September 07, 2009

Wonderland: A world turned upside down

Wonderland: a land of wonder, curiosities and marvels.

Wonder: something strange and surprising. A cause of astonishment.

In the popular novel, Alice and her Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, a young girl follows a rabbit down its rabbit hole to find herself in a place that, from her perspective, is full of nonsense and chaos. In Wonderland Alice meets a cast of characters, anthropomorphic plants and animals and travels through a fantasy land that is far from the hum-drum bore of the world she just left behind.

The Wonderland that curator Lance Fung refers to in his upcoming public, collaborative project is far from the fantastical space of Carroll’s novel. Fung’s Wonderland is the Tenderloin. Tucked between wealthy neighborhoods like Nob Hill and Union Square, the Tenderloin is a small, densely populated neighborhood. The Tenderloin, like many urban areas, is a difficult place to describe and categorize. The Tenderloin has the highest percentage of families, children and immigrants living in any area of San Francisco. Its residents are largely low-income people who are marginalized due to class, citizenship status, race, gender and sexuality, many of whom do not get the social services they need.

Fung has curated ten collaborative groups to create projects in multiple sites throughout this neighborhood including public venues and community organizations. The project features forty-six artists, including those currently living in San Francisco, and other artists both nationally and internationally located. Wonderland began as a graduate level course taught by Fung at the San Francisco Art Institute. According to the press release, Wonderland is “born of and responds to” the diversities of the Tenderloin. The show’s primary audience is cited as those who live or work in the Tenderloin. Later the press release states that it will transform the Tenderloin into a destination for tourists, opening on October 17th with a block party in Boedekker Park, the projects will remain open for one month. Wonderland is sponsored by the North of Market Community Benefit District and several galleries in the area including the 1AM Gallery and Ever Gold Gallery.

Those are the facts: the title, the neighborhood and the project. To be honest, my research about Wonderland has raised a lot of complicated feelings and concerns for me—many of which are difficult to articulate and relate to many broader issues I have attempted to address here on Open Space; questions related to public art, to socially engaged art practices, to gentrification and  specifically to San Francisco’s uneven economic and social landscape.

Izida Zorde articulated similar concerns in her introduction to the recent July 2009 issue of the Canadian arts journal, Fuse. She states, “Many artistic interventions that skirt the surface of social networks—when divorced from the desire for community empowerment and transformation—can actually have the effect of institutionalizing the negative social impacts of a neo-liberalizing society. What responsibilities do artists working in relation to communities have to engage not just with their surface but also with their underlying politics and realities?” Zorde’s questions couldn’t have more relevancy to Fung’s exhibition. While the Wonderland press release acknowledges the complexities of the Tenderloin and many projects may benefit the community members they directly engage with, I’m concerned about the goal of “renewing the neighborhood as a tourist destination,” as stated in the press release. I’m also concerned about the sustainability of these projects and fear that Wonderland will re-brand a low-income neighborhood as an “arts district” without addressing the underlying politics and realities for those who live there now, not those who may move in once new galleries open and property values rise.

There are several projects included in Wonderland that do engage directly with community organizations and non-profits. The collaborative group “Cents” is working with the Boys and Girls Club, producing drawings based on the children’s ideas of home and shelter. The drawings will then be assembled into a three-dimensional structure and displayed in various locations throughout the Tenderloin as a way of engaging with the public. Postcards of the drawings will be made available and passersby will be encouraged to write their own messages about home on the back. Other projects include engaging with small business owners, interviewing senior citizens about parenting, creating a radio broadcast of residents singing songs in a variety of languages and a collaboration with the after school program at Glide Memorial Church.

One project is particularly troubling to me. The project “Offstage” began with research into the history of the Tenderloin as a theater district and extends this history to what is described on the Wonderland blog as “the theatricality of the streets” that depicts “human drama in extremely raw form.” The artists describe the inhabitants of the Tenderloin as conducting “melodramatic behaviors common to urban vagabonds” often induced by inebriation. In order to make visual this phenomenon, as they describe it, the artists chose to abstract and replicate sleeping bag forms, to reference those without shelter in the neighborhood and will install these forms in the windows of the Golden Gate Theater located on Taylor street. In the last paragraph of the project description the artists state, “In our installation, we bring focus to the life on the streets of the Tenderloin, allowing the spectacle of the street to take center stage. Consequently, the “characters” are brought closer to the streets by featuring a “show” that is available to all pedestrians and inhabitants of the neighborhood.” In conjunction with this project description, the blog features photographs that mimic those captured by surveillance cameras—images taken from afar, without the persons awareness, and altered to highlight them through a spotlight, as though to exemplfy exactly who this cast of characters are.

