Summer Guide 2012

Building a Better Street Festival

How SubZERO made downtown San Jose cool again
summer guide 2012 Street Drum Corps plans to bring a sense of spectacle to SubZERO.

For years one of the biggest knocks on San Jose nightlife has been that "nothing cool happens downtown." While that's patently untrue, it is true that San Jose lacked a street festival that gathered all of the best, weirdest, most cutting-edge things that people were doing in the South Bay underground and put them out there for everyone to see.

That changed in 2008, with the arrival of SubZERO. Originally conceived as a spin off of the art and technology festival ZERO1, SubZERO organizers Cheri Lakey and Brian Eder of Anno Domini Gallery went independent and brought their own unique artistic sensibilities to it.

By 2010, they'd bowled over even the cynics. Spotlighting local artists and music, and encouraging everyone involved to be as creative and strange as they could be, they packed the streets with a crowd that seemed to come from every corner of the South Bay.

The collective buzz has continued into the festival's fifth year, and on Friday, June 1, from 6pm to midnight, the local art world will reconvene in SoFA for SubZERO 2012. Music will feature everything from San Jose singer/songwriter Mike Shirley-Donnelly's quirky project Curious Quail to ornate indie rockers Fierce Creatures to Nintendo cover band Minibosses, and a lot more. Local favorites Blank Manuscript will be celebrating their new CD with a release party at South First Billiards. The booths, demonstrations and art promise to be as unpredictable as ever.

At the center of it all are still Lakey and Eder, who consider the festival to be them and "10,000 of their closest friends." So just how did they make SubZERO the San Jose (if not entire Bay Area) street festival? Can anyone else create the same feeling here? That remains to be seen, but here are five, outside-the-box steps that they took to make SubZERO what it is:

1 Redefine Night Culture

"Night culture to us is not just going into bars and drinking," says Eder. "There's a time of night when most of the businesses start to shut down, and the rest of us start going in to these places no one knows we're in—the warehouses, the back of people's office buildings, the garages. We said, 'This is what we want to bring to the surface, pull out and really highlight."

In that way, SubZERO is just one part of a larger, organic movement that the pair has been spearheading since they opened the gallery 12 years ago—encouraging artists, musicians and, ultimately, everyone to turn downtown San Jose into an art experiment in itself.

"This downtown is going to be what we make of it," says Lakey. To that end, the duo have become rather notorious for dropping all kinds of suggestions to their artist friends, encouraging them to take risks and especially to collaborate. Many times, nothing comes of it, but perhaps the most famous collaboration that did come out of it was the Bangerz's mindblowing set with San Jose Taiko at SubZERO in 2012.

"The Bangerz and Taiko, it was two years of kind of poking them. Because we just kept seeing it in our head," says Eder. "You might have 10 of these things where you're poking people. Because for us the conversation always starts months out. We run into Cutso [of the Bangerz], and then we run into Franco [from San Jose Taiko]. 'C'mon, what do you guys think? Have you talked to those guys yet?' You have a few of those, and you keep doing it. "

2 Support the Subculture Economy

Subcultures are one of the foundations of the SubZERO philosophy, and its appeal, as well. From the circuit benders who rewire old toys to underground-mic movements to one of their friends who brings out worms to teach people how to compost, SubZERO is a gathering place for the South Bay's strange and wonderful.

"We really want to nourish and help the people who are feelin' it and want to do it, but there's no books on it and their friends don't understand, their family doesn't understand," says Lakey. "What do you mean you want to make speakers out of gourds? But we're going, 'Oh my god, this is incredible art.'"

"We keep the festival free, but the elephant in the room is it's not free for us to create," admits Eder. "But we do that to create opportunities for these artists, the independent vendors and performers, trying to give them direct access to people who would support it. We see it as supporting a subculture economy."

To that end, this year they've sent out an email pointing out that if each person who comes to SubZERO on June 1 brings $50 to spend on the artists and musicians there, the festival could contribute $500,000–$600,000 to the local economy in six hours.

3 Construct It Like Art

"We always have tried to create an environment that if you're looking at the art, you're engaged, and if you turn around, there's something to capture your attention. And somehow in the middle of all that is those chance encounters with other people, too," says Eder. "Like the young kid and the guy in the suit that are looking at each other like, 'You're here, too?'"

What they wanted to do with the layout of the festival was carry over the energy they felt at their Anno Domini space. "When we get to the street, because of that mentality it can be overwhelming to look at it like 'three blocks this way' and 'three blocks that way,'" he says. "We try to break it down, like we're looking inside a shoebox or something, and we just start thinking of all these things that could be happening."

"I think it's about giving people an opportunity to be present," says Lakey. "Every step down the street is the opportunity for an experience. So I'm not going to have five guys with sound all next to each other ... where's the quiet spaces and the loud spaces and the light spaces and the dark spaces?"

4 Let Out the Freaks

"For years the biggest problem was losing the younger artists. They'd get to a certain age and bam! They couldn't leave [San Jose] fast enough," says Eder. "But especially after the last couple years, we hear artists saying one of the things that keeps them around all year is SubZERO. For us, it's a celebration. It's like, here you go, you made it through another year."

"It's not for everybody, because not everybody's into it. They think it's weird, they're not sure, whatever. This is about like-mindedness coming together," Lakey adds. "You never know if they're going to come. People are busy, there's a zillion other things going on. Life is happening. You don't know."

But though they had almost no marketing money, people filled the streets for SubZERO quickly. Though they still believe the freak contingent is their core audience, they have a very inclusive definition of who can be a part of this. From the manager at the rock gym downtown, they learned about "vertical dancing"—people who do their routines while hanging from ropes off the side of a building"—and are trying to get some of them to perform at SubZERO this year.

They also love to promote left-field artists like local musician Dru, who had been playing music in his bedroom for years before he met Lakey and Eder. He plays his music while wearing a metal helmet he had made for himself. He will be on one of the stages at SubZERO this year.

5 Fail Gloriously

Or at least be ready to.

"It could have failed. It could have really, really failed," says Lakey. "But a good friend of ours says , 'If you're going to fail, fail gloriously. That's the premise of everything we do.'"

"We just run everything like there's a chance we're going to go up in flames at the end," says Eder. "But when they look at us burning, it's going to be quite a sight."

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