Ai Weiwei @ Large Exhibit at Alcatraz: the Danger of Silence

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I lived in San Francisco for 8 years and never went to Alcatraz until this weekend.  I could never think of a good reason to visit a dilapidated prison. But I was struck by the magnitude of this mass of rock and its crumbling facades, the undeniable beauty of the ocean and the city.  It was the perfect setting for this show.

Ai Weiwei is such a force that he can successfully conduct a conversation about freedom and confinement without even setting foot on the site.  These installations are so titanic without overpowering the space; they also enable the public to see some of the buildings that are not usually accessible.

The experience of being in this space is hard explain but there are so many contradictions: the constricting cells, and the wide openness of the industrial buildings, the degrading surfaces and the bubbles of old glass letting in the bold illumination of the sea.

Ai Weiwei tinkers with these contradictions so consciously: the portraits of detained or persecuted people are made of Legos, giving them a primary and pixelated look.  Soft little ceramic flowers fill up bath tubs and latrines, you almost miss them if you aren’t looking for them, quiet gestures of solace in an environment of humiliation and chaos.

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In the hospital, there were two tiled rooms the size of small bathrooms where the mentally ill were contained.  Glass block facing the ocean allowed a soft light in but once the sun went down, these rooms went black.  Ill prisoners were kept in solitary, often restrained. Ai Weiwei piped the sound of Tibetan monks chanting into one room and at a certain point I was the only one in there.  I closed my eyes and the sudden, sonorous vibration of the monks’ deep bellow shook my ribcage. In the other room, the sound of Hopi ritual drumming and chanting bounced off the tile walls.

Prison and war are our primary industries in the U.S and it is almost hard to separate them when you are in these interiors.  Alcatraz was a military prison, the remnants are still ferocious, like the cannons that shot 440 lbs cannon balls.  These spaces are like a war on the body, a constant attack of surveillance, a void of comfort, a wasteland of connection.   The primary tool of these industries is dehumanization; when we cease to acknowledge a person, or a country as human, we can criminalize them, we can refuse to help, we can drop bombs.

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And still, this artist who deserves to be on the world stage, is able to convey these very powerful messages about injustice, about the danger of silence, and that is not possible in other countries.  At the end of the exhibit, there are shelves of postcards with the names of political prisoners printed on them.  Ai Weiwei teamed up with Amnesty International to ensure that these prisoners would receive the postcards and visitors to the exhibit were encouraged to write.  This was perhaps the most powerful part of the installation, that as a viewer, you were not simply left with this heavy feeling of futility, but that you could sit down and convey your own message.  An art guide told me that 8 people had been released since the exhibit opened.

This is what great art does: it makes an undeniable stand, but it invites questions and evokes a sense of personal responsibility in everyone who witnesses it.   It is by nature, inclusive, calling attention to the artificial boundaries that distance us from other people.

I Left My Heart in San Francisco

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“I Left My Heart in San Francisco,

high on a hill, it calls to me.

Little cable cars, they climb half way to the stars

the morning fog may fill the air, but I don’t care…”- George Cory

It’s been almost seven years since I moved away from San Francisco.  And yet, I still dream, just like this morning, that I am there.  It’s usually the mayhem of Chinatown or the Mission and I am with a group of people desperately trying to coordinate an outing of some kind.  Or I am looking for housing. This morning, I was trying to talk my other single mom friend into moving in together.

I get an article in my FB feed once a week about a beloved venue, an old school restaurant or some other pivotal cultural institution coming down to make way for more upscale housing and wine bars.  The most heartbreaking so-longs recently have been Elbo Room and Cafe du Nord.

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Like many of my friends, I feel like the San Francisco I loved is no longer.  Most of my artist friends have made the exodus to Oakland or Berkeley. On the scale, I don’t think I am terribly sentimental, but the great architecture, the dive bars, the magic hole in the wall cafes and most of all the live music, all seem to be evaporating.

However, just as a counterpoint, I just finished reading #FrogMusic by Emma Donoghue, which is about an unsolved murder that happened in the City during a heat wave in the 1870s.  A bigger-than-life character named Jenny Bonnet was renowned city-wide for wearing men’s clothes, riding a boneshaker bicycle and generally causing a disturbance. The story is about her unlikely relationship with a lady of the stage, Blanche Beunon, and Jenny’s mysterious murder. http://www.sfchronicle.com/entertainment/books/item/Frog-map-28408.php

At one point, Jenny is in the as of yet undisturbed edge of town called San Miguel Station (known to you San Franciscans San Jose Ave and Alemeny Blvd) when a construction crew suddenly emerges to dam a pond and Jenny rants about how the whole city is changing.  So it ain’t new news.

There is another line in the story when the investigating officer sniffs at Blanche’s french origins and makes a cutting remark about how her kind flooded into the city around the Rush, threatening the City’s dignity.  The French, for godsakes.

