A punch-in-the-gut we want to share

A conversation

Leslie Dreyer, “Evictions, Deregulation, Entitlement, … Love, Airbnb”, 2015

ALESSANDRA SAVIOTTI: Marco Altini, my husband, and I live in San Francisco. We are here because of his job in the so-called ‘tech industry’. We are part of the privileged group of Europeans that studied in public Universities without concern over student loans and admission tests. We had the opportunity to follow our inspirations, moving from one place to the other to fulfill our passions despite our working class roots.

And finally, we got here, in America, to follow the dream.

I work as independent curator with a focus on art, politics, activism and socially engaged practices and San Francisco seems like the place to be. Because of its radical spirit, this city has been a refuge for many dissidents, activists and the ‘wilds’ for many decades.

What is going on now?

Despite the tech boom in the Bay Area which catalysed millions of dollars in the region, about 11.3 percent of Bay Area residents are living at or below the poverty level. People are being evicted and long-term independent businesses are displaced every day to accommodate either other people or companies, who are wealthy enough to pay between 3000 and 3500 dollars per month for one bedroom apartments. Inequality is so massive that the third richest city in the United States is also the poorest at the same time.

On Friday, March 11th, we attended the opening of “Take this hammer. Art+Media Activism from the Bay Area” at Yerba Buena Centre for the Arts curated by Christian L. Frock. The exhibition comprehends works by artists, graphic designers, performers and activists who often use the tools provided by digital media in an unconventional way, ‘to demonstrate a spectrum for activism, political engagement, and participation in civic life’. Positioning themselves in the art context, they claim their role as artists, who are able to produce and affect social change.

The first work which opens the exhibition is a youtube video by PERSIA featuring Daddie$ Pla$tik titled “Google Google Apps Apps” (2013).

The exhibition touched us profoundly as citizens, activists, professionals and dreamers. Despite our moderately privileged condition, we are trying to live a sustainable life, using public transports, engaging with the local community and maintaining our critical hat on, because we are conscious of the fact that our presence here has a certain kind of impact on the city.

MARCO ALTINI: The exhibition made us think even more critically about the current controversial situation. There are definitely positive changes and amazing innovations coming from the current tech wave. However, there is also no doubt that the crazy amount of money raised by startups and ridiculous salaries of tech workers are further increasing income inequality and pushing everyone else out of the city.

A few weeks ago we attended a meetup on basic income. It was packed with tech workers, drinking free beer and shouting ‘capitalism rocks’. You can feel the arrogance and lack of respect just by walking the streets. You can read it over and over online. Every now and then “we” feel the need to express our dissent for the current situation, as if we weren’t one of the main causes behind it.

As part of the ‘tech community’ I often feel shame when asked what I do here. I look down and say “I work with data”. It never happened before moving here, but now I feel guilt. And don’t get me wrong, I am definitely proud of the actual work we are doing, and a believer of the impact it can have on society at large.

However, is this enough? Does the greater goal justify what is going on in the city, even for the ones of us that get it? At what point do we become part of the problem? Are we already part of the problem because we can rent an apartment for 2250 USD/month? Do we become part of the problem when we start renting offices built thanks to questionable eviction policies? Should we leave the city to avoid being part of the problem? Do we have to leave the city or can we do something as tech workers or entrepreneurs to reduce the divide? Can we coexist?

I don’t have the answers and a million more questions keep popping up in our heads.

Obviously, there are many complexities due to the American system (welfare, anyone?), and most American cities are not better off than San Francisco in terms of disparities, income inequality and poverty, regardless of the tech scene.

However, right here, we are partially responsible. I feel partially responsible.

What can entrepreneurs do?

The tech industry and Silicon Valley think big. We try to solve big problems. Everyone is convinced to be changing the world by revolutionising the status quo. If your technology is not disruptive, investors won’t even listen to you. While this way of thinking might be key to the survival of your company, it also seems inevitably flawed. The whole point for many entrepreneurs is not even the success of their idea and the impact it can have, but the ‘exit’ or hitting it big one day. Generating ‘instantaneous’ wealth and increasing the divide even more seems the goal. There’s even who finds justification for the divide brought by tech companies in believing that “one day a startup will solve it”. Or similarly, “once entrepreneurs are wealthy, they’ll get into philanthropy”. As if everything else didn’t matter. The big payout is what to aim for, one side or the other.

I personally disagree. As the impact we can have on people’s lives is real and can be positive, we need to think differently about our cumulative impact on society. We all live in this society today, and we all have equal rights. We need to think about how our behaviour can radically change the life of others, for the worse, if we don’t act responsibly.

Are we doomed yet?

While some companies are a lost cause, other (for profit) organisations are making a shift, trying to have a more sustainable impact on society. I’m thinking for example about change.org, Kickstarter (out of NY) as well as other B-corps, for-profit companies that are obligated to consider the impact of their decisions on society, not only shareholders.

Social responsibility instead of free food. There’s light at the end of the tunnel.

Change.org offices in San Francisco

ALESSANDRA SAVIOTTI: After a few conversations with artists involved in cultural activism in the city, I had the feeling that there is a lack of an honest dialogue not only between tech workers and cultural workers, but also between citizens and politicians. Just to give an example, protests against private shuttle buses arose because they have been using public bus stops illegally every day, thousands of times since 2007, while if you park your car in a MUNI zone you get a 271 USD fine. Artist and activist Leslie Dreyer declared that she has been organizing actions ‘to draw attention to the corrupt relationship between wealthy tech corporations and our elected “representatives,” which has played a key role feeding real estate speculation, worsening the eviction crisis and widening the inequality gap’.

Leslie Dreyer, “Gmuni: Free Luxury Free Market Free for All”, 2014

Stopping tech buses was not the first demonstration. However, standing in front of the Google buses triggered massive media attention on the activists. Targeting a major tech company was a successful tactic, precisely because activists used its power to become visible to the world.

The point is not whether or not we are against tech workers or major corporations per se. The aim of these demonstrations is to try to find a common model of living together because we all have a right to the city and our behaviours affect other people’s lives.

Being ‘loud’ using our bodies seems to supply the lack of spaces for debate.

The lack of debate is very dangerous and the absence of spaces where to have a mature confrontation is bad for democracy.

Can cultural institutions supply to the lack of spaces where to debate about gentrification, displacements of local communities, evictions, police brutality and so on?

Nowadays more and more artists claim their role in society and cultural institutions demonstrate an interest to become a public arena for a political debate, transforming themselves in civic institutions.

I believe this city needs more occasion for confrontation without screaming to each other, and certainly “Take this Hammer” is an exhibition that has the potential to open a debate. Artworks like Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, the Guantanamo Bay Museum of Art and History or the work by Pitch Interactive, use technology as their core.

Artists and activists included in the exhibition use the incredible power of the internet and social media to organize and to create their artworks, even if they are conscious that they are not using a neutral space. As Rebecca Solnit wrote in the essay which accompanies the exhibition “… in the end, when it comes to changing the world, from the French Revolution to the civil rights movement to the fall of Berlin Wall to the new civil rights movement known as Black lives Matter, bodies in places matter. In public space, to be specific. The place in which democracy is direct”.

Let’s be present then, and let’s open the dialogue. And if to encounter each other we need to use the spaces of cultural institutions, let’s do it. Together.

Art Curator, Educator and Organizer :: www.alessandrasaviotti.com

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