Free Culture Lives!

Sunday at the West Fest, a free concert in Golden Gate Park, I threw a new line in my carny spiel: “Just like the SF Diggers gave it all away in the Summer of Love, our games are free. There ain’t no line, and it don’t cost a dime!” The SF Diggers have inspired me many times over with their mad, creative urge to make the word “free” the real deal. They gave food away to the wayward runaways that flocked to Upper Haight, inspiring the Food Not Bombs campaigns. They hustled landlords to get living space and then crammed in as many homeless teens as possible to get them off the streets, and the Huckleberry Youth Programs is a reminder of their work. The SF Diggers threw free concerts in the Panhandle, the West Fest was a quasi-unsponsored (they did have logos all over things) example of that legacy. Finally, the SF Diggers created free stores, where money wasn’t considered. The Really Really Free Markets and Clothing Swaps stand as 21st Century Examples of this idea.

The SF Diggers, for good or bad, were tied to the San Francisco Mime Troupe. On top of all that free culture listed above, there were also many puppet performances, spontaneous art happenings, and wild, tripped out parties. The Mime Troupe gave their shows away for free in parks across the City, and they had to fight for that right, inspiring the SF Diggers (and bringing on the hilarious arrest of some of their giant puppets). On the East Coast, Peter Schumann’s Bread and Puppet Theater also began to throw free performances in New York, Vermont, and beyond. And Luis Valdez and El Teatro Campesino also began free, radical performance from a Mexi-Cali Latino perspective.

While most of the United States gets little culture beyond movies, TV, video games, and the Internet, there are always free things happening if you look for them. While living in New Hampshire, I was hard pressed to find anything free to do beyond walks along the train tracks and bike rides. But I did get to spend a great weekend with Bread and Puppet, being a carny Ding Dong for their Sunday performance (here is a link about that). Des Moines, Iowa had a bit more free culture going on. I got to celebrate Dia de los Muertos there, and they also had a cafe that hosted free events. My home city of Greenville, SC has many art fairs now, and free music on Main St. So free culture still exists in this country!

San Francisco is home of the “sliding scale” admission price, as well as the “no one turned away [NOTA]” pay-what-you-can pay scheme. Though times are super tough right now for the arts in the City, I am constantly surprised at all the free and cheap culture that continues to thrive in the Bay Area.

This weekend, the California Academy of Science has free admittance for San Francisco residents who live in the Mission District’s 94110 zip code (here is the list of when to get in for free). Here’s your chance to check out their new living roof!

This Sunday, some of the patriarchs or free public theater will give a free discussion at the SF Main Library’s Koret Auditorium. R. G. Davis, Peter Schumann, and Luis Valdez will discuss “Radical Theater Revisited” at 2pm as part of the Mime Troupe’s 50th anniversary.

Don’t forget that there are also free burmese marionette shows this Sunday at the Asian Art Museum (well, sponsored by Target), happening at noon and at 2pm.

Tomorrow, Thursday, ShadowLight will have a pay-what-you-can performance of “Ghosts in the River” 8pm at the Brava Theater on 24th St.

Saturday night in Union Square, ShadowLight will present Greek shadow theater performer Leonidas Kassapides at 7pm. It’s free!

Dia de los Muertos will take place in the Mission on Monday at 7pm. This is my favorite holiday of the year, and a chance to celebrate the closeness that we still share with those who have passed the veil of living. The procession is powerful and free, as is the Festival of Altars at Garfield Park (and the party that ensues after the march).

The concept of free has become an important thing for me. I consistently struggle with the idea of paying for things, having landlords, owing rent, and getting paid for my art. The idea of being in a culture where you can gift something is a radical framework to work in, expose, influence, and share with people who think that paying for something is what you have to do. You must do! Well, we have many opportunities to celebrate free, and fortunately for peple in the Bay Area, there’s a multigenerational culture around that idea.