BARGE’s “Groundbreaking” – reflections

In advance of the action, I wrote:

Given the ongoing housing and economic crises, the battles over private and public space, gentrification and ‘urban redevelopment.’ and the real estate logics of enclosure and foreclosure, might it not be time to reclaim the various unused and under-developed plots, the fenced-off lots, the accidental parks where ‘nature’ has taken root—in short, to reclaim a commons for public use in a time and place where public space has been increasingly restricted, such that we require new arenas for counter-habitation, new vistas for other re-imaginings of the urban environment? Let’s tear down the fences, get digging, and plant new seeds for new deeds…

And the ‘announcement’ read:

Today BARGE breaks ground on stage three of its ongoing “Matta-Clark Park” project, researching (through action) possible ways to re-imagine our relation to private and public space. The opening ceremony will be the day-long excavation of a ‘gash’ in the land, symbolically ‘liberating’ the buried potential of privatized space that could be re-purposed for public use.

Throughout the afternoon, we invite you to write down a wish (or hope, or spell) for the site, something you might like to see take root and bloom here, and we will bury it into the excavation before we fill it back in at the end of the day. Think of these spells as seedlings for tactical magic, so that more might one day be harvested from the site than ground rent and profit.

In keeping with our commitment to research, today’s action will not necessarily follow a pre-determined course towards a single, final ‘public artwork’. Instead of making earthworks we will be doing earth-work, foregrounding the collaborative labor required to explore new methods of land use & improvisational performance. What remains may only be a ground-scar or negative-sculpture, but we’re more interested in staging ‘tests’ of possible future-actions, temporary ‘building re-codes’ that might provoke new ways of relating to our urban environments.

The logics of private property manifest in the enviro-aesthetics of the fence; let’s aspire towards art practices that allow us to see through the fence to the open fields and futures beyond…


We arrived early & jumped the fence, threw or handed over tools & such, and got to work. We dug a kind of negative-sculpture, marking out its shape and angles as we went, paced & adapted to who showed up, how much collective labor could be put in over the course of the afternoon (i.e. it would evolve to be the ‘exact’ size of the time of its digging).  Others collected items from around the site, arranged larger objects into impromptu sculptures, talked to passersby, gave suggestions & feedback, talked about what it might be that we were doing or making as we were doing/making it.

“Deconstruction work is hard to come by these days.”

On the sidewalk side of the fence there was a handout and a set-up for folks to write their ‘wishes’ for the site, to be buried/planted into the ground at day’s end (see below for some samples).


Throughout, we were bodies on display, laboring bodies and bodies at rest, bodies talking through the fence to passersby, bodies-doing-work and (maybe also) bodies-making-art. At the same time, almost everyone who passed by that I spoke with assumed we were making something, i.e., that the work itself was not art or performance but ‘just work’, work one does to produce something (in this case, it was usually assumed it would be a community garden). This was understandable (and I think if one disregarded all the conceptual framings we really were ‘just working’), and led to some interesting conversations, to the point that I increasingly began to believe that we were making something (and not just ‘doing’), even if that ‘something’ was making a situation in which such conversations could be engaged, between artists, neighbors, audience members, passersby, etc., conversations about what folks wanted to see in this site, what stories they’d heard about what used to be there, what we ‘should’ do, etc. (See below for examples of some of the ‘wishes’ folks contributed over the course of the day). This had not been my intent or expectation—this was not a social-practice or relational-aesthetics project in my mind—and from the get-go I realized how uncomfortable I was when being hailed through the fence by passersby (usually with something like “what are you guys doing?”), for I’d assumed (or wanted) the fence to somehow act as a silent screen or some-such, where we could do our thing and on the other side y’all could look, read the handout, etc. Whereas much of my day was spent in conversations, questions, etc., and it was through these interactions that I think I learned the most, about both the site and the ways in which our actions were being interpreted and assessed, regardless of our intents or whatever. For instance, I heard several conflicting stories about what had been there ‘before’ — that it had been an auto shop (& thus the ground was poisoned with fuel run-offs, etc.), a battery factory, an apartment complex, a sausage factory of some sort (with the additional story that giant iron grills had been found buried in the ground, beneath successive layers of construction and foundations), etc. The best story was about the man who died after falling into a pool of battery acid, years after the supposed factory had closed, and the persons who told me this gave as evidence the fact that they’d read about this in an old newspaper they’d discovered buried beneath their kitchen linoleum in their nearby Mission apartment. This kind of local vernacular history fascinated me, as it bumped up against the material evidence of all the things we unearthed throughout the day, to be collected and displayed as a kind of anarcheological dig…

