Mission Local announced the
winning design of its tech bus contest yesterday with what might, at first glance, seem like a fairly innocuous proposal. Artist and Mission resident Elinor Diamond’s winning submission imagines a bus wrapped with a life-sized Google Street View image of the Mission’s Community Thrift Store, including a sidelong view of the Clarion Alley Mural Project (CAMP) — locations beloved by locals and internationals alike. Diamond’s design, perhaps inadvertantly, further underscores tensions around the contest, with CAMP artists up in arms after they explicitly refused to participate in the contest and objected to the use of their work in this context. In response to the announcement of the winning design, core CAMP organizer Megan Wilson publicly posted emails from CAMP artists articulating their objections to the contest.
Last October, Mission Local, an online news outlet specific to San Francisco’s Mission District, announced its unofficial contest, challenging artists to create designs to decorate the white commuter buses that shuttle tech workers between San Francisco and Silicon Valley. A cash prize of $500, supplied by an anonymous donor, was offered for the winning design, to be selected by the Mission Local editorial staff. The initial contest announcement was straightforward: “If you live or work in the Mission, you’re no stranger to the buses run by Google, Facebook, Apple, Yahoo, and Genentech… Don’t they look like big canvases just waiting to be painted on?” Contestants were simply encouraged to make the buses “beautiful,” with submissions due by the end of December. Judging by the entries posted online, some artists approached the buses as directed, proposing largely decorative designs, while others saw the contest as an opportunity to offer cultural critique about what the buses have come to represent.
And then things got complicated.
Over the last year, these plain white shuttle buses have become potent symbols for the rapidly growing technology sector, widespread gentrification and the shifting Bay Area landscape, as longstanding community members, nonprofit organizations and local businesses have been displaced by rising rents. A number of community organizations, many spurred by the Occupy movement, have banded together to address this inequity, several specific to the Mission, including: Eviction Free San Francisco, Our Mission NO Eviction, and Causa Justa::Just Cause, among others. Online the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project gives visual form to the issues.
For some, however, the tech-company buses represent a degree of environmental consciousness — some Genentech buses bear stickers that say, “This bus removes 120 cars from your commute everyday.” For others, the buses are the most visible icons of encroaching technology; after all, most tech companies are situated far outside of the city.
In a telephone interview for this article, Mission Local Managing Editor Lydia Chávez, also a professor at U.C. Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, said, “There is an anonymity to the buses that is the issue — it’s about their separateness,” before suggesting that making the buses look more like part of the environment might ease tensions. Certainly this could be true — assimilating the buses into the urban fabric would diminish their widely perceived separateness. When asked why a news outlet geared towards community building in a historically underprivileged neighborhood would want to assist in assimilating the same elements that are undermining a longstanding community, Chávez suggested that the buses could also be “fun, beautiful and a good reflection on the community.”
An article written in February of last year by San Francisco’s Rebecca Solnit for the London Review of Books unpacks the buses as political icons of change, specifically citing their separateness. As more technology workers choose to live in San Francisco, rents — and evictions — escalate. “I think of it as frontierism,” writes Solnit, “with all the frontier’s attitude and operational style. Where people without a lot of attachments come and do things without a lot of concern for their impact, where money moves around pretty casually, and people are ground underfoot equally casually. Sometimes the Google bus just seems like one face of Janus-headed capitalism; it contains the people too valuable even to use public transport or drive themselves.”
In the last few months, a series of protests at tech-company bus stops in San Francisco and Oakland has exemplified these mounting tensions and leveraged dialogue around the significance of shifting wealth dynamics across the country, while others have taken to social media.
San Francisco-based artist Stephanie Syjuco saw the Mission Local contest as a way to further dialogue around what the buses have come to represent. Since it called upon artists to work on spec — another point of contention: essentially asking artists to work for very little return — to beautify the same symbols of pervasive change that have displaced many in the creative community, why not use the contest itself as a platform for dialogue?
Syjuco offered to facilitate the design of submissions by other artists through an open call on her Facebook page, and invited descriptions of “the bizarre, the biting, the critical, the crazy.” Participants posted descriptions and Syjuco, with her assistant Johanna Friedman, created mock-ups based on their understanding of the desired image; the pair ultimately supplied design support for more than fifty submissions.
By her own estimate, about half of those who offered ideas genuinely wanted to submit, while the other half just tossed ideas out for fun. For her part, Syjuco emphasizes that she “took all comers,” even if she didn’t always like or understand the relayed descriptions. The point was not to facilitate only the ideas she favored, but to create the platform for a diversity of voices. This kind of open collaboration is on par with Syjuco’s larger body of work, which regularly critiques capitalism and aims to create participatory platforms “for other people’s voices in difficult situations.”
The resulting submissions are representative of the biting and the critical, to be sure, just as they are representative of the bizarre. One design proposes wrapping an entire bus to look like a cattle car, while another suggests the creation of Russian social realism-style portraits of Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange, and Edward Snowden emblazoned with the words “Let It Leak.” One of Syjuco’s own designs, suggests wrapping the tech buses to look like public transportation, so they will blend in better.
Mission Local posted many but not all of the submissions during the run of the contest; this, surmises Syjuco, might be due to the fact that some could be considered profane. (One submission, resulting from a casual comment, features a photograph of a penis sprouting ears. Though never intended to be a serious submission, Facebook took it at face value: It was removed from Syjuco’s wall for violating community standards after someone reported that it contained nudity.)
Some of the submissions, beyond those facilitated by Syjuco, offer critical positions about the buses and reflect upon issues of surveillance, servitude, and homelessness; others simply offer artful designs, including several submitted by the Mission Local staff.
In a conversation for this article, Syjuco noted that the contest itself becomes a kind of Rorschach test, offering different perspectives depending on who is viewing the images. The debate about encroaching technology and wealth displacement is so heated as to seem irreconcilable.
The fact that surveillance technology has been deployed in the winning submission to essentially co-opt the artwork of artists who have protested the buses at every turn seems lost on many who see the buses as blank canvases waiting to be decorated. (Check out the announcement’s comments section for a heated debate about who owns the images on Clarion Alley.)
The contest, presented as an unofficial endeavor with the vague promise of attracting tech-company bus commissions, has provided a test case for the potential public response to various strategies of assimilation, which seems imminent — perhaps designed with artists’ cheap labor, of which there is currently no shortage despite dissent within the ranks. Whether or not artwork will adorn these vehicles of change remains to be seen. Even with public opinion gridlocked, this much is certain: The buses keep rolling and tech-companies aren’t waiting for anyone to get on board.