By Marcia Tanner
Bridge n. 1. A structure spanning and providing passage over a waterway, railroad or other obstacle.
Bridges are potent structures in San Francisco. Dwellers here are linked, separated, identified, exalted, frequently frustrated and delayed by the bridges spanning the Bay. Magnificent feats of engineering and alluring art forms in themselves, our bridges paradoxically engender “other obstacles” of their own. Clogged by tourists and commuters, susceptible to earthquakes, they are visible and functional emblems of the collision between human technology and human life. They can be dangerous, even fatal to traverse. They offer romantic view for lovers and tragically seductive sites for suicides.
Bridges therefore, are radiant if ambiguous metaphors in the San Francisco Bay Area. Beyond their local connotations, though, is the larger social and cultural context. Fragmentation, polarization, literal and figurative Balkanization pervade the contemporary condition and endanger everyone on this pre-millenial globe. Who will build the bridges to provide passage across the great divides of culture, race, ethnicity, religion, ideology and class, geography and history? Who'll help us span the gulfs between poverty and wealth, technology and humanistic values?
Bridges: A Collaborative Project – curated by the Artists Committee of the San Francisco Art Institute – “reflects a cross-pollination of disciplines, perspectives, or communities. Artists are encouraged to collaborate with people from other fields (for example, medicine, law, computer science, politics, etc.) in order to create a marriage of skills and vision. This project also can produce a benign collision of cultures or and unexpected challenge of individual perceptions.”
Artists' imaginations are sparked by generous, open-ended guidelines like this, and the responses were predictably unpredictable. The projects proposed by the five collaborative teams chosen for the exhibition represent wonderfully different, yet equally inventive, notions of “bridges” – just as a spider's fragile tightrope of gossamer threads can coexist with a massive suspension bridge of concrete and steel, so long as each fulfills its purpose. They also span a spectrum of concerns, from political discourse, genetic engineering, and the immigrant experience, to erotic love. All address the gap between technology and people; some use technology to explore those issues.
Bridges is bound to be full of surprises. While all the artists chosen have been widely exhibited, the Committee based its choices on conceptual descriptions. Selections were partly acts of faith. As I write, none of the pieces have been completed. Inevitably, the works will take shape in ways unforeseen by their makers; the creative process, complicated by the collaborative enterprise, should guarantee that.
Bridges won't be a conventional show. It will, perhaps, resemble a laboratory where artist-researchers are pursuing a series of ingenious and engaging experiments in cross-communal dialogue. All the pieces are process-oriented works in progress. At least three of them invite audience interaction and will change continuously during the exhibition's run.
Ian Pollack and Janet Silk describe their project, 50 Stars as “a collaborative voice mail system about free speech and the American way.” It catalyzes open expression and an exchange of opinions and ideas about social issues in this presidential election year.
A telephone in the gallery invites visitors to call the number printed prominently on a nearby American flag. The number, accessible from any in San Francisco, connects to a voice mail system where a general menu prompts the caller to listen to any one of fifty voice mail boxes in which previous callers have left their opinions. To initiate this opinion chain and stimulate the dialogue thematically, the artists recorded fifty “seed messages” which relate to patriotism, the U.S. Constitution, and issues raised during the 1996 presidential election campaigns. Callers can browse as many boxes as they wish, hearing messages, which may be funny, sad, strange or downright offensive. If they choose, they can erase a message by recording an opinion over it, after which the system disconnects.
“By giving each caller a change to become a censor and a speaker, we encourage reflection on the interdependent relationship of censorship to free speech,” say the artists. Silk and Pollack plan to log and record all the messages on an audio cassette. At the project's end, they will send this “unique survey of American opinions and concerns,” along with a description of the piece, to the newly elected President, Vice President and the news media. “We believe this project will be a bridge that will promote enthusiasm [for] and interest [in] social issues,” the artists say.
Ann Chamberlain's Genetic Fingerprint has evolved from her experience as a cancer survivor. In collaboration with oncologist Debu Tripathy, surgeon Laura Esserman, of the University of California, San Francisco medical facility and Dr. Funni Olopade, of the University of Chicago, her project explores genetic defects, replication and recombination as potential sources of metaphors and processes of artmaking.
Chamberlain is especially interested in current medical research on the mapping of the human genome, which attempts to pinpoint the sources of various attributes to specific genes on particular chromosomes. If defective genes can be altered by the introduction of the correct sequence of nucleotides, this “holds out hope for many people who are suffering from chronic (and primarily genetically induced) illnesses,” she writes.
For Bridges , Chamberlain maps her own genetic “pedigree” to create a “virtual family.” Combining her genetic attributes with those of her partner, she makes Iris prints, which present digitized portraits of their genetically engineered, imaginary offspring. Her “spliced stories” also mimic the process of genetic recombination, combining the genetic profiles and personal histories of two individuals to create fictionalized narratives of hybrid personae. Finally, Chamberlain includes pieces which address metaphors of mending and balance inspired by medical work with damaged genetic material, expressed through processes as humble as darning socks and as high-tech as Hi-8 video.
In Private Loves/Public Opera , their interactive image/narrative site on the World Wide Web, artists Beverly Reiser and Barbara Lee engage the central human paradox of the Internet experience. While an individual may browse the Web in privacy, the Web itself is a global theater where he/she can construct and present a host of fictive selves and stories, interacting with other people who are doing the same thing. The Web, then, becomes a web of fictions wrought by fictional personae; and arena for continually inventing and reinventing versions of oneself; a cyber-proscenium where players are both actors and audience; a virtual playground for fantasy, erotic encounters, and imaginative forms of truth.
