In a world where everything has a price, the most priceless things are free.
I have the honor and pleasure of introducing a new film by Robin McKenna called “The Gift” at the Castro Theater this Thursday November 29th. This movie is a visually delicious sampling of personal stories that illuminate some of the philosophy behind the popular and influential book by Lewis Hyde published in 1983.
Robin showcases four examples of “gifting” as manifest in some very different cultural settings. My favorite is the story of a anarchist(y) squat in a giant abandoned commercial swine abattoir. Roma gypsys, immigrants and struggling artists conjured Metropoliz out of a derelict property on the outskirts of Rome that no one seemed to want. This experiment ran into some bumps when the real estate started rising in value. A clever counter to this inexorable tide of property greed we have all had to contend with in some fashion was for Metropliz to emphasize the (soon internationally recognized) artistic contributions that famous artists have painted on the various huge walls of the complex. The stature of this new museum has helped fend off eviction attempts by real estate concerns and their political servants to date. The Gift here is an ongoing sharing of the space with the occupants and the outside world of art and culture afficianados.
Another of the four samples of “Gift economies” finds Robin and crew documenting a native potlatch Kwak’wakwala community in Alert Bay in Pacific Northwest Canada. The idea of “The Gift” in some form or other is a part of many tribal and indigenous cultures going back to pre-history. Gifts are not always accepted and often weighted significantly with social and cultural obligations; the unifying factor is simply that the The Gift must not be held. It must be shared with others who in turn are obliged to pass it along.
The Gift also follows the work of artist Lee Mingwei who’s work is a “life meets art/art is life” in the Zen tradition. His work is influenced by Lewis Hyde’s The Gift, a book he carries the book around with him when he travels. Hyde has wrote an introduction to Mingwei’s work, at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.
Last but not least in the quartet of lovely of Gift vignettes is Michelle/Smallfry who created a “circular gift” camp, art car (giant bee called Beezus Christ Supercar) and crew of busy bee pals that took gifted honey from SF beekeeper acquaintances and passed along for free on the playa at Burning Man.
I enjoyed these four symbolic and literal tales, each illuminating the concept of “The Gift” in different though related fashions. Our world, western culture, is driven in large part by the great and valuable philosophies of the spirit of the individual, freedom of will and self determination ruled by “none other.” Unfortunately, we have swung too far in that direction, abandoning the balancing power of community, sharing of resources, the idea that some things must remain free. The Gift is a timely message in this world where literally everything has a monetary value, a price – whatever “the market” demands. If we cannot return to a balance between the individual and the communal, we are surely doomed to a future of even more greed and inequality.
Kodak Corporation launched a magazine called Kodachrome last year, published in London. In the third issue there are two features that I am presenting here on my blog. The first feature is an article on William Binzen and his protean project Desert Site Works, an event built with the help of Judy West, artists from Project Artaud with major support from The Cacophony Society.
I was a collaborator on this project and in addition to making several large scale site specific neon art installations as part of the overall large scale installation tableaus, I was the operations and transport manager for these ambitious desert art events.
The entire article from Issue #3 of Kodachrome Magazine Sept 2017 on William and DSW can be seen in the pdf images at the bottom of this article. I have written more extensively about Desert Site Works HERE.
There is another article in the same issue that covers three neon pioneers from different parts of the world. The three are: David Hill and his Warsaw Poland Neon Museum (the largest in Europe), Aric Chen who is the go-to guy in Hong Kong for neon in HK movies and for pretty much anything else, and the third neon dude is lil Ol me here in San Francisco. This April, I was asked to moderate the first ever countrywide neon symposium, hosted by the Tenderloin Museum in San Francisco. Hosted by the dynamic duo of illumination, Randal Ann Holman & Al Barna, this was a wonderful meeting of neon professionals, writers, historians, artists and neon fans and fanatics from across the USA. My history with neon and electrical signage began when I worked as a permit and survey technician for Ad-Art Sign Company in the early 80’s and more importantly when I became a sign hanger/service man for Federal Signal Corporation subsidiary Federal Sign Company Ad-Art & American Neon Sign Co. a couple of years later. Before my first hire in the electrical sign industry, I worked in signs as a teenager and worked for commercial sign companies (non-electrical signs) from 1979 on.
