One hundred feet below the Starbucks and suits of San Francisco’s financial district, Grubhub.com’s posters beckon from the BART station walls. The online food delivery service offers every kind of cuisine, from hamburgers to filet mignon. But its ads, placed in the city’s train stations and on its buses, broadcast the availability of only three foods: burritos, pizza, and sushi—all handheld, portable, and associated with a distinct ethnic group.
What do we seek when we pursue dining experiences that serve ethnicity alongside entrées? Feminist scholar bell hooks writes that, “within commodity culture, ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture” (hooks, “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance”). When ethnic difference becomes a commodity, hooks argues, it can be purchased, consumed, and deactivated. Nuanced legacies of multiethnic interaction get overlooked in favor of decontextualized food items whose consumption diners mistake for an authentic cultural exchange.
In their merging of public transportation, ethnicity, and food, Grubhub’s ads offer an abbreviated version of an everyday San Francisco experience. The city’s thirty-plus neighborhoods are often delineated along ethnic, as well as cultural and geographic, lines. Public transportation facilitates travel among these enclaves, many of which are associated with a type of ethnic food.
For example: You take the 38 Geary to the Richmond for pho, the 22 Fillmore to the Mission for mole burritos. The 1 California takes you through Chinatown, where you can get cheap dim sum. Grubhub provides one slice of this experience—food—offering weary train and bus riders the opportunity to stay home and order with just a computerized click. But staying home misses the point: there’s a conversation going on between San Francisco’s neighborhoods and its food, and in that dialogue’s rhythms and silences are revelations about the meals on our plates and the city around us.
We speak in code when words aren’t safe to say. Faced with threats, our language goes subterranean, carving new passageways of communication.
Encrypted messages use accepted forms of expression—recognizable letters, numbers, or physical symbols—but configure them according to secret and contrary systems of organization. During the Underground Railroad, a lantern on a hitching post signaled to runaways that safety was inside. By using a common element of domestic architecture differently, new meanings were conveyed. Should danger approach, the sign could easily be explained as merely lighting the way.
Codes also delineate groups; knowledge of a secret language can function as a membership card. The Freemasons protected their rituals by encoding them with a secret cipher.
In a culture where heterosexuality is assumed and explicitly celebrated, expressions of gay identity are frequently made in alternate languages, such as dress. In the 1980 movie Cruising, undercover cop Al Pacino gets inducted into the Lower East Side gay male bar scene through an explanation of the handkerchief code.
San Francisco artist Jeremy Sanders is particularly interested in the ways gay men express themselves through clothing. He found a rich metaphor for gay male dressing habits in his study of Scottish tartans. “Tartans are a fabric that people used to identify as being a part of something, in this case, Scottish, and then particular clans or families,” he said.
“I think of the 1970s or ’80s, the handlebar mustache and sideburns and plaid flannel shirt and tight jeans and boots” in gay male dress, Sanders said. “It was a way that you could send signals to other gay men, particularly in places like New York or San Francisco. To the untrained eye, they could pass as a straight man.”
Sanders weaves coded plaids whose messages speak to gay male strategies of sartorial identification. Using a subjective system derived from his experience of synesthesia, in which numbers and letters correspond to colors, he spells out words with hues.
In November 1991, Nirvana played on all of our car stereos. We smoked clove cigarettes and drove through the Oakland hills with Nevermind blaring over the speakers. Kurt Cobain drowned out all the other sounds. “With the lights out, it’s less dangerous,” he yelled. Shrouded in fog and night, we agreed.
Grunge had traveled south from the damp Northwest, into Portland coffee shops, onto MTV and alternative radio stations, and into my high school. It wasn’t just music; it was a dress code: Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder wore thrift-store sweaters, waffle-knit long underwear, and plaid flannel shirts. We followed suit.
At fifteen, I raided my brother’s closet, stealing every plaid flannel I could find. I put them all on at once, mixed patterns and colors, donned men’s extra-larges like they were dresses. The shirt was a sign: it meant jeans with holes and cigarettes during lunch. It meant that somewhere inside you, in a place you could feel but couldn’t see, you were against it all: parents, school, “the system.”
Grunge is gone, but plaid is back. Mornings, I walk down San Francisco’s Second Street past throngs of tech workers in plaid button downs. Nights, I walk through the city’s Mission district, past wood-paneled bars awash in plaid, patterns and colors coalescing on torsos.
“Plaid has become unavoidable,” declares a recent Wall Street Journal story. “[S]tyle observers can’t recall a time when it was as popular with as wide a range of men.”
But plaid isn’t new — far from it.
“It is hard to find California now, unsettling to wonder how much of it was merely imagined or improvised; melancholy to realize how much of anyone’s memory is no true memory at all but only the traces of someone else’s memory …”
―Joan Didion, “Notes from a Native Daughter” (1965)
“The past is not always a burden or a sacred ground. Sometimes it’s just a fun place to shop.”
―Sasha Frere-Jones, in the New Yorker, Nov. 8, 2010, describing the bands Black Angels and Black Mountain.
