Monthly Archives: 09/2013

Elvin Padilla: Stratification

Posted on by Alex Craghead
Filed under: Reimagining the Urban

Reimagining the Urban participants have been asked to submit a blog post “on a keyword you see debated in the Bay Area arts, policy, and planning landscape.” This posting is by Elvin Padilla, Director of the 950 Center for Art & Education.  It was originally posted in the Arts Research Center of UC Berkeley blog ARC Muses.

ruminations on the question of what preoccupies me

how to bring art groups together with affordable housing groups together with social service groups together with youth groups together with parks groups together with community health groups and now, most recently tech companies, preoccupies me.  the Tenderloin loses the struggle for equitable development because we are fragmented and undermine each other.

advocacy for the arts preoccupies me.  How does the following and Cy Musiker’s piece read: agitating?  advocating?  appeasing?  matter of fact?  demonizing tech?

KQED’s Cy Musiker aired a piece last week critical to the city’s future: San Francisco Artistic Community Wants a Piece of Mid-Market. There’s good news!  Supervisor Jane Kim, a big art and education advocate, is working on a special-use district to incentivize mid-Market developers to build permanently affordable space for art and education.  Effective incentives could tip the scale at several mid-Market sites.

At present, outstanding education groups interested in locating @ the 950 Center for Art & Education – Youth Speaks, Blue Bear Music, All Stars Project and Women’s Audio Mission – would owe the city nearly a million dollars in “impact” fees in order to revitalize three devastated blocks of blighted buildings, build the Center and bring their programming to at-risk Tenderloin youth.  Clearly this does not make sense, particularly with the backdrop of a wealthy city – one that’s not assisting with funding the Center’s development – reaping huge revenues from a surging tech-driven economy and booming real estate market.

Technically, of course, it is the groups’ funders that would owe the city for the “impact” of revitalizing three devastated blocks. Wouldn’t it be better if we could instead direct these resources to endow a 950 Scholarship Fund for low-income Tenderloin residents?  Or endow an operating reserve to help our small non-profit groups get stabilized over the first few years?

From Cy Musiker’s report: A few officials are listening, though. Supervisor Jane Kim represents Mid-Market, and she’s working on a measure to create an arts special-use district that would reduce developer fees on space reserved for nonprofits arts. It’s the kind of break that could help a Mid-Market arts company like Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet, which rehearses in a building without heat or hot water.

Many hope this effort from a determined art & education-friendly supervisor, combined with the hoped-for leadership from our mayor, will give the Tenderloin a fighting chance for a measure of still-elusive equitable development (or at least heat and hot water!) in the face of the historic tech and real estate booms.

I was accused of painting an us vs. them picture that’s hostile to tech in my KQED interview.  i don’t get that.   in fact, all of my writing and work at and has been striving toward an us and them understanding, achievable largely through the arts.  there’s so much anxiety, anger and resentment out there and it’s growing.   as i see it, projects like 950 are tech’s and city hall’s best friend against this backlash.

Assignment: Think of how to effectively communicate the need for the arts to bridge our increasingly polarized worlds.

failing the neighborhood preoccupies me.  failing the art groups preoccupies me: Will building a new debt-free state-of-the-art facility in the most ideal of visible and accessible locations be enough to position them for successful operations ongoing into the future?

social justice practice vs. preaching preoccupies me: will funders show up to endow a scholarship fund for at-risk tenderloin residents who want to study art?  or will they do so only if it satisfies some ideological construct far removed from the realities of the Tenderloin streets.

the increasing polarization and stratification of our neighborhood preoccupies me.   the housing is protected, the art spaces are largely not.  we cannot live by rooms, meds and meals alone.  poverty is more than a simple question of income.

Margaret Crawford: Creative Class

Posted on by Alex Craghead
Filed under: Reimagining the Urban

This piece was originally posted on the Arts Research Center blog, Muses.

