June 21, 2021

Almost Ephemeral: Steve Seid in Conversation with Diego Villalobos

As a young writer in the 1970s, Steve Seid covered the San Francisco underground, from punk shows at the legendary Mabuhay Gardens to art interventions in motels and alternative venues; later in the ’80s, he curated and wrote for the San Francisco International Video Festival, among other pioneering organizations. While actively involved in these scenes, he became acquainted with a generation of local artists and collectives pioneering video as a tool for artmaking and activism. During this period, Seid consumed a steady and healthy diet of experimental media, which eventually led him to the Pacific Film Archive (PFA) where he worked as a media curator until his retirement in 2014. In his twenty-five-year tenure at PFA, Seid showcased and preserved countless media works, shining light on such forgotten histories as the National Center for Experiments in Television, and on the work of overlooked artists, for instance, Steven Arnold’s Luminous Procuress, of which he writes:

A gender-obliterating funfest unleashed by the cantankerous cross-dressing Cockettes, the legendary Luminous Procuress brazenly recounts the mystical passage of two lissome hippie lads who enter a strange mansion where a magic potion promises glimpses of a transformational realm. Led by the mystical ‘Procuress’ (the ever-sculptural Pandora), the two naïfs are privy to a delirious vision of consciousness unbounded by gender or desire. Created in San Francisco’s Mission District by Steven Arnold, an art outlier of prophetic leanings, Luminous Procuress, an exotic amalgam of outrageous wearable art, oneiric imagery, and erotically charged tableaux, gloriously drags on.

It’s important to understand history, and equally important to know how to bring it forward to the present. Having mastered the art of speaking from the podium, Seid’s introductions and programming notes reflect his incisive observations, witty personality, and a reverence toward the artwork perhaps only matched by the artists themselves. In the following conversation, we discuss the Bay Art alternative art scene from the ’70s and ’80s, and reflect on his time as a curator at the Pacific Film Archive. –DV

  • Video Networks (front cover), published by the Bay Area Video Coalition, 1982.

  • Video Networks (back cover), published by the Bay Area Video Coalition, 1982.

Diego Villalobos: You moved to the Bay Area in the late ’70s to study English literature; when did you become interested in video and media arts? What drew you to it?

Steve Seid: It was actually the earlier ’70s that I moved to San Francisco. I emerged from grad school in the later ’70s, a literate being with quirky tastes. I trained my attention on pop culture and began writing for Bay Area weeklies, but I was most interested in oddball films, outlier rock bands, generally life along the fringe. In 1980, I was hired to edit the Bay Area Video Coalition’s newsletter, Video Networks, and suddenly found myself immersed in the alternative culture of indie video that included both oppositional documentaries and a proliferating video art scene. My explorations went beyond BAVC’s purview — which, at the time, was much more mired in indie docs palatable enough for PBS. I like to think I broadened the awareness of video’s possibilities in the emergent days of that great media center.

It was also that the alternative scene was much more alluring than the drab post-production houses where indie docs were birthed. During that period, 80 Langton (soon to move around the corner and transform as New Langton Arts) and La Mamelle were the principal venues for a video art that was conjoined at the hip to conceptual performance and installation. Smaller spaces like ArtSpace, The Lab, A.R.E., Jetwave, Southern Exposure, Artist Television Access (originally Martin-Weber Gallery), and others would emerge, some disappearing all to quickly, but at least they supported this exciting micro-scene which coincidentally coincided with the punk scene, a riotous adjacent ally.

General flyer for La Mamelle, mid-seventies.

DV: Can you describe the scene at the time?

SS: Though the venues might have been limited and the above-ground acceptance less than hoped for (this would change by decade’s end), there was exciting energy being generated by dozens of local artists thrilled by ever-perfecting video tech.

