They say that the magic behind books is words that exude the beauty of prose, an entry way into the unspoken thoughts of flawed heroes and dejected villains. The author's job is simple: to provide the words. The real work, and the most difficult part, befalls the reader, who must deconstruct the narrative and translate it into her imaginary world, one only she knows. And though each reader consumes the same narrative, their worlds are bespoke.
That, is the power and beauty of words.
I say great films are no different, and if they are truly great, can invoke vivid imagery and emotional impulses that challenge the viewer's realm of familiarity. The writer creates a script that tears down our beliefs, the actor delivers a performance that steals our hearts, the director captures the essence through an artistic visual that's so palpable, we don't even know what hit us. A great film makes us alive, spell-bounded, slightly bewildered though satisfyingly so. Its remnants are still firmly rooted in our minds for months and years to come, remaining just as intense.
That, is the power and beauty of visuals.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, well, then perhaps a video is worth millions. I watch with an imaginary pen in hand, rewriting each scene with words as I dissect it. Every observation —the slight tilt of the chin, the look of fear through a mirror, the neutral tones turning to bright fiery red — accentuate the intention behind the narrative.
In moments of silence, I learn not to digress, and instead hold the space intimately. The director is telling me a story even in those blank, plotless moments, using the camera and color tones to further seduce. Yes, lure me to Shanghai in the 1940s, to Paris in the 1700s, and if you so wish, to another planet. Set me in the Caucuses, or the Great Plains, I don't mind. Tell me what it feels like to fall in love, and gently (or abruptly) break my heart.
Somehow the characters' passion and anger snake into me, and their pain and envy slash open the fortress where I hide my despair. I find so perfect their imperfections, their irrationality doubly so. I feel, truly feel.
A real artistic masterpiece will make us uncomfortable, yet concurrently broaden our emotional spectrum. As spoken by the great philosopher, Kahlil Gibran: "The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain."
In a way, we are all artists in the presence of a great film.
Diving into the existing and future transformation of music and visual arts
An abridged version of this article was originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle.
When the novel coronavirus startled the world earlier this year, San Francisco quickly took action by suspending large, public gatherings in the city. For the more privileged in the Bay Area, this simply meant less international travel, more indoor remote work, and fewer social events. But for many artists and art workers, their livelihoods were upended by the closure of concert venues, art galleries, and museums.
The canvas has switched. Artists are thrown off their usual course. In order to reconnect with their audiences, they are compelled to leverage the internet and adopt creative techniques to continue their work. Surviving organizations and venues are aware they must pivot and prepare for a post-coronavirus society.
As such, the pandemic is accelerating technology’s already rapid transformation of visual arts.
To understand how these areas will be affected, we must first peruse technology's current influences. In the Bay Area, technology has significantly impacted music and visual arts over the past century. Not only has it shaped the creation process in these two areas, it also changed how we discover and experience them.
Technological progress has democratized the creation of music. "Musicians nowadays can use the internet to learn to play an instrument, write lyrics, produce, publish and market their music— all by themselves," said Jeff Byron, Bay Area music composer and sound designer. "The 'industry' isn't as necessary or powerful." Hundreds of music software tools and applications enable artists to ditch expensive studios and create music in their bedrooms. Notes and sounds that usually take multiple instruments or devices can now be produced from a keyboard on an iPhone. Google's Magenta Studio directly connects machine learning with music, allowing artists open software access to generate new beats.
At the turn of the century, the proliferation of smartphones, creation of streaming services, and surge of social media completely altered music discovery and consumption. "Back in the days, we relied on the radio or record labels to guide our taste; but today, we can discover new music all around the world through Instagram, Youtube, and Tiktok directly from creators," Byron explains.
By democratizing access to music, technology enabled cultural cross-pollination and the formation of new music genres. For example, a British songwriter can sample tunes from a Japanese artist, and an American producer can collaborate with an Australian performer. Furthermore, there's a whole world of traditional music that is making headway but has not yet made the mainstream.
Within visual arts, artificial intelligence has redefined who can be an artist. Two years ago, a portrait created by an AI was sold at an auction for $432,000, reaching a new milestone for conceptual and generative art. "Tools under this big umbrella of 'generative art' revisits the discourse around 'What is Art?', the answer to which has implications beyond its historical precedent," said Bay Area artist Vivien Sin.
Technology not only disrupted who can be an artist and how art can be created, but also became the subject of visual arts itself. The DeYoung Museum opened a new exhibit this year, Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI, which explores the relationship between humans and intelligent machines.
