Actionphiles in Action

Maica Folch. Photo by Zackary Forcum

In May 2014, sculptor Brian Goggin announced that he would be taking down his Defenestration installation at the request of the city of San Francisco. Installed in 1997 with the help of over 100 volunteers, Defenestration included pieces of refurbished furniture mounted on the walls of a vacant four-story tenement building at 6th and Howard in SOMA. Seemingly crawling from out of the windows, the pieces gave a Kafkaesque dimension to the city corner. As Goggin wrote on his website, “the site is part of a neighborhood that historically has faced economic challenges and has often endured the stigma of skid row status. Reflecting the harsh experience of many members of the community, the furniture is of the streets, cast-off and unappreciated. The simple, unpretentious beauty and humanity of these downtrodden objects is reawakened through the action of the piece.”

Two pieces from Goggin’s installation -a couch and a tub- remain on the building and inspired the title of Kim Epifano’s new piece, The Last Blue Couch in The Sky. Commissioned by YBCA, the piece celebrates the 20th anniversary of Epifano’s company and will be presented in June 2017. The performance will unfold in six outdoor sites before moving into the YBCA forum. This Sunday at 7pm Epifano will present some of her working ideas at ODC Theater Unplugged in Studio B.

Brian Goggin’s sculpture had been here for 16 years and was a landmark for us. All of a sudden it was going down. [The title] is a reference to change,” Epifano explained in a conversation over the phone last week. “One couch has a lot of stories if it’s been traveling from one apartment to another.” Whether past or in the making, stories matter to the Bay Area choreographer. A large part of her work involves walking the streets and neighborhoods of the city, encountering and befriending the people who live in and around the places that she chooses for both her work and the San Francisco Trolley Dances that she organizes yearly in a different part of the city. Getting permission to perform in some locations -such as on a fire escape at one point of The Last Blue Couch- requires community building: “That’s the part of the work that is heartfelt and interesting to me,” Epifano commented. “It feels a bit like anthropology. When you are working on the streets, a lot of history comes up– ghosts, I would say. My goal is to reveal that: all the different people, and what’s going on now, all the changes happening. How do we –as artists who have been here a long time or even the new artists who are coming in- stay a part of that change?”

These last couple of years, Epifano has been performing in the streets of SOMA. She started to collect images, sounds, ideas and movements from her walks, conversations and performances, and archiving them in what she calls “actionphiles,” which act as her own kinetic choreographic library. “The actionphiles became my research for this piece. A solo I did for the FRESH festival a couple years ago was the first actionphile. I used a piece of cardboard and then kept going with that idea of that piece of cardboard being everything — my map, the prop, the stage. Then I did something at the SAFEHouse Arts RAW Residency both inside and outside. That became some information I put in a file.” For the past 7 years, Epifano’s office has been at Intersection for the Arts, on Mission Street. “My city home is at the Chronicle building. That’s why I did a few pieces around there, including Wandering, Gathering which went from outside to inside the San Francisco Chronicle Building, and became another actionphile.”

Choreographing audience pathways in public spaces has been an important part of Epifano’s site-specific work. Throughout the course of The Last Blue Couch, the audience will also be moved around, thereby given the chance to experience a wide array of perspectives and situational points of views. The cast of over 20 performers includes dancers and musicians. The piece will incorporate text written by Joan Holden and Oliver Saria inspired by the history of the SOMA neighborhood as well as narratives from the performers’ personal lives. Community partners are also involved in the project: students from the Bessie Carmichael School, where Epifano is in residence, and members of the Hospitality House’s Sixth Street Help Center and Community Arts Program are making a cardboard quilt, which will be part of the set.

Using songs that played in previous works, digging through some old costumes or revisiting a collaboration with a former dancer, Epifano is drawing from her own artistic history as well. “Doing Unplugged is another way to stay connected to the Mission and a community which has been part of my history,” she adds. Layering past and present, Epifano investigates through performance the city that has been her home for 30 years and takes the pulse of its changing landscape, allowing viewers to consider what endures and remains from the people and the stories that constitute the city’s neighborhoods.