LA MAMELLE: ARCHIVING PERFORMANCE ART IN THE SAN FRANCISCO BAY AREA
Published January 6th, 2017 in Performa Magazine
La Mamelle / Art Com (active 1975 - 1991) was an alternative art organization in San Francisco that produced, presented, and published experimental time-based art. Their publications, including both La Mamelle (Art Contemporary/Art Com) Magazine as well as Performance Anthology (1979), supported artists such as Linda Montano, Doug Hall, Anna Banana, Chris Burden, Lynn Hershman Leeson, and Eleanor Antin. Between 1995 and 1997, associates Darlene Tong and Nancy Frank spearheaded a prolonged effort to process their organization’s archival remains. In the end, the transferable archives included 306 linear feet  of artists’ files, only a tenth of what they had collected since the 1970s. In this excerpted interview, Tong describes the concept of La Mamelle’s alternative media collection and the personal challenges of processing their archive.
Ryan Tacata: As an alternative art space presenting “de-materialized” live performance in the ‘70s and ‘80s, how did La Mamelle end up amassing such a large collection of physical art material (e.g. print, video, ephemera)?
Darlene Tong: We were obsessive about it! We kept whatever we got, including video and performance notes. Artists would send us material from all over the world, all of the time, and we scrambled to organize it. We published them just to document all of these performances that were taking place. When we would get documentation, we would take notes on what they were and file them. So, we had these huge artist files full of notes, correspondence, and documentation. The periodicals were separate, but the correspondence with artists was very interesting and valuable. I think that most art organizations are too busy programming their next events to collect and organize those materials, and it’s a big scramble and really difficult to find the funding to do it. We prioritized La Mamelle/Art Com as an educational non-profit.
In 1975, Carl Loeffler opens La Mamelle at 70 -12th 12th Street in San Francisco’s South of Market (SoMA) district. From the archive, we have a sense of La Mamelle’s relationship to other alternative venues in San Francisco, including SF Camerawork, 80 Langton, and the Museum of Conceptual Art. What’s missing is a sense of Carl’s personality as a director and collaborator. Can you talk about your experience working with him?
The legend is he started La Mamelle with a Royal typewriter and $150. He rented the 12th Street space in 1975 with the intention of publishing La Mamelle Magazine. That first issue looks a lot more traditional than the later magazines; they started out small time. Carl had an infectious way of connecting with people, of getting them excited about ideas, and he never saw himself as a solo artist. He was extremely charismatic and people wanted to work with him until they did—then they’d be crying. He was relentless. I remember one of the issues of La Mamelle/Art Com had to get done and Carl and this guy Cory literally stood over the light table with him for 72 hours. They did not brush their teeth, they did not change their socks or underwear, and I was totally grossed out. I couldn’t believe they stood there like that laying out this issue, but that’s how he did his projects. Carl, though difficult, had such a vision. He was interested in people he could learn from and generate projects with. He had little tolerance for social stuff, but his vision of himself was that he was incredibly unselfish. People would say, “That guy is so oriented towards him, him, him!” Although this was true, he believed what he was doing was for the field and for pushing the boundaries of alternative art activity. He was very much committed to the field, and people didn’t get that about him. Even I didn’t get it at times. But I can truly say he didn’t do it for his own self-aggrandizement. You know, one of the last pictures of Art Com is a whole group of us giving him the finger, like, "Fuck you Carl!" —but it was out of respect, out of reverence, and out of irreverence—because that was the whole point of all of our activities. We swear about him all the time, but it’s with love and appreciation.
Performance Anthology: Source Book for a Decade of California Performance Art was published in 1980 and remains one of the most comprehensive surveys of 1970s West Coast performance art to-date. Can you talk about the experience of compiling it?
At the time, Carl and I were living together in a little apartment on Russian Hill. We decided to physically layout Performance Anthology there, piece by piece, because we didn’t want to interfere with the activities that were going on in the gallery. We were still publishing Art Com at the gallery and hosting classes for students from different high schools and colleges who wanted to see video works and performances, so we couldn’t have this giant thing laid out all over the floor. People were shocked when they came to our apartment, “Is this a home? An office? Who lives like this?” I had all of these heavy metal library shelves that were thrown out by the SF State library and they were covered in performance documentation, books, videos, ephemera, etc. Chris Burden stayed at our apartment too, while he was making Big Wrench (1980)!
When you joined La Mamelle in 1977, you were working as an art librarian at SF State. What was your role in developing and maintaining those artist collections?
I have to say, even though I was the librarian in the group, I had a full time job at San Francisco State University and had no time to work at the gallery. It was mainly done by student interns who wanted to participate in the process. We set up the basic framework and organization, but the years of adding to the artist files were done primarily by interns. We pulled them from everywhere—people always wanted to come and volunteer. Of course when we told them to sweep up the floors, they would say, "No. I’m here to be an artist" but, we’d said, “We are too, but we clean the bathrooms and we sweep the floors!” It’s a good lesson to learn: if you're going to be a part of an artists’ organization, you can't be a prima donna about it—you have to do all of it.
Beyond Performance Anthology, La Mamelle / Art Com self-published hundreds of artists’ publications in various formats, including books, print magazines, video art, audio tapes, and rubber stamp zines, many of which presented performance. How was all of it funded or supported?