It remains unclear to me how this project functions within the framework of Wonderland as a community centered project whose primary audience is intended to be residents of the Tenderloin. While the artists were apparently inspired by their observations within the neighborhood, the perspective remains that of someone outside, falling back on the assumptions often made about people who live “on the wrong side of the tracks.” All too often urban areas such as the Tenderloin are represented one-dimensionally through the lens of all that is considered dangerous and illegal. Yes, there is crime in the Tenderloin, yet there are also internal communities within these neighborhoods and systems of checks and balances that often remain unseen to those who do not live there.

Image of proposed project from the “Offstage” project description on the Wonderland blog

The true issue that underlies the premise of “Offstage” is a city government that continues to cut funding for a population of people who are addicts and/or have mental illnesses and are in need of basic social services. So long as clinics, rehabilitation centers, and shelters continue to loose financial support, the street will remain a site in which all areas of people’s lives are made highly visible. By naming this situation as a “show” the artists of “Offstage” invite visitors to observe this “spectacle” at a distance, from the position of an audience member, a tourist passing through the neighborhood. Additionally, the aestheticization of homelessness in the form of sleeping bags ascending from a theater does little to address the “social representation and change” as the description on the blog states. How do the residents of the Tenderloin, those “urban vagabonds” described in “Offstage” benefit from such a representation?

I’m not terribly interested in identifying which projects are more or less appropriate or community oriented and which are not, rather, my concerns lie with the framework of the project as a whole.  Certainly, Wonderland provides artists, particularly young, recently graduated MFA students with an opportunity to gain exposure and participate in a large scale exhibition, an opportunity especially exciting for those interested in socially engaged work. It is my hope that these artists reflect on their own position and consider how they are engaging with the Tenderloin community. As opposed to an ephemeral connection facilitated through an art show, building sustainable relationships fosters a more complex understanding of the Tenderloin. Artist, Michael Swaine’s project “Sewing for the People” serves as an excellent example of such a project. On the 15th of every month, Swaine sets up a portable sewing cart on Cohen Alley in the Tenderloin, repairing holes and mending clothes. Swaine’s project has continued for so long now that he has a regular clientele and has developed relationships with residents of the neighborhood. His project utilizes his own craft skills while offering a basic service to anyone who desires it.

The opening night of Wonderland will undoubtedly draw crowds of hundreds to the Tenderloin, given Fung’s reputation and the publicity that the show has received. The visitors will experience not only the individual projects but the neighborhood, as well. As the poorest, most stigmatized neighborhood in San Francisco will become highly visible for a brief period of time, the attention of the visitors or art tourists turned to the neighborhood itself. While I am a proponent of removing art from museums and making it more accessible to the general public, I am skeptical of this brief encounter with the Tenderloin, the lure and thrill of visiting San Francisco’s seediest neighborhood (a word used by Fung in the press release to describe the Tenderloin) for one night through a voyeuristic meandering. Within this scenario, I fear that the spectacle of the poor will remain in place and sustainable change and awareness about what is truly at stake for residents in the Tenderloin will be more and more difficult to enact.

It is not my intention to discourage artists from attempting to address politics or community engagement within their practice, however I think it is imperative to consider the broader impacts of our artistic practices within geographical contexts that we have little connection with. By not engaging with the underlying politics and realities within a place like the Tenderloin, artists’ projects have the danger of replicating power dynamics that help to sustain systems of oppression and social hierarchy. Within the context of the drastic funding cuts to social services in the Tenderlion and the extremely high rate of homelessness in San Francisco, it is imperative to question who benefits when the neighborhood is turned into a tourist destination? Whose lives are on display? Who plays the role of Alice, falling down the rabbit hole to experience a world turned upside down, only to wake up later and return to her safe and comfortable life? Who’s wonderland is this?

Comments (16)

  • Rick Darnell says:

    In retrospect Wonderland was little more than carpetbaggers disguised as would be social practice artists, with more ego than substance.

  • I would also like to relay my experience with Wonderland for the sake of context.

    As the latest participating intern for the Wonderland Show, native New Yorker and local struggling artist, I am fool to believe that my American experiences are not unique. As I have witnessed immediate family members fighting culturally fed addictions, interacting with “the system” in its multiple iterations, and personally not knowing if I will be able to stay in my home if the rent is increased again, I wonder about the value of us individuals. In particular, by default, what value has been assigned by overarching capitalist constructs to creativity today?

