the mailbox cinema

After a string of monumental episodes lighting up facades, city blocks, parking lots, corners filled with detritus and puddles filled with water, I’m thinking of going small. The idea comes from a refrigerator I opened at Art Rattan, a mid-90’s live-work space in the Fruitvale that would give itself over to complex, multi-layered performance. In the back of the middle shelf, there was a boom box playing a John Cage piece on cassette. Simple.

I opened and closed that fridge a dozen times.

I think everyone in that particular space was eventually thrown out for being too real.

So (and by that I do mean, As a result), I’m refurbishing a mailbox so it can be experienced as a miniature movie theater when opened. Modified with an embedded projection and audio system in the back, The Mailbox Cinema will be installed in public as kind of a sculpture, yet also, really an installation, while perhaps in my enteric nervous system I will continue to conceive of it as a musical instrument that appears, disappears, and reappears with small stories of place: the Key Route, the Bonanza, the Hacienda, Calvin Simmons and The Calvin Simmons, and things with the name Chabot on them from the water to the hills.

Front Burnering

the mailbox cinema, before heat turned onI proposed The Mailbox Cinema to to the next Oakland Stock, the delicious artist micro-funding event that’s part of the Sunday Soup network, supporting artists’ projects one bowl of soup at a time. Diners pay a dinner fee of $10, feast on a gourmet meal, and listen to artists propose new projects that need funding. The diners vote on their favorite project to support and the winning artist takes the money to use for her/his work. In my case it’d go directly to my coursework fees over at TechShop San Francisco for all that badass Arduino foo that I’m sure is at the heart of every successful mailbox cinema.

Lexa Walsh just let me know The Mailbox Cinema will be in the mix at the next Oakland Stock on Sunday, January 26, 6pm at Ratto’s RSVP to attend (that event posting in fB may not be sufficient) and let’s see how it stacks up against Oakland’s creative genius.


Remember Them (Ordinances)

I’ve been watching this the way one watches hornets build a nest right over the kitchen door.

Mario Chiodo was unsuccessful with this design in the public art competition for Mandela Gateway, but the work resonated with some folks, such as Jerry Brown and Ignacio de la Fuente and Peggy Stinnett and Respectalians from the Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, who Mario got to pose in a really cool, situationist way… I think. Add the City’s Parks and Rec Commission and the City Planning Commission to the group of supporters.

Getting on board with the work has been easy for politicians: it’s an encylopedic reference to civil rights leaders and humanitarians, from Nelson Mandela to Mother Theresa to Thich Nhat Hanh.

The problem is that no arts-focused body convened by the City has ever approved of the 52 foot by 21 foot bronze sculpture. For well over a year a stand-off has brewed between City officials, who know enough about art to know it when they see it, and the cultural advisors it has appointed and hired to oversee such matters: the Public Art Advisory Committee, the Cultural Affairs Commission, the staff of the Public Art Program at the City’s Cultural Arts and Marketing Division, and the newly-formed Gifts Panel.

Meanwhile, Chiodo and supporters of the Monument worked with the Chamber of Commerce to move the project into a private commission of Forest City, the developer at the core of the City’s Uptown Development Area. They have been successful in siting the sculpture in Fox Square Neighborhood Park, which is currently private property… until Forest City gives the park to the City in 2008, and with it the Monument.

Observing this, the Public Art Advisory Committee sent a letter to the Mayor and Council alerting them to an end run around the City’s Public Art Program. The letter argued for a formal review of Monument which would eventually become part of the City’s art collection by a simple act of deeding the property it which it stands on to the City. The Cultural Affairs Commission endorsed the letter, and City staff met with the artist and project backers, who agreed to the review by the City’s Gift Panel.

The panel met on May 31 to review the proposal, look at site plans and imagery, and visit Chiodo’s studio to engage the artist in a discussion where they encountered a posse of project backers, including poet and novelist Guy Johnson. At the end of the day, Monument looks like it’s getting another no vote –albeit a qualified one– from this latest public body.

