Space, the Final Frontier

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

It was still early morning when Matthew Passmore opened the door of his parents' half-broken minivan and planted his feet on the dusty floor of the New Mexico desert. A smattering of scrub brush grew up from the dirt and rocks, and a lone wooden mailbox rose out of the ground with letter stickers pasted on to form the word “CABINET.”

Passmore savored the quiet, desolate landscape. He had just driven 1,200 miles over two days with the van's busted passenger door alarm ringing maddeningly at odd intervals: “Ding ding ding ding ding ding ….” The minivan was packed with equipment: chicken wire, cement mix, shovels, and about 100 sandbags.

As part of its spring 2003 “property” issue, the quarterly arts magazine Cabinet had bought half an acre in the middle of nowhere on eBay and dubbed it “Cabinetlandia.” The editors offered readers 3-square-foot plots of the undevelopable desert at a penny apiece in a bizarre avant-garde statement of the illogic of ownership and the very idea of property. When Passmore proposed the equally bizarre idea of building a library on the site — every town needs a library, after all – the editors approved, doubting he'd ever actually go through with it.

Even to Passmore, the whole thing did seem a little ridiculous. He wasn't really an artist – six months before, he had still been a corporate lawyer. But it was too late to turn back. He and his friends had invested hours and hours planning the project, and Cabinet had already entrusted them with funds to buy materials. Passmore wasn't sure whether the library would be a “piece of art” or a project without much meaning, but he found the idea of bringing a slice of industrialized America into the wide-open Wild West very, very funny. So he lugged a filing cabinet and a few tools out of the minivan and left them on the ground. Then he drove half an hour back to the motel in Deming, the closest town to Cabinetlandia, and waited.

That afternoon, Passmore's high school buddy Jed Olson, a doctor living in Denver, arrived in his truck. Two more friends, Judson Holt, a litigation consultant, and John Bela, a landscape architect, flew from San Francisco to El Paso and met at the Deming motel. They drove over to Cabinetlandia and started digging.

For five days, the group toiled underneath a scorching summer sun, returning to the hotel room every night to laugh and drink beers and plan for the next day. They took a break for a few hours to play “desert tennis” (exactly what it sounds like) and spent most of the fourth day at White Sands National Monument. When they'd finished, a crescent mound rose from the desert floor, flanked by solar-powered lights. A filing cabinet within the small hill housed the entire archive of Cabinet, waiting for anyone who might visit Cabinetlandia and want to borrow a copy. The crew gathered their equipment and planted a wooden sign that said “LIBRARY” into the ground, then started the long journey home.

Eighteen months later, what began as a single goof-off project has ripened into Rebar, a loosely organized collective based in San Francisco. The group's silly-but-serious endeavors tackle issues of space and land use with an odd mix of artistry, activism, performance, industrial design, and a heavy dose of ironically detached criticism. Its members are too issue-oriented to be pranksters, too cryptic to be activists, and too hilarious to be taken very seriously as artists, but they've managed to tap into a growing awareness worldwide about how space determines our daily reality, and what the public might do to regain control of its surroundings.

From the Czech Republic to Santa Monica – much to Rebar's surprise – people are starting to pay attention to what the group is working on.

“What do you think you're doing?” asked the man behind the video camera in an accusatory tone.

“We're just installing a park here today,” said John Bela, his black ball cap pulled halfway down his forehead. “Someone ordered a park here today, and we're installing it on location at this moment.”

Brady Moss, co-conspirator and Rebar cameraman for the day, just laughed out loud.

Bela popped some coins into the parking meter, then snipped the strings restraining the tree in the back of the rented pickup truck. He grabbed a cylinder of sod and unrolled it onto the white tarp, as nonchalantly as if he were adding a rug to his living room. “What we're investigating here,” he said, “is the transformative power of sod.”

As part of this artistic intervention, which Bela called PARK(ing), Rebar “leased” one of the metered parking spots on a Financial District street for a day last November. Instead of a vehicle, the group occupied the space with a temporary, do-it-yourself park.

Passmore and several others helped lay the rest of the sod, then positioned a park bench and a tree on top of the turf. Next to the meter, they placed a barricade with a sign reading: “2 HOUR PARK(ing) / 12 P.M. to 2 P.M. / WED THRU WED / BROUGHT TO YOU BY rebar group.”

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. [page]

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.”

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. [page]

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.'”

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. [page]

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.”

They continue to mull over the ideas, creating a plan for the next few weeks of CommonSpace. Near the end of the meeting, E.O. asks if there's anything else that needs to be done.

“Well,” says Bela, “we're putting together a Rebar artist statement.”

Passmore grins, incredulous. “Are we artists now?”

“Last time I checked …,” Bela says.

Passmore pauses, letting the concept sink in as if he's hearing it for the first time. Then he says, in an almost solemn tone: “That's a lot of responsibility.”

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