Now Playing

The Future of Modern Dance: Radical, Roving, and Free

Salta explores anti-capitalist convictions through inexplicable performance art.

Mexican artist Guyphytsy Aldalai performs at the Salta Is 3/3/* show at the Finnish Brotherhood Hall in Berkeley last year.


A woman with a handbag covering her head totters through the atrium of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. Down the hall, a couple decked in blond wigs and Iggy Pop makeup attack each other like Neanderthals. In the front window, a man clad in tiger-print briefs simulates a mental breakdown. Wide-eyed audience members, which include UC Berkeley students, toddlers, and bespectacled artists, wander among the theatrics. Above the fray, a disembodied voice intones: “Hello. You are about to experience experimental dance.”

The evening, titled Pseudo, Anti, and Total Dance and featuring more than 30 performers from Oakland, Los Angeles, New York, and Berlin, is the brainchild of Salta, a seven-woman “anonymous feminist collective” that began curating a monthly performance series in 2012. Tonight its members are conspicuous, roving through the crowd in fire-engine-red two-piece suits and swooping red eye shadow. But despite their flamboyant getups, the women shun individual credit for the performance, preferring to let the spectacle speak for itself. None of Salta’s members list their name or bio in the program, and none accepted payment for tonight’s work. By design, Salta performances are free; to counteract the museum’s mandated price of admission, the group donated BAMPFA’s $1,200 honorarium to comp 100 tickets to the event. 

Salta does not consider its free events charity or “outreach.” It embraces an anti-consumerist, anti-capitalist philosophy, the sort that Bay Area art making once thrived on (and one that, for many artists, is becoming increasingly tough to live on). Following in the countercultural footsteps of the Beats and the postmodern dance movement of the 1960s, Salta aims to inspire a new generation of radical art gatherings—and to throw a killer dance party in the process. In a recent piece called Seance, for example, the group’s members built an “energy cauldron” and rolled on the ground in a Busby Berkeley–esque kaleidoscope of kitsch.

“What they do may seem fringe, but in terms of how art and culture is generated, it’s the intimate spaces where profound ripples start,” says Oakland artist and BAMPFA guest programmer David Wilson, who asked Salta to produce the live event. “They’re experimenting with how we relate to each other and how we present ourselves.”

The members of
Salta came together four years ago, a loose network of East Coast liberal arts graduates with ties to the self-professed “dancer, writer, and communist” Olive Blackburn, currently a dance history PhD candidate at UCLA. The group held its first meeting at a backyard bonfire, adapting its name from the Latin phrase Hic salta, meaning “Here is where you jump.” In an effort to subvert what they consider untoward “ego claiming” by artists and curators, the Salta members insist on forgoing individual attribution in interviews, instead speaking as one voice. They meet every Wednesday in a member’s flat in West Oakland, where expletive-punctuated discussions swirl around art history, feminist theorists, and the creators of 1960s-style happenings.

The group is resolute in its intent to create a socialist utopia through art, hosting performances in art studios, homes, and galleries. Rather than paying admission, audiences are instructed to bring shareable food or donate to a pop-up “Free Boutique.” (Past suggested offerings: “Houseplant seedlings, leather anything, glass jars, outdated how-to manuals, warm food, warm booze, lesbian erotica, essential oils,” according to the Salta website.) At the BAMPFA event, guests contributed polyester hot pants and “shopped” hand-me-down metallic sweaters.

But not every performance begets the same glitter-covered earnestness. Because the group endeavors to say yes to every interested artist without prescreening his or her work, sometimes things can get a little, well, volatile. When a racially charged performance at a 2015 show disturbed audience members, Salta partnered with musician Tyler Holmes to create an evening of “exorcism” titled Fuck the PPP. (The acronym referred to “the Police, the Penis, the Patriarchy, the Pussy, the Pipeline, the Prisons, the Performance.”) At the exorcism, artist Emelia Brumbaugh chopped onions and read a piece about her traumatic experiences while a wrestling ring offered refereed bouts for anyone needing to blow off steam. Then the women of Salta presented a peace offering: They created a performance out of cooking and serving vegetarian chili to the audience.

“Salta is subtle,” says Julie Phelps, the artistic director of local experimental performance venue CounterPulse. “Sometimes the most powerful thing you can do is shift the power structures that people expect.”

Part of that shift is Salta’s devout loyalty to the East Bay. When Yerba Buena Center for the Arts asked the group to create a “party with rules” within its galleries, Salta’s members grappled with whether to host an event in “establishment” San Francisco. (Eventually, they assuaged their ethics by donating their artist’s fees to a prison abolition organization.) Far from feeling affronted, YBCA’s senior program manager, Julie Potter, was impressed. “I kind of have a brain crush on them,” she says. “I hope they keep doing what they do.”

Phelps professes a similar art crush on Salta. “They’re filling a gap in the field right now, creating an open-source space,” she says. “I go to their shows to get a dose of new ideas.” Some of Salta’s recent conceptual works, for instance: a marathon of three-minute shorts that offered a critique of YouTube culture; a feminist send-up of Merce Cunningham that featured unitards cut away at the crotch to reveal men’s underwear; and a dance presentation by punk provocateur Brontez Purnell, who crawled across the floor naked with a sword between his teeth.

In 2012, Purnell was invited to perform at YBCA. But to measure Salta’s success by how “legitimized” they become by institutions like BAMPFA or YBCA risks missing the point.

“Their kind of energy needs to be celebrated in the Bay Area right now,” Wilson says. In a time when he sees many cash-strapped artists shifting toward more commercial work, Wilson is heartened by the wild, creative cauldron he sees at Salta’s happenings. “They’re keeping that fire alive at a time when it’s difficult for radical art to survive here,” he says. “Creative communities affect the cultural landscape in strange and sometimes indirect ways. You feel the loss when they’re not there.”

Originally published in the May issue of
San Francisco

Have feedback? Email us at
Follow us on Twitter @sanfranmag