Aggregate Space is a relatively new artist-run exhibition and studio space in West Oakland, close to Downtown. Built from the ground up in an empty warehouse, Conrad Meyers II and SD Willis have independently created an impressive haven for East Bay artists, almost entirely with their own hands. They’ve also recently added artist Pete Hickok to their team as Associate Director in order to allow SD Willis to focus on other projects. I recently visited Aggregate Space to talk with Conrad and SD about how they’ve managed to do all of this and how the realities of being a working artist in the Bay Area inspire their projects.
Kelly Inouye: You have basically created a gallery, artist studios, metal and wood fabrication shop, small theater, and office space out of an empty warehouse. How did you do that? I remember seeing pictures when you first opened. I was amazed by the transformation. How did you get started?
SD Willis: We couldn’t afford a large space in San Francisco so we started looking for spaces where we could make our sculpture in Oakland. This building was the first space we looked at in 2010. We saw the potential.
Conrad Meyers II: We really didn’t know what to do at first. At the very beginning, a few years ago, our families did some really generous stuff. When I shared the idea of building what eventually became a screening room with my father in PA, he was like, “You’re crazy! What can I do to help?” He flew to SF and, frantically, we started building this room, the loft and the stairs. It didn’t really get “finished” for 10 months, the early construction took a very long time to complete, it was all done at night and on the weekends. After we saw what we could do with few resources- just the cost of materials—we were motivated to do more. It’s actually relatively inexpensive to do the work. It costs about as much as a computer to build a room and a loft like this; it’s not that much.
It’s not that expensive if you happen to know what you’re doing and have the skill. You did all of this yourselves?
CMII: Yes, I have architecture and general contracting experience and Sarah and I worked in the construction field together after graduate school. I also have really generous co-workers who would pop by and give advice. They really helped with things like electrical work. My regular boss, John Allred, has been really supportive of the space. He loves movies, so I can usually trade a movie in the theater for an hour or two of consultation.
SDW: My studio work combines drawing and research to create large-scale sculptures and installations. My skillset doesn’t start or stop with my studio practice though. No matter what the project is, whether it’s hands-on or whether it’s building a network and outfitting our space with the technology we need, it’s all about problem solving. And having the energy to do it. We’ve become really good at carving out the space to make our dreams happen.
That’s really impressive. “Carving out the space” is a great way to describe it. The Bay Area is definitely not an easy place to live and work as an artist. There are so many people who, for many reasons, decide it’s a better decision for them to move somewhere else. How have you managed to navigate all of that?
SDW: There’s a sense of having to fight for your work. All the peripheral projects you take on, this project included, come back to that because it represents who you are in the world.
CMII: I don’t know if Sarah feels this way, but in some ways Aggregate Space is a selfish project. We basically left San Francisco because we were running out of space and wanted to do more stuff. We looked in San Francisco for years to try to find a space and no one would do it.
Looking around San Francisco, it doesn’t seem like it would be impossible to find a space to do this—but everything is so difficult and expensive. The tech bubble has had a negative cultural effect.
CMII: We fought about it a lot. I refused to look anywhere outside of the city for years. We were basically looking in SoMa and we found buildings, we did floor plans, we made bids and lost maybe four or five times mainly because people didn’t want noise. This was the first place we looked at outside of San Francisco. This space rents for basically half as much cost-wise than any of the places we looked at. The landlords are very generous and hands-off.
SDW: We submitted a floor plan and proposal to the landlords that we stuck to. The draft was very ambitious looking back as we had no idea what it was going to take.
It’s probably a huge benefit to them.
CMII: When we first moved in it was just heaps of our stuff. Our friends would come to visit and see the mounds of stuff scattered in the space. We were often compared to Sanford and Son [Laughter]. We came from neatly organized studios to this place with no storage, no walls, and it was just lumps of stuff. The building was a wreck, a lot of things didn’t work.
One thing I find interesting about Aggregate Space is that although you’ve developed this great facility and your projects are ambitious, you resist the idea of being institutional.
SDW: We have been called “an alternative space”. It’s true- we do things on our own, plus we are not just a gallery, or just a fabrication shop, or even a non-profit. We favor a trial and error process that lets the project evolve on its own. We are planning to forge ahead and continue to have shows on a six-week rotation, provide a venue for the Featherboard Writing Series, and provide residencies in the three upstairs spaces to artists, designers, programmers, or curators.
CMII: Apparently, we try to avoid doing things for money in the gallery [Laughter]. We proved that a little seed money and initiative can go a long way- even in the absence of employees, a board, and cash flow- two people can make a lot happen.
