Shapeshifters Cinema and Brewery Promises Art Film Refuge in an Oakland Victorian

Kathleen Quillian (L) and Gilbert Guerrero (R) founded Shapeshifters as an experimental film series in 2012. (Sam Lefebvre/KQED)

In the Bay Area, alternative exhibition spaces for experimental film and video have long provided artists of the moving image a sense of community and interdisciplinary collaboration. In the early 1960s, filmmaker Bruce Baillie established Canyon Cinema as a screening series in the wooded East Bay hamlet of Canyon for avant-garde and family fare alike. Canyon filmmakers made inroads with composers at the San Francisco Tape Music Center, and published freewheeling newsletters that evinced a natural rapport with painters and poets. Instead of an indie studio system, Canyon inspired or anticipated other local artist-run organizations central to local developments in abstract, personal, vernacular and queer cinema.

Canyon endures as a distributor of 16mm avant-garde film prints, and its programming spinoff, San Francisco Cinematheque, curates the CROSSROADS film festival—this year at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Artists Television Access on Valencia Street is another visible example of its legacy. Like other noncommercial art forms, however, rising cost of living seriously threatens the scene: Eviction last year ended Black Hole, an Oakland screening series that carried forward Canyon’s anti-institutional origins, but not before spawning the Light Field film festival. Challenges aside, the Bay Area remains a destination for filmmakers “ill at ease with cinema as entertainment but rather fondly fixated on the apparatus, the alchemy of light,” as curator Steve Seid described local postwar celluloid artists in the 2010 book Radical Light.

Now, a renovated Victorian below Interstate 880 near Oakland’s Jack London District promises a sustainable, brick-and-mortar refuge for a community rooted in homespun exhibitions and collaborative intimacy. Gilbert Guerrero and Kathleen Quillian, founders of the Shapeshifters series at Temescal Arts Center (TAC), quietly opened the 1,200-square-foot space at 567 5th Street last year as a 40-seat microcinema, and they’re building an on-site nanobrewery with plans for a small taproom to subsidize film programming. Guerrero, an award-winning homebrewer, described the model as a response to diminishing grants funding for small arts organizations. “Shapeshifters has been a series,” he said. “We want this to be an institution.”

The 40-seat microcinema will accommodate various projector configurations for experimental film screenings.
The 40-seat microcinema will accommodate various projector configurations for experimental film screenings. (Sam Lefebvre/KQED)

Founded in 2012 as a free monthly event, Shapeshifters showcases “expanded cinema,” film generally involving live performance, for instance multi-projector work or sound-image collaboration. “It was at capacity almost immediately,” said TAC director and curator Leyya Tawil. Steve Polta, filmmaker and director of the San Francisco Cinematheque, called Shapeshifters a “space to workshop and experiment,” noting the evolution in programming fixtures such as Kit Young and Lori Varga. Other artists who’ve been featured in the series include Other Cinema founder Craig Baldwin, Sofía Córdova with Las Sucias, Greg Pope with Voicehandler, Kerry Laitala, Oracle Plus, Tommy Becker, Suki O’Kane and the late Paul Clipson.

Shapeshifters Cinema and Brewery will house Shapeshifters programming and events brought by other curators, filling a deep need for film exhibition space in Oakland. According to Polta, half of San Francisco Cinematheque attendees live in the East Bay. “So there’s a filmmaker community and also an audience community,” he said. And the microcinema is small and nimble enough for esoteric or technically-challenging work. For example, Polta hopes to bring Bruce Elder. The Canadian filmmaker’s shorter pieces run upwards of three hours, making them cost-prohibitive to show at many rental venues. As the head of a nonprofit, Polta also said he understands Shapeshifters’ transition to earned income: “Less grants and more competition.”

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Guerrero and Quillian met some 20 years ago as volunteers at Artists Television Access, where Guerrero is now on the board of directors, and founded Shapeshifters at first at the now-defunct Arbor cafe as a hub for the experimental film community closer to their home in Oakland. “One day I brought a chest of Tecate and thought, ‘I have way better beer at home,’” Guerrero said. He started Temescal Homebrewing in 2013, and in 2018 won first prize in the World Cup of Beer competition for his Synesthesia Pale Ale. A few years ago he took a small business course while considering launching a brewery, and then thought to combine the enterprise with Shapeshifters. Guerrero and Quillian signed a five-year lease on 567 5th St. in late 2018.

Kathleen Quillian (L) and Gilbert Guerrero (R) are fundraising to complete construction on Shapeshifters Cinema and Brewery.
Kathleen Quillian (L) and Gilbert Guerrero (R) are fundraising to complete construction on Shapeshifters Cinema and Brewery. (Sam Lefebvre/KQED)

Visitors enter the space, which looks residential from the street, through what Guerrero and Quillian envision as a small taproom with regular evening hours, and then proceed to a venue already outfitted with a large screen and dozens of salvaged church chairs. The seats are on rearrangeable wooden bases, and an additional screen is planned to accommodate various projector configurations. Guerrero, a homebrewing workshop leader in addition to his day job in user-experience design, plans to create the 3.5 barrel “nanobrewery” in the back room, with a fermenter built into a large outdoor deck. Guerrero and Quillian have spent more than $100,000 on permitting and other pre-construction costs, and are currently raising $30,000 on Indiegogo.

Meanwhile, Shapeshifters programming in the space is ongoing: A party and screening in association with Canyon Cinema for Shapeshifters “members,” a new category of ongoing financial supporters of the project, takes place on Saturday, Feb. 15, followed by a free presentation of Tommy Becker’s visual concept album Emotions in Metal on Saturday, Mar. 14. Black Hole founder Tooth, who presented drawings and his film Broken Symmetry at the space last year, and who now lives in New York, described Shapeshifters as a “luminous bright spot on the continuum of community-based, noncommercial artistic traditions.” He continued, “[It’s] one of the things that gives me hope that the Bay Area will weather the storm it finds itself in.”