The Lab is a non-profit experimental art and performance space located in the Mission district in San Francisco. Founded in 1984, The Lab gives funding, time, and space to traditionally underrepresented artists and art forms. This assigns great focus to artists whose economics and cultural realities are shadowed by political, social, and artistic organizational models.
RK, PG: Tell us about your background. What is it like to move from an institution like the Berkeley Museum of Art to such an alternative space like The Lab, a renowned centre for alternative artistic practices?
DB: I bumped into the profession of curating “accidentally” for the very first time in Santa Barbara. Being a curator is a position that requires lots of flexibility, a material engagement with the world at large that pressures radical ideas and activism, and it requires a flexibility and an applied understanding of what it means to be in the world as opposed to research or academic learning. This was appealing to me, and I was fascinated by working with artists.
So, when I got the job at the Berkeley Art Museum as an assistant curator, I was looking forward to changing something. I had known about the museum’s work for a really long time as embedded in academic research while being very wild at the same time. The BAMPFA (Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive) used to be housed in this beautiful brutalist building that was completely inhospitable for art: you walked in and it was completely concrete, you couldn’t imagine how art could be shown there. And yet it was, and it was a very complicated relationship. The museum was always putting pressure on the work, and the work was alternately putting pressure on the museum, so there was a kind of friction there that I really loved. I think my issue with working with museums arose simply because they were not paying artists well, and I saw so many artists and art spaces being evicted as a result of the rising rents in the Bay Area—it was really sad. I was working with artists for three to four years on big exhibition projects, and suddenly they would get an eviction notice. Artists are living on a poverty scale that is completely untenable in the Bay Area. There is not a sense of reciprocity—that the museum would take care of the content providers that it has commissioned to work with—and I felt a big disconnection there with how the museum itself valued the work that was being produced and the labour that was actually was put into the work produced. This disassociation extended to the installation crew, the registrars. There is a complicated value system at play. So I wanted to pare things back to a situation where everyone who is involved understands the values that are being challenged or upheld, and together we could put pressure on a given system, and also to feel complicit within it. Again, to understand reciprocity within the creation of an exhibition. To be able to say that this exhibition reflects some kind of value system we want to see in the world, or that it actually reflects something that is being devalued or is being confounded by the current ways of seeing the world. The museum did this to some extent, but the stakes were never high enough. The world it was trying to put pressure on was never actually changed by the work itself. My interest in art stems from my belief that it truly has a power, and I was not seeing that power conveyed in an institutional context.
The Lab was yet another place in the Bay Area that was about to close. The Bay Area in the ‘60s and ‘70s was a huge incubator for models of the alternative art space, but we have lost 35% of our art spaces over the past five years. The Lab was founded in 1984, and it was the first interdisciplinary art space of its kind, the first place that proposed video, film, sound, literary, and visual art that could be shown together. In 2013, I found out it was $150,000 in debt. I got a team of lawyers and tried to dig it out of debt. And we did it. We managed to take it out of the abyss, and we rehabilitated it. I quit my job at the BAMPFA and started at The Lab with only $10,000 dollars in our bank account. It was a risky situation.
RK, PG: It’s very brave of you!
DB: I was bored. It was either that or leave art entirely. I wanted the opportunity to propose something that was serious, that was really game-changing. And that proposal hinged on the idea that I would give artists a huge amount of money, $25,000-$100,000, to do with whatever they wanted. I’d give them keys to the space, the login to our website, everything. But the whole idea is to actually give them power over the institutions. And specifically give that freedom to artists whose work is addressing precarity. Precarity itself became the hinge for the entire project. The Lab came from this precarious space, but the point wasn’t to stabilize the institution, the point was to allow the artists to address their own situations of precarity with their work, and to give them power via the institution, to value them from the outset. So, by empowering the artists we could kind of empower the art. One crucial part of the experiment is that the artists can dictate my role within the space. They can say: “We prefer you not to come in in the next two months”—it is very loose. And so far, we’ve done eight artists commissions of $25,000-$100,000 each, and in total we have given around half a million dollars away. It has become such a miracle.
