Monday, November 02, 2009

STREET ART SAN FRANCISCO: MISSION MURALISMOThe Evening Class Interview with Annice Jacoby

"Like the Loisada of New York or the Left Bank of Paris," Annice Jacoby writes in the introduction to her visually stunning publication Street Art San Francisco: Mission Muralismo (Abrams, 2009:29), "the Mission is a café society that scoffs at excess, complains about money, drinks the elixir of art and action, and provides its own poetry and mythmaking. Part of the spectacular appeal of this neighborhood is its outdoor gallery, which reveals a rich creative life, provocative attitudes, and multicultural influences."

As the book's website attests, Street Art San Francisco: Mission Muralismo showcases the vibrant street art of San Francisco's Mission District through over 500 full-color photographs and 30 in-depth essays by either the artists who produced them or Mission-savvy writers, including a foreword by Grammy® Award Winner Carlos Santana. The volume includes profiles of such artists as R. Crumb, Shepard Fairey, Swoon, Barry McGee (TWIST), Rigo, Las Mujeres Muralistas, the Billboard Liberation Front, Gronk, Sam Flores, Neckface, Juana Alicia, Os Gemeos, Reminesce, Andrew Schoultz and Spain Rodriguez, comprehensively exposing more than three decades of this expansive and vibrant public art movement.

Birthed in the early 1970s, a provocative new street art scene transformed San Francisco's legendary Mission District into an art epicenter that crosses popular culture, fine art and political audiences. "Mission Muralismo" is an ever-growing movement of accomplished street art combining elements of Mexican mural painting, surrealism, pop art, urban punk, eco-warrior, cartoon, and guerilla graffiti that has catapulted many San Francisco artists into the international spotlight.

The reviews have been rapturous, as indicated by
the volume's Facebook page. In partnership with the Precita Eyes Mural Project, the M.H. deYoung Museum will be hosting a year-long series celebrating the Abrams publication and its vital subject. This series will be part of Cultural Encounters: Friday Nights at the de Young, offered free to the public in the museum's free zone, and will feature both cutting-edge and traditional street artists offering lectures and performances, sharing their art, insights, musings, experiences, and perspectives. The series kicks off this Friday, November 6, 5:30PM to 8:45PM, with a festive book launch, which will include many of the artists, photographers, and writers featured in Street Art San Francisco: Mission Muralismo; live music by Dr. Loco's Rockin' Jalapeno Band; poetry and performances by Lorna Dee Cervantes, Stephen Cervantes, Francisco X, Lori B (Bloustein) and Andrew Voight; talks by the book's editor, Annice Jacoby, artist and writer Jaime Cortez; projections of thousands of archival and current Mission murals, including a ten-year span of the deAppropriation wall; art activities for people of all ages and MORE!

The volume's editor Annice Jacoby has directed innovative public art projects, incorporating visual arts, literature, theater, and media. She served as Director of Performing Arts Public Events at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Director of Public Relations at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Her work includes City of Poets for the San Francisco Public Library and The Fort Point Project, the opening performance for the Hague Appeal for Peace. Annice and I circumvented the New York publicist's efforts to set us up for a mutually inconvenient telephone interview by acknowledging that we were neighbors on Bernal Heights and taking it from there. She accepted my invitation to come over for ricotta cheese pancakes smothered in gingered maple syrup and sweet friendberries.

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Michael Guillén: As someone who collects Chicano/a art, I chafe against those who seek to exclude Chicano/a art from the category of "high art", relegating it to some lower realm of popular folk art. I'm sure you're aware of this tiresome debate?

Annice Jacoby: In Santa Cruz, I was the editor of a magazine in which I published a giant article about the work of Eduardo Carrillo in one of the early issues entitled "What's Chicano About Chicano Arts?" Carrillo had done a lot of work around Santa Cruz, some of which had been vandalized and whitewashed, which brought up the question: "What is the difference between the public eradication of identity and a community deciding what's right for its walls?" At the core of that argument was this condescension you're referencing of high art / low art, which I hope Street Art San Francisco: Mission Muralismo will blow out of the water.

