San Francisco has long been thought of as the great exception, to use historian Carey McWilliams’ phrase. Located at the far western edge of America, it was also a cultural and political frontier, a very last urban refuge from the rest of the country. In “The Poetic City That Was,” Lawrence Ferlinghetti recalled San Francisco, circa 1951, as “an island, which wasn’t necessarily part of the United States…like Athens at the height of Greek culture.” He woke up 50 years later to find his friends being evicted from their homes, himself priced out of his apartment and art studio. The poet lamented how “Corporate monoculture had wiped out any unique sense of place … And I was on the street.” (This, it should be noted, written well over a decade ago.) To be on the street meant nothing less than to be a man without a country, to have no frontier to escape to, no New World. Thus Louis Simpson’s poem “Lines Written Near San Francisco” likewise concludes, “the banks thrive and the realtors/Rejoice—they have their America.” Many feel they have lost, or are fast losing, this little vestige of theirs, with evictions on the rise in San Francisco and the culture fundamentally changed.
That sense of loss, that erosion of what Ferlinghetti called a unique sense of place, is reflected in the title of Brazilian artist Marcelo Cidade’s incisive new work Somewhere, Elsewhere, Anywhere, Nowhere at the Kadist Foundation in San Francisco’s Mission District, which he completed while in residency there. Cidade specializes in conducting critical interventions in the urban environment; he feeds upon the structural logic of cities and cultivates the art of the accidental, particularly in his hometown of São Paulo, a megalopolis well-acquainted with grim social inequality and insufficient affordable housing (hence the disappointment with, and direct opposition to the World Cup and its huge price tag). Not surprisingly, Cidade’s street-level tactics have their origins in skateboarding and graffiti. From such vantage points, he was able to diagnose the social and structural problems confronting São Paulo; and now he has brought those same tactics to San Francisco.
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As Cidade once remarked to an interviewer, “The idea of intervention is a way of reclaiming the streets.” For Somewhere, Elsewhere, the artist has to some degree accomplished this literally. He has excavated a slab of surface pavement (on whose surface rest four yellow parking blocks) from a site about to be demolished, and displaced it to Kadist, where it completely inhabits the gallery space from wall to wall, corner to corner, matching its spatial dimensions almost exactly. The said site at 450 Hayes Street, once part of the Central freeway, is now a parking lot and will soon become a condominium development, which makes Cidade’s intervention both topical and poignant. Echoing earthwork artist Robert Smithson’s “Nonsites,” the slab’s relationship to its referent is seriously complicated by the fact that the lot is to be razed and reconstructed beyond recognition. What, then, is its relationship to the site exactly? When does significant urban and cultural transformation render a relationship to a place void? A photograph of the excavation, displayed in Kadist’s window, conveys that sense of erasure, absence, and lack.
A first-time visitor to San Francisco, Cidade found the site in question, located squarely in the fashionable Hayes Valley, by roaming around the city all day. He was influenced by French Situationist Guy Debord’s notion of dérive, a component of Unitary Urbanism that calls for dropping all normal obligations and spontaneously participating in the ebb and flow of the city. (As Debord had it, “cities have psychogeographical contours, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes that strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones.”) Across San Francisco’s small 49 square miles, that urban logic is distinctly contradictory, as the artist has clearly sensed. As everybody knows, the city is a patchwork of tensions and paradoxes, where the shock of the picturesque and the shock of indigence can occur on nearly the same block. Downtown rubs shoulders with what a local magazine called the city’s “most glaring contradiction,” the Tenderloin. Elsewhere, however, even the tensions themselves seem to be yielding to something more homogeneous.
Despite Debord’s influence, Cidade’s visit could perhaps better be described in terms of the flâneur, the archetypal observer of the modern urban experience whom Walter Benjamin described in 1929 as “happy to leave” to the tourist “[t]he great reminiscences, the historical frissons—these are all so much junk to the flâneur, … And he would be happy to trade all his knowledge of artists’ quarters, birthplaces, and princely palaces for the scent of a single weathered threshold or the touch of a single tile—that which any old dog carries away.”
As you walk on the excavated slab of pavement, the urban life and memory etched into it slowly becomes apparent. It is the equivalent of the weathered threshold or single tile. There are the networks of cracks and splits, the ambiguous splatters and blotches, the crust and the dirt, the wear of feet and tires, the overall look of urban exhaustion. It has a texture below your feet, a sound, a smell. There’s even a miserable looking green plant withering from a bolt hole in one of the parking blocks. Excavated like an urban fossil, a topographical relic, the slab evokes a site that will belong exclusively to memory, and that indeed may be the work’s most salient concern. San Francisco’s new typographies could lead to a kind of urban amnesia. As a result, the project of San Francisco, the precious memory of difference, risks becoming homeless.
Somewhere, Elsewhere, Anywhere, Nowhere runs until June 21, 2014 at the Kadist Art Foundation, 3295 20th Street, San Francisco.