SFL: Massive Urban Change incorporates detailed, serialized observations of San Francisco's Mission Street; scenes of street life, vernacular architecture and typography. What inspired this approach to capturing a neighborhood portrait?
I live at Mission and 30th St, and my studio is at Mission and 17th St, so I take the bus along Mission a lot. I’ve been noticing that things are changing really fast along the street. Sometimes I’ll see some new construction project—essentially some new giant hole—and I’ll realize I have no idea what was there before. I felt like I wanted to freeze the street in one moment, so I could keep better track of what’s shifting.
And I think that approach has worked. It’s really fun and satisfying to look at the panoramics because they hold still, and there’s so much less information to take in than when you are actually out on the street. Even on Google Maps, there is too much to see on Mission St. It’s a huge relief to the brain to have less to see, and then you can take the time to look at what’s actually there.
This is, to me, part of photography’s great strength as a medium. It flattens things. It takes a world of at least four dimensions and edits it down to two. When that happens, we get the opportunity to see things differently.
So this project is about giving people the opportunity to look at this neighborhood in a different way than any of us normally gets to, but then we also give them the opportunity to discuss their reactions to that experience and the information they bring to that experience. Then we fold that conversation into the content that the next viewer experiences. That way our “portrait” of the neighborhood takes on more layers and more information.
SFL: Why Mission Street?
Well, the Mission in general is this major battleground in San Francisco right now. There is a lot of change happening all over the city, but it seems like the Mission has some of the most extreme changes taking place. Within that context, Valencia St. has already mostly transitioned into a new version of itself. I’d guess that the majority of businesses there now have taken up residence in the last decade, if not the last few years. 24th St. is a current site of contention, so that’s interesting too. And then Mission has had enough changes to be really noticeable, but a lot of the leases still haven’t come up for renewal yet, so there are a lot of battles about to be fought there. So I think that’s a good time for a project like this—to kind of catch it just before it really starts to be dismantled and reassembled. In part also because we can still impact how it evolves.
Mission St also interests me because it really feels like another country. Walking down Mission St. doesn’t feel like being in the US in a lot of ways. And as someone who often explores cultural identity and cultural adaptation, I wonder, What is the “mainstream” about to steamroll? What is here that a lot of newer residents might not be seeing? Who are all the different communities living here, side by side, who might not be intersecting or acknowledging each other much? And if we created more connections between groups, would that help us build a better neighborhood for everyone in it? Could we create more social cohesion by acknowledging difference more deliberately?
SFL: In your project literature, you referenced Ed Ruscha's 1966 artist book, Every Building on the Sunset Strip. Ruscha's "portraits of the mundane" have been described as "photographs of man-altered landscapes" that reflect upon the "impact of human construction and consumption."1 Your project, however, will invite the public to annotate the photographs, suggesting a more human-focused narrative underlying a portrait of local commerce. Why have you chosen to format your images as a street panoramic, rather than, say, portraits of residents or people in action?
1 New Topographics, Adams, 1975
Well, first off, I think that these photographs are also showing the impact of human construction and consumption, not just on the natural landscape but on previous man-made landscapes—we’re seeing the city kind of devour itself. The changes going on now reflect shifting demographics, shifting cultural norms, shifting status quo, shifting economies: various parts of this society chewing up and spitting out various other parts.
At the same time that there will be evidence of all this within the images, we are also going to be getting people to talk about these issues and patterns and experiences. So for me, all of that feels quite similar to the Sunset Strip work in practice. The main difference is that we are consciously creating the space for the dialogue around the images to take place in the neighborhood, not just assuming it will take place amidst an art audience once the pictures are made. So I as the artist am taking responsibility for connecting my work to an audience and for helping that audience engage with it. And as a social practice artist, I treat that process as part of the very core of the work.
This relates to the reason I’m not making portraits of residents or people in action. I am specifically not wanting to simply represent the neighborhood to an audience. I’m not trying to say, “Here’s who the Mission is. Here’s what the Mission is.” I want to ask questions about the neighborhood, and I want the neighborhood to both ask and answer those questions along with me. For me, the photographs are the starting place for a process of research, discussion, connection and representation. I love making portraits, and that’s been my main photographic work in the past, but for this project I wanted the people to be in the room, rather than on the wall.
