SAN FRANCISCO — As a huddle of adventurous art-seekers stood at the edge of the San Francisco Bay under the first full moon of 2017, a glimpse of purple neon appeared in the darkness ahead. A small white yacht twinkling with lights — the Noise Club — came into focus, and a booming voice called out from the water: “Come aboard!” We shuffled across a bridge of floating platforms, adjusting to the soft swells of the sea as we unmoored ourselves from the comforts and constraints of the city. We were about to embark on Attention! We’ve moved., a night of noise music and drag performance on the ocean concocted by Oakland artist Constance Hockaday and San Francisco experimental art space The Lab, in conjunction with — and conceived as a subtle resistance to — the first Untitled art fair in San Francisco.
Once aboard The Empress of Sausalito, attendees sipped complimentary cocktails and sat on leather couches circling a carpeted dance floor lit up by a rainbow disco ball. A MacBook glowed atop a short Corinthian pillar playing dancehall. The atmosphere was a bit campy, not unlike that of a high school dance or a wedding reception, which seemed to increase our distance from the shore.
The night would prove delightfully surreal throughout, featuring the explosive feminist noise reggaeton of La Sucias, the eerie percussive summonings of Voicehandler, the kitschy electro-drag of Kevin Blechdom, and a sculptural synth ritual from MSHR. But first, host Dynasty Handbag (the drag persona of artist Jibz Cameron) took the stage in an awkwardly draped leotard, blazer, and wide-brimmed hat. “We’re gonna have some noise bands, which just means garbage music by failed artists probably from Portland,” she began, grotesquely rubbing her belly. “I know you’re wondering: Am I gonna make some gentrification jokes? No, because it’s all over. Nothing matters.”
With that, the boat set sail.
Meanwhile, at Pier 70 in San Francisco’s long-industrial Dogpatch neighborhood, art collectors milled through a maze of white walls erected inside an ancient warehouse to celebrate the VIP opening night of UNTITLED. The fair is the latest development that contributed to the New York Times deeming the Dogpatch “America’s Next Great Art Neighborhood” earlier this month. The piece mentions many galleries housed inside the newish art complex Minnesota Street Projects but pays no tribute to the rowdy history of underground performance and artmaking that took place in the Dogpatch long before the area became desirable. Warehouses there were the testing grounds where storied mechanical performance-art pioneers Survival Research Labs reverse-engineered robots to blow each other up; unsanctioned venues such as Tire Beach hosted punk bands, costumed noisemakers, and the like; while vagrants formed floating shantytowns on the water.
All that character has gradually disappeared, along with much of San Francisco’s legendary underground, as the city continues its metamorphosis into a playground for the wealthy. And many in the local art scene who align with a DIY ethos see the new outpost of the Miami Art Basel art fair staple as yet another symptom of that change.
That’s why, when asked to contribute a booth to the fair, The Lab director Dena Beard said she would do so only if she could invoke echoes of San Francisco’s underground while paying artists who wouldn’t otherwise be invited. “I said, ‘Instead of a booth, can we have a boat?’” Beard told me. “‘And on that boat, can we have everything that’s cool and wonderful that has been exiled from San Francisco because of gentrification and the transformation of the city because of the market?’”
Hockaday was a clear choice for the project, being the local captain of everything “nautically naughty,” as Beard put it. The artist’s past work includes All These Darlings and Now Us (2014), a peepshow aboard sailboats in the bay featuring performers from shuttered San Francisco worker-owned strip club Lusty Lady and famous Latino gay bar Esta Noche. The idea: If there’s no space left for queers and sex workers on land, let’s take to the water.
For Attention! We’ve moved., Hockaday curated a lineup meant to ensure that the spirit of Pier 70’s past endures — with a queer and feminist spin. Most of the performers were people who once lived in the Bay Area but have since relocated, and nearly all of them recently lost friends in the tragic Ghost Ship fire in Oakland. On the VIP night I attended — for which tickets were $160 — there was also an unspoken promise that two disparate ends of the art world would converge in uncharted waters at a time when the question of whose art is valued by patrons feels especially relevant.
To some degree, that ploy worked.
MSHR was first to play, masterfully manipulating analog synthesizers to produce light audio feedback by wielding colored bulbs and laser-cut Plexiglas sculptures that resembled circuit boards. It sounded — and felt — like a spaceship exploding amid a relentless barrage of laser attacks.
Afterward, I met a group of blazer-clad men standing by the bar. One, a venture-capitalist, told me that his friend had misinformed him about the event. “All he told me was that it was part of the art fair and that it was on a yacht,” he said, swiping a message on his Apple Watch. “This was not what I expected, but that was actually really cool.”
Ultimately, Hockaday’s intentions are not to trick her audience, but to instill a new sense of possibility. Framed as a form of resistance to gentrification and the UNTITLED art fair, the project is imperfect. But Hockaday’s inventions can be more accurately thought of as experiential forms of philosophical inquiry. For her, escaping the limits of land helps us imagine how we might also transcend the social structures that confine us.
In a conversation with Interview Magazine about the project, Hockaday said, “I’m finding that in urban areas, urban infrastructure informs what we can and can’t do with our bodies. In the same ways noise clubs or industrial wilderness existed in the city as spaces [where] we took risks, the water can be that place now.”
Through Attention! We’ve moved., Hockaday imagined a future for the Bay Area’s underground that wasn’t bogged down by the limits of infrastructure. And during the non-VIP cruises ($35) that took place throughout the weekend, the boat was filled with art-scene devotees joyously dancing at a time when many are still reeling from loss. The momentary island seemed to draw out hope for survival by carving a sense of place for those left behind by the “progress” in San Francisco.
Aboard the Noise Club, at least, the denizens of DIY and the underground were the unlikely stars of the art fair.