Dot Org: Silicon Valley Arts, Entertainment and Cultural Institutions Go Online

As the Bay Area trudged through its second week of mandatory sheltering-in-place last Friday, San Jose–based arts organization MACLA unveiled a new, social-distancing-appropriate event series: “Stories From La Sala.”

“Or, ‘Stories From the Living Room,’” Executive Director Anjee Helstrup-Alvarez explains, translating the title.

Billed as a series of “videos, performances, and artist talks,” “Stories From La Sala” is more than just a few occasional livestreams. The new series constitutes an ongoing weekly schedule of events, ranging from digital workshops & tutorials on Mondays, to performances and talks by guest artists on Fridays.

“We’re even talking to an artist about doing a ‘paint and sip,’ but with whatever materials you have at home,” Helstrup-Alvarez says. “If you have crayons, markers, make-up, whatever you can use to be creative—bring your own cocktail of your choice, and do some online engagement that way.”

The organization premiered its new series with a painting session by San Jose–based mixed-media artist Force 129 (also known ask Fernando Amaro Jr.), who streamed live on MACLA’s Instagram account. Clad in sweats, the artist pried open his process on camera, blurring the line between creation and destruction as he worked out of a makeshift studio in his kitchen.

“I love creating and destroying at the same time,” Force 129 says via email. “I tried to allow the audience to ask questions, and share my creative process, all while working spontaneously on multiple mixed media paintings.”

Despite a shaky opening, the inaugural stream finished without a hitch.

“Like everyone, we’re learning,” Helstrup-Alvarez says. “We’re like, OK, we need to have the artist log in way before streaming, instead of 10 minutes before, because we’ll probably have technical difficulties.”

The new series reflects a major shift in thinking at MACLA.

Previously, Helstrup-Alvarez says, the gallery used its social media as enticement, hoping it would draw patrons into the physical space. But in the wake of a Bay Area devoid of any and all public gatherings, the organization has begun to change its view on social media, and repurpose it as a gallery space that exists solely online.

“It’s about being nimble,” Helstrup-Alvarez says. “Hopefully, when we’re able to congregate in person again we can decide what we want to keep, and what has potential for ongoing engagement with our community.”

At San Jose’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Library (MLK), curators already jump-started the effort to bring art across this new frontier.

Last fall, long before the advent of “social distancing,” the SJSU Library unveiled “The Art of Remembrance: VR Experience,” a virtual tour of MLK’s annual “Dia de los Muertos” exhibit. In a technical first for the library system, the virtual tour allows patrons to visit the ofrendas, artworks and pedaled walkways of the library’s real “Art of Remembrance” exhibit via browser or VR set. All of the objects which populate the virtual exhibit were recreated to scale using photogrammetry software, which used hundreds of photographs to digitally render each piece.

“It came out great, and it really gives you a sense of being there,” Jon Oakes, the university library’s technology labs coordinator, says. “Other museums are putting virtual museums up, but the interactivity isn’t there. What we’re doing is a bit different. We’re building 3D worlds that the public can get into and interact with.”

Using the “Art of Remembrance” as a template, Oakes (who programmed the VR exhibit based on an idea by communications manager Lesley Seacrist) is now working on bringing MLK’s spring exhibit—a collection of more than 70 painted lanterns made by artist Bobbi Makani for Asian-American Heritage Month—online. “Since we couldn’t get together, I couldn’t take the pictures,” Oakes says. “So, she’s doing slow rotation videos of the lanterns. Then we extract all the frames and build a 3D model out of them.”

Once the lanterns are modeled and rendered in a virtual space, library patrons (or their avatars) will be able to view the pieces from 360 degrees, just like in person, and even chat with other visitors while taking in the artwork. “It will be interesting to see what we can do with this platform,” says Kathryn Blackmer Reyes, director of SJSU Library’s Africana, Asian American, Chicano and Native American Studies Center (AAACNA), and curator of the in-person “Art of Remembrance” exhibit.

With social-distancing as the norm around the Bay Area for the foreseeable future, Blackmer Reyes says this year’s “Art of Remembrance” exhibit will likely exist entirely online, possibly even as an addition to the virtual tour launched last November, almost like a DLC expansion pack. “I’m still a fan of on-site, physical exhibits, but there’s a lot to learn as we start integrating this more,” she says.

As the library has become increasingly high-tech, with its virtual tours and photo-grammetrical renderings, the Tech Interactive, formerly known as the Tech Museum of Innovation, has taken a decidedly low-tech approach to the shelter-in-place order.

“Paper and pencil are technology as well—they’re just an older, simpler form of technology,” says Gretchen Walker, the Tech’s vice president of learning.

Last week, the Tech rolled out “The Tech Interactive At Home,” a section of their website dedicated to activities that can be done IRL (in real life) using household objects.

“What’s working for us and our families is giving people a break from all the screen-time,” Walker says. “It gives kids a little bit of a break, and it gives families something to do together. Plus, we’re finding that it’s very social.”

The Tech also recently rolled out its first “10 Day Design Challenge,” a new series which encourages youth to think like engineers by finding innovative solutions to daily challenges, like building a skyscraper out of paper and tape, or designing a “treat delivery system” for the household pet.

“The chance to build and create stuff, to struggle, and iterate on a design, is a really helpful thing in this time,” Walker says. “Everyone needs a sense of accomplishment right now, and having doable goals, where there’s an opportunity to challenge yourself and your friends, I think, is a welcome respite from what we’re dealing with.”

Alternatively, there’s always TikTok.

“We just opened up a MACLA TikTok account,” Helstrup-Alvarez says. “We’re going to do an extensive promo video on TikTok.”

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