’t have a problem with tech workers, but the arrogance of the tech companies,” a woman who identified herself as a nurse said at public comment. “I’m on the Muni bus that’s packed to the gills that’s held up behind a Google bus.”
Paine has heard many variations on that since the Google buses arrived six years ago. The shuttles blocked Muni buses, held up traffic, and blocked bike lanes, but Paine said the SFMTA’s early efforts to cite buses for illegally using Muni stops weren’t working.
“That’s not a comprehensive policy,” she told us in a phone interview after the hearing. “It’s reactionary. We recognized we needed a policy to address commuter shuttles.”
In 2010, the SFMTA applied for grants to measure shuttle impacts, receiving funding in 2011. The first step was to go to the tech companies — Google, Facebook, Yahoo and their ilk — to get the data. The questions were basic, asking for counts: the number of shuttles, stops, riders, and trips. The tech industry flatly ignored SFMTA’s inquiries.
“Some data was private, they felt,” Paine said. “One of the reasons we’re doing the pilot is there’s information we haven’t been successful in getting voluntarily.”
Tech companies were incommunicado at the hearing as well. Hundreds of people, from technology workers to activists to everyday San Franciscans showed up, but representatives of the technology sector did not announce themselves.
“I think it’s worth pointing out how absent the tech companies are,” Sup. Malia Cohen said at the hearing, contrasting that with three years ago, when Twitter and other companies sought city tax breaks. “The tech executives were swarming City Hall.”
That night, the public finally got a peek at the fruits of Paine’s research. The Budget and Legislative Analyst Office released a report aggregating data from many sources, including the SFMTA. The findings tell the story of the damage caused by commuter shuttles on city streets.
BIG BAD BUSES
The BLA’s report makes one thing clear: while the commuter shuttle plot program applies to all privately owned shuttles, the main public debate is directed at regional shuttle buses ferrying workers to Silicon Valley.
The BLA estimates there are 131 regional shuttles with 8,030 boardings (to San Francisco and back) per a day. Of the shuttles making 273 trips to and from San Francisco daily, the lion’s share (57) are owned by Google. Its workers represent just over half of daily boardings.
The invading buses are also enormous. Taller than a Muni bus, the BLA reports that the Google buses weigh 31 tons when fully loaded, nearly twice the weight of a big rig truck. That’s also a far cry from the seven-ton intra-city shuttles used by the likes of the Academy of Art University and Kaiser Permanente. That size comes with a cost.
“The Department of Public Works staff concur that heavier vehicles contribute to faster roadway deterioration,” the BLA wrote. The damage a shuttle makes on the pavement with a single trip accounts for $1.08 out of the $1 million it will ultimately cost the city to reconstruct a mile of pavement. A typical personal car will cause $0.00023 of damage to pavement over its entire lifetime. So one shuttle trip is “equivalent to 4,700 passenger vehicles driving over the same lane.”
But the city isn’t allowed to charge for that damage. The SFMTA is precluded from charging a fee for road damage pursuant to California Vehicle Code, the BLA report wrote, which restricts local governments for taxing use of city streets.
The SFMTA could opt to collect money by fining shuttle scofflaws. The BLA reports that, “half of the known stops” for all private shuttles take place in Muni bus zones, which is against city law — stops can only be made in white zones, and Muni stops are striped red.
“These are pirate shuttles,” said Richard Drury, the attorney who appealed the program on behalf of the SEIU Local 1021 and other appellants. “They are illegal.”
But at the hearing, the BLA reported that of 13,085 citations made to vehicles in red zones since January 2014, only 45 were issued to commuter shuttles. Campos fired verbal salvos at Paine and SFMTA Director Ed Reiskin, demanding to know why red zone parking laws weren’t enforced.
“Was there a policy not to cite the buses?” Campos asked, pointedly, to which Reiskin replied, “There was not.”
— Joe Fitz Rodriguez (@FitzTheReporter) April 2, 2014
But in an email obtained by Tim Redmond of 48Hills.org (and formerly of the Bay Guardian), a vice president at Bauer (a shuttle provider contracting with tech companies) wrote to Paine in January asking her to dismiss its shuttle citations. “As I assume you know, we have had a ‘handshake’ agreement with SFMTA for many years that allowed us to use stops under a ‘Muni First’ condition.”
Paine refused to comment on whether the shuttles had permission to use the stops. But the practice of using them has definitely had an impact on the cost of nearby housing as tech employees pay top dollar for the convenience.
