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Creative Coding in the San Francisco Bay Area

In Search of the Bay Area's Digital Underground

Robert Henke show at Gray Area

The Bay Area, as most everyone knows, is the global hub for technology innovation. But what’s happening on the freak margins of Silicon Valley, where tech gets twisted by the Bay’s long tradition of the visionary, countercultural, idealistic, and idiosyncratic?

Where do the old and new San Franciscos meet and mingle? Where does art meet with engineering? What are all these geeks working on that never becomes commercially viable, because it was never meant to be? Most programmers I’ve known are creative people, also musicians or artists in some other field. So where do the working computer programmers of the Bay Area go, what do they do when they’re at their most experimental?

There has to be an alternative scene simmering underneath all the business activity, at least a vestige of the old-school hacker culture based on hobbyist tinkering and non-commercial experimentation that sprung the tech explosion to begin with.

These are the questions I set out to answer with this post. Following are organizations, places, and events that I either heard of through the grapevine or found by internet digging. It doesn’t include a showcase of individual artist / hackers - that would be another post, but you could find a bunch of them by starting here. I am still trying to find out where this scene is and what it is; I’m no expert. I hope to add to this post, or do follow-ups to this roundup, in the future.

Gray Area Foundation

The Gray Area Foundation, a non-profit organization based in a renovated theater in the S.F. Mission District, makes a strong case for being the hub of creative coding in the Bay Area. They host events and exhibitions, such as the Robert Henke show pictured at the top of this post, eclectic but usually with a creative technology spin or component, and incubate many of the projects that they host.

Gray Area incubates projects, offering fiscal sponsorship, and facilitates interdisciplinary teams called Research Labs. Gray Area also offers workshops on topics like visual programming, virtual reality, sonifying data, or making electronic artworks. You can even take an immersive creative coding course lasting a full ten weeks.

Gray Area seems intent on being a good neighbor in San Francisco and the Bay Area, which in the current climate of advanced gentrification is really important. They regularly do benefit shows for causes such as the recent Ghost Ship fire, offer their education at an affordable rate compared to many coding bootcamps, and offer apprenticeships free of charge.

Note: as I was researching this article, a piece in the East Bay Express raised a serious concern about Gray Area’s distribution of aid funds. Gray Area quickly responded with a press release and discussed the issue with KQED to address these questions.

Gray Area Festival

One of Gray Area’s main activities is the Gray Area Festival, an annual Spring summit that includes “a conference, performances, workshops, and an exhibition surveying culture through the lens of art and technology.” For a taste of what this translates to, check out Media Against Fascism, a talk by Fred Turner of Stanford. Creative possibilities of software are a central concern, with appearances by one of the progenitors of art made with code, Casey Reas. Performances in 2016 included audiovisual work by Macular Collective and Deru with Effixx (check out the engrossing, artful web presentation of their work ‘1979’), as well as live electronic music from Telefon Tel Aviv, Pharmakon (the atmospheric, ultra-dark electronic noise project by Margaret Chardiet, beloved by Pitchfork), and others.

If past festivals are any indication, the Gray Area Festival is emerging as a suitably eclectic hub of creative technology, with both artists pushing the avant-garde possibilities facilitated by innovations in electronic media and thinkers examining, and questioning, the currents and the direction of technological change.

CODAME

If there’s a competitor to Gray Area’s status as the hub of art meets tech in the Bay Area, it’s CODAME, also a non-profit convener of events and projects that bridge the worlds of software and free creative expression. Comparisons are bound to get me in trouble, since there is probably some overlap and friendly rivalry between these communities, but at a glance CODAME appears to be more of a semi-formalized artists network than the full-on cultural infrastructure that Gray Area is shaping up to be. Both are important and contribute to a lively creative scene.

CODAME’s mission includes bringing together “artists, coders, designers, game developers, creators, performers and musicians” with the goal of “magic-inspiring experiences that combine art with technology.” Founded in 2010, CODAME has facilitated over 50 projects, 60 events, and counts 200+ artists in its network (browse them on the artists page).

These projects include some really mind-bending, avant-garde or thought-provoking stuff. One example is Deep Dream Vision Quest, a “neural image synthesizer” by Gary Boodhoo that creates “machine hallucinations.” Another one that stands out is Internet of Consciousness, a conceptual piece by Elaine Cheung envisioning a “suite of products catered towards a user’s journey into Self” imagining wearables (one resembling a real consciousness-altering device called Thync I wrote about on this blog here) and software.

