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Streetopia: Dissident Art in an Urban Landscape

In recent years, public spaces available for artistic and political expression have been disappearing in San Francisco, a situation addressed by the 2012 guerrilla art festival called Streetopia. For five weeks, Erick Lyle (the man behind the zine SCAM and author of the compulsively readable political memoir On the Lower Frequencies) and a crew of collaborators presented a series of art installations, musical performances, and other creative offerings which aimed to revitalize what is left of the city’s progressive culture. Now Streetopia has been documented in a book of the same name. It’s an affordable, handsome volume published by the small press Booklyn, which brings together articles, photographs, artwork of all varieties, polemics, poetry, and more.

Lyle writes that Streetopia “was intended as a somewhat modest celebration of past, present, and future radical art and political movements in San Francisco,” a city which “… occupies a particular utopian place in the public imagination of the country. For generations, it has been a destination for people who want to live for themselves the freedom they found reflected in the work of the legendary beat poets, queer activists, protest movements, seminal punk bands, groundbreaking artists, and others who have made the city their home.” In multimedia artist and UC Davis professor Jesse Drew’s contribution to Streetopia (the book), “Free Cities and the Roots of Utopia,” Drew writes, “… the utopian project must flourish in the cities and streets, because while many relish rosy thoughts about returning to an idealized countryside, the fact is that the future of humanity is urban.” He quite rightly concludes, “Streetopia reclaims the rich humanitarian history of the city and reminds us that San Francisco is still a city worth fighting for.”

Lyle’s essay “The Future of Nowhere” anchors the book with an astute historical streetopiaoverview of San Francisco’s history and its future possibilities. The piece begins by examining visions of the future propagated within Northern California’s high tech firms. The founders of Google and PayPal are among the wealthy data miners championing a concept known as “The Singularity,” which envisions computers and humans merging to become one omniscient being. Lyle argues, “With their public devotion to The Singularity, tech CEOs are really telling us that they already wish to be seen by us as super-intelligent gods, that their technological innovations are already the very instrument shaping mankind’s future evolution.” Of course, any silly ideas of social justice are too twentieth century for the brave new world of high tech; on that score, Lyle quotes William Gibson, who wrote, “The future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed.”

Tech companies have been warmly embraced by San Francisco’s current mayor Ed Lee, who enthusiastically hosts “Tech Tuesdays” where he solicits policy suggestions from Twitter and their ilk. Much of the concurrent corporate-led redevelopment now underway is focused on Market Street, a major thoroughfare which epitomizes the city’s wealth gap. Here the homeless struggle for survival while nearby nouveau riche eagerly work to disrupt (a favorite word in Silicon Valley) what little equilibrium still exists for working class San Franciscans. For years, owners of properties on Market Street kept their buildings vacant in patient anticipation of the next construction boom. Their speculative greed has now paid off.

Though homelessness remains at crisis levels, instead of addressing that problem head on the city government continues to apply inadequate cosmetic solutions. Lyle writes, “… to solve the problem is not their goal. If it were, building affordable housing and putting a stop to illegal evictions would be a priority. Instead, as the city gives more tax breaks to corporations and green lights the construction of one massive luxury tower after another, each successive mayor simply uses the police to move the homeless encampments strategically around town, keeping them out of sight of the new zones of development and property-value boom.”

Lyle excoriates Bay Area media collusion with this sad state of affairs. Lyle notes that under its former owner, real estate developer Ted Fang, the San Francisco Examiner which went out of its way to demonize the urban poor. Lyle writes, “As [William Randolph] Hearst’s Examiner once drummed up a public hysteria to promote a war with Spain, the new tabloid declared its own war on Mid-Market citizens, calling for more police on the street, the closing of SRO hotels, and even, memorably, the demolition of the entire neighborhood to build a stadium that might be used to lure the Olympics to San Francisco.”

In scouting locations for their project, Streetopia organizers dealt with grossly inflated rents by “requisitioning” several still-vacant buildings (Lyle perfected this approach in 2001 when he and some friends set up an impromptu art gallery in another abandoned Market Street building) to complement space they were loaned by a sympathetic community gallery. Much of the project’s activity took place in the poverty-stricken Tenderloin neighborhood (just north of Market), where Streetopia artists, musicians, activists, and writers engaged local residents through a wide variety of free programming. They also ran an ongoing free cafe and cultivated trees and plants in a trashed alley, which remains an oasis of greenery dubbed “the Tenderloin National Forest.”

To Lyle, the efforts of San Francisco city planners to pave the way for a downtown arts district spilling into the Tenderloin are part and parcel of “… a worldwide top-down reorganization of urban space by capital.” In addition to San Francisco, Lyle cites Miami’s “Art Basel” mob scene and the expansion of the art market in New York, and writes, “ … the art world has become increasingly complicit with the desires of the world’s super rich for a sure means of ferrying tax-sheltered wealth smoothly across international borders in the form of top auction objects.” Lyle and company’s ad-hoc galleries served as a D.I.Y. alternative to the big money world of this contemporary art market.

Other solid writing in this book includes San Francisco author Rebecca Solnit’s poignant piece about life in the cold new world of Google busses, skyrocketing rents, and evictions; raconteur and publisher V. Vale’s essay recalling City Lights Bookstore in the late 1960s; and filmmaker Sam Green’s quasi-tribute to giant outdoor art objects.

Green develops a hilarious obsession with “big steel abstract sculptures from the 60s and 70s” that he starts to notice everywhere: “I fantasized about an underground group that would blow them up. I imagined that no one would really notice, or if they did, they wouldn’t mind that much.” He finds a Wikipedia entry which helpfully gives him a name for the odd phenomenon. The post reads: “Plop Art (…) is a pejorative term for public art (usually large, abstract modernist or contemporary sculpture) made for government or corporate plazas, spaces in front of office buildings, skyscraper atriums, parks, and other public venues.” As with Vale’s piece on City Lights, it’s too bad this series of reflections on regrettable public art isn’t longer; comic relief is always welcome in taking on inherently depressing urban social ills.

As contributor Chris Kraus notes in her description of Streetopia’s five week experiment, “[the] projects were futuristic, idealistic, historically sensitive, and surprisingly practical. The offer enough ideas to keep anyone who cares about public life, culture, and art busy for the next decade.” Streetopia does a fantastic job of documenting that work. It is beautifully designed by graphic artist Josh MacPhee, who artfully assembled a phenomenal range of striking visual material, including beautiful black and white and color photographs. I hope the book will be widely read and provide inspiration for many more dissident art and activist undertakings.

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Ben Terrall is a writer living in the Bay Area. He can be reached at: bterrall@gmail.com

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