I’ve been regularly attending events and film screenings at Artists’ Television Access on Valencia Street in San Francisco for almost a year now.
I’ve gone as both volunteer and audience member, in the company of wily friends or in my own, often more obtuse company.
Much of my enthusiasm has been for their signature Open Screening nights which fall on the third Thursday of any month.
You never quite know what you’ll see on those nights and it lends the whole event a sense of randomness and improvisational mayhem that I think is missing from most art events. At least ones in San Francisco.
Sometimes the equipment stops working momentarily or the lights go haywire or someone spills their coffee.
Sometimes that crazy guitar guy who threatens pedestrians in the Mission will come in, play a song and harass the crowd before he’s asked to leave. Sometimes the film being screened is a jarring montage of scenes from the 1950’s Gothic soap opera Dark Shadows spliced with industrial music and car crashes.
One night there’s impromptu experimental puppetry or screenings of rare films likeHaxan that have been edited and shown newly butchered to live noise music. (Go see Haxan! It was amazing the first place and will be again.) Often a poet will present a film or a filmmaker will play real live guitar.
Often you’ll be treated to hours of short films, some of which are by your friends and each more different than the last and you’ll end up having dizzying conversations with a guy in a cape and a girl in a gorilla suit in one of the cavernous hallways.
Whatever happens at A.T.A. it’s always different, uncertain, risky, brimming with passion and full of life.
In general, it’s is one of the most exciting cultural institutions that I’ve been involved in.
A.T.A. is one of the longest-running D.I.Y. experimental art spaces in San Francisco — started twenty-five years ago by a few guys and ladies with strongly anarchist tendencies who had a little bit of money and a van full of film and nowhere to show it — and probably the only place where someone off the street can submit a short film to be screened to a varied audience of filmmakers, performance artists, writers, nomads, adventurous yuppies, punks, neo-Dadaists and Marina District exiles.
The physical space itself is enough of a lure: it’s a cross between gutted funeral parlor, urban grotto and labyrinthine warehouse. The place feels hand-made, delicate, flawed and susceptible to mutation. I was amazed to discover there’s also a highly-intriguing basement on the premises too, full of untold treasures.
In December of last year, I was lucky enough to get a seat at A.T.A for their 25th anniversary screening party where the audience was treated to a few hours of film shorts that had premiered at A.T.A. or been made by some of its legendary founders. Those said founders were largely in attendance that evening and at intermission one of the founders, equipped with a video camera, descended into the murky depths of the basement to unearth a time capsule they had buried down there over twenty years ago.
We got to watch live as she uncovered from the broken concrete of the basement the large plastic tube full of who knows what that she and her compatriots had buried long ago. When she came back up bearing the prized capsule we all applauded and then sat in hushed silence as she slowly and reverentially extracted the items from it.
She pulled out anarchist zines, lovingly hand-sewn pamphlets, cassette tapes, and even film — film that might have had anything on it. Film that had been waiting for over twenty years to be screened to an audience in the future.
She pulled out a hand-painted banner and tiny heirlooms from long-forgotten parties. It was all the living artifacts of an underground culture coming to light in the dank silence of the theater. The place thrummed with gasps and laughs. Everyone was enchanted.
As an experiment in cultural history-making it was one of the more moving things I’ve seen.
All of which is to say that as someone who cares about preserving the dirty, raw and honest and frequently glorious D.I.Y. punk art tendency, then you should attend A.T.A. events on a regular basis. Support them. Send them your films. Go to open screenings. Spread the word. Volunteer for them which, I can assure you, is always a blast.