And there’s so many others, ranging from explorations bending virtual and physical space, to software probing social boundaries, to experimental robots, to deconstructed video games. A lot of these projects look like detritus from abandoned software products, or beautiful weirdness captured from a game glitch. The embrace of glitch, of imperfections that violate conventions of naturalism that characterize commercial games and products and their vast simulacra of reality, calling attention to the virtual materials that make up these immaterial realms, you might say is one of the clearest currents in software art.

CODAME’s plans for 2017 include participation in the Coachella Valley’s Desert X art festival, and 3D WebFest in San Francisco.

B4BEL4B

Across the bay, an artist-run gallery space in Oakland’s Chinatown called B4BEL4B is the East Bay’s hub for digital art. The Oakland twist is that this organization has an explicit focus on “artists from underserved backgrounds and communities” and the intention to “support radically-inclusive ideologies.” Artistic director Tiare Ribeaux states in an EBX profile on the recent FELT B4E show that she is “most excited for people to see the level of diversity there is of artists making net art / post internet art.” FELT B4E, curated by FELT Zine founder Mark Sabb, is a vision of wild 3D pastiche and layered textures and colors: art that embraces the Internet as the venue for a generation exploring race and identity through GIFs, memes, and a whole constantly evolving vernacular of digital communications on social media and messaging platforms.

MEDIATE Art Group

MEDIATE is best known for the Soundwave Biennial, the “largest and most anticipated multidisciplinary sound art festival in the Bay Area.” Each two-year program finishes with a summer sound, art, and music festival. So what does that look like? One example from the current Soundwave was a performance at the Contemporary Jewish Museum connecting sound with physical surfaces. In “Human Glass Rotation” (pictured), a “site-specific mirrored geometric sculptural performance piece,” the performers moved in response to “3D animations projected and reflected off of them” as well as a live soundscape by artist Suzy Poling. Each Soundwave series has a theme - the current one is Architecture. Soundwave 6, in 2013-14 was themed “Water” (a response to the California drought?) which lent itself to beautiful, fluid mergings of visuals and sound, as you can see on a highlights video.

Soundwave presents a venue for a natural merger of Bay Area creative subcultures: creative technology / visuals / coding and the avant-garde / new music / free jazz scene that’s been going since at least the 1990’s. A few examples: Soundwave has included work by Twitter-famous cellist Zoe Keating; percussionist Moe! Staiano, a longtime convener of Bay Area improvisers in his Moekestra! series; and Oakland Active Orchestra, a revolving cast of jazz and new music players. I’m not sure if he’s performed there, but some of the work reminds me of Bay Area innovators like Tom Nunn, inventor of instruments like the Crustacean.

Kinetech Arts

Kinetech DanceHackDay performance

These days, every art form has some mutation where it meets technology - what about dance? The ultimate in tactile self-expression, dance might not seem to have an easy-to-imagine overlap with software, but Kinetech Arts is here to demonstrate what that could be. Kinetech was founded by physicist / dancer Weidong Yang and Daiane Lopes da Silva in 2013, and the following year, they teamed up with CODAME to produce the first “Hack + Dance Marathon” in San Francisco, which won local acclaim. Kinetech’s work is often visually striking, and involves innovative use of light and sound. In 2016, they held a DanceHackDay performance combining dozens of dancers with creative coders (read a write-up by The Creators Project here) that included innovations like dancers collaborating with remote partners, using real-time avatars, incorporating biometric data into performance (heartbeats), and merging these with dance influences ranging from ballet to butoh.

Bay Area Hackerspaces

Oakland's Sudo Room

So far, I’ve been talking about places in the Bay where tech fuses with other forms of creativity. But what about spaces where the hardcore tinkerer feels at home - the hobbyists, the Steve Wozniaks of today who happily follow their inspiration to the insights some Steve Jobs will figure out how to capitalize on, without worrying how to “monetize” everything? There’s still hackerspaces (maybe more than ever) in the Bay Area where the Linux geek, the circuit bender, the amateur roboticist is sure to feel at home.

One stand-out Bay Area hackerspace is Noisebridge, in the S.F. Mission District. Noisebridge hosts an interesting blend of events that includes electronic noise (hence the name?), hardware tinkering, and a lot of collective learning around electronic music and game development. Their page of mailing lists is itself something of a fascinating map of the subcultures of Bay Area geekdom, with group lists for digital archivists; enthusiasts of machine learning, Ruby, and Python; sound-hacking, circuit-bending and audio electronics, including hand-made instruments; zine-makers and collectors; Chinese or German language speakers or learners; digital darkroom and ‘optics hacking’; and more.