RK, PG: This is very inspiring! If we now look at the centre-periphery topic, what is your view? From our perspective, we are assuming that this statement might resonate with your work—that there’s a relationship between the two. What are your thoughts?
DB: It’s a huge topic obviously, and it becomes yet another platitude or catch phrase the art world is constantly using. You have these shifts where suddenly everybody is talking about one thing. Yet, this is one of those big topics that will constantly be a part of conversations about art, and understandably so. When you think of the centre, you think of the status quo, what’s acceptable behaviour, and many of us think of art made by white men in a specific European or New York setting. We understand what the centre is.
So, the margins and the periphery... I think it is Charles Gaines (American Artist- RK) who has a beautiful treatise against the use of the word “marginality.” And even this word periphery, we are referring to colonialism, and so on. It is used reductively, and it limits the singularity of the work of artists who are often corralled together by people wielding this kind of language.
But at the same time what we are interested in are people who can challenge our own status quo. Who can really force us to re-see the world and re-sense it, and to dismantle the systems of perceptions that have sort of forced us into a habituated way of seeing, a form of being in the world. And so what you want is other voices and other perspectives to jolt you out of that comfort zone, if you are in fact in the centre. Or if you just risk becoming habituated to your certain ways of seeing. Even if you don’t consider yourself central, and you consider yourself somewhere on the margins, we all still have habituated ways of seeing. So, it’s really about jolting yourself out of that centre—that sensory perspective. The problem with it, and this is something that never gets addressed well enough, is that it’s really difficult to get jolted out of your habituated forms of seeing. It’s painful, it’s hard, it’s deeply challenging. It requires some hard conversations with people, it requires being disturbed. You have to be willing to see the horror within your own self: “Oh my god, I can’t believe I have been seeing it this way.” It involves self-critique. It’s like a little kid trying to navigate the streets of New York City. It’s scary, and it’s painful, and that’s why it’s really important. And I think that’s what the power of art is: it allows us to have a safe space where we can have that experience. It’s a difficult and painful experience, but if you really invest in it, it gives you the space to dismantle the thoughtless habits that have formed your way of living and being in the world.
So, when I think of centre and periphery, I think of everything that we don’t see. All the unknown factors that go into our being in the world that we are just not aware of, that we are not attuned to. That we kind of blocked off with blinders. The whole point of art is to take away the blinders.
RK, PG: You are referring to “we.” To whom are you referring? We, as centre? Can it go both ways?
DB: With “we” I mean every single human being. The one thing I would say is that we all have singular ways we move through the world that are very unique to our own specific condition. Even if we have all grown up in the same context, we might have similar experiences but we are still not the same. I cannot have a perfect sympathetic understanding of the way you see the world; that is just impossible. Because you are different than me. This singularity means that every time we need a jolt, it’s our own singular jolt, our own throwing of our self outside of our own centre, from our own comfortable, habituated sense of being in the world. Different art will do it differently to different people, but I think that is what’s wonderful about it, that it’s always singular. It never makes common sense.
RK, PG: Do artists and curators also have a place in that? Because they are also going through a transformation throughout the creative process.
DB: The artist is the first person that is challenged. And that’s why it is such a complicated relationship between the artist, the curator, and the audience. Because the artist is the one that is first impacted, and they are often deeply impacted by the work they create. There’s the artist’s initial intention, they create a scope for an artwork to come into being, and then they actually settle into the making of the artwork. And what inevitably happens in that making is that the form itself will always kind of “bite back” and refuse the artist’s keen sense of total satisfaction of creating the thing that they envisioned. The form refuses to be well-formed by the artist’s hands, or the artist’s ideas. So language, technical practice, things like that, they don’t perfectly form the artwork that was intended by the artist. There are always a few moments in the process of the making, if the artists is well attuned to that struggle or that kind of challenge, that they allow the form to change and become something else. It’s like seeing the difference between somebody who is technically perfect in their craft, who has created a technically perfect thing, but who has no artistry. It’s not actually an art form, because it doesn’t challenge form itself. Or, in other words, the form itself is very easily knowable. So I think the artist is the first person to be challenged by the process.
