Crying in public

Being brave through site-specific choreography on Market Street 

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"The Cries of San Francisco" artists filled Mint Plaza with performance-art hijinks.
PHOTO COURTESY OF SOUTHERN EXPOSURE

arts@sfbg.com

HAIRY EYEBALL Weaving my way through the groups of slower moving shoppers and tourists ambling out of the Powell Street BART Station, I realized I was already too late.

I had wanted to be present for the June 11 noon kickoff of Market Day — the large-scale public art event tied to Allison Smith's current Southern Exposure exhibit "The Cries of San Francisco" — but when I reached Mint Plaza and had been handed a schedule I saw that my timing had been off by an hour.

Oh well. The point of Market Day wasn't to necessarily be at a certain place at a certain hour to see a certain something. The "something" was supposedly happening all around me. The nearly 70 Bay Area artists, performers, and craftspeople Smith had gathered for this ambitious public art project had dispersed throughout Mint Plaza, and up and down Market Street between Fifth and Third streets, to peddle their wares (many homemade), offer more ineffable "services" (such as owning the expletive of your choice or telling you a story), or to simply "perform" in "character."

The criers were to be like tiny pebbles subtly altering the fast-moving watercourse of weekend foot traffic. Granted, participation is hard to measure for something like "The Cries of San Francisco," but wherever I turned, people seemed engaged even if the number of folks documenting a given artist seemed to greatly outnumber the members of the public they were interacting with.

I decided I needed a little more intimacy if I was to get my feet wet. I started back toward Market and ran into a woman dressed in steampunk-ish attire. Her name was Jamie Venci, a.k.a. the Questing Choreographer (each participating artist conveniently had a large nametag). She offered me an informative pamphlet about one of three historic buildings in the vicinity that had survived the 1906 earthquake if I promised to carry out the site-specific choreography contained within.

I agreed, and for convenience's sake, I went with the Mint Building. Not five minutes later, I was on the steps of "the Granite Lady" attempting to convey the shape of its crenellated outline with my arms — per a step in Venci's cutely drawn instructions — in what must have looked like a particularly inept approximation of tai chi.

Conceptual art requires a suspension of disbelief on the part of its audience. I was not merely being ridiculous in public, but was publicly enacting a new relationship to a space I had not really considered too closely before. I, as much as Venci, was the Questing Choreographer, and together we had collaborated on a piece.

The satisfaction I took in my demonstration of good faith was fleeting, as questions took over. What had passersby thought about what I was doing? And how could they really have anything to think about without some context for my undertaking? If a person dresses up in a colorful manner in San Francisco and carries on in public does anyone raise an eyebrow, let alone pause to consider the host of artistic and economic concerns that "The Cries of San Francisco" aimed to bring to the streets?

Materials for the event cited Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire to protest police harassment, as well as Carol Reed's 1968 film version of the musical Oliver! as representational precedents. But despite the presence of Art for a Democratic Society's Class War Store cart full o' Marxism, the tenor of many of the criers was more playful than revolutionary. Whimsy was the order of the day.

Ha Ha La (Nathaniel Parsons) pushed around an "amusement park," a steep ladder that participants would gingerly climb up and down while Parsons bellowed a New Age-y chant affirming their bravery and blessedness through a conch shell. After I took my turn on the rickety structure, I chose a souvenir badge that read, "You don't have to behave you just gotta be brave."

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