The report contains some aesthetic recommendations for the work, which are typical with large civic commissions, but centers its declination based on, what else, the numbers. The unfunded portion of the fabrication cost (estimated at $3.5 million) and the ongoing cost of maintaining the safety and condition of a two-story, 50 foot piece of bronze, which the proposal suggests would be covered by sales of an educational DVD.

The report will go to the Public Art Advisory Committee on Monday at 5pm, and insiders aren’t betting that the recommendation will be contested in any way. It should shoot straight to the Cultural Affairs Commission on June 26.

The Thing That Must Be Discovered

What’s at the heart of this debate?

  • Aesthetic differences: the highly representational style of the Monument is in stark contrast to say, The Ladders at  14th Street and Mandela Parkway commemorating the Loma Prieta collapse of the Cypress freeway. Those who align with one style or the other have been known to include a moral superiority while they’re at it.
  • Political correctness: voting down a sculpture that is
    attempting to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, among others, is going to
    require a lot of prelim regardless of the rationality of your argument. Yet this particular work has received plenty of no votes without anyone calling the card… yet.
  • Frustration with City bureaucracy: Public review of art and culture is a time-consuming system erected to protect public interest, with very little attention paid to it until one is not favored by it. Chiodo’s alternative to public funding of the Monument is an important model, even though this particular example seems to be pointing to public funding after all.
  • Contempt for the Contempters: The Monument assaults our sense of fair play, but it should not be the only project to do so. It is merely another example of the Brown Administration appearing to support the arts while holding its own cultural workers and advisors in small regard. With one of the largest concentrations of artists in its borders and at its side, City Hall continues to relegate our functions to titulary rubber stampers while maintining a capricious royal court of aesthetic favorites who will likely triumph regardless of our protests or endorsements. As a participant in the recent Ron Dellums Arts Town Hall pointed out: City Hall has selected artists and arts initiatives based on their sympathy, or susceptibility, to the idea of the arts in service to the Mayor’s economic agenda. Upon reflection this agenda has created as much loss for citizens as it has created opportunity for its investors. The impact on the arts, barring the good fortunes of some of us, is writ large in our own deep-seated divisions.

You all have to, no I’m serious this time, fill out a speaker card for this one.

Oh yeah: all artists need to vote on Tuesday, June 6.

Studio One Public Art Commission

Had I known this (I was at the meeting! Nothing was mentioned!) I’d-a shouted a leetle earlier:

Please help us announce a great opportunity for lovers of Oakland and the arts. We’re making one last big push to distribute this Call for Artists. It’s been out now since mid-January and the deadline is a few weeks away (March 15). This is a major public art project, open to artists nationally, for the City of Oakland’s own Studio One Art Center. You can assist by passing on the RFQ (attached as a .pdf file) to any artists who might be interested. You can also refer people to the RFQ posted on the Web at:

The Studio One public art project is one of the Measure DD projects approved in the annual public art plan. In January the RFQ was mailed to our database of 1200 artists and posted on numerous websites; we’ve had a lot of interest from artists already. For more information on the project, prospective applicants can contact Christin Hablewitz, Measure DD Public Art Project Manager, at (510) 238-2105.

Thank you,
Steven Huss
Public Art Coordinator

City of Oakland Cultural Arts Department

1 Frank H. Ogawa Plaza, 9th Floor
Oakland, CA 94612
phone 510.238.4949 fax 510.238.6341

everyday i feel killed by politicians

Date: Thu, 8 Apr 2004 13:48:40 -0700
To: Suki O’Kane
From: Hugh Livingston
Subject: Re: Artship in SF?
Suki, The word is that the Nat’l Historic Preservation Society jumped in and got an injunction to hold off shipping the boat to China, so it was temporarily put up at Mare Island. It is not accessible and nobody thinks it will last long. Slobodan is confused as to why they didn’t team up with ARTSHIP Foundation earlier, but that is apparently how they work. Meanwhile, the ARTSHIP Foundation, which existed before the Golden Bear, continues to exist. They receive grants, do public works, mediation, the Windows, etc. Slobodan believes that two loose associates came and made such an announcement at the committee meeting, which may have been misinterpreted. They only wanted to say everybody was still alive and making art, not to be killed by politicians.