In the era of the smartphone and internet, art has shifted to ground us to our physical world. Multi-sensory and experiential art forms have established a growing presence within visual arts. Rather than simply appealing to the person's visual field, these large-scale installments and immersive experiences combine other modalities — audio, touch, taste, and smell. Even though the SF MoMa still consists mainly of curated static art, there is a stronger emphasis on sound exhibitions and other types of media and digital art as a form of "spatial experience."
Meow Wolf, Pace Gallery, and teamLab all combine art and various modalities to create immersive and interactive experiences. Gray Area, an interdisciplinary technology and art-focused non-profit in the Mission District, has been pioneering immersive art experiences such as End Of You, focused on understanding our personal relationship to a living planet in crisis. Advancements in virtual and augmented reality further enable art audiences to develop an enhanced relationship with art.
With coronavirus shutting down their venues and exhibits, artists are reminded of the importance of the internet. "A lot of artists now can't connect with their fans as easily, they know they have to find new ways," Byron stated, "Eventually if this goes on for long enough, we will see some real innovation." Musicians hosting online concerts are devising new ways to simulate an intimate, virtual experience.
Online galleries and virtual museum tours also gained popularity during shelter-in-place. Gray Area showcased its Spring education program's exhibition in a virtual art space. "We want our audience to have an intimate engagement with our space and community," explained Gray Area Executive Director Barry Threw. Other initiatives, such as Museum from Home, leverage augmented reality to allow users to experience museum artwork in their living room.
Artists are skipping the middleman and directly reaching their audiences. "With less gatekeepers and intermediaries, artists will have more power over their work, a silver lining of the gallery system crisis," explains Bay Area artist Drue Kataoka, who works directly with collectors globally.
The internet has issued a temporary fix. "But while social media has offered many artists a ready-made onramp to port their artwork online, I hope they don't become the defacto form of presentation in the future. For all their convenience, these platforms offer a limited palette for artistic expression," said curator, writer and educator Vanessa Chang. "Music and art are created to be experienced in-person." Listening to a song on Spotify does not compare to the heightened experience of attending a live concert. Looking at a shrunken image on a computer is completely different from standing next to a 15-foot installation. When entered from a webpage, immersive art loses its ability to appeal to people's senses.
Despite the internet commanding much of society's attention for the arts, there is optimism around renewed demand for more interactive and physical experiences in a non socially-distanced world. The current innovation happening in the arts will continue to expand in a post-coronavirus society, and music and art will both extend beyond traditional immersion.
We may see more enhanced visuals and other sensory techniques in live concerts. "I can imagine concerts becoming huge mixed-media experiences, way more than they already are. Not just big light shows, holograms, projections, and VR, but performances that break down what we consider a music show. You can see this happening already with shows like Ramin Djawadi's Game of Thrones tour, a huge film and music experience that challenges expectations," described Byron. "But there's never going to be a replacement for 'the Troubadour'. People will always be entertained by musicians, singers, and songwriters as they have for millennia."
Technology can enable new types of performances, for example, allowing musicians to bring back deceased artists on stage. Algorithms can generate both familiar and novel voices, pitches, and tunes that intermix with traditional music creation. Imagine being able to simulate John Lennon's voice in a song collaboration, where AI writes his lyrics and melody by analyzing thousands of past performances. The world’s greatest musicians can become immortal.
We may see museums convert standard wall spaces to make room for fully immersive and experiential art, catering to a post-pandemic society starved of physical interactions. But in the far future, museums may cease to exist. "Art will be more decentralized and accessible to people of all socio-economic and racial backgrounds," Kataoka remarked. "The disintermediation of the art model will allow art to become much more civically engaged than is currently — confined in its ivory tower."
Virtual and augmented reality will become more commonplace, allowing greater access and amplified experiences to performances and exhibitions all around the world. "In the future, artists will be able to build virtual experiences of the great artworks of the past that will be at least as powerful as the originals," described Kataoka. For instance, imagine being “transported” inside a rendered Matisse painting!
“The art 50 years from now will provide unmatched expression through the visual, aural, olfactory and haptic, encapsulated in compelling virtual reality experiences for lovers of art, wherever they are located,” Kataoka said. “Developments in brain computer interfaces (BCI), bandwidth, and AI will create a new syncretic form of art, generating life-like experiences unlike anything we’ve seen. This art will challenge our brains to re-think everything in our world — from the laws of physics and causality to the fundamentals of human existence.”
With machine learning gaining momentum in art, it prompts a more existential thought. "Tools under this big umbrella of generative art revisit the discourse around ‘what is art?’, the answer to which has implications beyond when Tolstoy asked it in 1897, or when conceptual artists pushed possibilities on what constitutes art,” said Vivien Sin. “As more human work gets replaced by machines, the answer to the aforementioned question has direct implication on what it means to be human.”
