by Elena Gross
We’ve all played that game where you ask someone: If your house was suddenly destroyed, what is the one thing you would try to save? The answer is often incredibly revealing of the kinds of things — objects, memories, or beings — the person holds sacred.
But, for many of us, the comfort of the game is that we have never been forced to make that decision, or robbed of the chance to do so. The exhibition “Refuge in Refuse: Homesteading Art & Culture Project” at SOMArts Cultural Center in San Francisco, is as much about honoring the importance and fragility of home, and the many ways one can come to define it, as it is about showcasing the truly remarkable artwork of local artists and residents of the Albany Bulb.
“Refuge in Refuse” is one of three shows this year that comprise SOMArts’ Commons Curatorial Residency Program. Bay Area residents, artists, curators and activists are encouraged to submit proposals for an exhibition that highlights the Bay Area’s “many dimensions of diversity including race, class, cultural heritage, artistic expression, ability, gender identity and sexual orientation.”
The SOMArts Commons Curatorial Residency recipients, Robin Lasser, Danielle Siembieda, and Barbara Boissevain, have chosen to open the floor for a population often talked about but far less frequently heard. The former residents of the Albany Bulb, or as many self-identify, The Landfillians, have collaborated with Bay Area artists, architects, scholars, and writers to express themselves and tell their stories with unsentimental honesty and integrity.
The exhibit presents a multifocal and complicated view of life at the Albany Bulb before and after the most recent mass-eviction last spring, which was the first step in an effort to banish the now-homeless residents and convert the land into public park space.
Like the social infrastructure of the Albany Bulb itself, much of the work in the exhibition is the result of careful collaboration. Many hands came together to make this show possible, and many perspectives are on display at once.
Photographers and documentarians meet with sculptors and landscape architects; beaded mobiles and paintings done on salvaged metal meet with 3D renderings and interventionist park signs.
The delicate ecology of people, plants, animals and artwork that all coexisted on the Albany Bulb are given equal footing and thoughtful consideration. “Refuge in Refuse” really uncovers what this place has meant — and still means — to many different people.
Though there is something innately political about the work in “Refuge in Refuse,” there is also a strong emotive quality, and this was never more visible than in witnessing the artists react to seeing their own work on display, some of them for the first time.
“It’s beautiful,” said artist Danielle Evans as she gazed admiringly at her own paintings. “It’s like ‘that’s not me!’ But it is!”
Her work is displayed beside Jimbow the Hobow’s brilliantly titled paintings, such as “Dancing Landfillians,” and metal photo-collage mandala portraits of residents like Tamara, who performed her own rendition of Elphaba the Wicked Witch of the West, melting outside the window of Mad Marc’s Castle, a joint collaboration between Tamara, Robin Lasser and sculptor Judith Leinen.
The artworks reveal glimpses into the lives of these individuals and allow you, for a minute, to see The Landfillians as they see themselves. Those of us in positions of privilege may come to a show like “Refuge in Refuse” with preconceived notions about what being “homeless” looks like, or what homelessness is, or who homeless people are.
But so rarely do we take a minute to let those on whom we’ve already passed judgement — good, bad or otherwise — speak for themselves. “We would work with the residents out there and talk to them about their stories. And people like Tamara or Boxer Bob really created their own lives for the camera,” Lasser said of her collaboration with residents to make the film “Refuge in Refuse.”
Though mediums in this exhibition range from the collection of found objects (or “nifties” as they are referred to in the piece by Amber Whitson) to contemporary scan technology, the most prolific and varied is perhaps the use of film. In addition to the large-scale photographs and zoetrope mandalas, there are three documentary films working in conjunction with the exhibition.
On opening night of the exhibition, SOMArts screened all three films back-to-back, including post-film discussions and talks by the artists. The three films are “Bum’s Paradise,” “Where Do You Go When It Rains,” and “Refuge in Refuse,” all collaborative efforts by documentarians and Albany Bulb residents. They all played on loop in the gallery space during the exhibition. All three films are now available and can be viewed at any time on the Refuge in Refuse website, at www.refugeinrefuse.weebly.com as well as on Public Access TV. [See: http://www.somarts.org/refugecommons/]
The films take the viewer on a chronological walkthrough of the struggle between Bulb residents and Albany officials from the time of the first mass evictions in 1999 to the most recent evictions in April 2014. These screenings are particularly effective in reminding the audience that the lives and struggles of the Albany Bulb and the people who lived there did not end when the cameras stopped rolling, and will not end when the exhibition closes at SOMArts in March.
