One side of the Hugo Hotel featuring Defenestration (Courtesy of Brian Goggin)
As Brian Goggin puts it, it would’ve been fine if developers took a wrecking ball to his 17-year-old public art installation Defenestration. There would be something beautiful to such a brutal act of destruction marking the end of the internationally-renowned work of art that calls an abandoned San Francisco hotel “home.”
“It is an engaging visual, full of bittersweet drama, and feels poetically-related to what is happening in our City,” says Goggin.
Luckily, death-by-wrecking-ball is not in the cards for one of Goggin’s most notable installations, which will be
taken down in the coming days. The installation’s home, the dilapidated Hugo Hotel on 6th and Howard streets, is going to be razed this September to make room for an affordable housing project. The customized furniture Goggin and several other volunteers built and hung from the hotel’s walls and rooftop back in 1997 will hopefully find new homes, but nothing is guaranteed. For Goggin, taking down the pieces in the hope that they’ll sell is an $8,000-gamble that he can’t take lightly.
Still, the 17 years the installation existed was much longer than the six-month lifespan it first faced when Goggin finally made his vision a reality. And that vision first came to him in Europe.
“I was working with a friend of mine in Paris, setting up an installation inside of a gallery. Across the street from the gallery, I watched an 18th-century apartment building getting torn down while I was on breaks. It was a powerful sight to see these rugged textures that had been worn by people’s use over centuries,” says Goggin. “As they removed the majority of the apartment building, they left the side walls, and you could see wood paneling, tile remnants of staircases… and they all just insinuated this life that was no longer in a physical form.”
It was at that moment that Goggin says he had a vision where he saw the apartment’s several-years-old furniture “crawling like ants trying to escape a destroyed ant hill” out of the demolished structure.
With the image still fresh in his mind, Goggin sketched out his plans when he came back to the States, successfully applied for a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, obtained a letter from the San Francisco Mayor's office, and then started on a mission to find a suitable building. Though he had seen success with similar work, like his installation Herd Morality at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) back in 1995, his ideas were rejected by several property owners.
Goggin says he discovered the old Hugo Hotel by happenstance, riding by it on his bicycle one day and realizing its potential instantly.
"I noticed this interesting, odd, castle-like building that was all boarded up," says Goggin. "And it had a big sign on it that said, 'For information, fax this number.'"
Goggin faxed the number his proposal as well as his letter of support from the mayor's office. When he heard back it wasn't from the hotel's owner, but his daughter. The owner was on a trip to India for six months and she was left in charge of their properties; she was also an art enthusiast -- she studied art history in college -- and she liked Goggin's idea.
"She offered me the challenge to install the artwork on the side of the building before her father returned from his trip, and then she would work with me to try to explain it to her father once it was up, in the hopes that he would not ask us to take it down immediately," says Goggin.
It was risky, but in Goggin's mind having his vision become a reality -- even for a few months -- was worth it. A few months was a pretty good run for an installation and he was already willing to put in serious efforts for works that were promised even less time to live; for example, Herd Morality was only given six weeks when the YBCA approved the plans. (It would end up lasting for nine months.)
Also, in the crowd that Goggin ran with, doing art for art's sake was what you did. He was an active member in the local Dadaist group the Cacophony Society and rushing to put together a massive-but-temporary sculptural installation felt like a game.
"All of my friends who were volunteering to find furniture, re-form it; they were all committed to this process," says Goggin. "The collecting and building of the pieces also became a form of a 'happening' that just extended over 5 or 6 months."
Once they were rolling forward with the installation, Goggin says they ran into the project's one major hiccup right away. After posting three pieces of furniture onto the building -- a chest of drawers, a fan and a bathtub -- Goggin returned the next day to find the pieces missing.
"I thought, 'Wow, this is a tough neighborhood!'," says Goggin.
After some sleuthing, Goggin learned that the project was reported to the fire department by a neighbor who thought "someone was trying to push one of these pieces of furniture out the window onto her head." Fire crews responded by chopping down the furniture and then telling Goggin that if he didn't get the right permits, they'd continue to take down the furniture. (Goggin, the son of former state assemblyman Terry Goggin, was able to hunt down the permits.)
In the end, about 100 volunteers helped to build the furniture and post it onto the old hotel; hundreds more ended up participating in the opening ceremony, which Goggin and his pals in the Dream Circus envisioned as "an urban, circus-themed performance."
"This was before circus became a big vogue fad all over the world," says Goggin. "This was 1996, it was the beginning of that."
Goggin says he surveyed his sculpture and performance art-friends, and found several willing to provide temporary works that had an urban circus theme created from materials found on the streets. As a result, the opening ceremony for Defenestration featured hundreds of people walking the streets in trash-based costumes that were so ornate their quality betrayed their origins. Birds living in a nest made of discarded clothing, gigantic bugs and yes, even furniture-inspired creatures that had their own freak show; one participant was a "Sofa Woman"--she dressed as a couch that talked to bystanders who sat on her and even gave them Tarot readings.
In all, Goggin says 2,500 people attended the event and all of them were required to wear circus attire -- if you didn't have any, Goggin and crew would provide it. And because there were so many performances -- bicycle jousting, jugglers using lawnmowers, the list goes on -- the entire ceremony lasted 8 hours.
When the landlord came back, Goggin was able to convince him to keep the installation (obviously.) He says that he was so successful in convincing the building's owner to appreciate the work that it became personal, with the whole family supporting Defenestration for as long as they owned the hotel. (According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the city's Redevelopment Agency took the owners to court in 2008 and utilized eminent domain to take over the building. Afterward, they paid the family $4.6 million for it.)
But after the massive effort to install it, then spending 17 years maintaining the piece (including a major refurbishment in 2010), you would think Goggin would be sadder about Defenestration’s eviction. He admits his feelings are mixed on the subject, but he's happy the building is being razed to make way for affordable housing. He says he has had too many friends move out of the city he loves so dearly.
“San Francisco for me has been very influential, as both a community and as a space,” says Goggin. “I’m fortunate enough to have a studio that’s priced very low right here in the Mission. That opportunity has enabled me to have a kind of stability that is unique in our creative community. As I have this opportunity, I see it as a responsibility to use that opportunity to create work and to help other artists create work in this environment.”
“I feel like if I gave up hope… if I gave up optimism while still paying attention to the realities of the situation, I’d be doing a disservice to all those other people who might not be as lucky as I am.”
Defenestration will remain on the Hugo Hotel in San Francisco's South of Market Neighborhood until June 3, 2014. Goggin is selling pieces of the installation to pay for the removal costs through the Varnish Art Gallery. For more information on buying a piece of Defenestration visit varnishfineart.com. (Editor's Note: The event at the Hugo Hotel on Saturday, May 31, 2014 that was originally listed in this story is invitation only.)
For arts stories you won’t read anywhere else, come to KQED’s Arts and Culture desk.