The most active in the East Bay I’ve heard seems to be the Sudo Room (pictured above). Based in Oakland in the Omni Commons, which also hosts cool things like Counter Culture Labs, Food Not Bombs, and Phat Beets (a CSA of locally-grown food I subscribe to and recommend), Omni Commons and Sudo Room are pretty literally mixing up Bay Area’s old and new, tech and alternative cultures. Sudo Room hosts open study groups on things like JavaScript and cryptography, and projects include a free programming school and initiative to create a community-owned, non-profit internet infrastructure in Oakland.

For more, the proper resource to point you to seems to be the Bay Area Consortium of Hackerspaces.

Hackerspace Meets Safe Space

This is another good example of different Bay Area cultures mingling rather than clashing: the arrival of women-centered and otherwise intentional, safe spaces to the geek culture. Given the notorious male domination, and overall ethos of competition in the startup world (which plenty of men also get burned out on), and man-cave aspect of geek culture generally, this fills an important need. In the City, there’s Double Union, a “hacker/maker space for women in San Francisco” with an intentionally safe and supportive environment. In the East Bay, another promising woman-centered hackerspace is Mothership Hacker Moms in Berkeley on Adeline. The professional culture of startups can often be unfriendly to parents, especially moms, with its expectations of 24/7 availability and often unrealistic expectations on workers. Mothership looks like a welcome antidote, with affordable childcare on site, family-friendly events, and mom-centered workshops on tech and other DIY activities - a space for mothers to shift their career into the many tech opportunities in the Bay, tap their inner entrepreneur, or just pick up some new skills and network.

Co-Working

Bay Area co-working spaces are too numerous to cover here in any comprehensive way. And, given that they’re mostly driven by the need to make money, and that’s what people are there to do, they aren’t necessarily the homes of the kind of “alternative technology” scene I’m looking for in this post. However - anywhere hackers hang out can be a space for creative possibilities to emerge. While most co-working spaces in the Bay Area are incubators for for-profit startups - basically designed to host a mixture of hard-driving capitalism and informal human resource networking, so capital can readily flow into a flexible workforce (my critique of this is yet another tangent) - there are a few with alternative goals or attitudes.

One of those is The Hub, a global network of co-working spaces intended for creating positive social change. I’ve used Hubs in San Francisco and Oaxaca as home bases for my own hotdesking needs. Impact Hub Bay Area has three locations, in San Francisco, Berkeley and Oakland. They are often places where freelancers mix it up with non-profit organizations, often well-established ones, but also early-stage ideas - and can mix it up with a supportive infrastructure similar to the Silicon Valley investment cycle but friendly to their model (New Media Ventures a good example of this).

Hackerspaces can also function as co-working spaces, and I know at least one that blends this and bills itself as both. Ace Monster Toys in Oakland near Emeryville offers affordable options for membership (even free in exchange for volunteer hours), and access to a shared workshop and tools for working with lasers, 3D printing, textiles, hardware - even wood and metal. Everything from table saws to soldering stations to sewing machines and infrared lasers are on offer.

In addition to co-working, the high housing cost of the Bay Area has given rise to co-living. In reality this has been going on in the Bay for ages, where it’s long been normal for people to have roommates into their 40s. The new spin is some emerging with an emphasis on tech: check out this post on Bay Area Hacker Houses. For more general info on co-housing, visit Bay Area Cooperative Association.

Maker Culture in the Bay

I was reminded of the overlap with ‘maker culture’ and the artsy side of coding as I researched this piece. When I Googled “circuit bending bay area” (if you don’t know what that is, check this out or give this a listen) the first thing that came up was a maker meetup. A lot of “maker culture” is more big-kid’s-science-project than ‘weird media creation’ - more ‘hardcore geek’ than ‘alterna-geek.’ However, it does at times unquestionably involve an overlap with the practices and tools used to make art installations or generate digital art. Without having gone to either events myself, I’m sure that some of the creations that wind up here are rough drafts of things that end up at Burning Man, and I’ve seen evidence that homemade instruments are a whole genre of Maker Faire material. The Bay Area Maker Faire is big, with sponsorships from major tech companies. TechCrunch’s Megan Rose Dickey did a good intro to this phenomenon last year with What’s driving the maker movement? Getting out and seeing what people are doing is probably the place to start with this. In the Bay Area, Maker Faire happens in May.

Meetups

The Meetup thing kept popping up as I researched this post. So I decided to conclude with a list of links to Bay Area meetups on creative code or alternative technology. Some of these are more active than others. This only scratches the surface of Bay Area tech meetups - so there are plenty more that could in theory be good for a creative technologist to hit up if, for example, they just want to improve their JavaScript so they can build that thing they want to build.

Note: I do plan on updating this post in the future. If you know something I left out, give me a shout on Twitter @_justinallen_

Last updated: 3.25.2017

TAGS: art code