LIFE IN THE MIDDLE OF CONCRETE
Natasha Boas looks back at The Farm with PK Steffan
I lived briefly at The Farm in the mid-eighties and we had animals running through our studio while we worked. Located under the freeway at the corner of Army Street (currently Cesar Chavez) and Potrero Avenue in San Francisco, The Farm was a remarkable rural oasis and hands-on educational farm with vegetable gardens, chickens, geese, rabbits, and goats and a pre-school as well as a library, a gallery space and rehearsal and performance space for theater and punk rock bands. Buildings in the same complex housed Survival Research Laboratories, Subterranean Records, and Cloudkick. Later in the eighties it would become exclusively an artist live/work space.
Artist PK Steffen taught digital arts at the California College of the Arts from 1996–2004 while living at The Farm. PK currently lives in Tuscan, Arizona and is known for quoting Baldessari: “Hopeless desire—to make words and images interchangeable, yet it is the futility that engrosses me...” PK and I reminisced recently about The Farm life.
—Natasha Boas, MOCFA curator
Natasha Boas: PK, I hear that you lived at The Farm and managed it for the founders Marilyn and Chris Goode. What years were you there and what brought you to The Farm?
PK Steffan: We were there roughly from 1994 to 2001. I found out about the Farm from the Arthouse hotline run by California Lawyers for the Arts. Back then it was just a phone hotline. I fell in love with the space and community immediately. To this day, my wife still laughs about how I approached the owner Marilyn Goode so intensely saying “What do I need to do to move in here?” After having traveled for years, going from grad school in Tucson to Japan and then to San Francisco, I knew I was home.
NB: What do you mean here by “home”?
PKS: It felt like home because of the great community of artists living there, the fact that there was a thriving community garden in the midst of the city and because Marilyn seemed like such an incredibly interesting, kind but very direct honest individual. It was like no other space in the city. Typically there are good workspaces, or good neighbors, but the combination at The Farm was unique. It felt like a challenging but inviting environment—one where an artist could be fully engaged in the community and in their work.
NB: Can you describe the community for me?
PKS: What an incredible and productive mix of talent. There were a number of performing artists such as Mark Pauline’s Survival Research Laboratories (SRL) and Chip’s People Eater. They would do mini shows in the back including one incredible performance for a BBC documentary. The window used to literally bow inwards and light up at night as they tested the jet engine or the flamethrower. There were teachers such as our next door neighbor who taught at the bilingual school up the street. There were artists using high tech production for video and installation. There were dancers. There were designers. There were crafts people. Everyone was busy producing something. We used to knock on each other’s doors to enlist support or expertise in what we were making or invite a neighbor to collaborate in a piece for a show.
NB: It sounds like a real laboratory situation. What about the whole technology, early Net and website activity at The Farm?
PKS: Yeah, some of my early net-based art developed there. That was the beginning of the Net as we know it. We used to project web pages up onto the walls of the spaces and share other artists’ work from China or Russia. Seems crazy now that I can access everything from my phone. Funny, I designed Harrell Fletcher’s first website at The Farm actually.
NB: Can you describe the “early Net days” in SF a bit more?
PKS: The video projection parties were done at a video collective that was based in a warehouse somewhere near Brannan and Third Streets. They had all the equipment that they also used in raves. I don’t remember the address anymore and their name changed every week according to the theme. The shows they did inspired me to share the web with every artist I knew. No one knew what I was talking about when I described a web page or how I made one.
The Net became a central part of my process as an artist and my teaching at California College of Arts and Crafts. I taught many classes on net art, creating an artist portfolio and helped out other artists like Harrell to gain a presence on the web. I used to hand out portfolios on floppy disks with a copy of Netscape 0.96 beta because most people had no clue about modems. I included printed instructions on how to install the app and locate the home page! We used to distribute Quicktime videos, images and text based pieces via online sites such as the Well and BMUG. These were the early days of Net art at The Farm...
NB: The music scene was really important at the Farm in the seventies and eighties. The Farm as a punk rock showcase by night was infamous for staging seminal eighties punk rock bands such as Frightwig, Discharge, The Descendents, The Mentors, 7 Seconds, MDC (Millions of Dead Cops), RKL (Rich Kids on LSD), DRI (Dirty Rotten Imbeciles), Raw Power, The Accused, Redd Kross, Soundgarden, The Gits, the Lookouts (Early band of Green Day drummer), Bad Brains, and many more. It was a way for The Farm to raise money along with DIY events—What was going on music wise when you were there?
PKS: No, the music shows were over by the time we moved there. From what I was told (not sure how reliable it is), there was a stabbing at one of the last shows. Due to police crackdowns and insurance reasons, the music came to an end. I believe at that point Marilyn purchased the space since there was not enough income to run the space. I think the circus school may have been there for a while still but then they converted the whole thing into live/work in the late eighties.
NB: After speaking with one of the original founders, Bonnie Ora Sherk, I learned that The Farm was originally called Crossroads Community: The Farm because it was at the crossroads of four neighborhoods. How did the shift from community center to live-work space change the scene at The Farm?
PKS: It switched modes when it became a live/work space. It was no longer the open community space it had been in the past. People who lived there before such as the founders lamented the change. It became a community for the residents and their friends and collaborators. This was a totally different model and much smaller core group than the founders had envisioned. It wasn’t a collaborative work funded by what the group produced. We paid rent (covered by rent control yes so below market) and there was no communal indoor space except for the laundry room, hallways, front garden and community garden.
Even so, it still felt like a communal space to us. We were constantly surrounded by visitors. There was a constant stream of people coming to help out at SRL or Chip’s group for example or Sergio Becerill’s print shop clients and skateboard filming crew. During the day the yard was full of kids from the Buena Vista school across the street or people who didn’t live there but came to hang out. It became a bit of an issue at times because of things getting stolen or new residents feeling uncomfortable when someone would climb the fence to gain entry.
NB: Tell me about SRL and Mark Pauline—the myth of Mark is huge around The Farm and beyond.
PKS: All those machines that were used in impromptu shows, tests and rehearsals and the BBC Documentary—those were done in the yard of The Farm. I have some really good Mark Pauline stories but it used to piss him off if I shared them with anyone. I saw firsthand how they tested stuff and risked life and limb. They are fearless. Mark always took that to mean I was saying he was reckless.
NB: Fearless might be an understatement. Did the farm school still function along with these activities?
PKS: Yes, it was still going while we were there. The kids who visited from city schools on field trips contributed greatly to the sense of a vibrant artistic community. The kids’ art projects hung on the walls of the building and some of the residents taught there and contributed to lessons at the school. The school was still there, the garden continued—part of which became the public De La Raza Park. There were no animals, but the artistic residency continued albeit in a different form. We still considered it to be “The Farm” but to the founders, I’m sure it wasn’t anything like it had been.