These days, when walking the streets of downtown San Francisco, it is common to see boarded-up windows. The plywood coverings — first erected in response to, or anticipation of, the kinds of property crimes that sometimes accompany public demonstrations — now serve as a gauge for the deep social and economic toll of COVID-19.
But even as they remind us of our uncertain future, these drab, temporary facades have also formed an incredible space for inspiration, memorialization, and hope. From graffitied memorials to intricate murals, the city’s vacant storefronts have become canvases for public art — most of which was not commissioned, planned, or staged.
This organic, community-led response to the social, political, and economic events of 2020 was a main inspiration point for Caleb Duarte, the artist, professor and community activist behind Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ (YBCA) newest public installation, “The Monument as Living Memory.”
Debuting as an entirely blank plywood canvas, the installation will shapeshift and grow over the course of 18 weeks, featuring a new artist or collective’s contribution every other week. The spontaneous nature of this revolving group of contributors is what keeps the installation urgent and relevant to the times, Duarte says. By allowing each group or individual to interpret how they’d like to add, layer, or build upon the existing work, he anticipates the finished piece will be as unpredictable as it is responsive to the current cultural moment.
“It’s not going to be a debut, it’s going to be on view, which is really this nuanced difference,” explains Martin Strickland, Associate Director of Public Life at YBCA. “What we’re doing is inverting the traditional opening and saying, this is an empty frame and you as the public, as a collaborator working with Caleb and the artists, get to decide what goes on it. I think that speaks to the true iterative nature of this, which is going to be very reactionary.”
The iterative nature of “Monument” can be traced back to its very conception, which was postponed as YBCA closed its doors in March indefinitely due to San Francisco’s shelter-in-place order. As Duarte and museum staff discussed how to move forward with the piece in light of the pandemic, the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery sparked intense protest and collective mourning across the country. Cities responded to protests by building barricades to protect institutions and storefronts — not knowing that those boards would ultimately be used as canvases for guerrilla art.
“Around that time I was seeing artists flood these plywood boards with messages of hope or a better future, which was in such contrast with what we might see in the media with the looting and riots,” Duarte explains. “I thought it was important to think about what art and culture has meant throughout history, outside of institutional structures which are usually five to ten years behind cultural production. I thought this was a chance to prop up what we as artists incorporate into our work from what’s happening outside.”
The outdoors is now one of the only spaces left for traditional art institutions to operate within during a global pandemic, which led YBCA to reconsider its public art strategy entirely. According to Strickland, Duarte’s piece had originally been slated to premiere on the “wavy wall,” a 30-foot-long space along Third Street. When the project was put on hold, YBCA worked with Duarte to rethink the larger meaning behind the installation and proposed instead to replace the museum’s front facing frame — usually reserved for marketing material — with a towering wooden panel mimicking what would usually be an advertisement for an upcoming exhibition.
“It’s sort of a play on this closed building that still gives space for people to interact, and gives space for Caleb to be able to work with a number of collaborators to build up these different images over a period of time,” Strickland says. “Instead of us working with him once and installing something that was already completed, it seemed like at this moment what we could do is enliven the public space with an iterative project.”
A cutout “monument” of a toddler with its arms raised sits at the center of the panel, which Duarte explains can be interpreted a number of ways: representing the limited but expanding capacity for memory a child has, with a potential to exponentially grow; the phrase “hands up, don’t shoot;” or even a child’s first instinct to open her arms upwards to her mother. Duarte says this is intentionally open ended, allowing for future collaborators to add to (or even cover up) others’ interpretations over the course of the installation’s 18-week run. The cutout sits in direct opposition with what we traditionally think of as monuments — statues carved from solid rock or molded with cement — acting as a negative space instead.
“If we look at how different cultures throughout history have celebrated memory, it’s been through the engagement of the body and objects, whether through ritual or history, rather than solid cement pieces protruding from the ground,” Duarte says. “When we see monuments being taken down, we know that it’s not loyal or true to what society is feeling at the moment. ‘Monument as Living Memory’ is a reflection of how memory travels with us — it’s constantly changing in engagement with the body and the collective culture at large.”
Duarte’s first collaborators are Urgent Art, a collective of immigrant refugee youth who came to the United States from Guatemala in 2014. They chose to paint renderings of traditional textile embroidery patterns, which in Duarte’s eyes is a testament to Mayan cultural survival, representing “that resilience, that determination, that beauty, that love of surviving 500 years of colonization, US imperialism and a Civil War.”
Moving forward, Duarte has a list of potential artists — from graffiti artists to muralists to poets — he loosely has in mind, but hasn’t yet reached out to. As the orchestrator of an installation that’s currently on view yet only a ninth of the way through, his plan is to remain as open ended with his curatorial approach as possible, allowing for the cultural climate to dictate who will best fit as a collaborator. “By the time we get to March, hopefully the end piece will have some kind of composition, but we’re not sure yet. It might just be kind of a crazy collage.”