    The way I see it, we are all social beings, first and foremost. It makes me incredibly sad that my first question while interviewing for the chance to learn more about making art accessible to everyone was, is this project going to further gentrify the city where I live?

    While working toward bettering human condition, will I still be able to afford my own shelter is an irony, isn’t it? Who is this city optimizing it’s conditions for? For brick and mortar establishments that can pay for their operating permits? For non-profits that take the burden of providing social services off institutions we actually pay taxes for? For established artists that make culture digestible by those that can pay for it? (For thoughts on these and other issues, please see Tim Redmond’s opinions in the San Francisco Bay Guardian.)

    And of course who or what is actually quarantining these human needs anyway? Are the activities in Tenderloin the symptom or the cause? As far as I can tell, questioning and wonder are what make progress.

    I am not a commodity. Nor are the people that live in the TL. I too am just trying to survive the many unmarked signs and territories. In our daily struggle, sometimes without time we cannot see or pay close enough attention to the meta structure at work. However, it seems to me that our basic (human) needs are being sold out. In America, the land of the free, human rights have slowly but insidiously become unattainable without a large salary. Ultimately, my goal in joining this endeavor is to learn how to go about furthering equal access to human rights. Physical and mental health, coping skills, food, clothes, shelter, expression, information. Yes, arts can nurture all of those.

    I do not expect it possible for the trickle up approach to magically, immediately return any of these rights to any of us locally or globally. I understand that the systems in place are entrenched and continue rolling like a great river. I expect that the course to better conditions may be circuitous. But, I am hoping, and I think anyone living in any kind of ghetto will agree, speaking truth to power is certainly loud, but to change course, actions speak louder than words.

    For the sake of current and deeper looming crises, it is imperative to meld efforts, efficiency and sensitivity. Not one group or person can do it alone. We need each other.

    That said, there has been much action that has lead up to Wonderland’s ability to share the events with the general public. By making inroads into exclusionary media coverage and monopolies deciding what is sanctioned art, all the people working on this project have worked incredibly hard to navigate through the morass. I can only hope that the result of Wonderland’s efforts is the realization that more alternatives for everybody are possible.

    From my recent experience and familiarity with the artists in this group, it is my estimation that Wonderland understands these notions. The Wonderland Show is not an answer but a response to an already ongoing dialogue. The crew working daily in various ways and in a breadth of communities are sensitive to the present and they reflect that in their work. Just like the people living in the Tenderloin, this is not about livelihood but rather one’s life and community.

    Thanks for bringing this issue to light. I hope this blog continues as a space for hard questions such as these. I only hope we each do our part to invite larger circles for dialogue.

  • Mira A. Carberry says:

    It seems to me that Robert’s criticism of the Wonderland show is both valid and necessary. The show is controversial and deserves analysis.

    Many artists in the show are self-reflective and questioning their role as outsiders engaging the Tenderloin community. This is evidenced in the fact that the press release was re-written to better explain the intentions of the exhibition with more recognition of the complexity of the neighborhood. But the exhibition is not without criticism from the artists themselves. In fact, I first heard about the Wonderland show from a participating artist. He expressed some concern about the project and asked me, as someone who works in the Tenderloin, what my feelings, thoughts, and reactions were to this project. Later he sent me the press packet for my further consideration.

    I had several critiques of the show as it was described in the earlier press release:

    The Wonderland exhibition intends to give the tourist access to the Tenderloin’s many aesthetics. As stated in the press release, “The duration of the show renews the Tenderloin as a destination for tourists…By many means, Wonderland’s works re-evaluate common beliefs about the Tenderloin district through alternative interactions between the audience and their surroundings.” So the tourist can see The Tenderloin as more than the ghetto as the term becomes deconstructed through images that challenge its meaning.

    But why is that the ghetto has to explain itself to the tourist? Why does it take the tourist to “re-discover” the Tenderloin? And why should alternative interactions be staged for the tourist?

    Likewise, the concept of rediscovering the Tenderloin undermines the richness of aesthetics already in place. The term rediscovery is just as problematic when considering the recent history of gentrification in San Francisco. A perfect example is the Bayview–a historically Black neighborhood and another one of the city’s few remaining ghettos. Recently, the neighborhood has undergone redevelopment (synonymous with gentrification) and homes are bring built that are unaffordable to its current residents. The city council promoted this redevelopment initiative with a publicity campaign. At Muni stops and elsewhere throughout the city, there were posters depicting “alternative images” of the Bayview designed to contradict its ghetto persona with text sprawled across the top that read “rediscover Bayview”. This rediscovery perpetuates the same hegemony as discovery, ignoring the existing cultures already present. And, in this sense, it encourages the same process of renaming the Tenderloin as Wonderland, inviting the tourist in at the expense of the resident.

