Between the Walls: Southern Exposure Gets Ready for a Major Metamorphosis

By Eve Batey in Arts & Entertainment  
May 22, 2006  

Ever have one of those weekends where you keep running into people who tell you about the party you missed the night before, like, “Oh man, you should’ve seen Joe, he was walking around naked with a beer can on his head, reciting the dictionary backward while monkeys swung on chandeliers”? Well, that’s how we felt Saturday walking into Southern Exposure the day after Between the Walls opened.

Arguably one of the best places in the city to see innovative art from emerging artists, SoEx has been a mainstay of the Potrero Hill neighborhood for 32 years and will close its doors June 3 to undergo a seismic retrofit. Until then, the gallery has transformed itself into one big community art project, celebrating the people and the space that have defined it for decades.

Once inside, we were confronted with a massive amount of helium-filled balloons, most still clinging to the ceiling and some lolling about on the floor just begging to be kicked. We assumed they were leftover remnants of the opening, but were surprised to find out we were watching a performance piece in action. Over the course of the opening, each attendee was given a balloon, its color determined by how long they had been coming to SoEx and then instructed to let go, creating a physical, color-coordinated demographic of visitors. Watching the balloons slowly descend from the gallery ceiling was a bit like watching paint dry, but the process keeps lead artists Moriah Ulinskas and Theo Rigby of SoEx’s Youth Advisory Board interested. Inspired by “happenings,” where art is created interactively over the course of a specific period of time and Fluxus performances of the 60s and 70s, the twosome is videotaping the process which will be shown as a living kaleidoscopic image during the closing day celebration.


The title of the show, Between the Walls, is not just a figurative statement alluding to the art and people who have supported SoEx, but also a literal expression. Portions of the gallery walls and floor were removed to create the ingenious installations that are part of the show, exposing beams and insulation material.

REBAR, a San Francisco artist collective, is canning the plaster walls of the gallery and selling them at $20 a pop. That’s right, we said “canning.” SoEx exists in a space once occupied by the American Can Company, and to celebrate that history, REBAR has created a makeshift assembly line called EnCanment. By purchasing a sealed aluminum can containing pieces of the actual walls (with the clever label of “Best Quality Gallery Space”), you too, can become part owner of SoEx. The sold cans will be tracked over the next year and mapped as they disperse as a sort of portable community space. All proceeds go toward funding SoEx and REBAR exhibitions.

The most compelling installations were the community spaces set up throughout the gallery and made of either sustainable or donated materials. Sasha Petrenko’s project We Will All Wake Up Together is an exploration of community building and comprised of a series of integrated bunk beds built from refurbished and secondhand materials collected from the surrounding neighborhood. Petrenko then invited gallery visitors to donate materials or objects for use in the space. When we stopped by, we marveled at the small snow globe collection and refrigerator full of beer and crackers (seriously, is refrigerating crackers really necessary?).

Upstairs we found Porch by Steve Green and Kathryn Kenworth, a temporary communal resting spot/living area. Built entirely out of recycled cardboard, the structure seems like a feat of engineering. Here we saw more evidence of the grand party we missed, our lovely cardboard porch was littered with many, many empty cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon (as we all know, artists are cheap drunks). Classy. As we sat in one of the rocking chairs, we could almost hear the sound of mosquitoes being fried in one of those electric bug zappers that people in the south, the type who strike us as likely to sit on a porch with a case of cheap beer, would have hanging nearby.

Perhaps the only controversial piece in the show, is one by David Stein entitled, MP3 Fort and Reparations Center. Constructed out of hoisted tables, this fort is meant for the sharing of music files and includes CD burners, blank CDRs and ports to hook up laptops and iPods for this ultimately shady purpose. The real brilliance exists in the apology/excuse forms supplied outside the fort for those wishing to submit explanations or donations to the artists from whom they have stolen. Our favorite excuses include, “Your music is so derivative, I consider it stolen,” “I hate you as a person, but love your music,” and “You don’t deserve my money for this cheesy but catchy-as-hell-crap.” (Sorry, Britney). Although no one was hiding underneath this crawl space hoarding stolen music while we were there, we imagine it must have been the place to be Friday (you can never have enough Guided by Voices, or so we hear).

At this point, you might be wondering what is to become of SoEx during this lengthy retrofit process. As we understand it, the space is to become absorbed into the ether for the next year, or in more tangible terms, the gallery will be involved in creating public art exhibitions through a project called SoEx Offsite. Intended to be an opportunity for artists to develop new works that investigate strategies for exploring and mapping public space, SoEx Offsite will encourage artists to work experimentally in non-traditional locations and formats. In other words, look for SoEx coming soon to a neighborhood near you.

In the meantime, we still have Between the Walls available through June 3, including an innovative reading series hosted by Los Angeles-based Sundown Salon. Gallery visitors are encouraged to sign up for one of eight seats in a geodesic tent pitched in a corner of the gallery to drink tea and discuss the evening’s selected reading with a different host each night (see listing below). During the day, a slideshow of previous Sundown Salon events play on a television monitor. We’re not exactly sure what’s going on in most of the images, but we’re pretty sure it’s some crazy shit.

On June 3, the gallery will host a closing day open house from 12 – 8 p.m. where you can come to sit on the porch with a beer, swap some music files, buy a piece (can) of history and even get educated about disaster planning at the Survivalist Fair hosted by Sarah Filley and representatives from the Neighborhood Emergency Response Team and 72hours.

While SoEx may not exist in the form we’re used to over the next year, we still expect to see great things come from its collective creative minds and look forward to the next iteration of this one of a kind space.

Between the Walls -- May 19 - June 3
Southern Exposure
401 Alabama Street
Closing day celebration: June 3, 12 - 8 p.m.