Nick Sareceni started at Google straight out of college. Two years later, when they offered him a staggering — but, no, staggering — amount of money plus benefits to stick around, he declined. Why? Because he had become involved in promoting and commissioning street art and mural projects over here in Oakland and fallen victim to the kind of maniac inspiration that sounds like: “They were shining these golden handcuffs at me real pretty, you know, but I’m going to buy a van and a dog and take what I’m doing here to other cities.” His frustration with the predictability of a scheduled life is the main impetus for the trip. “Street art and urban decay give me a direction to follow in a trip that is all about meandering.”
What Nick did is less remarkable than the fact that all of his friends in Oakland thought it was a reasonable decision.
We’ve been told young people in this country are taking the economy’s blows in stride in part because they are dedicating their lives to the “search for meaning,” rather than fortunes. We’ve been told San Francisco is capital of the new “3-business card life,” which values professional autonomy and lifestyle over “Napoleonic domination” of the market. Lastly, we’ve been told that Oakland is undergoing a Cultural Renaissance or as one of the artists put it off the record, “jizzing its pants with cultural stimulation.” Out of these circumstances, this city’s young people are building a cultural world for themselves that is distinctly anti-establishment by nature, but not necessarily as marginal as one might expect.
“It’s impossible to be counter-cultural [in the Bay Area],” said Will Bundy, co-founder of the culture website and Oakland mainstay Wine and Bowties. “Of course I’m very politically dissatisfied but… well I guess there are parts of San Francisco that make me feel like a miscreant.” Will’s sentiments were echoed by many of the artists interviewed. There were many variations on the themes of the repugnant cubicle, corporate soullessness and bankrupt incitements to follow the rules and be productive. But the tone from most was dismissive rather than angry, resigned to building an alternative rather than raging against the machine. “Older people, they’re pulling up the ladder,” said Max, the other Bowties co-founder, “so we just got to create this shit on our own.”
In practical terms, the arts “establishment” is made up of the institutions (galleries, publications, etc.) and infrastructure (publicists, distributers, marketers) upon which artists once relied to make their work commercially viable, before social media rendered them obsolete. MP3-sharing software liberated musicians from record labels and blogs made us all published authors and now Instagram and Twitter are connecting artists to audiences with unprecedented ease and no capital at all.
It is no accident that the tech world is fostering this kind of egalitarian access and DIY innovation. Webism was forged in the California, freethinking ethics of anti-establishmentarianism; kids in Oakland seem to be coded with those ethics in their DNA.
21-year olds Yared Gebru and Kristian Contreras founded the music blog Youthful Kinfolk straight out of high school. The first mixer they threw, at a packed-to-capacity Oakland Surf Club, brought together local graphic designers, photographers, videographers and rappers in hopes of fostering collaboration. Ninety percent of the people that showed up were five years older than Yared and Kristian and the same percentage were strangers to them. “We’d admired their work through Instagram, Twitter, all that, and we just contacted them there,” explained Yared, as if anyone could muster such boldness. “The main goal was to break the ice and have everyone meet each other, connect talent with projects to make the best art possible.” The event helped the newly-opened Surf Club establish its consumer base, Kristian and Yared establish themselves as promoters, and this particular art scene establish itself as a community. No professionals needed.
Underground art scenes are nothing new, especially in terms of music. But when the territory of the underground extends beyond the marginal, when its means are employed for food events, maker faires and apparelists, the term is being reconstituted.
“Oakland is sort of incurably underground,” mused Crystal Wilnos, a painter, bar-tender and co-creator along with her partner Jessica Moncada of Industry Night, a multi-media, “mad collaborative” party/exhibition at Geoffrey’s Inner Circle. The event features art installations, films, specialty cocktails, menu previews from an up-and-coming chef/friend, what have you.
Crystal’s way of engaging with her intimate community and larger circle of potential patrons perfectly exemplifies the quasi-professionalism that some artists have mustered, independent of arts institutions. A spectrum of facilities have emerged (mostly at the invention of other young people) to help artists and craftsman and entrepreneurs independently commercialize their ideas with very little capital. Pop-up shops, special vending licenses, shared studio and retail spaces, and other rentable resources are proliferating to minimize the risk and investment associated with starting something. To the extent to which these efforts are successful, creators can independently and autonomously live off their craft, bringing the aesthetics of the underground out into the light without completely betraying what they signify.
Almost everyone interviewed had attended the Flavourhood Group Art Show last month, hosted in a literal underground basement, a ghost nightclub in ruins but twinkling with vestigial neon light-fixtures. “Oakland still feels like the Wild Wild West,” said Japheth Gonzales, one of the founders of Flavourhood, the artist, designer and videographer collective. The group took over the former nightclub through some semi-legitimate, work/trade arrangement and after a big construction and cleaning haul, has transformed it into a gorgeous and sprawling gallery featuring work by thirty-seven of their “friends.”
“Of course there are some pieces up that I don’t really like,” said Japheth, “but we didn’t turn anyone away based on merit. Just because I don’t like it doesn’t mean someone else won’t. We’re just interested in what it feels like to be here together. These are real expressions of that; these ideas aren’t being sold to us by some corporate asshole in a suit somewhere.”
The members of RADIX, a small theatrical/musical/stylistic mode-busting performance troupe, described a similar arrangement with the landlords of their residency space. “Repurposing vacant spaces is the crucible right now,” said Eli Wirtshafter of RADIX, “Artists are doing it all over the East Bay.”
Just like Japheth, they shrugged, rather wincingly, at the issue of making money. They say it will be a miracle if they break even on ticket sales. “I almost like that money isn’t involved,” said Hannah Michahelles, also of RADIX, “We’re just here [rehearsing five nights a week for months] because we want to be so bad; there are no ulterior motives.”
In describing their career ambitions, none of the artists interviewed used the word “successful.” They used the word “sustainable.” “Financially, ecologically, in terms of mental health, I’m just trying to be sustainable,” said Crystal, explaining her resignation to a life without excess. “And I’m not trying to romanticize poverty ever, because that is scary stuff, but I do think that having to figure out the difference between wanting and needing can present this wonderful opportunity for growth.”
Will and Max of Wine and Bowties began throwing their epic parties because they realized they had activated an invisible network of loosely like-minded people, and they were in a position to make that community manifest. They have since expanded their repertoire to include film screenings and art exhibitions. “The parties are still fun to do, but we realize, ultimately, this is a bunch of drunk people in a room dancing. We also like to do things like throw up a video of Noam Chomsky and nerd out on that,” said Will, “together.”
Why together? Because the small talk you make at an art gallery is less small and less just-talk than the conversations at a party? Because just the presence of art on the walls endows the room with some power to relieve alienation?
“I don’t believe spectators can claim to really be a part of the community [built between a group of collaborators],” said Eli, of RADIX. ”But one other definition of a community is a group of people who are working towards a common goal even if that goal is simply to make the neighborhood they want to live in.”
Fortunately for us, Oakland is the muse of fire that she is. Because by virtue of our geography, we are all collaborators.
Nick Sareceni’s street art road trip: www.instagram.com/charizard22 .
Lynnea Holland Weiss’ art: www.lynneahollandweiss.com.
Dan Isaac Bortz’ art: www.dibortz.com.
Max Gibson and Will Bundy’s Wine and Bowties: www.wineandbowties.com
Japheth Gonzales, Jo Hall and Benjamin Giustino of Flavourhood: www.flavourhood.squarespace.com
Yared Gebru and Kristian Contreras of Youthful Kinfolk: www.youtfulkinfolk.com
Hannah Michahelles, Eli Wirtshafter and Marika Petrey of RADIX: on facebook.