Opening Space for Bay Area writing: Claudia La Rocco and Jackie Im in conversation

Alice Rahon, City of Cats, 1968. Oil and sand on canvas mounted on board. 23.25 x 35 inches. Image courtesy of Gallery Wendi Norris, San Francisco. Included in the essay “In a Room Occupied by One or More Cats” by Anne Walsh published by The Back Room on December 6, 2022.

On the evening of Friday, April 14, Jackie Im, an Et al. cofounder and Small Press Traffic‘s board president, and Claudia La Rocco, a writer and the editor of The Back Room at Small Press Traffic, met at the Oakland apartment Jackie shares with her partner Aaron Harbour. Over a delicious homemade dinner and joined by Jackie and Aaron’s two delightfully friendly cats, they discussed (art) writing, editing and curation, and the roles of community and institutions in the art world.

Jackie Im: Let’s start by talking about Small Press Traffic (SPT) and about The Back Room. When SFMOMA announced that they were closing Open Space, The Artist’s Gallery, and the film program, there were a lot of conversations around what the community loses and a lot of vague ideas of how the community can close the gap that SFMOMA left open. I know that Syd Staiti, the Director of SPT, had approached you not long after the announcement. Could you talk a little bit about how you see The Back Room as a departure or in relation to Open Space.

Claudia La Rocco: Several people reached out. Syd’s proposal just felt right. He was offering a true collaboration, which it has been, and we’re interested in a lot of the same things, curatorially. SPT is very lean, as you know, and Syd has done such incredible things to revitalize it. I love seeing how he approaches a given season or individual event, the amount of care and thought he puts in, and our planning discussions are always energizing for me. In terms of differences… a lot of them involve differences between SPT and SFMOMA. For example, there’s no collection that The Back Room is pivoting around; at SPT I’m starting from an organization that holds people and process at the center and moves out from there. There’s nothing SPT is beholden to beyond its community, whereas Open Space was very much a fig leaf on this big corporate entity that didn’t, in aggregate, care much about the local art scene. Leadership was more about keeping up with the Joneses in terms of the giant mothership museums and orientation to the East Coast; I was told repeatedly that the board only cared about something if the New York Times wrote about it. Open Space was created to be one of various community engagement measures that argued against that worldview: actually, there is stuff going on here.

JI: There are people that we can talk to.

CLR: Right. Big institutions are so intent on land grabs, whether actual or conceptual. They often fail to realize they can’t just be this lone thing. There’s an ecology or a community or however you want to talk about it. Working with SPT, there’s no question that it’s deeply invested in what’s happening in and around the community. There’s nothing that has to be humanized. And also, nothing I could commission would ever be dismissed as messy or “experimental.” It was a funny thing to be hired by SFMOMA and then to be constantly chastised for doing the job I was hired to do, a job that I think I did pretty well. You could have just not hired me! You could have saved us all the time and energy. 

Curt McDowell, Wieners and Buns Musical (1972), 16mm film. Courtesy of the Estate of Curt McDowell and Canyon Cinema Foundation. Published in “To Love What Persists” by Ted Rees in The Backroom on December 20, 2022.

JI: From the outside, it seemed like they did not necessarily understand the premise of Open Space to begin with. I’m just thinking of the life of Open Space from when Suzanne Stein was Editor and to you. It’s not like the mission of Open Space changed dramatically during its life. It strikes me as interesting, not necessarily surprising, to hear you talk about being chastised for running a program that had a kind of legacy. 

CLR: It was astonishing how certain colleagues actively viewed it as a threat, going so far as to  follow us on social media and report about what we were doing. All this bullshit tedious politics And just people being scared and being reactionary and blah, blah, blah. So not having that whole big stupidity to deal with is very freeing. Open Space was always on the defensive. It was exhausting. And lonely. 

JI: It’s a huge weight to have to convince somebody to let you do your job.

CLR: Yeah. For me, as an editor it’s not usually about creating some perfect, polished object. It’s about the push and pull of making, and being in conversation with other people, in community with other people. Which sounds so obvious to say, I mean, it is so obvious to say to someone like you. But in big institutions that isn’t the value system. I noticed the same when I worked at the [New York] Times, I remember arguing with a section editor that we shouldn’t be sending so many resources to cover every cast change in a big uptown ballet season; instead we should be sending someone out to Bushwick to cover this performance where there’s like three people in the audience, some underground thing that has the potential to change other things. His response was “We’re a big institution, and we cover big institutions.” Or another conversation where the editors were like, “If these artists can’t even write proper press releases, how can they expect us to write about them?” And it’s like, are you serious, you want them to be able to write a press release? That’s the mark of whether they’re worth your time? It’s so dumb and boring. 