I realized a while back that over my 34 year association with the “noble gas” I actually had done a lot of pretty weird things with neon. My friend Natalia Mount, Director of Pro-Arts Gallery in Oakland pointed this out to me while convincing me I should do a show with her curating at Pro-Arts. Coming from the Suicide Club, Cacophony and a solid trade work (electrical signs) background, I never really considered myself an artist. I can’t paint. I have never been able to draw anything even remotely recognizable as a human figure or a landscape. I guess it is all really how one defines things.
One of the first neon art projects I began was lighting the Burning Man figure.
The first year in the Black Rock Desert (August –
September 1990) I place a half circle of white neon at the base of the figure uplighting it and I mounted two incandescent spots on the figures thighs pointing up to illuminate the torso and head. The following year in 1991 I gave the figure a neon skeleton for the first time, placing the neon units inside the figures skeleton. The next year, 1992 was the first time the neon was mounted on the front of the entire figure. Original Suicide Club member Louis Brill was the first journalist to write about the Burning Man’s illumination for Signs of the Times magazine in 1992.
Most of my creative life, from age 18 when I joined the proto-urbex, pranks and social experimentation cabal, The Suicide Club, until not that long ago, I never thought of what we were doing as art. The Suicide Club was not an “art” group. Nor was the later Cacophony Society despite the fact that both featured some members that certainly were artists. My mentor, visionary founder of The Suicide Club Gary Warne would have bridled had anyone accused him of perpetrating art, and I, his youthful protege adopted his antipathy for that particular designation. There was a reason for this stance. What we were doing in that early group was intended to be life – the real thing, not some symbol or simulacrum of actual human intercourse or real life.
The people I admire most are artists. They obsess over their work; in many cases they give up convention, comfort and security to pursue it. Artists are by far the hardest workers I know. I can speak on this matter with some authority for I have led a dual life of sorts. In addition to my underground pranksters life, I have been a journeyman tradesmen for decades now. Trade work can be very hard physically. It can grind a fellow or a gal down and many of these workers put in their grueling 8-16 hour days and simply collapse with a drink or three when the work day is done. So many artists have the day job AND THEN they work as long or longer on their own art. Try to do both for a year or so – not so easy. I was (and remain for the time being) an electrical sign hanger, designer and service man. For this kind of career you must be conversant with several areas of craft and trade work: rigging and crane work, electrical circuits, basic construction and field installation, metal work and plastic, with some finish woodworking skills as well. That’s how I have paid my bills.
Much of the work is tedious and punishing physically: climbing ladders, drilling holes in concrete. granite, wood facades, crawling through attics pulling wire, digging holes for sign footings, hanging on ropes and swing stages, wiring electrical fixtures, painting, welding and wrenching on signs while 100 feet up in a crane bucket. Some few jobs are quite fabulous though – the high neon displays that everyone knows because they loom (sometimes) majestically above the dense frenetic cityscape.
I have worked on many if not most of these displays in the Bay Area. The three I still service today are the Port of San Francisco sign atop the Ferry Building, The Hills Bros Coffee sign at the Bay Bridge & Embarcadero, SF and my office building, The Tribune Tower in Oakland. Each of these three are historic relics of a more serious and grounded era. They are huge classic neon displays from a world that took such things seriously and created these altars to commerce and progress that somehow over time have come to transcend their base commercial purpose. Some signs actually resonate powerfully with many citizens as part of the mental and cultural landscape. As an example, Hill Bros has not been a coffee plant for decades, yet the sign is so iconic that the various banks and real estate concerns that have owned the building it adorns have been compelled by public interest (and marketing schemes) to retain the now non-commercial sign. I am very fortunate to be connected to these fabulous monuments.
In more recent years, I have had little choice but to accept the appellation and baggage that goes along with being called an “artist.” Our culture seems to demand that concession – the agreement that you somehow fit into an acceptable box so that you are “understood”.
I still can’t draw, paint or sculpt clay or stone, but in my defense, I have made a bunch of things over the years including singular neon pieces, both wall or standing pieces as well as large scale outdoor “environmental” and “site specific” sculpture.
I have produced photographs that took some trouble and thought to compose. I’ve written 3 books, 2 published. I’ve conceived, created, and led many, many “events” and collaborated on making hundreds more, that others might mistake for being “art”. Journalists, some of my friends, other artists and the random passer by have mistaken me for being an artist for many years now. So I give up and give in. Part of the process of aging is shedding stuff and consolidating what is left. So I’ll settle for being an artist.