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One crisp afternoon this spring, I walked through the Mission and Potrero Hill to have a conversation with artist Abbas Akhavan, CCA’s Capp Street Artist-in-Residence, about his exhibition, cast for a folly, at the Wattis Institute. As I hurried along, I wondered (and worried) about the future of San Francisco, but mostly I thought about what I’d been reading earlier that day on the turbulent history of Baghdad. Deep in my own process of digging for stories and fragments of narratives, I was unprepared for the feeling of grief that struck me when I turned onto Kansas Street and found myself transported to an eerily familiar time and place.

For his first solo US presentation at the Wattis, Akhavan has reconstructed the lobby of the National Museum of Iraq, based on a photograph taken in the wake of the looting it suffered during the 2003 invasion of Baghdad. The room he has created contains several objects, including empty vitrines covered in dust, a printed curtain, a pile of unfired bricks, and a statue of a lion, that together form a unified art work that he describes as “loyal but not obedient” to the photograph he began with. Akhavan spent months digging into the material possibilities of representing this particular image with Wattis curator Kim Nguyen and associate curator Leila Grothe, and the result was uncanny. I felt I’d passed through a portal to a place I had spent years imagining.

Abbas Akhavan, cast for a folly, 2019; installation view, CCA Wattis Institute; Courtesy of the artist; Catriona Jeffries, Vancouver; and The Third Line, Dubai; Photo: Johnna Arnold.

Akhavan has never visited Iraq, although his awareness of it began early in his life, with the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. His experiences of the country have been mediated largely through images on television and online, and those images have fueled a desire to explore the ways that Iraq has played a global role in systems of power. Many of his recent works have dealt with the politics of the destruction of Iraq’s heritage, with the impact of the most recent war standing in for the effects of so many other conflicts worldwide.

In this case, he chose a symbol of Iraq that caught the imagination of the world. As Mesopotamian history is considered part of the narrative about Western civilization, the looting of the National Museum of Iraq was a major news story at the time, and there was widespread outrage about the losses of materials from the so-called cradle of civilization, and the fact US troops did nothing, at least at first, to help staff protect the museum’s holdings. Some 15,000 objects were looted. More than half of those have never been returned.

In an early work about Iraq, Study for a Blue Shield (2010–2017), Akhavan replicated the image of a crest placed outside spaces by UNESCO to denote cultural landmarks containing items of value to humanity and in need of preservation during times of war. He had learned that the staff of the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad painted the blue shield on the roof of their building during the early days of bombing. Akhavan painted the shield on a gallery wall, then cut out the shield and placed it on the roof. An empty space stayed in the gallery, the shield having risen to the roof like a spirit. (Interested in the art-historical aspects of symbolism, Akhavan notes that the blue shield was first introduced in 1954, the same year that Jasper Johns created his first flag painting.)

Akhavan described his San Francisco exhibition as theatrical, a set piece, an event. The space he has reconstructed is one with its own sense of time, a space for waiting, a space of the in-between. It is an imaginary and imaginative space that is at times rather abstract (when seen from the back of the gallery, several objects reveal themselves to be hollow, or unfinished). Recreating the rooms of the museum, he said, would have been to create a destination, and he was wary of reproducing the artifacts themselves, so instead, he said, “you enter a gallery that is a lobby to nowhere.” He described the works within as “placeholders for an original that doesn’t exist.” Despite the work’s self-consciousness and these gestures towards abstraction, it seemed to me less like an event in itself than the re-staging of the aftermath of a very particular catastrophe. I couldn’t help feeling a palpable sense of loss.

Abbas Akhavan, cast for a folly, 2019; installation view, CCA Wattis Institute; Courtesy of the artist; Catriona Jeffries, Vancouver; and The Third Line, Dubai; Photo: Johnna Arnold.

Artists like Akhavan dig into the meaning of things, especially when they choose to work with objects that come with their own stories, already replete with layers of association. But what happens to a symbol when it is mobilized in a new context? How does meaning change? What survives? When we look at a symbol, how does it communicate? Are we in agreement, or are there endless misunderstandings, willful or accidental?

In the Wattis gallery, the blurry portrait of Saddam Hussein on the far wall caught my eye almost immediately and made me feel uncomfortable, almost claustrophobic. I thought of the ways Saddam had used history for his own glorification, and archeology as a vehicle to promote his specific brand of megalomaniacal kitsch — in his rebuilding of Babylon, for example. When I mentioned this, Akhavan noted that most people didn’t identify him at first because the printed image on the curtain was so indistinct. I looked again and saw he was right. If you’re not carrying around a potted version of Iraq’s history in your head, it could be anyone — Charlie Chaplin, for example. (Later, Akhavan told me, after the photograph was taken, the portrait was removed from the museum wall. The spot where it hung is still full of bullet holes.)

The lion sculpture in the original photograph was made from stone, but Akhavan decided to make his from cob, from mud and straw, “one of the most ancient ways of building anything,” thereby connecting it to a pre-Stone Age moment (and placed it in front of a green screen, possibly the most futuristic of spaces). A previous work by Akhavan, Variations on Ghosts and Guests, featured a larger-than-life fragment of a lion’s foot, a reference to an ancient sculpture of a lamassu (an Assyrian deity with a human head, an eagle’s wings, and the body of a lion or a bull, which stood as a guardian at temples and palaces) that was destroyed by ISIS. Made from compacted soil, the work emphasized the vulnerability of material culture. What happens, Akhavan asked, when a spirit guardian is destroyed? What work can it do?

I wondered the same thing about the lion. Not only a symbol of power in ancient Iraq, the lion is also modern Iraq’s national animal, despite the fact that it is now extinct within the country’s borders. The last lions were sighted along the Tigris in 1926, the same year the National Museum of Iraq was founded.

