Last week, Justin Clifford Rhody stood behind two 35mm slide projectors and addressed the crowd inside downtown Oakland bookshop E.M. Wolfman. “Well, I found these slides at the flea market, at the bottom of a plastic box where some rats had nested,” he explained. “They were moldy, so we’re going to see the life on them.”
The lights dimmed and the machines whirred, throwing corroded images against a white backdrop. The screen bore diptychs of what looked like pastel cotton candy and cracked textures like close-up oil paintings. Occasionally, Rhody had to lodge a key in the machine to advance it. Toward the end of the short presentation, slides started to appear with the original images somewhat intact. A few of them depicted the aftermath of a house fire.
It was the latest installment of Vernacular Visions, a slideshow series that Rhody has been holding at a constellation of shadowy Oakland locations since 2013. Rhody, who’s also a photographer, typically presents slides selected from his growing trove of found images, or invites guests to project their own work. Always free of charge, Vernacular Visions extends the freewheeling, autonomous approach to throwing events that Rhody first honed as a traveling musician. And beginning on Friday, September 4, the Center for New Music (55 Taylor St., San Francisco) will host a Vernacular Visions subseries featuring Rhody’s slideshows with musical accompaniment from improvisational duos.
Rhody, who’s 31, grew up in the Midwest and spent much of his young life playing music on the road. In his teens, he wrote spare songs on an acoustic guitar and released split seven-inches with likeminded artists. Later, he joined the outfit known as (d)(b)(h). The group prized exertion and improvisation, not least with its acronym, which accommodated new meanings with every release.
Always, Rhody took photos. Likewise, he accumulated them, as keen to make good pictures as he was to study ones deemed bad and discarded. To share them, he transposed the musical underground’s resourcefulness into his concurrent photographic practice. Years before coining Vernacular Visions, Rhody projected slideshows of his own work while DJing on a combination turntable and cassette player at warehouses, punk houses, and other such hospitable arts spaces. In 2012, his efforts yielded a 68-page photo book, Sliding Glass Door. Naturally, it was published by a record label, Bathetic.
In 2013, Rhody and his partner arrived in Oakland. He worked at Amoeba Music and eventually enrolled in school. Now, once a week, he assists the photographer Charles Gatewood in San Francisco. Earlier this summer, he toured some more, presenting found slides alongside his own images of Central America. To organize the national trip, which supported the release of his latest photo book, Zona Urbana, he used the same contacts as he would to book a musical tour.
Vernacular Visions began without even a thought of permits at Lake Merritt’s octagonal, limestone bandstand. Rhody considered the park inviting, comfortable, and a location likely to draw diverse and curious onlookers. Plus, he noticed an available electrical outlet.
He promoted the events with social media and black-and-white fliers, consistently done in Olde English, with a sole image and minimal details. “I wanted something uniform and recognizable because — what do you call it? Branding,” said Rhody. “Olde English is the best font, even if it’s sort of misleading. … Yeah, it’s pretty metal looking.”
The early Lake Merritt installments began to attract upward of one hundred people and caught the attention of the police, who chastised Rhody and dogged the events. Eventually, he found a steel plate over the outlet. Not discouraged, Rhody made it a roving performance once more. Every month, Vernacular Visions opted for a new warehouse venue or arts space, announced in the same cryptic way.
One special installment took place at the now-defunct MOCO Gallery on Halloween last year. The images, which appeared to be from the Seventies, documented a male nurse injecting, cleaning, and catheterizing an elderly man’s genitals, interspersed with slides that looked like ink splotches. Rhody coupled the especially graphic slideshow with free jazz and his own vindictive hollering. The crammed room hemorrhaged viewers, but Rhody remembered most fondly the couple who just made out.
“Slideshows in living rooms or punk houses feel classic and warm, like Uncle Bill coming back from vacation with his stories,” Rhody said. Indeed, if the distantly familiar sound of an advancing slide projector doesn’t inspire cozy nostalgia, the particular color saturation of homespun snapshots will. But that’s only one effect of Rhody’s practice, which works through pairing and pacing to evoke arrayed responses. Vernacular Visions involves many of the same decisions as preparing a photo book or hanging a big gallery show – every month.
Each installment takes a workweek or so and the donation box rarely accrues more than $15. Rhody spoke about public arts grants as a way to legitimize and underwrite Vernacular Visions without stifling it. “It’s always been important to me that it’s free and accessible,” he emphasized. Initially, the Center for New Music wanted to charge $15. Rhody reckoned that many residents in the neighborhood couldn’t afford it, so he persuaded organizers to make the cover $10 with a caveat: no one turned away for lack of funds.
The Center for New Music series is new for Rhody in other ways, too. Curator Tania Chen and Rhody each select one of the collaborating improvisers, which ends up coupling local artists who might not otherwise cross paths. For Friday’s event, Chen invited well-established experimentalist Jon Leidecker (aka Wobbly) and Rhody tapped Jake Head, whose throbbing electronic sets as Headcase are mostly confined to Oakland warehouses.
Rhody seemed most proud of the instances in which Vernacular Visions has functioned as a unifying force. One ongoing photo project — which involves shooting the backs of people’s heads on the equalizing grounds of $1 Sunday at Golden Gate Fields’ horse races — brings that interest in sites of community to the fore. The found slides, meanwhile, keep arriving from friends, archives, grateful librarians, and dumpsters. They live in the kitchen cabinets of Rhody’s Jingletown apartment, and there are thousands that he’s yet to shine a light on.