Dancing in the Moonlight

Glen Helfand on Let’s Go! A Farewell Revel at the BAM/PFA

Left: Dohee Lee. (Photo: Marisa Darabi). Right: BAM/PFA founding director Peter Selz and BAM/PFA director Lawrence Rinder. (Photo: Peter Cavagnaro).

THE BERKELEY ART MUSEUM BUILDING, a bold but seismically iffy piece of Brutalist architecture, has been on borrowed time for a while now. Bracing was added more than a decade ago, but it still rates poor on the safety scale. A new, more stable, and conveniently located building designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro is nearing completion, and so the museum threw itself a daylong celebration of its soon to be former home on the shortest day of the year.

Architect Mario Ciampi’s edifice, which opened to the public in 1970, is all about exposed concrete, verticality, and buttress landings overlooking a ground-floor atrium, which in recent years has been utilized for social gatherings with commissioned conversation-pit pieces (by ReBar and Thom Faulders). On Sunday afternoon, the cavernous space echoed with sound-based performances, most created to highlight the building’s dramatic character. Which meant that the shindig was austere, and maybe a little anticlimactic, as no one is quite sure of the building’s fate after the museum vacates.

The event, though, was about memories. There were spots to record them, areas on the concrete walls to post notecards with recollections. An arts administrator who worked at the museum a few decades ago recalled how every show was a battle between the art and the building, with the building usually winning. There were exceptions—Jonathan Borofsky’s vertically generous 1985 exhibition “All Is One” may have used it best. Others brought up Maria Nordman’s 1979 summer solstice event, in which the museum became a grand vessel for ambient light, with no security guards—the kind of uncompromising artistic gesture that’s hard to imagine happening anywhere else, including the new BAM.

If anyone would have memories of the place, it would be BAM/PFA’s founding director, the ninety-five-year-old Peter Selz, who admitted he couldn’t believe that he’d outlived the building. Less seasoned arts professionals told me they were surprised by how emotional they felt about the museum closure; with SF MoMA closed until mid-2016, there are going to be some serious gaps in the city’s cultural landscape. Patricia Maloney, founder of the online journal Art Practical, said she was already missing the building’s “spatial chaos.” She pointed to the way that young and old audience members were sprawled on the cold, hard floor in circular formation, as if in someone’s living room.

Left: The T Sisters leading a parade to the new BAM/PFA building. (Photo: Marisa Darabi). Right: Jay, Gizmo, and Johnny5 of TURFinc. (Photo: Peter Cavagnaro)

Acoustically, the space is problematic—audio confusion is easy to generate. When I arrived, there was a distant female chorale of what the schedule termed “exquisite harmonies from Eastern Europe and beyond,” which gently filled the museum. This was followed by TURFinc dance battles, which involved young people dancing, etc., to hip-hop, and some elders clutching their ears and heading outside. The building itself seemed to have a pulse, with crowds ebbing and flowing, filling and diminishing, and filling once again. Sound artist and Machine Projects regular Chris Kallmyer created an austere horn-and-percussion piece that he told me was inspired by the discrepancies between the architect’s intentions—Ciampi apparently wanted it to be a particularly social space—and Kallmyer’s view that the building was in fact an extremely awkward social environment.

Next was a ritual farewell by Dohee Lee, which ended with the crowd encircling her and stomping their feet, an act that was more marked by movement than sound; the solid floor just doesn’t give. This led into the finale, a performance of György Ligeti’s Poéme Symphonique, a score for one hundred metronomes that were wound and set loose to a ticking rhythm that lasted about twenty minutes. The sound recalled the previous week’s rainstorms, which had revealed leaks in the ceiling that required the removal of at least one work.

Luckily, it was a temperate winter solstice as the event concluded with a New Orleans–meets–Burning Man parade from the old museum to the new one under construction. Berkeley had recently been rocked with Ferguson-inspired marches that had met with tear gas and rubber bullets, and word was that the museum gave advance warning to the local police department that this was a celebratory endeavor. Museum director Larry Rinder, who carried a papier-mâché giraffe head on a stick, led us, and a Southern jazz band, through wooded paths of the UC Berkeley campus, past the new building under construction where colored spotlights illuminated the fenced exterior. The march concluded on a round plaza on a hillside across the street from the new building, where there was more music, singing, and cider, sweet gestures that will have to tide us over till the big housewarming in 2016.