the back room of an art gallery
where artists and art lovers hang
Bruce Tomb, (de) Appropriation Project Archive,
Ongoing, since 1998, Poster wall, 25'W x 25'H
© Bruce Tomb
Bruce Tomb, Maria del Camino,
2012, Radically modified 1959 El Camino and a hydraulic excavator, 10'L x 6.5'W x 18'H
© Anne Klint
Bruce Tomb, Maria del Camino,
2012, 1959 El Camino and a hydraulic excavator, 22'L x 6.5'W x 10'H
© Anne Klint
Bruce Tomb, Chip Lord and Curtis Schreier,
Ant Farm Media Van v.08 [Time Capsule],
2008, 1970 Chevy Van, video, custom computer (HUQQUH), 17'L x 6.5'H x 6'W
© Bruce Tomb
Bruce Tomb, Chip Lord, Curtis Schreier,
Time Capsule Triptych, Discovery,
Bruce Tomb, Chip Lord and Curtis Schreier,
Time Capsule Triptych,
2009, Duratrans print with light box, video and monitors, 3'H x 25'L x 1'D
Bruce Tomb and Chip Lord, Hello, San Jose!,
2008, Scaffolding, plywood, streaming audio, shrink wrap, light, 16'W x 8'D x 16'H
© Jeremy Jachym
Maria del Camino Phase 2 is complete. The new hydraulics enable Her to stand vertically and fly in slow motion. A trial run with the new truck, the Mothership, to the Carrizo Plain, provided an opportunity for some great documentation in the compromised landscape and subdivision of California Valley. Plans are now underway for Phase 3, making her remote controllable via iPh...[more]
Interview with Bruce Tomb
On January 30th, the San Francisco Artslant writing team attended the Public Meeting, held at Southern Exposure, about the art wall on Valencia Street between 23rd and 24th Streets. About ten years ago Bruce Tomb, the owner of the building, which happens to be the former Mission Police Station, decided to stop cleaning the graffiti and posters that accumulated on the wall, and began regularly documenting its evolution with photographs. This documentation became the (de) Appropriation Project and has progressively become more rigorous, culminating in an interactive online archive of the photos and the object of an exhibit at Southern Exposure. Tomb regards his role in the project as the wall's custodian rather than curator, and presents the wall as an art project which he simply lets flourish, a collaboration with an anonymous community of graffiti writers, street artists and political activists.
A couple of days after the Public Meeting, Artslant's Natalie Stanchfield met up with Tomb and got a first hand look at the Wall and a tour through the old police station. Pounded by weeks of rain, the posters were, for the most part, peeling off the wall, exposing the many layers beneath, revealing a palimpsest of street art and political posters. Unbeknownst to most passersby, on the other side of the wall is the police station's holding cells, which host their own graffiti created by prisoners with the smoke from lighters or scratched into the ceiling with whatever implement the incarcerated could manage to find or keep on his person. This reveals yet another dimension to the so-called "Freedom Wall" of such a historically and emotionally charged piece of architecture in the Mission District. The (de) Appropriation Project, then, is an ongoing investigation and documentation of this anarchistic amalgamation of street art and graffiti, postered protests and promotions, plastered right on the site of a building with a history of repression and brutality.
(de) Appropriation Project Wall; Photo by Natalie Stanchfield
Natalie Stanchfield - It's commonly referred to as "the Freedom Wall on Valencia," or sometimes just "the Wall." Can you elaborate a bit on why you've settled on calling your documentation of the wall as the (de) Appropriation Project?
Bruce Tomb - There are a few reasons. For as long as I can remember or know, appropriation as a working strategy within the arts and culture has been pervasive. Music is well documented and understood through strategies of appropriation, both deliberate and unconscious (blues to rock and roll, etc). Between all the arts and sciences there are exchanges in ideas throughout history. Architecture has always drawn from sources both inside (historic precedence, style, structure, systems, order, etc.) and outside of itself (painting, sculpture, photography, industrial design, machines, etc.). The Wall is part of the City, but it is also architecture.
The culture that has emerged from around graffiti, is not one that respects property. The action of tagging is a kind of taking, at least visually, without permission or in other words: appropriation. In the period of time that the wall has evolved, there has been a marked shift toward an ownership society, partly driven and reflected by prevalent political, social and cultural changes that we are in the midst of. These changes are both global and local. "How much can I get?" seems more pervasive than "How much can I give?" The wall twists all of these issues of taking and its opposite together in an uncomfortable knot.
The history of the building, as a government project, paid for by the people, then sold to a private party is also worth considering in this equation.
NS - You openly condone postering and graffiti on the wall, yet you do not play the role of an advocate for graffiti and you view it as being "problematic." Can you outline some of the problems the wall presents for you and for the community?
BT - To claim that graffiti is not a problem is nonsense, regardless of whether you appreciate it as an art form or not. It is precisely that graffiti is "problematic" that invigorates the form. It needs to be problematic. If every gallery, museum, and building facade were covered in graffiti, and it was entirely the status quo, no one would care. It would all be taken for granted, dreary and meaningless. The power and disruption of graffiti is most legible in the pristine context of a privately held, exclusionary world. The public/private dialectic is key to the work having weight. This makes complete sense to me given the the changes we have witnessed over the past decade living in the Mission District, as a microcosm of the larger world.