In 2002 economist Richard Florida published the Rise of the Creative Class. In it he argued that the best way for cities to revive their ailing urban economies was to remake themselves in order to attract a social category he called “the creative class.”  At the core of this group were innovative and creative workers whose importance in the new knowledge-based economy could produce new companies, attract jobs and residents, and expand consumption. These benefits would then trickle down to re-ignite local economies, based on the “rising tide lifts all boats” principle.  In spite of the fact that a number of previous “silver bullets,” also guaranteed to transform cities (festival marketplaces, sports stadiums, waterfront redevelopment) had largely failed, many cities enthusiastically adopted Florida’s prescriptions.  Planners and politicians, hoping to create the kind of vibrant place that would to appeal to the “hip and cool” instituted a range of policies that ranged from subsidizing the arts to fostering the staples of bohemian neighborhoods, such as cafes, trendy restaurants, and loft-style apartments.

Ten years later, after scholars had questioned nearly every aspect of Florida’s claims, the concept was largely discredited in academia. On the ground, the evidence was not much better.  The results could be either tragic (as in Michigan’s “cool cities” campaign, subsidizing the arts in Detroit), unnecessary (as in planners’ support of Brooklyn’s “edginess”), or, more often, simply ineffective. One observer summed up its outcomes as benefitting the Creative Class while exacerbating inequality. Creative Class policies were particularly damaging to poor and minority areas, pushing up rents and displacing local businesses and residents. Although Florida’s current academic position as the head of the Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto might already seem like a parody, his most incisive critic is the anonymous author of the parody twitter feed dick_florida. Described as “Talker. Doula for the creative utopia growing inside your city.  Champion of the privileged since 2002. America’s #1 Virtue Industry,” his tweets effectively skewer Florida’s mixture of enthusiasm and obliviousness.

Today, the concept of the creative class survives largely among real estate developers as the icing on the cake of standard development practices, used to sell projects to city officials and citizens. To more effectively brand their proposals, they’ve expanded their vocabulary to include “creative experiences,” “creative currency,” “creative environments,” “emerging economies,”  “innovation” and “incubator.

Louise Pubols: Layered Landscapes

Posted on by Alex Craghead
Filed under: Reimagining the Urban

Reimagining the Urban participants have been asked to submit a blog post “on a keyword you see debated in the Bay Area arts, policy, and planning landscape.” This posting is by Louise Pubols, Senior Curator of History at the Oakland Museum of California. It was originally posted in the Arts Research Center of UC Berkeley blog ARC Muses.

How will the baylands be used?  And who will use them?

These two questions lie at the heart of the environmental history of the San Francisco Bay, and current debates over its uncertain future.  A richly productive estuary, San Francisco is also densely urban. Its landscape is the joint creation of people and nature, locked in a relationship neither can escape from. And if you were to pick one spot around the bay’s shoreline to illustrate just how contentious this relationship has been over time, you’d be hard pressed to find a more richly layered one than the wet and squishy ground underneath this wooden dragon.

This bit of renegade art once stood among many such pieces in a marshy crescent called the Emeryville Mudflats, where Temescal Creek empties into the bay.  Long before weary travelers sighted it on their approach to the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, long before the first Europeans finally found the opening to the bay, Ohlone people managed and shaped this landscape.  They harvested and ate from the natural world, feasting on shellfish and waterfowl, making tules into watercraft and homes, and crafting shell regalia and reed baskets for ceremony and trade.  One of their major villages was found just inland, and dominating the shoreline by the creek were a complex of shellmounds.  The largest of these stood 300 feet long and 60 feet high at its peak, both a place where the remains of meals were deposited, and a burial site of the village’s ancestors.  When Spaniards first arrived, the village and burial mounds had been abandoned, and, not knowing this was a cultural feature, they called it “Temescal Hill.”

In the 1870s, Americans used the land for a private park, complete with shooting range, racetrack, beer gardens, picnic grounds, and a dance hall built on the leveled top of the mound.  At the same time, and into the twentieth century, citizens of Emeryville used the flow of the creek and the bay’s tides to advantage, building a series of slaughterhouses along the shoreline here, dumping sewage, and later siting factories making iron, paints, and pesticides. Railways and freeways separated residents from access to the shoreline. In the 1920s, the mound itself was razed to create more room for industry. These new uses edged out eating and harvesting as the primary human use of the tidal margin.

But in the latter half of the 20th century, a new awareness of the environment came slowly to the fore.  In the 1950s, the East Bay Municipal Utility District built a sewage treatment plant just south of the crescent, mitigating the classic stench the area had become infamous for. But the land, still ringed by industry and freeways, was still a bit more “backyard” than “front yard”—a private, unregulated place for working, dumping, and burying unwanted junk. Into this sort-of private, sort-of no-man’s land, artists and art students from the local area snuck in the 1960s and 1970s, erecting sculptures from driftwood timbers and junkpile boards, painting and embellishing with flattened beer cans and bits of metal.