Michael Rakowitz, The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist, 2018

This week I walked through Trafalgar Square in London and stood for a long time in its northwest corner, marveling at Michael Rakowitz’s The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist. For his commissioned sculpture on the Fourth Plinth, perhaps London’s most visible platform for new public art, Rakowitz created a full replica of a lamassu, in this case a human-headed winged bull rather than a lion. The original stood at the Nergal Gate in Nineveh in northern Iraq (now Mosul) for more than 2,500 years before being destroyed by ISIS in 2015. The contemporary statue is made from of thousands of empty cans of Iraqi date syrup, symbolizing the decimation by war of the country’s date industry, once its second largest export after oil.

The work is part of a series with the same title in which Rakowitz has reconstructed, from similarly resonant but ephemeral materials, several objects lost during the looting of the National Museum of Iraq in the wake of the US invasion. Like Akhavan, he has described these works as placeholders, and his lamassu as a ghost.

Rakowitz has resurrected a benevolent protective spirit to look out over London, I think. It seems a generous gesture. The sculpture holds its own among the bronze statues of kings and military commanders that glorify centuries of British imperial conquest. Its majesty stems from its scale (curiously, the original lamassu had the same footprint as the plinth), its colors (the pale turquoise face echoes the water in the fountains in front of it) and its contested, ever-evolving meaning. Made from the humblest of materials, it acts as a painful reminder of what has been lost, and glints brilliantly, almost defiantly, in the muted English sunshine.

Michael Rakowitz, The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist, 2018

cast for a folly is at the CCA Wattis Institute on Kansas St, San Francisco through July 27, 2019. The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist is on the Fourth Plinth, Trafalgar Square in London through March 2020.

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Jess, Fig. 4 — Far And Few…: Translation #15, 1965

Between 1959 and 1976, Jess created the Translations, a series of thirty-two paintings copied from found images and executed in delectably thick impasto. His sources varied widely, from contemporary photographs to scientific illustrations, historic artworks, ancient artifacts, and images from popular magazines. For Translation #15, Jess reproduced a black-and-white “bubblegum card” of the Beatles, transcribing each detail of the original photograph with remarkable fidelity while applying a hallucinatory palette of his own devising.

By the time Jess finished this piece in 1965, the British Invasion was in full swing and the Beatles were a runaway sensation, following a wildly successful US tour the year before. The bubblegum card captured a new consumer-friendly music culture forged in no small part by Beatlemania. Translation #15 marked an early transfiguration of these pop stars and their media circus into a work of art.

Jess’s rendition of the Fab Four paralleled New York’s emerging Pop Art movement. His meticulous replication — down to the ripples of ocean water and John Lennon’s signature — aligned with efforts by Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and others to commandeer the countenance of popular culture. Only three years before Jess made Translation #15, Warhol had exhibited 32 Campbell’s Soup Cans (1962) at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles, introducing many West Coast viewers to an aesthetic siphoned from retail and marketing. Jess’s selection of a bubblegum card was consistent with Warhol’s tendency to reproduce what was already commercially available and widely recognizable.

Jess’s parallels with Pop did not go unnoticed. In 1963, the Oakland Art Museum (now the Oakland Museum of California) and the California College of Arts & Crafts opened Pop Art USA, one of the first exhibitions dedicated to the movement. Among contributions by James Rosenquist, Robert Indiana, Mel Ramos, Warhol, and other seminal Pop artists was a collage by Jess, Tricky Cad: Case VII (1959), in which he reassembled panels and speech bubbles from the comic strip Dick Tracy. Like other works on view, Jess’s collage drew from what John Coplans, the exhibition’s curator, described in the catalog as “the most thoroughly- and massively-projected images of our time.” Jess’s preferred collage materials included many of the day’s glossiest magazines — Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Look, Horizon, Apollo, and especially Life. In this instance, he called on an even more popular source: the Sunday funnies.

Jess Collins, Tricky Cad: Case VII, c. 1959; newspaper collage; 19 x 7 in. (48.3 x 17.8 cm); Los Angeles County Museum of Art, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Bruce Conner (M.62.26.4). photo © Museum Associates / LACMA

Tricky Cad, however, did not quite fit in with the rest of Pop Art USA. While other pieces mimicked the flare of advertising, Jess’s work was notably understated. Warhol and Ed Ruscha’s paintings were six feet tall; this collage was only nineteen inches. Many pieces were bright, even garish; Tricky Cad maintained the low-contrast gray of newsprint. Jess was baffled by his inclusion. “That was a mystery to me,” he told the curator Michael Auping, who related the exchange in Jess: A Grand Collage 1951–1993: “[T]o this day I don’t feel much kinship with that movement.” The difference was a matter of temperament. “I’m afraid I’m too romantic,” Jess declared, “or perhaps worse yet, sentimental.”

Tricky Cad, like Translation #15, is delicate and textural in a way that defies Pop’s slick and simplified surfaces. Their swirling, impressionistic treatments evoke emotional states more than commercial merchandise. The sinuousness of Translation #15 lends the painting a dreamy quality, and the way Jess reconfigured text in Tricky Cad — “three longers later on the count of three,” for example — is surreal and poetic.

Andy Warhol, Triple Elvis [Ferus type], 1963

Jess was interested in what he often called “indwellingness,” the deep and hidden dimensions of the creative process summoned through careful and quiet reflection. Much like William Blake, Odilon Redon, and other historic Romantics, he conjured the mysterious workings of the artistic psyche — a psyche that Pop artists rejected in favor of consumer culture’s contrivances. His unusual confluence of popular sources and romantic treatments activates an altogether different approach to appropriation, one that inverts Pop’s prevailing tendencies and reveals a different vision of modern culture. Compare, for example, Translation #15 to Warhol’s iconic painting Triple Elvis (1963). Warhol excerpted the figure of Elvis from a publicity still for the movie Flaming Star (1960). In the original image Elvis appears in full color, but Warhol reduces his version to black and silver. Simplified to the duotone of television and multiplied three times, the figure of Elvis takes on the quality of a grainy reproduction. In Translation #15, Jess reverses Warhol’s method of distillation, adding complex shades of lavender, orange, and teal to a black and white source image. The bubblegum card consists of a printed halftone, but Jess applied his paint in thick, three-dimensional strokes and framed the work in furry velveteen. Jess injects the Beatles with additional enchantment, like a flavor enhancer or ocular additive.

