The Lab: “A Safe Space for Dissonance in San Francisco”

Post Author: Sam Lefebvre
Dena Beard. Photo by Mark Mahaney.

Cream-colored acoustic panels grid the ceiling and graphic scores litter the wooden floor, where composer Ellen Fullman walks back-and-forth among 53-foot long rows of taut wires. Her rosin-coated fingers coax a lustrous array of timbre and tone from the tuned metallic expanse, known as a Long String Instrument. Microphones capture the yearning, natural resonance, which Theresa Wong multiplies on a laptop and deploys through four speakers positioned at each corner of a 200-person audience. The piece, entitled “Harbors”, evokes ghosts of renegade string sections and Ennio Morricone’s harmonica motifs. The increasingly colorful mélange of wavering notes and their errant reflections sound like the thrum of vibrant light.

The performance culminates Fullman’s month-long residency—which involved hands-on workshops, demonstrations, and performances on the instrument she helped pioneer decades before—at The Lab. San Francisco’s storied nonprofit arts space, located in the historic Redstone Building at 16th & Capp Streets in the Mission District, not long ago seemed terminally beleaguered by debt. But under the new directorship of Dena Beard, The Lab is in the midst of an unexpected revival.

Since 2014, Beard has steered The Lab directly against the city’s withering arts narrative, underwriting celebrated, non-idiomatic figures such as Fullman and unheard-of aesthetic dissidents alike. And Beard has done so while complicating and challenging the conventions of public and private funding in a city that, according to countless reports, is increasingly inhospitable to artists. As she says over coffee before Fullman’s performance, “We need a safe space for dissonance in San Francisco.”

The ultimate goal, Beard says, involves implementing a living wage of $25/hour for all workers at The Lab, and allotting $25,000 for each of three four-to-ten week artist residencies annually, wherein participants such as Fullman receive a key to the space and free reign.

Art students from San Francisco State University founded the Lab in 1984. Always decidedly inner-discplinary, The Lab exhibited the works and performances of modern primitive and industrial figures such as Z’EV and Survival Research Laboratories; avant-garde pillars such as Bruce Conner; and Mission School painters such as Barry McGee and Margaret Kilgallen, among many others. In the 2000s, it hosted a lot noise and experimental music, but the programming appeared increasingly erratic and rudderless; speculation about mismanagement abounded, poising the long-running space to become another cultural casualty of the city’s escalating gentrification.

Beard was first contacted about taking over The Lab in 2012, by then-director Eilish Cullen. Though Cullen says she couldn’t have estimated the organization’s debt at the time, Beard says she received the impression that The Lab owed roughly $15,000-$30,000. Beard, then an assistant curator at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, initially declined the job, but volunteered to organize workshops with local artists to better understand their needs and how The Lab might meet them—plus untangle the various debts. As she says, “I built a plan to help frame what The Lab might need to do to recover and rebuild, regardless of my involvement.”

In July 2013, Beard and Alan Millar, an original cofounder and The Lab’s current board president, discovered around fifty unopened envelopes in the bottom of a filing cabinet, mostly from the IRS. They were startled to conclude that the total debt was actually over $150,000. Beard connected Millar with sympathetic tax lawyers to assess their options, but ceased volunteering and sought employment elsewhere, looking to implement the model she’d begun to develop for The Lab.

“I was pitching a platform to these museums that involved not thinking about disciplines,” she says. “When you go to museums, the work is often neutralized by these didactic tags; it compromises the vitality of the art. So I was saying, why not create places of freedom, give artists $25,000 with minimal caveats—prescribe nothing?

“I got pretty far along in interview processes,” she recalls. “And then they’d end up going with these white dudes, or more traditional candidates.”

In other words, Beard pitched institutions the sort of freewheeling values that The Lab had written into its history. So when Millar contacted Beard again in May, 2014 and said that through a combination of debt forgiveness, quiet generosity, and an $18,000 grant from San Francisco Grants for the Arts, the outstanding total had shrunk to a still-daunting but manageable $40,000—she left BAMPFA and in August, 2014, officially assumed the role of The Lab’s Executive Director and sole full-time employee.

