Finding the Extraordinary in an Ordinary Office Space
For two months in the summer of 2008, the South Bay Talent Center opened its doors on the corner of San Fernando and Second Street in downtown San Jose. In addition to weekly talent shows where anyone could perform on stage, the South Bay Talent Center’s doors were open daily, welcoming visitors to document their talents on videos that would eventually be shared online. Artist Jon Brumit, with the help of the San Jose Office of Cultural Affairs, set up the South Bay Talent Center in a large office space, which at the height of the Silicon Valley boom might have been used as a high-power law office or accounting firm. But for those two months, this rather ordinary looking office—complete with mauve carpets, high ceilings, fluorescent lighting, and crown molding—was the home of a temporary art project whose sole mission was founded on the notion that everyone has a talent to share.
I am very familiar with the office buildings of San Jose, and I’m also familiar with the city’s untapped potential. I know because I commute to San Jose almost every day. Although it’s third largest city in California, the street-life in downtown San Jose is considerably sleepy, as many charming retail storefronts sit vacant and freshly-built condos remain on the market. Not unlike many American cities, San Jose sprawls well beyond its downtown district and its culture is more defined by the conveniences of the automobile than the tree-lined pedestrian corridors of the downtown area. Though the city is making efforts to attract people with an infusion of downtown cultural amenities – building mixed-use housing, creating cultural programs, opening posh eateries—the landscape remains sparse and its personality undefined. In this state of transition, I often wonder: Who are the people that comprise this changing place? What is the creative identity of downtown San Jose?
Perhaps it is my personal interest in the everyday people of downtown San Jose that initially drew me to Brumit’s project. On any given day I see tech workers, city employees, museum staff, university students, homeless people, and detached commuters. Rarely is there an opportunity to engage with these individuals and actually recognize each one’s creative attributes. So when I arrived at the South Bay Talent Center’s final weekly showcase on a warm August evening, I honestly did not know what to expect.
With glossy reality television programs like American Idol, the X Factor and America’s Got Talent, the idea of a talent show is a familiar one. However, finding one in a downtown office space adjacent to the pubs, eateries and other business offices felt wonderfully off-kilter. The set of the talent show was minimal – a banner with “SOUTH BAY TALENT CENTER” hung above the stage that hosted a piano, a microphone, and an amp. Even with the simple set, the expectation to perform that evening was clear. As Brumit and his wife Sarah Wagner (an artist who helped Brumit with the project), greeted the audience/participants, a buzz of anticipation filled the air.
The performances that night were not polished Hollywood routines but earnest acts and, as an audience member, I had no idea what would happen next. Brumit loosely directed the show to invite the creative potential of whatever would follow. In fact, anyone who walked through the door could sign-up and perform. This messy and democratic vision fostered not only a sympathetic audience but also sincere performances. That night I met Red, a soft-spoken homeless man and regular of the South Bay Talent Center who passionately played the penny whistle and made heart-breaking apologies about his songs. Two singers/songwriters coincidentally stumbled upon the talent show while walking to their evening dinner plans and spontaneously performed original folk-inspired ballads about looking for love. The parents of two-year-old twins plopped their bubbling toddlers on the piano bench to make cacophonous sounds that could pass as avant-garde experimental noise. A retired and well-dressed man beautifully played the piano, and even after an encore, only dismissively accepted applause.
Like much of Brumit’s socially engaged artwork, The South Bay Talent Center utilized a recognizable framework, in this case the talent show, which encouraged everyday people to interact. Relying on the willing collaboration of the audience to produce the artwork, the project dissolved the distinction between artists/audience and was open to the creative, random, and surprising potential of the world. Participants were driven to exhibit what they were naturally passionate about, whether this was drawing a picture, attempting a handstand, playing a song, or reciting a joke. With a set-up that was both familiar and strange, the project challenged expectations of public norms in downtown San Jose, transforming the ordinary to the extraordinary and the practical to the poetic.
I learned so much about the creative imaginations of downtown San Jose at the South Bay Talent Center that night. As a portrait of the area, it depicted a diverse place filled with unexpected characters and perspectives. It unearthed the beautiful strangeness of a typically quiet downtown. More importantly, the project invited the opportunity to re-imagine our selves and our relationships to each other. We can be performers, cultural producers, audience members, and passive consumers. In an ordinary office space in downtown San Jose, the South Bay Talent Center incited us to recognize our talent—whatever we chose it to be—and to actually do something about it. Brumit set up a stage for us to consider our collective participation as a vital part in shaping our cultural community.
Susan O’Malley, 2008
Originally published in South Bay Talent Center: Quarterly Report by Jon Brumit, 2008