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VIDEO: Shepard Fairey Riffs on Jim Marshall, Marin Alsop Says Goodbye to Cabrillo and More

August 8, 2016

Watch my monthly KQED Newsroom segment with host Thuy Vu here or below:

Through Sunday, Aug. 14: West Edge Opera presents Cunning Little Vixen, Powder Her Face and Agrippina at 16th Street Station, Oakland
This year’s West Edge Opera festival brings together three brilliantly-produced, contrasting works united in their focus on female protagonists. In Handel’s early 18th century masterpiece Agrippina, a queen plots the downfall of an Emperor; Leos Janacek’s playful yet dangerous tragicomedy of the 1920s, Cunning Little Vixen, follows the story of a super-smart female fox with activist leanings; and Powder Her Face, a hard-hitting, R-rated opera composed in the mid 1990s by Thomas Ades. It depicts the exploits of cruel way in which society ostracizes a wealthy, sexually promiscuous woman. (Ades made history with this work when he included the first depiction of fellatio in an opera.) 

Through Saturday, Aug.13: Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music at Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, Santa Cruz Marin
Alsop is retiring as the artistic director and chief conductor of this important international contemporary music festival after 25 years at its helm. Alsop is a key figure in classical music for blazing a trail for women conductors. To pay tribute to her greatness on the podium, this year’s festival includes world premieres from major composers like John Adams and James MacMillan. 

Saturday, Aug 13 – Tuesday, Sep. 30: American Civics at San Francisco Art Exchange, San Francisco
In this small but mighty exhibition, acclaimed contemporary graphic artist Shepard Fairey riffs on iconic images from the 1960s by the late, great photographer Jim Marshall. The show includes Fairey’s reworkings of photos of Johnny Cash, Cesar Chavez, and others while exploring some of our country’s enduring social justice issues like voting rights, gun control, and mass incarceration. 

Through Sunday, Oct. 16: 20/20 Vision: Celebrating the Next Generation of Book Artists, Center for the Book, San Francisco 
The San Francisco Center for the Book celebrates its first 20 years with a show that’s all about the future of the ancient art of letterpress and bookbinding. This exhibition features the work of 20 emerging book artists from around the country and abroad, whose output provides a sense of where book art is heading as a field.



VIDEO: Van Jones & Favianna Rodriguez Put Artists of Color at Heart of Environmental Movement

June 30, 2016

Watch the video I produced with Kelly Whalen in which political commentator Van Jones and artist Favianna Rodriguez discuss the impact of art on environmental issues here or below:

Artist Favianna Rodriguez and political commentator Van Jones have a lot in common. They both came up through the grassroots activism scene of the Bay Area in the late 1990s. They both run non-profit organizations/initiatives — respectively, CultureStrike and Green for All— that seek to provide environmental justice for communities of color. And they’re both on a mission to shake up the environmental movement by putting artists from diverse backgrounds at the forefront of the drive to combat global warming.

“For so long, when you think of environmentalists, you think of a white guy in Birkenstocks, and yet communities of color have dirtier air, dirtier water, refineries,” Rodriguez says. “I think in the climate movement we need to make room for more artists to tell stories from the front lines that lead us to action.”

Jones and Rodriguez strongly believe that artists coming out of struggling neighborhoods are uniquely equipped to deliver a powerful message about the environment. The traditional ways of talking about climate change are just not getting across. Conversely, comedians, visual artists, writers and other creatives know how to connect the hard facts with people’s hearts.

“When we talk about global warming, we have people who are paid millions of dollars to do polls and communicate, but their messages don’t work,” Jones says. “But you get Boots Riley, one of the great rappers, to describe the problem — that’s much more effective.”

KQED Arts invited Jones and Rodriguez to share their thoughts about art and the environment in a conversation that was recorded at Rodriguez’s studio in West Oakland on Friday, Jun. 3.In addition to the video, here is an extended audio version of the interview, edited from the original conversation.



Eco Artists Transform “Mother Earth” into “Lover Earth”

June 21, 2016

Watch the video I produced with Peter Ruocco about the Ecosex environmental art movement here or below:

You’ve heard of heterosexuals, homosexuals, transsexuals and metrosexuals. Now, here come the “ecosexuals.”

