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Building the Gray Area 

Wednesday, May 20 2015

When the Gray Area Foundation was displaced from its Tenderloin facility in 2012, the nonprofit organization embarked on a two-year search to find a new home, eventually landing at the Grand, a decrepit 1940s Art Deco theater in the Mission District that had been converted into a dollar store. But where others saw a broken plumbing system, faulty wiring, and killer deals on poorly made spatulas, the Gray Area Foundation (and those who donated $400,000 via a crowdfunding campaign) saw a golden opportunity.

The Grand celebrates the milestone of a mostly completed restoration with the three-day Gray Area Festival May 22, 23, and 24. The event will host a variety of electronic musicians, including Friday performances by keyboardist Alessandro Cortini of Nine Inch Nails and the dark ambient vibes of musician and sound designer Lustmord.

Things will be kicked up a couple beats-per-minute Saturday by electronic musician Shigeto of Ghostly International, who will pair his hip-hop and jazz-influenced music with the visual artist Effixx. And artist Teebs of Brainfeeder will provide beat music utilizing sounds like that of a door slamming shut or tape peeling off something.

But the festival is about more than music. On Sunday the event hosts a handful of workshops revolving around creative coding — teaching people how to make generative art. Attendees will learn how to pattern light in a "mirror hacking" workshop that utilizes laser cutting techniques.

"Connections will be made, discussions will be had, and things will be figured out with people we don't usually get to interact with," Gray Area founder Josette Melchor says. "It's an opportunity to create new connections and new works in the future."

Amid the sound of power drills ricocheting off the auditorium's towering walls, Melchor sits with a team of five or six people dutifully typing away on laptops. The smell of freshly cut plywood, generated by a worker balanced atop a ladder near the theater's Mission Street entrance, lingers in the air.

"Next week we are celebrating a milestone in the revival of this theater," Melchor says. "We want this festival to bring a lot of people together who work in the gray area between the arts, technology, and design fields to discuss and showcase work that is breaking down barriers between the communities."

People shuffle by, some testing sound equipment, others drawing up plans for the placement of art installations, and still others inexplicitly cocooning each other's legs with masking tape (it's for a project, I'm told).

KATSU, a member of the renegade art organization Free Art and Technology Lab, plunges a razor-sharp knife into the back of a carefully packaged container, drags the blade along the perimeter of the package, turns to me with a devilish grin and says, "I want you to get a whiff of this."

Lindsay Howard, the curator for F.A.T.'s "F.A.T. GOLD" exhibition (May 21-31 at the Grand) steps in with a piece of cautionary advice to KATSU: "Here, wear these white gloves." KATSU slips into the Michael Jackson-esque garment.

A few more quick cuts and the artwork — a portrait of Eric Schmidt, Google's executive chairman, done in the artist's own fecal matter — is evacuated. The piece is surrounded by tacky neon lights you'd find on a bodega's storefront, which KATSU, who recently used a drone to graffiti a towering advert of Kendall Jenner's face, gleefully manipulates via remote control after putting the piece up on the newly resurfaced wall of a small classroom inside the the Grand.

Despite the chunks of undigested fibrous materials clinging to the canvas, someone who wasn't privy to the artist's chosen medium might think the beautiful, realistic portrait of the 138th-richest person in the world was done with brown acrylic, or some other non-shit-based medium. Or as Magnus Eriksson, another F.A.T. member quips, "You wouldn't know it was done with shit until you got pink eye."

Lustmord, the pioneering dark ambient musician, whose music will fill the same room as F.A.T.'s art, has been turning shit into beauty for over 30 years. Sourcing audio clips from the pitch-black depths of caves or the white-hot sparks of a roadside car crash, Lustmord has consistently released brooding albums with dangerous geographies rife with boulders of bass and sudden rock slides of noise.

Cortini has toured extensively with Nine Inch Nails as the group's keyboardist, and also received songwriting credits on the band's 2008 instrumental album Ghosts I-IV, which featured 36 haunting non-songs. In interviews he's talked passionately about his shared enthusiasm with Trent Reznor for using synthesizers to create sounds from scratch, diving into the process and coming out the other end more satisfied. On Friday, as festival patrons peruse the other artistic and technology-based offerings at the festival, that's exactly what Cortini will be doing live, on stage, with his custom synthesizer rig.

"We should put a big board room table in here," F.A.T. member Maddy Varner says of the empty room playing host to the shit portrait to a chorus of approval: the international group's first collaboration of the exhibition.

Group members begin unpacking their works, chatting among themselves about which celebs should show up at the event. Topics range from how to get Mark Zuckerberg out of his Dolores Heights home and to the show ("Let's just hang outside his house in a car pretending to be his uber driver," Eriksson offers) to their love for the Silicon Valley TV show, whose creators tech titan F.A.T. could most likely lure to the exhibition with the promise of drugs and a good party. (The group settles on the young SnapChat CEO Evan Spiegel.)

The artists will deploy a variety of critiques of techie culture in the exhibition. It'll have a 3D printer print crack cocaine, a large-scale fake TED Talk stage, ransomware installations that force you to play tic-tac-toe hundreds of times, a back-flipping robotic dog trapped in a garbage bag, an EEG brainwave controlled bong, and so much more.

"We're not going to filter anyone's expression," Melchor says of F.A.T.'s pointed criticality. "Arts lets us down barriers. I think people will take it in a 'let's all poke fun at it together' way."

If the Gray Area Foundation says it's attempting to break down the barriers between the arts, design, and technology, then consider F.A.T. to be the Kool-Aid man.


About The Author

Matt Saincome

Matt Saincome

Matt Saincome is SF Weekly's former music editor.


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