Their projects signal a broader artistic movement away from material concerns. Frustrated by the perceived irrelevance of visual art to contemporary society, artists are increasingly renouncing the production of tangible objects (too often fated to gather dust in collectors' homes) and turning toward an art of broad social engagement. The groups invited to participate in this show, for example, exemplify Southern Exposure's ongoing mission to strengthen community, build networks, and share information through art. Their works are never fully realized; the process is the point. So while the gallery itself is nearly empty, it'll play host over the next month to an ambitious series of public programs, parties, and radio broadcasts designed to bring people together (sometimes very, very close together) in meaningful ways.
I got a little giddy when I received the exhibition announcement for "The Way We Work" (created by Mende Design and Volume Design Inc.), which doubles as a pop-out stencil featuring words like "work" and "play." I envisioned anonymous mailing-list hordes taking to the streets to spread the word with spray paint -- viral marketing at its finest. But the folks at Southern Exposure can't publicly condone guerrilla sidewalk art ("Please DO NOT deface public property," the instructions implore), so they invite us instead to record our graphic responses to the show on blank posters installed at 15 locations around the city. To be honest, it's kind of a letdown -- an invitation to insurgence, qualified by anxious constraints.
In fact, this disappointment frames a broader problem within the exhibition: Bold, imaginative ideas abound, but their manifestation too often falls flat. Take the trio of artists from Portland who call themselves Red76. The three are battling the Bush media juggernaut by stealthily replacing standard-issue paper place mats at diners around the country with a broadsheet designed to educate voters as they scarf down their hash browns. Bumbling Bushisms, scary statistics on the loss of life and taxpayer money in the war on Iraq, and tales of corporate malfeasance crowd around a hand-drawn rendering of our nation's seal. A map in the gallery tracks place-mat distribution -- a grass-roots endeavor carried out by touring bands, visitors to the exhibition, and mailings to far-flung friends. It's a wicked plan, stymied only by the sheer ugliness of the mats in question, which are just begging to be defaced with ketchup smears and coffee rings.
Instant Coffee, a Toronto-based artists' collective whose maxim is "It doesn't have to be good to be meaningful," has declared 2004 its Year of Love. In the interest of improving social relations (by any means necessary), the group has staged a series of "Make Out Parties" complete with cushion-and-blanket forts, DIY DJ booths, and raucous games of Spin the Bottle. Now it has imported the tonsil hockey to San Francisco -- perhaps the perfect breeding ground for its radical anarcho-polyamory, which the collective defines as "a socialism of love and affection where we are able to subvert the tendency to grade our own legitimacy based on our appraisal of the person whose tongue happens to be in our mouth." I'm all for spreading the love, but I know a rhetoric-cloaked booty call when I hear one.
This spirit of generosity and exchange takes a less libidinous form in United Net-Works' Mobile Archive of Wonders. The Swedish group has assembled a roving registry of artists that accumulates as the archive travels, linking kindred souls and spreading ideas worldwide. Any artist who wishes can submit a standard three-ring binder filled with documentation of her work, and visitors pore through the library of binders in the gallery's makeshift lounge. It's an appealing project, particularly since it insists on material form, resisting the easy means of circulation offered by the Internet. Unfortunately, the archive has proven so popular that it's become too unwieldy to lug the whole thing around; the binders collected here represent only a fragment of the artists who've contributed, which undermines the project's goal.
A digital player piano stationed in one corner of the main gallery is rigged up to the phone lines in Southern Exposure's office. Jon Rubin and Stephen Wight have programmed the piano to translate all incoming or outgoing phone conversations into abstract tonal compositions, giving literal form to the institution's otherwise transparent work. Beside the piano, a makeshift radio station has been set up under the auspices of the Oakland-based Neighborhood Public Radio (the other NPR). Daily broadcasts by local artists and DJs are sent out to the immediate community, with a low-band signal that stretches about a mile and a half in any direction. And the inimitable Stretcher.org, purveyor of quality online art criticism, is conducting a series of green-screen interviews with gallery visitors that can be superimposed over an endless variety of backdrops culled from the Web, from thronging crowds on the streets of Tokyo to images of the Twin Towers in flames.
Southern Exposure has spent the last 30 years expanding our assumptions about art by supporting creative offerings that are often challenging -- works that don't always have an easy time finding a home. To their great credit, staff members resisted a facile "greatest hits" format for this anniversary show, choosing instead to honor the organization's history by looking forward. With "The Way We Work," the gallery continues to provoke us to consider what art can be and how it can strive to better the world. And while the pieces in this exhibition are sometimes more successful as activism than art, I'm glad the show's organizers took that risk.