Jess not only built on his sources — he also built out their networks of reference. Pop artists often omitted the context around their appropriations, giving precedence to immediate visual effect. “I just pass my hands over the surface of things,” Warhol famously stated. Jess, on the other hand, stuffed his paintings with allusion to history, religion, antiquity. Throughout the Translations he summons a vast network of references: from Socrates to Finnegan’s Wake, the Kabbala, dancer Fred Herko, and the eccentric millionaire Mrs. Sarah Winchester. On the back of each painting he included a corresponding text, naming sources as varied as Plato, William Wordsworth, and Gertrude Stein. For Translation #15, Jess inscribed lines from Edward Lear’s nineteenth century rhyme “The Jumblies.” The passage corresponds both to the image of the Beatles wading in water and to the colors with which Jess reimagined them: as the Jumblies set sail in a leaky sieve, “their heads are green, and their hands are blue,” and “the water it soon came in.” By incorporating the bubblegum card into this sweeping and unusual canon, Jess enacts a proto-Postmodern pastiche in which a dizzying cross-section of culture is brought to bear on its latest icons.

Harry Benson, The Beatles, Miami, 1964

As with Warhol and his New York peers, Jess understood mainstream culture as a magnificent illusion. But where Pop emphasized its surface-level seduction, Jess used his imagination to reconfigure its spectral universe. Like the devotees of The Lord of the Rings who write their own fan fiction, 1 he embellished the cultural artifacts that drew his interest. In this way, the Translations were a part of “the process of creating a world,” as his partner, the poet Robert Duncan, wrote in his introduction to Translations — a process in which “each work of art is a seed of art.”

Consumer capitalism is sometimes called a phantasmagoria — a theater of phantom imagery projected onto the world as in an epic dream. Commodities like the bubblegum card are described as fetishes: talismanic objects capable of suspending reality. The eerie, expressive, and elliptical treatment of the Beatles in Translation #15 conjures this phantasmal quality. In his private writing, Jess even described the Translations as “a total spell.” It is as if the artist painted in a state of lucid dreaming, adorning the same illusion in which he found himself.

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Original concept developed alongside Melissa Sachs and Cameron Soren.
Thanks to Davora Lindner and Toby Feltwell.
Author’s note: No footnotes — why? To quote The O.C.: “Dude, it’s Long Beach, not Chechnya.”

Set in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley (564 Grove Street, nested comfortably between Octavia and Laguna) in 1997, during the dot-com bubble and five years after the Valley’s demolition of the Central Freeway section of the 101.

Shüz in America is a musical that sees a ragtag group of shoes (singled, paired, and familied) taking housing matters into their own hands. Coming from a variety of cultural, economic, and experiential backgrounds, the renters can all agree on one goal — to transform their Grove Street apartment building into a cooperative. But this consensus isn’t without its classic struggles and arguments. After all, it’s the San Francisco of the 1990s, where godbotherers, hateshoppers, and those with fetishes for lumbar support, bankplay, and cars wearing silk all live under the same roof. “You be Bank of America tonight; I’ll charge a really serious overdraft fee.” In other words, it’s trial by fire, as the now-cooperative members seek to balance power, learn to embrace their own hypocrisies, and figure out how to work together to fix 564 Grove Street’s broken elevator — Lycos lackeys and all. Work is other people.

Shüz are born in pairs, as fraternal twins. Sandals are children. Emerging as either Rainbow’s Single Layer Premier Leather with Arch Support sandals or Birkenstock’s Boston clogs (both in natural leather colorways), shüz begin to “break in” as they age. By the time shüz are teenagers they take on the physical characteristics and material attributes of heartier, well-worn shüz like Lugz’s 454 FMF white leather tennies or a Miss Sixty’s black leather studded ankle cowboy bootie, even maybe a ’90s-does-’70s sky-high platform sneaker by Swear, size 7/7.5. Through the years, shüz will find their finishes change color and texture; their soles and treads will grow and wear. When they find love, shüz become paired with their pair-tner, regardless of left/right orientation.

Shüz have not given up any commodity status regarding coveted shapes and forms as defined by the marketplace. In fact, shüz exhibit great agency and freedom in their actions and desires, but ultimately (and savvily) accept their position as salable goods; they maintain this position through interpersonal interactions, identifying and using the pronoun “it” when referring or when speaking to another. There is a desire for the inanimate and animate to be understood and interacted with in the same manner — with respect and equality. However, as the fin de siècle state of political affairs in the Bay Area and abroad point in a direction markedly void of empathy, one can’t help but see the self-identification of the shüz as products, as a symptom of a sea change in the marketplace.

In this epoch, the manufacturing process is normalized and understood as “birth,” or a kind of “citizenship”, while “immigration” is defined by WTO treaties and agreements. The most recent WTO meeting, taking place in Singapore, December of ’96, saw the unveiling of the organization’s new logo, alongside the announcement that the volume of world merchandise trade increased by 4%. Supported by two years of unusually strong growth in world trade, shüz can now relocate more than ever as global economies begin to merge and interconnect in ways previously unimaginable. What this shift signals in San Francisco, and particularly in Hayes Valley, is something actually really boring. If you’re obsessed with surprises — look away.

Built in the 1950s, 564 Grove Street’s facade is two-tone, with the first five feet of the exterior composed of painted gray brick. Everything above that — some thirty feet — is taupe stucco. The building houses eight eight-hundred square foot units. When viewed from the exterior, the windows have a checkerboard placement (with three units stacked vertically on the left and right sides, and two offset mezzanine floors in the middle). Individual apartments retain their original architectural features but are all decorated to their inhabitants’ likings, with various colored and wallpapered surfaces. Not to mention all the personal touches and decorations, like shoe-sized fainting couches, ottomans (not Turkish, but the footy kind), and for the kinky — three-way cedar shoe stretchers. Flooring remains the original 1950s herringbone parquet red oak hardwood, and units have two windows on the street- and alley-facing sides of the apartment. There is also a broken elevator.

