The faces of Berkeley
Today, as I step back into the non-place of the SFO departure lounge on the way to the workshop on linguistic landscape in Siena, I’m also taking a detour from the path to Livermore. By now I suppose I’ve passed the Berkeley library, the Southside lineup of shops and restaurants on Durant Avenue, and pointed my bike uphill on Claremont Avenue, behind the famous hotel at the edge of the city. It was there that this hand-drawn sign made me stop and think: isn’t this how we see people in signs, as shadows, generic actions and postures held by nobody in particular? Clearly, somebody went to all that trouble to hand-draw the anybody on that paper, with a fading marker that shows just how much time must have gone into the process. And what sign better suited to stand for everyone, with basically no recognizable features?
I stopped to take a picture of it since it brought to mind some people in public—or faces, really—that seem anything but generic, faces that claim a private relationship with you in the most public of places, the relaxed familiarity of profile pics, writ large. If you’ve walked through the Berkeley campus in the last several months, surely you know them. The dozens of incredibly individual, almost personal lamppost banners that that look at you and smile, telling you how great Berkeley is in 10 words or less, the ones about which I asked the question last time: Do you know where this is?
Of course, the quick answer, “in front of Dwinelle”, is right on: for the past 7 months or so, Dave Nguyen has been smiling on his banner near the middle of Dwinelle Plaza, next to one of the benches where people sit and eat lunch or pore over books and get ready for their next class, or on sunny Tuesday afternoons maybe sit and listen to Stoney rant and rave about the evils of cell phones and the Bush Dynasty and irreverent bloggers, right there in the heart of the UC Berkeley Campus.
The longer answer of “where this is” is what I’d like to know more about, though. Unlike the generic sign on Claremont Avenue I mentioned above, the “this” from the Dave Nguyen banner seems to waver between thingness (the banner as a physical artifact hanging from a lamppost, with a generic ‘message’) and whoness. On the Berkeley lampposts, Ali Wolf tells us, “I love Berkeley because there are endless opportunities here!”; I feel like I’ve overheard a private conversation when I read Alyssa Reyes saying, “Berkeley taught me to love ME for who I am!”; and I’m not sure whether that’s Angela Vullo or the UC administrators telling us, “Berkeley is not just a university – it’s a home”.
Who are these people whose faces adorn our campus? Why are they there? How are we supposed to respond to them? And why does it seem almost like an invasion of privacy to photograph and map them like I have with so many other signs?
If you were on campus in 2008, you might remember some white tents set up on Dwinelle Plaza, where there was a lot of celebration of the campus, free cupcakes being given away, and, oh yeah, one booth where people were getting their pictures taken? The Daily Clog, the official blog of the campus newspaper The Daily Californian) had a post explaining that this “public art campaign” was part of the campus Campaign for Berkeley, where the goal is to raise $3 billion by 2013. Campus officials hired San Francisco photographer Christopher Irion to take “school portraits” and “put into words what Cal means to them” in order to create a billboard and these banners that would “capture the campus’ diversity in images and words” (from this article).
While I find Irion’s portraits quite evocative, I was just a little unsettled by the explanation from his website about the intent behind the PhotoBooth project at Cal (which is one of many such projects):
I am interested in strengthening the ties of a community, by showing the group back to itself in a direct and democratic fashion – with the idea that viewers can directly gaze on the faces of fellow citizens and have a moment to reflect on their relationship to one another. The installation functions as a place to meet one’s neighbors as a town green might once have allowed, so as to share with others the gaze of the community.
But don’t we have a town green already? Isn’t that what Dwinelle Plaza, and Sproul for that matter, are? Does gazing at other students on these banners help us to get to know them better? Are we in dialog with their words, as I assume we’re in dialog with their faces when we recognize someone we know? Or are their words in praise of Berkeley meant to stand for our own, to represent us? Are their faces meant to stand for our own, generic representations of the diversity of women and men of different ethnicities and ages on our campus? Are we supposed to abstract away from the personal, to see them as anybodys in the same way we see the principles of Community, Discovery, and Promise that have also been made into banners?
The Daily Clog remarked sarcastically in a mock letter to the campus community that “what we’re really interested in is your lamppost banners, and nothing says ‘This is an awesome school and everyone who goes here loves it,’ like big signs that say ‘This is an awesome school and everyone who goes here loves it.’; in another post they called the lamppost decorations “mildly horrible ‘inspirational’ banners”. I think, though, that this issue goes deeper. The “SHEEP” that used to be spray-painted on the banners of Daniel J. Cho and Tirumari Jothi (the banners have since been replaced), and the successive remediations of these students’ faces—fixing them first in geographic place in the service of UC Berkeley fundraising (as well as for fun), and then in secondary and tertiary representations like my photographs and Google maps—shows to me (at least) the risk inherent in ‘putting your face out there’. It seems like it would be hard not to take it personally when people comment on the Berkeley landscape that has incorporated your own likeness…
But maybe it’s just me. What do Dave Nguyen, Ali Wolf, Alyssa Reyes, Angela Vullo, Daniel J. Cho, Tirumari Jothi, and the 50-odd other
embannered students (not to mention a few hundred more on the billboard) think about their banners, about their place on the map of UC Berkeley—about where they have become?
Previous posts in this ‘mini-series’ (tongue still in cheek)