I have to thank Stuart Bousel for voicing his frustrations about what he calls “the Yay-Bay” in his post Please Continue Your Conversation at Home. The Yay-Bay is a general attitude and the resulting behavior Bousel describes as:
“Basically the idea being that as residents of the Bay Area (but particularly the Axis of Smug that is San Francisco, Berkeley and The New Republic of Oaksterdam) not only is our poop gold, but anyone else who shows up and takes a shit in our yard is automatically elevated to Golden Goose status so long as they tell us what we want to hear: namely that we’re edgy, smart, and nowhere near as disconnected from the harsh realities of the world as a great deal of the rest of the world perceives us to be.”
So is the Bay Area a vanguard or an outlier? Consider the definitions:
vanguard – a group of people leading the way in new developments or ideas; a position at the forefront of new developments or ideas: “in the vanguard of technical development”
outlier – a person or thing situated away or detached from the main body or system; a person or thing excluded from a group; an outsider
Being a vanguard implies being a pioneer. Being a vanguard means that one’s work or ideas ripple outward and influence a larger population. I think San Francisco’s ego wants it to be a vanguard, however in many ways the region operates as an outlier, enabled by a degree of Yay Bay behavior.
For example, liberal thinking is not the same as independent thinking. If the majority of people around you are liberal in their views and you are a liberal thinker, then you are not necessarily being independent unless you explore your own criticality and point of view. Independent thinkers do have boundaries, which they set for themselves. Bousel points to a certain flock mentality of Yay Bay, adding “I feel like there is an enormous pressure for us all to agree here, or not speak if we don’t agree. Which is another way of agreeing.” In tandem, Chicago Tribute film editor Michael Phillips reinforces how the mixed review is indeed the most challenging to write because it requires criticality, independent thinking and collecting evidence, an opinion he shared when I worked with him in 2011.
While the imagination in our city fosters extraordinary artistic achievements from the Beats and the San Francisco Mime Troupe to Anna Halprin’s work as an artist, teacher and healer, comedian Anna Seregina’s performance at SFMOMA, which referenced San Francisco as a “city of misfits” hit home, in describing how rosy universal acceptance in the Bay can lead to a lack of critical thought and reasoning. Acceptance shouldn’t leave you dull in your openness and just feeling the warmies. Perhaps the Yay-Bay effect resulting from a “misfits unite” attitude is the downside to a town influenced by radical acceptance and utopian visions preached by hundreds of Burners.
During a mapping initiative of contemporary performance ecosystems in select American cities spearheaded by Culturebot’s Communities of Practice project, writer Robert Avila and I discussed some pros and cons of what Bousel considers the Yay-Bay effect. On the generative side, experimentation requires a degree of tolerance (amply available here) in order for new work to refresh and innovate contemporary performance. The Bay Area is known as a supportive place for choreographers to produce and grow through creative residencies.
Joe Landini, owner and director of The Garage especially champions emerging artists, facilitating for many a first production experience in the intimate and raw performance space. He rarely prohibits interested artists from performing in his space, and therefore, many Bay Area choreographers have grown from the feedback of a live audience at The Garage. Remember, it’s the quality and honesty of the feedback that matters, which seems to be the issue here. Another example is ODC’s Sandbox Series, which is all process and time in the studio for a choreographer with no charge of production. Sandbox encourages new generation and experimentation without the pressure of editing to make something “good” or “finished” or “performance –ready.”
Eventually, in order to be intentional as an artist and realize a vision, comes the rigor, self-discipline and the importance of editing at some phase in development. There are many wonderful programs fostering these qualities among artists in the Bay as well. Both elements are important. You wouldn’t want the rigor without artistic imagination. Finally, if a showing of experimental research will be performed, call it as such to manage expectations, as Movement Research or the Center for Performance Research would speak about process-oriented performances.
In a conversation about the mapping project, organizer Andy Horowitz recalled Bay Area artist and writer Cara Rose deFabio mentioning that in New York people are afraid to fail and in San Francisco, you really can’t fail. (Of course, the reason being the Yay-Bay.) According to some artists, the ethos has not always been as accepting. Speaking of the 80s and 90s, Amara Tabor Smith comments “Audiences were not as nice and it was real.” So is the Yay-Bay a more recent development?
Additionally, Bousel writes “The Bay Area has often been pegged as being about attaining and maintaining a level of lifestyle best described as “laid-back, comfortable”, but detractors of the Bay Area see as “lazy and indulgent.” While the way in which one views the culture results from personal perception and experience, Bousel’s comment does illuminate a particular vibe of the city. Finally, to the frequent snobby comment, “This would never fly in New York,” I have to say that if the art is here in San Francisco, then the Bay is the context for the work and New York doesn’t matter (unless you are touring to New York, in which case you should consider the cultural context and ask “why here, why now?”)
To dig us out of the Yay-Bay issue (and I think we should get digging), we have to develop and exercise independent, critical thought and conversation. We have to do it on our own and trust experience and the brain. Don’t just like something (yay!), but ask why again and again. There’s room to disagree. Independent thinking is not for the lazy or the overly-polite flockers, but we don’t want to be that, do we? Bay Area art will be better with our brains at work.