At the time, the NEA wouldn’t fund us for our experimental activities or publishing. Five years later, they started to fund alternative art, but when we asked it was too early. So, then Carl said, “We need to make our own money. We need to figure out how to sustain ourselves.” That’s when we went to self-publishing our magazines, videos, and alternative media. We tried to step away from those art critics steeped in Clement Greenberg’s approach to interpretation. They were fighting with each other, choosing which artists should be recognized, and imposing a critique on what artists were doing without actually hearing the voice of the artist. Our idea was to not be a critical magazine or publish reviews, but to get artists to self-represent. We had interviews with artists, and sometimes they were really inarticulate, but we tried to pull out their intentions, their process, and what they were hoping to accomplish.
When La Mamelle closed its doors and Carl left to work at Carnegie Mellon, you and video curator Nancy Frank were tasked with processing La Mamelle’s massive collection of artists’ materials, including back issues of your magazines and various media associated with action-sculpture, video, and correspondence art, etc. What was your initial approach?
We had 20 years of collecting artist materials and we never threw anything away. If we didn’t have interns around, or they couldn’t keep up with the artist files, we would just toss them into a box, tape it up, and throw it into the rafters. We had 8000 square feet of space, so we could do that. The Loma Prieta earthquake hit in 1989 and the new owners of the building knew they needed to do retrofitting, so they gave us over two years of free rent to organize our materials and move out of the space. The categorical framework for the collection was there, but when it came down to the wire, we just started throwing things into boxes, so some of the boxes in the archive are totally chaotic. We tried to get rid of things like newsletters and press releases from the Long Beach Museum of Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, because they were bigger institutions and could take care of their own history. Organizations in San Francisco like 80 Langton St / New Langton Arts would put together these annual compilations of performances they did, which were nice, but, what about the rest of it? What about all of their archival material? They would say, “Well, we can’t bother with that, this is all we have.” But you know that’s not all of it. I think that’s very typical of a lot of organizations. In the past year, I’ve been told that Stanford University has acquired the 80 Langton/New Langton Arts archives. Along with the La Mamelle/Art Com archives, Lynn Hershman Leeson’s papers, and others like Buckminster Fuller and Allen Ginsberg, Stanford now has rich archives representing alternative traditions in the contemporary arts. I’ve seen similar archives, like those from Los Angeles County Institute of Contemporary Art, and they’re just a few linear feet. It’s typical because when push comes to shove and you’re closing down, you no longer have operational money, you’re fighting with the people you’re working with, or your building gets sold, or whatever the reason might be, you just toss whatever you have. Most of those archives from old alternative art spaces are about the organization and not about the activities they supported, whereas ours contains very little about the business aspect of the organization. We wanted to save all of the artists’ activities and focus on information about the art. You can’t do it all. In the end, we had this party where we just gave stuff away. People came and they could take whatever they wanted.
How was it advertised? Was it an event, like a blowout Martha Rosler Garage Sale of La Mamelle?
It wasn't like a T.R. Uthco fire sale—it wasn't a performance! It was through word of mouth. We said we were having a party and just giving this stuff away, and if you want to come, come and take it. So, we did that, and then we had the dumpsters. We paid for dumpsters to come into the garage and threw away, you know, a 1,000 copies of issue #2—just boxes and boxes of our magazines.
Eventually, you transferred close to 306 linear feet of material to Stanford University’s Art Library and Special Collections, and nearly 800 video works to the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley. While that’s a considerable amount of artist material to have in an archive, you’ve suggested that it’s only a tenth of what remained. What was your experience of giving out, or throwing away, so much of that material?
It was heartbreaking. It was very stressful and hard work, and it was nice to have Nancy come back and be a part of it. I would take boxes home on the weekends and sort through them when I wasn’t working. At the time, we didn’t know where the archives were going to go. There was no way that we could have afforded to keep all of it. It wasn't until maybe six months or a year later, that Stanford contacted us and told us they were interested in acquiring what we were able to organize and save. I met with SF State's archivists to learn some of the basics and read a few books on it. Our top priority was respect des fonds, to think about how we utilized our materials as an organizing principle. But, of course, a lot of the times, it just doesn't work. We had to throw out a lot. Personally, I wouldn’t make a very good archivist. When I go to artists’ archives and I see PG&E bills dating back 20 years from some organization, I’m like, really? Maybe someone, someday, would be very interested in how much electricity this organization used, but it’s hard to imagine. So we tossed all of that stuff. We tried to keep some board minutes and we tried to keep transactions with artists and what not, but it was difficult. Personal relationships were broken and the space was a nightmare. I thought: “Why am I at this gallery space with no heat, with water pouring down from the leaky roof, and with 20 years of dust? Why are we opening up these boxes again? Why am I doing this?”
Why were you doing it?
Well, I remained committed to the organization, to Carl, and to the art. There were many times throughout the years that I could have walked away, but I didn’t. We were always in a project. I was committed to the art more than anything else.
This interview was conducted in January of 2015 at the San Francisco State University Library.
 Archival materials are measured in linear feet and based on the amount of occupied shelf space, length of drawers for vertical files, or thickness of horizontal materials.
 T.R. Uthco was a San Francisco-based performance performance collective (1970-1978). Its founding members were Diane Andrews, Doug Hall, and Jody Procter. The reference is to their show Edited by Fire (November 3rd - December 15th, 1978) at La Mamelle; an exhibition of charred props and performance documentation pulled from the aftermath of a fire that destroyed their studio on Pier 40 on August 7th, 1978.
Darlene Tong was a board member and contributing editor at La Mamelle/Art Com beginning 1977. She continues to support contemporary art and new art technologies on the board of Leonardo/International Society for the Arts, Sciences and Technology. She is art librarian at San Francisco State University and has given presentations and published in the area of artists’ publishing/archives and alternative forms of contemporary art.