Artist Frank Garvey wrestled with the controls for a mutant robot he calls Go-Boy.
“The battery’s almost dead,” Garvey said, giving the contraption a tap. Suddenly the menacing-looking robot sprung to life, lunging forward brandishing a saw blade in one hand and a knife in the other.
Inside Omni-Circus, the small performance space Garvey founded 25 years ago in San Francisco’s South of Market, a fleet of similarly creepy robots sat in repose. The robots used to perform in what Garvey called his robotic red light district. Along with Go-Boy, was a mechanical prostitute, a robot junkie and a robot warrior poet.
But these days, the former garage’s stage is a tangled clutter of robots, musical instruments and Garvey’s kinetic sculptures.
“It was an amazing installation I used to call the Sistine Chapel of hell,” Garvey said scanning the room. “But now we need to find a new place.”
Through a complicated dispute with his landlord, Garvey said Omni-Circus has been given until the end of October to clear-out of his long-time underground performance space at 550 Natoma.
Garvey, who underwent successful treatment for throat cancer last year, said he got behind on the rent and received an eviction notice. He said his attempts to negotiate with the landlord went nowhere.
With San Francisco’s recent tech boom driving up commercial and housing rents, Garvey wasn’t optimistic he could find another place willing to accommodate him and a dozen robots.
“I’ve got a lot of challenges,” said Garvey, “one of which is we’re going to have to find a new place for me to live and for the art installation to live.”
In a way, Garvey’s dark, underground robots represent the old guard of San Francisco artists – whose startling, in-your-face, non-family friendly aesthetic drew its own legions of dark art aficionados to San Francisco. But as Garvey and other artists are once again discovering, urban progress and the arts have trouble co-existing.
“The artists certainly have been priced out of San Francisco long ago,” said Gabriel Metcalf, executive director of the urban planning group SPUR. “I worry a lot about what that means for the cultural fabric of San Francisco.”
The San Francisco Arts Commission said it’s seeing growing evidence San Francisco’s tech boom is helping to drive-off artists from the city. Tom DeCaigny, Director of the commission’s Cultural Affairs said the agency recently learned of 40 artists at one South of Market art studio being displaced by a new commercial development.
He said in response to the potential art exodus, the city is increasing its $1.9 million dollar annual cultural grants by 10 percent to try and keep artists in the city.
“This is a tragedy in the making as gentrification often is,” Garvey said. “Because the thing that is attractive about the Bay Area and specifically San Francisco…is it’s an amazing city for the art here.”
Garvey said he may eventually be forced to destroy his robots if he can’t find a place suitable for an artist and his cadre of seedy mechanical cha. Turning what Garvey calls his robotic cabaret, into a Faustian tragedy.