I was certain dusk had arrived too soon. It was the last week in May, and I had woken from my nap at five in the afternoon to find nightfall when the evening before the light had lingered until seven. I texted a friend: “It got dark so early today.” He did not write me back. I was beset by a cold and staying at my mother’s house in the Sierra Nevada, at an elevation of six thousand feet. I felt feverish.
I went outside, hoping to solve the mystery my waking had initiated. I walked behind the house, down a hillside covered with Manzanita and sagebrush. Lodge pole and sugar pines stood overhead. All was dim, as though the sun had paused in its setting. I walked along a trail barely carved through the brush. With eyes failing and light waning, I squinted. I looked closely: tree trunks embroidered with insect carvings; gobs of pine tar, campfire-scented, stuck to their sides. Mule’s ears flopped by my feet.
Then a tree of light, each branch shaped like a crescent moon, flickered on the dirt before me. The ratio of dark to light seemed reversed, as though shadow were being projected rather than sun. I turned to see what new piece of the forest had created this shape, but I saw only the drooping branches of a Sierra juniper. A reconfiguration had been made in the sky, it seemed, and the results danced on the ground by my feet.
There is a bird refuge in Oakland, in the middle of an algae-laden tidal lagoon that everyone calls a lake. Established in 1870, it is the oldest wildlife refuge in North America. Nearly ninety species of bird live at Lake Merritt. In the summer months, the goose population there reaches nearly two thousand; during the fall, cormorants number in the hundreds. The birds’ home is in the country’s fifth most dangerous city, a place that often gets national media attention for its militant police force, prevalence of teenage prostitution and child sex trafficking, gang violence, and ongoing civil unrest.
A wildlife refuge in such an environment may seem like a contradiction, and in some ways it is—one of countless that hold Oakland together. Though we may imagine a city as a unified whole, all cities are composed of multiple parts, often formed in contradistinction to one another. Oakland has spaces of both beauty and decay, of nature and artifice, of safety and danger. One area has parks and gardens because another is littered with industrial waste; it has a network of hiking trails in the hills because the flatlands are covered with asphalt. One neighborhood may have very little criminal activity precisely because another has a disproportionate amount. No landscape develops in isolation, and all landscapes hold within them a contrary, opposing one.
My friend Lauren invited me to the lecture, but she couldn’t remember the name of the artist or anything about his work. I wasn’t doing anything Friday night, so I said yes, and that’s how we ended up in the theater of California College of the Arts while photographer Jason Fulford spoke on stage. He sat behind a desk decorated with an onyx vase filled with crepe paper ranunculus found at a thrift store, a ceramic turtle with a rubber ball balanced on its shell, a framed image of Lucian Freud taken from a book, and a placard with the words “Desk Sign” written on it.
Fulford is a cultivator of serendipity. In his March 2, 2012, lecture, he traced the circuitous route this force has carved through his life and his work. He described the motorcycle ride he took across the country after art school; he told of visiting the spot in Minnesota where the waters of the Mississippi River first begin to flow. He talked about stopping for a meal in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and returning to live there two years later for no real reason, just because. As he recounted the random steps he’s taken over the past twenty years, the resulting road seemed inevitable, as though he had created and followed it at the same time.
The same principles guide his photography. Fulford lets his eyes wander and, with his square-format Hasseblad camera, records the places they rest. He photographs strange shadows, rhyming shapes, visual absurdities, and simple forms. After a period of time, a month or several, he arranges his recent pictures into a contact sheet and compares. It’s then he notices relationships, draws out repetitions, and rearranges accordingly. Though the finished layout appears premeditated, he arrives at it through chance and convergence.
I started the night in the corner, watching a girl in a sequined dress hover over the hors d’oeuvres and thinking about the inherent awkwardness of company holiday parties. After one glass of wine I was standing, listening to a woman from the education department sing a karaoke version of “Barbie Girl.” By my second glass, I was smoking Marlboro Lights outside with the rest of my department. After three glasses, I was doling out relationship advice to someone—I can’t remember whom. What happened after four and five is anyone’s guess, for that is when my memory departed and the night became a cosmos of faces, sentences, and movement; that is when I yelled freely, introduced myself to strangers, and delivered random accusations. Though the party ended at 9 p.m., I found myself on the midnight BART train home, sitting beside a man whom I kept calling the wrong name. At 2 a.m. I slept on my feet in the hallway outside my apartment as a locksmith jimmied my front door. At some point I had misplaced my keys, and that loss seems an apt metaphor for the other thing I lost that evening: namely a sense of narrative consistency.
