When the San Francisco Labor Temple opened on February 27, 1915, it housed fifty-four unions. For the cost of monthly dues, workers could access the Labor Temple's large auditorium, billiards hall, vaudeville theater, childcare center, medical and dental offices, cafeteria, ladies' parlor, reading rooms, lodge halls, and union offices. Shared spaces like the Labor Temple provided a place where workers and their families could afford medical care and daycare as well as a place to dine, relax, and fight for better working conditions. Labor and leisure were synonymous goals, and the principles of solidarity were formed in the billiard hall and the ladies’ parlor as much as in the meeting hall.
On July 6, 1934, the police shot and killed two union picketers. The brutality of this clear alignment between police and corporate bosses stunned the public and, the next day, hundreds gathered at the Labor Temple’s assembly hall and voted for a city-wide General Strike. As a public declaration of this intent, a funeral procession walked down Market Street with the front ranks bearing the bodies of the two slain unionists. 100,000 people joined their march. There was no talking, except for a quiet funeral dirge and the tramp of feet the procession was surrounded by reverential silence, but the air was electric. The next week, 98% of Bay Area businesses closed in solidarity, and after only four days the bosses relented, granting longshoremen and maritime workers their wish for an eight-hour day. The success of the San Francisco General Strike set off a wave of actions nation-wide enabling the federal legalization of the eight-hour workday and standard minimum wage.
However, in the 1950s the McCarthyist and Cold War terror campaigns atomized the American public and the Labor Temple began to lose its tenants in droves; in 1968, it was officially decommissioned as a union center. Cynically, a state-run unemployment office swooped in to take up residence in the former assembly hall, installing linoleum floors, drop ceilings, and dividing up the space with cubicle walls. The architecture of civic empowerment became the architecture of disenfranchisement.
Eventually, they also left, and in 1994, a ten-year-old alternative art space, The Lab, became the newest occupant of the Labor Temple’s former meeting hall. The Lab presented a vast range of performance, visual art, film, sound, and theatrical projects. The artist-run organization always had a punk ethos, and it wore the sagging, rotting armature of the unemployment office as a badge of pride. Its only currency was refusal, and the literal refuse began to collect in corners. Broken file cabinets, abandoned Xerox machines, and screen-printed Iraq War protest signs from a decade prior were transformed into instruments and props for dissonant, assaultive, and sometimes exhilarating performances—Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty made manifest. Refusal, however, can be its own stagnant form. Unpaid bills, noise complaints, and a rapidly diminishing artist population put the space constantly on the defensive. In 2013, like so many art spaces at that time, The Lab went dark.
A year after its closure, I decided to abandon my curatorial position at the UC Berkeley Art Museum in order to exhume The Lab. I began by physically excavating the bones of the former assembly hall—knocking down office walls, ripping up yellowing linoleum floors, tearing down the moldy drop ceiling. The space was ready-at-hand, accessible and yet robbed of agency, inert to do anything but exhibit its own abjectness. Although I am reminded of my failure every day, the world I am looking for a world that is always coming-into-being. One that resists “common sense,” one that unravels the laws of the institution to embrace the lawlessness of the margins, and selfishly, one where I can be completely consumed by an artwork; caught in its delirium, its perversion, its pleasure.
But as a material experiment, I also want The Lab to restore some real agency to the condition of the artist. I see my project here as twofold: 1) to provide the body of the artist with enough financial and material resources to transcend, if only for a moment, the basic circumstances of subjugation (eviction, institutionalization, debt, exile, poverty, sickness... etc.) and 2) to present them with a space that they can botch, efface, and completely reconstitute. To that end, when I can raise funds, The Lab commissions three art projects per year. Artists receive a yearly stipend of $25-80K, health benefits, keys to our space, access to legal and financial services, the login for our website, and the option to revise every aspect of The Lab’s operating systems. I want to know how far they can take that inquiry and how much I can bend to make the project of art possible on every level. What happens when their work conflicts with the way that we operate The Lab? How do we make visible the limits of our freedom? How can we fuck with those limits?
DENA BEARD is Executive Director of The Lab in San Francisco.