"All right. I'm walking south on Bryant, towards 19th again. Where is this place?"
My friend was calling a second time. She'd given up and had the cab drop her off up the street. Camouflaged by graffiti and vegetation, smack-dab in the middle of Bryant Street, Cell Space makes a fitting venue for Hidden Histories, a multifaceted, collaborative series of projects exploring the familiar but obscure in "San Francisco's Eastern landscape."
The exhibit is less a traditional art show than a series of investigative adventures and attempts to reconsider the past and imagine the future of the city's east bank -- each including an ambitious outreach component. The walls are decorated with the debris of the artists' journeys: newspaper clippings from the 1800s, weathered maps, examples of plants native to the Mission, transcribed oral histories from its residents, and an impressive stack of flyers, postcards and pamphlets detailing a tour of the area and inviting the reader to take part in imagining its future.
At the far end of the room, The Counter Narrative Society has placed a truncated map of the Mission District. A note invites the viewer to mark the map with multicolored stickers, each color representing a different mood, emotion or sensation, creating a color-coded grid that documents where folks feel the most and least comfortable in the neighborhood. The Society, represented tonight by artist Mabel Negrete, has been soliciting and recording oral histories of the Mission District, in particular, of Valencia and Mission, its two parallel, but wildly divergent, sister streets. Tonight they are busy working on the Thinking of You: Mission and Valencia project, collecting personal stories from folks who have lived in the area for over ten years. A camera and a couple dozen wide-eyed gallery-crawlers are gathered around a table, listening as neighbors reminisce about the barrio and the changes that have taken place in the last several decades. Some casually flip through a binder of newspaper clippings and transcribed oral histories from the area's residents. On September 14th & 15th, the Society will return to help build a community scrapbook of the Mission. And on the 29th, The Counter Narrative Society has scheduled another outing to collect stories and tour the neighborhood, to discuss, draw, and create collage about the Mission's potential future.
Across the room, another, somewhat smaller, collection of art-goers gather around another, somewhat smaller table, where Amber Hasselbring has laid a vexing jigsaw puzzle over a glass-covered map. Little progress has been made on the picture, but a gaggle of folks are struggling to mesh the puzzle pieces together. Surrounding them is a small garden of plants, each native to the Mission area, and each a potential substitute for the concrete that now trickles between Dolores and Franklin Parks in place of the creek that once flowed roughly along the same channel. Hasselbring's Mission Greenbelt Campaign hopes to inspire and encourage homeowners to take advantage of the city's newly enacted Sidewalk Landscaping Permits to create a stream of vegetation between the two parks.
Hasselbring is not the only artist concerned with the state of San Francisco's subterranean waterways. Surrounded by marshland iconography and a torn, layered map of the area, FranciscoHernandez's Islais Creek Watershed features an audio tour of the hidden creek's history and the possibility of its rebirth. Along the way he points out where traces of the concrete-choked tributary can still be perceived in the sandbags and storm-drains that are needed periodically to keep it subverted.
Meanwhile, a stack of wood, rocks, and dirt mark the north end of the gallery, where Patrick Piazza has siphoned a massive collection of material on the formation of Mission Bay into a screen-printed walking tour called The Weight of the Land Lying Open. "To stand in Mission Bay is to stand on layers of fill, layers of trash from an old garbage dump, layers of debris from the 1906 earthquake and layers of hidden history." The one-time waterway turned public dump, turned industrial badlands is now turning haven for biotech superstructures and new condo developments. Piazza pointedly notes that one of the primary current developers, Catellus Corporation, is an offshoot of the very same railroad companies that were responsible for polluting the area so horribly for a little over a century. Still, the land remains a funereal mound containing much of the city's history, which Piazza documents in a pocket-size fold-out map and guide.
It's a dizzying display of research, specimen, programs, and activities. If the show suffers from anything, it is this frenzy of public-action projects, each seeking to create or suggest a vision of the city and transform it into community action. Can there ever be too much public participation in an art project? Does each segment of every show need to create an alliance of advocates or commonwealth of neighborhood visionaries?
Well, maybe. After all, there is no lack of boardroom visionaries eyeing the area for their own brand of neighborhood expansion and development.
Over in a corner of the room, Yukako Ezoe is cutting hair. Well, not Yukako herself, but a stylist performing within her installation. The One-Day Barbershop is an attempt to recreate the playful atmosphere of the Mission's many barbershops and salons -- enclaves where hair-cutters leisurely work and style while members of a community-within-the-community chat and bond. Ezoe has been scoping out and photographing many of the barbershops nearby. There are pictures creatively framed (one with a long rope thatched with braided hair), mirrors, and other decorative bits forming a mish-mash of barber-themed decorations which, she tells us, are inspired by or borrowed from the salons she visited. Members of the momentary cabal mill about drinking and talking. Hair mounts on the floor.