A Surprising “Dry Tripping” Destination: California Wine Country

San Francisco’s cultural heart beats just a few blocks from ‘Cerebral Valley,’ a nickname coined last year for the Hayes Valley neighborhood following an influx of Artificial Intelligence (AI) start-up activity. Civic Center is home to the city’s most established performing arts institutions—America’s oldest professional ballet company, San Francisco Ballet, the 101-year-old San Francisco Opera, and the 112-year-old San Francisco Symphony.
A tech revolution unfolding outside the doorsteps of stately performing arts institutions may seem incongruent, but this is San Francisco, where innovation is the ethos. Artistic visionaries at those institutions, along with cultural leaders, curators, and artists throughout San Francisco, are at the forefront of leveraging AI and other technologies to push creative boundaries, forge new works, and enhance the audience experience. Often while exploring the profound implications of new technology.
As San Francisco Symphony Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen explained it, “We’re in San Francisco, the hotbed of invention and imagination…The Symphony is over 100 years old, lots of inventions that shape our everyday lives are made here. We’re trying to combine those things.”
Premiering this winter and spring in San Francisco are a number of performances and exhibits incorporating technology or addressing its implications. Here are a few highlights to add to your next trip to the innovative, artistic city.
See an AI-inspired ballet
Performers in ‘Mere Mortals’ – courtesy of San Francisco Travel Association
When San Francisco-based OpenAI gave ChatGPT to the world in late 2022 and ushered in the modern Artificial Intelligence (AI) revolution, was Pandora’s box opened? The ethically complicated discovery and proliferation of AI was the inspiration for San Francisco Ballet’s world-premiere commission, Mere Mortals, an immersive reimagining of the Pandora and Prometheus myths.
“Artificial intelligence continues to grow and evolve, and Mere Mortals will tackle the complicated issues and feelings as well as the exciting creative promise that this new technology holds,” said Tamara Rojo, SF Ballet’s new artistic director. This is the first season programmed by Rojo.
The groundbreaking Mere Mortals viscerally explores the risks and opportunities of technological progress. Audience members can expect to be confronted with questions surrounding love, change, human connection, societal advancement, and more in the immersive experience.
Marking many ‘firsts’ for the company, including SF Ballet’s first full-length commission from a female choreographer (Aszure Barton), Mere Mortals has been brought to life by an international collective of artists across disciplines. Performed by a 43-member cast, Mere Mortals pushes new boundaries in ballet with gender-neutral principal pairing, AI-influenced stage design, and live mixing of electronic and classical instrumentation. The work marks the first-ever composition of a ballet score by Floating Points (a.k.a Sam Shepherd), an accomplished U.K.-based artist, composer, and producer who creates transportive sonic environments. He will be performing alongside the SF Ballet Orchestra on the Buchla, a synthesizer created in the Bay Area in 1963, which will interpret and loop the orchestra’s instrumentation live each night. An after-party follows each evening’s 75-minute performance. (Mere Mortals premieres on Jan. 26. Performances are scheduled through Feb. 1 at the War Memorial Opera House.)
Experience a multi-sensory symphony
Myth also takes the stage at the San Francisco Symphony, which premieres a multisensory performance of Alexander Scriabin’s Prometheus, The Poem of Fire on March 1. Devised by SF Symphony Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen, pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, and Cartier in-house perfumer Mathilde Laurent, the dynamic musical and light performance and olfactory curation aim to realize Scriabin’s unrealized vision of a genuinely synesthetic work.
“Scriabin scored Prometheus for light and color as well as music, but one of his dreams was to add more senses to the score, including scent. This idea has always fascinated me, as somebody who has always loved working together with artists from a variety of disciplines,” said Thibaudet. “I am excited that we now have the technology to bring Scriabin’s dream to life, and to be a part of this project with Esa-Pekka and Mathilde. This project shows us what is possible when there is collaboration within the arts: how different art forms and different senses can enrich one another, and in doing so enrich our lives and our experiences both inside and outside of the concert hall.” (March 1-3 at Davies Symphony Hall.)
In April, SF Symphony collaborative partner and roboticist Carol Reiley is curating a first-of-its-kind, human-machine interactive SoundBox program showcasing various Artificial Intelligence (AI) uses. Press Play: Carol Reiley and the Robots is designed as a fun, human-centered experience with audience participation. SF Symphony’s experimental live music SoundBox series is a laboratory for the exploration of new musical ideas and immersive audience experiences that continuously push the envelope with adventurous programming and innovative design. (April 5 and 6 in SF Symphony’s 7,600-square-foot warehouse-like rehearsal space adjacent to Davies Symphony Hall.)