JI: I’ve been thinking a lot about that. About how much of a bigger impact that kind of press coverage can have for a smaller project than for a large institution like the ballet. The kind of exposure a newspaper review can have is so meaningful for a smaller organization because you’re reaching new audiences that might not have heard about them otherwise. I was working in the archives of the San Francisco Arts Commission [SFAC] Galleries, and going through the press files from the 80s and early 90s. It was so interesting seeing just how many different kinds of places there used to be that supported art writing or supported any kind of writing or journalism. There were just more opportunities to be seen. I think that’s why there’s more pressure for a local entity like the San Francisco Chronicle or KQED to do more arts coverage because they are two of the few venues that support arts writers but also reach a broad audience. 

CLR: If you have a lot of publications covering a field or a city, bringing different perspectives and priorities and values, you can position yourself within that as a reader. I don’t know how useful journalistic coverage is when it isn’t robust. You certainly can have a lone writer doing incredible work. But in terms of readers being able to really understand a field, I don’t know how that’s possible without diverse reporting. In terms of coverage having more impact for smaller places — yes, though in a traditional journalism model you are serving the readers. It’s a very different model from writing that comes from inside of a community. Ideally you want both approaches, because there are limitations to each. Too often, now, cities or communities don’t have either.

JI: I think that’s partly what informed the reactions to SFMOMA closing those programs. Those programs signified that maybe this large institution cared about an ecosystem outside of itself?

CLR: After they made the cuts, I think [then-SFMOMA director] Neal Benezra sent out an email clarifying that this wasn’t about money, this was about canceling these community programs to make room for meaningful community engagement. Which is a little weird but, fair enough, you can decide to put your energy somewhere else. It doesn’t seem like they’ve done that yet. And it’s also amusing to see a lot of the artists they’re working with now: oh, yeah, Open Space worked with them five years ago, or a decade ago…

Editor and translator Mary Ann Caws reads from Shapeshifter, a collection of poems by Alice Rahon, as part of a Small Press Traffic reading to celebrate the opening of Uncovering Alice Rahon at Gallery Wendi Norris in San Francisco on October 1, 2022. Included in the essay “Make Yourself Comfortable” by Claudia La Rocco published by The Back Room on December 8, 2022.

JI: I think about the arts ecosystem a lot and think about what it means to participate in a community of artists, thinkers, and writers and how we can try to support and uplift each other. For Et al., I think about how we can provide space and opportunities for a community that has given us a lot and find ways to sustain it across generations. I see Syd really doing that with SPT and really thinking carefully about these intergenerational conversations and drawing connections.

CLR: It feels really good to be in a room and see people who are in their 20s and people who are in their 70s. And to think about continuity — there’s never been a dearth of good writing in the Bay Area. That’s not the problem. It’s the publications where people can be edited well, where they can be presented in a respectful way and paid fairly. How do you think about the benefits and the limitations are of being a community organization that is also trying to create the conversation around the community?

JI: Some of it is selfish. The programming we do is really about who we’re excited to work with and think have an interesting thing to say. It’s also about making the Bay Area a more interesting place to live. I like living here and for me to stay here, I also need things happening and if I’m not seeing quite what I want out in the world, I might as well do it myself. 

CLR: I don’t think that sort of selfishness is a bad thing; it’s certainly better than the arts-worker-as-martyr scenario. When I’m planning a season for The Back Room, part of me is thinking about diversity of age, of voices, of demographics, of approach, all of those things. But I’m also thinking, “Who’s making a world that I want to live in?” I don’t actually care that much about art writing, per se. I’m interested in good writing. And I do think criticism as a form is so malleable and weird and awkward that it creates a lot of interesting possibilities and opportunities. Returning to arts journalism — a lot of the art writing inside journalism was pretty bad, this thumbs up, thumbs down reductivism, and people covering topics they didn’t actually understand enough to write about. All of that stuff. But one of the things that was really valuable was having that person who’s outside — who doesn’t have the same feeling you have when you’re like, “These are my neighbors. I’m going to be gentle.” Being gentle isn’t always the highest good. I recognize that I’m speaking about journalism in the past tense. There definitely are isolated people and pockets, but the functional industry seems gone. Or maybe I have just aged out and don’t know where to look anymore. That’s also possible! [laughter]

JI: I don’t know either! It’s a little funny to me to be invited to have his conversation around art writing, because I stopped reading a lot of art writing, my interest in it faded. There was a time just out of grad school where I was more interested in reading art criticism or theoretical texts around art. Now, I feel less of that pull towards that kind of writing. I’m finding myself reading texts written by artists or more poetic responses to art, if I’m going to read about art at all. For myself, there are things that I would like to read, but I just can’t get there. I’m wondering, for you as someone who writes and edits, is there a tension between wanting to write about art and  commissioning things from artists?

