Last summer I visited Intersection for the Arts to see an installation by artists Weston Teruya and Michele Carlson that resembled a chaotic classroom. While discussing the project with curator Kevin B. Chen, I learned that he was nearing his ten-year anniversary at the organization, so I asked Kevin some questions to learn more about his contributions to our local arts community.
KF: Briefly tell us what Intersection for the Arts is all about.
KC: Intersection is a multi-disciplinary arts space based in the Mission District. Established in 1965, we are one of the oldest non-profit alternative arts spaces in the country, and the oldest one in San Francisco. We currently develop, support and present work in a number of different disciplines -- visual arts, theater, dance, jazz, literature, interdisciplinary projects -- as well as incubating and supporting dozens of projects and small organizations throughout the Bay Area with our Incubator Program. In the history of Intersection, there were also moments in time where other fields and disciplines were supported, like stand-up comedy, film, and experimental music. Intersection started off in the Tenderloin as a merger of several faith-based experiments that were using art to reach disenfranchised neighborhood youth while also providing artists who were conscientious objectors with an alternative to serving in the Vietnam War. Intersection found its first home in the basement of a church in North Beach, where it was located for the first twenty years and was initially called Intersection: A Center for Religion and the Arts. There hasn't been a religious affiliation since the early 1970s, but it is an interesting history, when forward-thinking members of the church were positioning art to help build-up and construct community when it was being so devastated by the social and political upheavals of the 1960s.
KF: Describe your role at the organization and how it has evolved over the past ten years. Also, how has your personal aesthetic valuing process evolved during your time at IFTA?
KC: I didn't have formal training to curate and organize projects. I learned a lot of it on the job. One of the great things that we've been able to do is to provide a lot of development space and time for artists to realize their vision in the actual building itself, whether it's upstairs in the gallery or downstairs in the theater. We frequently work with artists who want to create new work, and we've been fortunate to be able to provide the framework where that work can organically grow and develop in front of our eyes. I have a very hands-on approach to working with artists, helping them out in whatever way possible to realize an exhibition or installation. I'm a practicing artist myself, and over the years I've also learned a ton about installation techniques and the best ways to work the particular physical layout of our gallery. I wouldn't even think twice about staying late to work with an artist, and...[giving] as much they do [in] realizing the idea. Because of this, my own personal aesthetic valuing process has definitely morphed over the years. It has been an incredible learning experience...being exposed to the many different ways in which artists approach their work and how they execute their ideas and thoughts. Now, after 10 years and over four dozen exhibitions and installations later, I feel like I value the process more than what ultimately winds up in the gallery on the night of the opening reception.
KF: Can you tell us about one of the most successful (or one of your favorite) gallery exhibitions at the Intersection?
KC: Each exhibition that I've worked on at Intersection has had its own pool of memorable moments, but I'll mention a couple that were especially memorable:
We worked with local artist Victor Cartagenaon a project back in 2000-2001 that was his investigation on how the mainstream media presented the two sides of capital punishment, especially as it was relating then to the case of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. Part of Victor's process was his forced consumption of media -- for the project, he read thousands of issues of newspapers and magazines and listened to hours and hours of talk radio and television news programs to compile both sides of the argument on the death penalty. He saved all of these papers and magazines and audio tapes and in August 2001, we moved it all from his studio to Intersection. Our gallery was filled with stacks of newspapers, rows of audio speakers, and several television sets. Scheduled to open on September 12, 2001, we were working long hours in the days leading up to the opening. We had our checklist boiled down to a few remaining things to do, and after a long night of working in the gallery on September 10, we both went home planning to meet up at Intersection again the following afternoon to complete the show. After waking up the next morning and hearing the news of the terrorist attacks, I listened to the radio for a couple of hours, and then wanted to get outside to get some fresh air and clear my head. Like many of us across the country, confusion set in when I had a moment to breathe. I went back inside and listened to the radio for another hour, and with no new information about the attacks, I felt like I needed to get away from all of it for a while. I went down to Intersection to continue working on the exhibition, and Victor was there, as was our director Deborah [Cullinan] and some other staff members. We were all sitting in the gallery talking about what had happened, and then turned on one of the television sets in the installation to see if there was any new information about the attacks. It was a surreal moment.
Another project that was especially memorable was an international exchange project that we worked on with artists from San Francisco's Clarion Alley Mural Project in 2002-2003. The exchange happened with four artists from Yogyakarta, Indonesia, who all were members of an artist collective called Apotik Komik, and seven artists from the Bay Area. Even though less than a dozen artists participated in the exchange project, the larger communities of San Francisco and Yogyakarta were exposed to the human side of each other, leaving a deeper understanding of our world today. After the 2006 earthquake in Yogyakarta that devastated the city, we called upon the larger arts community here in San Francisco to help us with a fundraiser to send some support to our friends and their community in Yogyakarta.
KF: What are your goals/dreams for the gallery as you head into your next decade of curatorial projects?
KC: To have even more memorable moments, to have the opportunity to work with more artists, to have the chance to create dialogue about the issues in the work with even more people in the community, to continue to make the case of why art is absolutely necessary for a healthy and open community. And hopefully to work on projects that can continue the legacy of Intersection into its fifth decade.
KF: Lastly, tell us about your own artwork.
KC: I've always been making art since I was a kid. Although my parents aren't artists, they were incredibly encouraging of me and my older brother in drawing and painting. We always had colored pencils and paper around. We both were really interested in spending time over a sheet of paper lost in imagination and creating worlds from our heads. Even though I didn't study art in college, I was always making work -- sculptures, drawings, paintings. At one point, I was strictly working in relief printmaking -- woodblocks and linoleum cuts. I loved the process of being able to make multiple pieces of art. I moved out to California from New York City, and one of the first contrasts I noticed, which is not specific or special to me, was the difference in spatial experience. Out here in California, there is a lot more space and vistas where you can see the urban fabric from a distance. I became entranced trying to capture the feeling you can get from seeing the city from afar. I've been recently working on a series of drawings that I'm calling "The View From There." They're very minimalist graphite drawings on paper of fictional cityscapes. Most of the composition is just blank paper, the drawing lives only on the bottom inch or so. I frequently draw with a magnifying glass to intensify the detail of windows, facades, and building caps. I wanted to create a series of work that rewards the viewer with each subsequent deeper look. Part of these series are going to be on view in two group shows this fall: "Double Exposure" at Blankspace in Oakland and "Shifted Focus: 10th Anniversary APAture Retrospective Exhibition" at Kearny Street Workshop in San Francisco.