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San Francisco, Please Stand Up

A grandiose new artwork shows a city lost to itself

Everyone is obsessed with San Francisco right now. It has become a symbol, a cliché, a fable about money and technology. The moral is different depending on who you ask. A sampling of headlines from the last month in local and national news: “How San Francisco broke America’s heart.” “In San Francisco, Tech Money Doesn’t Buy Happiness.” “‘San Francisco is rotting’ story is wrong: City is brimming with soul.” “Leaving San Francisco.”

I am from San Francisco, though claiming “to be from San Francisco” requires dozens of caveats, like, my parents aren’t from there, I moved away when I was thirteen, and I don’t know every bus line by heart. I moved back to San Francisco for less than a year after college to work for the San Francisco Chronicle, promptly quit, and moved east. I have no immediate intention of returning, though I visit often. Even claiming to be from San Francisco is a defensive move of sorts—a way of differentiating myself from “other writers” who get the place wrong, which everybody does. For a city that’s associated with innovation and newness, it’s a place notably obsessed with its past, with the concept of roots, with who’s from here and who isn’t.

Perhaps this clinging to the past is related to one of the great clichés of San Francisco, which is that it’s both constantly changing and always “done.” After the 1906 earthquake and fire destroyed the city, writer Will Irwin penned “The City That Was: A Requiem of Old San Francisco.” After the city was rebuilt, he said that famous line often attributed to Chronicle columnist Herb Caen: “San Francisco isn’t what it used to be and it never was.”

The boom of the technology industry over the past two decades has brought about a renewed period of handwringing and soul-searching. Some of this amorphous change is cosmetic (or, more generously, aesthetic) and obvious—a massive phallic tower of tech looming over the skyline, dirty streets, the creep of a minimalistic aesthetic into every coffee shop. Some of this change is material—skyrocketing economic inequality, rising rents, a homelessness crisis and the battles over how to solve it. All of this has brought about a wave of desire to represent the city faithfully in art. What makes the city essentially “San Francisco?” What is it losing, and what does it still have? Who can speak for San Francisco?

There’s an idea in vogue that if an artist or writer can just talk to enough different people about their experiences in the city, they can give us a clear vision of San Francisco as it is now.

This last question has spawned a particular genre of artistic response that I like to call “the chorus.” There’s an idea in vogue that if an artist or writer can just talk to enough different people about their experiences in the city, they can give us a clear vision of San Francisco as it is now, as it was, and perhaps even as it will be. We may approach something like the Platonic ideal of the city’s so-called “soul.” (Writer Scott Lucas convincingly dismantled the concept of a city’s soul recently for CityLab, but the metaphor shows no signs of dying.) Last year, author Cary McClelland released a book called Silicon City: San Francisco in the Long Shadow of the Valley. McClelland interviewed more than 150 people and compiled an oral history (of sorts) from his conversations with residents young and old, rich and poor, white and nonwhite, angel investor and pawnbroker. The interviews, sometimes interesting in isolation, fall flat as a book project because the kaleidoscopic approach rings false. The leveling of “voices” is politically naïve; it’s not how “voices” function in our society, where the power differential between tattoo artist and venture capitalist and president of the Board of Supervisors cannot be so easily erased. The book grasps toward a vague concept of mutual understanding and coexistence: McClelland writes, in the introduction, “The challenge for the Bay Area is not whether it can choose one identity—libertarian tech supercity or state-sponsored liberal utopia—but whether it can find some harmony where the best of each can merge.” But of course: bothsidesism.

A visual version of this chorus approach was recently unveiled, and it’s far worse. A massive “digital mural” by celebrity photographer JR, titled “The Chronicles of San Francisco,” opened at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art on May 23. The mural replaces two Richard Serra ellipses that were returned to Stanford after several years in the museum’s free lobby gallery. “The Chronicles of San Francisco” is above all enormous; it’s more than 107 feet long and just over sixteen feet high, rotating slowly but continuously on a series of seamless screens. It’s composed of photos JR took in his mobile truck at more than twenty locations in the city over the course of two months in 2018. Though photographed mostly separately, these portraits were then stitched together into one giant harmonious tableau against the backdrop of city landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge, the Salesforce Tower, and the Castro Theatre. Some are in motion, in looping GIFs, waving their arms like concertgoers, jumping like kids at a field day, or running through the crowd across the length of the simulated city. Others are totally still.

