SITELINES // Interview with 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 excursions 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.