Can The Message Be Greater Than The Medium?
As Clarion Alley Mural Project (CAMP) celebrates its 25th year, it is only fitting that our first mural of 2017 was entitled Cultivating Resistance, a collaborative project between CAMP and the SF Poster Syndicate. Depicted at the center of the image are communities standing together to support and honor the environment, education, and criminal justice reform. Surrounded on all sides by current evils, they are insulating the fledgling tree with their activism.
Spending the month leading up to and following the presidential election painting on the cold side of Clarion Alley in San Francisco, the side that never sees direct sun, gave an odd vantage point into the insanity of our time. Painting with the arts collective The SF Poster Syndicate, we were frequently confronted with the gleeful spectacle of selfie sticks, sexy poses, and Uber and Lyft drivers forcing the gathered crowds to part as their GPS would take them down one of the slowest short cut routes imaginable.
For all the thoughtful intention contained in vibrant images, CAMP also reflects the many frictions and conflicts of modern life. Situated in one San Francisco’s most hyper-gentrified neighborhoods, the project spans one block of garages, fences, and backdoors covered with murals capturing with heartrending beauty the heartbreak of our current social and political challenges. In many ways, CAMP is a living document of the rapidly changing city of San Francisco, and many others throughout the world.
The uniqueness of visuals curated by CAMP created on a large scale by the community, not corporations, draws valuable attention to critical issues for whom organizers may not always have the resources to maintain visibility. Recent murals on the alley include: Rise In Power Brothers & Sisters honoring a handful of the black and brown men and women who have been murdered by police, located directly across from the Mission Police Station; and the mural Narratives of Displacement featuring a map of San Francisco evictions along with portraits of community members who have been displaced and a phone number to call to listen to their stories of evictions.
As a distinctive public space where politics and art intersect, CAMP often draws significant press coverage, including a cover feature in The SF Weekly in November 2016 titled “Revolution Lane” that ran soon after the election. While it was politically titillating to see those words, especially at that time, it nevertheless left members of CAMP wondering: What is the revolution that we need? What does it look like? How does it function?
Clarion Alley Mural Project provides an accessible platform for its messages to be shared via social media. As CAMP co-director Megan Wilson often points out, “throughout the 20th century train cars literally acted as the vehicles to transport messages throughout the world via graffiti; now we have Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and SnapChat to spread the word.” We can make the invisible more visible than ever before.
CAMP’s public messaging through art can now reach millions throughout the world. The cooler the subject, the more it gets shared and “liked”. As political artists, the technology that we rely on is influenced by culture, a culture from which we contribute and we benefit. We have programmed social media and social media has programmed us. Our cultural values are embedded in every new gadget and device we buy. Yet with the potential of a larger consumer audience, we must not be complacent in our role as citizens. The space of awareness Clarion creates needs to encompass full complex consequences of the human toll.
In addition to Cultivating Resistance one of the last works to go up on Clarion Alley in 2016 was a mural rebuking local San Francisco Proposition Q that specifically targeted homeless encampments.  The mural, another collaboration between CAMP and The SF Poster Syndicate, informed potential voters that the proposition made no mention of housing or any alternative options for the people sleeping in tents on city sidewalks. Funded heavily by tech industry billionaires that included Ron Conway, Michael Moritz, and William Oberndorf, the proposition passed. Given our current corporate state, how could it not?
And why wouldn’t these billionaires pay to further criminalize human impoverishment? They pay heaps of money to live in San Francisco — obviously they feel possessive of the right to be a part of this tech-centric hub and control with whom they’re willing to share their city, as well as define what’s acceptable in terms of how those selected elites shall conduct themselves.
In a city that has its identity so wrapped up in technology it seems hard not hearing about the latest tech. However, with the distraction of all the hype, the deeper meaning behind this economy rarely gets discussed. While innovations in science and technology appear to continually make the conduits between buyer and seller more efficient and more effective than the traditional economy of middle class shopkeepers and hotel clerks, with each new convenience, the divide between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ grows deeper.
Apps have led to the “sharing economy.” Two words intended to conjure up images of a social utopia but instead has given us one of the greatest consolidations of wealth in history. A sharing economy should be the outcome of a healthy functioning community. However, we live in a world where the very verb to share has been circumscribed to the realm of apps. Sharing — with its most salient meaning at present could be defined as an Orwellian linguistic pawn in the grand financial game, rigged for obscene profits to benefit an elite few.
As with Prop Q, we see the elite few gaining power and influence — changing the social fabric of cities such as San Francisco where Clarion Alley is based, and creating the need for more political messaging beyond the limited physical space our artists have to work. Now, more than ever, we must move beyond the walls and into political actions. However, if we want to reach distant investors and fellow activists experiencing similar struggles in other cities, must our local messaging also take to social media?
