Sunday, November 11, 2018

The ATA Window: Standing Our Ground

November 2018 marks the 5th year of the ATA Window Gallery's Almost Public/Semi-Exposed, a month-long series of performances in the storefront window of Artists' Television Access, at 992 Valencia Street. Artists show up in the window and perform along the gentrified corridor of commerce as the new population of $an Francisco strolls by on their way to/from trendy, expensive stores, restaurants, condos, and apartments which have supplanted previous homes and businesses.

See also:

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Showing Up: “Almost Public/Semi-Exposed” in ATA’s Window

“In the pieces that I watched from outside, I felt a push and pull from the glass membrane. It felt vulnerable for me as a viewer… a step of trust to make contact with hand or eyes with performer, or come close to it.” -Laurie Buenafe Krsmanovic
IMG_5853IMG_5772For the month of November, 2014, ATA’s window was animated by daily inhabitancies. Each day, a different artist or group of artists installed themselves in the storefront window, occupying it for a range of one to 48 hours. Their actions varied from just being there to performing music to outraged/ous splattering of substances. In the words of the ATA Window Gallery curators it was “a series of installed performances ranging from movement to musical, ritual to reenactment, interactive to endurance.”
Busting up the original architectural purpose – merchandising – of the display window, these artists tweaked the power mechanics of subject/object. By implementing the corporeal gaze to stop people in their tracks, they oscillated between Observed and Observer. Merely by their physical presence, they ruptured the usual experience of public visual space along the increasingly consumption-based Valencia Corridor. It’s always a surprise to see a live person or animal in a shop window, but prolonged observation of these events revealed additional layers that confound Capital, Culture, and Meaning.
Any kind of performance or action has a potential performer and viewer, roles that can be reversed or shared: by stopping and watching, the passersby also observed one another reacting to the people in the window. Aptly entitled “Almost Public/Semi-Exposed,” the series caused the window glass to function as a permeable “glass membrane,” creating and transmitting street-level information that was radically different from the usual.
Amanda Chaudhary “CatSynth”…playing the Theremin
Most of us have encountered “live mannequins,” animals up for adoption, or shop cats dozing in store windows, but the things these artists were doing were unusual, odd, mesmerizing, and/or shocking to those who saw them. Most of the passersby have not, nor will they ever, attend performances (some of the artists do not use this word to describe their work) like these. We are all generally aware of the performative behaviors of acting, dancing, singing, athletics, speeches, lectures, announcements; corporate behaviors like selling/customer service/serving; and controlling actions by agents of power. A few of us have seen Butoh, most have seen musicians perform, but few have seen a woman play the touchless, motion-driven Theremin or have been invited to participate in a drawing exchange, especially not in a storefront window.
Conformity is of high importance in our society (and probably in most societies, really), but it underlies the “innovation,” “creative” as noun instead of adjective, and “thinking different” – key faux initiatives in the current occupying force in San Francisco. Most people in this country are using digital interaction at an increasing level, and of course many of the people on Valencia Street also work in the digital technology industry. Person to person encounters are mediated either directly in practice or indirectly by the lasting effects of digital communication, so to see a person in the flesh in this “almost public” context is a shock. In a discussion of algorithm-guided composition based on already popular music, an evolutionary psychologist might say that the recognizable is not perceived as dangerous. And the inscrutability of these window presences repelled some, but attracted many. It was fresh and enlivening to watch a person so intensely “being” in a public display. Mostly anonymous, these artists appeared for free. Karen Finley, commenting on the book “I’m Trying to Reach You,“mentions our “desire for interconnectivity…and…what it means to strive, cope, and love with all of our heart, brain, body and soul…” – these artists did all of that; it’s what enabled them to put themselves in such a vulnerable position, and to create such powerful experiences. Some of the public were disturbed or enraged by their presence, possibly because the artists’ position as Objects (viewed) was too unstable: the Subjects (viewers) really had no control over what they saw. They did not pay, so could not own the performers; the capitalist impulse was thwarted. No explanation was given, so they had to open up to the shock of the now. Utterly autonomous, these intractable artists created a space of agency that left viewers the choice of whether, and for how long, to continue to look.
-Claire Bain
For photos and excellent commentary by the performers, see the Artists Television Access blog post

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Busy Bodies

Hell in Playland

Figuration and Reconfiguration in the Mission

"Art has always been the raft onto which we climb to save our sanity. I don't see a different purpose for it now [post 9/11]"--Surrealist painter Dorothea Tanning, 2002

Note: Norm's Market refers to the mural by Sirron Norris located at 20th and Bryant Streets; "Generator" refers to the mural by Andrew Schoultz and Aaron Noble on Lexington Street at 18th Street. Both are located in San Francisco's Mission District.

