Since I went looking for them inside the BART station, only discovering that they’re outside from the station agents on duty, I got my first look at the portraits installed at 16th St. and Mission in the same way many unsuspecting commuters must have. There’s the long walk up the stairs and the moment of blindness as you leave the shade of the station behind you. Four of them this time, positioned behind glass where you might usually find a bunch of advertisements that you’d ignore as a matter of course. The plaza outside is always boisterous: there are the preachers, protesters, the occasional person screaming seemingly for the sheer joy of it, not to mention the roar of the busses, cars and crowds. But here’s a moment of quiet, a puzzle to figure out, something that prompts your selective attention to filter out all the extraneous stimuli and focus. The poses, the hands in motion, open mouths, eyes shut in a frozen moment of declaration, are all saying “listen up” but you can’t hear a thing.
Even in San Francisco, every bit of real estate is potential advertising space. When I used to walk to work, I’d pass Mariposa and Bryant. Looking over all the protest art proliferating the wall of the building across from the Muni yard induced a smile everytime. Then one day, they began to be attacked aggressively, papered over and over again unrelentingly with Axe cologne ads or Maxim magazine covers. A space that had been a forum had been seized and reclaimed in the service of generating revenue. The sides of buildings, busses, and kiosks here are littered with exclamations about products for sale. Looking over what once had been a place where people broadcasted messages that they couldn’t keep to themselves any longer and seeing instead Nicole Kidman, the term public space seemed an oxymoron. Anything left untouched can be inferred to be deemed not “visible” enough to warrant the trouble of putting up a poster.
Enter Evan Bissell’s detailed, expressive paintings. Where before there had been just a blank wall was something surprising and incongruous. And there was a personality depicted who you’d probably never seen or heard of before. Unlike the impersonal ads, their locations were chosen specifically by the person depicted because the site was meaningful to them. Suddenly the spot you were standing at had a story to go with it, rather than being just another place you pass on the way to somewhere else. Where before there might have been a movie poster of a celebrity, the subjects were all teens from the organization Youth Speaks, members of the community. Public space began to be a meaningful term again. Like spam blocking programs we shut out a lot of the visual noise demanding our regard. Bissell’s pictures were, to borrow the title of the Pixies’ documentary “loud quiet loud.” Here was something unlooked for, interesting in itself. If you stopped you began to notice other details: lines of poetry framing the picture, a plaque with a phone number. If you called the number, you had a voice to go with the portrait and an on-the-spot performance. There was also the suggestion that this was part of something still bigger.
Considering that we’re such a visual culture, somewhere in advance of nowhere*: youth, imagination and transformation was a particularly brilliant way to promote both Intersection for the Arts’ accompanying community programs and the Youth Speaks members themselves. Insanely talented poets all, the pictures need to be powerful because they must serve as a stand-in for their work until someone starts plugging the digits from the plaque into their phone. The welcome focus on teens reinforces the facts that the Arts are something that can (and should) be nurtured and a reminder that youth isn’t necessarily an indication that an artist or poet cannot be accomplished at their craft (Percy Bysshe Shelly was publishing poems at age 18, Rimbaud wrote Ophélie when he was 15). It also turns notions of celebrity on its head. Why not recognize talent for what it is now, celebrate it instead of waiting until one of these poets ends up on TV or as a household name? They are a concrete statement that value is what we make of it, independent of Nielsen ratings if we are just bold enough to acknowledge it. The portraits also serve as a metaphor for the spirit of the entire undertaking. By placing them all about the city, it reinforces the idea that art is not just something you find in a gallery. Art is wherever one of these individuals happens to be and if you choose to participate, it can be wherever you are as well.
That’s not to say that Intersection for the Arts main space is a side note as they’re hosting a myriad of performances, workshops and discussions featuring students from BAVC and Youth Speaks as well as educators and activists all of which feed back into the themes of “youth, imagination and transformation.” But I think the decentering is intentional: it tears the focus away from a site as the propagator of art for consumption and puts it back on the community as fellow collaborators.
Indeed when I arrived at Intersection’s gallery after my stop at the BART station it seemed very much a working space, as though I’d arrived at the Ops Center for somewhere. All around me were workstations and works in progress as well as photographs capturing the project in its many stages. The huge wall map with the portrait locations underlined the idea that this was where things begin, not where they just get hung on a wall for posterity. Seeing the peninsula crisscrossed with the street grid is a great way to get a sense of the scope of the project. You can almost imagine a section of it lighting up a la Le Samurai and someone yelling out “someone has found Tino’s portrait in sector 2!”
Despite hiding behind my camera, I’m greeted by Kevin Chen, a programmer at Intersection, which is nice considering he seems to be pretty busy and I’m just some guy off the street. We chat for a bit and I point out the pictures I’ve found on the map. “Are you hideous…?” he offers tentatively. Now if anyone else got this question they’d probably be bewildered or offended or both. I feel slightly dizzy. “Yeah, ‘Hideous Sunday'” I laugh. “When we saw you posted one of the portraits we were trying to figure out, ‘Who is this guy?'” Intersection actually linked to my blog in their newsletter when I first started posting Evan Bissell’s paintings which made my usually meager site meter shoot up to form an uncharacteristic triangle. “Will you be around for awhile? I’d like to talk more later.” He heads downstairs in a hurry and I walk around snapping pictures. It’s only later that I discover in an article in the Chronicle that he was meeting with a panel of literary-competition judges at the time. The fact that he stepped away to say hello is incredibly gracious.
I check out some of the workstations set up for kids, one of which revolves around creating a likeness of a mentor who inspired them and framing it.
One corner is full of pictures chronicling the project from its inception. Lots of snapshots of Bissell and participants at work. It’s cool to see the subjects posing next to their likeness.
Kevin returns and he points out the huge mural that Bissell is working on. Does this guy ever sleep? We both gush over how amazing the portraits are and then I gush a bit over Simone’s poetry. It turns out he knows my roommate Dia who works in Arts in Education. It’s only later at home that my other roommate Jess points out that Kevin has probably been to our house for a party. I really need to spend less time smoking on the balcony.
The mural that is developing before the eyes of visitors to the gallery feels serene. Years from now I’ll try to think of it this way as I pass by the genuine article. Then again, thanks to somewhere one day you can tell visitors to the city about the art exhibit and public performance that you experienced here years ago. When they ask you to direct them to the spot you’ll be able to point in practically any direction.