CLR: I don’t make a distinction anymore. I just want good writing. And to work with kind people. Some people I approach just because I love their writing and I want to see what they would have to say on a given subject, whether of my choosing or theirs. Maybe they’ve never written about art or not about this subject, and I just want to roll the dice and see. Other people I seek out because they’re experts in a particular niche. At other times I want somebody who has reporting chops. Like let’s take SFAI. If you wanted to have a piece on what happened there, really get into the nitty gritty of why and how that place imploded, having a great reporter would be the way to go. Firsthand accounts certainly are irreplaceable: I was there and from my perspective, this is what happened. But a really good arts writer or journalist who knows the stakes, knows the players, can talk to everybody and give you a multifaceted overview from disparate sources, that’s gold. And that’s what a good critic can do, also. All that said, I don’t read much arts journalism these days, and my subscriptions to arts magazines have waaay dwindled. I find a lot of the writing pretty airless, whether it’s written by artists or critics. 

JI: Right. That’s maybe how I started feeling when reading these articles. I had this moment where I wanted to be a good art participant and read those kinds of articles, but then came to the conclusion that I wasn’t getting a lot out of them.

CLR: I think pleasure is not a bad thing to want out of writing, generally. To drag myself through another pro-forma art-world take, name checking the same set of theorists and the same whatever the buzzwords are… I just don’t have it in me.

JI: If I’m going to read, I kind of want to enjoy it.

Kaleidoscope: Raydell Early, Faith Icecold, Alake Shilling. Installation view, Et al., San Francisco, 2023.

CLR: How does it work when you’re thinking about what artists to work with? Do you feel that, as a reader, you want different things than what you want as a curator?

JI: That’s interesting. As a curator, whether I’m on something for Et al. or for the Arts Commision, I’m really interested in the artist and not just in what they’re making that suits this or that project, but in their overall practice. I’m interested in what someone has done in the past, but also in what they are doing right now and what they are looking to do in the future. Part of my interest in working with artists is that their practice is changing constantly. I get super excited talking with artists about what they have read or seen that excites them. They bring something up and I’m like, “yes, I’m super interested in that, too. Let’s talk about it.” I think that’s how I approach books. When I read fiction, poetry or essays, I’m looking for that same feeling. I want to go there with somebody. I want to be able to delve deeply into what a writer has put out, to follow along their interests and journey.  

CLR: Yeah, it’s the same for me as an editor, what you talked about, just wanting to go there with somebody, whether it’s a critic or it’s a novelist who embeds criticism, somebody like Teju Cole. The criticism that’s inside of his novels sometimes interests me more than his critical essays, perhaps because he allows himself more liberties. Though I love some of his more conventional criticism, too. 

JI: But his fiction feels less hemmed in, maybe? Less like, “I’m writing a criticism so I have to do X, Y, and Z.”

CLR: Yes. Maybe we can blame that all on editors. [laughter] That’s one of the things I aspire to with The Back Room, to not come in with heavy handed demands and assumptions, what X has to look like or how it has to behave, but to follow each writer’s idea of how to negotiate their relationship with the subject. Some curators and editors are very heavy handed, they come in with a concept and find the person who can fulfill that concept. Though there’s also the crucial intervention, saving the writer right from herself, which I’ve been grateful to receive as a writer. And not even necessarily saving, just refining and improving. So it’s a balance between freedom and guidance.

Yves Uro, KU club, San Rafael, Ibiza poster, 1986. Included in …Tomorrow another dream will start curated by Wild Life Archive. On view at Et al. July 15–July 22.

JI: Early on when Aaron and I started to curate shows, there were these times where one of us would have an impulse and say something like: “oh, wouldn’t it be great if this artist did this very specific thing?” And there’s this moment where you have to ask, do I really need to bring someone into this or am I trying to make the work for them? I’ve seen exhibitions that feel like assignments and it feels very rigid. 

CLR: Reinforced by the wall text, right?

JI: Exactly. I feel like those kinds of shows suck the air out of everything. Like the work doesn’t have a chance to become its own surprising thing. I remember, a long, long time ago, having a conversation with an artist who described a studio visit with a really big museum curator. The curator was saying that when they go to an artist’s studio, they just want to pick stuff off of the walls. For myself, part of the joy or the excitement that I get from curating is meeting with artists, having a conversation, and seeing things that are in progress or things that they’re letting go. Just being in conversation with somebody. 