If 20th century painter Francis Bacon's figures are, as philosopher Gilles DeLeuze wrote, trying to escape through the drainpipes, then these murals are where they emerge. These muralists turn Bacon's extremely personal expression inside-out and echo many artistic movements to deploy humor, graphic style and direct social commentary. They take it all a step further by painting in context-- on the walls of the very neighborhoods in which the scenarios are lived out. Andrew Schoultz and Sirron Norris have used compositional structures parallel to Bacon's to employ figuration; they portray buildings as figures resting on floating platforms, stages on which they, like Bacon's meaty figures, perform as characters. These muralists invert Bacon's compositional approach by depicting infrastructures or places which consume rather than support the protagonists. Bacon's exquisitely ordered compositions dignified the pain of the Human Condition by staging brutally emotive figures on oval supports against lovely color fields. Schoultz, Sirron and Noble have similarly employed this tension between beauty and horror by using the cute appeal of cartoons and comics to frame an apocalyptic vision. Like Bacon, they use technical mastery and sharp stylizing to communicate pathos. This crispness creates a blur by masking the dark underlying meaning. In place of the corporeal dynamism of Bacon's bodies, the artists use buildings, hybrid creatures and fragmented figures to hold the place of the Figure. Like Bacon's work, these murals depict states of being rather than portraiture or narrative representation of events.

In these murals one can see reflections of various artistic schools. As in some of the paintings of Surrealists Dorothea Tanning and Remedios Varo, architecture functions as more than setting or detail; it has a presence that is essential to the meaning. These murals also have in common with the Surrealists the presence of hybrid creatures: combinations of humans, animals, buildings and machines. Norm's Market and Generator depict the next stages of the corrupt societies represented in the work of Flemish painters Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Hieronymus Bosch. Norm's Market shows the machinations while Generator shows the resulting despair caused by politics, greed and corruption. Like Bosch, Dr. Suess and the Surrealists, they warp space and species. As in comics, cartoons and the work of Dr. Seuss, black outlines and flat areas of color are the main visual elements. In Generator, Andrew Schoultz shares with Dr. Seuss the use of hatching to model shapes
and a wonderful, precarious feeling of movement in the depiction of buildings, characters and space. Many people mention Dr. Seuss in reference to these murals. All of the aforementioned artists transmute the figurative (straightforward representation) to the "figural", DeLeuze's term for figure painting which is not understood simply by prescribed definition and reading, but felt on many conflicting levels. This is compelling because it touches on,-and sometimes celebrates-the danger lurking just under the orderly facade of human reality.

Like most murals, these are different from paintings because they are created and remain in-situ and are therefore site-specific. The architecture on which they are painted does not frame the images. Instead the images are incorporated into the architecture (Norm's Market) or the architecture is incorporated into the mural (Generator). Unlike paintings, they themselves cannot be transported elsewhere as messengers; they function in their immediate surroundings as a reflection or comment. Each mural's scale and its physical and sociological relationship to its surrounding space is integral to its function and cannot be reproduced elsewhere. The form and content acquire meaning from the social setting in which the mural exists. These murals in particular resonate with the circumstances of the communities they are in.

