Ten Years of the CELL(space)

Join CELLspace in celebrating its 10 year anniversary!
When: Saturday, October 14th 7pm-10pm
Where: 2050 Bryant Street (btwn 18th & 19th Streets)
Price: $20 (in advance) $25 (@ door)

Join us for a night of live entertainment, awards ceremony, silent auction, craft making, youth performances, special quest speakers, Hors’ Dourves, full bar, community and more…

Our longtime history and commitment to promoting the arts now embraces creative culturally relevant programs to address violence prevention, leadership development, and academic enrichment for young people in the Mission District.

In 1999, my good friend Leon Rosen went in and out of loving and hating CELLspace. He lived down the street in a Project Artaud studio, played amazing piano and accordion, but didn’t do to well at collective meetings. He and the Sound Coop crew, the original Sound Labbers, couldn’t manage paying rent that well either. Leon added flavor to CELLspace when I started volunteering there. You loved him and hated him too, but he’d always make you laugh or smile when he’d randomly play on the junky instruments that lived in the space.

This photo hung on the CELLspace office wall for a long time. The sticky note says something like “Lea Bo has a posse/5’6″/130 lbs” and stood the test of time in the office. I asked his permission to put it on my older version of Happy Feet Travels, and he didn’t care, so for a few years, Leon was one of the HappyFt characters that dressed the home page.

My first experience with CELLspace, then called CELL, took place in 1997 during a digital media conference. I’d just moved to San Francisco, and saw that Mondo Media (or was it Wired?) had an art show at 2050 Bryant Street, right around the corner from the new BAVC building. My traveling companion Arno and I walked into CELL thinking it was a random warehouse that had underground art. We weren’t too far off. Caretaker and Co-Founder Tom Coche produced the show that night: tables of gadgets that made strange sounds and noises. Mondo had cover art on the walls of the Crucible Steel Gallery, along with fancy furniture and magazines to flip through. At the time, the Black Box stood where the new bathrooms are now, there wasn’t a crafts loft, and the studios were freshly built.

I went to concessions (no kitchen there either) and ordered a smart drink smoothy for about $3. It is still one of the nastiest things I’ve ever put in my mouth, and the first money I wasted inside the CELL. Arno and I left to get free food at BAVC after we tired of the noise.

In early 1998, two neighbors who lived in my building asked me if I’d like to volunteer for a funky, underground art space. Luther and Romaine took me to my first ever volunteer meeting, and Caretaker and Co-Founder Jonathan Youtt sat in on the meeting and discussed how to get involved in CELL. While sitting in the gallery, I remembered that this was the underground space with the really bad music and smart drinks. Amazing how you find things, or how they find you. Jonathan’s version of the volunteer program sounded well codified, but I soon found out that nothing was too organized at this non-hierarchically run space.

All volunteers had to work in the office before they could work elsewhere in the organization. I started off doing about two shifts a month and would answer phones and try my best to tell people on the other end what was going on. I must say answering the phones and talking to people who walked in, while not having any idea who ran CELL or how things got done, proved to be a frustrating experience.

One particular shift, a man walked by my desk, waved hello, and walked into the strangely-shaped door that I kept seeing people (Caretakers I found out later) go in and out of. Minutes later he walked by again in a hurry, followed quickly by a blonde-haired woman.

“Who are you?” she asked.
“Um, I’m Russell, the office volunteer.”
“Hi, I’m Julie. I live upstairs. [she was a Caretaker and Co-founder]”
“That guy that you just let go upstairs into our private apartment was going to rob us!”
“Don’t let anybody in that door for the rest of the night!”

She stormed out, leaving me shaken and confused. Soon, Dave X, another Caretaker, walked into the office and headed for the door. He then yelled at me for trying to NOT let him go to his room!


As my years at CELLspace rolled along, I always told people that the best way to get involved was to start cleaning the place. Regulars always noticed new people cleaning and sweeping and mopping, so you’d always have a good talk with one of us. If you wanted to know what was going on at CELLspace, while calling would get you a clueless volunteer and our online calendar was always out-of-date, the best way was to come by and ask or pick up flyers.

I started out not knowing anyone or anything, and ended up making my dreams come true. I played music, puppeteered, acted, read poetry, curated shows, produced concerts, worked raves, met celebrities, built walls and laid floors. I learned a new way of communicating via facilitation, and became a facilitator and mediator. I dabbled in many artforms, met artists that were amazing in their own medium, and made friends for life.

Puppet Crafting Mayhem at the 2000 Funky Puppet Circus Supper (one of the first big shows I co-produced)

I also found a community that shared the same values as I did, felt like changing the world like I did, and taught me to embrace the whole DIY attitude.

I’ve heard over the years that there should be a book about CELLspace. I’ve never seen a space quite like CELL, so a book about it might help future groups learn from our strengths and weaknesses. But, in true CELLspace fashion, it won’t get done until someone figures out how to make it happen. I’ve never warmed up to doing that book, and wonder if some of the older folks would contribute. But I’d sure like to meet someone who’d like to take that idea and make it happen.

Coming soon, I plan on posting a few old e-mail responses that I wrote while I was checking info@cellspace. We’d just been shut down, and were short on volunteers, so I checked the em from my day job computer. Guess I had time to write long answers, and hope that the information is still useful. Who knows, maybe it’ll inspire someone to start that book!