'Blackface': Painter Charles Browning's work was among that featured in the Foundry collective's recent performance show at Synapse.
By David Sason
It's a recent Friday evening, and cars are still trickling into a parking lot on Coloma Street, an industrial detour from Bridgeway in Sausalito. A show is just getting underway at #411-A, drawing soccer moms and Dead-icated hippies alike. Upon entering the front door, they're immediately met by a half-dozen silver tubes, arrayed standing up to form a makeshift wall. Beyond this row is pure color. Seemingly endless lights illuminate the room, which also pulsates with old Bollywood film images that play upon a female vocalist's swaying Eastern garb and punctuate her aching falsetto. Surrounding her are a cello player, a synthesizer player providing brooding electro soundscapes and a sarod player singing in low, foreign chants. At the far end of the stage, a dancer slowly swings before a gigantic Polynesian burial statue.
On the floor of overlaid Persian rugs sit some 60 onlookers, some meditating horizontally with eyes closed, some sitting attentively Indian-style and one engaging in actual yoga moves. A well-dressed businessman with an inquisitive grin dips in for a few moments before heading off for the night in his gray BMW.
This presentation is called Celebration of Interdependence Day, one of the many eclectic events comprising the second annual "Synapse Electronic Arts Series," a summer-long multimedia festival combining electronic music with light and projection art at the Cobalt Sun space. So far this summer, they series has hosted concerts of organic electronic-music composer Robert Rich and world-fusion group Somma, as well as the aptly titled Sound and Vision, an evening dedicated to visual artists from around the world.
"Visual music is making a big comeback, especially among ambient, trance, chill and all the other forms of electronic music out there," says program director and Cobalt Sun co-founder Dwight Loop. "So we got this wide range of video from experimental to New Age, which was kind of cool."
"Synapse" is the perfect neurological term to describe the performances at Cobalt, each of which serves to attack multiple senses of audience members—including smell. "We've even had different aromas floating through," recalls Loop, who describes the shows as experiential. "As opposed to experimental," he explains, "experiential is about experiencing things in the moment—it's without expectation," Loop says. "You walk into the space, sit down and you're immersed in this environment. What you're experiencing is very much now."
With up to five projectors working at a time, there is room for improvisation and endless sensory combinations. "When you have one big screen, all the focus is on one area," says Loop. "It's nice to come to a space where your attention can go all over the room."
Cobalt Sun started as a simple studio for Loop and his co-founding partner, visual-light artist Lynn Augstein. "We talked about doing collaborations where
I would put together the music and she would do the lighting," Loop remembers. "So we started kicking around these ideas, and that's how the space came about." The small warehouse—measuring about 65 by 45 feet and 30 feet high—immediately struck the duo as a perfect canvas. "When Lynn walked in and saw that big 45-foot blank white wall, she was like, 'Man, there it is, there's the projection surface.'" After installing scrims and bars for hanging various translucent fabrics, it was ready for Augstein's custom light machines to run amok.
The juxtaposition of the surrounding businesses was also a nice feature. "It's so unassuming," says Loop. "You're outside and it looks like just another warehouse door, but you open it up and you're in another world." Neighbors have responded affably, though mostly they're curious. "It does shock people when they come in," Loop laughs. "They're like, 'Whoa, where did this come from?'"
The surprising comfort of the space inspires many to prolong their visit. "For a lot of our events, people love to sit on the floor, or on beanbags or pillows. It becomes a really relaxed environment where they can just chill out and take it in."
The décor elements most important to Loop, of course, are the curtains and carpets, which help better transmit sound. After hosting popular radio shows in New Mexico and his native Michigan, the veteran electronic-music composer took what he calls a "long and winding road" to get to Cobalt, where he performs with his group Tropozone and mans the state-of-the-art sound booth for other events. "This space is a dream come true," he nearly gushes. "Here I am making electronic music, with projectors and lights like a concert situation, but I'm still sitting here in my studio! I feel pretty fortunate in that way."
After opening with their own performances in 2003, it took about a year for Loop and Augstein to expand Cobalt's roster. "The community started getting interested, and other musicians would go, 'Hey, this is a cool space,'" Loop says. Contacts from his radio days definitely proved useful with booking. The plethora of local artists was also a goldmine, especially for the Sanctuary series held every other Sunday. Free and open to the public, the program featured DJs spinning slow ambient music, as well as local talent like video artist Kosho of Groove Garden.
These shows led to the first "Synapse Series" last summer. Although it featured only seven events, the festival included such high-profile events as the premiere of Stephen Olsson's documentary Sound of the Soul: The Fez Festival of World Sacred Music, which has since gone on to wider release, and a pair of Steve Roach concerts that helped bring much-needed attention to the venue. "He came in for two nights, and we sold out for both nights very quickly," Loop says proudly.
Although certainly unique to Marin County, Loop feels Cobalt fills a bigger artistic niche. "The only thing I've ever seen video art presented in is galleries," Loop says, citing places like the Iota Center in Los Angeles. "This is a totally unique space. There's no other place that's such an intimate visual environment."
An emerging trend may be in our midst. "You'll probably see more spaces like this; it's still a brand new art form," Loop says. "This is a place for people to experiment. If you have some project that you've always wanted to do, but never had a space, this is a good place to do it in."
Despite support from like-minded artists, Cobalt is still in its struggling-artist phase. "Just paying for the space is difficult enough, so word of mouth is just the way we do it." Newspaper listings have not been much help, apparently. "A lot of times they don't know how to list what we're doing here," he says, with a laugh. "Is it film, is it music? It's kind of in between; there always needs to be an 'other' category." Even if demand increases exponentially, though, Cobalt is hindered by its size. "It's not a huge space, anyway," he says. "I think the largest amount we packed in here was last year when we had about 85 to 90 people—and it was tight."
The "Synapse Series," with its psychedelic imagery, may seem like pure nostalgia, reminding youngsters of scenes from Austin Powers. "As we get older, we still want to see the cool, trippy visuals!" Loop laughs. But he feels it's more than just another case of the hippies going high-tech. "There was great music back then, but we're all still looking for interesting music," he says. "Our generation is not as stuck on the oldies as the big media would like to keep us."
Visually, the events serve to slow down an otherwise fast-paced culture. "We have this multimedia barrage, where commercials, TV, movies are fast-paced and fast-cut," Loop says. "The slower, more contemplative works invoke a deeper sense of presence instead of this flash-flash-flash-flash! They're looking for another experience now, a deeper experience."
This desire to take things slower extends to all ages. "What we found, too, is that just as many young people also want to slow down a bit."
The final month of the series showcases artists from East Bay electronic record label Foundry and screenings of films by Augstein and Steve Roach. Looking forward, Loop is optimistic about the growth of this artistic movement. "It still feels like it's in the infancy stage, but it's really a vital series," he says. "It's a sanctuary for us, a place where visual beauty can come forth."
The Tiburon Film Society uses Cobalt Sun for Friday evening screenings, a coolio way to enjoy a film. On Aug. 4 at 7pm, there's 'Morocco Swings.' 411-A Coloma St., Sausalito. $8 for the film. 415.332.0340. www.cobaltsun.net.
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