Reiser and Lee's somewhat Baroque installation encourages – perhaps seduces – viewers to engage in this process of meta-communication and experience its heady thrills for themselves. Seated in a mock garden bower surrounded by images of erotic foods, participants click on one of the clear glass “lenses” on the monitor's central image: a reproduction of Durer's Adam and Eve , and a tree engulfed fog. This accesses an icon: a small image that represents “a portion of the landscape of love.” Clicking on that image reveals the text of a love story related to it.
Ten writers will have contributed stories already; visitors to the gallery or web site are invited to add their own. These will be incorporated into the piece; new lenses are added each time a new participant adds a story. “The stories and lenses swarm and proliferate until the entire surface is covered, revealing a landscape of operatic proportions,” promise the artists. Commentators from different disciplines – a psychiatrist, a mathematician, a chef, an architect, and a research astronomer – also contribute their observations. An audio component offers ambient garden sounds mingled with whispered fragments of the written narratives.
In To and From: A Better Life , artists Laura D. Schultz collaborated with women immigrants from Latin America whom she met while volunteering as an ESL teacher and translator in the Latino community in San Francisco's Mission district. Both documented and undocumented workers, primarily domestic, these women mostly do not define themselves as artist. The success of a writing project in which the women composed autobiographies inspired Schultz to move “the participants into the visual realm of expression.”
By providing a platform for them to communicate their experiences visually as well as verbally, Schultz hopes to encourage their creativity while unsettling individual and community myths and stereotypes about immigrants in general and women immigrants in particular.
A long wall is the central image in Laura D. Schultz's installation To and From: A Better Life . Apart from its obvious reference to the structure that literally divides the United States from its neighbors to the South, the wall also functions as a metaphor for the division between two vastly different world and the transition an immigrant makes as she moves from one side to the other. A wall fashioned by Schultz from a large scale cut paper works serves as a matrix for the pieces created by her collaborators, which include written narratives and deal with their personal histories, their lives in this country and their dreams and ambitions for the future.
Stephen Hendee and Peter Cole, both graduates of the San Francisco Art Institute, collaborate on ALIEN, a dialogue between two artists involving object-making and commentary about the objects. The piece develops into a site-specific, improvisational, game-like system that mimics – and spoofs – the processes of art production, peer rivalry and artists' education at an institution like SFAI. As bridges go, ALIEN resembles a drawbridge across a castle moat, erratically raised and lowered by embattled inmates.
ALIEN, write the artists, “is a game, duel and performance about the examination and quantification of objects made by and provided to each other without explanation.” Each artist begins by contributing three small objects, which are displayed on a long table in the gallery. Over the course of the exhibition each will add eight or more, for a total of twenty-two objects in all.
The table also holds and exaggeratedly large book divided into twenty-two chapters (one per object), an illuminated magnifying glass, metric calipers, and a scale. The book will accumulate commentary by each artist about the other's work; viewers are invited to add their comments to the ongoing discourse. ALIEN develops in stimulus/response mode. Each artist's new piece responds to the other's critique of his previous piece: a critique based on criteria that may be only tangentially relevant to that artist's intention. In an art school setting, as in ALIEN, students labor to produce works regularly; these are submitted to rigorous evaluation based, according to Hendee and Cole, on “a stratified field of ideas where the spectrum of examination is limited.” Students' survival depends on their ability to navigate skillfully within this environment. “Maybe the artists' production will be forced to mutate when cornered, or will develop something enigmatic,” causing the observer to counter this subterfuge by assuming a fictional personality in his commentary.
Hendee and Cole dramatize a system of mutually assured disinformation (MAD), in which neither student nor institution truly understand one another or their separate realities. In ALIEN, “we are creating a system that imitates relationships arranged for the purpose of knowing, with the specific goal of approaching the unknown.”
Three artists invited to participate in the Bridges panel discussion collectively bring years of experience in collaborative, bridge-building projects to the dialogue.
Photographer Kira Carrillo Corser and poet Frances Payne Adler have worked collaboratively for over a decade with each other, members of the community, and organizations to produce art that catalyzes social change. Their image/text projects – exhibitions and publications – have addressed pressing social issues such as health care reform, the cycle of drug and child abuse, women whose poverty deprives them of prenatal care, and homelessness.
To avoid overt didacticism, Corser's photographs and Adler's poetry allow the individuals they work with to speak in their own voices. Corser and Adler's projects are further characterized by the depth and thoroughness of the artists' research, their passionate, poetic approach to each subject, and their accessibility to a broad audience. “We have found that the collaboration of our art … enables us to reach people in a way they are not reached by statistics,” they write. “Art can affect the heart – take a political issue and make it human.”
Artists Fran Pietronigro has been working with NASA, the Exploratorium's Artist in Residence Program, the Institute of Noetic Science, and other prospective partners to develop a creative collaboration that explores the effects of diminished gravity on the creative process and on the handling of artists' materials. The project would also investigate the potential benefits of creative activities on reducing stress on astronauts in a microgravity environment.
As the “culminating creative experience,” Pietronigro proposes creating an art work while in a microgravity environment aboard a NASA cargo jet. The ultimate goal of this joint endeavor is the production of “a[n] … object whose existence would not have been possible if it were not for the mutual cooperation between astronaut and artist.”
The dictionary gives two meanings for ‘collaborate': “1. To work together, esp, in a joint intellectual effort. 2. To cooperate treasonably, as with enemy occupying one's country.” Artistic enterprises like the ones in Bridges may experiment with elements of both.
Why does an artist build a bridge? To get to the other side.