Superchief Gallery releases ‘Contagious Culture’ documentary and book

Capturing the resurgence of LA’s underground concert scene, Superchief Gallery co-founder Bill Dunleavy wanted to highlight the “counterculture of the pandemic era.” 

In February of 2020, the face of DTLA’s Superchief Gallery changed forever as the building suffered a devastating explosion and structure fire. One month later, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down much of the world and the city entered into a period of uncertainty and unrest.

To help capture the events and reactions of this period in LA history, the Superchief Gallery has released a new documentary and photo book to showcase its group photography exhibition, “Contagious Culture.”

Serving as a time capsule looking back on the last two years, the exhibition has drawn 100 artists to share their visual perspectives of unique moments that occurred from March 2020 to April 2022, namely the George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests, the isolation and desire for human connection during the pandemic, and the Dead City Punx and illegal outdoor concert scene.

“The spirit of the show was meant to represent the counterculture of the pandemic era,” Superchief Gallery co-founder and “Contagious Culture” curator Bill Dunleavy said. “Every photo in the show is between March 2020, when the lockdowns began, and April 2022, when things were pretty much starting to open back up and the vaccines were widespread.”

To provide a spotlight for the exhibition and its artists, Dunleavy directed the 33-minute “Contagious Culture” documentary that featured interviews with artists Estevan Oriol, Erwin Recinos, Gigi Freyeisen, Jimmy Bonks, Josh ‘Bagel’ Klassman, Lolo 213, Michael Hawke, Nate Kahn, Nichelle Dailey, Raquel Natalicchio, Raz Azraai, Robert Penna, Ruben Preciado, Scott Free, Sean Maung and Zeitweitz.

In his interviews, Dunleavy asked each photographer what it was like to shoot during the pandemic and what their reactions were to that two-year period.

“We were kind of coming back to normal at that time,” he explained. “I was just like, ‘Tell me about your experience as an artist and a photographer and how it shaped your practice during a time of extreme uncertainty and upheaval.’”

Dunleavy found extra significance in that the damage to the old gallery had occurred at the beginning of the pandemic, explaining that it felt like the gallery’s history was interwoven with that of everyone else in the world.

“It was such a weird bookend situation,” Dunleavy said, before speaking to his own outlook on the pandemic era. “I found it to be a very liberating time because I think it was this generation’s first time realizing that the way things are isn’t necessarily the way things should be or have to be, that everything can change through people power and it’s up to regular people to get organized together and make things the way that they want them to be.

“We are kind of just regular people living within systems, and I think that it was super important for the younger generations of the internet to get a taste of that. … They’re never going to forget that. … Everyone’s lifestyles were shaken so much by lockdown and by protests and everything. I just think it was like a real moment of clarity for a lot of people to find themselves and find what they stand for.”

Dunleavy explained that the inspiration behind the name “Contagious Culture” was three-fold: It’s a reference to the idea of contagion during the pandemic, the idea of virality on the internet, and the way that the George Floyd protests in Minneapolis quickly spread across the country and motivated nationwide discussions around police reform and justice.

“I just felt that there was a similarity between the pandemic ideas of contagion and the way that cultural memes were spreading at that time through the media and leading to a contagious culture of rebellion and reform throughout our society,” Dunleavy said. “(Another) thought behind contagious culture was like Dead City Punx here in Los Angeles and what they were doing with starting a new form of reclaiming public space for outdoor music and punk shows.

“They started doing it in LA and you saw it grow bigger and bigger as it caught on. Then they went to Oakland, and they went to New York and they did the same thing there. Other bands started to replicate that model for a show, which I thought was super cool because, besides the fact that it looked really cool by being like Mad Max outdoor post-apocalyptic punk shows, it was just awesome to see people say, ‘We don’t need music venues and we don’t need permission and we don’t need anything. We’ve just truly going to do this DIY from top to bottom and build a stage out of concrete when no one’s looking and haul a generator out there, promote the address last minute and confront the cops when they arrive.’”

At the end of the documentary, which was edited by Robert Penna, Dunleavy explained that photography as an art form has changed since this explosion of social media and the increased emphasis on the popularity of an image over its historical value.

“The show is definitely meant to highlight the types of images that aren’t really social media friendly,” Dunleavy began. “I think that we’re controlled a little bit by the algorithms and the social media monopolies, and they could get us to create the type of content that they want us to be creating.

“I wanted to celebrate photography for art’s sake and an unfiltered, uncensored look at the visions of these artists because, for over 100 years, photography was something that was just about a photographer’s vision. Now we live in a world where being a photographer is nothing special because literally everybody is technically a photographer, and I wanted to draw focus back on the vision of photography … for documentary’s sake and highlight images that were obviously extreme and raw but not necessarily social media friendly.”

At a time of heightened mistrust in mainstream media, according to reports, Dunleavy emphasized the role of photojournalists, on-the ground-photographers and documentarians and the importance of bringing a diverse set of perspectives to an issue, free from the bounds of censorship or an algorithm.

“This book, exhibition and documentary is a tribute to the photographers and the culture of the photographers in the show because they were out there documenting life in a period of fear and uncertainty, which took a lot of bravery,” Dunleavy said before expressing his future hopes for the collection. “I’m definitely interested in touring the documentary around, maybe remixing the show, remixing the documentary. I would love to make something bigger out of the ‘Contagious Culture’ name that could reach more people, because I think it’s done really well.

“I feel like the things that happened during the pandemic were the beginning of a new era that we live in as far as justice and protests and uprisings and culture. So I think it’s just the beginning, and I would like to keep these ideas in conversation for people and keep it all on everyone’s mind.”

“Contagious Culture” by Superchief Gallery

WHERE: Superchief Gallery LA, 1965 S. Los Angeles Street, Los Angeles