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Art: Watching the Watchers 

Wednesday, Jun 1 2016

Every upheaval in history, whether a military campaign or a cultural spasm, has produced what is euphemistically called "collateral damage." Drone warfare kills terrorists — and also scores of innocent families. The internet revolution unites communities online — and divides people offline, as the tech bubble raises real-estate prices and forces people out of those very communities. Activists see the damage and demand answers. Proponents focus on the benefits and say, "Too bad." It's a continuous Rorschach test of perception thatplays out every day, especially in the activist- and tech-centered Bay Area. It's also playing out at four San Francisco art exhibits, where we see the lengths that people will go to announce their beliefs and — they hope — change other people's minds.

At Heron Arts, convicts have drawn portraits of corporate executives whom they believe should be where the convicts are: behind bars, stripped of their rights, and punished for harming innocent people. The Koch brothers, Charles and David, are there for their Koch Industries' excesses and political lobbying. Chevron's CEO, John S. Watson, is represented for his company's massive environmental degradations. The top executive of Tyson Foods, Donnie Smith, gets profiled because of his company's bribery schemes and animal cruelty. And PepsiCo's leader, Indra Nooyi, earns a painting for (among many things) the food-and-beverage giant's deceptive policies. Dozens of other executives smile from Heron Arts' walls, which also detail these multimillionaires' specific guilty acts.

"Captured: People in Prison Drawing People Who Should Be" is the brainchild of Jeff Greenspan and Andrew Tider, two New York artist-activists with a history of organizing controversial projects around social issues. Last year, Greenspan and Tider installed a statue of whistleblower Edward Snowden at a monument to the American Revolution in a Brooklyn park. (Officials took it down within hours.) In a nod to NSA practices, Greenspan and Tider also installed recorders under tables across New York City and published the unwitting participants' conversations about sex, work, and other intimate topics. Illegal? Well, yeah. But Greenspan's and Tider's projects are expanding the boundaries of "activist art." And the prisoners who worked on "Captured" — and who are serving time for everything from armed robbery and indecency with a minor, to manslaughter and murder — force art-goers to question the legal and moral double-standards that let corporate higher-ups undermine millions of lives through practices that watchdogs and environmental groups consider corrupt.

"Our goal is to expose crimes masquerading as commerce, and the inequity of justice," Greenspan says, standing amid frames of art that took several years of organizing to commission. Many of the artist-prisoners, he says, told Greenspan and Tider, " 'I'm just so happy that I can use my talent to be part of something productive and positive and enlightening.' Almost everyone said, 'I belong in prison for what I did. I did an awful thing and have to serve some time. But look at the awfulness that these [corporate executives] have perpetrated. And look at how much wider the ripples go from their damage than to my damage.' "

Just blocks away from Heron Arts' South of Market gallery, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts has given its ground-floor gallery to "Take This Hammer: Art + Media Activism from the Bay Area." Guest curated by Christian L. Frock, the exhibit spotlights the tools of progressive activism that have found a home on public streets and on the internet. Oree Originol's posters of police victims, like that of San Franciscan Alex Nieto, are displayed by the hundreds in a massive memorial to people who died too young. TVs play videos of the "performance-interventions" that Leslie Dreyer and the group Heart of the City orchestrated to stop Google buses on their runs from San Francisco to Silicon Valley. And a high-tech piece called Out of Sight, Out of Mind — done by Wesley Grubbs' studio, Pitch Interactive — documents the deaths of more than 3,000 Pakistanis who died in U.S.-and-ally drone attacks from 2004 to 2015. The curved lines that spike in the air are all deaths from bombs that turned flesh and bone into ash. The deaths are still statistics — we don't see their faces — but with dates and numbers, they become much more tangible. At turns disturbing and revealing, "Take This Hammer" acts as a quick retrospective of recent Bay Area work that should be celebrated for daring and originality.

