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Experiments in Amplification: The Year in East Bay Art

This year, a drive to amplify marginalized voices coupled with an avant-garde inclination produced the best in East Bay art.



For the East Bay art scene, 2015 was a year characterized by ambivalence. As the months wore on, more and more artists began expressing a shared sentiment: They were wavering between being motivated by the rich and diverse creative community that the East Bay has to offer and exhausted by a constant fear of displacement and cultural erasure.

In July, Rock Paper Scissors Collective, a community arts center and Art Murmur founding member that existed on 23rd Street and Telegraph Avenue for eleven years, announced that it could no longer afford its rent. Soon after, drummers, churches, and community centers began receiving noise complaints. A young muralist was shot in West Oakland while completing a community-fueled mural project. And Mills College nearly shut its legendary Book Art department due to budget cuts.

But in the face of this challenging reality, disparate corners of the art community have banded together, spurred by a sudden sense of urgency. Under the leadership of the newly formed Oakland Creative Neighborhoods Coalition, drummers, dancers, curators, artists, and pastors have been strategizing ways to demand security for crucial art spaces in the city. Meanwhile, the Black Artists on Art project began building a roster of Black artists and organizing a radically inclusive showcase of their work in order to ensure representation for Black artists both locally and internationally.

In terms of artwork, that ambivalence emerged as a heightened drive to amplify voices and perspectives often excluded from mainstream discourse coupled with a perpetuation of the Bay Area's long-held inclination for conceptual experimentation. At best, that intersection produced forward-thinking work that feels, in many ways, distinctly exemplary of contemporary East Bay culture. Following is my list of the ten best East Bay art shows, art projects, and poetry releases of 2015, in chronological order.

A Hole in Space (Oakland Redux)
By Ellen Sebastian Chang and Maya Gurantz

In late January, artists Ellen Sebastian Chang and Maya Gurantz set up a portal between Cole Hardware on College Avenue in Rockridge and Youth Employment Partnership on International Boulevard in East Oakland. They discreetly installed cameras, projectors, and mics, transforming each storefront into a video chat platform connecting unsuspecting pedestrians on either side. Mostly, passersby ogled in bewilderment, sometimes they ran past in fear, and on rare, magical occasions they stopped to engage in conversation with someone on the other side. The project was based on a famous 1980 installation entitled A Hole in Space, which used the same concept to connect pedestrians in Los Angeles and New York City. But Chang and Gurantz' version flipped the initial piece on its head by connecting two communities that are geographically close yet, in many ways, worlds apart. In doing so, it crucially reminded Oakland residents to always acknowledge their neighbors.

Drifting Islands
By Michelle Dizon
Oakland Museum of California

This year, the Oakland Museum of California offered a number of excellent shows highlighting local culture. Fertile Ground: Art and Community in California was an ambitious survey of important artists throughout Bay Area history, ranging from Diego Rivera to Barry McGee, while Who is Oakland? highlighted a diverse array of prominent local voices attempting to answer that impossible question through art. But Drifting Islands (April through November) was its most thoughtfully challenging show this year. Michelle Dizon, a Filipino-American former Oakland resident, presented three experimental films unpacking the LA riots, systems of production in the Philippines, and breast cancer-related trauma. Probing into each, Dizon used formal techniques to relay her philosophical musings in a way that questioned the nature of representation altogether, solidifying the museum's willingness to feature both traditional and avant-garde cultural homages.

Tender Points
By Amy Berkowitz 
Timeless, Infinite Light

This year, the public dialogue on consent and rape was perhaps more audible in mainstream media than ever before. But few personal contributions to that discussion are as complex and thought-provoking as Amy Berkowitz' book of poetic prose, Tender Points, released by Oakland's Timeless, Infinite Light in April. It's an account of Berkowitz' experiences as a rape survivor living with fibromyalgia — an invisible illness that causes chronic pain and exhaustion, often associated with sexual abuse. In fragments that range from a paragraph to a few pages, the author compiles research on her illness, memories of trauma, descriptions of her pain, quotes from both internet trolls and medical professionals bent on discrediting her illness, snippets from the history of female hysteria, and thoughts on mortality and noise music. Together, they form a searingly honest story about the aggravating dangers of being a woman in a world in which men consistently attempt to claim authority over your body.

Heavy Breathing was a summer-long series of critical theory aerobics classes. - LISA RYBOVICH CRALLÉ
  • Lisa Rybovich Crallé
  • Heavy Breathing was a summer-long series of critical theory aerobics classes.

Heavy Breathing
Curated by Sophia Wang and Lisa Rybovich Crallé

Last summer, artists Sophia Wang and Lisa Rybovich Crallé curated an event series that merged critical theory seminars with absurd aerobics classes. They aimed to engage people's physical and mental capacities simultaneously to see how thinking while moving could change both our idea of exercise and our understanding of the concepts being learned. The series included a dozen classes all led and created by local artists, including a tutorial on tactics for people of color to survive the racist patriarchy during a run around Lake Merritt, an underwater aerobics class and feminist reading of the Aristotelian notion of topos, and a lecture on the unexpected relationship between global risk management systems and the nervous system delivered from inside a bounce house. Fantastically executed, the series drew out important questions about what it means and how it feels to actually embody theory. Also, it was fun.