San Francisco’s (Public) Space Cadets

The Department of Space and Land Reclamation-West (DSLR-West) is not quite a San Francisco city agency in the conventional sense, but that fact didn’t stop its members from working overtime Oct. 2-5 to re-imagine the Bay City’s geography. From its temporary headquarters in the Balazo Gallery in the heart of the city’s Mission District, the DSLR engaged in what one participant called “amateur urban planning,” with the aim to reclaim public space. But rather than rethinking transportation networks or zoning laws, the Department utilized some more creative methods, including traffic-stopping street theater, guerilla postering, ironic re-signing, pirate radio, and general class mockery.

“In large part public space is a misconception—it’s a lie,” explained Aaron Gach, one of the event’s organizers. “If you do an action in public space that the authorities—whether landlords, corporate executives, or police—disagree with, you will quickly find that you are in not in public space but on private property, or property that’s been privatized, even if by the city or by the state.”

Activism in San Francisco may be like breathing: such a constant it barely provokes notice. But DSLR—which is part of a larger nationwide effort of radical space reclamation—attempted to rise above that din by rising above the particulars of politics. Instead, it organized around a single spatial principle: all activism depends on public space. So “taking back” public space—be that reclamation actual, or, more often, symbolic—can be an act of resistance, especially as public space is in increasingly short supply.

So it came to be that, under the banner of the event, a handful of art students wearing blue jumpsuits with the DSLR logo silk-screened on the back jumped out of a pickup truck and set out “No Parking” signs, altered to read “No Peasant Parking,” around San Francisco’s Financial District. Elsewhere Downtown, an organization called Teknika Radica posed as dotcom employees testing a new wireless device to, as they put it, “get people in the yuppie areas of downtown S.F. talking live to, say, people in [the presumably non-yuppie areas of] Hunters Point or downtown Oakland.” Meanwhile, at DSLR headquarters, a member of the San Francisco Print Collective used a paint roller on a telescopic handle to demonstrate the proper technique for pasting posters high up on walls and billboards, a useful skill for “stealing back the visual landscape that has been sold to the highest bidder for advertising purposes.”

The layers of irony, illegality, and carefully conceived mockery that characterized the DSLR actions on the street were counterbalanced by a huge map of San Francisco pasted to the wall of the Balazo Gallery. The city it portrayed was familiar, but pieces of orange string, each pointing to the location of an event planned for the weekend, created temporarily redrawn boundaries that visibly enlivened the city. Pioneered at earlier weekends in Chicago and New York, the map served as the DSLR’s alter for the duration of the activities. For San Franciscans, still raw after a decade of boom and bust, of gentrification wars that have threatened homes and neighborhoods, the revised geography was a powerful representation of what the city could be. This strength was not because of the scattered groups mocking shoppers and bankers, but because this was a city imagined by its citizens. And “imagined” was exactly the point. Public space is imagined. If it can be taken away, it can be reclaimed—at least for a weekend.

Categories: Cities