‘What do our bodies mean in this space?’: Spotlight on SALTA collective and emerging artists at FRESH

Due to a number of factors, I ended up taking an hour-long walk to the venue for the SALTA event at CTRL + SHFT on Sunday 15th January. Past a group of homeless people living under a bridge having their encampment broken up by police. Past the freeway down 34th street, Oakland, CA, into a large, high-ceilinged, white space. There is a free shop at the back of room and I gladly take a pair of gloves to warm my hands. There is a body on the floor in the doorway, in the dark transitional space between gallery and display table, wrapped in scarves and veils, lying quietly, only the ankles visible. This person could be lying in a doorway; we step over or around them the same way we would in the street. How conscious are we of bodies that are prone, bodies that are exposed to the elements and to public space consistently? How conscious are we of our reactions to them, whether looking away or staring?

‘What do our bodies mean in this space?’ That’s a question which came up in my conversation with a founding member of SALTA, one of the feminist collectives behind Sunday’s event in Oakland, the only FRESH event to take place outside of the festival’s host city San Francisco. The evening was an exciting presentation of work by local and international artists. The person on the floor rose up and delivered a performance that was by turns tragic, ritualistic, exuberant and touching; an attempt to resurrect the father through a queer dance performance. A more casual piece invited people to participate in a collaborative haircut and give or receive a piggy-back ride. A solo dance with and around concepts such as ‘intuition, assimilation, aggression’ morphed into offering the impartial counsel of Rilke through book divination. The abstract art of the queendom Mirrolandia was shared with us through live sketching from a video in increasingly contorted positions, and distributed, with some of the pages still blank – well, it is abstract after all. Finally, Eartha Kunt smilingly gave out neat pieces of watermelon, before getting visibly frustrated and handing out comically messy chunks instead. They then conducted a touching and funny conversation with their mother on the phone with questions from the audience.

This mixture of finished and raw work by emergent artists is characteristic of FRESH’s drive towards inclusion, diversity and appetite for innovation. The festival’s Tuesday night’s series Inside Experimental Structures, curated by Abby Crain and José Navarrete, invited artists to share new work in the salon-style environment of the Red Poppy Art House. The audience were encouraged to write their thoughts, before a question and answer session with the artists and curators. The sessions I attended presented work in progress around race in America and black resistance by Keisha Turner, queering Justin Bieber and the Bible (Chani Bockwinkel), club performance and tension (Dia Dear), and the confluence of femme and national identities, in a frankly jaw-dropping, partially-improvised piece by Sebastian Hernandez. Every piece I saw was physically gripping and brimming with ideas despite being at different stages of completion, and the question and answer sessions afterwards were both provocative and sensitive in their attention to the multiple strands within and possible interpretations of the works. I spoke with a founding member of SALTA collective to gain a deeper insight into their connection with FRESH, and how the local scene interacts with a broader contemporary dance and art context.

How did SALTA begin?

SALTA was started by people living in the East Bay. We wanted to share experiments that felt different from a work in progress in the studio, and not as attached to hierarchies of getting shows and spaces and that kind of thing. We all lived in Oakland; there’s seven of us, but we move around a lot. Some people stay here, some work in arts institutions, some work in academia, some people dance…

What’s SALTA’s relationship to the local gallery scene? The events are in different places, right?

There have been about forty events in the last five years. It changes although there’s been a few repeats: from basements to museums to galleries to someone’s porch. We’ve shifted a lot.

I wondered if you could talk about SALTA’s relation to FRESH.

Kathleen asked us two years ago to do a SALTA at FRESH and we did it here at the Annexe, and there was some great work. But when we did it here again it felt important to stay in Oakland, and stay in our vibe, rather than try to transfer it. More like bringing the festival over, than inserting ourselves into this building, which people already have so much of a relationship to. Oakland is where we live, and we wanted people outside the festival who we exchange work with and are in conversation with, to see these artists in relation to FRESH. These are people who might not come into the city or who might not come to the ticketed shows.

One constant in SALTA is that we’re all interrogating our relationship to dance and performance, and in some ways that’s the same as FRESH. There’s moments in which three of us hate dance and performance, & four of us love it! Someone was part of the curatorial team of FRESH one year, someone was teaching a workshop, someone was taking Abby’s class, and I’ve been filming it for the past three years. SALTA and FRESH are both modes of bringing people from the community together and it’s a way of remembering the people in the city who care about dance and performance. Which is great, because the worlds of Oakland and San Francisco are very different.

So in a way, the partnership between SALTA and FRESH is a nice bridge between the more established artists that FRESH are showcasing in the weekend performances, and the newer generation who are making work in Oakland, and that’s a thriving scene. But even so, there’s a question, especially with gentrification, of where next? Does it go further out, does it go up, does it start to travel, move around?

Oakland’s in the thick of it! Even from the beginning we felt interested and very complicated about making space for dance, like making space for who? Where? FRESH is a festival for dance, which is nice in its concentration, whereas SALTA roves a lot. So each place we’re in, we ask ‘what do our bodies mean in this space?’ We’ve learnt a lot over the last couple years – about all the questions that come up around space, community, and displacement; about being a white group and coming out of a particular tradition of experimental dance / performance; about the ways that aesthetics and curation relate to who shows up, who feels a part of it, and how it connects wider processes of exclusion and gentrification. We’ve learned some powerful lessons and are continually the process of figuring out how to show up, as so many communities in the bay are facing an onslaught of violence and disrespect.

All photos by Chani Bockwinkel.