San Francisco has always walked the line of defining civilized society and opportunity while hosting the shadiest of markets; it has always lauded it’s reputation for bohemian inclusion while cordoning off whole segments of its population.  Like any other American city that has prospered, it is a crystaline reflection of how the system fails most of its people.

I am far from defending the tech influx that has driven working people, retired people, disabled people out of their homes.  Where the charge of the City used to excite me, it now makes me acutely claustrophobic; the traffic is a nightmarish sea of cars at any time of day and the sidewalks are the same, just with people instead of cars.  Every good idea you have: “hey, let’s go to the De Young” is exhaustive with time/money/logistics because everyone else had that same idea, and a latte is like, ten dollars now.  If I’m going to live in New York, I want to actually live in New York.

I will not spoil the end of Frog Music for you, since it is a wild romp, truly delicious with details of a San Francisco of yore, but I relished the fact that Sacramento is the greener pasture, in the story anyway.  That is not to say that we don’t have our own version of gentrification here, but we still have reasonably priced housing and a middle class.  For now.

When I was an 11 year-old girl, my parents used to take us on family vacations driving up the length of California.  San Francisco was always my favorite and I would look out at the wild dips and dives of the streets and see myself at 21: long-legged, stylishly dressed, on my way to a gig singing jazz in some smoky dive bar.  I really believed San Francisco would be my forever home.  And while I have no urge to return again, not even in my older, billionaire fantasies, there is still a way in which “it calls to me.”

#SanFrancisco, #SiliconValley, #Emma Donaghue, #Bay Area, #SFmusicians

Poop Management

I watched a Louis CK bit recently where he said something to the effect of: I wish someone had told me that parenting was really about cleaning shit out a tiny vagina several times a day.

As soon as you think about it, the diaper part, it makes sense, but no one really tells you that your primary job in the first 3 years is really Poop Management.

I am now in a difficult phase of my career as a poop manager: the potty training phase.  The real problem with this phase is that you are fooled over and over into thinking they have a handle on their various functions enough to at least warn you when something mighty is about to happen.  You get lulled into this post diaper bliss that is altogther illusion.  You drop your guard.  And your diaper bag.

For the last week, the girl was not sticking to her regular poop-right-after-dinner routine.  I didn’t think about it much, these things have a way of straightening themselves out whether I fret about them or no, but we were also taking a short jaunt down to the Bay Area for a peer’s birthday party.  The girl decided to wear a newly acquired magenta dress (she was adamant that we not refer to it as pink) and I made the mistake of adding tights to her little ensemble.

Half way through the party, while I was making a last vain attempt to get her to eat something resembling nutrition before the cake came out, she announced that she had to go.  So I trucked her out to the bathroom and put her on the training potty our hosts had made handy.   She then produced a couple hollow sounds not unlike beans in a tupperware.  The contents of the potty resembled some little, hard crumbs of corn and beet, neither of which the girl had eaten in the last few days.  It looked like brown gravel, more like rabbit droppings I noticed, but decided again not to think too much about it, I was just grateful something was coming out the other end.

So we went through the flushing and the struggle of readjusting tights and the hand washing and made our way back out to the party.  The song was sung, the cake was cut, the frosting was smeared all over most available surfaces, apologies were made.  The party was winding down when the girl suddenly howled from the play area that passes as a backyard in San Francisco: “Pooooop!” I could see from the way she was standing with her knees bowed and bent that this was not a pre-event announcement.

I scooped her up and returned to the bathroom.  Oh my.  I think is what i said, I really hope that is what I said.

Well, the tights and the big girl panties were, uh, transformed, and since I had no provisions I had to peel off the offending layers and, well now what?

“Whoa, das a man size poop,” she said employing one of my often used tactics to make light of a disgusting situation as i did my best to shake some of it off into the toilet.  I spent a good half a roll of toilet paper.  Kicking myself, I decided to go upstairs with a naked-from-the-waist-down child to find a bag to put the mess in, conceding, despite the several sangrias  I consumed, that leaving soiled underwear in someone’s wastebasket was not good manners.  Even if it had a lid.  I learned that lesson the hard way when I was in kindergarten.

But our hosts were the fastidious San Francisco types who have not a single plastic bag in their abode.  So I settled for a paper bag, folded tightly with every intention of dumping it on the way out.  Of course, in the hubub of leaving, saying good bye to a dozen people, I absently tucked the thing into my purse.  I dropped it into the car and promptly forgot about it and It immediately blended in with all the other useless shit that invades my car.

Not recognizing it as a parcel of mass destruction until I got home, I opened it with total curiosity.

I almost fainted, let me put it that way.  Bummer about those tights too.

You think there are no surprises after you witness your infant’s first bout of diarrhea.  But no.  The gifts keep coming.

When she is 15, I will still be following her around with wipes and a change.  Much to her abject humiliation.