    I sent this open letter to the folks at Wonderland and they were very receptive. In fact, John Melvin responded to me the next day, inviting me to participate in community meetings where I could provide input. Unfortunately, I never received an invitation to any of those meetings.

    Since writing the open letter, I started working with some of the folks from the Wonderland show so the children that I work could participate in the show. As someone collaborating with the artists and as someone engaged in the community, I still have my criticisms of the show, particularly surrounding gentrification and sustainability.

    I agree that the Wonderland project is unique because it brings internationally acclaimed artists into a stigmatized neighborhood to engage the community in contemporary art projects. Maybe it’s under my radar, but I don’t think this happens every day. However, I still think it is important to examine the implications of bringing outsiders in to “spotlight” the Tenderloin so that people gain a more complex understanding of the neighborhood. I recognize that members of the community are central to the show, but I am still curious—what if Tenderloin residents were the primary organizers? What if Tenderloin residents were the only artists invited to participate?

    I think it is also important to consider the ramification of hosting a large-scale art exhibition in a neighborhood made vulnerable to gentrification because of its geographically desirable location. (Case in point: the new multi-million dollar California Pacific Medical Center facility proposed for construction at Van Ness and Geary) I’m not suggesting that the TL should be without the arts. On the contrary, I believe that there already exists thriving cultures of art and artists—both formal and informal—in the Tenderloin. However, I am curious to know how the shape of the neighborhood will change by giving more access to outsiders and tourists. I am also curious about what role outside artists will play in the process of the potential gentrification of the Tenderloin.

    My final concern is in regards to sustainability. Many of the artists lay claim to the desire to build sustainable relationships with the community and its residents. I think this is really important. That the Wonderland show takes place over a course of months lends itself to this fact. But, in my work with children, I can assure you that a couple of months are still not sustainable. I invite the artists to continue their work with TL residents throughout the year as part of an ongoing project.

    Finally, even though I hate to extend a bad metaphor, I would like to say that Roberts is clearly no Queen of Hearts. She’s more like that tripped out caterpillar asking Alice to explain what she is doing in Wonderland.

  • Jeremey Gorman says:

    RE: Offstage

    “Our group is not interested in addressing politics or trying to stave off societies ills. We are interested in making an abstract visual beacon that reflects an internal, human struggle.”

    This internal, human struggle is inherently and without a doubt, political.

    San Francisco has one of the highest rates of homelessness of any major metropolitan city and to turn this into an abstraction, a visual beacon is incredibly disheartening and represents a lack of maturity. Art is political. Public art is political. The Tenderloin is a political site. Regardless as to your intention, by choosing this subject matter you ARE addressing politics. I hope that you see this as an opportunity to examine this more thoroughly, to consider your role as an artist as more than just creating a visual gesture and reconsider disregarding the extreme seriousness of this very political issue for thousands of people’s lives who may not have the power or voice to do so themselves.

  • Offstage reply:

    First off, we are all pleased that our proposal has initiated such a dialogue and look forward to continued discussion.

    Before addressing specifics it is worth noting that our blog is in proposal form and has been constantly evolving for over a year. There are some rather crucial updates that have not yet been uploaded due to last minute changes. Clearly it is very different to approach a proposal as opposed to finished work. Second, it is clear that extensive reading has been done on the Wonderland website, but not a single interview conducted with any of the artists, the TCBD, nor the curator Lance Fung. Obviously we are conditioned to be devoted to our on-line world for information, but to write an entire article of a multi-dimensional exhibition through this one lens seems unfortunate. If we are truly concerned about addressing the social implications of such an art intervention, a thorough discussion with its participants and residents of the neighborhood seems required.

