Space, the Final Frontier

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

Passmore and Bela crowd into a small table full of Rebar collaborators, munching burritos as they hatch their next harebrained scheme of a work of art. They're at a Mission bar called the Latin American Club, the closest thing Rebar has to a studio or office. It's here that they've conceived of the majority of Rebar's pieces, while consuming what probably amounts to a few kegs' worth of microbrewed beer.

The table is situated in the corner, elevated like a stage to provide a performer's-eye view of the room. The Latin isn't as crowded on this Wednesday night as it usually is during weekends, but it has the same junkyard kitsch vibe: bunny and elephant head piñatas hanging from the ceiling, Christmas lights, and a gold curtain that swirls along the wall. Bela often repeats the idealistic notion that Rebar isn't a group of three or four guys, but anyone who ever sits around this table at the Latin.

They recount several ideas in various stages of development. One involves creating a fully functional boardroom beneath the desert floor in New Mexico, possibly including an artificial archaeological "discovery" of the remains of a 21st-century office space. Another entails tearing out a large portion of the Southern Exposure gallery wall and putting it in metal cans. (The gallery building once housed a can manufacturer — what better way to show how overpackaged art has become than to "can" the gallery itself?) They're also considering carrying out a larger version of PARK(ing), with a trio of teams on bicycles creating several parking-space parks around the city. Mostly, their priorities depend on what kind of response they receive to the grant applications they're now submitting.

Miles from civilization, the Cabinet National Library stands in the desert.
Jed Olson
Miles from civilization, the Cabinet National Library stands in the desert.
Rebar placed barbed wire in between the sandbags to keep them from shifting inside the concrete.
Jed Olson
Rebar placed barbed wire in between the sandbags to keep them from shifting inside the concrete.

Bela leads a discussion about CommonSpace, a nascent Rebar project that will probably be its most ambitious piece yet. The idea focuses on an obscure, unintended consequence of several decades of local city planning: the plethora of privately managed public spaces. These spaces are owned and controlled by private developers or landlords, but the public can supposedly use them as it would a city park or boardwalk.

When developers create office buildings or condominium complexes, San Francisco city government compels them to set aside some of the area as public space. It seems like a good deal for the city — instead of citizens paying to create or manage spaces like parks, developers do it for us.

Once a building opens, though, the developer or landlord isn't heavily motivated to maintain the ideal public environment. As a consequence the city, especially in the Financial District, possesses dozens of lobbies, courtyards, roof decks, and gardens that are technically "public" property, but look and feel nothing like a park. Many are staffed by security guards and surveillance cameras or are so difficult to access that they may as well not be considered public. There's often an indistinct sign on the property that reads something like: "This is public space."

The purpose of tonight's Rebar meeting is to transform Bela's critique of privately managed space into a piece that makes people both chuckle and think. Bela contemplates out loud, as he often does, theorizing to the group: "The question is: How successful are these public spaces? Do they convey symbols of accessibility? What would be the ideal rules for them? What are the key restrictions?"

"We could create a guide to them so people know which space they can occupy," Passmore suggests.

"A tour!" says Eric "E.O." Oberthaler, a long-haired performance artist whose Oakland processional orchestra and chant ensemble One People Voice is working with Rebar on CommonSpace.

"Or come up with a system of signs, icons, in a kind of official vocabulary way," says Blaine Merker, a Rebar collaborator and landscape designer.

"I like it," Passmore says, and scrawls something in his notebook.

"Like in Union Square, where there are these bronze plaques [identifying public space] in the middle of the sidewalk," says Merker. "But these signs are dishonest because they're really small. How would you blow them up?"

Passmore tries out another concept: "We should have a photo of a plaque next to the little plaque that says 'Monday through Friday, 9 to 5. This is not open or public. It is space.'"

"Right, it's like they're not eager for people to know," E.O. says, in a conspiratorial tone.

"They're paying lip service," Passmore says. "You can feel it: 'Get out!'"

Bela steers the conversation back on track. He's often the voice of reason in Rebar, the bullshit detector between Passmore's and the others' crazy plans and a realistic project they can actually afford to produce. He suggests they start by coming up with a set of criteria for how public a space is, then sending representatives inside to explore.

The performances and displays will come afterward, although the examinations themselves will become part of the art. Just as PARK(ing) tested the rules of how a parking space can be used, CommonSpace will test the boundaries of what can be done inside privately managed public spaces. Only later will Rebar, say, organize men in suits to jump into the waterfall of a corporate lobby, or carry out some other act that could provoke any manner of reaction from the private managers. As Passmore says: "It could blow up in our face, and we'd all end up in jail."

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