November/December 2006

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by Wim Peeters

Art Scene on the Move:
The Changing Tides of San Francisco

David Spalding in conversation with Jens Hoffmann and Allan de Souza

Over the course of the last year, San Francisco has experienced an influx of artists and curators from around the globe. The appointment of Documenta XI curator Okwui Enwezor as Dean of Academic Affairs and Senior Vice-President at the San Francisco Art Institute back in July 2005 has been a magnetic force, drawing new faculty from around the world such as artist-educator Renée Green, curator-critic Hou Hanru, and artist-writer Allan deSouza.

Meanwhile, the San Francisco-London merry-go-round took another turn at the California College of the Arts Wattis' Institute for Contemporary Arts, when former Director Ralph Rugoff returned to London, this time as Director of the Hayward Gallery. Rugoffās replacement, Jens Hoffmann, is the former Director of Exhibitions at Londonās Institute of Contemporary Arts, where his innovative approach to curatorial practice has coincided with Londonās consecration as a dynamic, international art hub.

With the opening of new galleries and art spaces, the expansion of old non-profits, and the arrival of international artists and curators to the once sleepy city, the stars seem to be aligning÷but what do they foretell? I recently exchanged emails with Hoffmann, deSouza, and Hanru to try to get a sense of how their presence might transform San Franciscoās art scene.

view of exhibition Sarkis: Alive and After at the San Francisco Art Instituteās Walter and McBean Galleries, September 22÷December 9, 2006, curated by Hou Hanru

David Spalding: In a recent Artforum interview, you said that you want to establish a different way of thinking about exhibitions in the United States. Different in what ways?
Jens Hoffmann: I have been fortunate enough to be part of a generation of curators who, over the last ten years, dramatically changed what we understand as curatorial practice. Many of my exhibitions have contributed to this particular shift in the understanding of the role of the curator. Some have changed the way we think about exhibitions today. My approach to curating is very particular. This has a lot to do with my background in theater and the idea of curatorial authorship. I see curating as a practice that is very similar to directing theater. The dialogue with the artist is crucial. So is the staging of the set, which in my case is the gallery. I try to find a different exhibition model for each of my shows. All the exhibitions I curate are self-reflexive. They address issues that are specific to the practice of curating. At the same time, however, all my shows are very open and accessible.

view of Surprise, Surprise, 2006, an exhibition curated by Jens Hoffmann and Rob Bowman, and presented at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London (photo: Valerio)

DS: Iām sure youāve had no shortage of opportunities to travel and work in various cities across the globe. Why choose San Francisco now?
JH: I had done what I could do in London. I was ready for a new challenge and London had become a complicated place to work, a place where things are more or less set. I was lucky enough to be in London over the last four years, at the time when it became truly global for the first time, and to contribute to that development. But now things are set and it will be hard to change much. The main art institutions are busy with two things right now: expansion of their galleries and high attendance figures. There is no room for serious investigations anymore. The West Coast÷and especially San Francisco÷offers much more in that respect. I can actively contribute to making a difference here by continuing to change things, and by doing so on a larger scale. I think that San Francisco will, over the next couple of years, start to be seen as a major place for art. There are many activities and much energy here right now. This gives me confidence that things will just get better and better.

view of Alien Nation, 2006, an exhibition curated by John Gill, Jens Hoffmann and Gilane Tawadros, and presented at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London (photo: Valerio)

DS: Some might say that San Francisco is mired in regionalism. Itās not Los Angeles or New York: it has no biennial, no booming art market, no art fair, and comparatively few venues supporting the work of international artists.a
JH: What you say is true. San Francisco is neither Los Angeles nor New York, and I am glad it is not. San Francisco has a unique and very rich history. It also has a vibrant present. This fascinates me, and it is what we plan to explore with some of the exhibitions at the Wattis. Should it wish to do so, San Francisco can find a different way to put itself on the art map. It has that chance÷unlike most other cities. Maybe San Francisco will become a hybrid between Vancouver and Los Angeles. In Vancouver, you find some of the strongest artists working today. Itās also a place with no art market, no art fairs, and no biennial, a place where small non-profit art spaces show some of the most provocative international work. In Los Angeles, you have a long history of important and influential art schools. The mix could be dramatic. There is so much potential in San Francisco and everyone is keen to move things forward.

view of A Walk to Remember, 2005, curated by Jens Hoffmann and presented at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, Los Angeles (photo: Valerio)

Allan deSouzaās photographs, installations, and performances often explore constructions of the body and address social space in relation to migration, desire, and the nation. He is now working between Los Angeles and San Francisco, where he has recently been appointed Assistant Professor at the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI).

Allan deSouza, Los Extranjeros, 2006, triptych, digital c-prints, 55 x 22 inches each (courtesy of the artist and Talwar Gallery, New York)

DS: Can you talk about the differences you see and feel between Los Angeles and San Francisco in terms of art making?

Allan deSouza: One thing is the prejudices each place has about the other: Los Angeles thinks of San Francisco as provincial, and San Francisco thinks Los Angeles is shallow. Both traits, I think, are abundant in both places. This rivalry does not interest me much. There are significant artists in both places. Many of them show neither in Los Angeles nor in San Francisco. This raises other questions for me. I'm drawn to broader dialogues. I am more interested in how we operate in the world than how I might operate in either Los Angeles or San Francisco. At the same time, living and working in both places has made me much more conscious of specific questions of location.

DS: Your work often deals with the construction of public spaces and how those spaces, in turn, construct subjectivities. Do you have a sense yet of how being in San Francisco will impact your work? Are certain spaces particularly interesting for you?

AdS: Moving between the two places is forcing me to think in very concrete, specific ways about the body÷my body. Iāve come to understand the body as both transitory and multiply-located. As you said, I'm also interested in the construction of subjectivity through social space. In San Francisco, I live in the Tenderloin. Every day when I walk out of my apartment, I see some of the same people in the stores, at the bus stop, hanging out on the street÷those who live and/or work on the street. There is a sense of a community, however inadvertent. At the same time, it's a community that is highly transitory.

In Los Angeles, I always feel that I'm negotiating space and distance; in San Francisco my negotiation is with other bodies and with proximity. The bodies I encounter are multiply queered÷if I can use that term loosely. They exist, by choice or not, beyond the frames of normativity. In this neighborhood, these bodies and their encounters are also highly visible. Many people are subjected to this high visibility: homeless people; tourists, who are temporarily away from home; sex workers; recent immigrants; transgendered or transsexual individuals; people with disabilities; and children, since my apartment looks onto a playground. It's forcing me to rethink the transitory and transitional body, which, of course, is how I've always thought of myself. Though it's tempting to think of the transitional body in geographical or spatial terms, as a body that crosses borders, I want to resist this facile reading. Instead, I'm being forced to reconsider the ways in which these transitory, transitioning bodies can be located both within locales and in relation to each other. While this is specific to my neighborhood, it's also a function of San Franciscoās body politics, which allows for the co-existence of multiple bodies. For me, this is a huge step forward, away from Los Angelesā pressure to normalize the body, to impose a single, mythic and plastic, ideal. While it's too early to consider how this will impact my work, there definitely IS an impact.

DS: Why choose San Francisco now? What possibilities do you see or hope to create?

AdS: With new faculty and recent transplants from other cities and countries, I imagine, or at least fantasize, a critical mass of new and renewed energy building upon the incredible histories of thought, cultural production, and activism that already exist here.

Contributing Editor David Spalding is a critic and independent curator working in Beijing and San Francisco.

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