Seeing subjects of the film, like poet/artist Robert “Rabbit” Barringer or attorney/SNIFF artist Osha Neumann, stand before the projection screen after one of the films and address the crowd was an emotional and powerful experience, drawing many curious, impassioned and heated questions from the audience.
The question that most hung in the air: What happens now? What happens to the residents? To the artwork? To the Bulb? The artists of “Refuge in Refuse” are living proof that this struggle is still not over. There are lives still being affected and no good can come from ignoring that.
At the opening, Andy Kreamer, a former resident of the Bulb and the filmmaker of “Where Do You Go When It Rains,” gave a very moving talk, asking for participants to call out the names of Bulb residents who had been lost. The weight of this action filled the room with a kind of reality not replicable on screen. The amount of loss that has been suffered in the past year, both physically and mentally, is unquantifiable. The residents have lost more than their homes. They’ve lost their safety, their friends, their peace of mind.
For some, their artwork still remains on the Bulb. However, it hardly feels like a victory. “Now that the people are gone, I personally have no interest in going back — or keeping the art there,” Neumann said after the showing of “Bum’s Paradise.”
Though not a resident, Neumann is one of the artists in the SNIFF collective who worked on the Bulb and whose artwork is now a signature part of the landscape. Pieces of his sculptural work, as well as Mad Marc’s Castle, are some of the only surviving remnants of the artistic community on the Bulb. The homes and encampments were destroyed in the eviction.
The “Refuge in Refuse” exhibition is not just about what survived, but also about what was lost. Probably the most surprising pieces in the show are the 3D point cloud images of the Bulb, made in October 2013 before the mass eviction by artists Danielle Siembieda and Robin Lasser in collaboration with F3 & Associates, a 3D printing firm in Benicia.
“I am a new media artist by trade, so technology is an important aspect in how I work,” Siembieda said. “The site is very architectural and I knew it would be only moments before the buildings were gone. With other important historical landmarks, surveyors document every aspect of a building. Using 3D scan technology allows [us] to have accurate preservation of information.”
During an upcoming event for “Refuge in Refuse,” participants will access an “augmented reality tour” on the actual site of the Albany Bulb, allowing them to see the structures that existed on the land prior to demolition.
“This was the perfect setting for this type of work,” Siembieda said. “The structures do not adhere to formal angular structures and are difficult to replicate. With a team of surveyors and the technology, we were able to access the California Coordinates (more precise than GPS coordinates) and the exact position each structure had taken.”
The product of this work is striking. The scans on display as still images of the Bulb look like something out of a very colorful dream, with mansions and castles and metal sculptures. But like a dream, we are now left with harsh reality, fragmented memories and a longing to go back to sleep.
As Lasser said several times during my talk with her, “This show is not a solution.” Refuge in Refuse is not a solution to the eviction and displacement of a large number of now-homeless human beings who created a community at the Albany Bulb that has been demolished.
Greg Kloehn’s beautifully made mobile structures for the homeless, on view in the exhibition, are not a solution to homelessness. An augmented reality tour and park signs are not a solution to the erasure of marginalized histories of the Bulb. But it is a start.
What this exhibition, and the contributions of all the artists, community organizers and former residents, does offer, is a chance to reflect. It offers a chance to see the Landfillians as they are and as they want to be seen. And it enables us to see that a “homeless” or “houseless” or simply more ephemeral way of life is no less valid or less worthy of respect.
“Refuge in Refuse” presents the Albany Bulb in full complexity and living color and is committed to honoring the space, as it was, as it is and as it will be remembered by those therein invested.
The exhibition is still on view until March 14, 2015, at SOMArts Cultural Center, 934 Brannan St. San Francisco, CA, 94103. Gallery hours: Tuesday-Friday, 12-7 p.m. and Saturday 12-5 p.m. More info: www.somarts.org/refugeinrefuse.