Norm's Market and Generator are close to graffiti in form, function and content. They are drawn with, or use line as a primary formal element and are applied directly, using the building as field or background. These pieces function like writing because line is the major component and the meaning is gained from a visual reading which is cognitively very similar to that of graffiti art. These murals are public visual messages which indicate the presence of their makers via the stance and statements that they make. They communicate with the youthful energy of graffiti. Both are in locations where there is a strong youth presence which plays a large role in defining the context. Both murals are located in areas rife with crime, violence, gang activity, drug and alcohol abuse, all of which seriously impacts the local youth. The primary social relationship the murals have to the neighborhood is to the youth vis-a-vis their style. The presence of youth-oriented visuals in the form of a permanent architectural feature creates a solid monument and elevates young people to a more equitable place of power, considering that children and teenagers normally have absolutely no say in what appears in public visual space. The only way they are usually even visually referenced in the public is as targets of advertising, objects of commerce.

Norm's Market
In Norm's Market, Bosch-like mechanical organisms comprised of toys, buildings and pipes penetrate and consume human and animal characters, all of which are part of interconnected systems. Some of the figures are being consumed by buildings or machines; everything is interconnected by pipes with many joints. If one follows the train of connection one discovers systems similar to those in Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights. The "I eat Kids" slogan on some of the characters' t-shirts can be read as the logo and brand name mania that plagues today's children. Figures include children, rabbits, bears and part-animal/part machine characters. It has a two headed figure with one childlike head wearing a baseball hat with the SF Giants' logo on it and a ballpark wrapped around it; the other head wears a building pulled over its eyes. To the left are three buildings resting on a floating oval over a machine; one in the middle flanked by two which/whom have faces; they are characters. It is as if Breugel's "Netherlandish Proverbs" has been taken a step further to illustrate the modern results of immorality.

At first glance, it looks like advertising. Noticed in passing, it reads as cute, childlike artwork related to graffiti art in its appropriation of cartoon style. It is integrated with the signage for the market in a manner that makes it possible for it to be perceived as illustrative advertising. On further observation, one quickly recognizes the dark message it carries, similarly to certain mural and graffiti art that is being done primarily in the San Francisco's Mission District. (See "Street Art San Francisco / Mission Muralismo" by Annice Jacoby/ Precita Eyes Muralists, 2009, Abrams Publishing)

The figures in Norm's Market are similar to graffiti in their placement and function. Graffiti "tags" are large sets of letters which spell the assumed street name of the tagger; they are quickly "thrown up" onto the wall to indicate the presence of their writer. They are mostly located at street level and are placed on blank wall spaces often framed architecturally by doors or other built features. If a tag represents the person who did it, then this mural's figures on the garage door and between the building's doors are also marks which represent people. They are read like tags: their visual configuration is similar in location and shape and their meaning evidences the presence of the writer and the specific reader, in this case, youth. The reader is most important; graffiti is a branch language which can only be decoded and understood by the subculture which it serves. Therefore, the form of Norm's Market parallels graffiti in its urban youth-oriented style and context. "Pieces" (masterpieces) are composed graphic spray paintings consisting primarily of names and other words which signify concepts. They are usually larger than tags and occupy horizontal rectangular space. The large sections of this mural have this horizontal form and convey a concept pictorially. While the graffiti art form is emblematic of the culture who creates it, this mural uses emblems of youth in the physical framework of graffiti to figuratively represent the same social context. Painted primarily in greys, it reflects the urban pallete of pavement and concrete.

The Norm's Market mural functions like advertising signs due to the graphic quality of its images. Signage is part of the imagery because the name of the store, "Norm's Market," is part of the mural. "Norm's" is in red, the only deviation from the mural's grayscale pallette. The images on first glance are cheerful, very childlike cartoons which seem to illustrate the sign for the store; at first glance they appear to be decorative advertising. It is after a more careful look that one notices the seriousness of their message. The graphic quality is similar to that of advertising signs; the image is comprised of black lines, solid areas of color: the composition is comprised of mainly two shades of grey (with the background a 3rd shade of grey), small areas of black and white. It is the large scale of the imagery that takes it out of the realm of decorative advertising. The artist's style is a similar to that of Dr. Suess in his use of ink-and-brush-like lines with flat areas of color. Figures and objects move in their space in a similar fashion to those of Dr. Seuss, and the architecture has a similar, stacked precariousness.

