After a trial separation in the visually minimalist '90s, art and cutting-edge music are back to being bedfellows. Galleries are opening installations to the racket of indie rock bands. San Diego's boutique record stores are doubling as gallery spaces for street art. Shops like The Muse, M-Theory Records and spaces like The Museum of Contemporary Art are spearheading the art-party revival.
You may have to be on the right e-mail list to know about them, but these events are shaking San Diego's underground and affronting the pretentiousness of art gallery life. Curators like MoCA's Rachel Teagle have begun to rethink the concept of an "art opening" and are finding a young, hip public eager to expose themselves to the experience.
"We wanted to provide people with other ways to access the art," Teagle says. "If it was too stuffy of an experience to just walk into the museum, then what if there was music, or digital projections or other ways to help you make sense of what's on view?"
Perhaps it's been easing down into San Diego from L.A., where the art party scene has been gathering momentum with monthly events like the Cannibal Flower traveling art/music show. Perhaps it migrated from Tijuana, where the Nortec Collective's ambitious unification of artists and musicians has been trend fodder for The New York Times.
"With the Internet, the art scene is sort of bubbling to the surface more, where before you had to really search it out," explains North County artist Tim McCormick, who began publicly showing his paintings two years ago after honing his chops painting skateboards and surfboards.
The movement, if it can be called one, wreaks of the days of Dada and Cabaret Voltaire, which flourished from 1916 through about 1924. The Cabaret was literally a transformed German nightclub where musicians, poets, painters and artists of various mediums joined together nightly to produce one grand performance.
"It was creativity with no boundaries and it was breaking the rules," explains music historian and video artist Doug Jablin. "To exist within a static universe is like living in hell for a creative person, so to be able to create an environment like that is more like creating home."
Encouraged by artist Hugo Ball in the midst of World War I, a group of artists in Zurich contributed their talents to Cabaret Voltaire.
"While the guns rumbled in the distance, we sang, painted, made collages and wrote poems with all our might," Hans Arp, one of Voltaire's performers, wrote in his memoirs. "We were seeking an art based on fundamentals, to cure the madness of the age, and a new order of things that would restore the balance between heaven and hell."
After Voltaire faded, salons in Paris flourished with the likes of Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Picasso, Matisse and Salvador Dali. The next notable gathering of creatives happened in 1950s America, with the bohemian literary and social edginess of the Beat Movement. The Beats mixed jazz with poetry slams (and spawned the curious practice of finger snapping in lieu of applause).
Fast-forward to Andy Warhol. With the rock band Velvet Underground as the house band in what he called his "Factory," Warhol began to shoot films in the mid-'60s, creating some of the world's first music videos. Warhol's genius blurred the line between film, graphic art, music and popular culture.
Historically, it seems mixed art/music events go through a renaissance every few years, with each new generation rediscovering the concept.
"Most people from the underground don't want to be part of the mainstream, so they find a way to create an identity separate from that," Jablin explains. "The problem is that they usually didn't do any research into history. They weren't aware of what had happened before, so they really were copying."
In the '80s, it was pop artist Keith Haring and his group of artistic misfits putting on group shows that almost always included music.
"It became a who's-who of the entire generation, but at the time they were doing it, they were nobodies," says McCormick. "But they said, "No one is going to give us this, so let's do it on our own.'"
McCormick has renovated a back room in The Muse record store in North Park and turned it into a successful gallery. It was an opportunity he couldn't walk away from.
"I never wanted to do it. It was more like something that I had to do, and you can kind of see your own kind in certain people," he says of artists and musicians. "We're demented or something. I don't know-maybe we are masochistic."
One of the people who also has the drive to motor creativity into the public eye and ear in San Diego is David Brown, founder of the local marketing company, Holiday Matinee.
Brown recently conceptualized and promoted a West Coast tour that included bands from both San Diego and Tijuana, as well as a jewelry maker, an illustrator, a photographer and a filmmaker. More than 1,200 people showed up last year when the show "expanded the creative tip" at downtown's 4th and B, Brown says.
"I called the show, "Can You Hear Me Now?' as a spoof on the Verizon thing," Brown explains. "But more than that, it meant, "This is San Diego. This is what we're doing now. Can you hear us now?' Not that the music isn't enough, but... we don't want to just limit ourselves to one thing."
Holiday Matinee is beginning to plan a music-and-fashion bash in October to counter the chaos of the governor-recall election.
"I'm really into shoes," Brown says. "Maybe we'll showcase the latest Pumas or Nikes or bring in locally done non-corporate designs. I'm all about promoting things that I believe in. I love sharing the love about what's going on in town."
Brown doesn't consider himself among what he calls the "rock soldiers" who promote creative talent locally. He credits "troopers" like Eric Howarth, owner of M-Theory Records in South Park, for furthering the present and future of the underground art scene.
Since opening in 2001, M-Theory has been orchestrating art shows on the final Thursday of every month. "It's a great thing to be able to do for the community," says Howarth. The record store also hosts live bands a few times a month.
Beyond independent music/art events and the advent of non-traditional gallery spaces like record stores and nightclubs displaying art (The Belly Up Tavern, The Whistle Stop), traditional museums are also breaking the rules. With its "Thursday Night Thing," or "TNT," the downtown Museum of Contemporary Art is straying from the standard stuffed-shirt approach to art shows and devoting itself instead to the unconventional.
TNT just celebrated its first anniversary with a Dada-esque exhibit by artist Dario Robleto, a Texan who makes sculptures from vinyl records. In one room, DJs spun records and served as "living exhibitions." Outside the museum, cocktails were served as other DJs, including Nortec Collective's Bostich, spun avant-garde dance music. About 750 came out to dig on the multi-sensory experience.
"We didn't want to push what the individual programming for the night was," says Teagle, who often doesn't even provide a schedule of events at TNT, in order to allow for spontaneity. "What we wanted to push was that, on the first Thursday of every month, something interesting is going to be happening here."
Other funky TNT nights have included a performance by a sound artist who made music with seashells and pine-cones, spoken word events, the Trummerflora Collective "reverb fest" and a short film festival.
"To me it just feels like a natural progression to put on events that expand beyond just music," Brown says. "I just feel that there is a wealth of talent in this city."
Maybe everything old is new again, whether you paint, write, sing, fiddle or bang a drum. The merging of various art forms is as natural as family members gathering for a meal, whether that gathering be today or a hundred years ago.