(de)Appropriation Project, Bruce Tomb and the Valencia Street Wall
When does the act of one individual begin to belong to the public? Where is that space, the coveted location where the community has a voice and individuals can connect to each other despite the content of their messages? Advertisements, political messages and commercials wallpaper our site-lines at every turn. Where then, is that place in our urban landscape where we can slice into privately owned space and carve out a site of expression, sharing and confrontation? If we were to find such a space, how is it that one person or one group of people can gather their ideas and yearning for change on the streets of a city, an in turn, have those ideas become the voices of a community? What would this look like and how can it be recorded in our histories? To find a site like this would be an opportunity to witness the spaces between an individual and the public.
There is an old police station in San Francisco’s Mission District that is now privately owned by Bruce Tomb, an architect, artist and teacher; wh o has made the station his home and office . The building is a simply designed, staid brick building. The front wall faces Valencia Street, a busy thoroughfare that cuts through the Mission’s shopping and nighttime entertainment corridor. Around ten years ago, Tomb painted a grid on the front façade of the building as a tactic to curb the tagging that appeared there on a daily basis. Once the grid was installed, the tagging stopped and new forms of expression, protest and art began to appear on the wall with great regularity. From that moment on, the “Valencia Wall’ became a sanctioned site of expression, protest and community. Tomb himself noticed the change in what began to appear on the wall. In a recent interview with me we talked about the origins of the wall and he noted, "Yes, there was a difference before and after [the grid was painted on the wall]. Before there was just tagging. After, there was work with artistic intent and posters (not hand bills). Placements became more self-conscious. [There was an] awareness of juxtaposition and composition by those participating became evident. A sense of a larger whole and dialectic emerged. Eventually, political works arrived."
The wall has been functioning as this kind of sanctioned site for over ten years and it is history itself that shows us that the community, the users of the wall, the consumers of the wall's content have and continue to ratify its value as a clearing house of communication. Additionally, it is a site where I, as a San Francisco resident, living in the Mission, can perhaps measure that distance between my community and me.
Tomb does not regulate the content or frequency of postings. His only rules are no staples or tape. His physical participation with the wall goes no further than maintenance. He will occasionally strip away rotting scraps of old posts (an inevitability after the San Francisco rainy season) but will not interfere in any way past that. It is an activity he likens to weekend yard work, although many others see his involvement more as the guardian of a treasured spot of freedom and expression. The wall operates with no theme except for the passing of time and Tomb adamantly claims no curatorial responsibility for the content. His distance from this public space is a core characteristic of the wall's vitality. If Tomb did in fact claim ownership over the content on the wall, or the evolution of that content - the entire framework would fall under him and his intentions. It would be a personal conceptual project and not an intersection of infinite lines of people's thoughts and actions converging.
In addition to his “custodial” work, Tomb has also been photographing the wall almost daily for the entire ten years of its existence in this form. The images are then labeled by date, tagged by visual markers and entered into an exhaustive archive that can be accessed at www.deappropriation.net. The archive is by no means a finished product. It is constantly being added to, deepened and widened. It is meant to serve as another point of entry into the Valencia Street wall and its collective histories. It is also a tool that can measure the vitality of the wall itself.
This archive was exhibited as part of an exhibition Bruce Tomb had at Southern Exposure (SoEx) in January of 2008. Tomb hosted a public meeting at Southern Exposure for people to talk about how they see and use the wall. A questionnaire was sent out to neighbors before the meeting and was also made available at SoEx. The meeting was overwhelmingly positive , and it was also a moment for the wall’s presence to be celebrated and expanded to new audiences; and although Tomb was included as an artist in the Southern Exposure exhibition, he repeatedly claimed no authorship over the content of the wall. He is its steward and custodian. The public programming revolving around the wall were moments of intersection between communities who create work for the wall, neighbors who support or do not support the wall and for the artist community in San Francisco which strives to support this type of decentralized, rhizomatic strategy for expression and activism.
After spending time looking through the vast depths of the archive I found that I often agree with and wholeheartedly support the content being posted on the wall. It is a stunningly beautiful example of the creative force of San Francisco's social history yet if the wall was on the side of a church or United States military recruiting station or a department store, would I be as passionate about the wall's existence? I doubtfully wonder. I asked Mr. Tomb about how the wall is used and who in fact has been using it over the years. I asked him if he worries about the wall being co-opted by commercial or marketing purposes, his response was, “The wall is self regulating at this point. It changes quickly and [the people who post on the wall are] respectful of the inertia of the community.”