The surrounding neighborhood is entirely residential. Parking is near-impossible.

A middle-aged square-toed Miu Miu heel, two inches high, born in Italy EU sized 41. Composed of a plum-colored leather with white triangular leather appliqué (stitched in polyester plum thread, of course) from the toebox to the bracing strap. An almost aquatic feel. A product of privilege and folly, Nylon has inherited the building from its parents but doesn’t have the skillset or dedication to maintain it, instead it pursues its passion for archaeology. Andrea Bocelli and Tracy Chapman fan. Not much of a reader. Every other Saturday, Nylon dons a rubber galoche and heads to the Castro to meet other anonymized rubber galoched shüz at an unnamed, invite-only basement bar which solicits new patrons through a group chat on Usenet.

Raised in Brazil but immigrated to Italy alone at the age of sixteen, where it worked at a used furniture store until finding its way onto the sets of Federico Fellini films as an assistant in its early twenties. Now in its thirties, Jnco lives alone at Grove Street, an adjunct teaching cinema and art history at SF State. A mixed-composition mid-height LA Gear sneaker with both a beige canvas and suede upper with gum sole. Sized 7.5, Jnco has brass eyelets and a limp. It wishes to streamline its mobility and join the thriving Bay Area modification community by adding a single metal blade to the bottom of its sole. Jnco’s VCR shows the correct time.

A Marithe + Francois Girbaud knee-high red leather laced and velcro’d moto boot (EU sized 35) and Persian migrant, now manager of a one-off Persian-themed Denny’s (renamed Sebny’s). Moved to Los Angeles following the Islamic Revolution, in which Sebny lost its loved shüz pair-tner, Tinchy Stryder. Depressed and reminded too much of its homeland and lost love by the other Iranian migrants, Sebny and its progeny, Picky, relocate to Hayes Valley to start a new life. When not working at the restaurant, Sebny and Picky unwind by taking joint parent-child capoeira classes.

Having moved to America from Iran as an infant, this Beauty:Beast JPN sized 27, black Gundam-like squared, rubber soled clip-secured shoe goes to the International High School of San Francisco. Fluent in French, Farsi, and English, Picky is locally engaged and dedicated to individual civic responsibility. Picky is interested in staying in the Bay Area after high school to help Sebny at the restaurant. Sebny and Picky’s academic mentors all have hopes of Picky continuing education wherever its grades may take it. Picky works hard and plays hard, sneaking out on the weekends to catch its favorite underground San Francisco rave series, Zodiac. There, Picky likes to drop acid and believe it’s an EU sized 39 Manolo Blahnik snakeskin pump.

Random is a Free Lance Paris architectural platform slip-on. Its base is a bent composite metal shaped similarly to a piece of Modernist seating, with a leopard-print horsehair upper. A former member of the Stomp troupe, Random is now a recovering drug and alcohol addict pair-tnered with Tracky Cloud and co-parent to Fy. After years of pain and isolation due to addiction problems, meeting Tracky helped set Random on the right path — that, and, having children together. After the miscarriage of one of their children Peef, Random and Tracky feel a great sense of loss and sadness. They don’t like to discuss the details — it was so horrific the newspapers refused to report it — but the child had both excessive glue and degumming shown between zone 1 and zone 2 of its construction (a major defect, to be clear); it also carried abrasion marks from its handling by factory workers, unintended asymmetry in its construction, an incorrect sizing label, and a needle left inside! It was immediately and cruelly discarded in the defect pile and subsequently dismantled for parts. Random has since been interested in studying and performing Reiki on sandals.

Tracky left its liberal Quaker upbringing in the Midwest to move to San Francisco, where it met Random Hajile on a bus and fell in love. This Steve Madden chunky slip-on platform with black synthetic stretch upper, US sized 6, is compassionate and dedicated to Random and their child, Fy, but also seeks upward mobility to bring the family out of its suffering — though it’s not quite sure how yet. Working during the day and attending night school, Tracky tries to balance the family on its shoulders but greatly needs some freedom and release from life’s pressures. What helps is that Tracky and Random make folk music together, with Tracky also writing children’s stories to entertain Fy. Tracky has recently begun to consider major surgery to get a hiking boot tread and leather cheetah print upper to replace its synthetic stretch material. It would be entirely unrecognizable.

The remaining child from Random Hajile and Tracky Cloud. Still only two years old, Fy is a Birkenstock Boston clog. Not yet able to fully communicate, Fy is aware of, but confused by, its sense of loss regarding its sibling. Sometimes this feeling is assuaged by being Random’s baby Reiki test subject.

All songs will be written by Aimee Mann and performed in a dated acid house style, BPM range 125–150. There will not be sampling of the actors’ vocals, and as a result many of the lyrics will be repeated, true to the genre. A rolling Roland TB-303 bassline will play throughout.

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Click to enlarge.

Our copy of Linda Montano’s Art in Everyday Life has an inscription written in marker in a nice cursive script. It reads “Blessed,” followed by the line “Art/Life/Love” and her signature. This trace of the artist’s hand adds another performative layer to this special book. I’m always interested in how performance is printed; how artists’ books and other kinds of print ephemera link with live art histories. These types of books become accessible records of often fleeting gestures, allowing for temporary works to persist over time. They serve as functional vehicles for artists to transmit new works out into the world on their own terms. Art in Everyday Life is a super example of this genre; I’m thankful to the artist for allowing us to reproduce many of the pages here on Open Space.

After moving to San Francisco in the early 1970s, Linda Montano staged performances around the city and among a community of other artists who were starting to carve out a new field of lived art. She did a chicken dance on the Golden Gate Bridge, and, years before tethering herself to Tehching Hsieh for 365 days, spent three days handcuffed to another fellow artist, Tom Marioni. She lived in a gallery with her dog; she dressed as a nun and heard confessions at Embarcadero Plaza; she formed a walking club. Again and again, she turned her personal traumas and life events into instigations for public works.