Inspired by the environmental movement, the state began to turn attention to the mudflats and marshlands in the 1980s, and asserted that the art was damaging the ecosystem and wildlife of the crescent.  Caltrans officials started removing the sculptures, and the East Bay Regional Park District acquired the property and begin to clean up the industrial contamination. At the same time, the city of Emeryville began to replace the heavy industries with retail, housing, and hotels.

This bit of tideland is now part of the McLaughlin Eastshore State Park, stretching from the Bay Bridge to Richmond, and recently named in honor of Save the Bay co-founder Sylvia McLaughlin. Every day, people walk, bicycle, and birdwatch here.  But you will not find anyone fishing, digging clams, buring the dead, slaughtering cattle, shooting target practice, dumping sewage, cleaning paint vats, or making art. People pass through, they admire the view, but they do not stay.

Historian Matthew Booker has recently observed,

“Of all the remarkable changes in San Francisco Bay’s shoreline over the past two hundred years, none is more dramatic than its abandonment as a place of work….Ecologists and environmentalists who want to restore the bay—people genuinely concerned for the heritage of future generations—should remember that among the greatest losses in the past century has been human knowledge of the tidal edge, knowledge gained through working in those places.  … That fading sense of connection is a radical change, even more radical than the past century and a half of chemical poisoning, filling, draining, and diverting rivers. The greatest danger for the human relationship to San Francisco Bay is to ignore it. Removing people and their work from the tidal margin would be a terrible loss.” (Down by the Bay, p.189)

The Dragon is gone. Who is the shoreline for now? How will it be used? Who gets to decide?

Shannon Jackson: Public

Posted on by Alex Craghead
Filed under: Reimagining the Urban

Reimagining the Urban participants have been asked to submit a blog post “on a keyword you see debated in the Bay Area arts, policy, and planning landscape.” This posting is by Shannon Jackson, Director of the Arts Research Center.  It was originally posted in the Arts Research Center of UC Berkeley blog ARC Muses.

In cross-disciplinary gatherings at ARC, we have found it worth going over territory that we all think we know, to review the staples, the bread and butter of our fields, in order to expose blindspots and to jostle ourselves into new perspectives on the heretofore obvious. But should I really reflect on the term “public”? when so much ink has been spilled on this subject historically…and from so many quarters recently?  For this particular session, I guess I think I will, especially because the term is one that links some elements of environmental planning to key questions in humanist debate and artistic practice. Teresa Caldeira and I have named our forthcoming course for the Global Urban Humanities project “City, Arts, and Public Spaces” partly because the domain of ‘public’ ‘space’ seems a clear area of overlap between our fields.  But of course, the term Public is so ubiquitous and its associations are so varied and contradictory.  Is Public about extroversion, about visibility, about access, about openness? And how do these terms differ slightly in their associations and their politics?  Does Public connote the “public sphere,” the one Habermas extolled (and many feminists and postcolonial critics have revised) as an arena of bracing and vibrant deliberation, detached from the sphere of commerce as well as the sphere of the state?  Or is Public referring to the “public sector,” the domain of state and civic governance that is sustained by taxes, distributive justice, and ambivalent trust? Is that the same public sector imperiled by corruption, appropriation, and by the pervasive anti-state distrust circulating quite differently in both right and left sectors of society?  The term Public often seems defined by its opposite.  Public is the opposite of private, the opposite of hidden, the opposite of the closed, the opposite of the private sector, the opposite of the for-profit sector. But the opposing terms are not themselves equivalent. The Public can be celebrated as unfettered deliberative engagement, but, in the very next breath, the Public can be castigated as bureaucracy and state control.   Publicness is the opposite of closed, from one perspective, but it is the opposite of free from another.

