“I’m just one step below everybody else,” an unhoused San Francisco resident named Dennis says. “I got a job, but I’m still homeless — because living’s expensive.”
“Give me a place to be, at least where I’m alive,” says another individual named Antoine, expressing frustration with the mindless cruelty of the city’s encampment sweeps. “You lead, and I’ll follow.”
Dennis and Antoine are two of the voices you can hear at Coming Home, an augmented-reality installation at PROXY in Hayes Valley. Having opened on Friday, Sept. 7, it’s up every day through Sunday, Sept. 16, from 6 to 9 p.m. on weekdays and 1 to 9 p.m. on weekends. Having been created by artist and Emerson College professor Craig Freeman in collaboration with sound artists Tania Ketenjian and Philip Wood, Coming Home came to fruition through a partnership with mobile-hygiene nonprofit Lava Mae and the art-and-tech incubator Zero1.
Centered on a white doorframe (“The Portico”), Coming Home’s docents pass out iPads and headphones so visitors can wander through the site and connect with the stories of unhoused San Franciscans, told in their own words. There are eight geolocations to choose among, including places well-known sites like Civic Center or the Painted Ladies, along with places such as Box City and Pit Bull Alley that renters and homeowners may not be as familiar with. You can also choose Hayes Valley, which adds the extra wrinkle of standing in the exact spot where you see someone’s shopping cart as you hear them speak.
In the abstract, such a project can feel a little contrived or artificially mediated. (In Hayes Valley, as in many other neighborhoods, almost everyone has at least a neighbor or two with no fixed address. So why not strike up a conversation in person, instead of going through the rigmarole?) It’s a valid question, and of course, good citizenship dictates that we all should do that. But the fact is that many people simply don’t or won’t — and many people experiencing homelessness have every right to be suspicious.
Further, Lava Mae has built a credible reputation among San Francisco’s unhoused populations as an organization that treats everyone with basic human dignity, and that gave Freeman and the other artists an opening for people to share their own stories. Most unhoused individuals know all too well that the wider world fears and despises them, and by affording people a platform where they feel comfortable to speak, you break down more barriers than you enact. The result is startlingly candid bits of wisdom, such as Dennis’ remark that “living is expensive.”
“The research was about a year-and-a-half in the making,” Emerson tells SF Weekly, adding that the interviews in the field were conducted over abut a week. “Lava Mae had been working on trying to use art as a form of civic engagement.”
Box City was relatively ephemeral, a sort of community on wheels that arose after the intensive sweeps the city deployed against various encampments in the run-up to Super Bowl 50. But Pit Bull Alley, a locale under an Interstate 280 viaduct, was longer-lived.
It’s “a place where people would pull up motorhomes and vehicles, and people started pitching tents,” Freeman says. “The guy we interviewed sees himself as a kind of private investigator and he’s kind of keeping an eye on the abuses going on when the police come in and take everything. So the pit bulls were a form of protection. They’re intimidating.”
Otherwise essentially untethered from the material world, Coming Home uses the Portico to make its presence felt to passers-by who might not even know a public art installation was there at all. (Without it, the docents would look a lot like political canvassers, another group that many people sometimes cross the street to avoid.) It also has a recording device so that people can leave the curators their impressions.
“Moving a portal around physical space presses the issue about public art,” Freeman says. “The physical thing requires permissions and permits and safety. As a public artist, I was attracted to augmented-reality because it can be so subversive. It begs the question of who’s going to assert dominion over this new virtual reality that’s starting to form in direct proximity to us in physical space.”
Curator Amy Schoening says that they’d attempted something similar in a gallery setting, but the artifice was detrimental to the spirit of the project. Viewers tended to put themselves in a frame of mind where they probed the exhibit rather than immersing themselves in it to build a more empathic connection with the subjects.
“We got a good response but galleries are too off-putting,” Schoening says. “We asked people, ‘What would be the one thing that you would take with you if you knew you were being evicted and you wanted to carry a memory of your life, but you knew you’d have to carry it and it would be vulnerable?’ Those conversations led us to believe that it would be public art. It’s a pilot [project]. We’re taking an emerging technology, coupled with audio, and putting it in a public space. It felt right. [Technology and homelessness] are the two issues of our city. And we really wanted to hear from people, so that’s why we put the recording device as well.
“I have to say, as a curator, I couldn’t be happier,” Schoening adds. “Craig has geolocated the scenes and made it an app, so you can now go anywhere in the world and be in the middle of a San Francisco neighborhood. It’s all of a piece where it’s fundamentally human, but we’re trying to use the tools of modern discourse.”
Coming Home, through Sunday, Sept. 16, at PROXY, 432 Octavia St. Free; proxysf.net.