Sharon Grace - Prescient Presence
July 4th, 2021
Sharon Grace, c. 1970, with her Sony CV Porta Pack. Courtesy of the artist.
I met Sharon Grace back in the early eighties while I was working at KQED-TV, San Francisco’s PBS station.
We met at one of Tom Marioni’s Wednesday afternoon gatherings at Jerry and Johnny’s, a bar on 3rd Street, south of Mission. I had met Tom while working on a documentary about sculpture in the Bay Area, as we included his Museum of Conceptual Art (MOCA) in the film as an unusual example of sculpture. Tom had described MOCA as “a large-scale social work of art.”
At that point, there were weekly gatherings at the bar, Jerry & Johnny’s. (The weekly Wednesday gatherings continue to this day, now in Tom’s studio in the same neighborhood and still in the spirit of one of his early works that has been presented internationally over the years in many different venues --: The Act of Drinking Beer with Friends is the Highest Form of Art (1970).
With my interest in media and contemporary art, I was thrilled to meet and learn about Sharon through Tom and Marion. I was immediately taken by her intelligence, sensitivity, experience, and beauty. Sharon was an art-pioneer, exploring and working at the intersection of art and technology. This was even more of an achievement given that she was a woman in a mostly male-dominated world, especially at that time.
Sharon began teaching in the San Francisco Art Institute’s Performance/Video Department (now called New Genres) in the early 1980s. With her strong background and detailed knowledge of art and media, telecommunications, and evolving new technologies, she was a huge inspiration to students and colleagues alike. (Artist/alum Dale Hoyt offers further reflections of his long-time relationship with Sharon. Read it HERE.)
[Left to right] Bill Bartlett, Sharon Grace, Carl Loeffler, Brendan O’Reagan, and Art Kleiner.
Artists’ Use of Telecommunications Conference at SFMOMA, February 16, 1980.
Before coming to SFAI, Grace apprenticed with video/installation artist Nam June Paik and video engineer Shuya Abe. Working at WGBH and WNET with Paik and Abe, she assisted in building video synthesizers, including one of her own. More recently she donated her Paik/Abe Synthesizer to the Nam June Paik Art Center in Seoul, South Korea.
NYC Uplink Site: September 11, 1977. Photograph by Keith Sonnier.
Courtesy of the artist
In 1977, at NASA Ames in Mountain View, California, Grace was the West Coast artist-project leader for SEND/RECEIVE (more from SAIC), the first interactive coast-to-coast satellite artist network that presented a transcontinental interactive performance. This was the inaugural event for artists to have a presence on what was to become the emerging Internet. For three days, artists, composers, musicians and performers shared images, text and audio interactively in real time. During the event, along with a NASA engineer, Sharon created the first split screen that connected the artists from the two coasts. This was more than 40 years ago, long before the ubiquity of the simultaneity of screens that we’ve all become accustomed to.
“Send/Receive,” September 11, 1977.
Split-screen image New York/San Francisco. Nancy Lewis (NYC) & Margaret Fisher (SF) Photograph by Gwenn Thomas.
Courtesy of the artist.
In October 1990, at the beginning of the early VR and dot-com wave, the Whole Earth Institute organized Cyberthon, a three day event showcasing experimental work. It included demos, talks, exhibits, and art works, all presented at Colossal Pictures, the largest sound stage in San Francisco. The event featured many of the counter culture “new tech” gurus: Timothy Leary, Wavy Gravy, Jaron Lanier, and Terence McKenna—among others.
At Cyberthon, Sharon presented a powerful interactive installation, Millenium Venus, that was inspired by her studies of “the gaze” in historical figure painting, where most of the subjects are women. She wanted to reverse that gaze—image as voyeur of the viewer.
“Millenium Venus,” 1990. Interactive laserdisc installation.
Courtesy of the artist.
Following is a review that I wrote about Millenium Venus, Click LEFT/RIGHT to read the review:
SHIFT , no.11 v.5 no.1, circa 1991
Sharon Grace review by Kathy Brew
It was published in “SHIFT Magazine” in 1990 and exemplifies how much of a visionary Sharon was. A phrase Sharon used at that time, long before we were all tethered to our screens, was “the time famine”. It was already encroaching in our lives, and has only become exponentially amped up, especially in this year of the pandemic.
Looking back at this work from thirty years ago now further illustrates Grace’s prescience. We see how much she was ahead of the curve with her amazing artistic, intellectual, creative sensibility.
I have been honored to know her.
Kathy Brew is an award-winning filmmaker and artist/writer/curator/educator who spent 14 years in the Bay Area but returned to her hometown, NYC, in 1994. She worked at SFAI on two separate occasions – as Director of Public Relations and Publications from
1984-85 and then as Humanities Department Manager in 1990-91. She currently teaches in the MFA Art Practice department at the School of Visual Arts and most recently served as Guest Curator in MoMA’s film department from 2016-2020. Her documentary, DESIGN IS ONE, has been screened and broadcast internationally, and her very first video, MIXED MESSAGES, created while living in San Francisco, is available on Kanopy and was featured in the 2020 International Film Festival Rotterdam. Her most recent film, Following the Thread, about indigenous weaving communities in the Sacred Valley of Peru, was recently completed with support from a Fulbright Scholar grant with plans for an upcoming release.