Across Bryant Street, painted on the rolling metal doors of Deli-Up are large, innocuous cartoon figures with no text on their shirts. They may be precursors to Norm's Market and they tie in with that mural. On the 20th Street wall is a large, full color spraycan mural, "Art is the Word," by Precita Eyes Youth Arts. At the far end of this wall, the mural ends at a residential entry, a stoop with metal bars which separate it from the world. A group of youth often hang out in that space, which forms the apex of a triangle connecting the three murals in that intersection. 20th street is the frontera, or boundary between the two main gangs in the Mission, the Nortenos and Surenos.

Norm's Market can be seen as both the violence of our times against children and as placing children as metaphor for all people who are governed by and therefore at the mercy of governmental and corporate power. What also comes to mind is the social and familial pressures put on children. This mural shows people being eaten up by a corrupt and spiritually bankrupt urban machine.


Generator is peopled only by birds and buildings; there are no humans depicted. The viewer is the only human protagonist and the mural is a mirror which reflects the political structure of the neighborhood.

Generator is similar to Dr. Seuss in shape and line quality and it shares the use of structure as ground. In Dr. Seuss' "Green Eggs and Ham" and other books, the white paper of the page, the book itself, is the background. Using black lines, hatching and color washes, Andrew Schoultz painted onto the building using the original paint and the building itself as the field. Like Maestrapeace on the Women's Building, it highlights the architectural condition of the building itself. Lexington is on a building whose condition reflects the neglected state of the neighborhood and is therefore self-reflexive. Patches of mismatched background paint remain from pre-mural efforts to remove graffiti, unwittingly creating traces of local taggers. The content is site-specific as well: there are references through text on small signs and through meaning in the images which refer to gentrification, displacement and general disenfranchisement of the immediate community.

Using architecture as a major element, Lexington depicts warped, animated buildings stacked upon one another on a floating wedge or platform. It also features two large, intertwined buildings whose monumental scale (they actually measure nearly two stories tall) allows them to visually function as virtual buildings. The mural is also inhabited by hybrid elephant buildings, one of whom nearly tramples a flock of escaping birds.

The superhero fragments were painted by Aaron Noble with solid blacks and pearlescent colors that shimmer the way one imagines the fabric of a real superhero's costume. While Schoultz' images incorporate the architectural details of the building, Noble's heroes are further fragmentedby the architectural trim. Lexington is literally tied into its site by the wires which Noble painted into the mural, extending from the actual cables which connect to the building. The superhero in black emanates from the cable like the ideas that drip out in the form of media transmitted. These fragments descend to a white picket fence at which point the fence is unravelling: the intersection of failed ideals of power, security and home.

Lexington/18th - The Interview

I overcame my intimidation by two seemingly tough teenage men and asked them what they thought of the mural, explaining that I was writing an essay about it. At first, their tone was a bit flippant, sarcastic or shy, saying that it is "beautiful" and "very detailed". But then they began to say how they appreciated the amount of effort that went into painting the mural, and they liked that the muralist(s) incorporated their and other local people's names into it. They said that their names were on a bottle painted in the mural, and these young men were drinking alcohol that afternoon as I spoke with them. I asked them what meaning they got from it, and they said, "Maybe this community is crooked" and that "Everybody looks at art differently," "The elephants are like the big powers, like police, gangs--the birds are like the people who are trying to escape." They commented that it is art for "this part of the City--the people who made it are from here." They said that the artists showed the design to the owners before they painted the mural and then they mentioned graffiti. They said that "the real graffitiers respect art" and that the mural "makes it safer for a lot of people, too, because there's no tagging".

They spoke about how tagging functions--that "graffiti is a mark so you're known, like 'I was here.'" "You get to see yourself everywhere" "[It's] like Superman but you don't know who the real one is", ie "people talk tags but don't know who it is. Only [the taggers'] true friends know" "you want people guessing what it is and who did it" "[There's] not much difference between graffiti and art"

I asked what the superhero fragments meant, and they said, "nothing" and that the artist didn't know. They reiterated that art is up for interpretation by whomever sees it.

One fellow was surprised that they had so many thoughts about the mural; they usually don't give it much thought; and they seemed happy to be talking about it.