Guillén: I'm not so confident that condescension is going to be blown out of the water any time soon, though I do believe articulation against it is becoming more convincing, and Street Art San Francisco certainly champions the cause. Amalia Mesa-Bains is the cultural critic who most influenced me in realizing the importance of articulation and its role in convincing the critics and detractors of Chicano/a art that their dismissive definitions are misguided. Though it was something I knew in the back of my head, I hadn't quite formalized until reading Street Art San Francisco that the Mission's mural art has been—and is a continuing part of—a historical movement.

Jacoby: The book extends the invitation to view the whole impulse to work creatively in public and within the community as a movement that does not share the traditional hallmarks of how you define a movement—in the sense that you have an iterative style and an iterative theology of what art is—but, attacked it as outside of the sanctuary of the existing power structure. "Oh, the curator chose this." No, the community responds to it, in the sense that you have permission. In fact, the original title for the book was With and Without Permission. That is the organizing tension, the instrument, of how you decide what compels you to create something and share it with your community. It's also performative because a lot of this is done in public. Watching someone have the audacity to transform their community with a message towards beautification—or a tyrannizing message that has a lot of politics in it—that nerve is where the excitement is that's alive.

Guillén: I would argue that there is a longstanding heritage of that impulse, of that "organizing tension" as you say. Mayan public art—their architecture, their monumental sculpture, their murals, their portable objects—inscripted not only the political charter of an elite ruling class, but provided for the expressed concerns of the so-called masses. One can only theorize in looking back at what the Maya considered the essential purpose of their art.

I don't know if you keep up with the comments at the book's website, but some smart aleck on there said, "Murals belong inside." I found that a profoundly misinformed perception, evoking the standard thesis that art is something that is hung on a wall within a white cube, eliciting specifically-transcribed reactions. A comment like "murals belong inside" demarcates where art belongs and for what purpose. Clearly in this commenter's mind, public mural art defies and flies in the face of art's expected role and suggests a capacity delimited if not negated by the gallery space.

Which returns me to considerations of the Maya. When I was interacting with archaeologists working in the Maya field, it always amused me that the cave archaeologists were so cocky about how they came up with more stuff than the dirt archaeologists. This was almost entirely due to the Mayan belief that art's function was not primarily to be seen. They would craft beautiful things—carved lapidary art, metalwork objects, polychrome ceramics—which the moment they were crafted, were then placed into caves and cenotes as propitiatory offerings. In other words, Mayan art was not always to be seen and was often hidden, in the sense that—by being hidden—it belonged to an invisible world that energized the visible world.

Another example: the Maya are well-known for their onion-like architecture. Each pyramid provided the base for the next phase of construction. The core pyramid, the first pyramid, was lathered in stucco and brightly and beautifully painted and—as soon as it was constructed—was immediately built over. In other words, that core pyramid was not meant to be seen or admired as a piece of architecture; it was meant to be more like an invisible nuclear reactor core to the pyramid's subsequent constructions. It energized those subsequent constructions. Art was not for purposeful display but rather to energize. That's how I look at public mural art. This is art that is meant to energize. It's not invisible, but it does lack visibility in the standard gallery and museum settings, and is therefore—by contrast—a critique of that visibility.

Jacoby: I'm with you. That's a beautiful description. I love the way you're describing it. Obviously, this is an enormous topic that excites me and thrills me because Art (with the capital "A") in contrast to art (with a small "a")—art as taste or ambition or acquisition, all of those many many ways in which art is brokered in the world that we live in—are very confused. The art that functions like language, as something that belongs to all of us to apply, to enrich, to connect, to embroider, to exchange—all of that—that's what we want to keep alive; that impulse to make, to manifest something out of nothing, critical discernment, to make beauty.

For example, the Balinese see such creativity as an indistinguishable part of the spiritual obligation to create beauty that waters every day. It's not like you have to go every day and do penance for first confession or communion; whatever that rote tutelage is. Creativity is right there as a practice that embellishes every day and has this exquisite, self-replenishing principle that we wish were practiced all over, in terms of both consciousness as well as the terrible tension in the world we live in between construction and destruction, the violent mentality of the "them" and the "us", and the virtual experience in contrast to the actual sensory meaningful experience. I'm shorthanding all this but I'm sure you share my understanding?

