It’s in the Air

Perceptive documentary glorifies the awareness of the Bay Area’s visual arts community

In the first scene of the new documentary, Tell Them We Were Here, when we witness artist and performer Cliff Hengst singing “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” through a bullhorn while climbing up a steep city street, we suspect we’re in the right place, at least physically. But soon after that, as a talking-heads procession of creators, curators and commentators describes Bay Area art workers as “more interested in a life in the arts than in a career in the arts” while decrying big-money art auctions and the accompanying transactional value system, we know without a doubt we’re in the right place philosophically, as well.

Tell Them We Were Here is a collaboration between painter Griff Williams—founder of San Francisco’s Gallery 16 and the Urban Digital Color printmaking workshop—and his filmmaker son Keelan Williams, who came to the mutual conclusion that the Bay Area’s progressive politics and its special, often-defiant otherness naturally reflect in the work of the region’s visual artists.

The Williamses illustrate their theory by digging deeply into the milieus of eight contemporary artists, pictured in montage over a period of 25 years. The result is a bracing celebration of the Bay’s reputation as—in the words of one witness—“a refuge for weirdos and artists,” a “multi-everything” kind of place, well stocked with socially hyper-aware talent and a flair for the unconventional. Rene de Guzman, senior curator of art at the Oakland Museum of California, sees local artists as more concerned with “people helping one another” than with making piles of money in the brutally competitive world of big-time galleries. In the Bay Area, notes de Guzman, “The economic system is not the culture.”

Take Sadie Barnette. The Oakland-based photographer and constructor of installations was inspired by the FBI files of her activist father Rodney Barnette—a Vietnam veteran and former Black Panther, and operator of the first Black-owned gay bar in San Francisco, the New Eagle Creek Saloon. Sadie Barnette pays tribute to the bar by re-creating it in a brilliantly colorful installation, with a zest that prompts curator de Guzman to hail her work as an example of “Afro-Futurism.”

Digital artist/filmmaker Lynn Hershman Leeson thinks the Bay’s rebellious attitude comes with the turf: “You have no choice. It chooses you.” With her technologically sophisticated point of view and built-in playful irreverence, Leeson is the warm-hearted little sister to the tech industry’s Big Brother. In her oeuvre, everyday life is an adventure in self-awareness. For her Roberta Breitmore Project she assumed a whole new fictional identity, often perilously, as an ironically fashion-conscious office worker. She also created a one-room museum in a Tenderloin SRO hotel. Leeson’s pre-Photoshop collages are famous, but more for their witty skepticism than for their art-market collectability. She insists, “I never thought of commercial applications.”

We also meet photographer and digital artist Nigel Poor, whose Ear Hustle podcast has given voice to San Quentin inmates; street photographer Jim Goldberg, author of the books Rich and Poor and Raised by Wolves, who asked his subjects to annotate his photos of them; Tucker Nichols, maker of the “mail art” Flowers for Sick People and champion of art that relates to “how people actually live”—his explanation for local eccentricity being: “It’s in the air”; Oakland’s Alicia McCarthy, whose enormous, mural-sized woven strands of color have decorated buildings; and Amy Franceschini, creator of the Twitter logo and proponent of urban farming via updated Victory Gardens. And then there’s Michael Swaine, who takes his vintage sewing machine to homeless encampments in order to mend people’s clothes for free, and is perhaps the artist most emblematic of the hang-loose, do-good Bay Area ethos.
The artists profiled in the documentary have been exhibited at BAMPFA, or are represented in the museum’s collection. “Tell Them We Were Here” is accessible for a $12 rental fee—$8 for members—from BAMPFA’s virtual cinema program. For more info, visit Tellthemwewerehere.com or BAMPFA.org.

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