This was a time when video artists like Doug Hall, Tony Labat, Max Almy, Chip Lord, Judith Barry, Lowell Darling, Lynn Hershman, and Skip Sweeney were representing a vital second-gen Bay Area video cohort. Having been mired in the lit-crit world throughout the seventies, I had missed the foundational progenitors like Paul Kos, Howard Fried, Tom Marioni, Terry Fox, Joel Glassman, Bonnie Sherk, Stephen Beck, and Peter d’Agostino. But these succeeding waves of conceptualists were about to be challenged by a wave of youngsters, many coming from SFAI, such as Cecilia Dougherty, Dale Hoyt, Leslie Singer, Marshall Weber, and Phil Patiris, who used the medium in more narrative modes to advance their adversarial aesthetics — the emerging media artists of the mid-eighties.

Announcement (front) for the SECA Video Invitational at SFMOMA, 1988.

Announcement (back) for the SECA Video Invitational at SFMOMA, 1988.

While still at the Bay Area Video Coalition, I began working with the San Francisco International Video Festival (1980-1987). I won’t go deeply into this org because I’ve actually written about it for Open Space. It was a unique effort to create an audience for relatively nascent video art. But we operated under the seemingly naïve notion that if you build an audience then support would rally around the form, sort of reverse engineering the medium’s development. The director, Stephen Agetstein, was an artist himself, having trained with Peter d’Agostino in what was probably the first video art program in the Bay Area, housed at the no-longer-extant Lone Mountain College. The SFIVF was notable for technically demanding yet playful exhibitions that always occupied multiple sites around the city, including a roving cab, a diner with monitors at each booth, nightclubs, the ferry service, and numerous alternative spaces. By the mid-eighties, the festival moved into its own Potrero Hill space, the Video Gallery, and then a second site in SoMa whose ambitions collapsed the enterprise, but not before we were able to present George Kuchar’s first installation, a motel-like living room environment with Weather Diary #1 screening on the old TV console.

Flyer for a group video screening at the Pacific Film Archive, 1988.

DV: How did you become involved with PFA?

SS: I knew the folks at the Pacific Film Archive from my early efforts as a film critic. The greater institution, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, had a roiled relationship to video and its most triumphant expression, video art. David Ross, a prominent advocate of the medium, having been at the Everson Museum and the Long Beach Museum of Art, arrived at BAMPFA in the later seventies. His curatorial turf was really the galleries, but for several years he presented a very ambitious video screening series on Sundays that went well beyond the Bay Area for its roster of artists. When he departed in 1982, Ross left behind an undocumented “collection” of videotapes that could be considered some of the first entries in the museum’s official holdings. But until that time, Ross’s curatorial efforts were the most consistent in support of electronic media.

On the PFA-side, the focus was on moving image work that originated on film, and they stuck to that until, in the later eighties, someone, perhaps European distributors, saw the wisdom of distributing works made for television. This wasn’t Law & Order or Antiques Roadshow, but works by brilliant filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard, Wim Wenders, and others. Wanting to screen such formidable works as Godard’s Six fois deux and France/tour/detour/deux/enfants, Edith Kramer, the brilliant chief curator of PFA, brought me in to steward a new medium. Video equipment — large TV monitors and a Sony projector — was purchased and those made-for-television works were presented as special events. This would have been around 1986. By 1988 with the prominence of the medium becoming self-evident I was hired as the video curator, joining two other curators for a far-reaching exhibition program.

Flyer for world premiere of Tony Labat’s Jar Full of Jam at the Pacific Film Archive, 1988.

DV: What were your first years at PFA like?

SS: My first few years at PFA involved very little growth of the video collection. I was most concerned with the breadth of the video exhibition, developing an audience, and the vagaries of the technical presentation. One of PFA’s notable qualities was an insistence on the technically exacting delivery of images. This required continual maintenance of the hardware and many subtle improvements over time. But in those early days, I was also concerned with the intentionality of the works themselves. Many of the first-gen artists were concerned with the specificity of the medium, the box with its alluring limitations and epistemological peculiarities. For works like, say, Peter Campus’s Three Transitions, or Joan Jonas’s Vertical Roll, I would place large TV monitors around the audience (in a fixed-seat theater) so reception would amplify the domestic furniture of television; whereas Bill Viola’s I Do Not Know What It Is I Am Like or Doug Hall’s Storm and Stress thrived on the cinematic expanse that video projection could offer. This went on for several years until video art’s move away from such medium specificity finally let me off the hook.

