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The Impossible Shape of Time: Meditations on the Albany bulb
Some strange developments surrounding the disposition of time and memory
I sit out on the concrete reef of the Albany Bulb, watching the morning commute flood across the Bay Bridge like thousands of shiny beetles scurrying towards their meal. I have been sleeping there for the past two days and spend most of my time relaxing. The total amount of time I spend gathering food and water in a day amount to no more than three hours. Most of the Bulb receives direct sunlight from dawn to dusk and with all my needs satisfied I spend these long days reading Virtual Light, a book by William Gibson.
The plot involves two protagonists. My favorite is Chevette, a young bike courier who works in the City and lives in a squatted community. The story is rather vague, but some years before the book begins and the new underwater freeway is finished, thousands of homeless people decided to build a world for themselves on the old Bay Bridge and charged through police lines en mass to do so. Dozens, maybe hundreds died at the hands of police during the long night of fighting, but in the end they took the Bridge and built hundreds of interconnected structures within it. This is where Chevette lives, in a squatted shack atop the towers of the old Bridge.
I put down the book and look at the long gray Bridge and see the rigid skyline of the City and try to imagine what Gibson is describing. It certainly is appealing, this unregulated world that manages itself. After living through years of misery, the inhabitants of the Bridge have created a real, functioning anarchism.
I continue reading and follow Chevette into an apartment where a dark and crowded party is happening. She is trying to deliver a package when a sleazy techie starts talking to her about how rich he is. Just before she tells him to screw off, Chevette steals a pair of glasses from his jacket pocket. The techie doesn’t notice and Chevette rides away into the streets of the City, unaware something is different about these glasses.
Suddenly there is a noise behind me and I turn around. Three teenagers in animal masks and scarves are carrying a large signpost towards my camp. I stand up, walk closer, and see that the sign on the post is a list of rules imposed by the city that negate the entire existence of the squatted community on the Bulb. The three young men ignore me and carry the rules to the shoreline. In one quick motion, they all heave the long post into the bay. Their task accomplished, the teenagers all disperse in different directions.
There are over 50 people currently inhabiting the Bulb. Over the years, law enforcement from Contra Costa and Alameda County has taken the homeless to this artificial peninsula made of concrete and rebar and soil. It was convenient for all the cities involved to have an unregulated place for the impoverished to make do with, but recently it’s been more convenient to disregard the impoverished completely. The City of Albany has been trying to evict the residents in order to build a sterile park for dog walkers.
At night I wrap myself in blankets, lie on the grass, and stare out towards the Golden Gate. Later, when I start to fall asleep, my neighbor builds a fire. She is a wild person with knotted blonde hair and a black shawl over her head. I fall asleep for an hour and then wake up. The woman is hunched over the fire, rocking back and forth. She looks like a witch. I fall asleep and when I wake she is circling the fire and talking to herself. This goes on all night and she is still awake at dawn. When I finally get up and begin to boil water for coffee, the woman disappears into the bushes.
Around nine I walk out to the clearing near the amphitheater and sit down the grass. The sun quickly warms me up and I keep reading Virtual Light. Like the day before, I have an unobstructed view of the City and the Bridge. The hours pass and I read about a tech company called DatAmerica that controls most of the information on the web. Towards the end of the book, it is discovered that the mysterious glasses Chevette stole from the techie are actually Virtual Light glasses, designed to project images directly into the retina. Within the glasses are the DatAmerica plans for the complete and total gentrification of San Francisco. I finish the book, overly satisfied, and flip to the publication data. It says the book was first published in 1993.
Close to noon, I walk down to the water and head north along the shoreline. The tide is in so I have to walk near the foot of the slope. I head towards the northwest tip of the Bulb and see the wooden woman riding a wooden dragon into the bay. The story I heard is that all of the wooden structures on the land were made out the remains of the boats from the invasion of the peninsula. The story is rather vague, but apparently in the 1980’s a small navy of nomads rowed their wooden boats to the neck of the Bulb, unloaded and began squatting the land, turning it into what it is today.
I come to the wood and metal statue of the Water Lady. She is either pleading for help from the sky or mournfully stepping out of the bay onto the land, I can never tell which. Osha Neumann and his friend Jason DeAntonis crafted this sculpture out of materials found on the Bulb. This pair is behind the most famous statues and with their skills these men have given their creations life. In the middle of the night, these statues are living being sitting on rocks and benches or standing in the grass, thinking wooden thoughts, dreaming their metal dreams.
