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Missing: One Cob Bench; Last Seen June 8th in Dolores Park, SF
As part of Reclaim the Commons' eco-actions, two cob benches were built in public parks in the city of San Francisco. One of them has already been destroyed.
On June 8th at around midday a heap of sand, clay soil, broken cement and straw appeared in Dolores Park. Several people walking through the park stopped by the debris, spread out tarps, removed their shoes and began to stomp and dance over muddy piles of sand, clay, and straw. More people arrived and joined in, rolling the mud into balls, forming lines and tossing the balls around, throwing them down in the shape of a spiral. The spectacle was irresistible, children and adult passersby stopped to help, three popsicle vendors took a break from work to shape the mud, drummers struck a rhythm for the cob dancers who exulted before a panorama of the city. By 6:00 the mud had incorporated into a whimsical, but stately spiral bench.
The cob bench construction was part of the vision of Reclaim the Commons: to present sustainable alternatives, to manifest a peaceful cooperative society rather than one structured around the accretion of profit. Cob is a traditional building practice from England which uses eco-friendly materials and requires minimal skills (most people participating at Dolores Park on Tuesday could now make their own cob bench). With yearly maintenance the spiral bench would have worn better than the asphalt it stood upon, however by 11:00 the next morning all that was left of the bench was a muddy stain on the ground. What caused the authorities to destroy this community art project with such haste and efficiency? What threat did the bench present--that people might sit on it?
Compare, for a moment, the spiral bench with a state-sanctioned art project, “Hearts in San Francisco,” the fiberglass hearts that are currently installed in public places all over the bay area. While the hearts are commendable for their positive message (peace, love and reproduction), they are not community building: the hearts were designed by individual, professional artists in private studios; few group activities involve large fiberglass hearts; large fiberglass hearts cannot easily be sat upon, climbed on, or interacted with (unless you are a tourist and want to take your picture in front of one). Fiberglass has an exponentially higher embodied energy than the clay, sand, straw, and reclaimed cement which made up the spiral bench. The byproducts of fiberglass production are formaldehyde, urea, polyvinyl acetate, and chlorides; the production of “Hearts in San Francisco” was harmful to the health of the workers in the fiberglass plant and to the artists who sanded, painted and sealed the hearts with toxic resin. The Dolores Park spiral bench was sustainably produced and entirely fossil-fuel free.
The censuring of that most benign cob bench reveals fear. Fear of residents organizing and formally demanding the bench remain, fear that people could make art everywhere, without permission from the state, and fear that people might build community. On Wednesday, June 9th, another cob bench was built in Garfield Park of the Mission district. The bench is currently surrounded by police caution tape.