That conversation did something to me, something deep. I walked away feeling both sad about the young mens' situation (not in school, drinking on the street, so full of wisdom and ideas and just hanging around) and inspired. Whenever I pass teenagers on the street in this community, I feel differently than before; I somehow see more beauty, knowledge and vulnerability in them. My perspective has opened up on how they are in their environment, and how visual messages function for them.

* * *

These murals are really drawings made with paint, marks put on walls by young people, dark messages tinged with despair. They take the humor of the cartoon image and aptly use it to convey a vision of fear and oppression. They are protests and warnings in the form of postmodern, surrealist social critiques of the profit-driven insanity of our times. Cries of warning about what young (and all other) people are being subjected to, they do more than reflect a fearful expression of the dark times we are in; they have a sense of foreboding that is felt by children and youth who do not need to read the news to understand that their needs are subjugated to those of the greedy in power.

This parallels the social-realist political struggle messages in the protest murals which began the mural trend in the Mission. The message is critical of the abuses of power which create hardship in the community and in the world. But they have a different feel, one of less hope and maybe even of despair. They show what things are like now and portend what is to come in the near future if our society continues in the direction it is going.

A question is, do they help? By expressing their foreboding despair, do these murals act as a catharsis or comfort in solidarity with the people of the neighborhoods in which they are painted? Do they need to? What's better -- a pretty picture or a cry out? Both are necessary and the range of expression to be found in the murals of the Mission serves the essential purpose of holding a place for the voice of the people in the public visual arena.
by Claire Bain
copyright 2005

Price Tagging


In the beginning there was the word. Then the word became a picture, Written on a rock, then the carved hearts and initials, Kilroy peeking over, to "F**k You." In 1968, when the world was shrugging off the old bosses, the name of a kid, Julio 204, was showing up on subway walls from Times Square to Wall Street, having ridden in from 204th Street. Now, a quarter of a century after Keith Haring chalked his humanitarian messages on blank NYC subway ad panels, a major corporation has been driven underground to the subway walls of San Francisco's shopping district. We see pictograms of kids alongside Sony's tag, "PSP," (Play Station Portable) occupying prime advertising wall space after San Francisco City officials barred them and other corporations from co-opting public walls for its faux graffiti ad campaign.

The San Francisco Examiner wrote, "In recent years, The City has caught NBC, IBM and the makers of 'Zorro' resorting to such advertisements, [Department of Public Works Director Mohammed Nuru] said. NBC and IBM both paid The City more than $100,000 to clean up street stencils for a Linux program and a science fiction miniseries that appeared on the USA Network, which is owned by NBC."
That $100,000 is chump-change in the pockets and margins of those corporate advertising budgets.

Back in the early daze of the Graffiti age, Keith Haring appropriated blank advertising spaces on the walls of New York City subways and drew chalk drawings on them. Today, in San Francisco's subways we have text-free panels with images of graf-style kids playing with digital media games. They are sanctioned and legal; nobody chased Sony out of the subways like they did Haring. Sony was, however, chased out of low-income neighborhoods like the Mission District, and others in large cities when they hired spray can artists to paint their stealth ads on buildings. Sony paid the wall owners but did not bother to get city permits, which are needed for advertising (and conversely - or perversely as it may be - media giant Clear Channel recently waged a battle in Portland, Oregon to create legislation such that murals would be subject to similar permit fees...).

In some sort of semiotic mobius strip, logo becomes tag becomes simulated fringe becomes logo, all within a particular class context; Sony wouldn't even dream, let alone scheme, of spray painting ads on the sidewalls of upper crust neighborhoods or business districts.

Now they are relegated to printed posters of the faux-graf art comprised of a wood-grain background to indicate a fence or wall, adorned by the sprayed figures. It could have all been digitally created for print, a simulation of a simulated counter-media guerilla communique taken, not borrowed from the prolific and popular current visual voicing of disenfranchised youth.

Keith Haring's chalk drawings on the black paper panel demarcations of subway advertising space have been likened to school room blackboard lessons. They depicted, among other things, people being irradiated by TVs--the media. His was a voice of the young in us, warning, instructive. Sony and other corporate giants who employ the technique of street/graf messaging subvert this type of identity expression into capital
directives. Whereas graffiti is employed by those who do it as a way of voicing their existence to one another and claiming visual real estate, corporate graf and stencil ads employ that need for identity to garner sales.