And the curator has to be in a sense the first audience for the work. So, they have to identify or be able to see or talk through that challenge, that pain, that singular weirdness from their own perspective. The curator needs to reify the work in public space where other people will be able to actually see that unformed thing. And that is also a very hard process.
RK, PG: How do you choose your artists? What are the criteria to give voice to the underrepresented, a term you use on The Lab’s mission statement?
DB: It’s interesting how much my process was changed by The Lab. The process of making The Lab itself has completely and utterly changed my way of working with artists and my way of understanding art itself—in a good way. I started with a rather “art world” perspective—which is basically working with artists who confounded and who challenged me, but who were confounding in a very acceptable way. I was working with artists like Lutz Bacher, Anna Halprin, Dora Garcia. These are very interesting artists who challenge the status quo in their own way, their work is difficult to articulate in a very interesting way to me, but their work is also acceptable in the proper “art world.” What I have become more interested in at The Lab was figuring out how the unacceptability of certain practices and the confounding, challenging, and inarticulable could come together. And to figure out why certain kinds of artists’ bodies and work was so difficult to bring into these conversations. And also, the very basic tenet of being able to address their material conditions. Being able to say: you, as a body, you have not been paid and have not been given value for the work that you do. I find your work very interesting and challenging, and it may completely disrupt and change the way I work and the way I am able to be in the world, but heck, that’s the point.
I’ve started thinking about precarity as being something that can be powerful, and to try to integrate that wholly into the practice of The Lab. Addressing the material conditions of artists is a way of addressing art itself.
RK, PG: What did you actually find out, when researching that underrepresented art? What about it inspired you?
DB: It brings me a tremendous amount of joy. These are the really radical art practices, the ones that deal with the unnameable, irrecuperable parts of our existence. One thing that is really fascinating is that so many artists that I work with create spaces for other artists. When given the means, the space, the opportunity, their entire practice is really about opening space up for each other. They explore forms of authorship that are almost improvisational. Each has their own flow and style, and they work with communities and groups where they are willing to share a lot of the credit. They are creating the spaces they need to have in order to live meaningful lives. Jacqueline Gordon created this movable wall system within The Lab that could be adjusted by dancers, improvisational artists, theatre groups. And she specifically wanted The Lab to be open from 8pm to 2am. During these odd hours, these after-work moments of liberation, where all of a sudden at 1am a group of 40 people would flood into The Lab and would work almost completely intuitively within the space. Creating music, doing dances. They were very much coming from improvisational practices, they are technically skilled and have a lot of work to offer, but mostly they were there to be with each other. I am very interested in opening up that kind of space. Those moments of liberation are fleeting, but they are divine.
RK, PG: The political situation in the US—how do you see the political arena?
DB: It’s terrifying. I see myself as an anarchist, ethically, but I have to do a fair amount of political work in The Lab just to be able to maintain our space. I talk to the mayor and to the Board of Supervisors, and I have to play a role that I have never ever had to play before, especially considering that I’m usually an activist in the streets. I’m usually getting arrested for these types of things. When you’re in this position, you are dealing with so many ideas and subjectivities and bodies being put on the front line that I think it’s way more interesting for me in my position as a white woman controlling this big space in downtown San Francisco to actually try to put my body on the line in a way that is sometimes risky and complicated and hard. I don’t know if I’m successful, but I’ll keep trying until June 2020.
I did something recently where we created a document listing basically every cooperatively, communistically run resource in the entire Bay Area, and it’s over thirty-five pages long. The idea that there are health services for people who need it, there are food banks and community owned gardens, there are cooperatively run day cares. There’s actually an entire separate economy of cooperatively run resources that we all use but that we just don’t acknowledge as much as we should. This Bay Area Commonwealth document attempts to list all of these resources. If you’re an immigrant coming in from out of town, here are all the resources you can get for free translation (if you need health care you need a translator), here is a public library that will offer you resources in your own language, here are various other sources of wealth that are not those in the traditional economy.
