Dena Beard Gets Moving: The Lab’s Director Talks about a Vision for Art-Making

By Robert Avila


It’s been a year and a half since Dena Beard took over the directorship of The Lab. The longtime hub for experimental cross-disciplinary art and performance, founded by five San Francisco State art students in 1984, had been in danger of finally running aground after a long rudderless drift into tax debt and strategic inertia. Beard’s appointment in August 2014 was widely hailed as a fresh start for the storied non-profit arts space and a nice save for a city whose runaway real estate market has put terrible pressure on its stock of viable arts venues and incubators. Beard, formerly assistant curator at the Berkeley Art Museum (BAMPFA), has been making good on that promised fresh start, keeping the place humming with work and activity while formulating a strategic plan, personally leading much needed physical renovations, raising funds, and inaugurating an ambitious series of residency-based commissions.

“We’re shooting for three a year,” says Dena Beard in a recent phone conversation, referring to the residencies. As for the artists, “a lot of them cross a bunch of disciplines,” notes Beard, including dance. Jacqueline Gordon will be in residency this fall, and Brontez Purnell in early 2017. “Brontez is dance, public performance, workshops; he’s actually creating a film, zines. We’re trying to create an alternative way of archiving queer history for a choreographer [Ed Mock] who died in the 1980s. So he’s crossing a lot of mediums. Jackie Gordon is also dance, found art and visual art.”

But first comes Floaters. The potential of the revivified Lab as a venue for and partner in the creation and exhibition of dance in the Bay Area gets a trial run this month with the arrival of Christine Bonansea’s trilogy. Floaters employs seven dancers in an interdisciplinary and multimedia performance investigating subjectivity and empathy through the mechanism of projection (in both the psychological and cinematic senses in this case).

Housed since 1995 on 16th Street in the Mission in San Francisco’s landmark Redstone Building (former home of the San Francisco Labor Council and an historic center for much San Francisco union organizing), The Lab is more than ever a big mutable box. For Floaters, which is not a part of the new commissioning program but comes fully-fledged, lighting and staging and audio will be major components in yet more permutations of the space.

“The Lab will reveal the full potential of Floaters,” enthuses Bonansea, the French-born dancer-choreographer who recently relocated from the Bay Area to New York. “This space has an exceptional history for multimedia arts performances and experimentation, which I’ve experienced as a performer with various artistic collaborations. I proposed Floaters to Dena Beard because it plays with various mediums such as video installation, light design, live sound composition and choreography. I’ve been impatiently counting on bringing this piece at The Lab for about 2 years!”

I spoke to Dena Beard on the occasion of the presentation of Floaters, which will help re-christen the newly renovated space as a venue and partner for technically complex, multidisciplinary dance.

Robert Avila: How did you come to know Christine Bonansea’s work and what draws you to it?

Dena Beard: I saw the piece she did [Asteria 1] at Fort Mason, out there for the [San Francisco International Arts] Festival. What I loved about it was it was unnerving [laughs]. It was a lot of strange sounds, a lot of weirdness. The formality of the dancing never came into it. It was more the thinking around bodies in space, changing the way I felt about bodies in space. It felt futuristic, it felt strange, it felt fantastical. I think she’s really taking a lot of risks with that work.

RA: How complicated will it be to accommodate the piece at The Lab?

DB: There’s going to be a lot that we’re going to have to reconfigure. It’s a matter of lighting and staging. We do have theater lights in the back. But we’ve had to reconfigure The Lab for every piece that we’ve put on. Already this month we’ve reconfigured it five times for different events and performances during Ellen Fullman’s residency. I have a really excellent community of volunteers and a lot of technicians that I call for advice. Thankfully, Christine comes armed with a whole knowledge base that I don’t have. We’ve had a couple of meetings about it.

RA: When you took over at The Lab in 2014, part of the agenda was rehabilitation of the space. I understand that’s now completed?

During, image courtesy of The Lab

DB: Thankfully. It was absolutely insane, especially to undertake it with a bunch of volunteers and myself, none of us knowing how to do construction. [laughs] We downed all of the office walls. They had divvied up half or a third of the space. It’s just ridiculous to me. I’m not really an office type of person. So that was symbolic. The other thing that was super symbolic for me was eradicating the unemployment office that had been put in over the meeting hall. After the union meeting hall was decommissioned in 1968, it became an unemployment office, which is really fucked up. So I just wanted to take out all of that infrastructure. We took out the moldy dropped ceiling, the office walls, the linoleum floor. We pulled out 40,000 staples, pulled up all the tar paper. I sanded the floors. It was very intense. Then we had to build an acoustic ceiling. We realized we’d never be able to do sound performances in there credibly without dealing with the ceiling in some way. We worked with a New York sound engineer and Meyer Sound in Berkeley and created these eight-foot by eight-foot acoustic tiles that we hung. I think there are 48 of them. They look like the Museum of Modern Art, out of the 1950s, they’re this weird modernist infrastructure. But you can project on them. So they have a dual purpose in case anybody wants to use them.

After, photo by Tomo Saito
After, photo by Tomo Saito

RA: Was the potential for having dance in there taken into consideration with the floor? It’s not a sprung floor?