Ecosexuality a new movement at the intersection of culture and ecological activism founded by performance artists Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens which seeks to re-frame the conversation around solving environmental issues.

“We are shifting the metaphor from Earth as mother to Earth as lover,” says Stephens, who divides her time between making art and teaching the subject at UC Santa Cruz.

“When we imagine the Earth as a mother, we imagine the mother will take care of us and we can just take, take, take,” says Sprinkle, who is also an educator and former sex worker. “Whereas the Earth as a lover, you have to treat them nice or they go away.

Sprinkle, Stephens, and other members of the growing ecosexual community use performance art, documentary film, interactive walking tours — and a ton of humor — to grab people’s attention around global warming and other pressing ecological problems with the aim of inciting them to action.

Later this month, Stephens and Sprinkle are heading out on the road in their sparkly, blue “Pollination Pod” (a tricked-out, 1975 Perris Pacer camper van) to interview and interact with ecosexual artists, activists, thinkers, and practitioners, as well as any detractors they might meet on their journey throughout California. The duo says this research will inform their next film project, which focuses on water.

“We’re trying to make the environmental movement more sexy, fun and diverse,” says Sprinkle. “Some of us don’t quite fit into the Sierra Club because we’re a little weird.”

To find out more about ecosexuality, head here. 



VIDEO: Sexy ‘Carmen’ at SF Opera, Aerial Dance at Hastings Law and More

June 6, 2016

Watch my monthly KQED Newsroom segment with host Thuy Vu here or below:

Tuesday, Jun. 21: Garden of Memory, Chapel of the Chimes, OaklandOne of the best-kept, long-running live music secrets of the East Bay, this annual, midsummer night event invites audience members to wander round a historic funerary chapel encountering a range of weird and wonderful experimental musicians and sound artists at play.

Now through July 23: Laura Owens: 10 Paintings, Wattis Institute, San Francisco

LA-based artist Laura Owens explores the concept of the painted canvas in a playful, thought-provoking way: she has hidden 10 paintings behind elaborate, handmade wallpaper forcing us to wonder whether the true art is hidden or staring us right in the face.

Now through Jun. 19: Mountain Play presents West Side Story, Sidney B. Cushing Amphitheater, Mount Tamalpais State Park, MarinMount Tam provides a stunning backdrop for this lively production of the classic 1957 musical from Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Arthur Laurents and Jerome Robbins based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.  The show has been produced just once before in Mountain Play’s 103-year history.

Thursday, Jun. 16 – Sunday, Jun. 19: Bandaloop and The Village Impacts present #SFPublic Canvas, Hastings School of Law building exterior, San FranciscoThis large scale public performance project combines vertical dance, projection mapping, and crowd-sourced content on a big wall outside the Hastings Law School. Two years in the making, the work chronicles the changing face of the mid-Market and Tenderloin neighborhoods and includes contributions from aerial dance troupe Bandaloop, animator Gmunk, teen poets from Youth Speaks and neighborhood residents.

Monday, Jun. 27 – Tuesday, Jun. 28: Flight of the Conchords at The Masonic, San Francisco and Shoreline Amphitheater, Mountain ViewThe famed New Zealand comedy songwriting duo comprising Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement swoops down on the Bay Area as part of a big, U.S. tour before heading to SoCal.

Now through Sunday, Jul. 3: San Francisco Opera presents Carmen at War
Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
Bad boy Spanish director Calixto Bieito helms this gritty, hyper-sexualized take on Georges Bizet’s famous opera about a soldier who unravels when he falls in love with a wily gypsy woman. Not your great aunt’s version of Carmen.



VIDEO: SFMOMA Reopening, Latino Art Now! and More

May 6, 2016

Watch my monthly KQED Newsroom segment with host Thuy Vu here or below: 

Now through Sunday, May 15: Hamlet at Shotgun Players’ Ashby Stage, Berkeley
‘The play’s the thing’ in this unusual version of Shakespeare’s famous tragedy, where the cast members only find out which role they’re going to play that night five minutes before curtain. 

Now through Saturday, May 14: Latino Art Now! exhibition at MACLA, San Jose
For the 18th year running, the region’s premiere Latino art and culture hub presents an exhibition of works by some of the most fabulous contemporary Latino artists of recent times from the Bay Area and beyond, like Carlos Rolón/Dzine, Gilbert “Magu” Lujan, and Ester Hernandez.