DV: I don’t necessarily think you let yourself off the hook, though. Throughout your curatorial work you’ve put great care into how audiences experience artworks by emphasizing the conceptual or technical needs that give breath to them. An example of this is your 2004 film series Exploit-O-Scope; can you speak about that program?

SS: Now this opens up the proverbial can of worms. After I’d been at PFA for a few years, I began to curate film as well. But not wanting to tread on anyone’s turf, I found a comfortable niche with what you might call outsider films — subgenres, scorned and overlooked films, and eccentric thematics. I had an ongoing series called Born to Be Bad that highlighted exploitation films, B-movies, and what were often outright failed films. Looking beyond the acknowledged pantheon, the canon, could be greatly edifying. Bad films give you a better sense of what superlative films have actually achieved — the poetic, the expressiveness, the economy, the unparalleled intentions, the visual orchestration. Through their absence in lesser films, you can see their effectiveness in the best. But bad movies are also joyful in their ironic blunders, their ham-fistedness, their cheap thrills, and often in their unskilled zest. But I digress.

Exploit-O-Scope was in a similar vein to Born to Be Bad. With that series, I tried to recreate gimmicks that had accompanied some quirky commercial films. In its earliest days, cinema had roots in the world of vaudeville and the arcade. Movies would often share the stage in honky-tonks with tap dancers and jugglers. This inspired some film impresarios to add off-screen extras, gimmicks, to a film presentation as an incentive to come to the theater. But it also, and unintentionally so, added a moderne interactive dimension to a film. William Castle’s Homicidal had the “Coward’s Corner”; Ray Dennis Steckler’s The Maniacs are Loose had “live maniacs in the audience”; John Waters’s Polyester had “Odorama” with a scratch-and-sniff card. I recreated the gimmicks for eight films. The craziest of these undertakings was with Rollercoaster which had an audio gimmick called “Sensurround.” Theaters had to get specially installed bass woofers to project the film’s overblown sonic rumbling. Local audio geniuses Meyer Sound volunteered to equip the theater with mega-bass woofers. When we fired it up, dust was shaken loose from every surface in the theater. That was a different kind of medium specificity!

Flyer for “New Video, New Music” at the Pacific Film Archive, 1989.

DV: I love that by highlighting everything that’s wrong or absent in an artwork, you can shed light on what’s considered “right” in another one. Does this interest in the scorned or overlooked stem from your involvement in the punk scene? I’d also love for you to expand a bit more on the idea of the “gimmick” within the museum context. It seems that more and more institutions are trying to capture visitors’ attention by making exhibitions interactive in physical and digital spaces. 

SS: The world is built upon contradictions so, in a sense, what’s agreed upon as great, as worthy of the blessed pedestal, is only there because someone else made a notable work, a painting, a film, a bit of music, that struck us as a flat-footed failure. The great then becomes a flight from failure.

That is quite a bit different from the punk world I entered in the late ‘70s. The predominant music scene then was peopled by hair bands — big guitars and gelled locks, or syncopated basslines and blow-dry locks. The punk scene wanted to unequivocally oust the whole regime of industry music. Anti-musicianship, anti-fashion, anti-fandom were its principal prods, until the record industry realized they could monetize rage. But in the early days, it seemed that “anger can be power,” as Joe Strummer said.

The idea behind restaging gimmicks was in part to nudge the audience out of its complacency, not do a punk erasure. But I have to admit my audience at PFA wasn’t so complacent. They were a pretty spirited crowd. And they put up with me.

But the issue of engagement at museums these days is something else entirely. Museums are at the top of a cultural food chain that has stopped being nutritious. In the past, it was the task of the lower reaches to prepare the citizenry for its ascent. A crucial drive toward betterment, art education, aesthetic curiosity, intellectual expansiveness — these things, if properly inculcated, would push you up the cultural ladder. They would enrich you. Now, instead, we are being distracted unto death by the lower depths. Short-term gratification, celebrity fixations, farcical dramas of the everyday — these things don’t nurture artful attentiveness and so the museums feel they’ve got to stake out their own overwrought piece of the spectacle.

I sound pretty old school, don’t I?