DB: It’s not a sprung floor but it’s an old dry redwood floor. It’s the kind of redwood that was pillaged from the Marin County area from 1914 until it became illegal in I think the mid 60’s-’70s. It’s really beautiful. Part of the wood is maple and part of it is this beautiful dry redwood. Definitely I took dance into consideration. It is a really good floor for dance. It’s gotten some wear and tear, being that it’s been around for a hundred years, so in one of the last parts of the renovation process I’m resining in all the holes and going over it all with a fine-toothed comb. We filled an entire painter’s bucket full of staples, it was insane. But we’re finally getting there. We’re doing one more revarnishing job on it. Then I’ll feel OK about it.

RA: Your background isn’t in dance per se, but at the Berkeley Art Museum you programmed dance and performance, including the 2013 final performances of Anna Halprin’s iconic Parades and Changes. What is your perspective on dance in the Bay Area?

DB: It’s always fascinated me. I think I’m fascinated by things that I’m completely incompetent at. [laughs] I did this show with Silke Otto-Knapp, who is a painter from Germany. She uses iridescent paint that forces you to shift your body weight to look at it. And the content of the painting is all about dance. So you’re looking at these dance images while you yourself are conscious of moving around the painting in order to see it. It was a beautiful sight to behold, watching people trying to look at the paintings, shifting around. So we did a performance of Yvonne Rainer’s Trio A [as part of the exhibition opening]. We had Flora Wiegmann do a performance as well, kind of an homage to that. And as a result of that process I went over to Anna Halprin’s dance deck [in Marin County] and took a scoring workshop with her. I became fascinated by the way that the scoring workshop talked about so many things beyond the dance curriculum, trying to open up mediums and open up fields to lots of different perspectives and ideas. Anna was an incredible force to be reckoned with. But, yeah, it became very clear to me that I wasn’t very embodied.

RA: You’ve said that Parades and Changes was a pivotal moment, an inspiration for you?

DB: Yes, absolutely, as a kind of methodology, [investigating] the more Cartesian ways of learning. I loathe the disciplinary-ness of museums and the genre-specific categorization of artwork. I really do think that the activity of art is to dismantle that. So I wanted The Lab to just be fluid. If I liked it, I liked it; it didn’t really matter if it was film or a workshop. It could be many different things.

RA: What’s your approach to curation?

DB: As far as the curating goes, I’m basically doing all the projects that I couldn’t do at the Berkeley Art Museum, that were for one reason or another were refused because they were too high-maintenance. I’m just eking out the high-maintenance projects as my only criterion. [laughs]

RA: What does high-maintenance mean in this context?

DB: High-maintenance means that a lot of people are involved, or the project doesn’t really fit in with the normal criterion of hanging it in a gallery and walking away; or it’s an ongoing series of programs and workshops that requires a lot of staffing; or the artist needs a lot of time in the space in advance; or they need a lot of resources to put it together. It’s really just saying, here are the keys to the space, use it however you want; here’s the check to do whatever you want with. And I’m basically your resource if you need a theater designer, or if you need a connection to the Emma Goldman Archive, or if you need to be toured around San Francisco everyday for five hours. I’m your person. I wear all those hats.

RA: How is the commissioning program funded? Is there a major foundation or private funder behind it?

DB: Oh, I wish. No, I’ve just been piecing it together. I’m trying to get sustaining funding. It’s just taken a while because The Lab has this black history with a lot of grant agencies. So, yeah, I’ve written 33 grants in the past four months. Thankfully, we’ve raised $170,000 for this fiscal year just in grant income. I’m trying to stabilize that with individual donations, since so much of that [grant income] is restricted [to specific budget expenses].

RA: Can you explain how your approach to the commissioning program differs from the norm?

DB: What I’m trying to do is get massive amounts of resources that I can redistribute to artists with no restrictions and no caveats. Basically saying, here’s $25,000. We can divvy it up however you want. The idea is to give artists as much freedom as possible to blow apart whatever systems are preventing art from reaching the kind of potential we need it to. Art is really good at dismantling systems of perception. But the more you impose on the production process, the distribution process, the less of that dismantling you’re going to be able to viscerally feel and see. The prerogative for me is to provide as many resources as possible and then allow the artist to frame what they want the institution to be. The only thing I say in the letter of agreement is that I’m giving this money as a public trust. You’re engaging in this interaction with the public. You can address that or not, but it’s going to be part of the process regardless. When I was working for a museum there was this idea that artists didn’t need money; they’re doing it for the love of it. So by giving them a token honorarium of $2,000 for 13 months of work, you know, that’s enough. I’m saying there needs to be a living wage; there needs to be a real negotiation as to what labor is and creative labor can be. I am trying to choose artists who do rethink the institution and who are smart about it and can press up against it.


FLOATERSThe Trilogy. Fri-Sat Apr 8-9, 8pm, $15.

Robert Avila is a San Francisco-based arts writer who has covered theater, dance, film and performance for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, American Theatre, San Francisco Chronicle, and other publications. He also writes at Since 2016, he works as director of communications at GLIDE.