San Francisco icon Xara Thustra looks back at 15 years of underground art
Full disclosure: I am in this book. I might be too close to the people and events depicted to discern whether the images are strictly documentary or whether their arrangement is intended to create a new story. But the juxtapositions, eerie and dreamlike, pack a wallop. In one two page spread, my dead friend, Pete Lum, stairs from the left page into another photograph on the right of an unknown drag queen out front of Aunt Charlie's on Turk Street. Their eyes seem to meet across the gutter of the book and across time and space, as if sharing a secret the rest of us cannot know.
Ultimately, perhaps the one indisputable narrative of the book is the tremendous progression in Xara Thustra's artwork, as the early agitprop graffiti by "Heart 101" in support of street protests slowly morphs into a far more ambitious project, an ongoing collaboration with countless others through performance, print, and cinema to abandon protest and instead collectively embody through art the autonomy and ethics of a truly different world. Perhaps inevitably then, Friendship Between Artists is both a monumental achievement and something of an anti-climax. The protests, the willful art world obscurity, the dead friends — what did it all add up to?
I am certain, anyway, that nothing in the book was conceived with the idea that it would one day appear in an art book. Instead, the interventions, experiments, and protests detailed herein, while at times quite joyous, were, as the book's title suggests, originally part of a deadly serious struggle to keep oppositional culture alive in San Francisco, and for many that struggle now feels lost. But life must go on, and this is no museum piece.
The book's 500 pages positively overflow with life, salvaging from oblivion the raw, visceral feel of 15 years of ephemeral underground freedom. While some will be haunted by the suspicion that the answer to the above question is "not enough," the people in these photos stare into the camera and demand we consider instead a hard-earned and far more redemptive possibility: that this isn't an art project, it's how we live. This isn't representation of a different reality, but about being a different reality. And fuck you, anyway, because being free is its own reward.
For an interview with Xara Thustra, visit sfbg.com/pixel_vision.
XARA THUSTRA BOOK RELEASE AND SOLO SHOW
Thu/6, 7-9pm, free
Needles and Pens
3252 16th St., SF