When you go to museums, the work is often neutralized by these didactic tags; it compromises the vitality of the art. So I was saying, why not create places of freedom, give artists $25,000 with minimal caveats—prescribe nothing?

That November, she reset The Lab’s tone with a 24-hour live telethon fundraiser. It involved a brass band decked in sex toys, turf dancers, and an amplified jet engine that provoked the ire of SFPD. At the event’s spiritual center was the “Dreamachine”, a spinning paper funnel with shapes cut into its sides and a light bulb dangling in the center, which Byron Gysin conceived to enhance cognition. It strobed all night.

Ensuing programming highlights included New Music luminaries Arnold Dreyblatt and Charlemagne Palestine; a series centered on the acoustic deconstruction of Mario Ciampi’s decommissioned Brutalist landmark in Berkeley by Jacqueline Gordon and Zachery Belanger; jarring improvisation from Chris Corsano, Okkyung Lee, and Bill Orcutt; the performative provocations of Mat Dryhurst and Holly Herndon; and the underground but globally recognized harsh-noise series Godwaffle Noise Pancakes. The calendar can resemble that of Brooklyn’s celebrated experimental venue ISSUE Project Room, but also that of a shadowy warehouse in nearby Oakland.

The local arts and experimental music community welcomed The Lab’s resurgence; a year into Beard’s tenure, she reported that individual financial contributions to the organization outweighed corporate, government, and foundation income combined. Raising more money remains urgent—the report shows income just barely exceeding expenses—but Beard has consistently questioned the process. Tellingly, she framed a costly interior renovation as an “excavation,” intended to exhume the spirit of the building’s past, when it was a union hall known as the San Francisco Labor Temple.

“When you run…a public-facing space, usually you put the content first, and the system kind of recedes to the background,” she said in a roundtable on the concept of ownership published by SFMOMA’s Open Space. “[So] many systems these days recede to the background. And so the idea of forefronting the system itself is precisely, I think, what we’re here for.”

To that end, Beard installed a surveillance camera. Each month she posts a time-lapse video of The Lab’s prior thirty days, a gesture against cultural institutions’ bureaucratic machinations and towards transparency. “That’s about this idea that we’re all part of a big public trust,” she says. “It shows the actual labor, shows me sweeping the floors for two hours every day—making visible all of the more ridiculous ways this barely works.”

Beard says she “hates art auctions.” With foundation funding, she rejects the prevalence of caveats and stipulations. Defining deliverables, she argues, undercuts inspiration, producing work that’s “over-determined.” And with corporate funding, which cultural institutions increasingly rely upon as civic grants lag behind cost-of-living, Beard is similarly defiant.

“I’ve reached to some tech companies and gotten some really terrible offers back, in which they ask for something in return: a return on their investment, or free use of the space,” she says. “Anything we’d charge for normally and they want for free is a no…I’ve started doing these patronage education initiatives—going, that’s not how patronage works, but here’s how it does and how it can make the city more interesting.”

One participating artist disclosed on the condition of anonymity that, after expenses, their monthly piece of the grant covers rent.

Beard has used her position to funnel funds towards underserved, often underground artists—even when there’s little direct benefit for The Lab itself.

Last year, for instance, she secured a private grant of $78,000 intended to fund performances at 16th St. BART Station. She and a group of local artists grew concerned that they might effectively colonize the intersection, exacerbating gentrification. So, since the series started last September, its schedule and the identities of participating filmmakers, dancers, and musicians haven’t been publicized—so as to serve only the street’s day-to-day denizens. Beard says they’re striving to “keep the integrity of the public commons intact.”

Beard’s role in the series isn’t limited to dispersing funds; at a recent installment, it included dumping oil in a finicky generator. One participating artist disclosed on the condition of anonymity that, after expenses, their monthly piece of the grant covers rent.

To charges that her aversion to hierarchies, opacity, and corporate capitulation is unrealistic, Beard counters that The Lab’s earlier “precarity” is in fact the ideal springboard for a stubborn, radical rethinking. Though evidence so far points to the contrary, Beard is fond of saying, “We anticipate failure.”