Now through Thursday, May 19: Cypress String Quartet’s Beethoven in the City concert series at a variety of locations, San Francisco
After 20 years, the esteemed Bay Area-based chamber ensemble is saying farewell with a series of free pop-up concerts covering all 16 of Beethoven’s string quartets in different locations around San Francisco. 

Saturday, May 14: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) reopening, San Francisco After three years of being closed to the public, the expanded SFMOMA reopens with a big public celebration and hundreds of newly added works of contemporary art from the Fisher Collection.



‘6×9’ Solitary Confinement VR Experience Merges Journalism and Art

April 29, 2016

Soon after Dolores Canales was sent to solitary confinement at the California Institute for Women, a state prison located in Chino, CA, she started to feel disoriented. “It’s like you’ve been put into another country where you don’t know the language or the area or anything,” says the ex-prisoner, who spent nine months in solitary after landing in jail for drug-related crimes at the age of 18. “You have to reestablish yourself in this new world.”

Canales did her best to cope with the deprivations of her tiny, airless cell by galvanizing her fellow prisoners in neighboring pens to adorn themselves with their bedsheets to “dress for dinner” and sing songs together. Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” was a favorite; Canales would belt out the Queen of Soul’s melody and the other prisoners would chime in with the “sock it to me, sock it to me” refrain.

[caption id="attachment_11536689" align="aligncenter" width="800"]Delores Canales, formerly incarcerated in solitary confinement poses for a portrait in Fullerton, Orange County, California on 23rd March 2016 Delores Canales, formerly incarcerated in solitary confinement poses for a portrait in Fullerton, Orange County, California on Mar. 23, 2016[/caption]

A Virtual Reality Experience of Solitary Confinement

Canales’ impressions of life in solitary are part of 6x9: A Virtual Reality Experience of Solitary Confinement, an immersive, audiovisual storytelling experience from the U.K.’s Guardian Media Group. The virtual reality (VR) project had its official launch this week following previews at the Sundance and Tribeca film festivals. The project aims to increase public awareness about the destructive impact of isolation on the thousands of men and women currently in solitary confinement.

“You can be mentally damaged by being placed in isolation,” says 6x9’s executive producer Francesca Panetta. “But by using this technology, I hope that you will get a more visceral feeling of what it is like to be locked in a 6-by-9 cell for 23 hours a day, of the boredom, of the fear, of the confusion.”


Don’t believe the hype about VR?

Ever since The New York Times went live with its first experiments in VR storytelling last year -- The Times wasn't the first mainstream journalism entity in the space, but the most prominent at that point -- media companies have stampeded towards the format. They've have glommed onto the tactile possibilities of VR as a way to capture the public’s faulty-circuit attention span in a media landscape driven by social media’s interactive itch.

According to a Knight Foundation report on VR journalism published in March 2016, the number of new investors in VR technology, content creation and distribution increased 27 percent in 2015 over 2014 and is projected to continue to increase in 2016. And The Times is betting large on this trend. The company announced this week a plan to distribute 300,000 of Google's cheap, basic VR viewer, Google Cardboard, in conjunction with the upcoming release of a new VR project that gives people the chance to explore Pluto.

There’s certainly an unbridled amount of hype around how journalism might exploit the new technology and attached storytelling potential. But the Knight report asks, right upfront, what we all want to know: “Perhaps the biggest question facing the nascent industry is what will happen when the novelty of VR wears off, and whether the quality of the storytelling and the VR experience will bring people back to look at the content on a regular basis.”

I'm betting the answer lies in the space where journalism meets art. And if it succeeds, 6x9 might be a case in point.

Where news meets art

The project is firmly rooted in traditional news reporting: It takes its inspiration from stories about the psychological damage caused by solitary confinement and Barack Obama’s proposed reforms to the system for juveniles and people with severe mental problems; the Guardian team conducted in-depth interviews with seven people who’ve experienced solitary in California and New York for the project; and it weaves in sound from the PBS Frontline documentary Solitary Nation. Panetta says the PBS producers made 25 hours of video footage available to The Guardian for 6x9.


