This Art Is Not Ambiguous

Outside Yerba Buena, words on a bright orange wall stretch into activism and social declaration.

Basking in the orange glow.

The corner of 3rd and Mission Streets in San Francisco is a crossroads of our city’s arts, commerce, and culture scenes. It’s steps away from SFMOMA, Yerba Buena Gardens, and the Contemporary Jewish Museum on Jessie Square. The Moscone Center nearby is being redone. The St. Regis, which I’ll regard as the city’s most prestigious address until told otherwise, has its lobby lounge.

That corner is also the site of a public space featuring topical and provocative messages to entice residents and visitors passing by. Then there’s the eye-catching orange. (I couldn’t resist taking a picture, above, and slapping it on the front page of The Frisc. “End white supremacy” indeed.)

This message wall — abutting the outdoor terrace of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts — has its origins in a current YBCA exhibition by Cuban-born artist Tania Bruguera. Bruguera’s work is devoted to poking at political hornets’ nests; she’s also put herself up as a presidential candidate in her home country, a one-party state notorious for curbing free elections and other forms of expression.

Her exhibition “Talking to Power / Hablándole al Poder,” which debuted in June and runs through October, involved a pop-up school that turned a YBCA gallery into a classroom for eight weeks this summer. Bruguera and other instructors taught local art students and members of the public to work out “how art can be used for social and political change,” according to YBCA. The bold marquee lettering, the orange wall, these were Bruguera’s ideas, according to its CEO, Deborah Cullinan.

Over the summer, the students updated the messages based on subjects that they were exploring in class along with whatever else was going on in the world, she says. Why did the artist go with a bright orange, a shade of which is iconic to San Francisco? That’s about creating a sense of invitation, Cullinan adds. “It’s like a ‘hey!’ color.”

When the class ended, YBCA asked Bruguera if she was amenable to continuing the project. After all, the messages are in the center’s wheelhouse of leading-edge art and social change.

Why did the artist go with a bright orange, a shade of which is iconic to San Francisco? ‘It’s like a ‘hey!’ color.’

Bruguera was more than amenable — “she was enthusiastic,” Cullinan recalls. “Tania is very much about institutional critique, the idea that art is useful, that we can use art and creativity to express power and that we should be bold in doing it. Everyone in YBCA feels that now is not a time to be timid.”

What’s it like coming up with hot marquee takes on the news? “We don’t have a staff meeting,” Cullinan says. “it’s not sexy, it’s email — not a cool summit process. We’re trying to do it as quickly as possible.” There’s a running list of what she calls “phrases and provocations” to pull from when the timing is right. “We look at the list to see if it’s relevant, see if we can come up with something to take it a little further.

“Big art institutions think they can’t be responsive. [The marquee] is not an exhibition, not a multimillion-dollar project that takes months to plan and execute,” Cullinan notes. “So far, it’s pretty clear what’s rising to the top.”

Photo by James Im.

The orange wall will continue to be refreshed for the foreseeable future. The bigger question for YBCA now is what will happen on the 3rd and Mission terrace. “We want to make that space the coolest space in the area,” Cullinan says. “We’re looking at that and a number of other spaces adjacent to our two buildings, really thinking what it means to be located in SF, facing Yerba Buena Gardens, facing Moscone, facing Mission.”

Artists like Bruguera have helped YBCA reimagine itself not only as an art and gathering space but also as a sounding board for the city’s urban conscience. “If you ever have a chance to visit someone at the St. Regis, [the art scene on 3rd and Mission] is kind of a stunning thing,” says Cullinan. “It’s an offering.”

You can follow what’s happening at YBCA on Twitter, Instagram, etc.

Follow Anthony Lazarus on Twitter: @Sr_Lazarus