SDW: We haven’t done it all alone though. So many of our friends and family gave us a hand here and there and a great deal of moral support. There has been a lot of trade involved because we have great expertise but not a lot of capital. Because we work so closely with our colleagues from San Francisco Art Institute and others that we’ve met through the various jobs we’ve had, we’ve been able to rely on our skills and talents, and trade work to do what we wanted to do. It’s not a popular business model, it’s kind of a barter system between artists, trading work for work. When we started the economy was really down and people didn’t have money so naturally we did what worked.
CMII: Ryan Hendon is a really good example of how we trade. He is the co-founder of LoopArts (www.looparts.com), which is only two blocks from here. He’s helped us with construction, and I’ve been helping him assemble some stuff. Recently, he needed a solution for a flat file so we went into the Aggregate Space fabrication shop and welded a frame to house it. It was an afternoon of enjoying ourselves and beer drinking. We knocked it out in a couple of hours and, then went and watched football. We’ll continue to trade with him and he’s going to help us print some documentation materials in the future.
What are your hopes for the future? Do you have a goal in mind?
CMII: I feel like we’re kind of right where we want to be.
SDW: Yes, we like where we’re at. When it was Conrad and I building out the space, he and I working together alone; it was not a sustainable model because of our full-time jobs. The more people we bring in and trade work with, the more energy they bring to the project. We’re intentionally surrounding ourselves, much like what happened in school, with resources as more and more people come over to the East Bay.
CMII: I feel like I’m more successful, that this project is more successful, because of the community we’ve developed. We both had undergrad experiences at state schools where there were huge facilities and people running those facilities who were always there. You develop a rapport with people when you’re going from the wood shop to the metal shop all the time. We were given responsibilities to take care of those rooms, so we got to know all the people who were working there – the community just appeared out of nowhere. Whereas in graduate school it was a frantic two years with 80 people struggling in a small amount of space. I feel like we’ve found that feeling of community again, without it being about education so much. It’s really just about being able to trade ideas and projects with people.
SDW: I felt, when I was in undergrad with the support of my peers, like I had no limits.
CMII: Right, I think the inspiration for the gallery came from that positive undergraduate experience. In graduate school we developed an instinct and ability to identify work and artists we wanted to work with, and all the other stuff came from our undergraduate experience.
I’ve talked to a lot of people who expected their grad school experience to be similar to their undergraduate art department. It’s true, the format of grad school is not as conducive to developing a community. Yet, that peer community is probably the most valuable aspect of school.
SDW: The greatest benefit of San Francisco Art Institute was the community. Even though it didn’t necessarily feel like a close-knit community while we were there, after we got our work out of the way those relationships turned out to be really strong. And the people that stay in the Bay Area —we’re very tight. One thing we realized a couple years after graduating was that we can go anywhere in the world and know someone from our school. And so when we think about travel we’re always trying to keep that in mind, because it is a network we respect.
You’d think we fought a war together or something. I should probably delete that.
CMII: [Laughter] Yes- it’s like we were in the trenches together. The other funny thing is that most of my very good friends are all SFAI graduates that I didn’t go to school with. So it’s an experience that transcends being in class together. And because we stay, the future of the arts in the Bay Area could be ours. I didn’t really come to that conclusion until very, very recently. By accident, by default, by the fact that we fought and stayed, we’ll continue to work and contribute.
Going back to something we touched on earlier, it sounds like you both found a great symbiotic relationship between your day jobs and your creative pursuits. It seems like they feed into each other and they’ve both benefitted. Can we talk more about that? It’s something people don’t talk about all the time.
CMII: There have been some amazing things that have been sparked by the generosity of people we work with professionally. My boss donated the materials for this upper deck as a holiday bonus. He gave us the start to this area that will serve as offices for the people we want to bring in and work with.
SDW: Balancing a gallery, a home life, and a day job is tricky. But I can’t say enough about where I work. I love BAVC’s mission and everyone I work with- I could dedicate the rest of the conversation to the work they do as they do so much! At first, I was a little afraid of the overlap of circles. The only reason I really want to keep our private art practice and this gallery separate from my IT work is so I don’t feel as if I am always working!. You know what I mean? They are supportive of my efforts to run this gallery space when I’m off.
I’m sure a lot of people can relate to the fact that it’s very hard to maintain a serious studio practice and a professionally demanding job. The stereotype is that artists are unreliable misfits- but to be successful in your work and your work, you’ve got to be very good at all of the jobs you do.
