By Ariel Rosen
I open Albert Camus’s The Fall to a random page and read these words:
“A doll’s village, isn’t it? No shortage of quaintness here! But I didn’t bring you to this island for quaintness, cher ami. Anyone can show you peasant headdresses, wooden shoes, and ornamented houses with fisherman smoking choice tobacco surrounded by the smell of furniture wax. I am one of the few people, on the other hand, who can show you what really matters here.” Albert Camus, this place, is telling me something, I tell myself, if only I could decode the message. The Headlands Center for the Arts might be quaint, but its prettily layered and peeling walls enclosing spaces laid out for a meeting of minds, its communal dining tables and large stretches of scrubby shrubbery, belie the seriousness and unseriousness of purpose that make this place so special. The quaintness is a cover for rambunctious test trials and bold questions.
Freed from traffic lights, city noise and normal rhythms, the artists, writers, filmmakers and architects lucky enough to sojourn here for one month or one year make art and experiment, yes. They install toy airplanes on the backs of chairs and string them with red thread. They wire plant roots to synthesizers and revel in the noisiness of the energy moving between plant and earth. They interview visitors and invite participation. But even from a short visit of a few hours, I got the sense during the Headlands’ Open House last Sunday, July 21, that there is loneliness and doubt, there are cold days and blustery nights with which to contend. One artist mentions the role of aloneness and isolation in her work, and how the setting fuels her.
Visiting Headlands Center for the Arts for the first time, if you are a fog, sea and, yes, art addict like myself, is a pseudo religious experience. I suggest going into it unprepared, with as little knowledge as possible of the place, buildings and programs that fuel the fires burning year-round just north of the Golden Gate Bridge. A rush of discovery, of first-timeness, propelled me through rooms, up staircases and up fire escapes, into large light-filled studios empty save for wooden floorboards and exuberantly painted canvases.
It was sunny and hot in Oakland and I had to force myself to pull on leggings, lace up boots and stuff a scarf in my bag for a drive that took me along the western edge of Berkeley, over the Richmond Bridge, past the hidden population at San Quentin and through the town of Sausalito. As a Bay Area native, I know better than to trust the sun, a fickle companion at most. At the last exit off the highway before the International Orange towers of that famous bridge guide you between their legs, I took the coastal road past determined cyclists pumping away at slow-moving machines and those who had given up on the battle with the headwinds to walk the steep climb. The Pacific stretched out below and in front of me, or so I imagined it must beneath the dense fog.
The Center reveals itself piecemeal. First there is the two-lane road down from the cliff into the valley, past modest pre-fabricated houses and simple signs pointing the way. Then there is the first cluster of simple military buildings. Residences and more studios are tucked down the drive, close to the lagoon. Later I’ll be serving lunch in the kitchen but I have some time to explore. I feel shy entering this space where everyone seems to know each other.
A list of questions taped to the floor stops me at the entrance to the first studio. “How to generate encounter and frame a moment, leaving behind absolute control of process/outcome?” The words read like they the introduction to an alternate mission for the Headlands. Maybe it’s taboo as an arts worker-writer to admit to a loss of control or lack of understanding, but I’m quick to fess up when things don’t make sense. José Carlos Teixeira captures the power in this uncertainty, even if he is contending with other issues. Residents at Headlands give up control over their usual routines in exchange for raw encounters with their ideas and fellow artists.
On the back wall of the studio behind a portable chalkboard a handwritten manifesto that ends on this note: “I am thinking of the gap between you who takes the photograph now (it is impossible to write the word NOW legibly) and you who paints over what I have written here before you leave – at that point I want these words to yours – indeed, yours, at the moment you erase them.” Hailing from Portugal and working with film, video and new media, Teixeira occupies a translation lab of sorts. While I wander through, touching everything, he sits on the floor with a small video camera trained on another resident sitting in a high-backed velvet chair. The interviewee relates his experience as a writer with other languages and the importance of remaining loyal to the original text. Camus’s The Fall sits in a multilingual pile of books on a small table, another reminder that translation is not the real thing, but the thing filtered through another reality, another grammar. A video plays on one wall. The artist’s desk sits behind a line taped on the floor. The space rotates on itself without a fixed center, at once participatory and confounding. Teixeira snaps my picture before I leave.
Artist statements guide me. I choose them over the map available at the welcome desk. On the paper pinned to her entrance, Firelei Báez notes: “My past experiences with the highlands of the Caribbean and the eastern coast of the United States did not prepare me for the literal sublime of the Mountains at Headlands.” I can relate. No matter how familiar they are to me, Marin’s soft hills shrouded in wet and in cold catch in my throat without fail. Wearing a soft grey sweater and bright red lipstick, Báez charms me. Beginning with family photos and serendipitously collected personal histories, she addresses the military identity of the Headlands in large representational paintings of individuals in the landscape. Pattern, color and perspective all play a part, as do masculine and feminine, power relationships and permission.
A cluster of small paper works is mounted with magnets to nails in such a way that they hover off the wall. Framed by their own shadows, these pages from a mechanical treatise dating to 1835 are populated with small crouching, coupling, bending figures alone and together, collaged from flowery papers. The artist is thinking of “wildings,” spontaneous happenings between groups of people, and of bringing the small details in ornate borders into the center of the work.
San Francisco artist Simon Pyle sits with friends picnicking in his small third floor studio. I feel a flash of delight upon recognizing the body of work that I had seen the day before in Backstock Gallery, tucked behind a retail clothing store on Oakland’s Grand Avenue. Interested in the components that make up the greater whole, in the physical details of what we are actually viewing, Simon photographs images on screens and zooms in on a picture until it gives up its grid. As I’m about to leave, Simon asks if I would like a receipt, which he prints from a machine at his desk. I sign my copy for him, and ask him to sign mine. Transaction ID 529536 states: “The holder of this receipt was indeed present. This may be used as documentation of alibi. Witnessed by: Simon Pyle.” Better than a geo-tagged Instagram photo, this artifact sits on my desk, folded back on itself.
Beef borscht and a salad with watermelon radishes and Armenian cucumbers are served in the mess hall along with chocolate mint cookies. I visit the latrines twice, the unerring experience of using a unisex bathroom rapidly losing its edge. Even the bathroom at Headlands has a sparkling otherness. Decorative urinals and unused sinks line the walls, and heavy curved metal doors enclose each toilet crowned with a chain flush. The clanging metal sounds and lovingly carved toilet seats feel nostalgic, almost nautical.
And yet, driving over the pitted road back to the roar of Highway 101, I do wonder if Headlands doesn’t exist in the romantic past or utopian future but in its own time warp where lives are suspended along with cell service, where conversation happens in intimate pockets and where stillness couples with experimentation. It is a place for creating and for becoming, and we should all be so lucky to experience something like it.
For more information on the Headlands Center for the Arts visit here.