But experiencing 6x9 feels slightly different from most efforts in VR journalism I’ve tested out so far. It’s more akin to Bay Area theater artist Chris Hardman’s longstanding yet still gripping audio tour of Alcatraz than it is to, say, The Los Angeles Times’ attempt to capture what it’s like to explore Mars, the Inside North Korea story from ABC News or USA Today’s jaunt through Old Havana in a vintage bubblegum pink Ford.

And that’s not just because the Alcatraz audio tour and 6x9 are both about incarceration. From the very opening lines of the voice over in 6x9, which flatly announces, “Welcome to your cell. You’re going to be here for 23 hours a day,” to the way in which ghostly snippets of prisoners’ stories seep in and out of your ears depending on where you move your head, 6x9 announces itself above all as an audio forward experience -- and one that's meaningfully triggered by the visual environment. You sit in that tiny space and your pores open up wide to every tiny sound, whether that’s a voice echoing in the distance, or the squeak of the mattress. The visuals actually play second fiddle to the soundscape, and that’s overwhelmingly what transports you in the physical space.

Interestingly, 6x9 isn't the only immersive journalism project about solitary confinement out there right now. The Huffington Post's RYOT team created Confinement, a 360-degree video story which also uses prison sounds and narration to tell of the horrors of life in a cramped, concrete box. But this piece, though it incorporates the voices of prisoners talking about their experiences, doesn't combine the audio and visual components in as sophisticated a fashion as The Guardian's effort. Looking around the cell in Confinement doesn't initiate a new piece of audio. It's a traditional narrative that unfolds in one direction over time.

Ira Glass, the creator of This American Life, famously describes radio as the “most visual medium.” If 6x9 is anything to go by, more VR journalists should pay attention to Glass’ words.

[caption id="attachment_11534436" align="aligncenter" width="800"]A still from '6x9' A still from '6x9'[/caption]

How to experience 6x9

You can experience 6x9 in a variety of ways. The optimal one is to strap on a Samsung Gear VR headset with the 6x9 app downloaded onto a Google Android phone. Or you can don a Google Cardboard viewer for a similar experience (albeit one with less fancy optics). These methods are the most compelling; moving your head around initiates different parts of the story.

You don’t actually have to have a viewer at all, though, as there are two alternative ways to get inside the piece: watch it on a smartphone, which allows you to shuffle around the prison cell by toggling around your smartphone’s screen with a finger; or if you don’t have a smartphone, The Guardian has released a 360-degree video version of the piece on the project’s webpage. These two methods won’t necessarily make you feel like you’re locked behind bars, but they do communicate the essence of the story.

VR in the Bay Area

In addition to the above, 6x9 also exists as a physical installation. People who interacted with the project at the Tribeca Film Festival could explore the story while physically moving about in a model of a prison cell. Solitary confinement survivors present at the festival to share their experiences. The installation is touring, though sadly it won’t come to California anytime soon.

But if you’d like to get more of a handle on the burgeoning world of VR storytelling -- albeit from a fiction-based rather than journalistic angle -- the San Francisco International Film Festival presents a "VR Day" on Saturday, April 30 at Gray Area. The event provides an opportunity for festival goers to steep themselves in VR filmmaking and meet some of the key players in the field. For more information visit



3 Reasons Why Louis C.K.’s ‘Horace and Pete’ Might be the Best Series of Our Time

April 4, 2016

Courtesy of Louis C.K.'s 'Horace and Pete' website

If there's any show that can be said to symbolize our present "golden era" of TV, it's Horace and Pete, the comedian Louis C.K.'s new series set in a Brooklyn bar. C.K. unveiled the 10th and final episode this weekend. This is is an odd thing to say when you consider the fact that C.K. released the series via his website without the need of a network, and that Horace and Pete feels more like a docudrama or an episodic piece of theater than anything I've ever witnessed on a small screen. Nevertheless, here are three reasons why Horace and Pete is brilliant:

1. It tells a story that feels old and new all at once.
I read a tongue-in-cheek elevator pitch-style description of the show in The New Yorker which I thought was right on the nose when it said Horace and Pete was "Cheers meets The Iceman Cometh." And with its story about a group of blood relations destined to repeat their cycle of woes into perpetuity, a tragic hero who ultimately falls despite striving to do the right thing (C.K.'s role as bar co-owner Horace), and "chorus" of barflies, the series veers into the terrain of Greek tragedy.