    Having said that, our collaborative group is interested in addressing any misunderstandings toward our artistic intensions. We feel our central premise remains a valid component within the construct of this exhibition and the neighborhood and hope it continues to evoke a variety of reactions. Our goal is to create an installation that represents various cultural and psychological contradictions at work in the Tenderloin. Within this vein the complicated nature of “performance” and “audience” is also examined. The Tenderloin has always been a destination for various forms of entertainment and theater. On these stages there is an illusionary drama that is represented. Meanwhile, outside of these buildings a very real drama unfolds everyday. It may seem crass to describe a cathartic gesture emoted by someone in a desperate situation as a “performance,” but it is a very common, real behavior that holds a haunting poetry for all and should not be easily tossed off because it is not pc. The photos of pedestrians on the blog are a perfect example of our group researching our project as outsiders. Indeed we are all outsiders on this project, critics included, and we all bring a certain perspective as an “audience” to this situation. The Tenderloin has always drawn outsiders, tourists, transients and hosts of others since its inception. Wonderland will obviously bring a host of influences and perspectives and will complicate further the role of the outsider and the audience. All we can hope is that it leads to further discussion.
    Our group is not interested in addressing politics or trying to stave off societies ills. We are interested in making an abstract visual beacon that reflects an internal, human struggle. The symbol of the cocoon holds a variety of references as does the sleeping bag. Obviously, we are conscious of the dangers inherent in aestheticizing these materials. Taking risks is an important component in art production. However, do not think we make these decisions lightly. We weigh these decisions between the three of us and each of our intellects and instincts. We have also given presentations on our proposal half a dozen times through out the last year to a variety of Tenderloin organizations who never thought we were being insensitive toward these issues. Ultimately, it will come down to the execution of the sculptures themselves that will weigh the balance of these ruminations and contradictions. We look forward to discussing any of these issues further during the Wonderland symposium on October 18th.

  • Adrienne Roberts’ critical engagement with the art project Wonderland is both essential and completely appropriate for a project claiming to dedicate itself “to the ideas of collaboration, community and social engagement.” In its press release, Wonderland states its commitment to presenting “opportunities for artists to engage in social consciousness and community building.” Aren’t debate and criticism necessary presences for any indepth engagement with an artistic project? Or are the Wonderland artists and organizers only interested in positive responses to their work?

    This persuasive blog post is both cogent and well-grounded; illuminating, at the very least, Wonderland’s failure to effectively disseminate their goals and priorities to members of the Tenderloin community and potential Wonderland viewers and participants. Rather than attacking Roberts for her valid concerns over the project’s potentially negative impact on the Tenderloin, I would encourage Wonderland organizers to explain how they are addressing these concerns and lay out a clear framework for positive community involvement and activism. As the previous commentator mentioned, San Francisco is currently in a severe health crisis, affecting Tenderloin residents perhaps more than anyone else in the city. It would be an immoral oversight for the Wonderland artists to fail to address the current political climate and the very real and concrete threats to the health of the Tenderloin community.

  • Zachary Royer Scholz says:

    I am a little surprised at some of the lengthy and at times violent responses that Adrienne’s post has generated. It seems clear that she is asserting an strongly ambiguous opinion of “Wonderland.” Such a heartfelt statement of uncertainty can understandably feel like an attack to supporters, but I hope that it will instead spark genuine and productive discussion.

    It is critically important to actively question the complex concerns that interventions such as Wonderland raise. It may simply be a matter of miss communication, but it is currently ambiguous what the intent of this series of projects is. Is its primary audience in fact those who live and work in the TL or is its goal to transform the TL into a destination for tourists? Both have been expressed by Wonderland’s promoters and there is no reason that it simply has to be simply one or the other. Neither stance is inherently virtuous and neither is fundamentally flawed. A more community focused approach empowers resident stakeholders, but undermines the generative potential of external visibility. Engaging an empowered external audience can induce actual improvement, but can equally be insensitively prescriptive, even exploitative.

    There is clearly no right answer and no obvious path to follow. I am glad of Ranu Mukherjee’s post and heartened that the various agencies involved with the project have been carefully considering these issues. I am also glad that Ranu is happy that this blog posting has opened this conversation publicly, and i hope that the other artists and individuals involved feel the same way. However, I wonder what would have happened if it had not? Would it have been enough if theses issues were carefully considered but never publicly presented?

    Personally I am not that interested in judging the particular motivations and considerations that have shaped Wonderland. Its program is clearly not concealing an intentionally malevolent plan to exploit the neighborhood for financial gain, but then again nothing ever is… What does concern me is that it appears to be using an institutional approach that negotiates nearly irreconcilable factors behind closed doors and then presents the public with a unified and oversimplified translation. “Look this is what the TL is”… “this is what it means”… “isn’t it great!” Such a paternalistic erasure shields the public from really ever seeing a situation’s contentious complexity, and replaces it with a cotton-candy version to easily consume and quickly forget. A wonderland indeed.

  • This seems to me to be a completely valid critique of Lance Fung’s Wonderland project and I am grateful that Roberts has voiced her concern and thereby opened this discussion to the public. I particularly appreciate hearing the social worker’s perspective above.

