This weekend’s ArtLabs, spinoffs from the big contemporary art fair downtown, involve a ton of people, ideas and local artists. I asked Jessica Sledge, an artist involved in two of the ArtLabs, to write her perspective about what insights into San Diego these projects lend. Here’s what she shared:

When I first moved to San Diego in 2006, I started building frames for a commercial gallery with one location inside of a mall. We (along with “embellishers” who added dabs of paint to inkjet prints, thus increasing their value exponentially) churned out art like Keebler elves, and that one gallery has now expanded to three locations throughout the city. It seems that wealthy San Diegans looking to decorate their homes were undeterred by the economic downturn. And I have no hard feelings about this kind of production. After all, it provides artists with necessary day jobs and discounted framing costs. Plus, people want something on their walls, and who’s to say everyone should have an eye like Gertrude Stein’s?

But I always hoped that San Diego had more to offer, and since I started the Visual Arts MFA program at UCSD in the fall of 2009, I have watched this city’s arts community grow rapidly. For me, the turning point actually came in the summer of 2009 when I heard someone on Tim Pyles’ local show discussing a plan for creating affordable live/work spaces for artists in the city.

That vision has now come to fruition as Space 4 Art, an artist co-op in the East Village. My band has a practice space in that facility, and I can tell you firsthand, it is making a difference in the San Diego art scene. I have personally seen artists from my program at UCSD who were planning to move to, you guessed it, Los Angeles change their mind after procuring a studio or live/work loft at Space 4 Art. That venue is keeping young, quality artists in San Diego, and, thankfully, it isn’t alone.

For this year’s ArtLabs, I am involved in two projects — “Adjacent Possible” and “Art(ist) in Context II: or How I Learned to Scrub the City of Undesirable Elements and InScribe Economic Viability onto the Urban Landscape.” The former is being performed Saturday night at the aforementioned co-op in the East Village, the latter on Friday night at Agitprop, an innovative art space located in North Park and run by my friend and fellow MFA student David White. These two projects are very different in terms of content, formal choices, and the settings in which they will be performed.

Agitprop is essentially the size of a storeroom (actually, I think it was a storeroom at one time — it is located behind Glenn’s Market), which creates an inevitable mélange of smells, body heat, and sound. We (the five artists who collaborated on “Art(ist) in Context II”) had the liberty to incorporate the sound of a coffee maker into our performance, but also had to keep asking, “Oh, but where will the audience be?” as we shifted props and furniture.

Space 4 Art has quite a bit more square footage (though still not enough to contain the vigor of architect Bob Leathers, co-founder of the space along with wife Cheryl Nickel), and we are constantly trying to figure out how to make things bigger, brighter, louder, and how to entice timid, stiff San Diegans to stand closer to the stage.

But there has been a common thread in my experience with both of these projects — positive, dynamic collaboration. Both are fully collaborative performance pieces, the artists agreeing to meet regularly over the course of a few weeks (or months in the case of the Space 4 Art piece) to develop a concept and see it to completion. I have always been a process-oriented artist who enjoys reacting to space and to other people, but even I was unsure if “Adjacent Possible” was, well, possible.

Bob Leathers put out an open call to dancers, writers, musicians, artists, puppeteers, you name it, and we all sat in a circle at the first meeting and said, “OK, guys, what do we want this thing to be about?” I have never been involved in such a large-scale collaboration, but I have to say, much like Space 4 Art itself, somehow it just worked. And the same is true for my experience at Agitprop. Every week we sat around a big circular table in the dim light of the space, threw out ideas, supported one another, and slowly but surely crafted our piece.

This is something I’m noticing more and more about the growing San Diego art scene — positivity breeds positivity and crossover is key. I used to work for nonprofits in New Orleans where corruption, extremely limited funding, and good old-fashioned Southern gossip made it very difficult for experimental venues to survive long-term. That is what I hope members of the growing San Diego arts community will avoid.

I make art to cope and to connect and, if you ask me, antagonism is so boring. Artists have to stick together, venues need to support each other, to coordinate and communicate and cross promote. It is already happening to some extent, but we can do more. What about a rotating residency program that allows artists to spend time at, say, three venues instead of one, culminating in a three-venue show? Or a systemized way in which one venue can donate leftover food and drinks from a Friday night event to another venue for a Saturday night soiree? Or an equipment sharing network? As I was scrambling to find projectors and walkie-talkies, I was daydreaming of an online database with projectors and cameras and tools, oh my.

Which brings me to my final point. All of the venues/collectives that I work with are operating on a shoestring budget, and the individual artists are working on, well, I don’t remember what that little plastic thing at the end of your shoestring is called, but you get the idea. As I see my fellow artists looking more and more sleep-deprived, wearing the same clothes for three days in a row, and stressing as September 1 rolls around and rents are due, I can’t help but think that none of us is being paid for our work.

Now, this was not some deception by the Art Fair — the terms of being an ArtLabs artist were laid out from the beginning — but it seems to me that there must be some way that young artists who are making experiential, ephemeral work that can’t hang on a wall could be financially rewarded in this town. (And this doesn’t have to threaten support for painters and makers of objects. In my opinion, there will always be a market for that kind of work.)

As any of my friends will tell you, I am an expert at living cheaply and when it comes to talk of macroeconomics, arts funding sources and the plain and simple fact that, as my dad always says, “everything has to be paid for,” my eyes begin to glaze over. So I don’t have a proposal for a large-scale solution to this issue.

But I do know that it is being done in other cities and that if the San Diego arts scene wants to be seen as anything other than provincial and sub-par, it has to get on board. I also know that ArtLabs artists are creating “cultural capital” (a term I’m wary of but sometimes need to use), and I hope that in the art fairs of the future, funding will come through to, at the very least, help the venues involved pay for the parties they are expected to throw.

And if there is a way to reward the artists for their hard work, that sure would be nice too.

Jessica Sledge is an artist participating in the Agitprop and Space 4 Art projects for ArtLabs.

I’m Kelly Bennett, the arts editor for VOSD. You can reach me directly at or 619.325.0531.

And follow Behind the Scene on Facebook.

Kelly Bennett is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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