A year and a half before the fire incinerated their community, before they fled a whirlwind of flames, before they lived in a makeshift tent on the charred remains of their property, Jeanette Hernandez and Doug Major watched as their home burned for the first time. Continue reading Out of the Fire, Up in the Air
The nocturnal cityscape used to be dominated by glowing tubes of every shape and color. Neon lighting, exposed glass turned vibrant when the gas inside is bombarded with electrodes, was the main form of outdoor lighting in the country from the 1930s to the 70s. It has declined since then, replaced by cheaper and cleaner alternatives. Though, while neon may be a dying industry, it still has a passionate following. Continue reading Neon: Still Glowing
Glimpses of the Future
Last March, inside a warehouse on Pier 28 in San Francisco, a rift in space-time shattered the very fabric of reality, challenged every law of modern science, and catapulted the future of the world in strange new directions. Sort of.
It was Worlds Fair Nano, a biannual expo in which the focus is on emerging technology and not-so-far-fetched visions of the future. It was about fifty percent product demos, forty percent forward-thinking talks led by influential innovators, and ten percent food trucks. Inside the packed warehouse there were drone races, virtual reality, motor-unicycles, liquid meals, bionic enhancements, and augmented art displays. Continue reading Downloading the Future
“Humans! Listen to my face hole!”
Tony Sparks has been on stage long enough to know how to capture attention. He stands behind the mic at a sparsely occupied bar on a Monday night. He is two acts into an open mic show.
“Hey, humans!” Sparks shouts from inside the spotlight. “Even y’all in the back at the bar, ignoring the shit outta me. I need for everybody to give this next guy the big love.”
Sparks hands it off to the next comic. Slowly, people are drawn in. The bar fills up. Some people even come to sit around the stage. Two hours later, just before the show ends, the place is hopping.
Sparks is known as the “godfather of comedy” in San Francisco. He has run comedy events throughout the Bay Area for years. He came to San Francisco in the early 1990s, enticed by the city’s reputation as a nucleus of the comedy scene. Instead, he found himself ostracized from the prominent clubs and people of the day.
“This town was a piece of shit,” Sparks says. “It was really cliquey. So I don’t ever want to be that way with people. Hopefully when people hang out with me they get a sense of, ‘okay, I feel accepted and I can do this.’ I don’t want to do to other people what was done to me.”
Sparks set out to develop a more welcoming community of comics. In April of 1999, Sparks started hosting shows at BrainWash cafe and laundromat in South of Market. Calling the place an eclectic venue would not do it justice. The stage was set up against the huge, wall-high windows of the front of the building. The food line cut right through the tables, so most of the audience was separated from the direct vicinity of the stage. People usually talked at the bar, ignoring the show completely. And people were also there to do their laundry.
“It was more of a social hub than a great comedy spot,” comedian Hunter Stoehr says. “It was not a great place to do comedy, but it was a great place to hang out.”
“For people that were just doing open mics, it was the place you could go every single day,” comedian Graham Galway adds. “For people that were more established, it was a place to get an early set in. It was always a pretty large crowd, and it was a good place to meet people.”
Over the years, the strange hybrid establishment became a fixture of Bay Area comedy. BrainWash held open mics five nights a week, most hosted by Sparks.
“It was a great place. It was the foundation for the community,” Sparks explains. “If you needed to know what to do, and to grow, and where to go, you went to the Brainwash. The staff there was wonderful, the people were nice. They really took good care of me. It was like my family. I mean, c’mon, I spent nineteen years with them.”
In December 2017, BrainWash abruptly shut down. The cafe had been struggling to deal with a decline of customers caused by a large construction project next door. It closed with no fanfare, just a note on the locked door. It had been in business for more than thirty years.
The comedy community has been reeling ever since. There are other places that hold open mics in the city, of course, but none of them with the frequency that BrainWash did. Stoehr and other comedians describe the scene as “decentralized.”
“There was a huge gap, a void that opened up once BrainWash shut down,” Billy Catechi, manager of the bar Il Pirata, says. “That was a real shame. The place was one-of-a-kind.”