The value system embedded in our science and technology, tacitly accepted by society, can be seen alone in the singular ubiquitous symbol of our age: the smartphone. Most of us have one. Some of the most compassionate people in the world are reading these words on their smartphone right now. And right now there is a child in Africa working in a dangerous mine in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to get the cobalt to send to China where a virtual slave will produce that smartphone. Right now there is a child in Asia dying from the pollution caused by the manufacturing of that smartphone. Yet now we as political artists now rely on people having socially irresponsible smartphones to get our socially conscious messages out into the world. This conundrum begs the question: now that political reality is so heavily influenced by social media, is it best to focus our efforts on making work that reaches these platforms or should we avoid contributing to a deeply flawed system?
However, the debate about smartphones and the full consequences of their human toll holds a greater complexity than just right and wrong. Stepping back from looking at the capitalistic framework of exploiting labor and the environment to ensure greater profits, (essentially business as usual), the fact smartphones are no longer just a cultural necessity, but a social necessity cannot be ignored. Our contemporary world requires us to communicate via email, social media, texts, IM, etc… ad nauseum. The idea that a smartphone is an extravagance people purchase out of free choice, as Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz (Utah) describes the situation, is plainly at odds with reality. The Wireless Future program at the New America Foundation found people living off of lower incomes increasingly rely on smartphones for internet access, while people living with higher incomes can afford both home and broadband subscriptions (wired and wireless Internet). For lower-income Americans, smartphones are the only online access available.
In a study on American cellphone users performed by the Pew Research Center, sixty-two percent of people surveyed use their smartphones for information about a health condition. Forty-three percent use a smartphone to look for a job. For people who have little freedom of choice in a society ruled by money, a smartphone is a necessity. It has become a luxury to say “I don’t have a smartphone.” The same Pew Research Study found that ten percent of U.S. adults — over twenty-four million — have to sacrifice and save to pay for the smartphone plans they have. Just like housing, we have made the smartphone a human right.
Let’s also not ignore the importance and power the smartphone has given to social movements such as Black Lives Matters. For hundreds of years, communities of color have endured daily systemic brutality, including state sponsored executions within their neighborhoods. However, the white mainstream has either turned a blind eye or added fuel to the fire. It is hard to convince those sitting comfortably in the status quo change is essential and urgent. Yet today we have tragic and disturbing images of these murders caught on video taken by smartphones, played over and over on the news and YouTube.
Why did it take these horrific images of brutality for the debate to reach national discussion? Just like when the images of brutal practices of the South were once seen, the validity of the civil rights movement could not be ignored. The government knows the power of these images and therefore banned all pictures of coffins returning from the wars our country wages. But will true change ever come through the sharing of these shocking videos? It is surprising how heartless, mindless people can change the narrative despite such unequivocal evidence. It seems our systemic racism still runs deeper than our technology.
Now we find ourselves debating if it is okay for a NFL player to take a knee during the national anthem before a game. Not why they are taking a knee. Not about changing a system that needs to be protested. Isn’t that what this country is founded on? Protest. The focus must be on changing the violent culture in which we live and have come to accept. If we need to ignore the inherent violence of technology to understand the violence we inflict in our own neighborhoods, then let’s act to stop it all. All the suffering.
This last election cycle subjected us all to an inundation of fear, unapologetic hatred and racial scapegoating — nothing new in history for the American experience. But like the coming environmental apocalypse, Trump is just a symptom of a disease. Symptoms are frightening. But the disease can spread and kill us all. A symptom can be treated. A disease needs to be eradicated.
What does revolution look like when gross inhumanity through economics and political actions have become normalized to the point where we cannot reflect on our own lives in the world we live in? Where everyday actions, like uploading a photo on a smartphone relies on such inhumane systems. Now simply caring for all our neighbors, documented or undocumented by the nation state in which we live, housed or unhoused, has become a revolutionary act. But we have to go further. We have to become more humane. We have to help to ease the suffering within our own communities and demand distant corporations to do the same. To fight the system is to be a part of the system. To ease the suffering caused by the system is an act of resistance against the system. Human resistance is as old as oppression itself.
We need to cultivate community. Now.
We need to have each other’s backs. Now.
This is when we turn it around. Nourish, nurture, garden the resistance. Grow it. Keep cultivating.
Christopher Statton serves as co-director of CAMP and is a member of the SF Poster Syndicate. Currently working as a community organizer and activist, Statton is best known for his role in establishing San Francisco’s historic Roxie Theater as a non-profit community based independent film venue. Currently, Statton is attending Oxford University.
 SF Weekly Revolution Lane: The fight to keep Clarion Alley’s murals from being loved to death. Peter Lawrence Kane
 The Guardian Wealthy San Francisco tech investors bankroll bid to ban homeless camps: The proposed law would ban tent encampments from San Francisco’s sidewalks — a visceral reminder of the city’s gaping inequality. Julia Carrie Wong
 The Guardian Children of the Congo who risk their lives to supply our mobile phones. Frank Piasecki Poulsen
 The Guardian 300 million children live in areas with extreme air pollution, data reveals. Damian Carrington