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Space, the Final Frontier 

The San Francisco art collective Rebar wants to redefine where we live, one gonzo project at a time

Wednesday, Mar 22 2006
It was still early morning when Matthew Passmore opened the door of his parents' half-broken minivan and planted his feet on the dusty floor of the New Mexico desert. A smattering of scrub brush grew up from the dirt and rocks, and a lone wooden mailbox rose out of the ground with letter stickers pasted on to form the word "CABINET."

Passmore savored the quiet, desolate landscape. He had just driven 1,200 miles over two days with the van's busted passenger door alarm ringing maddeningly at odd intervals: "Ding ding ding ding ding ding ...." The minivan was packed with equipment: chicken wire, cement mix, shovels, and about 100 sandbags.

As part of its spring 2003 "property" issue, the quarterly arts magazine Cabinet had bought half an acre in the middle of nowhere on eBay and dubbed it "Cabinetlandia." The editors offered readers 3-square-foot plots of the undevelopable desert at a penny apiece in a bizarre avant-garde statement of the illogic of ownership and the very idea of property. When Passmore proposed the equally bizarre idea of building a library on the site — every town needs a library, after all – the editors approved, doubting he'd ever actually go through with it.

Even to Passmore, the whole thing did seem a little ridiculous. He wasn't really an artist – six months before, he had still been a corporate lawyer. But it was too late to turn back. He and his friends had invested hours and hours planning the project, and Cabinet had already entrusted them with funds to buy materials. Passmore wasn't sure whether the library would be a "piece of art" or a project without much meaning, but he found the idea of bringing a slice of industrialized America into the wide-open Wild West very, very funny. So he lugged a filing cabinet and a few tools out of the minivan and left them on the ground. Then he drove half an hour back to the motel in Deming, the closest town to Cabinetlandia, and waited.

That afternoon, Passmore's high school buddy Jed Olson, a doctor living in Denver, arrived in his truck. Two more friends, Judson Holt, a litigation consultant, and John Bela, a landscape architect, flew from San Francisco to El Paso and met at the Deming motel. They drove over to Cabinetlandia and started digging.

For five days, the group toiled underneath a scorching summer sun, returning to the hotel room every night to laugh and drink beers and plan for the next day. They took a break for a few hours to play "desert tennis" (exactly what it sounds like) and spent most of the fourth day at White Sands National Monument. When they'd finished, a crescent mound rose from the desert floor, flanked by solar-powered lights. A filing cabinet within the small hill housed the entire archive of Cabinet, waiting for anyone who might visit Cabinetlandia and want to borrow a copy. The crew gathered their equipment and planted a wooden sign that said "LIBRARY" into the ground, then started the long journey home.

Eighteen months later, what began as a single goof-off project has ripened into Rebar, a loosely organized collective based in San Francisco. The group's silly-but-serious endeavors tackle issues of space and land use with an odd mix of artistry, activism, performance, industrial design, and a heavy dose of ironically detached criticism. Its members are too issue-oriented to be pranksters, too cryptic to be activists, and too hilarious to be taken very seriously as artists, but they've managed to tap into a growing awareness worldwide about how space determines our daily reality, and what the public might do to regain control of its surroundings.

From the Czech Republic to Santa Monica – much to Rebar's surprise – people are starting to pay attention to what the group is working on.

"What do you think you're doing?" asked the man behind the video camera in an accusatory tone.

"We're just installing a park here today," said John Bela, his black ball cap pulled halfway down his forehead. "Someone ordered a park here today, and we're installing it on location at this moment."

Brady Moss, co-conspirator and Rebar cameraman for the day, just laughed out loud.

Bela popped some coins into the parking meter, then snipped the strings restraining the tree in the back of the rented pickup truck. He grabbed a cylinder of sod and unrolled it onto the white tarp, as nonchalantly as if he were adding a rug to his living room. "What we're investigating here," he said, "is the transformative power of sod."

As part of this artistic intervention, which Bela called PARK(ing), Rebar "leased" one of the metered parking spots on a Financial District street for a day last November. Instead of a vehicle, the group occupied the space with a temporary, do-it-yourself park.

Passmore and several others helped lay the rest of the sod, then positioned a park bench and a tree on top of the turf. Next to the meter, they placed a barricade with a sign reading: "2 HOUR PARK(ing) / 12 P.M. to 2 P.M. / WED THRU WED / BROUGHT TO YOU BY rebar group."

Shortly after the parking space on the street became a park, a brewer's blackbird flew down onto the grass and began pecking, searching for worms in the dirt. The bird had accepted Rebar's creation as part of nature. Passers-by weren't quite so gullible. Most smiled for a moment, then continued walking. A few studiously ignored it, as if they were afraid of being sucked into an elaborate reality television-show prank. Only half a dozen pedestrians actually engaged with the piece.

One woman stopped to ask: "Is this something you had to get permission for?"

"No. We didn't," Passmore said, then added, sheepishly, "We paid the meter," as if that made much of a difference. He had examined city code beforehand and, as far as he could tell, they weren't breaking any laws.

About The Author

Ryan Blitstein


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