Yet at the same time, the plot bubbles and spews with today's headlines; Donald Trump's campaign is an intermittent discussion point throughout. And it grapples in an explosive but still non-heavy-handed way with the issues of our time.

One of the most thoughtful scenes, for example, presents a side of transgender politics I've never given much thought to before: the question of whether it's ethical for a transgender person to keep silent about their former gender identity to a person they're sleeping with. Horace, who's resolutely straight, has a happy one-night stand with a beautiful alcoholic. In the morning over eggs and coffee -- well, Horace has coffee; his date Rhonda (played by Karen Pittman) asks for something a little stronger and her gracious host obliges -- the conversation takes a left turn when Horace finds out Rhonda used to be a guy. At least, the possibility of a sex change is inferred, though never explicitly stated. As non-judgmental as Horace is about people who make a habit of drinking whiskey before breakfast, he gets flustered and accusatory at the thought he's somehow been "duped" into a "homosexual" encounter. Fascinating stuff. 

2. It refuses to conform to tried-and-tested formats.
The series exists in a liminal space at the intersection of TV, theater, documentary and feature film and strikes an unusual balance between the structural and content mores of these formats. Louis C.K. has created what feels like an entirely fresh way to tell a story by carefully weaving together elements from different traditions.

The series has the cuts and close-ups of a TV serial. It brings in the actualities of the documentary format. And it has the epic, sweeping quality of a movie. The theatricality of the series is what interests me the most though, like C.K.'s penchant for splicing the action with long monologues. My favorite of these is a bonkers-foulmouthed explanation of the famous Biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah told by Kurt Metzger playing one of the bar's regular customers.

There's even an intermission to break up the longer episodes and the entire cast takes a bow at the end of the final show. Oh, and even though Horace and Pete is the work of one of the funniest comedians around today, there are few opportunities for laughter. Unless you count comedy in the sense of the great cosmic joke of which all humankind is a part. C.K. knows all about that, and with this series captures its essence in a bottle.

3. It features some of the most prescient writing and best performances I've ever seen in any format. Period.
What's masterful about Horace and Pete is the casting and the writing. It seems like the two are so closely intertwined (viz Metzger's Sodom monologue mentioned above, which, judging by the reactions of the other cast members in the scene, strikes me as having been partly or fully improvised) that I need to tackle them both at once.

The blend of standup comedians and dramatic actors is an unusual and powerful one. And each performer brings pathos, shadows and moments of levity to his or her role. I cannot speak highly enough of C.K., Steve Buscemi, and Edie Falco as the bar-owning brothers and their sister. Here we have a trio who show us plenty of fallibility and ugliness while at the same commanding our respect. And how tightly wound and carefully controlled the writing feels: C.K. reveals dramatic information to us incrementally, doling out hard-to-digest news about the family's troubled past in lean teaspoonfuls of strong medicine.

Yet despite the economy of the dramaturgy, abetted by the claustrophobic indoor setting of the Brooklyn bar with its flat lighting and ugly furniture, C.K. somehow makes his drama feel airy and spacious. Witness the final episode, which begins suddenly and without explanation in 1976. Here, the principal performers whom we've grown to know and love in the present-day setting -- C. K., Buscemi, Falco -- play their forebears. The scenes are without a doubt the nastiest and most suffocating of the whole series.

But then we jump forward to 2016, to find Amy Sedaris, in the role of a sweetly unhinged wannabe bartender, lightening things up. When she skips over to the bar's old jukebox and puts Simon and Garfunkel's famous song "America," about a journey to find meaning in a country that's lost its way, it's as if a feather duster had temporarily fluffed away all the creepy-crawlies from a cobwebby corner.

Speaking of which, Paul Simon's ghostly little theme song for the series, with its sparsely-chorded guitar riff and far-off lament of a vocal line, captures the "high lonesome sound" of the great roots musicians that have been singing about this country's dashed hopes and failures since the dawn of the Republic. The tune, together with this formidable series, leaves us feeling emotionally drained yet strangely complete.