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Gray Area Foundation: Barry Threw

"Art history is also a history of technology development."


NOV 11, 2022 | ISSUE 8

Barry Threw by Jeremy Lewis

The past issues of smART Magazine have highlighted the unique character of the  cities that the Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit has reached. With this, we celebrate how each city is different, allowing the Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit to consistently reinvent itself across various cities. In that spirit, we are delighted to welcome Gray Area Foundation for the Arts and speak with the Executive Director, Barry Threw. Gray Area invokes social change through the promotion and development of creative programs in San Francisco and offers multidisciplinary artists—with a focus on technology—a platform they would otherwise not get at traditional arts organizations. With this, Gray Area is able to contribute to the growing discussion around inclusivity and allow many underrepresented creatives a chance to showcase their work.

We spoke with Threw about Gray Area’s efforts to include marginalized communities into their programs, how the San Francisco artistic community has responded to COVID-19, and how Gray Area incorporates technology and innovation into the artistry it is representing.

sM | With the cultural movements of the last year in mind, how does Gray Area engage BIPOC communities into its programming?

BT — Gray Area is a 21st-century countercultural hub catalyzing creative action for social transformation. We attract technically-literate, experimental, and risk taking creative practitioners whose work doesn’t find easy support within traditional arts organizations. We support these diverse practitioners—including BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, and immigrants—by holding space for their unique practices, backgrounds, visions, and experiences so that they may deeply collaborate and create new form and meaning through the arts. Because this diversity of thought and perspective is a core requirement for the type of collaboration we foster, we continually try to increase engagement with varied publics through community partnerships, subsidize participation in our events and education programs, and ensure representation within all of our programming.

Gray Area seeks to increase diversity and representation within the gentrified dialogs of technology by curating marginalized and underrepresented artists, and highlighting social justice, ethics, ecology, and de-colonialism thematically in our programming. We have also made efforts to support social justice organizing both in our physical space, and online through our technology infrastructure.

sM | What is your assessment of how San Francisco’s artistic community has responded to the pandemic restrictions?

BT — The pandemic triggered a tsunami of experimental, entrepreneurial, creative platforms seeking to maintain community, connection, and intimacy during the lockdown. This has happened not despite the egregious lack of public relief funding for the arts, but because of it. Economic opportunities for artists, performers, curators, and promoters were completely destroyed during this time, and the community was forced to innovate in order to survive. We saw a vast array of online projects virtually reimagining audio/visual performances, experiential theater, conferences and forums, drag shows, and exhibitions. These projects sought to recreate the social senses of serendipity and belonging only hinted at by commercial video chat platforms.

Gray Area was able to pivot to online programming very quickly, and we also developed our own platforms to be able to reach a wider global audience, and make our programming even more accessible with events like our 2020 Gray Area Festival. Due to the shutdown we suffered a massive revenue loss compared with 2019, and we have received no arts-specific Covid-19 relief funding from either national, state, or city grants.

Despite this, our online programming allowed us to generate $250,000 paid directly to local artists and educators, while also retaining our entire full time staff. We have survived to this point through the generosity of our community coming together in solidarity.

With the explosion of the NFT market in the last several weeks we have seen the same dynamics at play. A creator community that has had most of its opportunities cancelled over the last year while receiving very little support from public sources has finally found a new means of supporting itself with online art sales. But, instead of competing for sales, the artist community has been amplifying each other’s work for this new market. The resilience and creativity that the San Francisco artistic community has shown during this devastating time has been nothing short of inspiring.

sM | Gray Area has a strong focus on technology. Do you think artists who work with technology are taken less seriously? How does Gray Area challenge this?

BT — It is worth noting that all artists work with technology, and that art history is also a history of technology development. Of course, what people usually mean today when they say “technology” is computers, and the sensory devices that we use to interface with computers.

I don’t believe artists working with technology are necessarily taken “less seriously”, but I do think their work often resists categorization, and demands a lot of time, attention, and prior context from the viewer. Sometimes technologically engaged artwork can come in the form of software, a website, an experience, or a game—located in one spot, or distributed globally. It can happen in an instant or unfold over years. The rate at which new affordances are being developed is also accelerating, so there is constantly new work that doesn’t yet have fully developed frameworks to discuss it. Some art made using technology looks or sounds like familiar traditional artwork, and the technology isn’t immediately apparent at all.

This wide variety of media and formats may also make the work uniquely hard to exhibit, sell, conserve, or collect. These difficulties make the support structures available for artists engaging with technology very different from those developed for more traditional artists. Technology engaged artists require specialized spaces, equipment, and collaborators to help realize their work, as well as novel funding models. Gray Area seeks to provide the proper environment to support the creation of these works, orient them toward value-driven outcomes that engage with real world issues, and contextualize them so that they may be understood as relevant to new audiences. We believe technology is the most impactful force in contemporary society, and that artists who engage with it thoughtfully are the most relevant.