Flyer for early nineties exhibition at Artists’ Television Access.

DV: Earlier you mentioned that David Ross left behind an undocumented “collection” of videotapes after leaving BAM. What were some of those works? It seems fitting for a time-based medium to enter a museum’s collection that way…

SS: In video art’s first decade and a half or so, the value of work was different. There was no substantial market for electronic works. Their presence in the museum and gallery network was minimal, collectors were hesitant, and the works themselves were considered almost ephemeral. After all, the medium that contained them, the video reel or cassette, had a limited lifetime, so what were you actually buying? Because of that, an artist’s own copies for preview and exhibition seemed to be expendable. Out they would go to curators in galleries and museums, never to return. In this way, collections were amassed with no formal accession procedures. You couldn’t quite claim bragging rights, but you could show them off as a measure of your engagement with the video art scene.

When I arrived at the museum, the sum-total video collection was in the dozens of titles, no more — Nam June Paik, Joan Jonas, Frank Gillette. Among them was an absolutely rare find and the first video work I ever preserved, Andy Warhol’s Water. This was a one-of-a-kind work Warhol made for an exhibition at the Everson Museum celebrating John Lennon’s birthday in 1971. Yoko Ono, the exhibition’s curator, had come up with the theme of water. Warhol simply placed a video camera on a tripod, tightly framed the Factory’s water cooler, and waited for celebrity denizens to wander by for water. Perfect Warholian Factory gossip.

  • Postcard (front) for Alan Rath’s first video sculpture exhibition in 1986.

  • Postcard (back) for Alan Rath’s first video sculpture exhibition in 1986. This was at Artist Television Access, the newly renamed Martin-Weber Gallery, now on Valencia Street.

DV: Because of how some of the early video collections were amassed, plus the expendable attitude towards the medium back then, there’s an element of detective work to what you do. Can you talk about the odyssey behind your discovery of the National Center for Experiments in Television tapes?

SS: Yes, sometimes what enters the collection seems arbitrary, but that isn’t necessarily a bad practice. At PFA, there was a guiding principle to collect Bay Area media works, principally vulnerable works from the artisanal community. Though we certainly looked out for feature films — in fact, I brought in many features from Saul Zaentz’s production company — it seemed the experimental works were always in greatest danger of being lost to audiences and film history in general. Works by Ant Farm, Paul Kos, TVTV, Video Free America, Terry Fox, Tony Labat, Cecilia Dougherty, and many others came into the collection because we were able to offer the safety of an environmentally sound vault and eventual preservation.

Some works come to you from obvious sources, living artists, collectors, etcetera. But if you are ferreting out obscure, overlooked, or literally lost ones, they are only to be found through research, doggedness, and outright serendipity. The National Center for Experiments in Television (NCET) was a preservation pursuit that combined all three.

Mylar poster for the Electric Concert, presented by the National Center for Experiments in Television, 1972.

Originally called the Experimental TV Project, it was housed at KQED, starting in 1967. A falling out with the PBS station, forced the NCET’s departure around 1970, but it persisted in private spaces until 1975 when the principal funder, the Rockefeller Foundation, pulled the plug. The TV Lab was intended as a research center to broaden the exploration of video technology and to develop new ways in which video programming could enhance (not enthrall) culture. What was atypical about this project was that most of the fellows, except for Loren Sears, Stephen Beck, and perhaps Don Hallock, didn’t pursue experimental image making after their residencies, so the works quickly slipped into obscurity.

When I began looking for videotapes from the NCET in the early nineties, even diehard experimentalists from decades earlier had no useful recollections. Then I was told that, many years back, KQED had cleared space in their vault by throwing out the 2” video masters. Luckily, David Dowe, a previous fellow at the center, rescued the tapes, about sixty-five in all, and took them to Dallas where Brice Howard, the center’s director, lived. I eventually went to Southern Methodist University in Dallas where they’d been stored and brought them back to Berkeley. From that point on, everything began to fall into place — the artists re-emerged, more tapes surfaced, and original ephemera, posters, press releases, and manifestos surfaced as well.

