Friday, September 19, 2014

Q&A with StoreFrontLab resident artist
Miguel Arzabe

Miguel Arzabe's sightlines is an exploration of sites encircling San Francisco’s tallest building, the iconic Transamerica Pyramid. Arzabe traces sightlines to the Pyramid from various locations satisfying three conditions: They 1) are accessible by foot on public lands; 2) sit at equal elevation to the tower’s apex; and 3) have an unobstructed line of sight. From this map Arzabe conceived a codex composed of interlocking concrete tablets. He will lead trips to the sites and embed these tablets into the earth. Arzabe will announce the trips as the month unfolds; follow @storefrontlab on Facebook and Twitter for updates.

Arianne Gelardin: In sigtlines, you seem to resist the conventional vocabulary of mapping, the ways in which we've trained our brain to simplify spatial orientation. How would you describe your specific "sensory toolkit?"

Miguel Arzabe: My practice is rooted in drawing and painting, tools for working within multivalence and ambiguity, rather than geography or cartography, which are tools for control and domination. Rather than trying to generalize how I process exterior influences through the various media I utilize in my practice, let me say something particular about the how the work on view, sightlines, developed in the hopes that it might shed light on my approach to other aspects of my creative output.

In the summer of 2008, I started grad school at UC Berkeley and I had a most wonderful studio with a wall of windows overlooking the bay with the San Francisco skyline and its pyramid in the distance. I was painting all the time, looking out the window, taking pictures of the city at sunset every night. It was a privilege to work in that space and have that view.

At some point after looking at the pyramid all those days and nights, I thought, "My view is so incredible, but I bet the view from the top of the pyramid is the best." So one day I took a trip to the building in the heart of the financial district, only to find out that the building has been closed to the public since 9/11 for fear of terrorists. The guard told me that the top floor of the building is a conference room, I imagined CEOs meeting up there, smoking cigars, making deals, and enjoying their view like I did mine. Remember this was the height of the financial crisis, people were losing their homes and retirement money.

At this point it became clear that I needed to see what they were seeing, and let everyone else see it, too. I used the things I readily had available: a cheap camera, a telescope, a GPS, internet maps, and prior knowledge of the many public lands around the bay area. Using these tools I located several sites on public lands that were at the same height as the top of the pyramid and had a clear line of sight. I took trips to the sites and shot video of the pyramid through the telescope. These sightlines combine to form a "sightplane," a level viewshed wherein anyone can have the same view as the top of the pyramid.

AG: What does this particular approach to spatial abstraction, or mapping, mean for our understanding of the city?

MA: It's important to me that my work is visually accessible to anyone regardless of their prior knowledge of any specific field of study, be it art, architecture, geography, etc. The formal characteristics should entice the viewer to look deeper and come up with her own interpretations. Abstraction is a great tool for opening up space for multiple meanings. Having said that, the work can have more complex implications for our understanding of our urban environment if these other fields are taken into consideration.

The pyramid shape has been used throughout history as a symbol of transcendence, and therefore also a symbol of the absolute political power of those who are anointed with these "transcendent qualities," be they Egyptian pharaohs, Mayan priests, or CEOs. Andy Warhol's film Empire, an 8-hour black and white film from 1964 in which he shot stationary footage of the spire of the Empire State building, seems to play off of this kind of absolute aura of what was then the tallest building in the world to reveal small details in the environment surrounding it. In my film, the tallest building in San Francisco is shot from different angles, distances, and times of day, using a handheld camera through a shaky telescope. Here it's implied that the view from the top is always subjective, unstable, and contingent upon outside forces.

AG: You seem to be combining slow,analog tools of perception (waking/looking) with very fast, digital tools (geolocating/filming). How is technology augmenting and/or inhibiting our spatial orientation?

MA: It is crucial to remain critical of the way technology is affecting our spatial awareness. When I was a little kid I spent too much time playing a Dungeons & Dragons-like game on my dinky computer. It was a first person style game with very, very crude graphics and it came with a pad of gridded paper so you could map out the different worlds. I found that once I mapped out a world I didn't need to refer to the paper anymore. When I got older and started backpacking in the wilderness, this skill became very useful for orienteering. Now, after decades of backpacking in all kinds of environments, my sense of direction is pretty good. I don't need GPS nor do I like relying on algorithms for a list of directions, I would much rather see a paper map. It seems to me that technology for spatial awareness is being used less as a tool and more like a crutch. It also makes it a lot harder to find something on accident, and chance is such an important ingredient for finding new meaning.

