If the rest of East Village follows the trend set by the renovated building on the corner of 11th Avenue and J Street, the Downtown 'hood might start showing some of the hipness of its Manhattan namesake. Sushi's new Center for the Urban Arts, designed by architect Scott Glazebrook—who recently struck out on his own and started Open Architecture Workshop—is an airy, raw, steel-and-concrete warehouse space with mezzanine offices for Sushi curators above and 2,600 square feet of shiny new performance and gallery space below.
“We did a lot of work to get this space open,” Lynn Schuette says, hardly audible over the sounds of Tijuana's Lux Boreal and San Diego's Leslie Seiters Barely Known Dance Theater, two collaborating dance companies holding open rehearsal sessions in the space while preparing their “Incidental Fear of Numbers” performance, set to open Jan. 15. “We're pretty thrilled with all this.”
Schuette, Sushi's interim executive director, founded the nonprofit arts organization in 1980, back when, she says, the cultural landscape of the city needed a jolt of artistic energy. After 15 years running Sushi, she stepped down, but she took the helm again last August when the organization's board of directors asked her to help usher it into its new Downtown quarters.
“The board thought I was the right person,” Schuette said, “and I said, ‘Yeah, I guess I am.'”
Schuette leads the way through what looks like giant rolls of bright pink Saran Wrap stretched between steel beams to create makeshift walls and an entryway to the performance space. She folds her arms and stands back, quietly, and watches the young dancers experiment with a plastic folding table. The space is in the building that housed Sushi's performance venue four years ago, before it was forced out amid plans by the owner-developers to convert the building into lofts and condos. By the time Schuette caught wind of the imminent return, she had become content working on her own painting career, locked away in her quiet home miles from bustling Downtown, but she eventually obliged and agreed to put together a season that will set the tone for years to come.
The so-called 2009 Inaugural Season Back Home is a good one, Schuette says, now seated upstairs at her desk. It's a combination of seminal artists like Karen Finley (Jan. 29) and Tere O'Connor (Feb. 19-22) and emerging local artists like Teresa Gunn (Feb. 26-28) and Collective Purpose (March 26-28). All of the artists and performers will present work never before seen in San Diego.
And unlike the last four Sushi seasons, which had the then-homeless organization piecing together mostly dance performances in bars and other non-traditional venues, this year it has three times the programming, thanks to the new digs. Sushi (www.sushiart.org) has also taken a more multidisciplinary approach and will be doing as much performance art, visual art and music as it does dance.
The one common thread tying together this year's season is the noticeable political edge. Finley, for one, is part of the so-called NEA Four—artists whose proposed grants from the National Endowment for the Arts were withdrawn in 1990 by then-NEA Chairman John Frohnmayer because, in his opinion, their work didn't meet common-decency standards. Finley will premiere a monologue piece based on former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer's brush with a prostitute, and Schuette says it'll be pretty intense.
“Her performances provoke such a gut reaction,” Schuette says. “It's hard to explain.”
The only leftover from last year's Sushi season is the pay-what-you-can initiative. Part of an experiment funded by a seed grant from the San Diego Foundation, guests are asked to make donations and fill out a demographics survey in lieu of paying set ticket prices. Sushi wants to find out who its audience is and what patrons are able to pay.
Meanwhile, Schuette's hoping the new location expands the core audience—maybe a few of those new Downtown condo dwellers will eventually look out their windows, see what's going on and pop in for a performance or two.
“It's really funny,” Schuette says, “because people walk by and they still think it's a restaurant because of the Sushi sign.” She peers out her office window at the towering buildings next door. “We're not sure who's living down here,” she says, “but this Downtown audience needs to be tapped, too.”
Keepin' it coolSushi's Fresh Sound Series will help keep San Diegans hip to new musicSushi Visual & Performance Art serves up cutting-edge art, performance and dance, but the cultural organization has noticeably shied away from music over the years, simply because they never had anyone in-house with the right musical expertise.
But now, Bonnie Wright, formerly a member of Sushi's board of directors, is ready to take it on. After loading up on music courses at UCSD, serving as manager for experimental jazz trombonist George Lewis, running her own experimental music venue (San Diego's Spruce Street Forum from 1995 to 2002) and spending a ton of time out and about at artsy music venues in New York City, Wright says the second she heard Lynne Schuette, interim director at Sushi, was looking for a music curator, she knew she finally had enough street and professional cred to do it.
“You know,” Wright says, “Mozart's fine without me, pop music's fine without me, but emerging artists and living artists who are doing experimental work—that's what I'm interested in. Those are the artists who need a venue.”
Wright's lined up five experimental acts to perform at 8 p.m. every second Tuesday of the month from January through May. We asked her to help us break down the season and explain things in a way that'd get even The Casbah crowd off the smoking patio and into the new Sushi Center for Urban Arts:
Nels and Alex Cline (Jan. 13)
Sounds like: Deconstructed Sigur Rós (and yes, Nels Cline plays in Wilco)Looks like: Twins, one on guitar, one on percussionYou'll dig it if: You like dramatic crescendos followed by decrescendos and the occasional rock-out session
Blevin Blectum and Ryan Junell (Feb. 10)
Sounds like: Bjork without the over-powering vocalsLooks like: Junell's visuals are indescribableYou'll dig it if: Live electronic music created on the spot sounds like an interesting endeavor
Aiyun Huang and Liam Clancy (March 10)
Sounds like: Minimalism and well-structured percussive experimentsLooks like: Clancy, one of San Diego's best contemporary dancers, moving to nothing but beatsYou'll dig it if: You're into drumming or dancing
Pamela Z and Lisle Ellis (April 14)
Sounds like: Loops and samples and other electronic and audio experimentsLooks like: Two mad geniuses behind computers and other crazy equipment plus trippy visuals You'll dig it if: You like spoken word, sampled sound and creativity
Barnyard Drama (May 12)
Sounds like: Bedtime stories for adults set to an electronic and acoustic soundscapeLooks like: A rock / jazz / electronic bandYou'll dig it if: You like intelligent lyrics and the fusion of musical stylesGot a super cool event coming up? Write to firstname.lastname@example.org