The National Center for Experiments in Television was a surprisingly radical project and though it was housed in a TV station, it was in fact anti-television. The bulk of the artists’ attention was spent on image-processing (Stephen Beck’s Direct Video Synthesizer was developed there) and their fascination with synthetic color, feedback, and abstract visual pursuits was clearly counter to mass consumption.

Back in the year 2000, I did a gallery exhibition, showing off Beck’s video synthesizer, Don Hallock’s Videola and Penny Dhaemer’s great photographs. But I fear, though preserved and protected, those works from the NCET have slipped back into a dusky corner of art history.

DV: I do think that their history is carried on by the many people involved in the project, not just the artworks that were left behind. I love some of the quotes from their intern’s handbook that you included in one of your essays in Radical Light:

Television professionals are invited to assess their medium from a new perspective: to make their own individual and evocative videotapes; to consider the nature of responsibility in the broadcasting and the relationship of programming to public television’s political and economic structure; and to review the history of television forms and practice in relation to the medium’s potential.

SS: You could blame it on the aforementioned Brice Howard. Brice had spent fifteen years in what was then called National Educational Television. But somewhere along the way, he had a complete philosophical and aesthetic transformation — much of this is described in his two-volume impressionistic treatise from 1972, Videospace. Brice went so far as to formally question the presence of corporate television in domestic space, in America’s living room. To him it was an unconscionable invasion of consciousness. He saw the video medium as a meditative surface, a painterly surface, that artists could ply for pleasing diversions. This did not make for good broadcast programming and thus the NCET’s departure from KQED. Ironically, Brice did not cultivate relationships with the surrounding video art community either, so the center became overly hermetic. When the Rockefeller Foundation withdrew support, it redirected those monies toward a more socially engaged concept to be called the Bay Area Video Coalition.

The cover of Brice Howard’s book, Videospace, 1972.

DV: Can you talk about some of the artists and activists’ collectives working within the medium of broadcast television, such as Ant Farm , TVTV, and Video Free America, to name a few?

SS: That’s an epic discussion unto itself, but here goes, in very abbreviated form: the seventies, particularly the early seventies, saw a distinct ideological yearning to work collectively. This was an outgrowth of such things as a lingering fascination with communal life, the Whole Earth Catalog zeitgeist, a backlash against corporate culture, and ambitions that were best pursued cooperatively. Emerging around the same time, portable video technology offered entrée to a world of self-representation, empowering overlooked communities, and, perhaps equally, the lure of medium specific aesthetic possibilities. However, the associated costs of this developing technology were best suited to shared access. The first notable efforts came from collectives like Ant Farm, Optic Nerve, and Video Free America. Top Value Television (TVTV) and the lesser-known Public Eye, Inc. would join the ranks soon after. Each of these groups differed in aesthetic and political intentions.

Ant Farm’s members — Chip Lord, Hudson Marquez, Doug Michels, Curtis Schreier — were the most conceptual, finding their way quickly into the embrace of the gallery/museum scene, and becoming notorious for such things as Cadillac Ranch, Media Burn, and The Eternal Frame. For Ant Farm, video was an apparatus used to extend the medial reach of their projects. For their most ambitious undertakings, like Media Burn, a considerable number of collaborators, from Optic Nerve, Marin Community Video, the Videofreex, and elsewhere, would fill out their ranks.

Using shared space at Project One, one of San Francisco’s first live/work projects, Optic Nerve made lean verité docs that scrutinized the prison system, long-haul truck drivers, beauty contests, gentrification, and other critical subjects. The notable members (Lynn Adler, Jim Mayer, Jules Backus, Sherrie Rabinowitz, John Rogers, and Mya Shone) could often be found pitching in as temp videographers for other groups. By the late seventies, Optic Nerve morphed into Ideas in Motion, a slightly straighter version of the original, and continues to this day.

Press release from Video Free America, announcing the 1986 national broadcast for Skip Sweeney’s autobiographical film, My Mother Married Wilber Stump. Notice the well-travelled VFA logo.

