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Art and Tech Share the Stage at New SF Startup Storefront

"Artists: once they learn the tech better, they can f--- with it.”

A coalition of artists are taking over a derelict old theater in the heart of the San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood, turning it into a tech-artists’ incubator, and opening the city’s first startup exhibition space and shop.

A startup shop?

“Yes. What if you tried to pack every startup into a gallery store? If a startup tried to build Best Buy, what would it look like?” said Robert Stephens, the former Best Buy CTO who invented the “Geek Squad” and is now advising on the storefront project. “What if you invited startups to have some physical space where they can demonstrate their stuff?”

He went on: “We’ll have like August Smart Lock, Skylabs, Electric Objects, Square. The lighting, I’ll maybe go with GE Wink. Every outlet, every sensor, every surface, even the glass,” Stephen said. “I’m sure there are companies that do LCD display glass and a chandelier made of projectors so companies can project their work on the wall if they don’t have a physical product.”

This storefront will be part of the new Gray Area Art & Technology Theater, which is rehabilitating the 10,000-square-foot and 70-year-old Grand Theater on Mission Street, and is today launching a campaign to raise $400,000. The complex is set to open officially in a few months.

Gray Area, a six-year-old nonprofit, hosts events like “Chatrooms II: Creative Code Meetup XVII and GIFbites Exhibition,” and offers tech training programs and night classes for artists who want to learn how to work in code. The old theater’s stage will be repurposed for projecting electronic art. Upstairs, the control rooms will be classrooms. And the storefront organizers will attempt to sell all the great and curious things being built in San Francisco today.

 Gray Area in session
Gray Area in session
Gray Area

On a recent night, Gray Area co-founder Josette Melchor, who has been a gallerist since she was a teenager, led a tour of the theater, while 20 students filed up for an Arduino class, which teaches artists how to program objects. The lights were dim in the theater, and it still felt a little dusty. They had to install the startup storefront, she explained, to follow city code that requires there be a commercial space facing the street, much like literacy program 826 Valencia has a pirate shop at the front of the store.

 Peter Hirshberg and Josette Melchor
Peter Hirshberg and Josette Melchor
Gray Area

“The storefront would be for really weird art projects, too, Kickstarter products and would be coupled with something like an animated GIF camera,” Melchor said, elaborating on Stephen’s plan.

After being pushed out of the Warfield Theatre, another venerable venue in the city’s rapidly gentrifying mid-Market Street district, Gray Area found The Grand earlier this year. Built in the 1940s, the 870-seat, single-screen cinema had been abandoned. It’s their biggest space yet.

Gray Area’s projects have been very successful through the years — the San Francisco Planning Department now hosts the Urban Prototyping Festival that Gray Area started. And its ethos — that tech and art can connect, that coding can be playful — is gaining traction.

“We’ve done a lot of hackathons, a ton of hackathons; now we want to build something bigger and more long-term,” Melchor said. “It’s like, okay, everyone is doing these things that we were doing before, so now what does that mean for us? Where would we be most valuable now?”

Teen Creative Code Class
Teen Creative Code Class

“We’ve just never had a venue we could scale up into,” she said. “Now we can host 800 people at once. It’s a big space!”

Co-founder Peter Hirshberg, a collector of electronic art and former longtime Apple executive, said he sees Gray Area becoming a city institution as important as the classic music and philanthropic cause The Legion of Honor.

“There’s old San Francisco, and there’s new tech San Francisco, and there’s not really an institution in between,” Hirshberg said. “Sometimes people just miss the community. There’s all the talk of bro programmers, and this lament that as tech has come into San Francisco we’ve sacrificed something. That’s the lament. We believe in fact, what’s going on in this era with new kinds of code, it’s as important to this era as jazz was to New York in the 1920s.”

“The more the city celebrates that, the better off we will be,” Hirshberg said.

The theater most likely won’t show romantic comedies, but it will still show movies, he said.

“You go talk to the city-planning people, and the city-planning people are disappointed that San Francisco is losing its movie theater. But, in fact, this new-medium movement requires the theater again!” he said. “When people working with code start making movies.”

People are making movies with code?

“Sure. Think about any computer graphic,” he said.

 Art class
Art class
Gray Area

The Gray Area organizers see their training programs and exhibitions as a way to raise questions about the tech boom.

“These startups are all in their offices, and no one can go in and see what they can do. You want people mashing up with technology. And artists then ask all sorts of questions,” Stephen said. “I don’t think artists are aware of all the things they can do. Artists — once they learn the tech better, they can fuck with it.”

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