These performances were scored by constant self-reflection, with Montano situating the actions in the context of her own narrative. This process is laid out most succinctly in Art in Everyday Life, which she produced in 1981. Each spread features a single image from a performance; an accompanying text balances the intention and execution of the work in question from two perspectives, described as Art and Life. In this way, the book catalogs all of Montano’s performances and artist videos up to 1980.

The following images are reproductions of the spreads illustrating performances in the Bay Area during the 1970s. These traces from Montano’s artist book serve as a mini-archive of early works by this highly influential feminist performance artist as she started to find a voice and a method for imbuing her life with her art and her art with her life.

Click any image to enlarge.

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part one mccoppin st.

we keep our photographs in phones, roses in books; expired film in black plastic, nets cast and reeled-in-empty dipped in gold and strung over our naked beds

the apartment on mccoppin st was a fluke. Jerry Lee Manhattan and i fled to SF from Oly in search of gayer times and made it just in time for Folsom St. Fair. At first, i was a stowaway in his Duboce Triangle sublet, hiding out in Gordonzola’s  office bunk loft. Jerry Lee and and i saw the listing for 51A McCoppin Street between Otis and Valencia on CraigsList — score, walking distance! we got there third. we were greeted by the upstairs neighbor, Jo with long gray hair, the self-imposed building manager. She was showing the apartment, picking her own new neighbors. i think she wanted confidants. i’m sure this is why we, the Small Town Party Gays, were given the go-ahead, right there in front of five or six rather-nice looking straight couples vying for the space. We moved in immediately and asked Brontez to move in with us. We bought him a trundle bed as a welcome-home gift. Jerry Lee dubbed us the Dynasty House, which made sense then because of the shoulder pads.

we had two bedrooms attached to each other by a door so you could always hear yr roommate fighting or fucking; the joyful noises of conjoined queer living. Brontez played “1 Thing” by Amerie every morning; i’d sing along through the door. we had those rooms and a bathroom all railroad style, with a skinny hallway connecting you to the heart of the chopped up Victorian flat, the living room and kitchen with the back room that fit one twin-sized bed and a vanity. The neverthere landlord rented me the entire basement for $50 and I eventually forgot to keep paying for it. made wreckless noise that never seemed to bring us any trouble. 

almost a decade i lived at that house. i have only told you the beginning. the rest, i have already shown you through films and photographs. i ended up making ten films in that apartment, got married there, wrote two albums, and filled twelve hard drives with photographs and video footage that’s been almost everywhere i have.

i wont tell you why everyone left or what really happened; my notes fail me as I try to exit gracefully from this tale. The basement and bathroom caving in, vodka stains on the hallway floor, love lost; plus promises sold to me in six-month chunks across the Bay. i will tell you that i didn’t start crying until halfway to Oakland, when it hit me i’d never go back.

two blocks away, ribbons cut on the black twitter building. the Flax closes and the family owners at ValMar still know my name. i am not lying when i tell you that i hum “This Used To Be My Playground” every time i’m around. it’s still queer.

Bibliography

Bazin, André, and Hugh Gray. “The Ontology of the Photographic Image.” Film Quarterly 13, no. 4 (1960): 4–9.

Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. Vol. 1. Penguin UK, 2008.

Driscoll, Megan Philipa. “The Desiring Photograph: Mark Morrisroe’s Bodily Self-Portraits.” PhD diss., UCLA, 2013.

Goldin, Nan, Marvin Heiferman, Mark Holborn, and Suzanne Fletcher. The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. New York: Aperture, 1986.

Ligon, Glenn. Yourself in the World: Selected Writings and Interviews: [exhibition, New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Mar. 10–June 5, 2011; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Oct. 23, 2011–Jan. 22, 2012; the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Feb.–May 2012]. Yale University Press, 2011.

Maynard, Patrick. The Engine of Visualization: Thinking Through Photography. Cornell University Press, 2000.

Spence, Jo. Putting Myself in the Picture: A Political, Personal and Photographic Autobiography. Camden Press, 1986.

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Step 1: PRESS PLAY

Young & the Restless Soundtrack - SoundCloud
(1916 secs long, 4 plays)Play in SoundCloud

       Bonanza, The Young & the Restless Soundtrack, 2018.

 

Step 2:

Transport back to 2003. You’re skipping school with your three best friends — Val, Lisa and Afua. Take the bus to City Place Mall and spend most of the afternoon shoplifting CDs from Sam Goody® — Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Missy Elliott, and OutKast — you know the drill, put the CD in your underwear. Split a Cinnabon® three ways and buy snakeskin pants at Spencer’s® for No Uniform Friday. Your best friend’s brother manages the Sbarro® by the Hot Topic® — free slices!

Step 3:

Pick up some MANIC PANIC® AMPLIFIED Temporary hair color spray — ELECTRIC LIZARD tint (100% Vegan and Cruelty-Free) — and do it up. Accidently stain most of the bathroom sink. Smoke a bowl of mostly schwag to forget that AJ never called you back. Take a deep breath and chillax.

Step 4:

Flash forward to 2019 or whatever, but stop adulting. Just completely stop. Stop waddling around in your desk job, nightmare, nine-to-five wear. Stop dressing for the career you work sixty hours a week for and don’t even want. Stop drinking cocktails at bars dressed in slate and dark wood, and eating at farm-to-table, yuppie crap shops. Stop eating those $10 tiny tacos that have three licks of chicken, and ordering everything from an app.

Step 5:

Start drinking shitty alcohol again — the well of the well that comes out of plastic bottles full of BPA. Smirnoff Ice? YUM! Start wearing whatever the fuck you want. Start dressing for the multiple genders and identities you know you have. Play dress up, play house, play all the time. Go to divey gay bars exclusively. Eat at chain restaurants, eat at hole-in-the-wall taquerias, eat mac n’ cheese. Eat everything that is not keto, Whole30®, Paleo Diet friendly. Never app, don’t do it.