Though best known for Skip Sweeney’s wondrous feedback tapes, Video Free America (VFA) really launched itself with the multi-channel The Continuing Story of Carel and Ferd, an intimate look at some SF down-and-outers. Updated versions of this dark soap opera would be viewable at VFA’s space on Shotwell Street where a regular calendar of screenings would continue for decades. When co-founder Arthur Ginsberg departed, Joanne Kelley joined the group, offering her own dance video specialty. Eventually, Video Free America even had a post-production set-up that was accessible to the community.

In 1972, Top Value Television was formed in San Francisco by Allen Rucker, Michael Shamberg, and Megan Williams. TVTV was an unusual hybrid — definitely an ever-expanding collective, they were ironically the most commercially ambitious of these Bay Area-based groups. Their first outings, the World’s Largest TV Studio and Four More Years, charting the 1972 Democratic and Republican conventions, were touted as some of the very first small-format video works to be broadcast. By 1975, TVTV had relocated to Los Angeles to work on the edges of mainstream media. [PFA has just completed the first phase of a TVTV preservation project with source footage transferred and new scholarly writing on those collective renegades.]

  • SEND magazine, formerly Video 80, published by the San Francisco International Video Festival.

  • The 1986 Call for Entries for the San Francisco International Video Festival. Pictured: Mickey McGowan.

Early on I mentioned the Public Eye, Inc., a non-profit started by Bonnie Engel who had come to San Francisco to be involved with cable access. The Public Eye sponsored screenings throughout the mid-seventies and acted as a fiscal umbrella for numerous independent projects, including the San Francisco International Video Festival. It was this kind of localized infrastructure, along with 80 Langton, La Mamelle, Tom Marioni’s MOCA, and a few others, that provided vital support and, ultimately, an audience for the fledgling video community. When the Bay Area Video Coalition emerged in 1977, accessible training and hardware were added to the mix.

With the arrival of the eighties, several vital groups, including Ant Farm and TVTV, had perished, and though the pursuit of the artistic potential of the video medium had not waned, the logistics of the pursuit had been simplified. Subsequently, a whole new cohort of solo artists emerged, many nurtured by the San Francisco Art Institute. The decade of collectivity had mutually self-destructed.

Video 80 magazine, published by the San Francisco International Video Festival.

DV: I remember taking a class with Sharon Grace, when I was a student at the art institute, and being exposed to the works of artists such as Dale Hoyt and Cecilia Dougherty. Can you speak about SFAI Performance/Video department during the 1980s? And how did this new generation of video artists differ from the previous one?

SS: It’s hard to believe that a single institution could be so influential, but during the eighties the Art Institute was the alpha dog of Video/Performance. Lone Mountain College’s program with Peter d’Agostino was long gone, the California College of Art(s and Crafts) was lagging (though Suzanne Lacy was out and about), and the local universities were still in the sway of big painting. But SFAI’s Video/Performance department was sitting atop a clutch of faculty/artists who taught by uncompromising example — Paul Kos, Howard Fried, Sharon Grace, Tony Labat, and Doug Hall engaged with the technology but, more importantly, they promoted an attitude of aesthetic fearlessness. It was also a time when the alternative art scene and the punk scene darkly intermingled. Penelope Houston of the Avengers, Fritz Fox of The Mutants, and Debora Iyall of Romeo Void had just gone through painting and sculpture and, of course, performance artist Karen Finley was still radiating shockwaves.

The two artists you mentioned, Dale Hoyt and Cecilia Dougherty, weren’t punks, but they were certainly brats. One of Dale’s earliest video works says it all — Your World Dies Screaming (1981). In 1982, Dale ventured into a local suburb and interviewed people about the domestic slaughter that had just taken place in the neighborhood. Of course no such thing had happened, but the unsuspecting suburbanites were aghast. This tape he titled Over My Dead Body. But Hoyt reached his bratty zenith in 1985 when he released The Complete Anne Frank, and outdid Bunuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire by having four different performers play the titular heroine. Dale turned the sacrosanct story of Anne Frank into a soap opera permeated with pent-up sexual frustration. Dale’s committed irreverence made him extremely influential among his student peers. He continues making video works until this very day.

Cover of the Video Refusés catalog for their 1985 video festival.