And then the owner showed up. He arrived around 4pm, along with a friend/assistant/partner, who told us we were on private land and needed to shut it down. We initially assumed that given that we were not only trespassing but also technically engaging in pretty blatant property damage, he/they might not only be pissed but we could be in some hot water. (And I did not want to legally or otherwise implicate Southern Exposure in any way, so could not use the ‘we were told it was cool’ excuse…) I came out through the hole in the fence and out onto the sidewalk to talk with them. The conversation revolved around my attempt to explain what it was that we were doing. I used general language to discuss the outlines of the action, putting different things out into the air until I could sense where we might find common language. I used the phrase ‘wish garden’ to describe our digging a rectangular trench and the collection of neighbor’s ‘wishes’ to be ‘planted.’ The owner said, “a wish garden, I’ve heard of that.” (I hadn’t.) The owner gave his version of the site’s pre-history: a multi-unit apartment complex that had either burned down or been destroyed, and pointed to a tall neighboring tree to show evidence of the burn-marks as well as the uncannily symmetrical shape of the re-growth in its foliage. I danced around ways of framing our actions (‘cleaning up the space’ vs ‘staging an intervention’, etc.) until we were able to come to an agreement, that we’d ‘finish our project’ (whatever that would mean, since I couldn’t say myself what finishing would entail) and then clean up and split.

I dug a hole in the ground and buried (planted) the ‘wishes.’ And then at dusk we shut down work, put away our tools, and split. I cannot say that we had ‘finished’, or how we would have been able to say anything had been finished beyond X hours of work done by Y participants. We certainly arrived at a kind of provisional ‘ending’, to the extent that one could look at what we’d done and approximate some kind of aesthetic ‘result’ or whatever (the dig, the pile, the collection, etc.) However, I really did want to foreground the process, the real-time ‘thinking’ of the action, the performance of art/work/play as a real-time response to the conditions (material, legal, social, unexpected, etc.) as they presented themselves. I don’t think we made a ‘work’ but perhaps we made art. or worked at making art. or just worked at making, where the category of ‘art’ was what allowed such work to happen at all…? Regardless, the sun went down, the owners had asked us to wrap up, clean up, and leave, the SoEx event was over, folks had to split, we needed drinks and showers and food and rest etc…


Two nights later I returned to the site and there were now NO DUMPING and NO TRESPASSING signs, along with some white-painted tree-limbs that I believe had been added by a woman named Montreal who had stopped by on the 5th and told me about her project of planting a ‘forest of dead trees’ on the site. Missing were the objects we’d collected and a few other ‘planted’ items.

Reflections, questions & self-criticisms:

(See beginning of this post). and: Are the participants artists? laborers? performers? volunteers? all? If you are walking by and then jump the fence, pick up a shovel and dig, at what point do you become an ‘artist’?  If I/we had hired someone to ‘do the work’ would they be performers/artists? What if the work was done on a different day, a day not framed as “public art day”? Would the work still be artistic or only its end-products? According to what values, of ‘art’ and of ‘work’ and of ‘artworks’ or ‘products’? What role does the fence have in framing any if not all of these questions? Is the fence the marker of private property, the edge of the theatrical space/stage, the border of the eco-art-map? Is the (intended) failure to answer such questions a failure of the action itself? or is the staging of such questions the actual ‘work’?

The fence itself was interesting to me, as it clearly marked off a line between public sidewalk and private space, between audience and trespasser, but since you can see through a fence it’s easy to not see it, to simply see what’s on the other side, a kind of scrim marking the boundaries of an ‘action’ but still allowing for spectatorship and communication across and through those boundaries. A wall or wooden fence would have shut out an audience, in which case what we were doing might perhaps cease to be ‘public’ ‘art’. The fence also gave us this odd sense of hiding in plain sight – because we were on this land in the light of day it was assumed that we must have permission, and couldn’t possibly be trespassing (which would be a night-time practice, I guess?).

Additionally, I am increasingly curious as to the disconnect between claims made about a work or works and how such claims square with the ‘actual’ practice/work/action/performance/etc. Within the frameworks of conceptual practice, the turn to language (and thus writing) as a primary modality and force in the framing of a work or practice offers numerous opportunities for rethinking what art might be, how it might ‘look’ or what it might produce (especially outside of gallery/museum contexts, or the production of material artworks), what effects it might have, and who can participate (vs. conservative notions of artistic mastery or pedigree or specialization, etc.). In this sense, the post-conceptual landscape also allows for a re-invigorated return to materiality, away from ‘pure’ idea-art to social and material practice that produces effects outside of the language-frames that might at least initially provide the conditions of possibility for the work in the first place. For instance: I would not thought of jumping a fence and excavating a private lot—or at least I wouldn’t have thought of such an action as ‘art’—until the conceptual apparatuses provided a context through which such action could mean in new ways.

