Irwin Smirnoff peers through the entrance to Alley Cat Books, where he runs a monthly film series, in the Mission District on Thursday, August 23, 2018. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Sound and Vision: Professor Irwin Swirnoff makes radical cultural change

“I don’t think you can be an adjunct professor, a teacher, and live in San Francisco,” said Irwin Swirnoff, his declaration hard won by experience.

The educator, filmmaker, writer, curator and until recently, host of sleeves on hearts (a weekly show on KUSF-FM/San Francisco Community Radio on which he interviewed guests as varied as musicians Kronos Quartet and Ty Segall and authors Chris Kraus and Brontez Purnell), has bolstered and boostered the underground art scene here for the past 16 years. But following his third recent displacement, Swirnoff’s pretty sure his days as a San Francisco-based independent artist are coming to a close.

“I never like to be pessimistic, but I feel like trying to fight the housing situation in San Francisco is like trying to fight gun control on the national level. You just know it’s never going to happen,” he said.

Swirnoff has had a good run, living in the Mission at various locations stretching from McCoppin to 30th streets; he’s worked hard and survived by his wits, communing with like-minded souls who love the work of keeping the traditions of underground culture, living the kind of creative life for which The City was once world-recognized and celebrated. But this final notice, which Swirnoff watched slide under the door, had a totally different feel to it: The rent was doubling, the owner was selling.

“Each time I had the fighting spirit and felt like Rocky for awhile, but this felt like I got knocked out,” he said. “I had to think about what it means to run into a brick wall over and over and asked myself what kind of radical change I might need to make in my own life.” The answer that came back to him was to become willing and open to leaving San Francisco.

“I think the war is over and they won. We’re past the point of talking about a changing San Francisco. We’re in it,” he said.

Swirnoff had already fallen in love with The City by the time he arrived, just after the turn of the 21st century as a graduate student at the San Francisco Art Institute where he studied film with underground cinema legend, George Kuchar.

“He told me, be careful of this place: It can rob you of your soul,” Swirnoff said. Kuchar warned him of the “machinery of the art world” and its cutthroat nature. “There was a coldness to that place. He was the warmth there,” he said.

Since making his own films that have screened at festivals here, nationwide and internationally, Swirnoff has worked as a film professor at Cal State University Monterey Bay where he’s traveled via public transportation to teach cinematic arts three days a week for the last eight years.

“A high percentage of the students are Dreamers and the first generation in their family to attend university. They’re hardworking and earnest kids, many of them holding two jobs. They’re so grateful to be there and they just kill it,” he said. As it happens, one of the students from the department, Gerardo Rueda, will be screening his film “Lucina” at this fall’s Mill Valley Film Festival.

In addition to his Cal State courses, Swirnoff also teaches the queer cinema class he developed at University of San Francisco where he will fulfill his teaching commitment as he begins his nationwide job search.

“I’m applying for positions elsewhere,” he said. “I’m not willing to go anywhere, but I’m willing to go somewhere.” It’s not just housing, but our great American epoch of wage stagnation that’s made living here unsustainable for an artist of Swirnoff’s type.

“I was making more money waiting tables at Sparky’s Diner than I do now teaching at university,” he noted.

“Irwin is an absolutely essential part of the arts community here in San Francisco,” said Simon Crafts, a poet and bookseller at Alley Cat on 24th Street where Swirnoff organizes the queer film series, my gaze///yr gaze. Crafts is distraught by the news of Swirnoff’s potential absence and what it portends for artists of his own generation.

“Irwin understands the essentiality of community for artists and queers here in the Bay that exists beyond just capitalism and tokenized inclusion and he has been dedicated to nourishing that community for no better reason than he believes it is important and it is the right thing to do,” Crafts said.

Swirnoff was invited by Alley Cat to host his free film series featuring special guests and a safe communal space when he lost his venue in Oakland in 2015. “It was a time when San Francisco seemed to be in special need of something like that,” said Swirnoff of that period when arts evictions were at an all-time high.

“If someone like Irwin who has put in the time and really lives the life of a dedicated artist, teacher, and organizer can’t find a place within his means or a network that can provide stable housing, what chance do I have? It just feels like a matter of time until there are no more artists in the Bay or at least no artists without trust funds or already established careers,” said Crafts.

“The reasons I wanted to come here were sound and music,” said Swirnoff of the path that took him from young music enthusiast, reader of books published by the Bay Area’s AK Press, and frequenter of Aquarius Records (the now-defunct shop where he ended up working), to becoming an active member of the arts community. He found cultural gold here, well-beyond what he could access in his native Phoenix and at his undergrad college, east of Los Angeles.

“I remember going to see Yo La Tengo and Lambchop at the Great American Music Hall,” he said. “At the end of Yo La Tengo’s set, Dee Dee Ramone joined them and they did all Ramones covers. Walking out of the show at about five o’clock, it was still sunny, but brisk, and I thought, this is so dreamy.” A flyer for a screening of a documentary about English folk musician Nick Drake at the Roxie convinced him he’d found his people.

“I thought there was going to be three people there and it was packed,” he said.

“The first apartment I had on my own was across the street from the Roxie,” he said, though it was nearby at Community Thrift on Valencia Street where he found his personal motherlode of music and cultural ephemera and inspiration.

“The record bins were filled with great stuff. That’s how I first discovered Sylvester,” he said of the soul singer, drag performer and disco star whose massive hit, “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real),” raves on as an empowerment anthem (though “Stars” remains Swirnoff’s favorite). But his appreciation of disco and the pioneering tracks recorded in studios here go deeper than the dancefloor: Thrift-scoring was his point of connection, his doorway to San Francisco’s history as a gay mecca, experimental art haven, and frontline battlefield during the AIDS epidemic. “It allowed me to be near these beautiful ghosts,” he said.

“I learned the story of San Francisco in the ’70s and into the ’80s. Whether from an amazing disco record or Harry Hay book, I felt a kinship with the past, and it felt important to feel and honor what these people’s contributions meant to the place and what my responsibility was to carry that forward. Knowing about those past eras helped me understand the importance of the present here,” he said.

His most gratifying and rewarding work has been producing what he calls his “radical variety shows” that bring artists from different countries and disciplines together.

“As the underground becomes smaller, we have to build alliances. The communities are still here, but it takes some pulling to find them,” he said.

“This has always been a place for forward and creative thinking, experimental and populist. There’s a tradition of being able to make something subversive that can reach a lot of people,” he said, noting that to mainstream eyes, there seems no time like now for Bay Area film arts given the recent successes of “Black Panther,” “Blindspotting” and “Sorry To Bother You.”

“I don’t think of Hollywood as the end all. I love that Craig Baldwin still does Other Cinema; there’s Midnites For Maniacs and the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley. Any kind of film you’re into, there’s something in San Francisco for you. You can’t complain about film in the Bay Area,” he said.

An eternal optimist, Swirnoff is well-placed to carry San Francisco with him, no matter where his next phase takes him.

“I have tons of gratitude for the experiences I’ve had here” he said. “But I don’t want to stay and be bitter. I’ve seen that happen to too many people, I don’t want that to happen to me.”

If you’re still here, be here and do it.”

Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” Follow her at and on Twitter @4DeniseSullivan.

my gaze///yr gaze queer film series
“Latin Boys Go To Hell” (Ela Troyano, 1997) with Kevin Killian and Irwin Swirnoff
Where: Alley Cat Books, 3036 24th St., S.F.
When: 6 p.m. today
Cost: Free

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