Monthly Archives: March 2010

In/Visible Borders: Urban Neighborhoods and Representations of Belonging

I just came across this paper written during my first year of graduate school and thought it deserved to be out in the world. It’s a little rough around the edges but continues to feel relevant to San Francisco politics.

The landscapes of urban locations are constantly shifting.  Within San Francisco, a city that is spatially small and therefore relatively condensed, these changes are easy to observe.  In walking through San Francisco, people find themselves quickly crossing the boundaries of one neighborhood into the next.  These boundaries, although physically invisible, are present through the visible shift in an economic class, racial or cultural identities, tourist destinations or business districts.  These parts of San Francisco or any major metropolis are an obvious aspect of city living, yet the arrangement of urban neighborhoods and representations thereof offer a rich and provocative site for investigation and analysis. It is through the representations of these urban neighborhoods and their residents that it becomes visible how particular neighborhoods are imagined and therefore understood by the public. This interrogation allows us to further understand the effect that these representations have on the physical landscape of urban neighborhoods.  In this paper I will examine the representations of two urban landscapes, San Francisco’s Bayview-Hunter’s Point and post-Katrina New Orleans.  I will consider how under-valued spaces and marginalized communities are represented in mainstream media outlets.  I will question who benefits from these representations and how they benefit.  I will do so through an analysis of the formation of neighborhoods and spaces of belonging.

Map of Hunter's Point, San Francisco

Neighborhoods are defined through physical space and geographical location.  Yet, the boundaries that serve to demarcate neighborhoods are imaginary and mark more than just spatial organization, they define who belongs and who doesn’t belong within certain spaces.  Thus, creating sociological borders that produce meanings and significations beyond physical spatiality. According to Fran Tonkiss in her book Space, the City and Social Theory, the making of borders creates “zones of inclusion” and  “draws lines of social division and exclusion.”[1] These lines of division are often understood in terms of social and cultural diversity, creating a spatial separation of ethnic and racial identities.  The borders that exist between neighborhoods serve both to separate and connect various communities and landscapes.  By recognizing the neighborhood in which one belongs one also recognizes the spaces in which one does not belong.  Further, the imaginary boundaries of neighborhoods facilitates an ability to recognize those who do not belong within one’s own neighborhood.  This recognition occurs through both the separation and connection inherent within this process.  In acknowledging the separation between neighborhoods, one also acknowledges the potential of their connection.  The separation is therefore always “shadowed by the idea…the danger of their connection.”[2]

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BY VIRTUE OF THEIR IMAGINING: the creation of multiple publics through the work of four contemporary San Francisco artists

This essay was included in Images Nr. 3, a catalog published by San Francisco art collector, Steven Leiber and was written to accompany contributions by four local artists.

In recent contemporary art practices, the notion of the public is increasingly prominent. No longer solely the audience for the action and production of artists, the public is conceived of as participants, collaborators, as well as a space in which to frame one’s practice. The term “the public” holds political implications referring to the totality of the people or “the masses.” While it is true that working outside the gallery allows contemporary artists to more directly engage with current political issues, it perhaps does artists a disservice to assume that by working publicly they can bring about social change for the masses. Social theorist, Michael Warner draws a distinction between “the public” and “a public” in which social space is created through the circulation of a reflexive discourse that creates relationships among participants. If we dislodge the notion of the public from the level of the masses, there is the potential to create multiple publics through site-specific activities, thus effecting change and initiating dialogue at a local level. Within the recent work of San Francisco Bay Area based artists, Elisheva Biernoff, Travis Mienolf, Matthew David Rana and Amber Hasselbring publics are utilized as a space and a mode of production. The projects of these four artists create multiple publics through ongoing exchanges in which both ephemeral and longer-term relationships between the artists, participants, passersby and neighborhoods are developed.

Elisheva Biernoff's storefront installation "Living Room" in Bayview, SF

From September 2009 through February 2010, Elisheva Biernoff was selected to participate in San Francisco’s Art In Storefronts program, sponsored by the San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery and the Office of the Mayor. Biernoff was assigned to create a project for an empty storefront in the Bayview district, a predominately African-American neighborhood on the southeastern side of San Francisco. Through her project, “Living Room,” Biernoff borrowed personal photographs from the neighborhood’s residents and recreated these photographs through small-scale paintings on plywood. These images were then re-presented to the neighborhood through a window installation that was organized as a kind of community photo album—a formal black and white studio portrait of a woman from the 1940s hangs beside another family’s informal portrait taken in color that hangs above an image of a man holding a toddler inside a corner store. At the end of the storefront exhibition, residents will receive both their original photograph and the painting by Biernoff.

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