On Site Responsibility...

Baz Luhrmann once said that you should live in New York City once, but leave before it makes you hard; live in Northern California once, but leave before it makes you soft.

Los Angeles made me too hard to enjoy living in New York when I was there for grad school. And I have always wanted to live in San Francisco. But I was already too soft.

1995. I was 19 the first time and already it felt too late. I had come to visit my friend Adam who had moved up to the city, living with three other artists in a large railroad flat on the corner of Hayes and Fillmore. He was trying to explain what he did at the organic food co-op in Noe Valley. I just looked eastward from his living room window at the magic hour, sulking over my inability to kickstart adulthood back in Los Angeles, wondering if maybe I should make a leap northward to the city by the Bay. But San Francisco was a place for dreamers and I didn’t yet trust mine.

However, almost twenty years later from that first trip, I made it. I managed to obtain a decent paying job in the arts even though it felt ridiculous to move to the most expensive city in the country. In Los Angeles I could be a working artist, or someone who works in the arts and makes art, too…with cheap rents and enough space to move around. I am low income by San Francisco standards even as the bulk of my work is focused on reaching out to low-income communities of color.

I cannot help but wonder if and when I leave here, it will be because living became too hard. San Francisco has eclipsed New York in those ways that make people hard.

Eviction rates that are off the scales and the concomitant anxieties that burden working class families or over-educated public sector workers struggling to pay off student debt with no relief in sight make us hard. The Mission District is a different and costlier beast that reminds me of Silver Lake circa 2004, when it was a Los Angeles barrio that was home to Cuban immigrants fleeing Fidel Castro’s reign and Salvadoran and Guatemalan immigrants fleeing Ronald Reagan’s but soon became the new hot ‘hood to move to when Santa Monica and Venice became too expensive for regular old Hollywood industry workers, mostly production types working 16-hour shoots.

But Los Angeles is what Reyner Banham calls a uniquely mobile metropolis, over time shifting in scale to accommodate the automobile. This is why L.A. has those beautifully dystopic creatures known only as the 405 and East LA interchange.

Arriving in San Francisco, I am reminded that this city in large part is designed to the scale of the average human being, with humane commuting strategies that put Los Angeles to shame. But what makes the space here different is that there is less of it. Space that accommodates a multiplicity of households has already been spoken for but that doesn’t stop a rightfully entitled newly moneyed class from coming in and taking it. It makes an object like the Google Bus an easy receptacle to fill with collective fear and loathing. Never mind the fact that our lives are that much better because Google exists. It’s hard to get my community partners to admit this; perhaps they can just quietly e-mail me from their gmail accounts. No one has to know how much you enjoyed playing the Moog when Google honored Bob Moog’s 78th birthday last year.

I am an L.A. person. That means I am a Dodgers fan. However, I can never fully enjoy a victory at Dodger Stadium because the ghosts of Chavez Ravine will never stop haunting us. People will be forced out and the cities they live in, they pay taxes in; the cities that have made these social contracts to take and educate our children; help us when our homes burn down; heal us when we are hurt will somehow be the first to betray.

If you’ve lived it, you call it gentrification or aburguesamiento. If you talk about it from a detached perspective or if you’re in a planning department, you probably refer to it as displacement.

Me?

I am an interloper, first and foremost, and especially when it comes to Bay Area arts and cultural organizing. It’s good to be aware of that before setting out to do community engagement for a large arts center located in one of the most fraught neighborhoods in downtown San Francisco. I arrive with open hands to greet the closed fists of folks in the South of Market neighborhood known as SOMA who are tired; weary of new people though are way too friendly to really show it. They are Filipino youth; veterans of wars and military actions in Vietnam and Kuwait; chess lovers. But by approaching an organization such as SOMCAN, I am shepherded through these complicated times and spaces and keep in mind that I must start slow, with a range of communication—e-mail, phone calls, in-person meetings, a lot of coffees, lunches and dinners on my company’s dime. I have to make it worth community’s while to spend time with me, a stranger. I sit. I listen. I learn the range of economic, educational, health and artistic community histories. I sit. I listen. I hear the stories of loss and in that tender wreckage there are moments of triumph; resilience. I sit. I listen. I ask if there are volunteer opportunities; or public events; fundraisers; political actions. These are opportunities for the artists we vet to put their hands in the soil; these are opportunities for our organization to nurture our inner-empath to see what are the trials and tribulations a community collectively faces. Most times we, as mid-level managers and entry-level program assistants, are part of those communities, struggling to make ends meet on top of student loan debt with our non-profit salaries and lack of trust funds. We work these uncertain career tracks because we love art and community and want to find ways to break open all avenues of accessibility.