SDW: It’s hard to sustain 100% in different vocations. Boundaries and common sense are the key to finding a balance. This is the day to day reality for many Bay Area artists. We don’t all talk about it a lot. Recently we featured an artist here who absolutely did not want people to know what their day job was.
CMII: They didn’t want people reading that into the her work.
That’s interesting. It seems inevitable that what you do eight to ten hours a day is going to affect the work you make. But that information might limit a viewers perception- and that could be negative.
CMII: For me, it’s important to keep the art and the job separate. When I was working in software I was making big sculpture. And when I started doing contracting and building all day long, I started doing digital work. I always want my art work to be different than what I’m doing all day long. We think about the gallery in those terms, too. We like to show projects that probably would not be seen otherwise. We try to offer something different. It gives us a lot of hope and inspiration- seeing work in here we know we couldn’t see anywhere else.
How would you describe your curatorial focus for the gallery?
SDW: We approach the gallery programming in a similar way to our approach constructing the space. It comes in calculated bursts in response to what we see and don’t see happening in the community.
Do you work with curators on the programming?
SDW: Yes, and we’ve found there’s a certain type of person that has a certain communication style that works best with our space. There are so many restrictions because our space is a warehouse. It doesn’t allow for works on paper because the weather could curl it. Matte photography doesn’t work so well in here because of the dust. In this industrial setting we have to work with people who have a really good grasp of what’s possible and what will not work in the space. Also, we’re really quite rigorous about what we show in the space and how it’s presented. Conrad and I both have museum installation training. We’ve worked at the Museum of Craft and Folk Art, The Contemporary Jewish Museum, and other institutions in the Bay Area. We set our standards of presentation pretty high. It takes a certain person, whether they’re an artist-curator or just a curator period. Having a great communication style and being able to collaborate with us is the most important thing.
CMII: We also wanted to feature solo shows from the very beginning. We basically only do group shows when it’s too good to pass up and we know it wouldn’t be able to be done well anywhere else.
Solo shows are a rare opportunity in the Bay Area, and anywhere really. Group shows are far more common.
SDW: Group shows are important for community building, but we are doing all of this to provide those solo show opportunities. Because it is so rare, and people’s work and the artistic community benefit from it.
That is great to hear. Although it can be really interesting to see the dialogue between works in a group show, it’s an important step for an artist to take the entire room and really work out their vision. Otherwise, you only get bits and pieces of what they’re working towards.
SDW: Being autonomous is so important. Autonomy is a such a beautiful way to express the feeling that we want to evoke and the energy we want to move forward with.
CMII: There are other self-starter galleries that have a great autonomous spirit nearby. One example is Krowswork. The programming is so fantastic. I’m blown away every time I go there.
SDW: And there’s no pretentiousness about it.
CMII: Yeah, Jasmine Moorhead is completely generous with her thoughts and her views and her attitude. Our relationship with Lowell Darling came about through her. I’ve always loved his work, I went to an interview that Dale Hoyt did with Lowell at his “retrospective” at Krowswork; we got to chat a while afterward. Then one day we I got an email from him saying that he wanted to do this thing with animal paintings.
“Brusha Brusha Brusha!” The show of paintings done by seals? That show had an irreverent quality that I thought was so interesting. Can you talk a little about it?
CMII: Sea lions. You have to call them sea lions. The trainers get so pissed. I accidentally referred to them as seals early on, and they corrected me. And Tthey went through a list of about seven things that make them different.
Oops! Sorry! Paintings by sea lions!
CMII: [Laughter] So, Lowell sent me this picture of a painting by one of the sea lions and it blew my mind. I thought it wasn’t true, that maybe he was bullshitting me and a human did it. So we had a studio visit with him and we talked about how the show should be. He told us we should do what’s right for our space, and and that he would be there as much or as little as we needed.
SDW: He talked about comparing animal paintings to painting with a capital P. He talked about the freshness and the lightness of the brushstrokes and how all artists hope to have that freedom and the ability to let go to make a stroke like that. That’s what gives these paintings their appeal. He said, “They are beautiful, light and fresh. Fresh being the key for judging all art, no matter who makes it or when.”
CMII: I thought that was really powerful. It’s what won the show over for us. If it was a painting show it would have been awful and rude and mean-spirited, and I think would have really pissed people off.
It could have made people angry. But hearing that quote, as painter myself, I definitely see the connection. I felt sort of similarly when I saw Werner Herzog’s “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” – that painting is this deeply instinctual thing. It kind of makes sense in that context.
