The Endless Summer of Art Strike's Back
by Gordon Winiemko

*click photos below for larger image

Co-organizers Lise Swenson and Gordon Winiemko like to have FUN in the Mission! Members of the Body Cartography Project perform amid a decade's worth of murals in Clarion Alley - itself a space slated to be overrun. Performers at Galeria de la Raza unveil "Ese, the last Mexican," an example of "pre-digital man" and "the last of his tribe" found in the Mission district of Co-organizer Megan Wilson's 250 "home" signs go to members of the Mission community.
The Ink Boat dancers direct their brand of Butoh to a swelling crowd of casual onlookers - and police. Sonny Smith sends a message to "all the dot com motherfuckers... fuck off." Keith Hennesey's troupe recreates "Lame," the desperate cry of the displaced dance community presented earlier in the week at the Footworks Studio "Circus of Resistance." Rene Garcia and Marci Klane reintroduce the New Economy to its tools in the chichi Slanted Door restaurant.

It's hard not to notice... when a new restaurant opens up seemingly every day, replacing a small grocery store or auto body shop... when snow white, picture-perfect Buffy and Ken come out to play at night, their shiny new luxury tanks lining the middle of the street... when you can't walk ten feet without tripping over yet another "artist loft" development without any artists in it... or when all your friends and the community organizations that support you are being evicted or can't afford to stay here anymore. In San Francisco these days, it seems like every third person has an eviction story. And it's particularly bad in the Mission district, for decades home to small, funky businesses of every stripe, nonprofits, Latino families, and artists. One day you wake up and realize that the city is being white-washed, its polyglot bohemia surgically replaced by a corporate, consumption-loving monoculture. One day you decide to do something about it.

Such was the genesis of Art Strike's Back. Thinking back to the "Art Strike" organized internationally in the early '90s as a response to art's complicity in perpetuating elitism and misapportioned wealth, some of us decided it was time for artists to respond to this current situation and comment on what is effectively an enforced strike, a moratorium on art and culture in San Francisco. Art strikes back. Art Strike IS back.

With our backs against the wall, we rallied around another slogan, "All action, no meetings." And we invited whoever could get an email to stage actions up and down Valencia Street, over what ended up being six weekends this past summer. It started on a Friday night with Jo Kreiter and other dancers strutting and writhing in front of Community Thrift. It continued with a searing series of feverish Saturday night set-pieces, beginning with Sonny Smith's Guthrie-inflected observations (Woody's guitar read "This machine kills fascists," Sonny's just said "evicted"), progressing to Ink Boat's street Butoh (directed at a swelling crowd that ended up including about six cops) and culminating in Rene Garcia's and Marci Klane's zombie death march dragging computer hardware as ball and chain.

From then on it came fast and furious, and for those who participated, either as performers or as willing spectators, it seemed like a magic time. As organizer Lise Swenson put it, "It was like we took the streets, our neighborhood back." Co-organizer Megan Wilson painted a flowery "home" to proclaim and welcome visitors to the Clarion Alley Mural Project. Home indeed to a decade's worth of murals by renowned SF artists, Clarion Alley too faces eviction.

Art Strike's Back saw more artists making it their home - like Krista Denio and other dancers, whose performance one Saturday night ended up including one additional participant. Wearing a tight dress and aping Janet Jackson moves, this African-American woman (who frequents that alley more than any artist) was in some ways more artful than some of the "official" performers - playfully challenging the proceedings and reminding us that gentrification has many layers, many culprits.

Twilight the following Saturday found the Body Carto-graphy Project in the same alley, serving up an arresting, multilayered presentation that beautifully framed the hideous clear-cutting of culture underway in San Francisco. Keith Hennesey's troupe recreated "Lame," the desperate cry presented earlier in the week at the Footworks Studio Circus of Resistance. Reborn as E. Victor, I served eviction papers to startled revelers at restaurants and bars. Rene Garcia and John Leanos unveiled "Ese, the last Mexican". Lisi De Haas did a grief walk. And, in what may have been the centerpiece of the series, a bunch of us walked down Valencia one night wearing not much more than underwear. Tied together in a web and gabbing relentlessly on cell phones, we were the mirror image of the New Economy and its weekend Mission playground, the "Emperor's New Clothes."

Whatever else it may have accomplished, the performance series made a definitive statement, one even the city government evidently could not ignore. With the performances scarcely over, Art Strike's Back was invited to install an exhibit in the Arts Commission Gallery window space right across the street from City Hall. Still, while it may have looked like we were getting a free forum, we were ultimately not allowed free expression. For one thing, we were expressly forbidden from making even the slightest mention of the community-drafted slow growth ballot measure, Proposition L, that would be voted on during the five weeks of the installation's run. Then there was the City's reaction to the public response that followed. Completely unbidden, people started taping messages to the gallery window - impassioned responses to the ongoing displacement of culture and community, many of which did not shirk from indicting the City for its role. Thrilled to add more members of the community to the Art Strike's Back effort, we elected not to disturb the continually accumulating comments. The City, however, was not so thrilled, and had the comments removed, effectively denying the people of San Francisco the public forum paid for by their tax dollars. Just like the framers of the Constitution, Willie Brown obviously knows (and fears) the power of free speech. Certainly, as long as artists are still living in San Francisco, they will continue to use their voices to protest the massive giveaway by City Hall to greedy developers and their tenants in the ersatz New Economy. As for the City sponsored (and censored) installation, what Art Strike's Back ended up presenting was an empty room, presided over by the recorded voices of thirty artists representing a cross section of the threatened San Francisco arts community. In the window, painted in Day-Glo colors in the manner of a car dealership or supermarket, we added one more slogan to our short list: "We Lose Space - You Lose Culture."