No More Steps, You Are There Now:

Be Young and be Restless. Find a few ride-or-die friends, and make your own job, your own club, your own world. Add meaning to party dresses and disco pants. Enter the void — listen to music loud, take too many photos, and put on lots of lewks. Be antagonistic.

Be scary. Be bored. Be whatever. Be Bonanza.

 

The Young & the Restless Select Lewks:

Bonanza, Firefighter’s Ball, 2018. Parade float Mylar, pleather, duct tape, gold watch bands, gold buttons, coaxial cable. Photo by Graham Holoch.

Bonanza, Courtney Love lk, 2018. Fake moss, silk curtain, paint. Photo by Graham Holoch.

Bonanza, You’ll grow into it, 2018. Wallpaper, curtains, Chubbies sample shorts, Lowe’s® Tyvek. Photo by Graham Holoch.

Bonanza, Mad Max/5th Element Lk, 2018. Metallic bubble wrap, Chubbies drawstring, WeedBlock landscape fabric, elastic. Photo by Graham Holoch.

Bonanza, Heart of the Ocean aka Big Blue (parade float prom dress), 2018. Parade float Mylar, yellow rope. Photo by Lenny Gonzalez.

Bonanza, Carpet Pad Tube Dress, 2018. Carpet padding, grommets, polypropylene twine, clamp. Photo by Bonanza.

Bonanza, Finish Him! Safety Fence Dress, 2018. Orange safety fence, polypropylene twine, bike chain. Photo by Bonanza.

Bonanza, Bob the Builder Pants, 2018. Tarp, fabric, plastic bag. Photo by Bonanza.

Bonanza, Blue is the Warmest Color, 2018. Tarp, reflective button, Chubbies zipper. Photo by Graham Holoch.

Bonanza, Greetings Earthlings, 2018. Clear vinyl, metallic bubble wrap, pink cotton, Chubbies snaps and drawstrings, metallic diamond quilted wrapping paper, soundproofing egg crate foam, grommets. Photo by Graham Holoch.

Bonanza, “No, No, No, I like it now,” 2018. Lowe’s® Tyvek, spray paint, lawn chair nylon webbing. Photo by Graham Holoch.

Bonanza, Vitamin D Tank and Motocross BurnOut pants, 2018. Metallic diamond quilted wrapping paper, onion bag, curtain, Lowe’s® Tyvek, spray paint, elastic. Photo by Graham Holoch.

Bonanza, Be Your Own Blanket, 2018. Afghan with elastic. Photo by Graham Holoch.

Bonanza, Big Dawg, 2018. Fake moss tiles, spray paint, Lowe’s® Tyvek, kiddy pool, Mylar bubble wrap, upholstery fabric, gift-wrap ribbon. Photo by Graham Holoch.

Bonanza, Illuminati Skank Skirt Dress, 2018. Metallic bubble wrap, rope from a children’s swing, metallic diamond quilted wrapping paper, elastic. Photo by Graham Holoch.

Fashun is one limb of Bonanza’s multi-disciplinary, hydra-like practice. Our fashun projects are a populist medium about creating space for our community.

Photo of Bonanza by Graham Holoch, 2018.*

*We’re often dressed in all black, like stagehands, receiving suspicious looks when talking about our fashun shows.

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These are morning matters, pictures you dream as the final wave heaves you up on the sand to the bright light and drying air. You remember pressure, and a curved sleep you rest against, soft, like a scallop in its shell. But the air hardens your skin; you stand; you leave the lighted shore to explore some dim headland, and soon you’re lost in the leafy interior, intent, remembering nothing.

Today is one of those excellent partly cloudies in which light chooses an unexpected part of the landscape to trick out in gilt, and then shadow sweeps it away. You know you’re alive. You take huge steps, trying to feel the planet’s roundness arc between your feet.

Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery, like the idle, curved tunnels of leaf miners on the face of a leaf. We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on here. Then we can at least wail the right questions into the swaddling band of darkness, or, if it comes to that, choir the proper praise.

— Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

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Four hundred twenty-five is the conservative estimate, made back in 1909 by Nels C. Nelson, at that time a UC Berkeley graduate student. Today, only four or so are visible; the rest lie underfoot: one under a Burger King in downtown Oakland, another beneath what is now Yerba Buena Gardens in San Francisco. The streets of Berkeley and Emeryville are paved with their contents. And some still sit uncatalogued in museums around the world. Since moving to the Bay Area a few years ago, I’ve been thinking a lot about shellmounds.

Over the centuries, these ancient earthworks, which frequently contain the remains of Indigenous peoples, have been thoughtlessly plundered and destroyed, falling prey to antiquities collectors, urbanization, and the elements. The shellmounds tell rich and nuanced stories to local Indigenous people, while archaeologists cite numerous unknowns. Varying in size and orientation, they have been documented from Petaluma in the north to San Jose in the south, but despite numerous surveys and analyses, there are few definitive archeological conclusions. How exactly were these sites used? What role did they play in Indigenous cosmologies? How were they constructed? By the time science caught up with these distinctive features they were becoming indistinct, effaced from the landscape they once helped to define, even as their destruction afforded archaeologists the opportunity to study them in the first place.

The first major analysis of a shellmound was conducted in 1902 by Nelson’s adviser, John C. Merriam and Max Uhle, whose excavation of the Emeryville Shellmound turned up a rich variety of material culture: everything from tools and pottery fragments to musical instruments and sea-otter penis bones likely used as awls. Then, in 1907, several months after the great San Francisco Earthquake turned much of the city to rubble, Nelson was able to excavate the Emeryville and Ellis Landing mounds. The following winter, he photographed the remains of the West Berkeley Shellmound, one of the richest and most ancient in the Bay Area, estimated to have been built around 3700 BCE. It was during his excavation of the Emeryville site that Nelson arguably introduced stratigraphy to American archaeology.