For the past twelve years, Il Pirata hosted monthly stand up shows. After BrainWash closed, said Catechi, Il Pirata decided to turn their monthly shows into weekly events. They asked Tony Sparks to host. The shows have been running every Thursday since early February.
Il Pirata sits on the corner of 16th Street and Potrero Avenue. Around 5 p.m. on a Thursday evening, Catechi brings a couple rows of chairs into the cleared-out lounge space and assembles a short wooden stage. In the room are several large booths, a spotlight, and a sound station with mixing boards and a big bank of speakers. This is the setup for the evening showcase of more established Bay Area comedians, which starts at 8 p.m.
Until then, there’s open mic out on the patio. The prep work for this event is less elaborate. Catechi pulls one table back a couple feet then plops a mic and speaker in front of the Jack Daniels dartboard. Mere feet away, traffic barrels by on 16th Street.
One-by-one, the comics come in and sign up for their four minutes behind the mic. Everyone who performs that night is a veteran of the process. Many of them know one another from the BrainWash. They mingle out on the patio until Sparks arrives just before six o’clock to kick the night off.
In addition to Il Pirata, Sparks also hosts a regular Monday night show (along with free pizza and videogames) at Milk Bar on Haight Street. The gigs he runs now don’t come close to matching the sense of camaraderie of BrainWash. Still, he continues to host shows, passionate about preserving venues for burgeoning comics to perform.
“What else am I gonna do?” Sparks says. “I’m an old man. I been doing this since I was 16 years old. I don’t know anything else to do.”
An open mic can be a brutal thing. A show is the only place for an aspiring comedian to hone new material. So they go out on a weekday night and try out their budding jokes in front of an audience made up mostly, if not entirely, of fellow comedians.
“There’s a lot of open mics where there’s no audience, there’s just other comics who have already seen most of your jokes,” comedian Travis Thielen shares. “And you only have a couple new things, so it can feel kind of disheartening.”
At Il Pirata, some do better than others. One comic’s tale about hiding pot from his parents as an adult garners some earnest chuckles, while another’s rant about millenials falls flat. Admittedly, the latter scenario is more common.
This is why the geniality of Tony Sparks is such a key to the success of the night. Even when he delves into darker personal topics, there is a buoyancy to him. Sparks has a way of delivering jabs that feel like both a roast and encouragement.
During a recent show at Milk Bar, Sparks addressed a comic who had just performed a set that was met with silence from the audience. The main factor for the icy response, perhaps, was a complete lack of discernible jokes anywhere in the routine.
“That was beautiful, although I didn’t understand shit you was saying,” Sparks said as he took back the mic. “Don’t feel bad. The rest of them,” he gestured toward the audience, “they were ignoring you very openly.” Then he turned on the audience: “You guys are bullies. He poured his heart out and you shit all over him.”
The ribbing is anything but discouraging. Comedian Tammy Clarke works at open mics and with Sparks to hone her craft. In August she will be opening for shows headlined by comedian and actress Mo’Nique.
“Honestly, I’ve gotten nothing, but love and support in this comedy sector,” Clarke says. “It feels good.”
The moment each comedian finishes their set, Sparks belts out an enthusiastic “Yaaaay!” and prods the room to break into another round of applause. When a brand-new comic comes up, Sparks leads the audience in a short chant of “lots of love” to build up the energy in the room.
“Sometimes there’s one thing that you do in life that just makes you so fucking happy,” Sparks explains. “When I host these shows, or when I get on stage, I’m so happy. I’m so incredibly happy. I have so much fun.”
Still, there’s no filling in the hole that the loss of the BrainWash created in Sparks’s life. His discontent about living in San Francisco hasn’t abated in the nearly three decades of his residency.
“I don’t trust the city, I don’t like it,” Sparks admits. “I don’t like the people. I hate everything about it. Everything. The only thing I loved about it is gone; that was the BrainWash.”
Sparks says he has gotten invitations from venues in other cities to go create his own BrainWash-type establishment. Still, there is something that, for now, keeps him in San Francisco.