Working together as Nightmare City, Carol Anne McChrystal and Keturah Cummings make video-based work in which the medium’s disorienting and outdated aesthetic mirrors the unstable meaning of the content itself. For their recent project, Nightmare City Copy Lake The Horde, the duo traveled to hot spots of 1960s California counterculture. Dressed in exaggerated hippie clothing, they attempted to reunite those signifiers with their origins. Once there, they were greeted by empty landscapes whose barrenness suggests a lack of meaning underlying such aesthetics, typifying an elusiveness that underlies much of California culture and history.
Here I talk to the artists about the inspiration for their recent project and their performance of California-themed songs at Queen’s Nails Projects in September 2010.
Victoria Gannon: What sorts of things inspired Nightmare City Copy Lake The Horde?
Carol Anne McChrystal: We came up with the first inkling of that project when we were at an Indian Jewelry concert.
Keturah Cummings: They’re a noise band based in Houston. It was a whole slew of bands, primarily out of L.A., like Pocahaunted and the Psychic Ills. The music is droney, but very hip, and they were definitely using hippie aesthetics and vague pan-ethnic references.
VG: Just the name, Indian Jewelry, is very pan–Native American.
KC: But I loved the music, we all did, and I guess that conflict spurred the interest.
CM: In the past couple years, there’s been a general hipness, a back-to-the-land sort of style.
Every few decades, people decide it’s a good idea to move to California. First, it was for the gold. Then aerospace technology, then Los Angeles. In the 1960s, it happened again, as idealistic teenagers arrived in San Francisco to build a new world in which previous generations’ hang-ups didn’t apply. They joined ongoing protests at UC Berkeley, where students had seized a parcel of land to create a park for the people. They held be-ins against the verdant green of Golden Gate Park, believing their positive energy had the power to halt a war thousands of miles away. They attended West Coast versions of Woodstock, where Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin performed.
Though vibrant, the summer of love couldn’t last. Fall came; the hippies got older. Many succumbed to drugs, and many “sold out,” choosing careers and capitalism over their youthful radicalism. The movement petered out, but it did inspire a psychedelic, romantic visual culture and sensibility that lives on in Northern California. Think mandalas, geodesic domes, sacred geometry, and magical pyramids. Now divorced from their radical origins, such signs currently stand in for a generalized mysticism, a vague allusion to mystery and free-spiritedness that is peddled in stores and incorporated into artwork.
How do insights get reduced to commodified images? When is the moment that radical possibility becomes disappointment? Working as Nightmare City, Carol Anne McChrystal and Keturah Cummings make digital-based work that addresses these moments of unfortunate transition. With an aggressive aesthetic, the duo’s work embraces repetition, disorientation, and illegibility, pushing viewers into a zone of discomfort where images lose their commonly understood meanings and re-emerge with new significance. At the core of their practice is an interest in images and their signification. Again and again, they ask: how does an aesthetic assume a cultural value, and how does it lose that value and gain a subsequent one?
Nostalgia is the longing for a home that never was; its subject is an idealized place where the troubles of today hold no sway. In paintings, drawings, and sculptures, Northern California artist Gina Tuzzi expresses her nostalgia for California in the 1970s, the era immediately preceding her birth. Mining this imagined past for clues to the present and future, Tuzzi turns to record-album art, family photo albums, and her memories of growing up in Santa Cruz, a California beach town where the spirit of the 1960s and ’70s arguably lives on.
Here, I talk to the artist about a resurgence in hippie culture and imagery in Bay Area art, her love of Neil Young, and how art school convinced her that “nostalgia” was a bad word.
Victoria Gannon: Why is 1970s culture and imagery so important in your work?
Gina Tuzzi: My parents moved to the coast in 1975 from the Central Valley and immediately got heavily involved in van and Harley culture, and founded Santa Cruz Vans in 1975. I grew up on the west side of Santa Cruz during the ’80s, when competitive surfing was huge. My parents would go on these van runs with hundreds and hundreds of people who were living in these custom vans. So this idea of nomadic living was very much what I understood Californians did when they turned twenty. This was my idea of what I was going to do; I was going to go on this big van adventure, because that’s what my parents did. I think that’s where a lot of this comes from.
That’s one of the reasons this whole ’60s and ’70s counterculture trend is so fascinating to me, because I’ve always been interested in that time period.
It was the United States of America in the cold late spring of 1967, and … all that seemed clear was that at some point we had aborted ourselves and butchered the job, and because nothing else seemed so relevant I decided to go to San Francisco. San Francisco was where the social hemorrhaging was showing up. San Francisco was where the missing children were gathering and calling themselves “hippies.”
―Joan Didion, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” (1967)
Something monumental happened before I arrived, I knew that it had. Growing up in the late 1970s and ’80s in Northern California, I searched for clues to the past in my father’s record collection. I studied Neil Young and Buffalo Springfield album covers, committed the lyrics to Helplessly Hoping to memory, and decided I liked paisley. At 16, I hung the album cover to Neil Young on my wall. The singer’s face is rendered in watery peach, his hair streaked with purple. Behind him, golden hills tinted with pink billow like clouds. I didn’t understand what it meant ― LSD? Something to do with the Merry Pranksters? Communes? ― but I felt closer to the mystery by claiming the image.