In 1909, when Nels Nelson published his survey, Shellmounds of the San Francisco Bay Region, these formations represented an obvious impediment to the city’s rapid development. Nelson mourned the inevitable erasure of what he called “savage life,” particularly the destruction of the “monuments and relics of primitive times.” Like most archaeologists of his time, he had a paternalistic view of Indigenous civilization, at best; yet he was nevertheless able to read the landscape in a way that others had not.

Setting aside the more recent “earth mounds,” he focused on creating a detailed distribution map of every shellmound in the greater Bay Area. This was easier said than done. (In pursuit of his dissertation, Nelson estimated that he walked some “3000 miles of littoral.”) Rather than a mere catalog of extant sites, Nelson found himself investigating how humans come to shape their environment and are shaped in turn. He rediscovered old topographical features like creeks and streams that had been diverted to water the suburbs. On top of the erosion and sedimentation of its bays, urbanization in the Bay Area had totally altered the shorelines along which many shellmounds had been built, rewriting the very letterforms by which the landscape had previously been read.

University of California Anthropology Department staff (from left) Seated: Nels C. Nelson, Alfred Kroeber, Ethel G. Field; Standing: Arthur Poyser, Arthur Warburton, Thomas Waterman, San Francisco 1911. Courtesy P.A. Hearst Museum.

Often, shellmounds were discovered by accident, in the course of construction, mining, or farming, or when mounds along the shore were washed away by rain and rising tides, revealing human bones and implements, beads, and pieces of pottery. Others simply sunk deeper into obscurity, disappearing into the soft earth below our feet. A common giveaway was the bluish tinge of weathered mussel shells. Another, more mysterious sign was the presence of a California buckeye tree in the vicinity.

Settlers found the unique composition of the mounds to be useful for their own road projects, fertilizer, and animal feed — even for surfacing tennis courts. Nelson was unambiguous: “…while there is still ample opportunity for the investigator, not a single mound of any size is left in its absolutely pristine condition.” Besides local museums, a number of artifacts ended up in the collection of the British Museum in London, but their acquisition details are often vague or missing. Among the items attributed to “Californian peoples” in the British Museum catalog, I was able to find arrowheads, shell (gastropod) fragments, and a stone mortar and pestle excavated from a shellmound in San Rafael and donated in 1899 by J. W. Warburton, one-time British consul-general of San Francisco.

Stone mortar. © Trustees of the British Museum.

Using the new stratigraphic method, Nelson estimated that a fairly large Indigenous population existed from assessing the volume and distribution of shellfish and other organic remains. Based on shards and partial evidence, he was able to imagine what life may have been like for the Bay Area’s original inhabitants and their relationships with significant species like the California condor (Gymnogyps californianus), since driven to virtual extinction. In a way, these mounds are time capsules entombing the rich diversity of what we have lost. For anthropologists, they are still-shifting sites of material culture; for the descendants of those buried within, they are living sites of memory and sources of connection. Though they might not seem like living things, these shellmounds are far from inert.

Recently, what remains of the Emeryville Shellmound has been preserved, but the oldest and perhaps most important shellmound now lies under a parking lot at 1900 Fourth St. in West Berkeley. At present, property developers want to build new housing units. Corrina Gould, a Chochenyo and Karkin Ohlone community leader and co-director of Indian People Organizing for Change, would turn the West Berkeley Shellmound into an open space, where visitors can learn and reflect. Others have proposed an interpretive center.

Today we orient ourselves and assess our locations by phone, neighborhood, sports franchise, cultural metaphor. The forces reshaping the topography of the Bay Area — tech, money, tech money — have their own monuments and systems of value. One day, perhaps this civilization, too, will be excavated and the things we seem to have cherished analyzed by posterity. As we attempt to navigate an increasingly uninhabitable landscape, we might begin by asking what — if anything — these strangers may ultimately find.

West Berkeley Shellmound, photographed by Nels Nelson, 1907. Courtesy of the Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History.

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Four hundred twenty-five is the conservative estimate, made back in 1909 by Nels C. Nelson, at that time a UC Berkeley graduate student. Today, only four or so are visible; the rest lie underfoot: one under a Burger King in downtown Oakland, another beneath what is now Yerba Buena Gardens in San Francisco. The streets of Berkeley and Emeryville are paved with their contents. And some still sit uncatalogued in museums around the world. Since moving to the Bay Area a few years ago, I’ve been thinking a lot about shellmounds.

Over the centuries, these ancient earthworks, which frequently contain the remains of Indigenous peoples, have been thoughtlessly plundered and destroyed, falling prey to antiquities collectors, urbanization, and the elements. Archaeologists still know little about them. Varying in size and orientation, they have been documented from Petaluma in the north to San Jose in the south, but despite numerous surveys and analyses, there are few definitive conclusions. How exactly were these sites used? What role did they play in Indigenous cosmologies? How were they constructed? By the time science caught up with these distinctive features they were becoming indistinct, effaced from the landscape they once helped to define, even as their destruction afforded archaeologists the opportunity to study them in the first place.

The first major analysis of a shellmound was conducted in 1902 by Nelson’s adviser, John C. Merriam and Max Uhle, whose excavation of the Emeryville Shellmound turned up a rich variety of material culture: everything from tools and pottery fragments to musical instruments and sea-otter penis bones likely used as awls. Then, in 1907, several months after the great San Francisco Earthquake turned much of the city to rubble, Nelson was able to excavate the Emeryville and Ellis Landing mounds. The following winter, he photographed the remains of the West Berkeley Shellmound, one of the richest and most ancient in the Bay Area, estimated to have been built around 3700 BCE. It was during his excavation of the Emeryville site that Nelson arguably introduced stratigraphy to American archaeology.