We remember sober life as a sequence of consecutive images, costumes and personalities intact from scene to scene. Occasionally our memory lapses, but context and routine allow us to fill in the missing information. I think of Carrie Mae Weems’s Kitchen Table Series (1989–1990), in which the table serves as a locus uniting disparate scenes. The static motif anchors the images and allows us to construct a story through them: a man stands behind a woman sitting in the chair; the two play cards; she feeds him; she sits to the side as he reads a newspaper; she stands in the shadow as he reads; the two embrace. In the next image she is seated at the table alone, her head bowed. A bottle of wine is by her side, and the telephone is in the foreground. Though we do not see the man leaving, we can infer his departure. This is how we build narrative, reading discrete moments as a continuous flow, creating meaning from their progression and projecting our assumptions onto the omissions. There is the occasional unexpected event—the trauma of death or a catastrophic event—but for the most part our experiences remain coherent, legible.
We were not the same, though when we came together, we acted as one. Growing up together, seven girls in the suburbs of Northern California, we told each other’s stories and slept in each other’s beds; we shared bras and earrings and anything else that fit. We squished into the backseats of our parents’ cars, crowded the frames of group photos, and then posed identical, as so many suspected we truly were, in blue caps and gowns on a bright day in June.
Our world was three exits off Highway 24, a place with green hills in the winter and mazes of cul-de-sacs, with groomed yards and college stickers on every car in the Safeway lot. From outside, it looked like the next town over, and the one after that, like every other suburb within fifty miles of San Francisco. But from the inside, where we passed notes and met at Taco Bell every Friday night, where we laid in each other’s bedrooms on Sunday afternoons and made crank calls, it was a place defined not by the ways it resembled other places, but by how it was different, how it was ours.
Our town began like so many other suburbs: it was first a countryside retreat for wealthy city dwellers eager to escape the smells, noises, and people that accompanied the urban industrialization of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Later, in the 1950s and 1960s, it became a place for middle-class families, those not discouraged by racist housing covenants or less overt restrictions, to buy homes and lead predictable lives. In contrast to the city’s chaos, towns like ours offered standardization and uniformity.
Many artists have portrayed the trademark sameness of the man-made suburban environment. While their images often suggest generic scenes, their very act of depiction—the artists’ decision to focus on that particular town or house, car or lot—individualizes the subject matter. Images like Robert Adams’s Colorado Springs, Colorado (1968–70) capture the landscape’s clean lines and serial nature. But the lone woman standing inside reminds us that even in the most sterile and controlled environments, individuals persist. She remains unknown to us, and this distance amplifies the possibilities of her experience: Is she crying inside? Lonely or sad? Is she simply wondering what to clean next? Does she know she’s being watched?
Alison Kendall creates drawings and paintings in which viewers’ expectations are breached by dreamlike intruders. The San Francisco–based artist went to school for scientific illustration, learning to draw animals and plants for field guides and textbooks, to inspire understanding rather than wonder. While she continues to work part-time as an illustrator for scientific textbooks, in her own work she has consciously departed from the genre’s literal-mindedness.
Influenced by and derived from her background in scientific illustration, Kendall’s surreal tableaux are purposely incorrect; animals and objects are recognizable but appear in unlikely environments, as though misclassified. The artist skews linearity, leaning instead toward the possibilities of the unreal: butterfly wings protrude from men’s heads, while a beekeeper pulls frames not from a hive, but from a computer monitor.
Kendall’s hybrid practice—consisting of both “technical” and “artistic” illustration—exposes the way disciplinary constructs influence our expectations of an image and can determine which qualities we choose to value in it. Her work, and the work of other crossover scientific illustrators before her, advocates for a gray area between science and art, a paradigm in which an image can be both didactic and beautiful. It is a place where accuracy and aesthetics are not at odds and a thing is no less miraculous for its being explained.