The legacy of the 1960s and ’70s hangs in the Northern California air like smoke from a stick of Nagchampa. While the ideas and activism of those decades may have subsided, the imagery and laid-back sensibility remain. Recent years have seen a particular resurgence, as many Bay Area artists have embraced a quasi-mystical primitive aesthetic (see David Wilson’s Sun Ceremony) that harks back to this earlier era.
Albert Bierstadt bathed the Sierra Nevada in heavenly light while Ansel Adams photographed Half Dome as though it were on the moon. Many artists depict California’s natural features as mythic and otherworldly. David Wilson’s landscapes run contrary to this impulse. The contemporary Northern California artist makes the state’s geography humble, knowable, and intimate. Although suggestive of wild places, the sites he draws are typically within five minutes of a major city. While Hudson River School painters such as Bierstadt proposed that nature was a place of heightened consciousness and sublime intensity, Wilson presents it as being down the street. His is a wilderness accessible by bus.
The artist’s installations and gatherings, often unsanctioned, mostly outdoor, continue his exploration of place. In some cases, they’re a direct extension of his two-dimensional work. Here, I talk to the artist about California, the Heal drawings, the Memorial Fort, and his summer 2010 residency at the UC Berkeley Art Museum.
Victoria Gannon: When did you move to California and why?
David Wilson: I moved to California in Fall 2005, shortly after I graduated from Wesleyan University, in Connecticut. I grew up on the East Coast. I had never gone inland, and some friends had been talking about coming out here. One friend in particular was really preaching the West Coast.
VG: How was she was selling it?
DW: She said, “We’ll go to Oakland and get a warehouse space, and it’s so cheap, and there’s really great people out there, and it’s so beautiful and the hills.”
My first visit, I went to Stinson Beach, and I went to the Berkeley hills, and I went to LoBot, that warehouse and gallery in West Oakland. I had this sense that this is an area that’s very involved with its landscape, which is really exciting to me, especially coming from the East Coast, where towns are so locked in. The idea that within ten minutes of driving the city would transform to just being beautiful and wild was very appealing to me. That sold me.
My hometown of Lafayette, California, encompasses a 925-acre nature area, the boundaries of which press up against the town’s suburban roads and cul-de-sacs like a face against glass. When I was a teenager, I spent my afternoons hiking its trails, spying on the town’s happenings from these wooded and shrouded routes. I peered into neighbor’s backyards, watched carpools snake around curves, witnessed swim lessons and soccer practices from afar. I began to know the town from how it appeared when I was in the hills, and began to look toward the hills for comfort when I was standing in town.
In many Northern California locales, town and country similarly intertwine to create inverse versions of the same place. Nature, however mediated, dances at the edges of our cities and dissects our town centers, offering a visual respite from our highways and shopping malls. If you are stuck in traffic, look left to the Pacific Ocean; if you are crossing a crowded street, look right to a ridge line on which eucalyptus trees wave in the wind.
Incorporating drawing, watercolor, and social gatherings, David Wilson‘s artwork draws attention to the boundary between the Bay Area’s settled regions and what lies just beyond them. The East Bay hills, a backdrop to the cities of Oakland, Berkeley, and Richmond, are a frequent muse, serving as subject matter for his illustrations and a setting for his communal gatherings. Although the city is not typically represented in his drawings, its presence is always implied; it is only from the city that the natural world can beckon so unabashedly as a refuge.
The relatively young artist’s work exists within a loose trajectory of artists who have taken California’ s landscape as subject matter, often treating it “as an end in itself, complete on its own terms,” as Kevin Starr writes of photographer Edward Weston’s images in California (UC Press, 2005).
Many people in the East … have been to Los Angeles or to San Francisco, have driven through a giant redwood and have seen the Pacific glazed by the afternoon sun off of Big Sur, and they naturally tend to believe that they have in fact been to California. They have not been, and they probably never will be, for it is a longer and in many ways a more difficult trip than they might want to undertake, one of those trips on which the destination flickers chimerically on the horizon, ever receding, ever diminishing.
― Joan Didion, Notes from a Native Daughter (1965)
This is what I know of the state where I grew up: it is the size of a small country, with streets and towns named after Spanish priests, explorers, and ranchers. Summers are dry, winters green and lush, and spring arrives in February. Black-tailed deer cross roads at night, and suburban neighborhoods of ranch-style houses give way to hills. It is always hot in September. Go to Santa Cruz or Berkeley or Haight Street, and you will see that the hippies never left. Look backward to Ohio, Tennessee, or New Jersey: everyone you meet is from somewhere else.
I grew up twenty miles east of San Francisco in a semi-rural, upscale suburb; as such, my knowledge of California is both intimate and incomplete. I can describe the layers of smell given off by a pile of elm leaves, like the kind that accumulated in our driveway, but I have little to say about the sprawl of Los Angeles or the quiet farm towns of the Central Valley. Still, the yellow and brown leaves, I can tell you they smell just like bread beginning to mold―warm, layered, and a little rotten, like the state itself.