Questions about self-organisation: Other Cinema (and A.T.A. Gallery), San Francisco


Other Cinema (and A.T.A. Gallery), San Francisco

Craig Baldwin

> What are the aims of the project you are involved in?

In the case of Other Cinema, our aims are to preserve and archive ‘orphan films’ (except in the case where we provide footage from those films for re-use in contemporary media artworks); to make our own series of ‘experimental/collage-essay’ documentaries; to produce screenings on a weekly basis of mostly experimental/personal non-fiction, but also agitational and journalistic documentaries, and experimental and underground (and occasionally animation and narrative) films, videos, and digital works, often in conjunction with installations and performances; and, finally, to curate and distribute on DVD (generally compilations of) personal/experimental documentaries/essays, and fine-art and media-archaeological pieces to an international audience.

In the case of Artists’ Television Access Gallery, our aims are to encourage, educate, and enable the production and exhibition of local and regional media artwork, and serve as an art-resource for many and various community projects.

> How is the project organised?

There are different levels. Other Cinema is a small group of 4-8 individuals, with me as the de facto central organizer, who meet a few times a week to do film research. We meet with the schools and present educational initiatives, and produce our weekly screenings. Being so small, it is more benevolent despotism than consensus, but everyone works as a volunteer out of personal engagement with the project (no salaries) and anyone can drop out for long or short periods of time, if the project goes in a direction that ceases to be interesting. The distribution arm of OC – which is called Other Cinema Digital – is actually a for-profit corporation, though it is three years old and has never turned a profit! There is one paid employee, and decisions are made through a lot of argument – I guess one could call it consensus – and sometimes actual committee voting.

ATA operates by consensus, though from time to time they have probably voted. There is a board, but it is the staff that runs the day-to-day business on a volunteer basis, and there are certain tasks for certain staff members (and these tasks rotate). The staff has always been a pretty loose group – somewhere between 8 and 20 – and meetings are held every month, though there is a lot of internal decision-making going on as part of the day to day activity, and also though an email system accessible via website.

> How do you support the work financially and what impact does this have

> on your project?

In the case of Other Cinema, it is what is called in the US “earned revenues”, that is, money tendered at the door for events (or the bar, or “found-footage” sales). It is more-or-less a ‘break-even’ affair; no one really does it for the money, but rather for a love of the art and politics of cinema. As to the financial impacts … well, one might think that that kind of financing model would drive our projects towards the market place, but that hasn’t really happened. It is a small storefront and so only so many (80) people can fit in here anyway, so we can “afford” to continue with a “niche” aesthetic. So the budget is necessarily limited – that's why it is called a microcinema and why we, in terms of programming, concentrate on shorter works, on smaller “formats”. ETL’s, publicity, and production costs are covered by means of the monies from the paying customers – $5 a head.

ATA, on the other hand, has received grants in its 22 years, how many I couldn’t say exactly, but I would guess around 7–9. They also collect at the door from their occasional-event patrons, and, more than any other income stream, actually rent the gallery out to other event-producers in the region. The programming and hardware have stayed largely the same over two decades, though there has been a general shift towards the “mainstream” because the outside producers have gained such a presence. And never enough of a grant to build, say, a new theater, but always enough to stay the course. ATA originally had public funding for the so-called visual arts, but when that dried up they made up the lost income by moving to time-based media-art screenings (where people pay for seats), though the flat visual art display and installations have remained at the margins of ATA’s offerings.

> What do you feel you have achieved, and what are the problems you face?

Well, it would have to be a miracle for either organization to have survived in a very competitive area, in one of the most expensive cities in the world! The problems are certainly economic, that is with rent and bills, but also that the physical plant is seriously deteriorated (for example, right this very moment, April 4, 2006, our water heater is leaking all over our kitchen floor, and no one – there are generally 3-5 people living in this larger “live-work” space – has been able to shower in three days. This is very typical). Our DSL line went down yesterday, and the 16mm and Super8 projectors have been broken for months. Because our rental status is “commercial”, the landlord is not responsible for fixing most of these problems. But the good thing is, the landlord lets us do what we want with the building, like building walls and lofts and having lots of people in the space four days a week.

Of course, beyond all that there are always psychological problems that we suffer as a group – it can be very claustrophobic, and there are a lot of contending ideas – there is a very diverse mix of people involved, with people from all over the world. It is also true (though many would not bring it up) that when you open your doors to volunteers, sometimes people get involved who are not so psychologically stable, or skilled. When everyone is just working on a volunteer basis and personal conflicts arise there can be personnel shifts, which can endanger continuity. Finally there is the “problem” of competition outside the venue – there are maybe a dozen other outfits offering competing programming and so it is often an effort to draw a sufficient audience to make the trouble worthwhile, especially with no advertising budget.

As to what we have achieved, well it won't be counted in awards, though we have won maybe five, or grants or money. It sounds like a cliché, but it happens to be true: the mark of our success is our continual and ongoing outreach and engagement, to what has been all in all a very large audience indeed, arguably in the top ten in the western US for the type of programming provided. And for what it is worth, both Other Cinema and ATA are well loved, and those kinds of communitarian feelings could really be considered an achievement. We have trained many, many people. We have certainly served as a catalyst for local political determinations.

> Are there any past projects/models which have inspired you?

Well, there are many; the things our sister galleries and alternative spaces and youth cultural centers were doing was natural ground for our own operations. Some of those older ones have died off, but there are some newer – not as many have started up, maybe because it is just too prohibitively expensive here. Intersection for the Arts, Project One, Project Two, Project Artaud, cellSpace, the Luggage Store, RX gallery, the Lab, 80 Langton, New Langton Arts, Camera Work, Capp St Project, People'’s Cultural Center, La Pena, Epicenter, Klub Kommotion, the Offensive, Club Generic, SF Center for the Book, Club Foot, A.R.E., Jet Wave, Valencia Tool and there are dozens more! Please understand that it was not a particular “organizational model” that served as a template, it was just more the presence and energy and strength of all those kindred groups, cultivating critical media audiences that we ourselves were all a part of, and then the opportunity arose for us to get an autonomous site.

> What are your hopes for the future?

It’s hard to answer that question with a straight face; everybody here knows that there is no future …


992 Valencia Street

San Francisco, CA 94110