In my own corner of the world, I find the ambiguity around the term Public to be a source of intense mobilization and of intense confusion.  For many artists, making “public art” meant exiting the confines of the studio, the gallery, or the theatre to redefine the parameters of one’s medium as well the sites that housed it and the receivers who encountered it.  The public art gesture was both formal and political.  How such gestures understood themselves in relation to the goals of a public sphere or to the goals of a public sector is debatable. It varied internationally in contexts where questions of democracy or freedom differed thanks to local state systems and ideologies.  And in many situations, the deliberative goals of the public sphere often seemed in tension with the distributive goals of the public sector. Some felt that the public sector needed to be protected by the interventions of a political art practice, and others that the public sector is precisely what needed to be combatted.  Some might not have been clear on either score.

In our current moment, we are witnessing a global, if contradictory, conversation about what public-ness might mean. For myself, it is interesting to see how much questions of “urban planning” are at the center of public protests rising these last few weeks–in Turkey at Taksim Square–where the prime minister’s plans for urban space are a key source of outrage–and all throughout Brazil where critiques of political corruption are often focused on the infrastructural issues of urban planning (and whether the construction of hospitals or schools might be able to elicit the material support that “stadiums” seem to have secured).  Of course, these and other movements have followed, rejected, and/or revised a different kind of urban public practice collected under the banner of “Occupy” and homogenized in shaky allegiances with a so-called Arab Spring.  As I try to sort through the effects of this rangy and thorny network of discourses and practices, I very much look forward to deeper engagement with the fields of environmental design.  Do these fields and practices have different ways of framing the competing associations of the Public?  And can we develop a different way of keeping these claims in productive tension together?

Teresa Caldeira: Street Art

Posted on by Alex Craghead
Filed under: Reimagining the Urban

Reimagining the Urban participants have been asked to submit a blog post “on a keyword you see debated in the Bay Area arts, policy, and planning landscape.” This posting is by Teresa Caldeira, Professor of City and Regional Planning at UC Berkeley.  It was originally posted in the Arts Research Center of UC Berkeley blog ARC Muses.

“Street art” is the umbrella expression to refer to several forms of intervention that use the streets as their domain.  It covers not only visual productions such as graffiti and tagging, but also performances like skateboarding, parkour, and break dance.  The literature on street art is extensive and framed by a reference to mainstream artistic production.  “Is graffiti (or tagging, or skateboarding) art?”  seems to be an unavoidable question addressed again and again and consistently answered affirmatively.  In my research, this approach is secondary.  Instead, I am interested in asking:  what is the kind of intervention that these urban manifestations make in the everyday life of the city?  How do they modify and shape public space?  What is the kind of political agency they produce?  How do citizens engage with them in their everyday movements around the city?  I consider that one of the oldest analyses of graffiti/tagging is still one of the most provocative:  that published by Jean Baudrillard in 1976.  He argued that the power of New York graffiti resided in their emptiness as signifiers.  Their “revolutionary intuition,” argued Baudrillard, comes from the perception that “ideology no longer functions at the level of political signifieds, but at the level of the signifier, and that this is where the system is vulnerable and must be dismantled” (‘Kool Killer or the insurrection of signs’).  Graffiti and especially tagging are attacks at the level of the signifier.

Baudrillard’s argument has intrigued me during the time in which I have developed the research for my current project investigating these interventions in public space in São Paulo.  It has led me to formulate questions about the type of political agency and of politics that these performances in fact enact in the city, transforming its public.  Thus, the literature that I explore is mainly that reflecting on some of the predicaments of contemporary politics.  I am especially interested in the work of Jacques Rancière.  For him, politics is “the accident that interrupts the logic by which those who have a title to govern dominate. … Political subjects are … processes of subjectification which introduce a disagreement, a dissensus.  And political dissensus is not simply a conflict of interests, opinions, or values.  It is a conflict over the common itself… a dispute over what is visible as an element of a situation, over which elements belong to what is common, over the capacity of subjects to designate this common and argue over it.” (‘Introducing disagreement’, Angelaki, 9:6, 2004).   It is in this sense that I consider arguing that the practices labeled by the expression “street art” constitute a powerful form of contemporary politics.

I consider this argument in relation to other views of contemporary politics articulated by authors such as Asef Bayat, Partha Chatterjee, James Holston, and AbdouMaliq Simone.  Although they have quite diverse perspectives and are far from coinciding in their analyzes, they all share a deep dissatisfaction with current views of political agency framed by analyzes of North Atlantic democracies and a commitment to theorizing politics and urban citizenship from the perspective of the spaces of the subalterns, especially from disjunctive democracies of the global south.