A few years later, Cecilia Dougherty showed up. An early work, Fuck You, Purdue (1987), has her laying claim to unexpected terrain as she restages Howard Fried’s seminal performance tape. Fried, of course, was Dougherty’s bemused teacher. Soon after, she made Claudia (1987), a startlingly explicit work foregrounding lesbian erotica. During this time Cecilia gathered a group of other forceful artists around her — Shelley Cook, Susie Bright, Jill Garellick (now Jill Rogers), Azian Nurudin, Didi Dunphy, and others. They all collaborated in Dougherty’s first great work, Grapefruit (1989), a retelling of the break up of The Beatles with an all-female cast. It was an exquisitely mocking poke at the Fab Four, co-opted by a joyous group of women. As the decade would slide into the nineties, Cecilia’s ambitions grew with Coalminer’s Granddaughter (1991) and Joe-Joe (1993), now adding Leslie Singer and Kevin Killian to her circle. After the Joe Orton restaging, Dougherty moved to NYC, leaving behind her own brat pack.

How did this generation differ from that which had come before? The previous waves were often, but not exclusively, straight-on conceptual and performative in their approaches — Paul Kos, Tom Marioni, Terry Fox, Bonnie Sherk, Joel Glassman, Teresa Cha, Howard Fried. But then there were those like Skip Sweeney, Doug Hall, Max Almy, Chip Lord, Lowell Darling, Lynn Hershman, George Kuchar, Jeanne Finley, and others who were technologically adept and curious about narrativity. They pushed the medium toward more expressive service. Yet another gen of artists would appear in the nineties, artists like Anne McGuire, Steve Matheson, Jordan Biren, and the Half-Lifers (Tony Discenza and Torsten Burns) who were content to make idiosyncratic art by any means necessary.

DV: Most of these artists are heavily featured in PFA’s esteemed collection, reflecting decades of Bay Area activity. As a concluding question, can you speak about some of your personal highlights, as well as some of the relationships you developed with artists and colleagues during your time at the museum?

SS: This is such a complicated question. The personal versus the professional gets mixed up here. What was always pleasing to me was introducing works that were somehow unique and impactful, glimpses of the cultural tumult. Sometimes this was inseparable from the artists themselves, artists who had an uncanny presence, a generous presence, or a manner quirky in a way that granted you entry to their creations. Donigan Cumming and his demented portraits of precarity; David Larcher cutting his own path through the artworld thicket with Ich Tank and Videøvoid; Julie Zando who showcases psychopathology in Let’s Play Prisoners and Hey Bud; Péter Forgács, who redeems lost worlds through the poetics of home movies; Animal Charm, who turn the best art into a tiki lounge; Shana Moulton, who can turn the ridiculous into the sublime and back again; Phil Patiris, a master appropriator who burned out far too soon; Warner Jepson whose mid-seventies self-portraits were elegantly fresh forty years later; Vanalyne Green who made the grand A Spy in the House that Ruth Built, then turned in her bat; the HalfLifers who could transform banal actions into moments of charmed distress — where do I stop? But I have to admit that after hundreds of public programs, I still loved going to the podium and giving the audience that first inkling of what they were about to see. And PFA’s audience was up for it — an audience with stamina and wit and a sense of vertiginous adventure. Without them, it would have been all for naught.

From the Top: Lightning by Paul Kos (1976); Dancing Death Monsters by Dale Hoyt (1981); Perfect Leader by Max Almy (1983); Hot Dog Fats by Leslie Singer (1987); Illuminatin’ Sweeney by Skip Sweeney (1975); I Am Crazy and You’re Not Wrong by Anne McGuire (1997); Storm and Stress by Doug Hall (1986); Self-Portraits, D-38 by Warner Jepson (1975); Grapefruit by Cecilia Dougherty (1989); Actions in Action by HalfLifers (1997); Kikiriki by Tony Labat (1983); Easy Living by Chip Lord (1984); I Saw Jesus In A Tortilla by Jeanne C. Finley (1982); Weather Diary #1 by George Kuchar (1986); First Person Plural by Lynn Hershman-Lesson (1988); Illuminated Music #3 by Stephen Beck (1973); Fuck You, Purdue by Howard Fried (1971).

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