SDW: Lowell pointed out that seeing those paintings and that show, helped our human relationship to painting grow. I think that’s true. We all agreed during the curatorial process that no matter how people took it, if art doesn’t challenge our views and sensibilities and spark dialogue, why show it? Why not challenge, why not push boundaries?, We were really lucky to work with Lowell, because that’s his practice- to challenge, to push boundaries.
That show was really unique. It’s a great discussion to have about art making in general: The role instinct plays. You can theorize and intellectualize your practice as much as you want, but art is really very instinctual.
CMII: And the conversations at the opening were great. The best question was, “Are you in it for the fish?” People were wondering whether the sea lions really want to be painting or are they just doing it for the fish? And we joked, “well, are you?” Sarah said it first. It stuck. So it became this thing we say a lot—are we doing this for the fish?
[Laughter] Probably a question we should all ask ourselves.
Can you talk a little more about the art scene in Oakland and your experiences with the artistic community in the East Bay?
SDW: I recently read that Oakland is experiencing growth that it hasn’t seen since the 1940s. We’re right on the edge of West Oakland and very close to Oakland’s First Friday Art Walk, which gives us the autonomy to participate in events like the Art Murmur or not. We don’t really identify with the artists working on big Burning Man sculptures or the commercial galleries near Telegraph. We respect the history of those institutions, but we’ve brought a different crowd of people to West Oakland.
Another thing that’s been wonderful has been hosting the Featherboard Writing Series. Steffi Drewes, who we met through a mutual friend from CCA a few years back, organizes regular reading events at the gallery. We really enjoy the community of writers. It turns out these writers are some of the biggest supporters of our gallery. They come out in throngs and donate money at our cash bar. They have the most inspiring things to say about the space and the energy in Oakland, and the writers’ community here is something I think is making history and growing.
CMII: Yeah, it’s insane. I was never a big fan of poetry, but I love what they’re doing. I love these people. We’ve gone to a lot of poetry events because of the people that we met and they’ve ignited the passion that I didn’t have prior to it. It really is unexpected. When we first talked about it I was against it, mostly out of ignorance. I didn’t want to be THAT place, because I grew up playing really crappy guitar at open mic nights and just got so used to terrible poetry. High school poetry, you know, by people that are just discovering performance and thinking they’re pushing the envelope when really its been nailed down since 1962. This is not THAT type of poetry.
SDW: It’s anything but cheesy. Any art gallery that’s considering giving space to these poets for free, they should do it. They should open up their space because it’s not a community that has a lot of money running through it and they’re all self-starters, and they will spread the word and support the hell out of any gallery that supports them. The thing we kept hearing over and over was that people were thankful to us for opening up our space. They would thank us for doing this for free. There are no spaces left in Oakland doing this for free.
Poets would have to rent a space to have an event?
CMII: Yes. The really common thing is that they’ll just have an event in somebody’s backyard where three people read at a BBQ. Like us, they really are in it for the work, for each other, and they’re all writing manuscripts on the side, trying to support their career. They get together to share ideas. It’s very similar to what we want to do. We don’t want to muck up the art. We wanted to share art, enjoy a beer, and have a good time, and so do they. I hope other people reading this will help them.
SDW: Right, and Steffi Drewes describes the Featherboard Writing Sseries as “Art meets word meets world.”, so it’s a really beautiful intersection of writing and thinking.
Can you talk about the ongoing series of film screenings you show here?
CMII: Yes- It’s kind of a passion of mine. I love the research. They are curated around a theme. The first was a history of Science Fiction called, “We’re All In It Together” It was a ridiculously long 21 weeks of double features where I paired the chronological history of science fiction film with a thematically linked second sci-fi film. This spring I decided to do a history of violence in cinema, tracking westerns through vigilante films It is pretty awful [Laughter]. Every Sunday at 3pm we have double feature with a donation bar. I do a brief lecture between the films and talk about why they are in the series and how the two films relate. It’s called “Only At the Point of Dying” and I blog about it at www.aggregatespace.com/film.
It sounds like Aggregate Space is growing organically and you’re using your community and your network to fill the voids you find in the artistic community. What can we look forward to seeing at the gallery in the future?
Opening July 5: Jaime Lakatos, Solo Show
Opening August 16: Christopher Burch, Solo Show
Opening October 4: Brynda Glazier, Solo Show
Opening November 15: ASG’s 2 Year Anniversary Show
Wonderful. Thank you so much for talking with me.
You can find more information and keep up to date on Aggregrate Space’s programming and events at www.aggregatespace.com. For more information on the residencies offered, you can email firstname.lastname@example.org.
-Contributed by Kelly Inouye