Those two words also describe Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who has risked his career — and his personal freedom — to criticize China's human rights practices. At Haines Gallery, Ai offers variations of works that his fans have seen in the past few years, including the Haines-arranged exhibit on Alcatraz that drew hundreds of thousands of people in 2014 and 2015. In that exhibit, porcelain flowers — reminiscent of the actual flowers that Ai put on daily display after Chinese authorities took his passport for three years — were a motif. In "Ai Weiwei: Overrated," Bicycle Basket with Flowers in Porcelain is a tribute to those same flowers, which became symbolic of Ai's resistance to authoritarian rule. Also in the new Haines exhibit is Ai's "fuck you" photograph series, called Study of Perspective, which he began in 1995 and involves him extending his long middle finger at dozens of buildings and scenes representing excessive power around the world. China's Tiananmen Square gets Ai's wrath, as do the White House, France's Eiffel Tower, Spain's La Sagrada Familia cathedral, and even a Viking Line cruise ship. The sardonic Ai spares no one — not even himself. The exhibit's title suggests a debate about his own reputation as prices for his artwork have skyrocketed past the $1 million mark.

Meanwhile, at Irving Street Projects in the Outer Sunset, artist Kate Haug revisits a key American period in 1968 for her exhibit, "News Today: A History of the Poor People's Campaign in Real Time." Martin Luther King, Jr. co-organized the Poor People's Campaign with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to protest the United States' economic treatment of its poorest people. Haug, who is also a writer and filmmaker, researched the campaign for months and culled together photographs that show the day-to-day work that went into the campaign, which continued after King's assassination and culminated in a tent-camp protest called "Resurrection City" that thrived on the Washington Mall for six weeks. Conservatives protested King's protest, calling him a Communist and worse for demanding an economic bill of rights that would be funded to the tune of $30 billion a year.

Haug sees parallels between that campaign and today's protests about economic and legal justice. Besides her photographs, Haug has printed a catalogue as a 78-page newspaper, created buttons that are facsimiles of those handed out in 1968, made a model of Resurrection City, and commissioned a large drawing for the window of Irving Street Projects (from Susie Williams) that creates a "storybook" scene with orphaned African-American boys.

All four San Francisco exhibits offer insight into the kind of rollicking art that prompts strangers to notice even when they're not in the mood. Noticing by itself is a feat, whether or not these strangers rethink their positions on the subject at hand. But the exhibits also — inadvertently — expose a few contradictions. Lots of people, for example, think Facebook is "evil" and cynically believe that founder Mark Zuckerberg belongs in prison for his company's approach to news and other policies, but "Captured" is being presented at a gallery founded by a former Facebook engineer, and Jeff Greenspan is a former Facebook creative strategist who freelances in the corporate world. Greenspan points out his own contradictions, telling SF Weekly, "We're not here in a glass house throwing rocks. Andrew and I have said many times that we'd like to expand the project to not only include the lobbyists that raise the most money for nefarious causes or the politicians who take the most money, but ourselves (if this project were to be expanded). I now have a mortgage with Wells Fargo. Does that make me a hypocrite because Wells Fargo is in the exhibit? Can I rationalize by saying, 'Well, I'm in the belly of the beast, and I'm doing the best I can, and maybe there's a Robin Hood gesture to all this?' "

"The reality is that I'm culpable, too," he adds. "But I would argue that it's slightly easier for me to decide whether to buy a Nestlé chocolate bar [Nestlé's chairman is in the exhibit] than it is to take my mortgage and move it to a credit union. So, I'm part of the problem, too. And Andrew says the same thing: 'Look what we accept.'"

But in the liberal bubble that is the Bay Area, organizers of these four art exhibits, and the artists they champion, believe their work really is influencing perception and instilling change. It feels a bit odd to see some of their work behind the walls of a museum or gallery. The protest signs and posters in "Take This Hammer" really belong on the street, and the exhibit's data-works around evictions and drone deaths are really intended for more popular consumption. Isolated in an exhibit, they become objects of study rather than activist props. Their value is much more in reflection than in persuasion.


About The Author

Jonathan Curiel


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