The co-opting of counter-cultural art is nothing new; it has long been done by mass culture with music, film and fashion, a built-in way of controlling society through culture. This is not necessarily a planned, implemented conspiracy but rather it is a systemic mechanism of our capitalism; revolutionary thought and expression is simultaneously co-opted and marginalized. The main reason for this is because it is so very lucrative. It just happens to support the system. Occurring ever more rapidly, brazenly and on a widespread scale, it is probably successful because the members of mainstream society are enamored with rebels as long as they are safely contained. It resonates with the natural wish for expressiveness, and for the freedom lost with the imposition of adult, social decorum. Aimed at children, or the child within, these images have a logo tag, "PSP" for Play Station Portable, but the distinctive shape of the digital game devices is probably more than enough information for the target audience. Sony's simulated co-opted graffiti ads that eat kids, show kids who are playing with and even eating media.

c 2006 Claire Bain

Sources, resources, and images related to this post coming soon…

Water Wars, Weeping Women

La Llorona on 24th Street

At the beginning of this evening I noticed that the moon was getting large and bright against the powdery layers of turquoise and pink dusk. I decided it was time to see La Llorona, the crying woman. La Llorona is the new mural painted by Juana Alicia deep in my neighborhood. I thought early night right at the end of dusk would be a good time to see it, because the La Llorona of where I come from is a scary weeping spirit who wanders the desert. She wails or floats silently in the form of a blue light over the arroyos (stream beds) in the foothills of New Mexico's Sandia Mountains. Many people have encountered her there, especially teenagers. But even those who are older, or who have not been partying have felt presences or shadows in their nocturnal desert wanderings, and many people, even in bigger cities like Albuquerque, close their curtains at night so La Llorona or other spirits can't watch them.

I thought that seeing the La Llorona mural at night would be scary, but walking on bustling 24th Street was bright and joyous in its vital humor. The only scary part was trying to cross the street while someone was performing one of the thousand curly u-turns that occur each day here in the Mission. I was almost in tears at the beauty of teeming humanity out in full bloom in the unusually warm San Francisco late August Friday night. The beauty salon was full: lovely young goddesses staring distantly while receiving manicures as their young children sat by. The whiff of cardamom from Philz famous coffee. The store with no doors, no shelves -- only bright or shiny fabrics, bedspreads, fabric throws like vevet paintings, and one little plastic restaurant table for two against the wall. The outdoor food vendors, taqueros with a big bowl of cooked meat and ready corn tortillas. The blasts of smells and ranchera music from the bars where only men go. The gargle of modern-twanged English from the knots of local and visiting hipsters in bars that used to have different clientele who spoke Spanish; and different clientele before them, maybe the Irish or Italians. Pounding bass vibrations coming from the evangelical church band and music from everywhere else: Corridos, Salsa, Meringue, Norteno, Tejano, Ranchera, Mariachi, Reggaeton. The Latin sonic experience of the cars passing now includes hyper-bass, passed over from the rap music. The hip hop records for sale, 75 cents each in the tiny shop containing only a lot of TVs, all on, and some large men and a dusty carpet. TV monitors with art playing on them in the Galeria de La Raza, where some young people consumed gallery opening refreshments and a couple others actually looked at the art. The historic Saint Francis ice cream parlor now, too, filled with post-new wave inhabitants...

I got to La Llorona's corner on York at 24th Street, and looked at her from the sidewalk below. If I stepped all the way back to the curb, or in the street, then I could see people inside through the windows in the mural. Someone turned off a light. They didn't close their shades to keep the evil spirits out; those are painted on the outside: the little corporate fat cats who take over world water supplies perch on top of the windows like gargoyles. Back home in New Mexico, people paint the exterior doors and window frames a cobalt blue to keep out evil spirits, but this whole wall is vibrating in that part of the spectrum. I saw the red flowers on the cacti, the white lightning and barbed wire, the women in India whose home/land in the Narmada Valley is swallowed by the new dammed lake, the helicopters, the owl who could be the animal form of a curandera (mystical healer), the goddess dead center of the whole thing and the Large Crying Woman with one hand in a stream, the other holding her child. All across the bottom, large waves move in their own third dimension of motion within the paint! The red sky in the top of the mural was dimly electric against the evening sky. I crossed the street and from there saw that the dark blues of the early night sky were present in the water of the mural. The mural is composed like the earth or our bodies -- mostly water, yet with so much thirsting...