This same kind of bouncing between the digital and analog was a key component to the project, sightlines. A digital map was created that led to a series of excursions to shoot digital video. GPS data was collected and used to make lasercut MDF maps. Latex molds were made from this data and then maps were cast in cement tablets. These six tablets put together are the codex that describes the level "viewplane" occupied by the top of the pyramid and the surrounding sites. Now I am using the dirt from these sites to make dirt drawings of the tablets on paper. These dirt drawings will replace the tablets in the project space over the course of the month as I lead a series of performances back to the film sites to bury them in the earth. At every step of this flipping between digital representation and analog experience, there is the potential to deviate, to lose information but to discover something unintended.

It amazes me how past civilizations were able to use sheer observation and very little technology to make stone monuments, the geometry and placement of which contain profound meaning. Though I used considerably more technology, my project is but one man's humble nod towards these past achievements.

AG: What role does walking play in your project?

MA: It's the most basic form of locomotion and offers an embodied experience of the environment. There's an inherent labor to it that has some measure of integrity, if I can't walk there then maybe I shouldn't be there. When I went on the initial filming excursions I used all manner of transport, walking, biking, bus, train, automobile to get to the public lands, which are quite some distance apart. But every excursion ended with a walk to the vista point.

For the series of performances at StoreFrontLab I am leading others on new excursions to the same sites in order to bury the cement tablets in the ground. Due to the fragility and weight of the cement tablets the mode of transportation to the public lands will be by automobile, but from there on to the vista points it will be on foot. That's important because I've had some of the best conversations with people on walks, especially in natural environments. There's also camaraderie from achieving the same destination. Walking together lends a sense of gravity to bearing witness to a shared experience.

AG: What does it mean to study the city as a group versus on one's own?

MA: It feels much more like painting when I begin a project alone. There is a non-linear call and response to the materials I'm working with, and the conversation can use a personal vocabulary that doesn't need linguistic translation in order to happen in my head. If other people are involved early on, there is a need to articulate the process through words that sometimes forecloses the productive misreadings that register within an internal train of thought. Once I have something more solid to work with, I welcome the social aspect in my work because it is becomes a generative force to expose other layers of meaning. My projects often involve repeated actions and I find it interesting that when people participate on the same project at different times it creates a network of people connected by a shared, yet asynchronous, dispersed experience. For example, for the sightlines project I went on the first few trips alone, then I invited different people to come along on various subsequent trips. Some of these people have never met each other, but yet they have their own unique experiences within a shared framework. Just like a city.

Arianne Gelardin is co-curator for StoreFrontLab Season 2 City Making.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Q&A with StoreFrontLab resident artist
Ilyse Iris Magy

Ilyse Iris Magy is an artist who uses subversive play to expose and explore the impacts of human systems and civic infrastructure. During her month-long residency at StoreFrontLab, opening September 19, she invites the public to join her in forging a new understanding of San Francisco’s landscape through epic walks that will serve as ephemeral, 1:1 maps rendered in footsteps.

Yosh Asato: You just returned from Portland where you attended XOXO, a conference celebrating art and technology. Lines Made by Walking, like Miguel Arzabe’s Sightlines, engages both digital and analog processes, yet the projects are very different. What is the role of technology in your work?

Ilyse Iris Magy:  With Lines Made by Walking, I’m attempting to sort out and embrace my complicated relationship with technology, which has fundamentally shifted our relationship to maps and the city. I often wander for the sake of wandering, exploring new routes and relying on my strong mental map of the city to find my way. Yet it feels like I spend at least an hour a week on Google Maps, figuring out how to get from Point A to Point B with which transit mode and which route, in some strange effort to constantly optimize my commute. There is a lot of going back and forth from experiencing the city in the moment and looking at it from a satellite, essentially. 

The five long walks and our means of tracking them are deliberately analog. We’ll use a paper map and physically mark points of interest we encounter on the ground with chalk. I composed all of the routes on foot. Yet I still used digital tools to tweak them afterward, and even made a website for the sake of sharing them. The base map projected onto the wall at StoreFrontLab is also digital; I created it using a program called TileMill. But the ultimate map is deliberately analog: once the projector is turned off, all that will be left on the wall are chalk marks and handwritten notes. Documenting this piece may also transform the analog map back into a digital, interactive one so that it can be experienced long after the show is over. 

It is a dance back and forth between digital and analog, documentation and live experience, mark-making and the ephemeral. Tracking only certain reference points along the way means the lines made by our walks become the spaces between what we choose to document. 

YA: Participation is a defining aspect of Lines Made by Walking. Why is having a group so important?