In 1909, when Nels Nelson published his survey, Shellmounds of the San Francisco Bay Region, these formations represented an obvious impediment to the city’s rapid development. Nelson mourned the inevitable erasure of what he called “savage life,” particularly the destruction of the “monuments and relics of primitive times.” Like most archaeologists of his time, he had a paternalistic view of Indigenous civilization, at best; yet he was nevertheless able to read the landscape in a way that others had not.

Setting aside the more recent “earth mounds,” he focused on creating a detailed distribution map of every shellmound in the greater Bay Area. This was easier said than done. (In pursuit of his dissertation, Nelson estimated that he walked some “3000 miles of littoral.”) Rather than a mere catalog of extant sites, Nelson found himself investigating how humans come to shape their environment and are shaped in turn. He rediscovered old topographical features like creeks and streams that had been diverted to water the suburbs. On top of the erosion and sedimentation of its bays, urbanization in the Bay Area had totally altered the shorelines along which many shellmounds had been built, rewriting the very letterforms by which the landscape had previously been read.

University of California Anthropology Department staff (from left) Seated: Nels C. Nelson, Alfred Kroeber, Ethel G. Field; Standing: Arthur Poyser, Arthur Warburton, Thomas Waterman, San Francisco 1911. Courtesy P.A. Hearst Museum.

Often, shellmounds were discovered by accident, in the course of construction, mining, or farming, or when mounds along the shore were washed away by rain and rising tides, revealing human bones and implements, beads, and pieces of pottery. Others simply sunk deeper into obscurity, disappearing into the soft earth below our feet. A common giveaway was the bluish tinge of weathered mussel shells. Another, more mysterious sign was the presence of a California buckeye tree in the vicinity.

Settlers found the unique composition of the mounds to be useful for their own road projects, fertilizer, and animal feed — even for surfacing tennis courts. Nelson was unambiguous: “…while there is still ample opportunity for the investigator, not a single mound of any size is left in its absolutely pristine condition.” Besides local museums, a number of artifacts ended up in the collection of the British Museum in London, but their acquisition details are often vague or missing. Among the items attributed to “Californian peoples” in the British Museum catalog, I was able to find arrowheads, shell (gastropod) fragments, and a stone mortar and pestle excavated from a shellmound in San Rafael and donated in 1899 by J. W. Warburton, one-time British consul-general of San Francisco.

Stone mortar. © Trustees of the British Museum.

Using the new stratigraphic method, Nelson estimated that a fairly large Indigenous population existed from assessing the volume and distribution of shellfish and other organic remains. Based on shards and partial evidence, he was able to imagine what life may have been like for the Bay Area’s original inhabitants and their relationships with significant species like the California condor (Gymnogyps californianus), since driven to virtual extinction. In a way, these mounds are time capsules entombing the rich diversity of what we have lost. For anthropologists, they are still-shifting sites of material culture; for the descendants of those buried within, they are living sites of memory and sources of connection. Though they might not seem like living things, these shellmounds are far from inert.

Recently, what remains of the Emeryville Shellmound has been preserved, but the oldest and perhaps most important shellmound now lies under a parking lot at 1900 Fourth St. in West Berkeley. At present, property developers want to build new housing units. Corrina Gould, an Ohlone community leader and co-director of Indian People Organizing for Change, would turn the West Berkeley Shellmound into an open space, where visitors can learn and reflect. Others have proposed an interpretive center.

Today we orient ourselves and assess our locations by phone, neighborhood, sports franchise, cultural metaphor. The forces reshaping the topography of the Bay Area — tech, money, tech money — have their own monuments and systems of value. One day, perhaps this civilization, too, will be excavated and the things we seem to have cherished analyzed by posterity. As we attempt to navigate an increasingly uninhabitable landscape, we might begin by asking what — if anything — these strangers may ultimately find.

West Berkeley Shellmound, photographed by Nels Nelson, 1907. Courtesy of the Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History.

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Azha Ayanna. Photo: Damien Maloney.

When I think of style, I think of undeniable individuality and self-expression. Style isn’t really about clothing; it’s more about how you carry yourself in it.

These images were taken in places I frequent, places where I’ve loved and lost, places I’ve grown or places that have made me who I am now. I wanted to depict and document how style can be a shield, an illusion, a comfort; self- something thought out, or thrown together. Love, warmth, and most importantly it gives us agency over our bodies and how we are perceived.

Esra; Oakland.

Skye; Berkeley.

Kamal Jahi in May; BART Station.

Kamal Jahi; West Oakland.

Drea; Franklin St. Parking structure.

El and Al; West Oakland.

Alex Shen; Dimond District.

Fiz; Downtown Oakland.

Rene; Oakland Chinatown Mall.

summer fucking mason; Oakland.

Drea, Lena, Richard, Rene, and Fiz; Chinatown, Oakland.

Darren; Chinatown, Oakland.

Rewina Beshue; San Francisco.

Sasha; Oakland.

Queens; Oakland.

Apryl Fuentes; Oakland.

Dev Hynes (Blood Orange) is forever an inspiration. He’s an icon and a down-to-earth person who’s been very kind throughout many hard times in my life. Blood Orange is my Prince and my David Bowie. His music was the soundtrack to a queer Black girl’s lonely Muni commutes across San Francisco in 2013. Fast-forward to 2019 — he’s still creating BIG and important meaningful things that resonate with her.

This is Janet Mock’s amazing intro to one of my favorite Blood Orange song, “Jewelry”:

So, like, my favorite images
Are the ones where…
Someone who isn’t supposed to be there
Who’s like in a space, a space where
We were not ever welcomed in or we were not invited
Yet we walk in and we show all the way up
People try to, put us down by saying
“She’s doing the most” or “he’s way too much”
But, like, why would we want to do the least?

As the song unfolds, the softness and smoothness of the vocals hug you. A chorus later repeats, “Nigga I’m feeling myself!” Like those words, these images are about presenting yourself knowing you are indeed showing up and doing the most.

My name is Azha Ayanna, and I am an artist based in Oakland, California, supporting and loving my friends and chosen family every day.

Azha Ayanna. Photo: Damien Maloney.

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