Collaborations between technologists, researchers, and artists will grow as AI continues to penetrate the creation process and experiences of both music and visual arts. "Art and technology have been intimately entangled throughout history, but their overspecialization has caused a fragmentation in our ability to think well about the world," Threw said. "In the future we will increasingly recognize the role of artists as full collaborators with technology, science, the humanities to holistically address the existential crises facing us, and San Francisco is uniquely situated to lead this cognitive evolution."
As more creativity and innovation are fostered during this time and extend beyond the pandemic, artists and art audiences alike will come to realize more than ever the inseparability and transcending power of art and technology.
This short story was originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Her car windows slowly roll down, inviting a wisp of chilly, crisp air that is all too familiar to Mei, though nothing within her line of sight, aside from a few street names and the general building architecture, evokes any sense of familiarity. But she is no longer an outsider in Hayes Valley —no sense of the piercing neglect that bleeds into her most recent memory of the city.
The San Francisco she had left was a dead one.
Mei passes the SF Jazz center and turns left onto Grove street, gradually easing to a stop. A large sign blocking traffic reads “Permanently closed for pedestrians,” no, “CREATIVES.” Her lips curl into a slight smile. So it's happening?
Her eyes then wander to the new murals on the walls, the paint beautifully and inadvertently blended in with the colors of flickering lights that lined the streets. Mmm, the smell of fresh paint— strong and seductive...nostalgic. A past that has long gone. She draws a deep breath, taking in the chemical aroma. But now revived?
On her left lies a vacant yoga studio, barely noticeable behind its thick wood panels that signified its closure. A mid-aged woman in front swipes her paintbrush over the wood with exaggerated movements, forming wide, abstract strokes resembling somewhat of a 21st century Polk. Across from her, a young violinist's bow dances to Brahmn's concerto, joined by a crowd of appreciators swaying to its melodic tunes.
“Are we there yet?” Lina yawns. Five hours in the backseat left her limp.
Mei opens the car door and swoops her daughter up, shifting her stacks of canvasses in the back. Lina lets her hand slide into her mother's and, habitually, rubs on Mei's hardened calluses. She likened them, seeing her mother as invulnerable to the decades wear of paintbrushes.
“Almost,” Mei cracks. A single tear rolls down her left cheek.
As they walk towards the center, her eyes fixate on a thin, off-white building in the middle of Ivy street. Memories flash back. Mei remembers. She was on her knees, screaming, crying, begging —one hand over her pregnant belly. She had been dragged out from the flat after her landlord filed a lawsuit against her. A battle she lost.
Rent prices had surged astronomically in the past three decades, especially after her landlord renovated her building. Most of her friends, artists as well, had left the Bay. But she refused.
San Francisco was her home — it was where her grandparents settled in the early 1900s after immigrating from China, it was where they raised her. It was where she started her work as a painter, authentically capturing the hidden life of 90s Hayes Valley, when the central freeway still towered over the narrow streets. Back in the days, poets and revolutionaries lined the cafes, joined by artists, hippies, and queers openly flaunting their personalities.
San Francisco was the dream for any young, bohemian frolicker.
She persisted through the internet age, the dot-com burst, the mass influx of young workers to the Silicon Valley dream. Through Facebook and Google, and then the other unicorns. She watched her city succumb to the demand for tech and talent. She watched her friends flee one by one to the East Bay. She protested the gentrification of Hayes Valley, the lack of affordable housing, the forever increasing rent. Until she couldn't any longer.
Mei never really understood who's fault it was. At first her anger was channeled towards the newcomers, then the city for allowing them in, and then the companies that built this empire. Resentment turned into grief, and then to acceptance. Cities change, cultures shift.
Eight years had passed since Mei stepped foot inside the city. But now she is back. And the flat, the one where she was so forcefully and unjustly evicted from, is now back in her possession.
She looks down at Lina, at her innocence. Mei knows she will never truly understand the beauty nor the ugly of the past. It's for the best.
“Mama, is that your old house?” Lina asks, following her mother's gaze. She picks up a large piece of stained glass from the sidewalk and peeks through the yellow filter.
“Lina, don't touch other people's work!” Mei scolds.
A laughter bursts from behind, and a tall, bearded man with frazzled gray hair appears. “Please —let the child play.” His voice is friendly. “Mei, wow, you're here. What has it been? Ten years?”
“Eight, actually. But yes, a long time. Good to see you again, Gary,” Mei scans his figure. “Wow, you look thinner...and older,” she winks.
Gary smiles, “All the days stressing through the pandemic, that's all.”
“Are they really all gone?”
“Almost. Still a few lingering up by the Marina but they'll probably be gone by end of month. The others are huddled in Pac Heights and the Presidio. At least the Mission and Castro are clean.”