We want to work with artists like Carrie Leilam Love; born in Oakland, raised in the Montclair district, of mixed race heritage and a resident of West Oakland now since 2005, and who is interested in learning about where West Oakland residents go when they can either no longer afford to live in their community, or willingly and happily sell their homes to new incoming creative class of buyers. Her Oakland in Exile project charts these changes alongside the ways that West Oakland has lost men and women and youth to the prison industrial complex.

We are on the verge of losing youth’s voices in the same we way lose elders to death; we lose them to displacement; we lose them to the prison industrial complex and the scarcity mindset that kicks in producing a discourse of mine/territoriality which feels similar to Minutemen stalking men, women and children in the U.S.-Mexico desert. 

Don’t come here; this is mine.

People turn other people into suspects. My new Mission Terrace neighbor keeps throwing eggs at my car because I park in front of his house. I don’t get mad because I am hyper aware that this manifestation of impotence is a by-product of the anxious times we’re living.

So how do you facilitate art-making with a community-specific agenda when community is in the middle of meeting changes? I posit that site-specificity has to be questioned as sites become contested. Specificity I dare say lacks that efficacy it once had when social practice enabled a purview contingent on a radical condition of possibility. And now these conditions placed upon sites where communities we’re interested in partnering with are radical in a totally frightening ways that affect individuals whose perspectives can enrich the way we think about “the arts.” So I suggest we instead think about making site-responsive community-led arts collaborations that give way to transforming the current arts institutional landscape. Respond as artists, sure, but as institutions more importantly, to what is happening on the ground, in the trenches with people that are living with the specter of change daily. Otherwise we lose. Aside from the last generation of engaged patrons (not just the kind that stay late for post-show Q&As, but that weigh in the creation of such works to begin with), we risk losing a generation of youth leaders and possibly enter a period of obsolescence.

YBCA In Community is a pilot community collaboration program with objectives to create community-relevant hierarchy-free art through mutually beneficial relationships between the YBCA Institution, professional artists and local community organizations and their membership base.

We aim to develop an innovative new framework for accessible arts engagement, one that convenes low­ income, ethnically diverse, underserved community members, partner community organizations and individual artists to collaborate in experiential art making.

YBCA IC has identified 4 neighborhoods as project sites, containing 6 projects total with over 12 community partners over the course of 12 months—SOMA, Mission & Excelsior, West Oakland and Temescal—selected by the curators of YBCA because of the long-standing communities of color, multiple and on-going histories of displacement, the need to capture community stories, and facilitate venues for attention to the plight of these communities of course to create multiple sites of dialogue. But really we hope to find ways in which our institutions can be transformed by their input.

YBCA aims to immerse itself into the fabric of local communities through a new, testing-as-we-go framework for accessible arts engagement but is aware of the institutional-community tensions and healthy skepticisms it works with and against in launching this institutionally paradigmatic-shifting initiative.

Along the way we invite scholars-activists to critically witness and engage with the tensions and healthy skepticisms that emerge in this types of collaborations; to document and analyze where we can improve as we ask and find answer for these kinds of questions:

What does it mean to do site responsive versus site-specific art? How do we negotiate the power dynamics between institution, artists, and community partners? What are the roles each of us assumes when participating in a socially engaged art practice?