As the open mic wraps up at Il Pirata, Sparks thanks everyone for coming out and congratulates them on their performances. Then he goes inside, hops up on the stage, and launches into his next comedy showcase.
The night begins with music. On the screen, a man playing guitar transitions into a kaleidoscopic avalanche of political commentary. A cutout of the current United States Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, dances with a similarly non-human Ben Carson, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. The two twirl around in dresses made of tinfoil.
The film projector stops and the whole room is plunged back into darkness. A smattering of applause, and the room collapses into animated murmurs.
The projector flashes back to life and the next film starts. It is a breakneck, dizzying travelogue through lost worlds and parallel dimensions led by the world’s worst janitor. (“It won’t be clean, but it will be done,” he says. Then, later: “By setting the mind’s equator with the distinct line of the horizon, you will become inseparable.”)
After some technical difficulties and shouting from the projection booth, the next film plays. This one is a part live action, part animated short titled “Ass Eatin’ Rock.” It features a tiered rock formation that happens to be just the right height for … well, you know. It’s sort of a surprise to see this one on the big screen. Normally it just runs on San Francisco’s public access channel.
Thus goes Open Screening night at the Artists’ Television Access gallery and microcinema in the Mission District.
ATA is a long-running collective non-profit, comprised of volunteer filmmakers, artists, and general creative types. On the first Thursday of each month, the group opens its small theater space to any and all filmmakers. There are no restrictions on genre or style, so long as each film clocks in under twelve minutes. What the pieces tend to share is an underlying desire to push boundaries. The films playing at the most recent Open Screening, on February 1, exemplify this ethos.
“We accept all films,” Arthur Johnson Weiss, an ATA volunteer and one of the evening’s showrunners announces at the top of the program. “As long as they’re not racist, sexist, homophobic, misogynistic, sexual violence – none of that bullshit. As long as you’re making good things that are fun to watch.”
Arthur wears a red plaid button-up shirt, sleeves rolled up to reveal his tattooed forearms. Dark sunglasses perch on the bill of his camo baseball cap. He is a filmmaker himself, with a few experimental works under his belt. His day job involves grants management, but he declines to get more specific than that, out of fear that his films could get him fired.
“I kind of have a double life,” Arthur says. “My films deal with gay sexuality and dildos and, you know, crazy shit … I create a clear dichotomy between how I survive capitalism and the work that I make.”
The other showrunner of Open Screening is Tim Johnson. He wears a plaid shirt of his own, blue and unbuttoned to reveal a white undershirt with black lettering that reads, simply, “90’s.” Tim attends San Francisco State University, focusing on Liberal Studies.
He became interested in video in high school, when friends gave him a copy of “Sonic Outlaws,” a documentary film by indie filmmaker Craig Baldwin. Years later, after he moved to San Francisco, Tim searched for somewhere that embraced video art. He found ATA and decided to volunteer. When he knocked on the door, Baldwin himself answered.
Tim has volunteered with ATA for around four to five years, Arthur about a year and a half. Each month they run things in the projection booth. It’s a complicated process, as they’re constantly switching between formats, film and digital. They usually don’t know what they will be playing until someone shows up for the show with their film in hand.
“Since I’ve volunteered here, I’ve always been enthusiastic about making sure Open Screening happens, because I don’t know anything else like this,” Tim says. “Bring your work, screen it. … Bring your friends. You’re all going to watch whatever it is you came up with, and you’re going to watch what other people came up with. This is …” He looks to Arthur. “I don’t know, is it democratic?”
Arthur thinks for a second, then says, “It’s egalitarian.”
The allure of an open screening is the sense that anything can happen.
“We get a lot of folks who straddle all different genres. The common thread is that this is all artist made and all fairly experimental,” Arthur says. “It’s always weird.”
“It’s just a really cool idea,” filmmaker Dave O’Shea says. “I feel like so much of San Francisco, like the authentic, grimy underground of San Francisco, is just getting polished away.”
O’Shea produces an irreverent comedy program for SF Commons public access channel 29 called “The Glory Hole” that airs Fridays at 11 p.m. He has been going to Open Screenings since last summer, routinely showing clips of his self-described “weirdo shit.” O’Shea is the guy to blame for the aforementioned “Ass Eatin’ Rock.”