“Who's gone?” Lina asks, curiosity lurking.
Gary's face lights up with delight, “Well look at you! All grown up. The last time I saw you was when your were still inside your mama!”
He kneels to match Lina's height. “You see, this place here wasn't like this before. That music that you hear, the murals on the walls — that's all new. It used to be full of young rich folks working computer jobs. They took over this area and kicked your poor mama and me out.”
“Well not intentionally. We just couldn't co-exist,” Mei corrects Gary.
“Yea sorry, I don't give them any of my pity. They're all just selfish duds who convince themselves they're doing good for the world. See? After the rona they just moved out! To Bali, or Denver, or wherever there are beaches and mountains. Taking advantage of every crisis.”
Mei sighs. Gary has been critical of the tech community for as long as she's known him. She couldn't blame him. He was a poet with an archaic stained glass side hustle that didn't mesh well with the yuppies, and he took it as a personal offense, lashing out his anger by blaming the tech industry for destroying the culture of the city. What Gary wanted, a resurgence of the San Francisco Renaissance, was simply not going to happen.
But finally, things took a turn in 2020. Following the pandemic, the homeless population surged when more evictions poisoned the city. With a majority of Silicon Valley companies shifting to remote work, the city saw a large exodus of tech workers to safer, family-friendly towns. Housing prices dropped, offices relocated. Landlords had a moment of scare and started frantically selling their buildings, an act colloquially coined the “tech flight.”
At first it looked as if San Francisco couldn't be saved, but then came the artist coalition, composed mostly of displaced artists from the Bay, who fought a year long battle with the city government. They petitioned the mayor and ultimately gained support and state resources to turn many of the heavily discounted buildings into artist co-ops and community shelters for the homeless.
There were conditions, of course.
It was then when Mei phoned Gary, reconnecting with her old friend. Gary had scoffed at the idea of moving back. In his jaded view it would take a miracle for something substantial to change.
“But look,” Mei had persisted, “There's already so many people moving back —- like, musicians, painters, poets like yourself — you can revive the San Francisco Renaissance! They're looking for people, uh, to head these co-ops, I don't know. This IS a miracle.”
Gary was stubborn indeed, but he nonetheless caved. They joined the coalition and opted to lead the co-ops in Hayes Valley, which included Mei's previous flat. Wounded by the past and apprehensive of the future, they endured many sleepless nights in the weeks leading up to the move.
Mei snaps back to the present with Lina's tug. “I want to see more!” Lina demands.
“Mei, I'll take her around. You start getting settled in,” Gary offers.
Gary takes Lina by the hand and walks her to what was once Patricia Green. The grassy area has now transformed into a sustainable garden flourishing with tomatoes dangling from vines, chiles and herbs of all kinds, and various lettuce sprouting from the soil. In the corner, a young fig tree towers over a rosemary bush. The scent of lavender from the garden greets the aroma of freshly baked bread from a cafe.
“We're turning this center block into a garden so we can cook for the community.” Gary points to an unfinished bamboo structure to the left of the garden. “There, we're building an outdoor kitchen.”
He turns around to a row of fancy apartments. “And those will be artist studios. Each artist gets their own space. They just have to contribute to —”
“I like it. I want one!” Lina's eyes widen at the ceramicist spinning clay over a wheel. A man in a suit next to him packs a few of his creations into a box. “Where are they taking them?”
“Oh that, yes, so we sell our work to the city and state government to pay for the housing. I believe it'll be another 20, 30 years before we completely own everything. Not a perfect model, but it helps us build THIS,” he says as he flails his arms around to signify the vast expanse of a self-sustaining artist co-op.
“Was it like this before they came?” Lina asks as two sculptors walk past, carrying a marble carving of deadbeat robotic caricatures.
“They? The computer people? Ah, yes. I mean no, it wasn't like this before. This...is new. The old model, well, it didn't work because we all had to leave. We developed this new system so they can't come back again, and, you know, destroy its soul again.” He bit his lip to stop himself from a rant.
“Well,” Lina starts cautiously, “they're gone right? Is the soul also gone forever?”
Gary is fond of the little girl. “Yes, they're gone for now. Don't worry, the soul is still here, we just have to look deep and find it again.”
She doesn't understand. If anything, this neighborhood has more soul than any place she's seen before. Lina takes a large brush from a can of red paint. She gets on all fours, and uses the brush to outline a shape around her.
“Then I'm giving it a heart,” she beams.
Mei watches the two of them from her balcony above. The neighborhood is a canvas, a diary, a garden, a music studio —anything the artist wants it to be.
This is what Lina will grow up to know of her city. It isn't perfect. But it comes pretty darn close.
The San Francisco she knows now is alive.