What intrigued me to put this particular book together—rolling back a half a step into the why—was that I had been doing very large public artwork that dealt with the connection between the conscious and the unconscious life in media. Suzanne Lacy and I collaborated for over a decade on a series of works with the high schools in Oakland to advocate media literacy, with the principle that media had replaced religion as the source for behavior on how teens negotiate life. Whether it's good behavior or bad behavior, that modeling and information glut of instructions and confused messages are all coming from the media. Now, at that point, we did this project before the Internet and I was just thinking the other day that, interestingly, everything we did would be a different animal today, in contrast to 1999. You could look at this experience as the changes effected in the past decade. But we did things like set up staged dialogues between cops and kids who had only connected in negative, punitive contact. We set up a basketball game that was a parallel between the rules of the game and the rules of the street, with fouls and everything else. We had a performance event on top of a parking lot in downtown Oakland where each car was a chamber theater in which the kids could talk about the critical issues in their lives and the audience could eavesdrop on them. There's major documentaries about this work.

I did the opening performance for the Hague Appeal for Peace across from the War Crimes Tribunal with child-soldiers from Africa and people who had been dealing in the 37 wars that were going on all over the planet. I was looking at the Peter Brook principle of theater as an opportunity to surprise yourself. What's theater? Theater is obviously an old convention in the human play with both religious, political and social practice origins, in terms of gathering, staging, and all that, in every culture. The larger phenomenon of theater exists in the public sphere. My interest is in that communion between perception, social space, social sculpture, creative transformation and the really painful political reality of life in America.

I had done a lot of these things and then Susan Kelk Cervantes, the Founding Director of Precita Eyes Muralists, asked me to put a book together on the murals in the Mission. I told her that the only way I could do it was if it was balanced and not just about the community murals, but how the community murals live in this complicated, negotiated weather of mixed messaging, mixed intention, that is a reflection of the community. I wanted to look at the Mission as a laboratory of cultural activism cross-feeding itself through the many mediums within which it works: stenciling, printing, painting, tagging and spray. All of that is part of the counterpoint of this ongoing conversation that—both in terms of content and style, generational outlook, what you give a damn about—is one big, noisy opera and that the reason the Mission is so significant is that it has become an indicator that is exploring the global, using the imagery that gets recycled, tagged and changed.

The protests in Seattle against the first WTO were organized in the Mission. Burning Man was organized in the Mission. This is not an accident. The Mission possesses an instigational energy of access, inspiration and stimulation.

Guillén: Living in the Mission, walking around in my neighborhood, is a synergistic immersion in community expression and—I would argue—the alternative immersion to what you experience when you walk down into the BART stations, let's say, where the walls, the columns, the steps, the floors, have been sold to advertisers and where, in effect, you walk into and are absorbed by a commodified reality. That tension between these two different types of sensual immersion by two different types of reality fueled by completely opposite agendas is one of the wonders of living in San Francisco.

Jacoby: Very interesting point. I'm totally with you. I like that observation. I made my book above ground but I never actually thought about the mood of the BART stations. I don't take the BART very often.

Guillén: My point being that—returning to the comment that was left at your site—why would a commuter accept this bombardment of commercial imagery every day of his working life but question the necessity for public art?

Jacoby: That is such a powerful necessity to say out loud. Others have made that comment and I hope it comes across clearly in the book in terms of who owns public space? Who owns our attention? The corporations are given license to buy our attention in gross, manipulative ways, both in scale and intention. The entire impulse to transform our environment is an unsubtle, anti-corporate, anti-control, anti-public mediocrity impulse to put color, irreverence and personality back into public space: style wars.

Guillén: Or as you described it so perfectly: to create without permission. As someone who arrived in San Francisco in the mid-'70s, I have watched the city change. Granted, its lineage of rebellious art remains consistent; but, with even more necessity in public space. In the mid-'70s public space was more common than it is now. The parks, the seaside, the streets, afforded liberty for self-expression. Since then there's been an alarming trend where much of that common public space has given way to privatization and censure. It underscores the rebellious critique against private property found in graffiti and tagging. I'm admittedly conflicted about the quality of this critique. I'm a tax payer whose money goes into cleaning up MUNI buses and I frequently become upset when kids tag a bus while I'm on board; but, I do understand—or appreciate to a limited extent—their impulse, however misdirected.

