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San Francisco | U.S. | Arts + Action | Global Justice and Anti-Capitalism

Ghost Stories from SF: Art Mirrors Life
by Cindy Milstein
Friday May 2nd, 2014 11:32 PM
This piece, with photos, was originally published on my Outside the Circle blog, cbmilstein.wordpress.com, where you'll find other writings.

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One can't always judge a social struggle by its art. Indeed, oftentimes, such cultural production far outstrips the substance of the resistance it's supposedly in cahoots with, and worse, has little relation to it. Street artists, no matter their medium, busily help to drive forward a social movement that, in fact, is barely there at all.

May Day 2012 in the United States was a case in point. Expectations for a general strike ("No work! No school! No shopping! No banking!) were propelled beyond any congruence with on-the-ground organizing, or the lack thereof, built only on the strawperson of Occupy nostalgia and the outburst of gorgeous poster designs galore (for a sampler, see http://occuprint.org/Category/MayDay). It's not that May Day 2012 didn't matter (see https://cbmilstein.wordpress.com/2012/05/12/may-day-matters/); it's just that its art did not mirror the reality of the political terrain that US spring and its possibilities, or the lack thereof following so many Occupy evictions.

On the other hand, one can judge the strength of a social struggle by its art, when that cultural production finds itself in egalitarian concord with the substance of resistance, itself open to a diversity of tactics and imagination. That takes a certain amount of "listening" and reflecting back on the part of street artists, no matter their chosen form, from wheatpaste and stencils to theater and poetry, so that their work embodies the sensibilities and ethical impulses of the organizing, even as it enlivens it. It takes, too, militant research, in that the artists themselves are close enough to, and even thoroughly engaged in, the organizing along with the decision-making processes about strategies, tactics, and vision. And it generally entails a willingness on the part of artists to increasingly socialize and share culture-making.

Because perhaps more than what the artists are doing or creating, such a harmonic convergence of art and politics of the street seems to happen when many people who don't consider themselves artists begin to express themselves via cultural production and, at the same time, cultural production is a window into the reality of the social struggle. In an age when capitalism increasingly creates and commodifies culture, and makes good use of culture to create and commodify human beings, art and culture aren't sideshows to resistance. They are part of reclaiming neighborhoods and lives, homes and collective power, people's ability to imagine different social organization and values.

One can't simply make art to catalyze a movement, nor is inspiring a movement any sort of art, able to be crafted at will. But there are moments when the visual landscape and organizational acts of resistance seem to fuse into a force that touches nearly everyone, whether as social dialogue, social contestation, and/or social transformation, and the social movement thus finds itself one morning, as it were, both clearly existent and on the offensive. What is at stake is then almost inexplicably on nearly everyone's mind, such as is increasingly the case in San Francisco. So the stakes are being made visible here in everything from street art that grows more and more ubiquitous, to newspaper headlines and television stories, to window displays of sympathetic businesses, to the giant promotional lettering plastered on the scaffolding of in-progress luxury development, and on and on. Art and agitators are shaking up the city, propelling the landscape of the social order to respond. One sees the battle lines drawn publicly on walls, sidewalks, billboards, and the like.

This in itself is a win. The physical and visual space, the public conversation taking place in SF, is increasingly debating the world of potentiality that the social movement is proposing. Suddenly, the powers-that-be, at least for a time, "can't evict an idea," to harken to the language of Occupy. Topics like curtailing or ending speculation, homes as a right or as something simply for all, land trusts, collective refusals to leave ("hell no, we won't go" in many languages), eminent domain and community land ownership, and other "radical" ideas are papering the hearts and minds of the urban scape.

Art in San Francisco is becoming key to expressing the specific aspirations as well as anger of the social struggle, which increasingly feels like a social movement in that it's forcing the hand of the rich and powerful to react to it, and plainly visible, increasingly too, on the face of the city. Such street art is giving voice to the many real-life stories of resistance and victories here, helping to embolden more varied, real-life acts of resistance and hopefully more wins, even if small. It is, simultaneously, hearing and then illustrating the voices that are already out there, in partnership. This art is also the holder of memory of other struggles that came before, tying them together and borrowing from their strengths, to construct a platform for ghosts to speak of past losses and loves. And it is a way for those being made into ghosts in the present by a murderous capitalism to haunt those who care little about human suffering, about what it feels like to live within the precarious anxiety of not being able to make decisions about one's own home and life, because of the whims of those who have the power to evict.

There are many examples of how art in San Francisco is now mirroring the life of what feels, on good days, like social resistance on the move, creative, vibrant, dynamic, caring. Here's one, with its ghost story: "eviction = death." These words and their image can be seen on posters (such as here) and banners, calling forth the ghost of "silence = death" from another time of epidemic in San Francisco. Not so long ago, the AIDS crisis killed many, and many a gay man in particular, and sparked a movement. It also caused landlords to evict those with AIDS, and if word on the street is correct, made some sheriffs refuse to carry out those evictions because of their empathy for those with and dying from AIDS.

Today, eviction is the epidemic, often putting those who are sick, including with AIDS, on the streets, so clearly this phrase and image resonates with the reality of the situation. But much more poignantly, the spark for the poster pictured here emerged last year during a specific eviction. It involved a survivor of the time of Harvey Milk, the time of AIDS and death and homophobia, silence and direct action. That person here in contemporary San Francisco, having lived through an earlier purge, got evicted, and in their despair, jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge, to their death. The administrators-that-be have been spending much time of late trying to figure out new, improved ways to stem the new epidemic of people leaping off that iconic bridge to their death. It might be easier to offer homes for those without homes, and to let people stay in their homes of years and decades, then installing crisis call-boxes, anti-suicide signage, higher fencing on the bridge, or netting below it. But that doesn't generate more wealth and power, so suicides are up, homes are stolen, lives are lost.

Art -- this particular piece, but many others too -- mirrors life within this war against displacement, for self-determination and the power to stay in neighborhoods and communities that are home. For eviction does, horrendously, equal death these days in real life, as was yet again underscored recently at an eviction defense rally for some already-vulnerable tenants. A friend of one of the tenants mentioned how he now visits daily, bringing food and companionship, because his longtime friend "is under such stress. They've spoken of suicide to me."

People here are forced to think of themselves as ghosts, ahead of their time, in a cruel pre-self-mourning of all that might be stolen out from under them. New ghosts are also forced to appear, in solidarity, coming back through the art and action on the streets to cause trouble and just maybe make some change, even if far from enough. If these ghosts are particularly compelling, maybe they'll be able to put this slogan and image to rest, in peace and power, and let art mirror better lives, not the wrenching loss of them.

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If you've run across this blog post as a reposting somewhere, you can find other blog-musings and more polished essays at Outside the Circle, cbmilstein.wordpress.com. Share, enjoy, and repost -- as long as it's free as in "free beer" and "freedom."

(Photos by Cindy Milstein: screen-printed poster by Fernando Martí, given out for free at the Citywide Tenant Convention, San Francisco, February 8, 2014; display in store window on Valencia Street, San Francisco, late April 2014.)