VISUAL ART Before it became the context-free darling of YouTubers and meta-bloggers, the 1980s was a real, living era. Movies and music videos copulated. An actor became president and decided to invade Grenada despite a warning from, yes, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher that the action would be seen as "intervention by a Western country in the internal affairs of a small independent nation, however unattractive its regime." The pre-politics Governator appeared in 1984's The Terminator as "something unstoppable ... that felt no pain." And Martin Amis, in Einstein's Monsters (1987), wrote that "the arms race is a race between nuclear weapons and ourselves." The future appeared bleaker than bleak, its robotic violence and darkness palatable if seen through neon-tinted pop culture glasses.
The 01SJ Biennial, a welcome if dizzying affair that opens this week in San Jose, is a plugged-in antidote to '80s-era apocalyptic soothsaying. Although more recent cultural creations from 28 Days Later (2002) to The Road (2009) have done little to imagine a coherent future, they've at least begun asking what it means to be honestly human. Might we finally stop blaming technology?
Blogging about the biennial's "Build Your Own Future" theme, Artistic Director Steve Dietz recently noted that the event offers a chance for "serious play." For an illustration of what he means, look no further than Todd Chandler and Jeff Stark's Empire Drive-In, a fully functional theater featuring cars saved from a local auto wrecker and a screen built almost entirely from salvaged wood. A collaboration with artists including Brett James, Ian Page, and Robin Frohardt (who designed and fabricated a unique concession stand), Empire's cinema comes to life inside the San Jose Convention Center's airplane hangar-sized South Hall.
Last week, Chandler took a break from cleaning broken glass out of one of the cars to chat about the project. He said he had first presented Dietz with the idea of a possible live performance by his band Dark Dark Dark, along with Flood Tide: Remixed. a sort of contemplative preview version of his forthcoming feature film of the same name. "Steve was interested," Chandler explained, "but he said that it wasn't enough. I was like, not enough?!"
Though Chandler had been pouring himself into Flood Tide project, if the biennial wanted something even bigger, he knew what to do. He called Stark, the intrepid editor of Nonsense NYC (www.nonsensenyc.com ). "Jeff is amazing at pulling off really big, impossible projects," Chandler says. "And he'd had this idea in his head for a while about a junk car drive-in."
Chandler and Stark met while working on the Miss Rockaway Armada project (www.missrockaway.org ), the first iteration of a number of artistic ventures involving large rafts made of salvaged materials. That participatory trip down the Mississippi River deemed an "anarchist county fair" and a "fools' ark" gave birth to the projects that became the subject of Flood Tide. In turn, Empire Drive-In includes not just the hypnotic Flood Tide: Remixed, but a number of "live cinema" presentations, including Zoe Keating and Robert Hodgin's Into the Trees, and Laetitia Sonami and SUE-C's Sheepwoman.
"The cars we're using were on their way to Redwood City to get crushed," Chandler explained. "A lot of them had smashed windshields." He and Stark chose vehicles based on what was available rather than a predetermined vision: "We didn't want to do a retro, '50s-style drive-in."
As with any other theater, when a drive-in closes for good, we say that it has "gone dark." My childhood haunt, Skyview Drive-In in Santa Cruz, went dark a few years ago.