Heather Jeno Silva is the curator of CAF's monthly Forum Lounge, now in its third season.
Paul Wellman

It’s 8 a.m. on a Friday morning, and in one corner of Loreto Plaza, construction crews are hard at work on the shopping center’s Spanification project. From the parking lot, a plywood board leads through a gap in the scaffolding to Renaud’s, the new French bakery where Heather Jeno Silva has suggested we meet. “You won’t believe their croissants-they are heaven,” her email of a few days earlier promised.

We’re meeting to discuss Forum Lounge, the monthly, avant-garde art series Silva has curated at the Contemporary Arts Forum (CAF) for the past two years. Since its inception in 2006, Forum Lounge has grown from a lecture and film series featuring artists already in residence at CAF to an independent, varied program of events with an emphasis on multimedia and performance art. In a town where the classical arts dominate and where mission-style facades are fast replacing the last remnants of funky ’60s architecture, Silva stands for a different aesthetic. For work to appeal to this young curator, it has to be fresh, and it has to be high-quality-kind of like the croissants at Renaud’s.

A still from Milk Teeth, one of the short films that screens at September 4's Forum Lounge.

Silva waves from a table at the back of the patisserie, cappuccino in hand, a string of brightly-colored beads wrapped twice around her neck. Even at this early hour, she’s bright-eyed and quick to launch into conversation on her favorite topic: bringing cutting-edge art to Santa Barbara.

“I’ve always been interested in the idea of performance art,” she explains, recounting how she developed a fascination with the alternative art collectives of the late 20th century while doing her master’s degree in art history at USC, and brought that interest to curatorial work on emerging contemporary artists at the L.A. County Museum of Art. “I got into looking at what people’s experience of art could be,” she says. “I was really turned on by that.”

Lured to Santa Barbara in 2003, Silva took a job with Arts & Lectures-a post she still holds today-and began looking for ways to continue her involvement in visual art while working for a performing arts organization. Enter Miki Garcia, the then-new director of CAF eager to develop the education outreach program and to recapture CAF’s history of performance art. “Santa Barbara has a rich performing arts tradition, but not a lot of it is really cutting-edge or avant-garde,” Garcia explained on the phone from Texas last week. “At CAF, for the past 31 years, that’s what we’ve done; that’s our niche. As a new director, I saw that there were all these amazing performing arts events that had happened here in the 1970s and ’80s, but they hadn’t been happening in recent history.”

Unbeknownst to many, Santa Barbara was indeed home to an active avant-garde arts community in the ’70s and ’80s. Joan Tanner, one of the founding members of CAF, recalled, “It was a very important time in contemporary art-it was very interdisciplinary. A lot of early performances reflected the kind of art being shown in alternative spaces in New York and Los Angeles. We wanted to bring about a dialogue about contemporary art that was not occurring in Santa Barbara at that time.” In its earliest years, CAF operated without a dedicated space, so “non-object,” live art events were common. It was during this period that Tanner and her colleagues brought renowned, experimental performance artist Laurie Anderson to Santa Barbara for the first time.

CAF has a rich history of performance art; pictured here are Mark Elk Baum and Tom Sepe in their 1994 performance, Taken by the Faerie.

Wayne McCall, longtime CAF boardmember and still a practicing artist in the community, also remembers it as a golden age of performance art. “The NEA [National Endowment for the Arts] was supporting alternative arts programming, so grants could be written and obtained quite readily to bring performance artists to CAF,” he said. “That was one big reason we had good viable program; we had good grant writers, and a lot of people who traveled enough to see interesting performance art that could be brought back here.”

But not all the cutting-edge art came from out of town. According to McCall and to Dick Dunlap, whose sound-based art events were performed around town as well as in Los Angeles and New York, there was a core group of artists of many genres creating performance art here in Santa Barbara. It was Reaganomics, McCall said, that hastened the end of the performance art era in Santa Barbara. By the early ’90s, NEA funding had dried up, and with it seemed to go the “tremendous energy” for experimental performance art that had defined Santa Barbara’s art scene for over two decades.

When Garcia met Silva and heard her talk with such enthusiasm about her interest in contemporary performance art and her desire to bring it to the Santa Barbara public, she saw an opportunity to revive CAF’s dynamic history, and Forum Lounge was born.