Victoria Gannon: It’s interesting how the dominant mode of interaction with nature is to classify it and approach it in a technical way. I’ve never felt that way.
Alison Kendall: I’ve always been a nature person, but I was never really technical-minded. If you consider taxonomy to be technical, I’m at that level of technicality, but not beyond that. I don’t want to work in a laboratory.
It’s weird that the work that I do in ecology research involves classifying. I started working on this project when I graduated college, and still participate on a contract basis. It’s this large-scale coastal monitoring project in which we take the inventory of everything in the tide pools from Alaska to Mexico. I would sit in the tide pools for six or seven hours a day, identifying everything. And all the names just went in my brain. I’m going to be an old lady, and I’m going to remember all those names, because I don’t remember other things the way I remember them.
Every Wednesday night, my grammar teacher takes chalk to blackboard to underline subjects and circle direct objects. White dust falling to the floor, she puts brackets around prepositional phrases and writes sentence codes on the side of the board. As students look out the window at summer’s hazy dusk and green grass, she remains resolute, unyielding in her mission to transform language into a series of arcs, underlines, and circles. Unconcerned with each word’s meaning and cadence, its syllables or suffix, she cares only for the larger system, the rigid categories into which each word fits.
I hate her, not simply because she gives pop quizzes and accepts late homework only through the U.S. Postal Service. I hate her because she tries to rob language of its mystery. Nuance, individuality, and meaning are lost when complex entities are squished into finite slots. A line of poetry and a piece of technical writing may be diagrammed identically, but they are hardly the same. While poet Mary Oliver writes, “I am shaking; I am flashing like tinsel,” and my computer’s owner’s manual explains, “The battery will be hot; it may explode in water,” her logic simplifies both to “S-LV-PA; S-AV-P-OP” (that’s “subject-linking verb-predicate adjective; subject-active verb-preposition-object of the preposition” for those not enrolled).
This tension between the technical and the poetic is hardly limited to my Wednesday night grammar class, or even to language. It reflects a philosophical divide that dates back to the Enlightenment, the period during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when reason replaced mysticism and theology as the dominant mode of thought. Scientific rigor and rational thinking was prized above all else; the accumulation of knowledge became an end in itself.
New relationships are often built over food. We sit down to share a bowl of soup together and rise knowing each other better than before. But food’s not just a harbinger of the new; it’s also a pathway to the past. All ingredients, from chai tea to mayonnaise, arrive in our cups and on our plates laden with history. Food carries stories of colonialism and cultural exchange, migrations and regional settlement, and can often invoke overlooked or underrepresented legacies.
Oakland, California, artist Sita Bhaumik describes her practice as “the lovechild of Edward Said and Willy Wonka.” Favoring ingredients like ice cream and curry powder, Bhaumik uses food not only to build connections in the present, but also to investigate social exchanges of the past.
Victoria Gannon: I see a lot of artists using food as a gesture of goodwill, as something that brings people together, but your work highlights differences, rather than commonalities, investigating food as a material rather than simply a means to an end.
Sita Bhaumik: I definitely use the appeal of food and the pleasure of food in my work, but I’m also really aware of how polarizing food can be.
Researching curry, I ran into all these complaints online about the smell. I’d never really thought that you could be racist with your other senses, other than your eyes—it’s always reduced to a visual problem—but all of these comments online were talking about, “My neighbor’s house smells like curry; what do I do?” One said, “Help, my neighbor’s house smells like curry,” and the answer was, “Call the INS.” There were other ones that were like, “Oh I bought this couch from this lovely Indian couple, but it smells like curry,” which is a more underhanded way to talk about it.
Before curry, I was obsessed with MSG. A Japanese scientist invented it; he was trying to create something that would make kids want to eat their vegetables. It started in Japan, traveled around, and got to China and other Asian countries. The West discovered it during WWII. American soldiers were leaving their rations behind and picking up Japanese rations because they tasted better. After WWII, the quartermaster general invited corporations to a symposium where he presented this newfound ingredient; Campbell’s was there, and to this day, they use tons of it.
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.