The tension between the tech industry and the arts community in San Francisco has been palpable over the last few years. The creative soul of the city—artists, activists, queers, and dissidents—is being pushed out, unable to pay rent or purchase an apartment in a highly competitive housing market. Much of the blame has been placed on tech companies, which continue to burgeon in the Bay Area. In 2012, in a controversial move supported by the mayor, Twitter inaugurated its new headquarters in San Francisco’s mid-Market neighborhood—a seedy area populated by methadone clinics, SROs, and liquor stores. This September, Dolby Laboratories, Inc., a tech giant known for its audio work on Hollywood films and television shows, moved from the Mission District to a new location a stone’s throw from Twitter. Dolby, however, is in a slightly different position than some of the more reviled start-ups because it has been based in San Francisco for nearly 50 years.
While many tech companies have very limited engagement with the arts community, Dolby is forging a bond with artists by commissioning over 20 artworks designed specifically for the building. The company recently hired artist and curator Kevin Byrd, formerly of Atlanta, as its Director of Curation and Visual Experience. For his first project at Dolby, Byrd worked with Atlanta-based curator Allie Bashuk, who works at the Goat Farm Arts Center, to find local and international artists and designers (including seven from Atlanta) to respond to both the space and the history of the company. The commissions are spread out across the 16 floors of the light-filled building, where they compete with sweeping views of the city. The art is primarily intended to benefit Dolby employees and their guests, although a 62-foot-long digital display in the lobby, dubbed the 1275 Gallery and featuring rotating new work by media artists, is visible from the street.
In contrast to art often seen in corporate buildings, the installations at Dolby respond directly to the physical site and seek inspiration from Dolby’s archives. The theme of human perception looms large, and much of the work is heavily influenced by graphic design, mural-making, and illustration, while a few embrace interactivity.
Some of the most successful works require activation by passersby. New York-based Studio Studio, a collaboration between experiential artist and motion designer Pablo Gnecco and media artist Daniel Moore, created an interactive sculpture on the eighth floor of soft glowing colors undulating on rectangular blocks of opaque white plastic with rows of cubes rising from the surface. The movement of individuals walking past the work triggers a complex LED matrix. The eleventh floor includes two works that encourage touching: an installation of over 2,400 knobs and volume controls (six of which control LED lights along the bottom) by the Oakland design-build studio Because We Can, and a new presentation of a 1975 work by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt of printed cards hanging on wall hooks that offer phrases to encourage creativity. On the fourth floor, Atlanta-based Derek Bruno’s large-scale lenticular wall sculptures alter viewer’s perception as they change location, while three floors up, stacks of vintage televisions, located in a corner under the stairs, have been rewired to translate sound waves collected from their surroundings into jagged abstract lines on the screens in Taylor Lee Shepard’s Oscilloscopes. The former is striking in its use of bold colors, while the latter is both visually engaging and conceptually complex.
Other wall works are more illustrative, representing elements of Dolby’s archive or offering abstract interpretations of themes related to the company. Atlanta artist Farbod Kokabi’s arresting abstractions of red, green, and white geometric shapes on a deep blue background are superficially indebted to post-painterly abstraction, but they are also an interpretation of Dolby’s noise reduction system for multitrack recordings. This layering of influences is more meaningful than straightforward illustrations, such as Jason Kofke’s drawings sourced from images in Dolby’s archives, which are nonetheless expertly rendered. Nikki Starz’s Ears—600 hand-cast plastic ears painted in rainbow hues and described by the artist as a “Pop art homage to the concept of the ‘golden ear’ (a refined sense of hearing)”—is also an oversimplified look at Dolby, but its playful quality and ability to brighten the space redeem it.
Graphic design and typography are also well represented. Brett MacFadden allows block fonts to morph from one line to the next, spelling out a quotation by the company’s founder, Ray Dolby. Stefán Kjartansson’s large colorful boxy capital letters read “You don’t do heavy metal in Dobly,” a line from a scene in This is Spinal Tap, in which a character mispronounces “Dolby.” And Staci Janik’s vintage-inspired black typefaces add a fanciful quality to otherwise rote patent language.
Bay Area tech workers tend to favor art that is influenced by street art and graphic design, and the installations at Dolby reflect this proclivity with the additional element of exploring audio history. Although some of the commissions veer toward the decorative, the entire project is laudable for both its thoughtful engagement with site and its support of new work by emerging and midcareer artists. Hopefully more tech companies will follow suit, helping to siphon some of the money saturating the Bay Area tech world into the arts community and opening up a dialogue between the two groups. And perhaps, as collaborations become more common, the art will become more daring.
Jeanne Gerrity is a San Francisco-based writer, editor, and curator.