Ai yi yi: another great band name.

If it is true that the Artship is not a ship, but a coalition of creative programming, then I am satisfied, much in the way I am satisfied that P-Funk’s Mother Ship is not a ship, although I heard recently the Mother Ship Is Returning.

Slobodan Dan Paich and George Clinton would make a remarkable pair.

This Flag’s For You

Ma’s pastor, a woman I’ve wanted to be about that much more progressive than she actually is, did me a favor and blessed the Tibetan prayer flags I had draped around the teapot on the ceremonial, but really plain, stand next to the altar. She laid hands on me, and them, and called us both out by name. I felt her hands, and the hands that had touched her, and the hands that had touched those, and the hands that had touched them, until all of our hands were touching, all the way back to the first comforting touch, which I imagined took place in totally different circumstances than Ma’s pastor regularly envisions.

I believe this is called grace.

During the memorial, we had each of us stood up and remembered things aloud. Each memory heartwarming and familiar, and the place bobbed with knowing nods. That was my Ma.

My remembrance was a gold tablecloth that came to me in the mail. I showed it to the gathered and read the post-it note that had come attached to it. Ma knew how to create opportunities for everyday objects, and I read off the dozen or more suggested uses for a gold tablecloth, none of them involving covering a table. I heard everyone dissolve in laughter, then choke up as I wrapped the tablecloth around the teapot and considered the effect.

It set the blue off nicely.

I kept the tablecloth and the flags in my kit and wrapped my head in the former while stringing up the latter on the guywire to the Chime. Many compliments on both. And the wind, always there, began to immediately unravel the flags and carry the blessings they contained into the world. It’s a very simple way of seeding the world with your compassionate intention, if you’re at all metaphysical about it.

Ma wasn’t.

I think she wanted to be, and she met the idea of the prayer flags with great enthusiasm on aesthetic grounds alone. But while I toiled with the knots, the memory came to me of her noticing the grayness of a Payless clerk, engaging her in small talk over the course of routine shopping, coming to find out about the clerk’s struggle with single motherhood, and appearing one day at the end of her register with a bag of groceries, toys, and clothes she thought the clerk might be able to use. Back in January I sent a change of address card to the clerk, who had gone on to remarry and build a successful family and career. She sent Ma holiday and birthday greetings years after all of this had ever taken place.

Payless Clerk. Tibetan Prayer Flags.
Which blows blessings further?

MZ reminded me to wrap the blessed flags separately from the rest we had flown, so I would know which ones had been supercharged by Ma’s pastor, and which ones we could pass out to the donors who invested in our Chime. No need, I said, smiling. Perhaps he thinks I had taken care of it already. But I had mixed them up on purpose to increase the chances of our friends getting their hands on the ones that meant so much to me.

Who knows what will become of them?

Gimme Back My Flags

Macreedy: Oh, I’ll only be here twenty-four hours.
Conductor: In a place like this, it could be a lifetime.

I credit mPowers, who had earlier suggested that the flag installation did not qualify as art, for noticing the two guys on the ATV running through the flags with something other than boundless joy. They were definitely trying, unlike everyone else who drove through the flags (on bikes, on scooters dressed up as rabbits, on foot, on x), to accomplish something. Sure enough, the sky hitched up with the sight of a couple flags torn from their roots and tucked under the arm of the guy riding on the back. Off they went.

Proof I’m not so bad off as I thought: I was completely galvanized with What To Do Next. First: Run After Them Now. Second: Wave Arms and Yell Imperatives. It was really quite a good thing that they noticed me at all, and really even better that they stopped, circled, and drove back to me as I pounded toward them with an unrelenting speed.