From 2010 to 2012, San Francisco’s population increased by more than 20,000, the BLA reported, and consequently, “The demand for housing has increased.”
“We’re bussing wealthy, predominantly white adults into low-income neighborhoods, where they in turn displace low-income people,” Drury said at the hearing. “This is the reverse of affirmative action.”
The BLA cites multiple studies demonstrating a spike in rental prices immediately around the shuttle stops. On Lombard in the Marina, rents soared by 30 percent near the shuttle stops, as opposed to 17 percent in the rest of the neighborhood. Near the Dolores Street shuttle stops, rents soared by 43 percent, as opposed to 23 percent just a few blocks away.
Even a cursory search of Craigslist shows higher rents at listings that advertise “easy access for commuters and 10 minutes to Apple/Google/Yahoo shuttle bus stops!”
— Julia Wong (@juliacarriew) April 2, 2014
The BLA admits this anecdotal evidence doesn’t “show causation.” But at the hearing, a tech worker named Martin MacKerel pleaded with his colleagues to recognize the shuttles may hurt San Franciscans, despite the industry’s best intentions.
“I’m here to talk to my fellow tech workers here,” he said. “We’ve got to consider that we’re displacing people into Antioch, San Pablo, the East Bay. If they have to drive in to San Francisco, we need to know that.”
Tech worker Andrew Textor delivered a different message at the hearing, decrying the villainization of tech workers.
“I’ve lived in the city for 10 years, I’ve been riding the shuttles four and a half,” he said. “Please let this program go forward. I’m not a new arrival, I don’t like being called ‘techie.’ I’m still a San Franciscan.”
In the Tale of Two Google Buses, the shuttles are symbols of populist anger and economic frustration, but also real vehicles that harm San Francisco in ways that can be measured and regulated, which officials claim the 18-month pilot program will do. The supervisors denied the environmental appeal on an 8-2 vote.
“We don’t want to stop the buses,” Cynthia Crews of the League of Pissed Off Voters said at the hearing. “We just want the companies to pay their fair share.”
Tech worker Andrew Textor “I’m not a new arrival, I don’t like being called ‘techie.’ I’m still a San Franciscan.” pic.twitter.com/sq3kG8P0JJ
— Joe Fitz Rodriguez (@FitzTheReporter) April 2, 2014
EDITORIAL The pace of life under late capitalism seems to be speeding up these days, and so too have the bad news developments and warnings of impending doom come at a more rapid clip, at least according to the headlines over the last couple weeks.
First it was a report from the US Commerce Department showing that corporate profits are at the highest level in 85 years while employee compensation is at its lower level in 65 years. After-tax corporate profits are now 10 percent of gross domestic product (a record high) as a result of the effective corporate tax rate (figuring in loopholes) of 20.5 percent, the lowest tax rates since 1929, not coincidentally when the Great Depression began.
Then came the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, striking a more urgent tone than the four preceding reports as it documents the threats already unfolding and the major social upheaval to come. And then we were hit with the US Supreme Court’s 5-4 McCutcheon vs FEC decision, which “eviscerates our nation’s campaign finance laws,” as Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in his dissent, striking down aggregate contribution caps and giving even more political power to those with the most economic power.
So wealthy individuals and corporations are hoarding more of the nation’s resources than ever before, and now they’ll be able to spend even more of it to influence and corrupt our already broken political system, weakening its ability to take on big challenges such as addressing global warming because the solutions — including slowing down economic activity (we’ll have more on that in next week’s issue) and helping poor countries deal with rising seas and social instability — require resources from the greedy rich. Call it self-perpetuating plutocracy, with life as we know it on planet Earth at stake.
Meanwhile, on the local front, a Tenants Together study of the economic displacement now underway in San Francisco found it is mostly real estate speculators who are evicting renters using the Ellis Act, a state law ostensibly designed for letting property owners eventually get out of the rental business. Instead, the report’s analysis of eviction data since the Ellis Act was adopted in 1985 showed that 51 percent of Ellis evictions occurred within a year of the property changing hands, 68 percent within five years of new ownership, and 30 percent of Ellis evictions came from serial evictors — all told, displacing 10,000 San Francisco tenants, mostly from rent-controlled housing.
Prohibiting Ellis evictions for the first five years — which is part of Sen. Mark Leno’s SB 1439, which had its first hearing this week — is a good idea that will help. But it also feels a bit like sticking a finger in the hole of a crumbling dike, when what we really need is a strong, new, progressive seawall to protect us against the rising tide of plutocracy, or rule by the rich, and its myriad ravages.