The Bay Area is the Free Speech Movement; it is the Black Panthers; it is Allen Ginsberg and his generation of beatniks.
The Bay Area is its political movements. It is no surprise, then, that its art is so deeply politically rooted. San Francisco-based conceptual artist and UC Berkeley assistant professor of art Stephanie Syjuco recognizes this. Syjuco puts political movements at the forefront of her work and has been doing so for years.
Earlier this week, Art21, Berkeley Arts + Design and the UC Berkeley Department of Art Practice celebrated the ninth season of Peabody Award-winning television series “Art in the Twenty-First Century.” The event, hosted by the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, featured a screening of the season’s highlights, as well as a conversation with two of its artists: Syjuco and multimedia artist Lynn Hershman Leeson. The screening consisted of 15-minute films dedicated to the two artists, showcasing some of their projects and artistic processes.
Projects by Syjuco and Leeson span various mediums and have been exhibited in some of the most prestigious galleries and museums in the country, such as the Smithsonian American Art Museum, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Syjuco’s work focuses on photography and sculpture, exploring the relationship between the authentic and the imitated. Her digital work stresses the point that art — or anything — created on a computer is not devoid of manual, tangible labor. Her projects highlighted in “Art in the Twenty-First Century” include her “Counterfeit Crochet Project,” which consists of both an installation and a participatory workshop. Through this project, she created a website where she, along with other crocheters, could collaborate on creating counterfeit designer handbags. Leeson’s art employs sculpture, painting, interactive films and artificial intelligence, with a focus on critiquing gender biases in the art field. Some of her projects displayed in the series include “VertiGhost,” a sculpture and surveillance video-based feminist take on Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” and her “Roberta Breitmore” series, which is Leeson’s private performance as a fictional character.
During the panel, Syjuco pointed out her pleasant surprise at the similarity in subject matter between her work and Leeson’s — both consider the themes of constructed identity and feminism, for example.
“I feel like we’re quite in conversation with each other, despite how different our work may be,” Syjuco said. Of course, what ultimately most closely ties the two artists together is their relationships with the Bay Area. Leeson credited San Francisco wholeheartedly for her inspiration for her projects. The city, she said, allowed her to “breathe technology”, revolutionizing how she chose to display her art and the media she used.
Syjuco also stressed the importance of the Bay Area in inspiring her art, though in a different way than what Leeson described: “We’re not considered an arts center like Chicago. … It is weirdly marginal to work here,” she explained. According to her, the “luxury” of no promise of an arts career right out of art school in the Bay Area pushes artists to do whatever they want to with art.
“Nobody was watching. … At least, that’s how I felt,” she said. Syjuco said she feels like she shares a complicated relationship with technology because of the Bay Area that, like with Leeson, shifted how she perceived and portrayed her art.
“Art in the Twenty-First Century” by itself is gorgeous — it captures San Francisco, Berkeley and the Bay Area as a whole beautifully, underlining just how conducive an environment it is for contemporary artists to express themselves without limitation. Films that aim to document people and their projects linearly are often hard to execute without being entirely informative and lacking in creativity; “Art in the Twenty-First Century” shatters this norm — its imagery is quick and always moving, ensuring constant motion on screen and featuring stunning graphics and so much color in every pixel of every frame. Art that captures art has never looked this good.
Anoushka Agrawal covers film. Contact her at [email protected].