CLR: I just finished this project with the visual artist Elisabeth Nicula, who’s also an incredible writer. Her press, Smooth Friend, published my novella, and the relationship with her was one of the most exciting and collaborative I’ve ever had with an editor-publisher. She was editor as ideal reader, reading so closely and imaginatively she was seeing doors to rooms I didn’t yet know existed. That sort of attention and care, that feeling of being truly seen, it’s such a profound pleasure and relief. It allows what you’re doing to have a larger life. I don’t see the point if you’re not having those relationships. 

JI: You might as well just work with dead artists or writers.

CLR: Which, I’m all for other people doing that. [laughter] It also makes me think of you saying you’re less and less inclined to have this sort of encyclopedic read of the art world. If you’re having a lot of those rich relationships with writers or artists, then it takes the place of a certain amount of reading and going to shows.

JI: Right now, my desire to go to exhibition openings has really plummeted. I think it was growing pre-COVID, but since then my stamina for being around crowds isn’t what it was. At the same time, I know firsthand what it means to have people there and see the community support. Maybe it’s part of getting older, which makes me really happy to see openings at places like House of Seiko and seeing so many younger folks out. It just means that the scene is growing and not getting stagnant. 

CLR: The entire time that I’ve been writing criticism, criticism has been dying, or it’s been dead. I think there’s also that feeling in the Bay Area. It’s always, like, imploding. Everyone’s always leaving. But then, things are always coming in, things that people in their mid-20s, mid-30s are into that I’m not even aware of, because I’m in my mid-40s now and the energy to seek that stuff out has just been diverted to other places.

JI: I feel very split. I want to support and see people, but the pull of getting on Bart and going home to my cats is very strong. 

CLR: As I’m sure you remember, when everything shut down there was this moment in the arts when folks were saying “now’s the time for reflection,” to really think about alternative ways of being. But then it inevitably pivoted to “how can we get everything online through zoom?” I understand the pressure to do that. But it was such a missed opportunity to imagine what we could be if not beholden to these systems that have been in place for decades and aren’t working for many of us. If nothing else, I think a lot of us could be doing less. Syd and I talk a lot about just moving slowly and not overwhelming ourselves. Not doing too many events. Only publishing twice a month at The Back Room. Because somehow, even though it seems like things are always disappearing, there’s still way too much for any of us to do. There’s a feeling of scarcity. But there’s a glut of things.

JI: I think a lot about slowing down. I have a tendency to jump from one show to the next without any real time for reflection: what worked and what didn’t. I think that’s the case for a lot of people. It’s obviously much harder to do than to think about it. Aaron and I talk about giving ourselves more time, particularly in Chinatown. Chinatown is self-funded and so we can give ourselves permission to be flexible. The rent is so low there that there isn’t a lot of pressure for the space to be more commercial versus the Mission location. We can do something like Izidora LETHE’s show where what’s on view is just the evidence of a performance that happened between just two people: one person in Chinatown and Izidora Zooming with them in Zurich. The performance happened but it was for these two people and what everyone else gets to see is this other thing. 

CLR: The evidence, do you want it still to create a world for somebody who would walk in, or not necessarily?  That seems like a moment where having the right writer in conversation with the performance could expand possibilities.

JI: There was a piece of writing printed on an editioned risograph poster that talked about this particular body of work. That was something that people could take home and it was a kind of documentation, but not a play by play. Neither Aaron nor I were around for any of the performances — there were four altogether–so what we experienced as gallery owners was similar to what other people experienced. 

CLR: That sounds great. There can be such a power differential between something that doesn’t leave any reliable traces and something written down on paper that says “this is how it was.” Especially if the artist feels that the writer got it wrong, that this isn’t how it was, a lot of damage can be done. But when it’s somebody thoughtfully engaging, whether through writing or sitting in the gallery and talking to people coming in, I really believe strongly in language’s ability to make our experience of art more expansive. Last fall SPT hosted a reading at Gallery Wendi Norris around their Alice Rahon show, and The Back Room commissioned Tausif Noor and Anne Walsh to write in conversation with both. Tausif’s piece was more historical, threading through various Surrealist moments in San Francisco, and Anne offered a more personal meditation on a network of individuals she connected to Rahon. They were such different pieces, and I was really pleased to have them side by side; neither said, “On this night, this is exactly what happened and this is what the show was about.” Instead, the show and the readings and the writings form this constellation that somebody could find and could investigate. That is very different from the ecosystem model we talked about earlier, which is so important — but I also believe in a painting or a show or a piece of writing being like a flare you send out into the dark, trusting that whoever needs to see it will.

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