    I encountered the Wonderland project last spring when it was still being formed and had similar concerns about what it means to frame a ghettoized neighborhood as a “wonderland”. When questioned about his curatorial intentions and the effect of this show on the residents of the Tenderloin, Fung was evasive and vague. It seemed clear to me at that time that there had been very little true engagement or communication with the residents of the Tenderloin aside from some interaction with a business owners association (who understandably would be in support of increased tourism). I understand that since then some of the artists involved (to their credit) have made strong efforts to bridge that gap and work responsibly with the community.

    As artists, or simply as citizens investing our time and energy in a community that has pronounced needs we should question how our efforts are addressing those needs. It’s clear that the communities living in the Tenderloin have many needs, and it’s my guess that an art show, curated and produced primarily by outsiders, may not be the most pressing one.

  • Look-Out-Belo says:

    I think the author’s overall concerns are valid. I know there are a lot of really great exhibits that are going to happen during Wonderland, but the “Offstage” project is really offensive to me. I worked as a case manager and outreach worker in the tenderloin for many years. Those of us who have worked closely with the Offstage “characters”, know that keeping confidentiality and building trust are the most basic forms of respect you can provide someone in the TL. Those streets are home for a lot of people. What if someone walked into your home and took pictures of you and then posted them around for everyone to see. And what if in that picture you were standing with someone or near some one that your partner doesn’t like….and then your partner beats you up for it. That’s the tenderloin. That stuff happens. You cant just take someones picture there and post it up. In the “language of the tenderloin” it means something to stand on golden gate and leavenworth or on turk and polk, those blocks mean certain things, where you can find certain people and where you can buy certain things. You take a picture of someone standing on a certain block, you are saying something about that person. You take a picture of someone coming out or entering of certain buildings, someone will see that and know they have HIV…that’s how tight the community is. If feel like these photographs disregard confidentiality and privacy. If one knew this community, they would know that.

    Furthermore, plenty of people go to the Tenderloin to hide…so maybe blasting their pictures all around isn’t safe.

    Beyond that, the Tenderloin has been in crisis for the past two years due to serious and devastating funding cuts. For those of us who lost our jobs and worse, who lost many clients to overdose, violence and disease because of these cuts it feels extremely insensitive to suggest the TL is some kind of spectacle.

    Those funding cuts devastated people. in the last protest we did in August 09 on city hall, one client spoke about how people will die without those services and the blood is on the hands of the politicians and those who have been indifferent, and that is true. peoples lives are at stake in the TL and across the state, where other communities like the TL are undergoing the same cuts and loosing the same services. There is a pandemic taking place and people are dying. ACT UP and other orgs did so much to get those services going, back when politicians were ignoring HIV and the people (like the TL folks) who were dying from it. Those cuts send us back over 20 years…back to the dark ages, people.

    If that point is missed in this exhibit, if the days and weeks and months of protesting and marching on city hall and attending rallies and pouring our guts out goes unnoticed in this project, someone should be ashamed. We have been pushed to the breaking point and we lost, we lost the Tenderloin health community center which served over 16,000 people a year, the Women/trans shelter, and numerous other community sites…there was and still is a lot going on in the community to prevent it. To come to our struggle and pretend it is a theater to be watched is really upsetting.

    If only the droves of people who will be coming out to see this exhibit would have come out to fight for human services, the theatrics in the Tenderloin would be different.

  • Nikolas O Sparks says:

    I have to admit; I am not an artist. My engagement with the art “scene” is minimal, at best. So I hope you will not hold it against me when I tell the artists above that their lack of engagement with not only Adrienne’s article, but also the overall structure of this “Wonderland” exhibition is embarrassing.

    First, I do not believe the intent of this article was to tell anyone that their art is not valuable or that being able to make a living off of their work is in unconscionable. Rather, the question of identifying the spatial, economic, and racial politics of a neighborhood when engaging in an exhibition such as this one should always be of the greatest consideration.

    The Tenderloin is one of, if not, the most vilified neighborhoods/communities in San Francisco. And, as Adrienne mentioned, reflects many of the legislative short comings of the city of San Francisco. By cutting social services, such as access to adequate health care, drug & alcohol counseling, family services, shelters, (need I go on?), residents of neighborhoods such as the Tenderloin stand first in line to feel their absence. As a result, the popular imaginary around the Tenderloin and those who live there falls back into the ubiquitous racist, homophobic, transphobic, xenophobic, classist, and sexist images that get reproduced so easily.

