Space, the Final Frontier

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

The ideas behind Rebar run at least as far back as Passmore's childhood, when his father, Bob, the San Francisco "zoning czar" for 30 years, held dinner-table discussions about political machinations arising from city development and planning. Although the younger Passmore was fascinated by the politics behind who wanted to build what and why, he didn't see himself as a future city bureaucrat.

Passmore majored in philosophy and considered an academic career before spending two years as an almost-famous experimental industrial musician in a Los Angeles band called Chalk Circle. Then he "fell into" law school and "fell into" a position at a corporate firm after graduation. It took him five years to recognize the disconnect between the life he'd envisioned for himself and the one he was actually living. "I was hoping I'd have this bifurcated life, where I'd be a lawyer during the day and creative at night, but it just didn't work out that way," he says. "I'd get home and wouldn't have the energy; I wouldn't have the mind to be creative at all. It failed for me."

Many of his 30-ish friends were also struggling to balance their professional lives and creative urges. Olson enjoyed being a physician, but the part of him that Bela calls the "fucking insane mad genius" remained idle. Although Bela was content as a landscape architect, he sometimes felt frustrated by the slow pace of his projects.

John Bela wears his standard driving hat.
Gabriela Hasbun
John Bela wears his standard driving hat.
A bar called the Latin American Club in the Mission is Rebar's unofficial headquarters.
Gabriela Hasbun
A bar called the Latin American Club in the Mission is Rebar's unofficial headquarters.

The friends would let themselves go at parties and at the annual Burning Man festival in Nevada, but those experiences were too fleeting to have much meaning. "Burning Man is only for a week each year. We spend the rest of our lives here," Bela says. "It's about working here, operating here, changing things here."

Passmore quit the law firm and began devoting time to several projects, including plans for an unsuccessful feature film. Eventually, he landed a job as creative director of a small company that makes video content for the Web. When he hit on the Cabinet National Library idea, it wasn't hard to persuade Olson, Bela, and Holt (who has since been less active in Rebar projects) to join him in the desert.

After the trip, they all craved further collaboration. Bela suggested they call the group "Rebar," after the reinforcing bar used to strengthen concrete structures. Passmore loved the prefix "re-" and all its connotations: repurposing, remixing, re-creating, reconfiguring.

Despite its success, Rebar is still a relatively amorphous entity. There's no formal structure, although Passmore and Bela are clearly the leaders, and Olson is as involved as he can be via phone and e-mail. Membership or collaboration is open to basically anyone in their disparate social network. The projects are more than mere pranks, but Passmore and Bela remain reluctant to label themselves as either artists or activists. Yet they devote serious time to Rebar, including many hours during the last month spent applying for grant money from entities as diverse as the Burning ManÐinspired Black Rock Arts Foundation and the conservation organization Trust for Public Land.

As Rebar's projects become more sophisticated (and as it applies for funding), the group is better able to articulate the ideas it wants to convey through its work. Other than Bela, no one involved in the various Rebar undertakings has enough artistic training to either explicate a long-term agenda or dialogue with other artists working in the field.

Not surprisingly, there's a rich, multidisciplinary history of precedents for the kind of art Rebar is creating and the criticisms it's making. The nature-focused elements were anticipated by the land art movement that came to prominence in the 1960s and 1970s, in which artists used elements of the environment to create pieces sometimes known as earthworks. Particularly during the last century, writers and theorists such as Situationist leader Guy Debord and sociologist Pierre Bourdieu grappled with the idea that the environment (natural or man-made) dictates the way we live our lives, spawning a whole school of environmentalist philosophy. There are even groups in other cities that have combined humor and space-related activism, such as the British and Canadian roadwitchers (anti-traffic artist/activists), who have gone so far as to place an entire living room in the middle of an Oxford street to calm traffic.

Rebar's lack of knowledge about many of its forebears and contemporaries is part of the fun — in the real world, Passmore et al. may be yuppies, but in the art world, they're outsiders.

"I'd love to see artists doing more projects like Rebar Group," says Jill Manton, a program director at the San Francisco Arts Commission. "In cities like New York and Seattle, there are so many more guerrilla public artists, in addition to sanctioned art programs. That's what makes a city great."

Every piece Rebar creates is, in a way, a commentary not just on space and planning, but on the elitist culture of fine art.

"It's a reminder to not take everything so seriously," says Passmore, "by putting serious planning and serious effort into some of these projects that are just completely outlandish and ridiculous.

"My favorite reaction we get now and again is: ÔWhy in the world would somebody do that? Why in God's name would you do that?' People are stunned that we would drive out to the desert to build a library or put a park in a parking space. I love that reaction. My response to that is: ÔExactly.'"

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