So, the Wall too is problematic. It also twists together public/private space and usage. Living in a society of ownership, property rights are the rule. As public as the wall might seem, it is still privately owned, at least technically. It is only due to the assertion of my rights as property owner that I could argue to the City and the neighborhood my First Amendment Rights. They are manifest on the wall. But for those using the Wall to proclaim the wall as their platform for free speech; this is not legal unless I say so, or I agree to as property owner. The public has no rights to the Wall, legally. Those who wish to have a platform speak their minds generally find themselves at Dolores Park, on the streets, or the Civic Center. Then, there are those with access to media, power, and architecture everywhere else. We are surrounded by so many agendas with the goal of influence over our lives and our thoughts. My rights to use the Wall, as I say, trump the neighborhood and the City. The difference here, of course, is that I have claimed something that is not in fact mine to claim: the will of the community that chooses to use the wall. In effect, I now believe the community owns the wall. This is very peculiar.
NS - Two weeks prior to the public meeting that was held at Southern Exposure, you sent out a questionnaire to your neighbors asking their opinions on the wall and inviting them to discuss them at the meeting. But perhaps because of the venue, as an art gallery, the meeting was composed mostly of artists, art lovers and supporters of the wall, and didn't draw in as diverse of a crowd as you had hoped. One of the participants at Southern Exposure suggested that holding the meeting at a community center in the neighborhood of the wall might draw more neighbors and concerned citizens, people whose lives are most impacted by its presence. You had originally planned to host the meeting at the current Mission police station, which undoubtedly would have attracted many more dissenting voices. Do you have any plans to conduct more public meetings in order to investigate a more broad cross-section of opinions about the wall?
BT - This was a good idea. I can't say when or how it will happen, but it will. I think this would offer better insight into the wall's impact on the neighborhood. I have to believe that most people who live nearby are not as fond of the Wall as the audience of Southern Exposure. I mentioned above that graffiti does not come from a culture of respect. I wonder if a wall such as this could exist within a context of cultivated respect and maintain its vitality?
NS - Have you ever considered opening up the project to more community and volunteer involvement, for instance to help organize and tag the photos, in order to open it up to more serious research?
BT - Yes. But, I have reservations. There is an archaeologist, Phoebe France, working on the archive. She is going through each image and adding descriptive keywords, transcribing any text and so forth. This will enable search or research. She has nearly completed one year of images. We have struggled with the aspect of her bias, and the need for more eyes on the content. A Wiki structure would facilitate this. One drawback to this, as brought up in the Public Meeting is the loss of anonymity. I believe the ability for people to contribute anonymously, if desired, is what creates the Wall's strength. This aspect is not unlike the internet and one of its strengths.
There are significant costs to program and design the kind of interactivity and graphic interface I envision. There needs to be a major grant, benefactor or patron to achieve this.
NS - Do you think research like that could yield any valuable information and insights into the nature of graffiti, public space, free speech and political opinion?
BT - I imagine it would, but that project is for someone else. This is one of the reasons for the Archive being made accessible online, to facilitate others to pursue that kind of research. The value for me is patiently observing the changes over time, as a reflection of not necessarily the neighbors or even the neighborhood, but rather a certain community. This became more evident after the Public Meeting.
NS - Do you believe that we can learn from looking at the wall as a discourse in itself or should we know more about the motivations of the people who put up the posters?
BT - If my personality were different, meeting and knowing as many of the participants as possible might have more value. A connection with this mysterious community could offer some new expanded sense of belonging(?). Rather, it is the overall collective yet disparate energy of the Wall itself that is most alluring for me. The artist Robert Irwin, described to Lawrence Weschler (in the book: Seeing Is Forgetting The Name Of The Thing That One Sees, 1982) a scrumbly little Phillip Guston painting (circa 1960) as standing up and humming. That energy or strength would be the thing that Irwin spent his life/career working to achieve throughout his minimalist and perceptual investigations of spaces and sites with great success. I take notice when this sort of thing happens. This is one of the conditions of powerful, moving art. This is regardless of whether the work is abstract, figurative, narrative, pop, you name it. This is a difficult and rare thing to achieve, any artist can tell you. It happens on this wall, but not every day. Certainly over time. And when it does, it is most remarkable. It hums. It transcends all of the crap, the tags, all the particular political or social issues embodied in any given poster; it transcends the individual and the ego; it reminds me why I love and live in this City.
NS - You have never actively sought to find out out who contributes to the wall, but you say you once actually caught someone in the act of pasting up a poster. Did that experience make you want to find out more about the people who put up their artwork and posters on the wall?
BT - No, although it was very interesting. Years ago, the first person I met who was using the wall was not who I would have expected: a senior citizen, who was a Quaker (activist). I believe Quakers are thought to be pacifists, no? Anyway, this was a refreshing and inspirational moment. Just when you think you know something, you are proven wrong.
NS - At Southern Exposure your project is not represented by any photographs or other visual artifacts of the wall, instead it encourages people to leave the gallery and experience the wall for themselves as a living, evolving art site, an "archaeographic collage." Do you believe this could encourage people to look for art outside of the galleries and museums and become more open and receptive to art that they might encounter on the street?
BT - I hope so, but the SoEx audience is very savvy. I think they probably already participate in the experience of the City and understand art in this way. Just to keep up with their roving gallery, nearly homeless, demands a certain dedicated art lover on the prowl for something new and exciting. This was an issue discussed with So Ex at the beginning: with the Wall so close by and the Archive online, what could the gallery offer? This is the question that prompted holding the Public Meeting there.
NS - What is the future of the wall? Or does the wall itself determine its own future?
BT - I introduced the Public Meeting by noting that the wall began without a plan, but there were actions taken. Likewise, I have no plans for its future. I subscribe to ideas of directed indeterminacy through all my work. Key to this is developing the ability to read and understand what is going on. Now I need to take some time and review the issues raised in the Public Meeting. Once I have a better understanding of the wall, I will be faced with choosing to act or not.
(de) Appropriation Project Wall detail, Impeach the Beast; Photo by Natalie Stanchfield
ArtSlant would like to thank Bruce Tomb for his assistance in making this interview possible.
-- Natalie Stanchfield