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.

Detail from Biernoff's "Living Room" project

Through “Living Room,” Biernoff creates multiple publics. Biernoff scrutinizes each photograph capturing intimate details such as facial expressions and upholstery patterns. In doing so she creates a relationship between herself and the Bayview residents, acting as an interpreter or translator of these vernacular images—an exchange that should be considered an act of trust.

Furthermore, the individuals and families with whom she collaborated are now implicated with one another as the representation of their personal memories share the same space of the window display, as if to suggest that they are members of the same family. Once a thriving and lively neighborhood, the disregard of Bayview by the local government has resulted in a lack of economic opportunities for residents, poor health due to environmental toxins, and high crime rates. Furthermore, the recent redevelopment along Third Street brings with it threats of gentrification. Within this context Biernoff’s “Living Room” functions as a visual demonstration of a community who continues to fight to make their neighborhood habitable, while celebrating the deep roots that tie many families to this area. Those viewing the project from Third Street are also an implied public, as they, much like Biernoff, become the audience to these memories, left to surmise and project the significance of the people pictured, their relationship to one another, and to the contested neighborhood.

The work of Travis Meinolf bridges traditional craft, social practice and a socialist ethic. Trained as a weaver, the objects of Meinolf’s work are bright and beautiful blankets, scarves, and ponchos. Yet the purpose of these items extends beyond their functionality. In his project, “Pay what you make: a new political-economic strategy for the cultural producer,” these objects become active agents creating a public centered on questions of labor and value. From August until December 2009, during a residency in Berlin, Germany this San Francisco based artist transformed his storefront studio into a retail store of sorts. His hand-woven garments and blankets were tagged with the number of days it took to complete them and patrons were asked to offer their equivalent hourly wage in exchange for the garment. Through this exchange, Meinolf quantifies his labor and challenges his patrons to consider the value of their own work. Perhaps the most compelling aspect of Meinolf’s project is the ways in which the value of his own craft fluctuates according to who purchases his wares. For example, based on his or her earnings a lawyer would pay a much higher cost than a blue-collar worker for the same item. Meinolf’s work as an artist becomes the leveling agent that equalizes the value of work across a spectrum of actual monetary earnings. In the end, everyone is on equal ground. Through his request Meinolf instills a sense of trust in his public, assuming that each patron does, in fact, pay him the equivalent of his or her earnings. “Pay what you make” creates a social space based on the direct participation in an alternative economy and production model. While Meinolf’s patrons may not know one another they are connected through this discourse; the hand-woven garments and blankets that are now in their possession are evidence of their participation.

In 2009 artist and writer Matthew David Rana co-authored a comic book with Earnest Patrick Butler entitled, “The Autobiography of Ernest Patrick Butler: His Battles with Life, God and Self, 2008-09.” This publication describes the last two and half years of Butler’s life as a middle-aged black man living with his dog, “Mama” at the MacArthur BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) Station in Oakland, California, where he also sells his handmade crocheted hats. For eight months Rana adopted the role of Butler’s biographer, distilling his stories into drawings and text that although simplistic, illuminate the complexities of Butler’s struggle for visibility and survival. Butler’s stories range from experiences of police harassment, to his distrust of those who try to help him, to stories of returning to visit his family and falling in love. The honesty with which these stories are communicated confront the reader with realities that extend beyond Butler’s experience and speak to race and class discrimination, economic disparity, power imbalances and the inhumane treatment of those disenfranchised populations who make their homes on the streets. Yet, “The Autobiography of Earnest Patrick Butler” does not operate solely as a political platform, whether inherent or overt. Ultimately, it documents the exchange between Butler and Rana and the trust gained over time between a subject and his biographer, a narrator and interpreter.

Matthew David Rana's "Black to Play and Win" in collaboration with Rick Butler

Rana’s work emerges from a public dimension. Rana relationship with Butler was formed organically as he commuted daily through the MacArthur BART Station. The collaborative project between Rana and Butler simultaneously creates its own public through the dissemination of the comic books (a portion of which were available to purchase from Butler along with his crocheted hats) and subsequent establishment of its readership. A public created through written material might be considered inert or passive however, Butler’s autobiography has the potential to activate its public, creating relationships between the neighborhood’s residents, as well as alluding to a multitude of other publics formed through resistance to social injustices. In fact, the language of the comic book, illustrated here by Rana’s page, “Black To Play and Win” directly implicates the reader (“Now some of you might think to yourselves, ‘He probably learned how to play chess in prison…'”). Butler addresses the reader and challenges his audience to consider their own preconceived notions of homelessness and criminality. The honesty with which Butler’s story is communicated demands the same in return.

Amber Hasselbring’s Mission Greenbelt Project is an ongoing public collaboration between residents of San Francisco’s Mission District, local artists, and designers. Hasselbring envisioned a route of sidewalk gardens, planters, and rooftop gardens that weave through the Mission District connecting Franklin Square Park to Dolores Park and since 2006 she has worked to realize this environmental corridor. Joining a long lineage of earthworks artists and urban green projects, the aim of the greenbelt is both ecological and humanitarian; the gardens bring life to an otherwise stark cityscape while also creating a habitat to attract local wildlife such as bees, birds and butterflies.

Mission Greenbelt Project operates within the system of the local city government, specifically the Department of Public Work that is responsible for improving and “greening” San Francisco’s public spaces. Hasselbring acts as a facilitator helping Mission District residents navigate this seemingly obtuse system. The parameters of Mission Greenbelt Project are synonymous with the restrictions of the local government: only property owners can request approval for the sidewalk gardens and the process requires a lengthy application in order to obtain a permit. Yet despite these restrictions the project is not limited to the participation of the property owner’s alone. The Mission Greenbelt Project gardens are built by a revolving team of volunteers including members from environmental local organizations such as Nature in the City and Produce to the People, local artists, youth, and those who reside in the Mission District. The project encourages San Francisco residents to become engaged and informed citizens by accepting responsibility for the care and ecological sustainability of their neighborhood. Hasselbring’s contribution to the catalogue expands this sense of civic engagement beyond San Francisco through the distribution of removable handmade door-tags that include recommendations for building one’s own sidewalk garden. Her prompt, “Hang this tag on a door beside a cracked sidewalk” invites the recipients of this catalogue to approach their neighborhood with careful observation and intention. 

The individual projects of Biernoff, Mienolf, Rana and Hasselbring constitute their own publics. The artists identify their publics through the site-specificity of their work, such as the location of Biernoff’s Bayview storefront or Hasselbring’s Mission District gardens, as well as by initiating dialogues and providing opportunities for participation and the circulation of ideas. The work of Biernoff and Rana is subtle as they assume the role of interpretators and produce thought-provoking narrative illustrations to represent communities and individuals. Mienolf and Hasselbring connect their publics directly to tangible systems through the participation in alternative economies or the reclamation of urban space through gardening. While the issues addressed by the artists—loosely categorized as labor and value, ecological sustainability, homelessness, community memory and the politics surrounding disenfranchised neighborhoods—emerge from local and specific contexts, they gesture towards a broad range of issues relevant to “the masses.” In other words, these four projects are a microcosm of political and social issues pertinent to the Bay Area and yet, extend beyond to nation and international concerns. These works would not exist without their publics, as the participants significantly shape the course of each project. It is through this exchange, between artists, collaborators, observers and neighborhoods that multiple publics are created, their existence reliant upon the circulation of dialogue and exchange and serving as a powerful symbol for our social world.

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