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Almost Humon 

Pioneering local music curator opens a new world-class venue in SOMA

Wednesday, Sep 20 2006
0ne of the best places in San Francisco to see top industrial, electronic, and out musicians has long been hidden behind burned-out cars in a private warehouse at the end of a potholed dirt road. For roughly 30 years, San Francisco musician, curator, and digital art savant Naut Humon operated a studio and performance space called The Compound in a southern corner of Hunters Point, where nary a pizzeria dared to deliver. Today, Humon (his adopted name) is in the process of opening a new public location under the name Recombinant Media Labs at 763 Brannan St. Brimming with high-end equipment, it's already one of the best places in the country to see multimedia digital art.

Humon partner Mitzi Johnson designed the new, austere SOMA loft as a place for visiting and for resident artists to test the possibilities of immersive "surround cinema" technology. Its centerpiece is an intimate performance room with a powerful, 16-channel surround sound system and a 10-screen, 360-degree video projection range. In performances or installations, artists move sound and images around the audience, creating three-dimensional environments. The feeling of standing in the midst of its shifting sea of light and buffeting waves of bass is overwhelming.

"[The music] is enveloping, like a heavy liquid," says Oakland sound artist Ben Bracken. "It's as if the sound was directly aimed at you."

No museum in the United States, perhaps even the world, has committed itself to such an elaborate setup, which makes San Francisco a center for what Humon hopes will be an emerging art form. "This is just a hatchery or incubator," he explains. "We want to make an environment here that other people can make for themselves, like a construction kit; you can put it together in different ways, use the PA and a whole building like this as a musical instrument," he says.

Humon has no lack of participants. Artists like German minimal-techno turntablist Thomas Brinkmann and pioneering Japanese sound artist Yasunao Tone have already passed through. The weekend of Sept. 23 will feature revered avant electronic music act Pan Sonic, all evidence of Humon's extensive knowledge and network. He's spent a decade on the Digital Musics jury for Ars Electronica, the digital art Oscars of Europe; worked in "experiential engineering" since he was a teenager in the 1970s; and organized numerous disorienting theater events in and around San Francisco.

Always ahead of the times, Humon began to play dissonant electronic music in the early 1970s, forming the industrial group Rhythm & Noise before the genre had a name. In the early 1980s, word of his experiments with video attracted Warner Brothers and its new network, MTV, until record execs saw his work. "We had devastatingly weird footage," Humon says, comparing the grainy, gritty frames to the Nine Inch Nails videos from the 1990s.

In the late 1970s, he opened The Compound, "a raw, unfinished space with scaffolding and speakers strung everywhere," explains David Collin, a San Francisco photographer and musician. The building served as a base for Rhythm & Noise and then for massive, traveling sound installations using the special Surround Traffic Control system. Meanwhile, many of the world's top industrial and experimental electronic musicians passed through its doors, taking advantage of its creative energy and state-of-the-art playthings.

"Naut was always the first to acquire the latest hardware devices and people would go out there and learn how to use them," says Collin. "Most people were sort of shocked that such a remote and unfinished location would have the best recording gear in San Francisco." Now that the studio has changed homes, more of the city's residents will have the chance to appreciate it, pizza delivery drivers included.

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