Osha Neumann is a local lawyer who is currently involved in a federal lawsuit against the City of Albany regarding the attempted eviction of the Bulb residents. Neumann was a former member of the Up Against The Wall Motherfuckers, an anarchist group based in New York City in the late 1960’s. The Motherfuckers introduced the idea of the anarchist affinity group to the United States, forced counter-culture parasites like Bill Graham and the MC5 to generate money for them, cut the fences at Woodstock, and created a solidarity network composed of free kitchens, communal apartments, and other scams and resources. By all accounts, the Motherfuckers got a little crazy, Valerie Solanas shot Andy Warhol, and the affinity group scattered to the wind. Of all places, Neumann ended up out on the Bulb making sculptures out of debris.
The next day I pack up and bike out of the Bulb. My ride takes me along the shore of Berkeley and Emeryville. As I bike along the bay, I see Snoopy flying a biplane, fixed onto a pylon in the water. It reminds me of the old art that stood in the tidelands when I was a child, the Red Baron’s plan, the ever-vigilant Snoopy trying to shoot him down, and several other sculptures that once spotted the shoreline.
I return to my apartment, take a shower, and eventually open my computer. The first thing I see is an advertisement for Katy Perry’s new album PRISM. I check the news and read an article about the NSA and its own PRISM spying program. I check another news website and see a different advertisement for Google Play, a giant music cloud meant to compete with Itunes. I read about how there is no fundamental difference between what the NSA does and what Google does. The NSA is looking for terrorists, Google is looking for consumers, and both pour over all of our data. I close the computer and look out the window and think about what I have just seen.
The NSA uses the entirety of Google’s infrastructure to collect information on the population. Google and the agency work together, locating potential rebels and creating consumers. This is the DatAmerica that was depicted in Virtual Light, reigning over our heads. The total gentrification of San Francisco is underway, the squatted community is under threat, Chevette has stolen the plans, and the resistance is forming. Did William Gibson glimpse into the future twenty years ago? How is it that the man who invented cyberspace predicted the basic elements of what is happening today?
On a whim I re-open my computer and download Sans Solei, a film by Chris Marker, the guerrilla filmmaker who aided revolutionary movements through the 1960’s and 1970’s. No one knew where he was born, and some thought he came from the future. There is some reason why I am supposed to watch this film of his, and I don’t realize what it is until three quarters into the film when the female narrator begins to talk about “impossible memory, insane memory.” The narrator begins to speak of a man who comes from the future who no longer has the ability to forget. He sees the totality of history as one impossible memory, one insane memory. Later on in the film, the narrator describes a village in Iceland where the filmmaker once stayed, now completely covered in ash. I see the images of black dust blanketing the town and then I hear the narrator speak these words:
I went down into the basement where my friend—the maniac—busies himself with his electronic graffiti. Finally his language touches me, because he talks to that part of us which insists on drawing profiles on prison walls. A piece of chalk to follow the contours of what is not, or is no longer, or is not yet; the handwriting each one of us will use to compose his own list of 'things that quicken the heart,' to offer, or to erase. In that moment, poetry will be made by everyone.
I finish the film and the clock tells me it is 2 AM. Why did I live on the Bulb for a week and why am I now on the computer? What am I looking for? There is something about memory and something about time bound up in all of this, but I can’t quite pin it down. Obeying another whim, I start researching Chris Marker and eventually I stumble upon a short film he made called Junkopia. When I watch it, suddenly everything unlocks.
I see the Red Baron’s biplane hanging above the water in Emeryville, and for the next seven minutes I see images of all the sculptures that once dotted the tidal estuary on the shoreline. These strange figures appear as a rebel force, positioned against the onslaught of the traffic on the 80, the Holiday Inn, and the Bridge carrying commuters into the City. All of it is there, the players and the battle, framed perfectly for us on a foggy day in 1981. And then I see the impossible shape of time, the impossible shape of memory. There is no difference between them. Without memory, time does not exist, and vice versa.
I return to the Bulb, biking along the path that takes me past the marshlands of the bay, now cleansed of its wooden inhabitants and surrounded by the mall-city of Emeryville. I think to myself that everyone in the Bay should come to Bulb and help strengthen the world that exists amidst the rubble and trees. They should bring all manner of supplies and inspirations and let them go where they will. While the tech companies are gentrifying the City across the bay, the most impoverished are fighting to hold onto the one place that was truly their own.
I don’t know how time works, but I know that memory is what keeps struggle alive. I see reflections of the past in every glimmer that emerges from the present and sometimes I experience the future today, in places like the Bulb, where the world we inhabit can be seen clearly for what it is. A beautiful place, a wretched place, the only place we have to inhabit. I arrive at the Bulb, bike to the edge of the peninsula, and look west towards the City. While it may be tempting to think a war has just started, if I have made any sense, it should be clear that we have never stopped fighting.