Margaret Crawford: Everyday Urbanism

Posted on by Alex Craghead
Filed under: Reimagining the Urban

Reimagining the Urban participants have been asked to submit a blog post “on a keyword you see debated in the Bay Area arts, policy, and planning landscape.” This posting is by Margaret Crawford, Professor of Architecture at UC Berkeley.  It was originally posted in the Arts Research Center of UC Berkeley blog ARC Muses.

In the early 1990s, I started working with scholars, urban designers, photographers, and writers on a project exploring everyday urban life in Los Angeles.  In 1999, we published Everyday Urbanism as a guide to investigating the “as-found” character of the city. We identified everyday urban space as a rich and complex public realm created by the multiplicities of daily experience– trips to supermarkets, the commute to work, journeys that included wide boulevards and mini-malls, luxurious stores and street vendors, manicured lawns and dilapidated public parks.

Drawing on both social and urban theory and highly specific local fieldwork, we portrayed such everyday spaces as a product of the intricate social, political, economic, and aesthetic forces operating in the city. By emphasizing the primacy of human experience and close-up observation of lived realities, we wanted to challenge the formalism of architecture and the abstractions of urban theory and planning.

Instead, we defined the city as a social product and a social geography, naming and drawing attention to a type of urban space that was pervasive but unknown; ignored by city planners, disregarded by scholars, and scorned by architects, but fundamental to the city’s residents. To mirror the multiples spaces of everyday life, we assembled essays, both scholarly and personal, photographs, drawings, and design proposals.

The concept continued to develop. In 1994, John Chase published Glitter Stucco and Dumpster Diving, a deeply personal depiction of Los Angeles as the product of an ad hoc but democratic urbanism in which developers, homeowners, renters, retailers, pedestrians and the homeless all assert their own place in the city.  In 2008, Everyday Urbanism Expanded Version appeared, allowing us to acknowledge the numerous attacks on our ideas as well as including new contributions from around the world, a demonstration of the concept’s worldwide influence.

I see the Mellon Grant as a new project that has the potential to be as intellectually exciting and personally satisfying as Everyday Urbanism. In many ways, humanities based urbanism represents a continuation and expansion of the same concepts and methods; collaboration, a focus on the human subject, the inclusion of multiple voices, the creative use of a broad range of theories, and the intention to create new forms of critique, interpretation and representation.  Bringing these together, we can create a new urban discipline that will make the concepts, methods and insights of the humanities operative in urban space.

Linda Haverty Rugg: Environmental Humanities

Posted on by Alex Craghead
Filed under: Reimagining the Urban

Reimagining the Urban participants have been asked to submit a blog post “on a keyword you see debated in the Bay Area arts, policy, and planning landscape.” This posting is by Linda Haverty Rugg, Chair of the Scandinavian Department at UC Berkeley. It was originally posted in the Arts Research Center of UC Berkeley blog ARC Muses.

(Cribbed from the co-authored Background Report, The Emergence of the Environmental Humanities, Swedish Foundation for Strategic Environmental Research/MISTRA, Stockholm, 2013, co-authors David Nye (Chair), Robert Emmett, James Fleming, and Linda Haverty Rugg)

During the last decade a new field has emerged that increasingly is referred to as the Environmental Humanities.  Environmental Humanities research centers often originated either in literature departments, because of the ecocritical movement in English Literature and American Studies, or in history departments, where the field of environmental history emerged after c. 1980. Other contributors to this field have come from inherently interdisciplinary fields such as geography, the digital humanities, gender studies, anthropology, and the history of technology.  Other fertile ground for Environmental Humanities has emerged at interdisciplinary centers that combine natural and social sciences with humanities, or at humanities centers that encourage research and discussion across disciplines. Several fields that have contributed much to the Environmental Humanities have already begun to bridge this divide, notably cultural geography, anthropology, and the history of technology.