    Having said that, the danger of constructing an exhibition around this community are many. At the forefront, the obvious issue of representation looms heavily. How do you do justice to those you claim to speak for? And how do you do that when you speak for them? Also, how is it that the subjects of these art pieces are being appropriated and reproduced in a supposedly enriching way? Regardless of who might be curating this event and what the intentions of those participating might have envisioned, I would be hard pressed to believe that anyone is so in control of their art, their subjects, their viewers, and so on that they can disregard potential problematics that have been purposed.

    Granted, as I said before, I am not an artist and my work does not pretend to delve into that region. However, as a human being that can read and be critical, I am stunned at the seeming lack of concern expressed by some readers for those who live in this “Wonderland”. The danger in romanticizing this space is that at the same time you are othering it. Already marginalized communities are being put on display, and regardless of whether you put someone in a three piece suit or a sleeping bag, you are making a spectacle of their lives without any consideration of what will happen to them–not the space, but the people–after your exhibition leaves.


    It is always difficult to critique the heartfelt efforts of another to defend those deemed less fortunate in society–especially when those sentiments are couched in a cleverly written introduction to an impending public event. Sadly, however, Adrienne Skye Roberts’ recent evaluation of the forthcoming Tenderloin exhibition “Wonderland” amounts to a self-conscious rant that reinforces the unsupported stereotypes she, herself, attributes to supposedly unseasoned artists, gawking tourists, unresponsive government and even San Francisco’s Tenderloin district’s homeless and downtrodden themselves.

    In short, Ms. Roberts assumes the role of Louis Carroll’s Queen of (Bleeding) Hearts. She shouts “Off with their heads,” in response to the efforts of a broad consortium of talented and well intended exhibitors and community partners whose aims are far from facilitating what Roberts predicts will be only a brief encounter with the Tenderloin—an encounter that she assumes will be fed by “the lure and thrill of visiting San Francisco’s seediest neighborhood for one night through a voyeuristic meandering.”

    After attributing her own misperceptions and stereotypes to the project, Robert’s at last asks, “Whose wonderland is this?” Perhaps the genius of Alice’s magic kingdom is that it is EVERYONES’. The objective of true literature, art, public largess and humanity is eclectic! Could it be that a visitor to the Wonderland exhibition might come away with a renewed determination to mitigate the plight of the less fortunate who are struggling in the heart of city. Might the artists who are contributing their talents to bring attention to the Tenderloin view its inhabitants with interest, compassion and even respect? Might it be more important to view the entire project from the very real perspective of potential paradigm shift and positive change rather than rolling out Robert’s hackneyed, negative projections that insist that all the roses MUST be painted red not white.

    Ms. Roberts states, “I’m not terribly interested in identifying which projects are more or less appropriate or community oriented and which are not….” She then proceeds to do just that including her personal perspective regarding not only the artists’ intentions, but her assumptions as to what the viewers conclusions will be. In particular Roberts cites the “Offstage” project that draws on the Tenderloin’s theater history as an antecedent to the “human drama in extremely raw form” now extant on it streets. Art often imitates life including the presentation in “Offstage” of a sleeping bag form “to reference those without shelter in the neighborhood”. But art’s wonder is its ability to inspire vision and possibility. If one were not constrained by foregone negative conclusions, might one view an upright, twisting sleeping bag form as a cocoon of human possibility, or as a modern representation of Michaelangelo’s captives writhing their way from the un-chiselled marble into human perfection. One cannot grasp future possibility without calling attention to present conditions–however, horrific.

    It is said that one cannot make a difference without “being better and KNOWING better.” It is ironic that knowing is often the function of fantasy. Rather than Wonderland being Robert’s “A World Turned Upside Down” might Wonderland be the catalyst for righting the landscape of the Tenderloin? Who said Alice “only woke up later and returned to her safe and comfortable life”? She may have decided that including roses of every color in her life’s bouquet was to her liking. She may have turned her efforts to growing something worthwhile!

  • *Let me get this straight…a world renowned curator comes to the Tenderloin, interfaces with the residents, community service providers, local artist, residents, etc. Incorporates their talents, needs wants and wishes into a highly visible, totally accessible art exhibition for all to see and participate in. Not get paid or have enough for salaries or instillation rental, but there is a complaint that “my concerns lie with the framework of the project as a whole.”
    As a “local” artist this is the best thing I’ve seen in a while

    The artists describe the inhabitants of the Tenderloin as conducting “melodramatic behaviors common to urban vagabonds” often induced by inebriation. In order to make visual this phenomenon, as they describe it, the artists chose to abstract and replicate sleeping bag forms, to reference those without shelter in the neighborhood and will install these forms in the windows of the Golden Gate Theater located on Taylor street. In the last paragraph of the project description the artists state, “In our installation, we bring focus to the life on the streets of the Tenderloin, allowing the spectacle of the street to take center stage.