Encounter experimental fashion
See unique fashion installations – courtesy of San Francisco Travel Association
The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco teamed up with Snap Inc. to debut an interactive augmented reality installation at the de Young for its new major exhibition, Fashioning San Francisco: A Century of Style, which opened on Jan. 20. The de Young is the first museum in the U.S. to feature Snap’s AR Mirrors, which let visitors “try on” three couture ensembles featured in the exhibit by the late French designer Yves Saint Lauren, Italian designer Valentino, and Chinese-American Bay Area-based designer Kaisik Wong.
Fashioning San Francisco presents the work of more than 50 fashion designers, from Balmain to Miyake, Valentino to McQueen, with the majority of the over 90 ensembles on view for the first time. The exhibit chronicles how style in the Bay Area has evolved over generations and its role as a marker of social identity. Spanning a century of high fashion and haute couture worn by Bay Area women, fashions range from bohemian styles and power suits to LBDs (Little Black Dresses) and elegant evening wear.
The Fine Arts Museums are home to one of the most significant holdings of 20th and 21st-century high fashion and haute couture in the U.S. San Franciscans have a long-standing history of being among the first to embrace the experimental in dress, both supporting and wearing designers with a knack for the radical. Japanese designers such as Rei Kawakubo, Issey Miyake, Junya Watanabe, and Yohji Yamamoto are featured in a section that explores the avant-garde creatives who redefined conventional fashion. Fashioning San Francisco also explores the work of Western designers inspired by the aesthetics of Asian, African, and other international cultures to address cultural appropriation and its contemporary discourse. (On view at the de Young through Aug. 11.)
Grab coffee with a robot
Not far from the Museum of Craft and Design, guests of Mission Bay’s LUMA Hotel San Francisco can receive their morning coffee delivery from new OG robotic team members Lumie and Lucy. The robotic duo is fitted with custom 3D-printed inserts that enable them to carry hot beverages ordered via QR code from guestrooms. But one day will these robots become collaborators? The Museum of Craft and Design’s upcoming exhibition, Mr. Roboto, tests creative possibilities through a new showcase of design activities and experiments.
“The work in Mr. Roboto expands the customary role of the robot… by inviting the robot to be a collaborator, not just an executor of repetitive or dangerous tasks, we create possibilities, discover ways of making, develop design innovation, experiment with materials, and forge a future that we could not build alone,” said Virginia San Fratello, who guest curated the exhibition along with Eleanor Pries.
Featuring experiments conducted by approximately 60 San José State University students, the exhibition demonstrates how designers and robots can work together to generate new ways of creating the world around us. Over 100 objects, including 28 3-D printed textiles, 26 robotic letterform drawings, 36 robotic light paintings, and a robot-aided stop-motion animation, will be featured, highlighting how this type of education and experience can open the door to the future of craft and design for the next generation. (On view Feb. 24 through June 30 at the Museum of Craft and Design.)
Watch a play about the ethics of a digital era
The American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.) is staging the world premiere of Big Data, a play exploring questions of attention, connection, nourishment, and the dizzying possibilities of AI. Do our devices—tantalizingly incarnate in this funny, sexy, uncanny premiere—really know us best? Are our digital footprints predictive of our future choices, or are they choosing for us? The play explores these questions with a cast that includes Tony Award winner BD Wong.
A.C.T. Artistic Director Pam MacKinnon, who will direct the play, said, “[Playwright] Kate Attwell has written a play so topical about how AI is rapidly and maybe forever changing how we interact and think about what we want…I am also grateful that while the Bay and the world wrestle with the fundamental ethics of where we are headed, that this play is in the wrestle too.” (Feb. 15 to March 10 at A.C.T.’s Toni Rembe Theater)
Visit a thought-provoking museum
Front of the Misalignment Museum – courtesy of San Francisco Travel Association
The family-friendly Misalignment Museum opened last fall in Thrive City, the 11-acre plaza surrounding Chase Center. The pop-up installation showcases the capabilities of AI technology through thought-provoking, interactive art pieces. Through dynamic and playful art pieces such as Spambots and Paperclip Embrace, the museum is a space to learn about AI and reflect on its power for both destruction and good. (Free entry. Open Thursday and Friday from 4 to 8 pm and Saturday and Sunday from 2 to 5 pm.)

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