But I also have to acknowledge that the US was founded as a slave state, and the economy was always contingent upon that scenario. It was founded through genocide and it was founded by slave holders, and I think we constantly return to that horror simply because the foundations of this government itself were created on that material reality; those are the building blocks holding the whole system up. So, unless we want to completely change and rethink the economy and rethink the way that the State itself was built, we’re not going to have a democracy, ever. For me, it’s not if but when, when it comes to the dismantling of the State. All I’m doing is trying to prepare people so that we’re not scared. So that we understand that we already have all the resources that we need to take care of each other and that we’re not so dependent on institutional resources. We are doing a lot of things in the Bay Area to hold to each other; we’re building housing, we’re building kitchens, we have tent share resources, we have different initiatives going on to begin checking in with each other. It doesn’t mean that the violence won’t be horrible and awful especially with eco-disasters and things like that compounding the problem, but I do feel like we’re preparing ourselves or at least we are trying to do that work.
RK, PG: You are leaving The Lab in 2020. What are your next steps?
I appreciate the European model of having contractual limits on terms, and I think it’s very true with curators. Your imagination can only work with a finite amount of resources, and there’s only so much I can conjure up with my wits alone. We resuscitated the space of The Lab, we stabilized it, and now I want to give it over to somebody in the city who has been displaced or a person from the outside who has dealt with the same kind of issues of displacement and the same economic problems San Francisco has.
RK, PG: What is the fine line between being a curator and being politically active?
DB: This cracks me up because you have these big institutions and they have their “political” statements, and they have a bunch of artists that illustrate a statement in various ways. For me, that’s completely disempowering because it is trying to govern not only our experience of the work itself, but these political art shows are also essentially trying to govern our experience of the world. I think the experience of art is about un-governing, releasing our bodies in a state of total ambiguity, the confounding unknowability of things. The process of un-governing bodies is very important to the curatorial process. How do we create a space so that when you enter you don’t feel bound by a certain way of seeing or by a rule book—this is scary. But actually it’s really easy. If I just follow the lead of artists who have never experienced the kind of privilege that I have, of having a sense of knowing every time I walk into an art space of what to do and how to be. If you follow the lead of artists who have had to figure out other ways of navigating the world, they will help you un-govern your own ways of seeing. Artists all have various ways of tricking the imagination into perceiving another kind of space. When it works, it really is like stepping into a spaceship or a time capsule when you step into a good art exhibition or a good performance or program. You have no idea where you are, what’s happening, what’s going on. It’s that very confounding sense of being lost and of not knowing where you are and being ungoverned. It is kind of a migrant sensibility, but it is also a sense of lacking solid ground. When done well, it can be both liberating and empowering for audiences.
Dena Beard is the Executive Director of The Lab in San Francisco. She received her M.A. in Art History, Theory, and Criticism from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and was previously Assistant Curator at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. Beard has organized projects with Lutz Bacher, Sadie Barnette, Ellen Fullman, Dora García, Jacqueline Gordon, Anna Halprin, Constance Hockaday, Fritzia Irízar, Norma Jeane, Claudia La Rocco, Annea Lockwood, Barry McGee, Silke Otto-Knapp, Brontez Purnell, The Red Krayola, Las Sucias, Wadada Leo Smith, Xara Thustra, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
Ronny Koren is a MAS Curating student at ZHdK, based in Zurich. Her background consists of projects in the art world and in the tech landscape, where she worked for Google for 4 years. Her current research focuses on the fluctuations of the term ‘contemporary art’ in philosophy of art discourse. She holds a BA in East Asian studies and Art History from Tel Aviv University.
Paola Granati holds a BA in Political Science, a Post Graduate in HR Mgmt, and a Masters in Music Business & Songwriting. She is now finalizing her CAS Program in Curatorship to further broaden her creative and artistic interests. In between studies, Paola is an executive HR Leader focused on organisational cultures, leadership, skills development and coaching.