It’s kind of funny to me that I’ve copied Every Building on the Sunset Strip, because I haven’t spent much time at all with that work, or with Ruscha’s work in general. He’s an artist that I admire and have been exposed to plenty of times, but he’s not someone I would say I’ve ever really focused on before. But this format just seemed right for this moment and this series of questions I wanted to ask, and this physical context. Like I said, it all started with my commute, and that’s a straight line along a single street.
I also think that, in a culture supersaturated with images and extremes, making a picture that is all about ordinariness, but at the same time takes a sustained effort and methodical approach, has the potential to be different than what we’re used to seeing. It’s basically the opposite of Instagram, which makes the everyday seem extraordinary and is incredibly off the cuff and easy to do. I love Instagram, and I use it all the time, but I wanted to make sure this was different; that this showed us something that we can’t find in our normal patterns of looking, like Instagram or even Google StreetView.
SFL: What type of conversation do you anticipate will develop as visitors contribute to this collection of familiar imagery?
I’m going to be inviting some specific people to do interviews for the project so that we can try to bring a wide range of perspectives to the installation. In addition to that, we’ll be chatting with whomever comes into the space, and also encouraging people in the space to talk to each other about specific issues. I hope people will feel comfortable sharing their opinions and experiences, and thinking together about how to build a future for this neighborhood that we as a community can feel proud of.
SFL: Do you feel a degree of social responsibility as a photographer in San Francisco's current shifting landscape?
My practice as an artist comes from a sense of social responsibility, no matter where I am. I think that’s why people make art—it’s our way of stepping back and reflecting on what we’re doing as a group, and reconnecting to each other and the world around us. For me, art is fundamentally a form of communication, and so the most important part is saying something meaningful. And I think asking questions is often much more meaningful than trying to provide an answer.
SFL: How does the Switch Bench tie into the imagery on the wall?
Well, I hope Danny will chime in here, but the Switch benches are in the space because they physically underscore the concept of conversation and connection that this project puts forward. The Switch benches are like an old fashioned love seat shaped like an S, where the two people are forced to face each other while they sit down, which theoretically encourages conversation, or at least mutual acknowledgement. They are also just astonishingly beautiful objects, so I was very attracted to the counterpoint they could provide to the ephemerality of the conversation-based aspect of the work. They also look a little like an exquisite topographical map, so I love that too—very hilly! Like my hometown.
Danny Garcia: My main idea, which Eliza touched on, is that the subtle shift in form prompts people to interact with both the bench and other people around them in playful ways. And, as Eliza said, the graphic/topographic quality of this particular version was meant to reference the SF landscape (even-though the Mission is flat!).
SFL: What is the criteria for choosing graphics for the postcards? Why postcards? How does this ephemeral medium speak to its subject matter? In other words, would the reading change if the graphics were represented in a different form?
So the postcards were primarily Nicole’s idea. We both grew up in San Francisco, and then lived in other places for a long time, and recently moved back. She’s been making work about how she relates to San Francisco that I really admire and connect with.
She has a practice of taking signage and simplifying it so that it can become a graphic like you’ll see on the cards. And she showed me what she was doing and suggested making a bunch of these graphics as part of the project, and I just thought that was an amazing idea.
When you see the cards together, they perform the same function as the panoramic does—they draw your attention to things you’ve seen a million times but never really lingered on. Mission St is so incredibly dense with visual stimuli—storefronts are packed to bursting with items, there are tons of people on the street, there are tons of stores crammed into tiny spaces—there’s just too much to look at. Usually that makes us kind of shut down visually. So both the panoramic photos and the signage images coax your eyeballs back out of hiding and say, Hey, look at this! It’s okay, there’s just one sign at a time here. You can read it. You won’t bump into anyone. It’s basically another way to ask questions about what we value, what we normally notice and don't notice, and what we might lose if we’re not careful as a community about how we move forward.
The postcard as a form is traditionally a way of saying—“This is something I saw. This is something I valued. I want you to see it too.” And so making a set of postcards is also a way for us to test out a collective valuing of the neighborhood in a new way. I think a lot of the signs and images pictured point to things we are not used to valuing, but that we would miss if they were gone, because they define the neighborhood. So as a set they are a way of getting a group of people to pretend they value things they don’t normally value, and see how that feels. It’s another way of asking questions.