The New Mexico legend of La Llorona that I grew up with is about a young woman who was very beautiful and married a very handsome but irresponsible man. Her life had been shaped by cultivated vanity and selfishness that left her with no capacity for true intimacy, just the ego's inevitable need to consume surfaces for feeding the insatiable, empty heart. Her spoiled greed led her to fall in with this other lovely, hungry creature, against the cautions of her family. They had some children and the husband, who tired of family life, left her for another woman one evening. When this occurred, the enraged and hysterical wife blamed her children for the loss of her husband and pushed them into a river. The instant she did that, she regained her senses and ran screaming and crying along the river but could not pull her children out, and they drowned. She fell and died from her head hitting a rock. Thereafter her spirit was doomed to wander forever in the night, searching and crying for her children, and trying to kidnap any kids unfortunate enough to find themselves alone in her presence.

Juana Alicia has turned the legend of La Llorona around, and provided some pre-history for it, too. The weeping woman is now protecting her child near the stream which flows from under the Aztec goddess in the middle - Chalchiuhtlicue - the goddess of ground waters. Legend has it that in 1502 the goddess Cihuacoatl manifested as a beautiful woman in white flowing garments In the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan. In anticipation of the future conquest of Mexico by the Spaniards, she cried out through the night: "Oh my children . . . your destruction has arrived. Where can I take you?"

There was nothing scary about my walk home tonight from seeing La Llorona. I liked looking into the doorways of bars, pupuserias and even the sad, sad recovery meeting in its grayly fluorescent lit room. I had to laugh about the nutty guy on a bicycle in the crosswalk at 24th Street and Valencia, blowing into his whistle and cursing at the Valencia Street revelers--I laughed even more when I saw another fellow laughing to himself at the same scene. I controlled my mirth as I walked into the packed cafe on this newer main drag, Valencia Street, the perpendicular universe to the older Mission from which I had just emerged. The cafe was full of people playing games and I amused myself with silly silent alliterations. But the barista had sweat on his brow and I said, "Oh, you need a fan." To which he responded with a plaint about needing the manager to understand that it is very busy Friday nights, and she shouldn't burden him with chores like re-stocking at that time. I tried to acknowledge his situation and we kindly said goodbye. I thought about him and his small family whom I've seen in the cafe, a young woman and a small child, and wondered what might be better for them.

Now, hours later, the moon hasn't travelled very far but it is still very bright. I cannot see or hear La Llorona the infanticidal banshee-- she is mixed into the din and streetlights, but I feel the ruin of the greed which created her. I think she turned back into the evil god, a little up and left of the center of the mural, the one who curses those below, the one we view from under water as he treads upon us: we see the soulless bottoms of his shoes with the logo of Bechtel emblazoned on them. If you think of La Llorona as a personification of evil or a metaphor for a society that has done violence to its children, then you understand that the Mexican women in the mural holding photos of their disappeared and murdered daughters near the border factories are one part of the separation: they are the mothers looking for their lost children and the story of an infanticidal, vain madwoman is just a foil for the real demons. Juana Alicia’s La Llorona is now the women whose tears irrigate their courage: look at them in the mural, protecting their people's rights to water in Bolivia. La Llorona stands up to the police who protect corporate law and not people. Her tears cannot be privatized.

The following Sunday I return to see how the mural looks in the daytime. Even in daylight it is still a night mural. La Llorona's reflection is flowing into the window glass of the nearby storefronts; her spirit is present in the early autumn shadows.

Claire Bain c2005


Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Keep It Beautiful

Fruits of Expression / Frutos de la Expresion

A mural I directed in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 2000.