In the series’ first season, operating with a nonexistent budget, Silva reached out to artists with shows at CAF, as well as those working elsewhere in the immediate community. Forum Lounge was a casual, monthly film and lecture series where artists engaged in a dialogue with the public-a small but appreciative group of mostly 20- and 30-somethings with an interest in the experimental edge of the arts. “Frankly, it wasn’t that organized or dynamic,” Silva says. “I’d get a few weeks away and I’d go, ‘Oh no, I haven’t planned anything for Forum Lounge this month!”

Now about to launch the third season of the series, Silva’s approach has changed. The entire 2008/2009 season is already booked, and schedules are posted a few months in advance on the CAF Web site. Most of this season’s Forum Lounge artists come from out of town-many of them from Los Angeles. One of the factors that has contributed most to the development of Forum Lounge-aside from its place in the annual budget-is the launch of 1st Thursdays, the once-a-month evening of art receptions and events sponsored by the Downtown Organization. Silva plans her series to correspond with 1st Thursdays, although her slightly later time-frame-7-9 p.m. as opposed to 5-8 p.m. for most events-means visitors can attend more than one gallery before climbing the tiled stairs to CAF’s perch above Paseo Nuevo.

And climb the stairs they do. Forum Lounge is beginning to draw a crowd of regular art appreciators, as well as attracting some of the built-in 1st Thursdays audience. Last May’s Film Festival-themed Forum Lounge packed about 200 people into the gallery space. On the other hand, Ann Magnuson, the actress, singer, and performance art icon of the downtown club scene in 1980s New York, performed last October to a half-empty room. “There were 25 people there,” Silva exclaims. “It’s like, ‘Omigod, people, do you know how good this stuff is?'”

But Silva prefers to focus on the series’ growing success. “Overall, our numbers have increased exponentially,” she said, noting the popularity of events like last April’s performance by My Barbarian, a cabaret-style group that mixes electro-pop music with theatrical comedy, social satire, dance, and film.

To date, Forum Lounge lacks the budget to fly Silva around the country-or beyond-to scope out the most exciting new performance artists. Instead, Silva does most of her research from close to home. She discovered My Barbarian, as she did many of the artists scheduled for Forum Lounge’s coming season, online. The Web site for New York’s new biennial for visual art performance, PERFORMA, has furnished her with more than one lead for the series. Silva also travels to L.A. to check out the programs at REDCAT in the Walt Disney Concert Hall and at the Hammer Museum, both of which host an ongoing performance art series.

Among the artists she has discovered in Los Angeles is Shana Lukter, who will bring her interactive performance, Hear it Here, to CAF for the November Forum Lounge. Lukter’s show invites audience members to speak into microphones, creating the dialogue between silent performers who act out the content provided. In March 2009, Silva will bring New York performer and filmmaker Tamy Ben-Tor to CAF. Ben-Tor is known for creating a cast of characters and embodying them on one by one in performances that explore cultural stereotypes and racial, national, and political identities. Other performances included in the new season’s lineup include Advanced Beginner-an indie rock cabaret featuring a choir of women who play hair combs as instruments-and animated short films and live performance by multimedia artist Miwa Matreyek.

With Forum Lounge’s new season of events about to kick off, there’s no shortage on enthusiasm on Silva’s end; the question is whether Santa Barbara art audiences are ready to embrace the new generation of performance art. Silva is confident. “I feel like performance art is going through a renaissance,” she says, tugging at a buttery flake of pastry. “The fact that CAF is bringing this work to Santa Barbara again is exciting; it’s so important, and the programming for this year is so strong.”

Those who remember CAF’s early years know little yet about this recent resurgence of performance art, but Tanner raises some interesting questions. “These days, people think Santa Barbara is for billionaires and tourists,” she mused. They think art has to be entertainment; the word ‘performance’ conjures a picture of a big music concert. I don’t know whether the public today understands that ‘experimental’ art doesn’t necessarily have to do with things like being nude, but that it’s about time, space, and intellectual titillation.”

But Tanner and her contemporaries know Santa Barbara as an intellectually sophisticated arts community with a hunger for new, original, stimulating performance art, and Silva is determined to prove that there’s a new generation of art appreciators ready for the kind of fresh, high-quality, unframed art Forum Lounge has to offer.


The next Forum Lounge event takes place Thursday, September 4, 7-9 p.m., with two screenings of the best short films from the Ottawa Animation Film Festival. Admission is free. For more information, call 966-5373 or visit sbcaf.org.


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