IIM: Participation is almost always a feature of my work, and thus a question in my practice. Lines Made by Walking in particular is study of the city, which is characterized by having so many relationships and interactions happening at once.  Documenting a walk I take alone wouldn’t quite capture this multiplicity. On these upcoming walks, the content is emergent, and involving others increases the possibilities for interaction and discovery in a way that can better speak to a collective experience, though of course it is still subjective. The experience of deliberately walking in a group is also is part of what subverts the solitary nature of everyday walking.

YA: You’re also a cyclist who helped to organize the Sewer Ride earlier this year. Did you consider riding as a mode for mapping?

IIM: This piece is about relating your immediate surroundings to your position in the city as a whole. Walking was the clear choice. It’s matter of scale and speed. On a bike everything is rushing by; you are moving through the city instead of really dwelling in it. Walking creates more of a 1:1 relationship with your surroundings, a sense of intimacy. It is far more fluid to stop and investigate when you are on foot. 

The slowness is really key. Walking long distances is a commitment, and intentionality changes your perspective on what you encounter. There is also something beautiful about the rhythm of walking, your steps merging and contributing to the rhythm of the city. That rhythm is so strong to me that I can never listen to music through headphones while moving through the city.

YA: You mentioned the mental map. How does the relationship between mapping and memory figure in your work?

IIM: In a sense, I’m poking at the relationship between our mental and corporeal experience of the city. We are constantly processing and filtering and distilling information. The things we encounter trigger associations that constitute the mental backdrop for our daily experience.  

On these walks, when we notice or think of something, we’ll make a mark on the ground, a very physical gesture and a direct intervention into the landscape. How does this act affect how we relate to that point in space, as well as the mental connection it evoked? How does the mindset we occupy on these walks allow us to both engage with and sort through the many details that we otherwise ignore when we’re on a mission to get somewhere specific? 

The points we mark may be familiar landmarks or they may be points that evoke a memory, but they will all be emergent. This simultaneously deliberate and arbitrary strategy subverts the traditional function of the map for wayfinding or data visualization and moves it closer to the realm of the narrative. It is documentation of an actual experience that cannot be relived, yet can be revisited and reinterpreted.

Yosh Asato is a cofounder of StoreFrontLab.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Opening Sept. 19: Miguel Arzabe, "sightlines" and Ilyse Iris Magy, "Lines Made by Walking"

Join us at StoreFrontLab on Friday, September 19, when we will welcome our first City Making resident artists, Ilyse Iris Magy and Miguel Arzabe. Magy's Lines Made by Walking and Arzabe's sightlines both explore alternative means of mapping to reconfigure our understanding of the city. Over the next month, the public is invited to join the artists as they walk specific routes throughout the Bay Area, and in the process consider the influence of physical exertion and slowness in defining our relationship with the urban environment. How Magy and Arzabe each represent this perception in the gallery space is unexpected and expansive.

StoreFrontLab: Opening Reception
Friday, September 19, 2014
337 Shotwell Street, San Francisco

September 19–October 19

Join the artists in their respective, very distinct mapping processes. See below for details on how to participate in a walk.

Ilyse Iris Magy, Lines Made by Walking

In Lines Made by WalkingIlyse Iris Magy leads epic urban walks to locations along the city’s waterfront, marking points of interest from both predetermined and spontaneous criteria. Through rigorous physical charting as well as visual representation, Magy facilitates the collective mapping of our relationship to the landscape, both internal and external. Walks are open to the public; sign up at

Still from Miguel Arzabe's Sightlines, video, color, sound, 7 min. 2010

Miguel Arzabe’s sightlines is an exploration of sites encircling San Francisco’s tallest building, the iconic Transamerica Pyramid. Arzabe traces sightlines to the Pyramid from various locations satisfying three conditions: They 1) are accessible by foot on public lands; 2) sit at equal elevation to the tower’s apex; and 3) have an unobstructed line of sight. From this map Arzabe conceived a codex composed of interlocking concrete tablets. He will lead trips to the sites and embed these tablets into the earth. Arzabe will announce the trips as the month unfolds; follow @storefrontlab on Facebook and Twitter for updates.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Announcing the City Making Schedule of Events

Photo by Matthew Millman
We are pleased to share the full line up for City Making, our nine-month series of installations, wanderings, happenings, and conversations that look critically and optimistically at San Francisco’s future. From invisible histories to cashless transactions, from gentrification to psychogeography, and from regenerative microbes to reengineering community, City Making, kicking off on September 19, explores the inner cultural, social and functional mechanisms of our city.