At the same time (and here is the potential disconnect), the conceptual turn can often seem to be a means by which one can reframe a fairly everyday action as ‘art’, and/or use the discursive frames of artistic practice to add value to an everyday action. To return to our event: Is all this language simply a mental ruse to justify a fairly banal act of trespassing? Or is it (at the same time) a bunch of academic bullshit meant to turn a fairly banal act of trespassing into some kind of artwork? i.e., Does it pass the sniff test? Who decides?

Regardless, I am interested in staging such actions precisely to stage such questions, to invite skepticism (not cynicism, but skepticism) into play, into conversation, with the work at hand. To try to turn the blind-spots inside out. To make self-questioning not just ‘part of the work’ but the content of the work itself. Art action as a test—the testing of a series of propositions; for example, what happens when a group of people do XYZ, under the rubric of a ‘public art day’ (and not ‘under cover of night’, for instance), and what do we make of XYZ and its residual effects (both real-time and beyond)? etc etc etc

Other thoughts:

I felt it took us five hours or so just to get going, to get into the work—not the physical work itself as much as to located the questions and terms that were being activated that day, in response to passersby, the owners’ visit, the found objects, and other contingencies.

I appreciated being able to keep the action-script(s) open and fluid enough for participants to adapt to the conditions we found—i.e., for folks to make their own aesthetic decisions, sometimes in conversation with each other, sometimes in relation to other things going on in the site, etc., and to see these choices unfold and accrue over time. A kind of democratic group-play.

Finally, I began to realize that this was not just a piece ‘about’ enviro-aesthetics, but one that directly altered the environment, & given the context, may have also produced a kind of aesthetics of the site that one wouldn’t have noticed before (i.e. while the lot already had an enviro-aesthetics, its seeming ordinariness would mean most folks would not see it as aesthetic, as framed by the various ways of seeing we become accustomed to in a city).

Some reflections from a couple of co-participants:

Ariel:  my thoughts from the day had to do with the question of soex’s stamp of approval on it, the location of it being in a neighborhood of cafes and condos, how and if that gave the piece more or less leeway and how the publicity turned it into a stop to visit and photograph through the fence. would the visitors been less likely to photograph it if it

wasn’t labeled so much as art? was the stopping to watch it inevitable because the digging broke the mold for the lot. or if the audience was decreased, as it usually is in BARGE’s less front row and center locations, how would that influence the viewers, visitors, walkers by. so, location, location, location…

i was also thinking about the disappointment some people felt when they found out it wasn’t  community garden. that was an interesting tension. i enjoyed digging up things, changing the make-up of the space and giving what looks like an empty space a presence.

Cassie: hard to watch people breaking ground to for sake of conceptual. hard to see an empty lot disturbed … playing in an empty lot on a saturday afternoon as grownups. the act of playing in name of art not so good/people rarely play without a reason. the finding things was good. the walking at sunset in contained space/secret/not forbidden but not welcomed/ was good

curious how secure the place is locked up now. if they fixed the gap. if they put up signs for sake of prosecuting or sake of liability. curious where neighborhood kids will go to play if the bolt is tighter. curious if you feel bad. you should probably feel a little bad. where will people leave their dirty socks and chunks of granite?


Some sample wishes that were planted:

a children’s park

sculpture park

homes for the homeless

organic food in new soil for poor people

gazebo! and petting zooe and swimming hole

place for the homeless

rain more in this square

cherry tree

things that grow & spread & create snarls & tangles that can never be untangled or broken

people hanging out together enjoying the sun

clean water forever

anything less sad

how bout a lil public park?

not another loft

we wanna help and we are neighbors 269-XXXX

living things (understood broadly) that ‘treat’ the ills of the neighborhood & ills of neoliberalism & addiction

Beer garden!

grow food here, & give it to the public on a first come-first served basis


It would be cool if there was a giant adult playground – jungle gym

semi-permanent burning man space

The Atlas Cafe should use it as an outdoor cafe… could include things like a labyrinth, rose garden, playground, swings, alcoves…

I want honey bee hives!

flowers & butterflies

community garden – with produce distributed to public

wish there was a house!

a place to read books / a place to build a fire / a place to meet friends & cook a meal together.

words and thoughts to spring from the ground

beautiful trees, a place to sit, a place to read, a place to talk. A peaceful environment for all to enjoy.

Build a garden here!

for the permission to dream

that both the communities that live here continue to mix & thrive

all ages community music venue

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