The archive certainly documents this kind of regulation. The users of the wall have always watched out for the content in the past and will hopefully continue to do so in the future. Of course, commercial entities have tried to use the wall. Advertisements have appeared from time to time, but things come down quickly, or layers of commentary or are added to them, changing their meaning. Remnants of some posters stay on the wall for months on end. It is an organic and static demonstration of the endurance of art, politics and protest in this community.
I always saw the fact that this wall rests on the front side of an old police station as a big ‘fuck you’ to the police. It was a symbol of San Francisco's inexhaustible will to react against itself – it was a place of anarchy living just doors away from high-end furniture stores and trendy bars and restaurants. In fact, my first memory of the wall was a series of posters made to look like front pages of the newspaper. The text, framing a picture of Willie Brown, the city’s mayor at the time, was something like, “Fuck the Homeless! Save the Tourists!” I was brimming with hope when I saw that. Finally a voice, someone’s voice, was reaching out to me, and lending me a way to articulate my own frustrations with the city’s disastrous policies toward the homeless residents of the city.
The police station was built with and supported by public tax dollars – Tomb himself struggled with the fact this public building is his now his private home and office. He conceded that one of the motivations for opening the wall up in a more formal way was to maintain the building’s original use providing some kind of service to the community. Although, admittedly, the Valencia wall is a far cry from a neighborhood police station, the wall could have only been constructed there. The wall and its perseverance would not have been possible or even necessary if it was simply a part of someone’s private home somewhere else in the city. That building, this wall belongs to the entire community and one way Tomb is confronting the paradox of having his private home inside what was once a public building is to open up the façade to the community in which it is located.
Earlier in 2008, Mission based artist Mabel Negrete painted the entire expanse of the wall orange. (1) The message compared the cost to the state of California for caring for one prisoner versus the cost of going to college in California. The white lettering and numbers were enormous. Everything on the wall was covered up by the project that was by all accounts a powerful and effective way to raise awareness for the specific issue although many people did not see it that way and this project served as notable moment in the history of the wall. This was just one of countless example's of the wall serving as the site of agency, but it is a notable example of the wall itself becoming the issue at hand, not the content of the message. Few people had criticisms of the prison awareness project or that this artist was using the wall to communicate with the community at large , however Bruce Tomb received multiple comments and complaints from people falling on both sides of the dialog. People remarked that this artist was absolutely wrong for dominating the entire wall, or that other people’s work was swallowed up by the project, and by painting the entire wall, she prevented others from accessing it. Ultimately, many people thought this artist had broken the rules of the wall. However, others thought it was an incredible appropriation of the wall itself and the scale of the installation appropriately matched the breadth of the subject it was conveying. This is a common issue among graffiti and public art communities and Mabel Negrete's installation reveals the Valencia wall's ultimate potency of being maintained and generated by the users of the wall themselves.
Without one creator or owner of the content, t he Valencia Street wall becomes sedimentary evidence, scraps of paper and wheat-paste proving we, as a community, are indeed physically located. We have a site to voice, to create, and display. Perhaps though, it also reveals that as individuals we still (at least those who do post items to the wall) still have the ability to share these sentiments without tangible consequences, good or bad. This wall is a living thing that cannot exist without Bruce Tomb, the people who post items upon it and all of the people who consume it every time they pass by Valencia Street in San Francisco, between 23rd and 24th Streets.
This transition from the I to the We, from the individual to the community is intangible, but somehow the wall is a tangible illustration of that very transition. The wall, complicated as it may be being located on a privately owned building, is a precious place between anonymity and community and this potency of this place trumps all issues of use, content, over-consumption or visual manipulation. There is not one specific posting that is representative of the process nor is there just one image in the archive that reveals the moment of transition and although the wall is privately owned, that owner is working tirelessly to open up the concept of ownership, propriety and responsibility. The content of the wall, the idea of the wall as well as the future of the wall belongs to those who choose to participate in its function. Ultimately, the Valencia Street Wall is the sum of the parts peeling back and away like infinite onionskins falling on themselves into a pile, into a history, into an archive of the wall on Valencia Street in front of the old police station.