Jacoby: There is a big difference between blithe destruction, imposition and social protest. If I get on a bus and some kid pulls out a stash of stolen markers and starts scribbling them around and the bus suddenly stinks making me gag, I don't think he's made the world a better place. That's not taking something ugly and making it beautiful. In contrast, the daredevils in the New York scene who snuck into the train yards to paint grimy, grey train cars pink and orange so that they came out looking like circus cars; that's different; that's style wars. There is that place where the copycat art destroys the fun, which is not so healthy. I don't want to condone that straight out.

Guillén: Nor do I. I bring it up only to highlight that the impulse is valid albeit misdirected. These kids don't yet understand the necessary negotiation involved in the true social work of public art.

Jacoby: Right. They also haven't moved into the consciousness that—first of all—life is precious. Youth can squander a lot of its vital energies on meaningless stuff. That's part of the "get your ya-yas off because you did it" mentality. It's hard for someone who is not in "the moment" generation to advise: "Okay, now let's do something worth doing." Kids who are coming of age now think that they are the coolest in the world to grab a spray can and enter the night; but, that activity is over 30 years old. It wasn't just invented. The guys who did it then are now in their forties and fifties making a living. Defacing property exclusively as an act of rebellion hasn't been thought through.

At the same time, you take someone like Twist (Barry McGee), he started out that way—in fact many of them started out that way—but, a few of them started to actually use their instincts to say something or to move people. That's probably the same ratio in any art form. A few go beyond just doing it because they're thinking, "Oh, look at me! I'm cool! Hear my pistols!"

Guillén: Some street artists have become quite sophisticated in their negotiation; for example Shepard Fairey. Fairey fascinates me because he's a street artist, he's a gallery artist, he's a commercial artist. He doesn't limit himself.

Jacoby: But Shepard is an art school kid. He graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design. He started doing street art as a young art student so he chose to go back to the movement part of it. It was a tactic. What appealed to Shepard was taking some cultural coin—in his case
André the Giant—and blowing it out, putting it in your face, throwing it where you wouldn't expect to find it. As an artist, he exercises surprise. The artist as an acrobat-adventurer who hijinks your attention span is what Shepard Fairey is playing with. He loves this book, by the way. He's very excited about it.

Guillén: Clearly. He's written: "Street Art San Francisco: Mission Muralismo captures the essence of San Francisco: community, diversity, color, expression. It's a city that belongs to its artists, and this book feels that way too." My favorite Shepard Fairey experience however—where I really "got" him and recognized the brilliance of his multiplicity—was one day on Valencia Street when I saw a young woman with long, flowing blonde hair carrying a large purse with the Obey Giant on it walking past posters of the Obey Giant plastered on a wall. She probably paid a fortune for that purse; but, the art was also free. It was a thrillingly dissonant moment that made me wonder how Fairey had convinced her to buy that purse when the art is free?

Jacoby: You are beautifully embracing all of the interesting tensions in street art. I would say that young woman was voting for him by buying the purse. She is actually saying, "I think this is so cool that I need to own my own version of it and it's my choice." You and I could argue that she's been as comparably manipulated as the young woman who buys the GAP bag; but, it's just a different notion of coolness. It's a different type of prestige tag. It's a different way of saying, "This is my brand." That argument would be a possible interpretation. The relationship between advertisers and artists—whether you look at Warhol or further back in terms of exploiting imagery, controlling responses and reducing things to a symbol (think Nike)—is that they have the same things available to them to play with.

Alan W. Barnett, an art historian who wrote a major volume in the '70s-'80s on the history of community murals [Community Murals: The People's Art] has provided exhaustive research and an overview of the history of art and politics—with a particular focus on Mexican poster and revolutionary art—that begins with the Paleolithic caves. His thesis is that all art is essentially mural art; that all art begins with the impulse to put things on our living spaces that enclose us and have meaning for us. His whole point, from the caves on, is that we assign meaning to—let's say—this circle, based on whether we're taking cues from politicians, the Church, the guy next door, or the advertisers. What does that circle mean? Is that a god or is it Texaco or listening to yourself? Everyone, each creature landing in this special milieu, in this global creative legacy to which we're gaining more and more access, has a choice in how they project significance in art, how they commune with it, resonate with it. Sometimes it's completely accidental. Yesterday in Santa Cruz I went into a friend's house who I hadn't seen in a long while and I might as well have been in ancient India with all the deities she had around her and she's a nice Jewish girl from New York! I'm just saying you make choices. However, the person who made those gorgeous deities many hundred of years ago had no idea that my friend would collect them and that they would land in some fancy house in Santa Cruz, y'know?

