From September 7 to 16, 2018, visitors to the city-owned PROXY open-air art-and-retail space in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley got an opportunity to “meet” some of their fellow citizens: San Franciscans who have been or become “unhoused”—homeless—in the wake of the city’s warp-speed gentrification. The meetings occurred thanks to a project called coming home (the lower case is intentional) and courtesy of augmented-reality technology.

After downloading a mobile app and scanning QR codes with your phone or tablet, you could “enter,” via your screen, any of eight scenes from different neighborhoods in the city. There you could meet people experiencing, or who had experienced, homelessness. They told you their stories and, thanks to the tech, you could approach them, walk around them, feel their presence. Then you could record and share back how the experience had affected you.

THE STORY BEHIND THE PROJECT

Coming home was the result of the coming together of ZERO1, an organization promoting art-tech-science collaborations in the heart of Silicon Valley (San Jose, California), and Lava Mae, an unconventional homeless-support nonprofit in San Francisco that brings showers, haircuts, and other services to unhoused people via repurposed city buses.

Lava Mae is always looking for innovative ways to approach the housing crisis and the unhoused, says Amy Schoening, Lava Mae’s curator of arts programming. “The organization is doing an amazing job on the street level, providing services, but one of the things that Doniece Sandoval, the founder of Lava Mae, saw was that unless the attitude and perceptions of the broader community shifted, it would be more difficult for unhoused people to have the kind of resilience they need to move through that situation,” says Schoening. “We all know that awful feeling we get if we’re in a job or a relationship where the person or the people involved don’t respect us. Now magnify that into an entire community.”

So in an effort to help shift perceptions, Shoening says, Sandoval started asking questions like: How can art serve as a way to get to this kind of visceral understanding?

As a first step, Sandoval and Lava Mae put together a multimedia art exhibition in the Fouladi Projects gallery in San Francisco: video, paintings, and photography engaging the problem of the unhoused. However, Schoening says, “one of the pieces of learning that came out of that was the gallery could be a very intimidating space.”

Meanwhile, John Craig Freeman, a widely experienced new-media public artist with a focus on globalization issues who teaches at Emerson College in Massachusetts, was working with ZERO1 on a project in the Paseo Public Prototyping Festival, an arts-and-tech gathering in San José. He was interested in addressing homelessness and the economic divide in the Bay Area, and Barbara Goldstein, board chair and president of ZERO1, introduced him to Sandoval. A collaboration was born.

Freeman engineered the images for coming home. The audio was the work of San Francisco–based journalists and audio artists Tania Ketenjian and Philip Wood, who collaborate as Sound Made Public.

HOW IT WORKS

Amy Schoening, curator of arts programming at Lava Mae, and Barbara Goldstein, board chair and president of ZERO1, explain what experiencing coming home is like.

Schoening: “You look into your phone, and you see around you Chestnut Street, you see the corner of Masonic and Haight. You see the Thai food store. You see someone sitting in front of it and you walk towards them, and as you walk up to them, you start to hear them telling their story. The stories—they’re real, and they’re not easy, many of them. But in almost every one of them, there’s the possibility of a change, there’s deep humanity and connection. So the ultimate experience is not one that brings you down, but one that lifts you into an understanding that we are like each other.”

Goldstein: “You get to see the person in their neighborhood, in the context of how and where they live, telling you something about themselves in a very quiet and personal conversation.”

Schoening: “At the end of it, we have installed a kind of a confessional recording device. You press a button that’s kind of like a door bell, and there are a couple of prompts, asking you to tell us a little bit about your experience having people who are unhoused as your neighbors.”

Goldstein: “The opportunity to respond to the piece lets you record how it’s impacting you emotionally, and I think that’s not just a very important part of the art experience, but an important part of social practice in general: getting people to respond, and reflect about their own situation.”

EXPERIENCE coming home

You can explore coming home’s virtual scenes in locations across San Francisco indefinitely. Go to cominghomesf.org for more information and a map of locations.

Written by staff of Public Art Review.

From Public Art Review #58, where this article originally appeared in Powerful Spaces as “The Presence of Others.”
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