“[Open Screening] is a cool way to meet other filmmakers and maybe get inspired and hopefully inspire other people,” O’Shea says. “It’s a very kinda open-minded vibe that I don’t see too much of anymore.”
Another filmmaker, JC Collins, has shown his films at one past Open Screening. His most recent work is “Silence,” a heartfelt, unflinchingly explicit visual essay about gay sexuality and shared longing for connection.
“[ATA] is one of the first places I sought out,” Collins says. “I think it’s a great place to get your stuff out there, test it out, see what works for you, see on the big screen.”
The production duo Boredom (Patrick Sean Gibson and Luke Lasley) premieres their music video for the song “Raindrop” by San Francisco’s own Hot Flash Heat Wave. It’s a dazzling, ’60s inspired blast of color and sound that weaves between elaborate animation and live action 16mm film footage. The two had been to open screenings before, but this is the first time they have presented a film.
“I think that the intimacy is super good for young filmmakers,” Gibson says. “ATA is legendary.”
ATA began in 1983, formed by a couple of San Francisco Art Institute students as a sort of punk art collective. Founders Marshall Weber and John Martin lived out of their converted storefront space in South of Market, before the area became trendy and the rent became impossible. Gleefully fueled by a blend of drugs and artistic fervor, the two set about creating their idealized workspace. The collective developed a following, grew in size, registered as a non-profit, and began to earn a place in the city’s cultural history.
Three years after it began, the whole place went up in flames.
After the fire, the crew relocated to 992 Valencia Street, in the Mission District. There they have remained, putting on events for the past thirty years.
Craig Baldwin has been with the organization for thirty-three years. He lives in the residential space on the third floor of the gallery and spends much of his time in the basement archives. He focuses his efforts chiefly on ATA’s Other Cinema, a regular screening of short films that is more focused and consistent than the open screenings.
Baldwin attributes ATA’s longevity to the fortitude of its members.
“It took really hardcore patience, struggle,” Baldwin says. “Ability to take hits, ability to pay a little more rent every time, ability to get ripped off from roommates when you hang out with slackers. Stuff like that. It’s really just being able to endure it.”
Today, the ATA building stands like a sort of anomaly, hiding in a dark crack that the surrounding shiny establishments keep forgetting to clean out.The neighbors are stores that sell two hundred dollar flannel shirts and display their selection of hats like they’re in an Apple store. The Mission has changed since ATA first came to town.
“Artist run centers like ATA are at risk in the city,” SF State art professor Paula Levine says. “The future of similar spaces and opportunities for artists are dwindling.”
Levine has a long history with ATA. She partners with the group to show student work in their gallery space, on the big screen.
Baldwin says he’s uncertain how long ATA will be able to remain in its current space. They’re halfway through a five-year lease. When it ends, there will be negotiations and an inevitable rent hike.
“I’d be broken-hearted if something happened to ATA’s space,” Tim Johnson says. “But the idea is that ATA will live on even if it’s not in the space it currently is.”
To Baldwin, the key component of ATA’s success is access to community.
“Our whole concept has to do with intercourse between the street and the place,” Baldwin says. “People have to know what’s going on and know the people and make films and come in and visit and show their work at open screenings. You know, that kind of dialogue. We’ve got that going.”
At the end of Open Screening night, after all the films have played, the lights come up and the audience mingles. Some of the filmmakers book it straight out the door and some stay to trade kudos and business cards. Eventually people filter out onto Valencia.
Tim and Arthur have gotten everything packed up. They kill the lights and lock the door behind them. Craig Baldwin is still inside somewhere, probably in the archives. Outside, the night’s showrunners chat with the few stragglers hanging out on the sidewalk. Soon, the conversation dies down and everyone goes their separate ways.
ATA’s screening room sits dark, and as the projectors cool, the space sits silent, empty; it waits patiently, for the creatives to return, and for the screen, yet again, to act as a canvas for moving art.
Photos by Diego Aguilar/Xpress Magazine