If you take that principle that Barnett proposes as a base line and apply it to mural cultures all over the world—whether Byzantine, Roman, inside, outside, mosaic, painted, whatever—it winds up being all of art. If you look at all of the street art in the Mission as being a singular art work, with an everchanging exhibition, with its residents constantly expressing themselves in some noisy, hard-to-catalog fashion, then it starts to be an individual's responsibility to have some consciousness about how you move through the street and where you actually focus. It becomes more and more interesting as you start to not think about them as individual works of art—"Oh, that's Juana Alicia, she's an accomplished artist"—but more that she is one of the many people dancing in this milieu.

Guillén: Of course Juana Alicia would be a first choice for a book like this, and I have a piece of her's in my collection as well, but what truly delighted me about Street Art San Francisco when I first leafed through it was your inclusion of the mural painted inside my local taqueria El Taco Loco of the jalapeño bandido chasing the bespectacled (and loco) taco. In some ways, your inclusion of that image best reflected the living texture of my community or—as has been said of film—"the frenzy on the wall."

There is an aesthetic arrest that happens in the orbit around any piece of art; but, I would argue that one of the most compelling aesthetics of street art is its ephemerality, which has a longstanding heritage in Chicano art all the way back to Mexican art—
papel picado, alfombras, the seasonal and ceremonial altars of Muertos, pulqueria art, revolutionary poster art—these beautiful expressions of art which were never intended to last, but which gain beauty in being anchored to a specific moment and having that moment weather, fade and transform. I am always amazed when an author/editor such as yourself or cultural critic Amalia Mesa-Bains can, ironically, "capture" the ephemerality of popular art. Can you speak to the Chicano/Latino aesthetic of ephemeral art? The classic example being the Santana mural at 22nd and South Van Ness, which you've written "exemplifies the conflict between permanence and temporality in the ever-changing landscape of Mission murals." I was so pleased that you had a photograph of what the mural looked like in its prime since—in recent years—I've watched it literally fading away.

Jacoby: I call it a rag.

Guillén: Are there any plans to touch up that mural?

Jacoby: There's a lot of politics behind that. Will Shank—who wrote an essay "Whose Art Is This Anyway?" for the book—and Timothy Drescher have started this organization called Rescue Public Murals. That mural has been discussed several times now. My personal opinion is that its artistic merit is just okay; obviously, however, it's a cultural artifact. Particularly because Carlos Santana's blessing on this book is not arbitrary. [Santana has written in his foreword: "The whole Mission neighborhood is a massive public artwork, both sacred and profane, brimming with graff and goddesses."] In many ways his journey parallels the cultural trajectory of someone who—just like yourself—had a completely Chicano identity and took his roots into a position where he now represents a global world roots musical vocabulary with many of the same messages that are central to the operating principles of the transformation of the Mission activists. Therefore, seeing the young Carlos in rapture on the street three stories high was an inspiration to all the kids in his hood, to his whole community. He became—What is a god in our time? A rock star, right?—he became as close as we get to a hero. The fact that the mural has been neglected is a point of embarrassment.

Now, the politics behind it is that Michael Rios—who painted it in 1987—has zero interest in repainting it. Just the way that Juana Alicia—for creative reasons—had zero interest in repainting the lettuce pickers mural. Whatever it would cost to have the Santana mural be repainted by anybody, no one has ponyed up to do it and the people who own the building apparently are indifferent. It's unlikely it's going to be rescued.

Guillén: But my point being that: as unfortunate as that might be, isn't that true to the ephemeral aesthetic? Are these fading murals always meant to be rescued?

Jacoby: I think it's going to be okay. I think it's been rescued by being included in this book.

Guillén: I can't argue with you there. That is one of the presiding values of Street Art San Francisco: its chronicle of the movement's historicity. In effect, as editor you have played the same role I play at international film festivals, which is to create the written record of the negotiated tensions that make up an event; one of the elements essential to a film festival's identity. You have done this for Mission muralismo.

