If you had asked me what I did over the weekend and I explained I had spent 12 hours contorted inside a glass display case the size of a tree stump in the ATA gallery window on Valencia Street in San Francisco, you’d probably say I was crazy. After all, this is not generally speaking how a Bay-native spends her once-in-a-blue-moon trip back home from Los Angeles. But there were reasons behind my madness. My nearly nude, entirely public isolation was in fact part of a performance piece entitled “Comfort & Civilization,” an attempt to communicate with my hometown community about the changing landscape of the Bay Area and the position of women in a radically transitioning society.
In front of the window, I had arranged a vigil of candles, roses and photo negatives in honor of the businesses, many of which catered to queer populations and artists, that had closed in recent years due to swift changes in property values and costs of living. I invited visitors to write in a journal positioned at the center of the vigil, suggesting they use it as a space where they could leave their memories of these vanishing spaces and their thoughts on the changing economic landscape of the Bay Area.
Over the course of the performance, I would estimate that nearly 1,000 people came and went. I sat in the only position I could manage in the tiny space, hugging my knees to my chest hour after hour, and watched.
As with all street performances, some members of the public wanted nothing to do with it. They either ignored me or ran away from it (some of them actually screaming!). I’d say this accounted for maybe one-third of the people who came by.
Then there were the negative reactions. More than a few people stopped to taunt me or write nasty things in the book about how change is inevitable, or how my performance was just a plea for attention. A few tried to get me to leave my enclosure and go out on dates with them (this was communicated via crude drinky-drinky gestures). More than a few thought my male friend Bella (who was keeping watch at a distance) was my manager, or was the “real artist” behind the piece, implying that I was some kind of prop in a larger body of work orchestrated by a man. Many thought I was dead or a mannequin and were horrified when they discovered I was a real, living, breathing woman.
The worst reactions were from the people who made snide comments about my body or tried to harass me through the glass. Like the man at the 11th hour who, when I was tired, hungry, sore and feeling drained from making myself vulnerable to 1,000 strangers, angrily beat his fists against the window pane screaming, “BE HAPPY! SMILE!” until he got tired of me staring back at him wordlessly. Or the guy who in a buddy-buddy way commented to Bella that I would look good in the back seat of his car.
But there were positive interactions, too, beautiful ones that make me forever grateful I did this crazy thing. Most passersby wanted to help me, or were concerned about my safety and well being. One woman even ran into the gallery and asked if there was anything she could do for me. “Whatever she needs, I’ll go and get it!” She came back to the window, her hand over her chest saying that I had broken her heart. She was not the only person to tell me this.
The piece resonated with more than a few on the subject of the vulnerability of women in public space, and how this conversation cannot be removed from discussions of our shifting economy. I remember a man who saw me and nearly cried. I wanted to talk to him, but couldn’t speak through the glass, so I gestured that he could write in the book. I have no way of knowing for sure that this was the man who wrote this, but when I later opened the book there was a long passage that began, “I bought mace for the first time for my girlfriend last week.” It went on to explain that his girlfriend had experienced close encounters of a violent nature multiple times in the past month. It concluded by saying, “Your use of nude and simplistic clothing makes these memories come up shrewd and clear—my fears for her and the explanations imagined about where we choose to call home. Thank you.”
One group surprised me: the parents. When I began the piece, I was worried the moms and dads would resent me for putting their children in the path of confusing and disheartening imagery that they would then bear the burden of explaining. I was wrong. Some of the most involved conversations overheard occurred between children and their parents. who embraced the performance as an opportunity to talk about small business, women’s bodies in public/private space, art and why art is important to society. I had to resist the urge to break out of my enclosure and embrace these people.
I wasn’t sure if I could physically make it to the end. My knees and elbows were bruised pretty badly, and the sitting was almost unbearable. I was exhausted from the constant exposure, the lack of food, the discomfort of wondering whether or not I would make it, the uncertainty of whether or not what I was doing was, in fact, worth anything to anyone. But I managed to make it to the end of the 12th hour.
On the drive home I felt ill at ease. There were a few things bothering me. There was a woman at the performance who shouted, “This is bullshit! None of these businesses are Mexican!” And then there was a street person who went by grumbling something about the privilege of artists. These things bothered me because they were true. And I took a moment to acknowledge that. I started by acknowledging that for me this was just a performance, just 12 hours of discomfort, but for some people their discomfort due to homelessness is a constant reality, that driving to a warm house and a comfortable bed is not an option for many many people in the Bay Area. I also acknowledged that the businesses that had closed, that I and others were lamenting, had at one point replaced others, including numerous Latino businesses, forcing Latinos out of the very district they had once established.
The next day, I woke up sore and still exhausted. My legs and thighs ached like they had been pelted with stones. Seated in a Starbucks in the North Bay because the local cafe had closed last year, I opened the journal from the vigil and read the lamentations of first-, second- and third-generation San Franciscans who knew they would never be able to afford to have their children in the city they loved:
I am now 18. I want to raise my children in the beautiful city I grew up with but I’m afraid that I will not be able to afford it.
Beginning at age 4, I started telling people that I was born in San Francisco. My parents would try to correct me, but I insisted. Now that I’m grown, I’m living my dream—and I feel as if I really have been born again into the magical place that I love. But with this rebirth comes the knowledge that it will be nearly impossible for me to potentially raise my own children here. So maybe I will just lie … and tell them they were born here.
I read the memories of the spaces that had closed or were in the process of closing.
—The Uptown in Oakland was home to many events and memories. For me, it was the site of my stint in burlesque. I learned to love and celebrate my body along with others who overcome fears and social boundaries. RIP.
—Goodbye Que Tal Café … the Albion, oh so many more. I have such happy memories.
—Here’s to hoping we can save the Lost Church and the Elbo Room …
I read the comments of the people who thought I had wasted my time:
You are not gonna make it.
And the people who were grateful:
—You are so brave. Old SF is still here. The artists aren’t going anywhere.
—Kudos for doing this for all us women.
—To be silent in this time of crisis is shameful. We must speak of and work through this pain.
—I’m reminded of things and people I tend not to notice, and later remember fondly. Thank you for this.
And the people who wanted to help:
I don’t want to change this city. I don’t want to participate in a capitalist game that pushes people out of their homes. … I gave notice yesterday. I hope I can help repair some of the damage my presence here has caused.
I read and I cried. In a Starbucks. No one asked if I was alright, but if they had I would have told them that in a society that is so totally unacceptably unjust to so many of its citizens, that ignores their words, their suffering, denies their narratives as legitimate, that demands they quit whining and pull themselves up by their boot straps even when they cannot afford boots, I am so grateful I get to use my voice on their behalf.
If I learned one thing from making myself vulnerable to so many people it is this: It is only by acknowledging our vulnerabilities, by refusing to see our experiences of suffering as unique and negligible, that we become empowered to build a society based on empathy and respect. On that day I made myself vulnerable to San Francisco, but San Francisco also made itself vulnerable to me. And what I saw was a people freed from glass cases, ready to speak up for the city they loved.
Crossposted from Mirabelle Jones
Photos by Luma Jaguar