The mural features: people on their laptops, people sleeping on the street, the birth of a baby, firefighters responding to a fire, a priest, a man in VR goggles, cops, a lingerie model, an assortment of kids, a tattoo artist, the former mayor and current California governor Gavin Newsom, Golden State Warriors star Draymond Green, a woman drinking a martini on her porch, people holding up signs that say things like, “I’m with her” and “Peace is possible.” Et cetera. It is this variety that is supposed to impress us and communicate the genius loci of the city. Indeed, on iPads installed in front of the exhibit or on the “JR:murals” iOS app, we can zoom in on particular people and click to read and listen to short snippets of interviews they gave, mostly about their time in San Francisco. “I hope you’re listening. I love this city, San Francisco. I met amazing people,” says a woman named Viola S., bent over a laptop. “City’s growing. But it’s a good thing. There’s a lot more diversity here,” notes Thomas W. (while cradling a dog), a white man who was born and raised in San Francisco and has two adult children. Sylvia F., a firefighter, notes that she loves the city’s many hills.

This project owes much to the style of the popular Humans of New York blog-slash-Instagram. It owes much in general to Instagram; the text of the interviews mimics long inspirational captions. Many of JR’s previous projects have included similar sweeping attempts at universal representation. In his “Women Are Heroes” project, he photographed women all around the world and sought to highlight the “dignity of women who occupy crucial roles in societies, and find themselves victims of wartime, street crime, sexual assault, and religious and political extremism.” His “Inside Out” project has featured photobooth trucks on the streets of New York, Amsterdam, Paris, and London. Even for an artist who has often traded in easy sentiment and generalization, “The Chronicles of San Francisco” feels uniquely sappy and staged, perhaps because of the collaging of fundamentally disparate parts of the city into a faux scene. (“The concept of the mural is very simple,” JR told Time. “No one is more important than another.”)

It is the perfect neoliberal delusion of harmony transcending difference toward a better world. In one particularly staged piece of the mural, a homeless man is photographed sleeping on the street with his dog. A Catholic priest—the Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone—kneels next to him. Two benevolent cops are bent in the direction of the sleeping man, smiling. These photos were taken separately, then calculatedly pieced together. The San Francisco Police Department—who have repeatedly attempted to criminalize homelessness and enact regular sweeps on encampments—becomes two friendly officers bent over the man. He is more or less a prop in this scene, which takes on a quasi-religious tone due to the archbishop’s presence. The complexity of the Catholic church’s relationship with San Francisco is papered over in his interview: “Our Catholic community has been part of the city since its very beginning, when orders of nuns came here to care for people who are sick, who were destitute, who were ill.” One problem with letting people with power speak uninterrupted is that they get to tell their preferred version of history. JR does not necessarily remove San Francisco’s more unsavory elements from his mural. But he seeks to resolve the city’s tensions in staged scenes, which might be worse.

JR’s mural has no politics other than fantasy.

JR claims to draw inspiration from Diego Rivera’s murals. Rivera completed three murals in San Francisco: two in 1931 and a third in 1940. “The Allegory of California” and “The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City” are both primarily concerned with labor. Their aim is explicitly the celebration of workers, particularly Latino agricultural and technical workers in California. These would seem to have almost no relation to “The Chronicles of San Francisco,” which seeks to level class and race differences. Perhaps JR draws most from Rivera’s “Pan American Unity,” which will travel to SFMOMA in 2020 and also contains, so to speak, multitudes. In this mural, Rivera represented a cross-temporal fusion of the Americas; the first panel features an image of Mexico pre-Cortés and a later panel celebrates the technological achievements of nineteenth and early twentieth century California. “Pan American Unity” is certainly a hopeful mural, one that bridges divides between the past and present and across borders; the Bay Bridge and an Aztec deity Quetzalcóatl sit side by side. But the mural is rooted primarily in the elevation of Latin American history and culture, and in the celebration of labor; its utopian project is an inherently political one.

JR’s mural, by contrast, has no politics other than fantasy. (It does feature a woman dressed to look like Frida Kahlo, #styleicon.) Perhaps the most interesting part of “The Chronicles of San Francisco” is a white horse disguised as a unicorn that appears and then disappears from the screen as the mural rotates. It has no description on the iPad, other than “Horse Espanto.” I read it as a wink-wink reference to the so-called “unicorn” startups valued at $1 billion or more. But it’s also—probably unintentionally—a signal this project bears little relation to documentary and that, as art, it’s an exercise in empty mythmaking. It tells a story about San Francisco that anyone can feel good about, because it’s a fairytale.