By discussing the aesthetics of ephemerality, it conjures the questions: who owns this art? Can it be owned? Who is responsible for it? When Shepard Fairey strategizes the commodification of his own art even as he lets it come and go on the streets, it causes me to wonder if it would be true to the mural art or the social activism to try to peg it? To fix it in place? To make it stay? It seems to me that the value of the ephemeral aesthetic is precisely the energy released in letting go. The Maya did this when they killed pots. And that release is necessary not only for creative artistic energy, but also for the social activism. The ephemeral value of social activism is not in its intended result but in the action itself. Yes, activism aims for results; but—as you and I both know—these struggles are in constant flux, it's a constant struggle, it's a constant resistance, and one might even say that the means not only justify the ends but, in essence, become the end. I would say that awareness is what allows us to own these images, even as they fade and change before our eyes. And your chronicle of that constant change is one of the driving values of this book, just as Craig Baldwin stated that this "voluptuous volume documents a thousand ways to reconcile Art and Life." The chronicle—memory—becomes a reconciliation of the hazards and values of the aesthetics of ephemerality.

Jacoby: I love this drift of the tension between what's for the record, what's indelible, where's the afterglow of any art? But it's not an accident that the very first image you see in the book asks the question: "How alive are you willing to be?" There is a deliberate, way in which the book is structured as a filmic narrative—it has an arc—but, it's also like a walk in the neighborhood, a self-discovery, that is very much rooted in the fact that—to be fully alive—you are living every day. You don't store up life. You might be ensconced in some cellular, residual behavior that gives you impulses to act; but, unless you are in the moment, you're not fully responsive to life. You're thinking ahead and you're thinking behind instead of being there in the moment. The book is structured like the art form itself, constantly coming and going, though the book in some way predicates itself on the notion that it writes its own criticism, like all great art. You can't take a particular single rubric and impose it. That's how we structured the book. The subject doesn't have a single personality, issue or methodology to focus on, which is why the "neighborhood" is really the container for it.

Guillén: Street Art San Francisco is the result of 10 years of work?

Jacoby: It wasn't the only thing I was doing; but, yeah, over 10 years I compiled it. But I want to be very grateful for the fact that we worked on it over a long period of time because that's what gave such range to the material, both in terms of its archival value and its diversity of styles, as well as the people who were players at different points.

Guillén: I love that Street Art San Francisco can be read in different ways, not only for its filmic continuity—as you've mentioned—but, also in this rich imagist immersion that is like taking a walk through the Mission, being sensually informed by the images, one after the other. Then, if you want to take a break, you can read a bit and angle in on the art in a different way.

Jacoby: You are making me so happy because—when you make something—you don't know what people will experience; but, what you've just said, was my hope for this book. It really makes me happy to know this is your experience.

Guillén: As it will be the experience of many people, I'm sure. Another understanding I have of the temporality of mural art comes from my training in the Maya field where from their own murals—at Bonampak, let's say—I learned that these painted images were not merely historical records; they were conceived as events ever unfolding. The Maya did not conceive of time simply in linear tense but also in aspect. Street Art of San Francisco is the chronicle of the unfolding of mural art; it's the witness to its living quality.

Jacoby: Beautifully said.

Guillén: So I can open this book and turn to the page where there's this fantastic photograph of the Santana mural at its prime, which is as clear as my memory of it, even though my memory also includes its faded aspect and negotiates with the truth that everything comes and goes, not only art but our biological lives. Perhaps why I trust the ephemerality of mural art is because it seems somehow truer to life. As much as I love art, I sometimes have issues with what its original impulse has been turned into.

Jacoby: What you're really talking about is the denial of death, which is exaggerated in our culture, but which is a reasonable part of the life cycle. You've been using the word energy throughout our entire conversation. Maybe that is what art has to do? Maybe it has to energize our imagination, our sense of destiny, our sense of belonging? All of it; the long list. Whatever makes you wake up in the morning and be grateful. I bet you know how to answer the question posed at the beginning of the book: "How alive are you willing to be?"

Cross-published on
Twitch. Photo of Annice Jacoby courtesy of Paul Chinn, San Francisco Chronicle.