It's Friday night. Where Valencia meets Mission, the sidewalks are full of people, and the storefronts glow. One store in particular looks new and mysterious, its frosted window lit from within, its door wide open. But what is it? A sign outside reads "BULK Social Space." Enter, and you might think, "Oh! It's a bar." There's a tall counter, with a bartender, a menu of drinks (only three), tables and chairs, and a DJ in one corner. But everything looks peculiar, temporary. All the furniture is made of raw particleboard. The walls are covered with what looks like butcher paper, printed with strange sayings: "You can get bigger." "You've received a postcard from a school friend!" "Offering Credit Loans Hassle Free."
"Hello," says a man in a fedora and long coat. "Welcome! Did you get a menu?" He doesn't look like a waiter. There's a mischievous gleam in his eye.
What's going on here?
This is Queen's Nails Annex, an art gallery, and the man in the fedora is artist Tony Labat. For the next month, Queen's Nails will be transformed into a bar, or a dance club, or a performance venue, or a supperclub, depending on what night it is and how you choose to define it. The schedule of activities includes poker nights, talent shows, live video mix nights, movie nights, dinners, and a closing dance party, all organized and attended by the artist.
"For the longest time I've been interested in the dynamics of art openings themselves," Labat explains. "Many times, people say, 'I'm going to have to come back,' because at the openings you're not really looking at the art — but then I noticed the people don't really come back; or they do, but it's a different kind of client or audience. I was saying, what if we address this community that comes to the party but doesn't come back? What if I extend that opening and make that the exhibition itself?"
What if? The result, on the night I attended, was a pleasant confusion that led to social interaction. The front and back rooms of the gallery quickly filled with people. The unfinished furniture gave the place the feel of a stage set, and there was the sense that the people in attendance were part of the show. Some walked around in gallery pose, hands behind back, head thrust forward, reading the sayings on the walls. Others sat at the bar and chatted with the bartender, or stood outside and smoked. Some waited to play poker. A group of students from California State University at Chico filed in after their professor. They sat at a large table, laughed, spilled a drink, took notes, and then filed out again into a large white tour bus.
Socially collaborative art is not a new idea. Much 20th-century art has been about the effort to transform the viewer from a passive to an active participant, from the Situationists to Allan Kaprow's "happenings." What has changed is the Internet. With its emphasis on social networking and user-created content, the idea that a patron might bring something to an art event instead of getting something out of it no longer seems heretical. The artist may be the host, but the gallerygoer is the show — and that's quite all right with the gallerygoer, who is a MySpace star anyway. The art space becomes the patron's three-dimensional MySpace page, ready to be configured in the way he or she sees fit, and the artist facilitates this.
"I think the interesting thing about a gallery space is that it is available, within social limitations, to be both passive and introspective, and to be a framed version of any other type of social space you might find valuable to create or put on display," says artist Amanda Curreri. Last month, she put on a show at Ping Pong Gallery, called "Make New Friends" after the old campfire song. The gallery, its entrance framed by mirrors, was filled with record players and featured a video of Curreri giving away bright pink T-shirts to passersby in Seoul. Along with the show's titular exhortation, the artist planned a schedule of events to bring people together. Some of these were existing events she "appropriated" (a tour of the San Francisco Recycling Center); others, she organized (a clothing swap at the gallery).
Several local artists seem to be investigating this participatory aspect right now. At Lisa Dent Gallery, Jon Brumit has installed "Global Warming Hut," a community think tank. At Triple Base, Drew Bennett and Joshua Churchill are trying to "confront the traditional antisocial nature that can often exist in visual art practice" by reconstructing parts of the gallery walls and holding musical performances.
"There's quite a bit of [it] going on," Labat says. "I heard recently that there's an artist in L.A., that all he's doing is cooking [for people], doing this as his performance work. At the Biennial in Turkey, Istanbul, there were artists from Mexico [Julieta Aranda and Eduardo Sarabia] that did a tequila bar and dominos. I think it all rises from the same intention to create or instigate dialogue. In this virtual world that we are in ... maybe there is something that's in the air about going to the more physical space and terrain."