Space, the Final Frontier

The San Francisco art collective Rebar wants to redefine where we live, one gonzo project at a time

Shortly after the parking space on the street became a park, a brewer's blackbird flew down onto the grass and began pecking, searching for worms in the dirt. The bird had accepted Rebar's creation as part of nature. Passers-by weren't quite so gullible. Most smiled for a moment, then continued walking. A few studiously ignored it, as if they were afraid of being sucked into an elaborate reality television-show prank. Only half a dozen pedestrians actually engaged with the piece.

One woman stopped to ask: "Is this something you had to get permission for?"

"No. We didn't," Passmore said, then added, sheepishly, "We paid the meter," as if that made much of a difference. He had examined city code beforehand and, as far as he could tell, they weren't breaking any laws.

Rebar is a far cry from Matthew Passmore's former life as a corporate lawyer.
Gabriela Hasbun
Rebar is a far cry from Matthew Passmore's former life as a corporate lawyer.
Rebar hopes to build the Hidden Agenda, a corporate boardroom, underground in the desert.
Hidden Agenda graphics by Matthew Passmore
Rebar hopes to build the Hidden Agenda, a corporate boardroom, underground in the desert.

Like the Cabinet National Library, PARK(ing) centered on a spatial anachronism, but this time, Rebar had a deliberate message. While the majority of outdoor space in downtown San Francisco is devoted to vehicles (metered spaces, streets, parking lots), relatively little land there goes to recreational and public space. The overreliance on cars and lack of parks has created a values disparity ripe for critique, and PARK(ing) was a clever, absurd method of calling attention to the problem.

"The parking-space project is so obvious, but that's one of the things that's beautiful about it. It's taking something that would occur as part of everyday life and altering it," says Emily Sevier, an artist and curator of a Southern Exposure show in May that will include a Rebar piece. "They really work with the loopholes. Who says you can't use a parking space for something different, as long as you're putting the quarters in?"

Unfortunately, few San Franciscans took notice. Passmore and Bela had at least hoped that the cops would show up, so the two of them could change into the "respectable" clothes they'd brought along and recite the speech they'd practiced. But Director of City Greening Marshall Foster was the only local official to respond. A park in a parking space was right in line with the goals of the city planner in charge of beautifying San Francisco's streets. He thought it was great.

It wasn't until several weeks later, when Passmore's wife blogged about PARK(ing), that awareness of the project quickly broadened worldwide. Many of the blog's few thousand regular readers passed the link around or blogged about it themselves, and interest spread like wildfire through online communities devoted to subjects like environmentalism, urban planning, and architecture. Just before Christmas, after the blog BoingBoing posted an item about PARK(ing), Rebar's site registered more than 4 million page views in a single day. Several times this winter, received more hits than the Web sites for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art or the brand-new de Young Museum.

The group has since been invited to lecture at UC Berkeley and Smith College, and has received interview requests from a newspaper in the Czech Republic and a fashion magazine in Italy. So many people e-mailed to ask how PARK(ing) was produced that Rebar put together a how-to manual with a step-by-step method for re-creating the temporary park. Groups in New York, Louisiana, and Virginia all plan to replicate the project. Early this month, Santa Monica's Recreation and Parks Commission performed an officially sanctioned version, with city trucks delivering sod, trees, and recycled-wood benches. "We thought it was so funny, such a humorous way of putting forward what is a very important issue in land use planning: how much of our resources go to parking and how few of our resources go to parks and open space," says Susan Cloke, chair of the Santa Monica commission.

Bela and Passmore were enormously surprised that PARK(ing) earned attention in such diverse circles. They'd been working on other, more "important" projects for months. This one, though it had been talked about off and on for a year, took only a few meetings to plan and half a morning to carry out. PARK(ing) dealt with serious themes, but it was basically a little joke among friends, an organized version of the screwing around they'd done since high school.

"We laugh all the time about PARK(ing)," Passmore says. "We roll out some sod in a parking space, and there's this huge reaction around the globe."

In the fall of 1987, Passmore, Olson, and two other friends pulled off one of the most infamous senior pranks in the history of Lowell High School. One night, they scaled a wall and climbed into the school's courtyard, then sealed the doors of the surrounding structures and tore the heads off the sprinkler system. Their goal was to create a massive swimming pool.

Instead, they created what Passmore describes as "a gigantic geyser." Water blew open the doors, soaking the locker room, ruining the gym, and causing tens of thousands of dollars in damage. The 17-year-old boys were suspended for two weeks. After a hearing before the school board, they were allowed to graduate — barely.

Though Passmore reveals a hint of nostalgic pride at having been threatened with expulsion, his current projects have matured beyond simple mischief. "There's a certain element of pranksterism [in Rebar]," Passmore says, "but that's not our goal. We don't want to do a prank and say: 'Ha, ha! Wasn't that funny?' We hope there's something a little deeper, more elegant than just taking a sprinkler head off a sprinkler."

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