    *Since this is the only involvement or contribution the Golden Gate Theater has ever made to the TL neighborhood, I for one applaud the spotlight being turned on them as the only ballet of life in their community they seem to support.

    I’m not terribly interested in identifying which projects are more or less appropriate or community oriented and which are not, rather, my concerns lie with the framework of the project as a whole.

    *Perhaps if you were, then you might see that a project like this will provide an alternative avenue for those trapped in a municipal containment zone. Much like in the movie District 9, a few may escape while Wonderland holds open the lens for the world to see

    It is not my intention to discourage artists from attempting to address politics or community engagement within their practice, however I think it is imperative to consider the broader impacts of our artistic practices within geographical contexts that we have little connection with. By not engaging with the underlying politics and realities within a place like the Tenderloin, artists’ projects have the danger of replicating power dynamics that help to sustain systems of oppression and social hierarchy. Within the context of the drastic funding cuts to social services in the Tenderlion and the extremely high rate of homelessness in San Francisco, it is imperative to question who benefits when the neighborhood is turned into a tourist destination?

    *Since the City won’t do it, why shouldn’t the residents benefit in any way they can from having new blood wondering through their land.
    The author of this article is trying to appear knowledgeable and well meaning but is just regurgitating surface discourse. It’s quite apparent the writer has not interviewed participating artist, otherwise she would know that there are 16 projects, plus the opening and not just 10. She would also be aware of the fact that the TL resident artist and supporting community believe so strongly in this event, they want to expand on the vision and do again in 2010.
    If events like this don’t take place, at this level how is locally based grassroots performance art company like mine ever going to be seen…waiting on some “spare change grant” from the city….I don’t think so!

  • Eliot Fisher says:

    Having participated in and documented Lance Fung’s community-centered art show in Santa Fe last year, it seems to me that this analysis makes a number of assumptions about the Wonderland project without adequate research. From reviewing the written materials provided about the show, there do appear to be valid concerns about one or two of the pieces, among works by forty-six artists. But as stated in the previous post, made by one of the participating artists, what’s actually happening on the ground (as would be obtained through actual interviews with participants — especially the community members and artists) seems not to have been addressed. As a Santa Fean, my own experience of seeing Fung’s show there — and how it was covered by various media outlets — was a fascinating study in how new media has changed the journalistic landscape. The past several years has seen many news outlets have to cut back in field reporting, with more and more reliance on facts gleaned without actually engaging those involved. Ironically, this piece employs some of the same the kind of surface engagement that the author criticizes in others. What is the actual experience of members of the Tenderloin in this project, in their own words? A large, important piece of the picture is missing.

  • As part of one of the artist teams in Wonderland, I want to mention that this blog opens up an interesting and important conversation to a public, which has been going on within the various agencies involved with the project for some time, starting with the Tenderloin’s Community Benefit District who are its fiscal sponsors.

    We are considering the terms of our engagement here constantly. My experience thus far has been anything but distanced and disengaged. We have been working and talking with many amazing people of all ages who live, work and/or go to school in the neighborhood. I would consider these to be sustainable affective relationships. Art is not a new presence in the Tenderloin by any stretch of the imagination and out of respect to those who have contributed their voices to this project, I hope that the questions raised here will not overshadow the ability of visitors to connect.

    The opening for this show will be during the day and include a block party in Boedekker Park on Ellis Street. There will be a symposium the following day during which, hopefully this conversation can go live!

  • I can’t imagine what they’re thinking. “Invariably, when human beings are pushed to the breaking point, a theatrical outburst often transpires. These cathartic displays are both ironic and deeply poignant.” It seems both arrogant and heartless to assume homelessness, poverty, addiction, and other marginalized acts are performative acts, or that … Read Moretheir intervention of motorized sleeping bags will somehow make it so. Is the Tenderloin a place only of tragedy? No. Are there not local businesses that thrive in the area? I find it strange that these artists selectively see this as a site of “acting out” — and rather than engage the neighborhood as something other than a bastion of criminality and inebriation, they present it, invariably, as a site of spectacle, an extension of theater. One wants to tell them: No dears, this is life. Just as war is not fought in a theater, so too, homelessness is no place for simple spectatorship.

  • Chuck Mobley says:

    Thank you thank you thank you!

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