We may be a small city, but far from being a cultural backwater, we’re a city that knows how to party in high style. The latest evidence of this came last weekend at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, a place where, against the traditions of stuffy museums everywhere, people were allowed to be part of the art.
The occasion was “RGB,” the electronic-music rave and laser/light show organized by Blasthaus and held Saturday night/Sunday morning, July 10/11 , in conjunction with the spectacular exhibition of video art by Bill Viola. The decision to admit hundreds or possibly thousands of people into the building late at night to dance, drink, and partake of a world-class exhibit was inspired. The sheer spectacle of masses of people talking boistrously, laughing, gesticulating toward the hyperkinetic laser projections high over their heads, and leaping about ecstatically in the usually hushed confines of one of the city’s most prestigious art santcuaries was in itself a fine work of art. Boundaries and etiquette were smashed, while leaving the museum and its art very much intact – though forever changed in the perceptions of those who were there. No longer, for them, can the institution be perceived as aloof or at all indifferent. It became a place of the people, by the people, and for the people.
In the building’s atrium, perched like an emperor on the staircase landing, looking out over the crowd toward the lofty front entrance, DJ Mocean Worker of New York City worked a set of turntables with considerable finesse. He amped the place up, sending beats streaming out at a dizzying rate, energizing the crowd with the latest in techno-trance sounds. The volume was such that you could take a smoke across the street at Yerba Buena Center and still hear the party loud and clear.
In the Be-Calm Transit Lounge, the ambient/experimental music room adjacent to the main dance area, a surprising number of computer geeks sat at banks of terminals, Netsurfing the night away. What they discovered in their journeys, only they can say, but the sight of them was disconcerting. Only the hardest of hard-core Netheads could stay off the dance floor when the likes of DJs Darkhorse, Joe Rice, and Pimps of Atlantis were creating the grooviest of vibes.
But far more than the music, the dancing, the lasers, or anything else, the party’s highlight came in viewing the Viola video installations. People flowed from room to room in the self-guided video journey (a sort of self-propelled Disney ride), repeatedly plopping themselves down to partake of extraordinary imagery and sound effects. Clearly many of those sitting for long periods in front of various video terminals or giant screens were tripping. And the atmosphere was ecstatic. Installations became living rooms, and the people in them family. People sat among friends and strangers, arms clasped around knees, shoulders brushing, everyone bathed in the dim light of video displays. With each mind-tripping sound and image effect, a sort of communal rush ensued.
Truly, “RGB” set a new standard for parties, and created a whole new way of appreciating art. The SFMOMA will never be quite the same, and that bodes well for modern art, modern art enthusiasts, and modern music as they move into the next, undoubtedly electronic millennium.
For a related story, see “Light, then … time: Bill Viola at SFMOMA.”
This article originally appeared in print in the Bay Area Reporter on July 15, 1999.