The present moment is one of transition as well as growth. A generation of scholars who laid the foundations for the Environmental Humanities are nearing retirement or have already retired. They leave behind a thriving intellectual field, including several newly dedicated research centers.  The Environmental Humanities are expanding rapidly and articulating concerns relevant to medicine, animal rights, neurobiology, race and gender studies, urban planning, climate change, and digital technology, to name just a few fields. Generally, there has been a growing effort to engage environmental concerns, to communicate with a broad public, and to evoke a sense of wonder, empathy or urgency, which comes largely out of humanistic training and practice. It is difficult to think of a single academic discipline that has not become engaged with the Environmental Humanities. In response to a survey of the field conducted by this committee, Australian scholar Libby Robin, suggested that the phrase Environmental Humanities: “refers to the human sciences that contribute to global change which include environmental concerns such as climate change, global ocean system change, biodiversity and extinctions, and atmospheric carbon. It is an interdisciplinary area that considers the moral and ethical relations between human and non-human others (at all scales up to planetary). Because ‘the environment’ has been defined by biophysical indicators and studied through ‘environmental sciences’ (a term that dates back just 50 years) and environmental economics, the moral, political and ethical dimensions of environmental degradation were long neglected as ‘outside the expertise’ of the dominant discourse. Attitudes and values are not easily measured, nor do they readily yield data that can be incorporated into modeling of future scenarios.” Yet environmental problems belong to us all, and the solutions will come from all fields of endeavor, including the humanities.

Ava Roy: Temporality

Posted on by Alex Craghead
Filed under: Reimagining the Urban

Reimagining the Urban participants have been asked to submit a blog post “on a keyword you see debated in the Bay Area arts, policy, and planning landscape.” This posting is by Ava Roy, Founding Artistic Director of We Players. It was originally posted in the Arts Research Center of UC Berkeley blog ARC Muses.

In my experience, one of the most unique and profound joys of working site-specifically is developing an intimate relationship with the elemental forces of the environment. While striving to build a coherent world and intricate structure (and to clearly tell the story of the play), within the sweeping scale of massive outdoor sites is challenging enough. The challenge is intensified by the completely unpredictable atmospheric input – while rehearsing and performing, we find ourselves in searing heat or bone-chilling damp cold, we face blasts of powerful winds off the Pacific, we are in turns shrouded in fog, then squinting into blazing sun… These contributions from the environment are as uncontrollable as they are magnificent. A sudden shaft of sunlight provides a natural spotlight on Hamlet as he expounds on how to catch the conscience of the King from behind a fence on Alcatraz, an eagle soars above Zeus’ head as he heckles the mortals from his perch at the top of Mount Olympus (or the old rock quarry on Angel Island as the case may be), a swirl of thick fog tumbles into the fortress as Macbeth receives his crown, an ominous yet fitting portent. In less sublime alignment, a helicopter churns overhead as an intimate soliloquy is shared with the audience, or the abundant wind may carry the actors voices in precisely the wrong direction. I believe that these surprise contributions from the environment serve to heighten our awareness that what we are experiencing is a precious, unrepeatable moment in time. That this event is alive and breathing and truly dynamic. These surprise encounters with nature – within the ordered structure of the play – can help us to drop into a heightened state of awareness and appreciation for the moment. When we practice this through our engagement with the arts, we might become more facile at expanding our awareness and savoring the minute moments of beauty in our day to day lives. We might become more adept at recognizing how even in our dense, fast-paced urban landscape, nature is ever-present and is inviting us into a state of wonder. While we cannot control the elements, we can predict certain things and invite these forces into our practice of developing site- integrated art. We should consider carefully the time of day, the time of year. What is happening in the physical environment in the season we are producing the work? What plants are blooming? What phase is the moon in? What’s happening in the energetic environment? If it’s spring time, how does the story draw on the energy of new life? If in the autumn, how does the story connect to the darkening of the light, the transition from harvest to dormancy? With We Players’ current production of Macbeth at Fort Point, the show begins when it is still day. Dusk settles as the new King takes the throne and we feel the increasing weight of darkness. As the moral and psychological standing of the main characters frays and falls apart, the blanket of night falls heavily upon us. We descend into darkness both literally and figuratively. The sun takes a bow.

Rebecca Novick: Site-specific

Posted on by Alex Craghead
Filed under: Reimagining the Urban

Reimagining the Urban participants have been asked to submit a blog post “on a keyword you see debated in the Bay Area arts, policy, and planning landscape.” This posting is by Rebecca Novick, Director of the Triangle Lab.  It was originally posted in the Arts Research Center of UC Berkeley blog ARC Muses.