Here's the scoop on City Making’s ten grant recipients and schedule of events. Join our mailing list to receive information about updates and additions.

Lines Made by Walking
09.19–10.19 2014
Artist Ilyse Iris Magy leads epic urban walks to locations along the city’s waterfront, marking points of interest, both from predetermined and spontaneous criteria. Through rigorous physical charting as well as visual representation, Magy facilitates the collective mapping of our relationship to the landscape, both internal and external. To see the schedule or sign up for a walk, go to

09.19–10.19 2014
Artist Miguel Arzabe’s sightlines is an exploration of sites encircling San Francisco’s tallest building, the iconic Transamerica Pyramid. Arzabe traces sightlines to the Pyramid from various locations satisfying three conditions: They 1) are accessible by foot on public lands; 2) sit at equal elevation to the tower’s apex; and 3) have an unobstructed line of sight. From this map was conceived a codex composed of interlocking concrete tablets. The artist will lead trips to the sites and embed these tablets into the earth.

I Love Extremophiles 
10.24–10.26 2014
East Coast experimental landscape studio GRNASFCK transforms StoreFrontLab into a campaign headquarters in solidarity with urban microbes. In a performative installation, the artists will host a series of dialogues and actions that explore a largely untapped form of urban development: environmentally regenerative bacteria that thrive in hostile, contaminated urban environments. 

Massive Urban Change
11.07-12.14 2014
Massive Urban Change, a project by Eliza Gregory with Nicole Lavelle, examines gentrification in San Francisco’s Mission district by collaboratively mapping controversy and the physical remaking of the neighborhood.

01.09-02.07 2015
Give explores the collective city as a space between the object and the viewer. Through the sculptural layering of donated clothing, blankets and a collection of fabric goods provided by the community, artists Juliana Raimondi and Bird Feliciano create an immersive site where one can get lost in space and, at the same time, reconnect with each other. 

The Society of Submerged Culture 
02.20–03.22 2015
Artist Lauren Hartman hosts guest lectures, workshops, and performances that explore the many facets of submerged culture. San Francisco has a rich history of submerged culture ranging from sunken ships under the Financial District to a coastline dotted with shipwrecks. Artifacts and experts tell the stories of what lies beneath us.

Big Sale
2.20–03.22 2015
KIDmob’s Big Sale designs a transaction market that builds community and tests social interaction-based design through the exchange of not-your-average-store-bought goods. This performative event draws in street-goers through a predictable and commercialized storefront language, yet engages the audience through cashless transactions. 

The Department of Cautionary Warning 
04.03–04.25 2015
The Department of Cautionary Warning is a trans-municipal paragovernmental organization seeking to enhance the creative expression of urban environments and the interpersonal consciousness of their inhabitants. Cofounded by Nicolaus Wright and Kathryn Doherty-Chapman, the Department enables people to alter, transgress, re-contextualize, transmute, and modify the public physical environment in service of the phenomenal experience.

Office Work 
04.03–04.25 2015
Around the world, technologies and ideologies emerging from San Francisco are re-engineering creativity, community, and labor. But is this re-engineering sustainable? What impact is it having on artistic and administrative inquiry? Office Work – developed by artists Jon Gourley, Carrie Katz and The Big Conversation Space (Niki Korth and Clémence de Montgolfier) – is a participatory workspace, waiting room, and archive that intends to turn the notion of bureaucratic process on its head in order to facilitate meaningful encounters between individuals, work, history, ideas, catalogues, dreams, fears and cultural aspirations.

Urban Symposium
Ongoing through 2015
San Franciscans are angry. They are angry about the city, their city, as exemplified by an ongoing storm of headlines, sound bites, and neighborhood tensions. Google bus protests and Twitter tax breaks. Ellis Act evictions and another proposition to limit building heights. Given the seemingly disconnected conscious of our city and its citizens, and a desire to encourage learning from each other, this series of events will consist of small social experiments in the midst of more familiar conversational symposium styles. Urban Symposium, an ongoing series led by architects Lyndon Manuel and Leah Nichols, fosters an interactive and participatory dialog about urban development as it relates to the city’s current socio-economic environment.

Also happening this fall at StoreFrontLab:

City Makers
Ongoing through 2015
Cosponsored by TraceSF: Bay Area Urbanism, this salon will host candid conversations highlighting the work of women from all fields — architecture, planning, landscape, policy, art, research and more — through the lens of "the making or mending of the city." In the spirit of city making, the salon create a place of camaraderie and community rooted in the convivial exchange of ideas.