Nautical Noise: Yachting Against Cultural Displacement?

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Las Sucias performs on the temporary installation 'Attention: We've Moved' on Jan. 12, 2017.  (Robert Divers Herick)

The upper deck of 90-foot party yacht the Empress of Sausalito looks and sounds like a misfiring spaceship engine.

Hovering over a thicket of wires on folding tables, two longhairs in shades conjure skittish blips with luminous, homemade sound wands. And as strobe lights begin to flare in and out of phase with a gut-grabbing barrage of low-end kick, Angel Island passes by the starboard window. Thirty-some passengers suspect the surf just got choppier.

“I’m in a delicate space up here,” says Captain Augustino, a San Francisco Bay lifer idly steering with one foot in the dark wheelhouse. “So it’s nice to hear these random tones rather than copy-and-paste rap, or rock, which I think is really dead. … There are these abstract correlations with how I’m feeling, like, what I feel and what I think are clashing. This music is like that.”

MSHR. (Robert Divers Herick)

We’re attending, or unwittingly participating in, an installation-cum-social experiment dubbed Attention! We’ve Moved on Thursday evening, Jan. 12. It’s the work of Oakland nautical artist Constance Hockaday, whose practice points to possibility on bodies of water, and Dena Beard, the Mission District arts space director who sees the project partly as a puckish response to the City of San Francisco’s effective banishment of noise performances at The Lab.

“With the programming, I wanted to highlight noise, that aggressive cacophony and dissonance,” Beard tells me. “Specifically I wanted to highlight how gentrification affected The Lab in the sense that the city imposed a noise cap on us -- basically making it illegal to do an entire genre of music we were known for.”


According to Dynasty Handbag, the evening’s delightfully crabby emcee in pancake makeup, “Noise probably means garbage music by failed musicians.”

It’s VIP preview night ($160), meaning at least one venture capitalist is fingering free grapes on the yacht’s lower deck with some fellow white-shirts -- hipped to the voyage, no doubt, by its association with the inaugural San Francisco edition of UNTITLED art fair at Pier 70 the same weekend. Tickets to the next four cruises, twice each on Friday and Saturday night, cost $35 each. And they’re selling out.

Dynasty Handbag
Dynasty Handbag. (Robert Divers Herick)

“At first I thought we shouldn’t be part of an art fair. We have nothing to sell,” Beard says, noting The Lab’s commitment to interrogating the conventions of arts funding. “But then I started thinking about Pier 70’s history of radical underground activity, and I thought, 'Okay, I’ll participate if I can recreate the sort of events that are getting threatened or displaced in the Bay Area.'”

“I used to live here,” reflects Dynasty Handbag. “I hated it.”

Hockaday -- whose earlier projects include a floating peepshow, inspired by the 2014 closures of worker-owned strip club the Lusty Lady and Latino gay bar Esta Noche -- prefers not to drastically transform the boats she commissions in her work. The Empress’ most prominent embellishment is an arched white neon-sign on the lower deck. It reads, “Everybody’s.”

That refers to how the water and shores technically belong to the public, she tells me, although they’re managed and overseen by a trustee, the Port of San Francisco. “Like the water, the land moves, only slower -- and yet we divide it up and stake claims to it,” she says. “Whereas the tidelands are subject to the public-trust doctrine.”

After MSHR, the New York duo with the wands, comes Las Sucias. The local group, composed of Alexandra Buschman and Danishta Rivero, meddles with an altar of trinkets and electronics, spitting volleys of vernacular Spanish atop reggaetón-inspired beats. “It’s more rhythmic [than MSHR],” observes Captain Augustino. “But it’s not copy-and-paste.”

And then there’s Voicehandler, an improvisational duo composed of Rivero and percussionist Jacob Felix Heule. Rather than her trenchant delivery with Las Sucias, Rivero marshals an incantatory, subtly modulated melisma up from the core of her body, while Heule keeps a kinetic patter on his personalized trap kit. Following the set is longtime Bay Area experimentalist Kevin Blechdom, with a cracked song-and-dance act.

The "noise table"
The "noise table" used by MSHR. (Robert Divers Herick)

By now, Captain Augustino isn’t listening too closely. He has an audience up in the wheelhouse, and he’s talking about his late father, a master square-rigger (think pirate ships) -- in fact, “one of only three master square-riggers in the world,” he says. “Now there are two.”

Beard didn’t grow up sailing historic vessels like Captain Augustino, but her family lived together on a boat for a while. “You put people in a boat on a body of water and a sense of camaraderie and risk happens,” she says.

“It’s a non-normative space, so it shifts, very basically, the ways we perceive performance art. And I do think that when every inch of our immediate vicinity becomes uninhabitable or over-regulated, we should look to the water as another option.”