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The Renegade Idealist

By Larrybob (larrybob@io.com)


April 28, 2003


Countercultural Venues

Despite the real estate assault to which San Francisco was subjected, there are still places left where marginal artists can perform and have their visual art seen. Some of these places are pretty obscure though. I regularly get blank looks when I mention the names of these places, some of which have been around for quite some time.

There are of course many now-gone venues. Since the time I moved to San Francisco at the beginning of 1992, the following have disappeared: Komotion (a place which had a recording studio and performance space); Josie's Cabaret, with its gay comedy and performances; various venues that housed Klubstitute, the queer punk cabaret; Epicenter, a collectively run punk record store, which had performances by bands, some of which, like Sleater-Kinney, are now stars; the Coco Club, which housed San Francisco's funnest recent club night, the Cud Club with its monthly changing themes; the Paradise Lounge, with its multiple performance rooms, which had music, spoken word, and comedy events; Starcleaners, a performance space which had earlier been a rehearsal space for The Residents and later was re-carved up into rental practice spaces, and many more.

Spanganga has been going for a year or so. The space has an art gallery room and a 50-seat performance space. Initially it had an additional larger performance space, but because of city regulations they were not able to bring the entire space up to code. There are a variety of types of performance that go on there: among others, sketch and standup comedy and plays, including a recent run of a staged version of Reservoir Dogs with some local comedians and spoken word performers. The gallery space has interesting visual art shows, including a recent project by the UK-based Centre of Attention, which started with an art opening with wine and blank walls; over the course of a week, the curators traveled around San Francisco seeking out art to select for the exhibit, which was then displayed.

The Jon Sims Center has existed for some time and is centrally located, but many people do not know of its existence. It was started as a space for the Gay and Lesbian Freedom Band, but it's put to other uses as well. In recent years it's had an artistic director who curates many interesting events. They have several ongoing series. One is AIRspace, an artists-in-residence program which enables performers to have a set of three works-in-progress nights for their pieces and get audience feedback; San Francisco in Exile, a spoken word and performance series which is being taped for an internet archive; and Lit at Jon Sims, a reading series which each time features two notable writers.

CounterPULSE, long known as 848 Community Space, is located on Divisadero near Fulton. It's a second-floor space with black marley on the floor. It's long been associated with Keith Hennesey, who recently moved on from the space. One of the ongoing events there is the Perverts Put Out reading series, put together by the people from the erotic publisher Black Books. There are also ongoing contact improv dance workshops. The people who run the space have long been having conflicts with their landlord, but they're still there, though they are still contemplating moving elsewhere.

Build is a silver-fronted small storefront on Guerrero Street near 17th. It's a rental space, where the usual rate is $10 an hour. People can rent it out for their events, and the usual use is a one-day art show, a reading, a music performance, or a class. It's very minimalist, with two wooden pews on wheels, 40 chairs that can be set up, and some track lighting.

Another space available for rentals is Hank Hyena's place in the basement of a building at Mission and 20th. There are 40 comfortable theater seats in the space, which is painted so bright a yellow that you could forget that it's in a basement. Some natural light filters in from the glassed-in courtyard, which features a tile fountain with astroturf instead of water. Hank teaches his comedy classes there.

Dance Mission is a large studio at 24th and Mission which managed to weather the dot-com era and is still with us. It's largely used for dance classes and performances, though I also attended a political benefit there at one point.

Balazo/Mission Badlands is kitty-corner from Dance Mission at that 24th-and-Mission intersection. It's a second-story space which is available for rental. This multi-room space was clearly residential at some point. People tend to do art shows on its walls, and there is a room with a PA system where bands can be heard (though with the limited sightlines, sometimes not seen at a crowded event.)

San Francisco's bookstores and libraries shouldn't be overlooked. Places like Books Inc., A Different Light, City Lights, Booksmith, A Clean Well Lighted Place For Books, Bird and Beckett (which recently hosted a reunion of people who used to read at the now-vanished Cafe Babar) all have readings regularly, and so do the main and branch libraries.

There are San Francisco's bar venues, many of which feature music and can be found listed in the free weeklies; notable are eclectic performance venues like the Odeon Bar, which is known for its circus theme, and the homey El Rio. With the temporary closing of the Justice League, Storyville has become the new home of the Second Sunday spoken word event, which features performers with a hiphop flavor.

And there are coffee shops which have events, notably the Cafe International, which has open mic nights; Rockin Java, the Haight's last live venue; and Brainwash, with its comedy and spoken word open mics.

The first time I entered Cell Space, I felt like I had walked into the hangar of the rebel alliance in a Star Wars movie. It's a huge space, and I haven't even ever been up to the lofts that soar above the main floor. There's a gallery space in the front and a big space where I've seen everything from skateboard parties to music events take place. They've been having some permit issues, but I think things are on their way to resolution. Behind the building is a lot where the Mission Village flea market takes place. People set up geodesic domes and sell flea market items, while DJs play music.

There are community center spaces like the African American Cultural Center, the Mission Cultural Center, and the LGBT Center. Better use could be made of San Francisco's neighborhood recreation centers. Sometimes it seems like there are more spaces than there are promoters. Every neighborhood should have an open mic night, which could be like a community town hall, and the neighborhood recreation centers might be one place that could happen.

In the East Bay, Gilman is keeping up with its all-ages punk shows. There are warehouses which have performances, like Spaz (which also features movie nights in its cavernous space) and the 40th Street Warehouse, which I have heard is not going to be with us long, as the tenants are going to let the lease lapse. One night a few years ago I witnessed a bizarre performance at 40th Street by Bay Area legends Caroliner Rainbow, featuring the lead singer in a papier-mache bull's-head costume and a giant set made of xeroxed paper painted day-glo colors.

I would even consider an outdoor space like the 16th and Mission Bart plaza a venue, considering how often it is used as a performance platform by punk bands armed with generators. For that matter, Tire Beach off of 3rd Street could be considered an venue. I have only been to a few events there, including a concert as part of the 1996 Dirtybird queer music festival. It was also used for a Gay Shame event in June of 2001, which I missed.

There are other venues which I have heard of but haven't yet been to: Burnt Ramen, an East Bay punk venue; Locus Arts, an arts space in Japantown devoted to Asian-American arts; Bindlestiff, a Pilipino-American space; Black Box Theatre in Oakland; The Black Dot, also in Oakland; Tuva Space, almost as obscure as its namesake country; Pusod, in the East Bay, which hosts the Asian American spoken word event Mango Mic; the Werepad, with its movie screenings; Xenodrome, on the edge of Potrero Hill, with its circus-oriented performances.

There is one place I won't even give the name of, because if you need to know about it, you do, but it would be bad if they were discovered by the authorities. It's one of the only places in San Francisco that has all-ages rock shows. I can't believe they haven't been busted yet for their cheap late-afternoon punk rock shows. I guess there's a back entrance so maybe they aren't violating the fire code. It must be well-insulated enough to avoid noise complaints.

I'm sure there are more locations which I'm forgetting, and plenty that I don't even know exist. It seems like each of these places has its own regular audience that knows where the spot is and keeps abreast of its events -- perhaps because they're subscribed to the space's email list, which it seems every place has one of. But any of these places could go beneath the radar of the general public, who might very well enjoy the events going on in these sometimes unintentionally secret locations.