The Driver launched into a defense: He thought the flags were up for grabs. It was the day after the Burn and what hadn’t been nailed down or closely guarded had in many cases been destroyed more or less on purpose. The boundary between the right of a thing to exist and the right of a person to interact with it had been made very complicated, drawn by a machine with four pen points and a progressive circular motion. The old rules of public art had been, in a quaint way, sidestepped by the special circumstances of Black Rock City, with its one beautiful rule of never interfering with the immediate experience of another. I set my work out there and walked gingerly away from it, the years of cranky letters and indignant phonecalls to the beleaguered public art coordinator ringing in my ears, my jejeune thesis on the response to a work of art actually contributing to its meaning over time, and the sinking feeling I get when I ponder my own factual weakness around art: I feel faint, as if my eyes are seeing just a bit too much, and my heart is bursting just a bit too wide. One time I couldn’t hide it, and was escorted to a room, quite uninteresting, where I found about a dozen people like me, completely played out by the ceiling frescos. The museum guards had seen it all before, and caught me even before I realized I was falling.

Which is to say, and is pretty much what the attorney said that night as we tried to convince her that Nile Spice soups were good meals for vegetarians, destructive responses to art are nonetheless flattering. Scout said: I am now aware I have a fan of my art, and it’s a pity my fan is also a thief. Sadly, I spent the next few days making minor adjustments to my perch on the fence of this issue without ever falling off or dying of dissonance, and ended my grief when no one was around by looking at the picture of the installation that Z took until the tears came.

It really was beautiful, and I was so undeserving. Yaven said I had to make things up about my art: why the saturated yellow? Why the lean right triangles? Why metal conduit instead of pvc? What was the meaning of the sound of the flags? What was the key to their number and arrangement? But I can tell you it went like this: Wake up one day. Say half aloud “Flags. Must make flags for desert. Yes. Make flags now.” then more or less make them, but not until you really have to a few days before you leave. Finally, walk out to a spot and install the flags. Upon your return, sit on the couch and look at them in the distance. Say half aloud “Flags. Flags done. Next.” The next thing was dinner, I swear. Over the next few days, I was corrected by more experienced public artists, especially the conceptual environmental kinetic ones. I invented a story for the flags that truly satisfied the inquiries, and, naturally, couldn’t keep track of it because it was such a big fat lie.

But not once were my flags up for grabs. When the Driver asked if they were, I said No. I took the flags from them, without rancor, turned and walked away. It seemed to me they were calling to me with increasing frustration. Usually ethical discussions broke out over scenes like this, and, for a time, you relish the opportunity to hash it all out. But it was all so completely over for me, and the only thing the Driver and his Man needed to know was my one word. It might have been provocative, it might have robbed them of their process, it might have ended my opportunity to proselytize my point of view, or hear with antenna up a new point of view entirely. I accepted this, and trudged back to the camp. The only thought of any substance in my head was that I had certainly run a long way, and it was going to take me quite a while to get back.

Z came out with me to deinstall the remaining flags. I feared the return of the philosophically unrequited atv guys, or some unassuming oaf to take their place. The wind picked up in harshness and the wet came out of the sky. We worked without regard to it, and with each step gained another half inch in height as the muddied alkali crust adhered to our shoes: signature Playa Platforms. By the time we reached the road in front of our camp we were approaching the Giant section of the actuarial table, and were basically soaked to the skin. mPowers was waiting with his polaroid.

Is it art yet? I asked him. It’s definitely art, he said.

If I’m crafty, I can reinstall the flags in my neighborhood so that their eventual removal by the authorities provokes a great shaming action on the part of the community. Now they lean inert against the wall in an incomprehensible bundle. The cat considered their wind-frayed edges for a moment, then moved on. We’ve received word that they were powerful anchors for many citizens, highly photogenic, filled with just the right amount of strange light and sound, a simple and satisfying surprise. I wondered if I should have let them go, and created a story of my own renunciation of fetishism to go with it.

But it was all so truly me: to make them, to show them, to fight for them, to keep them; each act an assertion of the unadorned self, without premeditation or compensating strategy. This was a completely unexpected experience of authenticity. Honestly. I thought I was too far gone for that.

But there you have it all flapping in the wind.