That’s Not My BART Stop: One of the Triangle Lab projects we’re producing right now is called Love Balm for My Spirit Child.  It’s a series of performances sharing testimony from mothers who have lost children to violence.  We’re calling this series “site-specific” because they’re performed on the spots where each murder took place.  Site-specific in its strictest definition means a performance created specifically for a non-traditional space, often using physical characteristics of that space, or of the community who gathers there, to influence what the performance will be. In a more general or lazy way, we often use “site-specific” to simply mean “not performed in a theater.”

As more institutions experiment with performing work outside their traditional venues –work often labeled site-specific — I have become impatient with this term.  It feels like one more artificial division of performance into professional/amateur, into important/marginal, into traditional/experimental.  In fact, all our work is site-specific, we just choose to erase the impact of our ordinary spaces — with their red curtains, or their funky black walls, or their gleaming floors — on what gets performed there and who feels welcome to see it.

A few weeks ago I went to one of the Love Balm performances, the testimony of Bonnie Johnson, Oscar Grant’s grandmother, performed at Fruitvale Station, the BART stop where he was shot.  I was nervous on the way – I’d never gotten off the BART there, didn’t know exactly where the performance would be, or what it would feel like.  When I got there, to find a crowd of nearly 100 people gathered for the invocation that would open the performance, I was one of the only white attendees.  (certainly an echo of the experience audiences of color might have attending an arts event at a theater with a majority white audience).

Before the performance started, a friend of mine asked me if I had brought my children (who are 4 and 6) and I was surprised by the question.  “Of course not,” I answered without thinking about it much, “I didn’t know how I would begin to tell them this story” Then I looked around the crowd filled with children, at my other friend sitting with her Black son in her lap, and heard the privilege in what I had just said.  My white children don’t know the story of Oscar Grant yet, haven’t yet needed to understand that sometimes the police are not the good guys, that there are places where you shouldn’t go because the color of your skin makes you a suspect.  Fruitvale Station is not – on many levels –  my BART stop.

This ambitious and powerful performance embodied for me what site-specific might really mean.  It brought me somewhere I don’t go, into a community I don’t belong to, to understand a story in a new way because of the place it was performed in.  The woman offering the invocation poured water on the ground and — I think for everyone there — the performance began to cleanse that spot. To turn it from a murder scene to a place for community sharing, somewhere where perhaps healing can begin.

Irene Chien: Urban for Black

Posted on by Alex Craghead
Filed under: Reimagining the Urban

Reimagining the Urban participants have been asked to submit a blog post “on a keyword you see debated in the Bay Area arts, policy, and planning landscape.” This posting is by Irene Chien, PhD candidate in the Department of Film & Media and the Berkeley Center for New Media at UC Berkeley. It was originally posted in the Arts Research Center of UC Berkeley blog ARC Muses.

In mainstream US media, “urban” is a pervasive euphemism for black, a way to register but not directly point at African-American culture within the post-racial political paradigm of colorblindness. “Urban music,” “urban fiction,” “urban comedy,” and “urban entertainment” are all ways to identify media made by, featuring, and marketed primarily to African-Americans without directly naming them.  “Urban” in this sense gives value to at the same time it disavows the authenticity of black bodies, voices, and “street” experiences that now circulate globally in the form of hip-hop identity and aesthetics.  At the same time, in contemporary cultural discourse, “urban” continues to function as a code word for the crime and poverty associated with blackness that is less inflammatory than “inner-city,” “ghetto,” or “the ‘hood.”  Is the conflation of “black” with “urban” a way to erase black people from the scene so as to better commodify their cultural expressions for a global market?  Is it a way to be more inclusive of other races and ethnicities when considering life in the city and its cultural expressions?  What are exactly are the effects of this semantic slippage from black to urban?

Urban became linked with blackness in the context of the 20th-century Great Migration in which 6 million African-Americans moved from the rural south into cities in the northern, midwestern, and western United States.  The fact that this migration pattern is now being reversed as African-Americans move back to the south and (perhaps pushed by the gentrifying effects of the New Urbanism) out of cities into poor suburbs, puts even more pressure on the dodges and slippages between race and space manifested in substituting “black” with “urban.”  These uses of the term urban point to a more general conflation of race with environment–black with urban, white with suburban, and Latino with rural. As we examine the urban in its many contexts and meanings, I hope to interrogate this racialization of space and spatialization of race.