Media Arts Festival Rewires Tenderloin

This weekend, City Centered offers better community living through technology


Innovators in data visualization, citizen journalism and other media arts abound in the Bay Area, which is also known as a leader in community organizing and social services.

But these two worlds — media and community — often fail to intersect.

Enter City Centered, a new media arts festival that aims to bridge the world of the digital haves and have-nots in the Tenderloin and mid-Market area. The three-day event will take place over this weekend and next, showcasing 11 arts projects running the gamut from digital and photographic mapping of the neighborhood that will be projected outdoors to interactive games designed by local students.

The new Mid-Market media arts nonprofit Gray Area Foundation for the Arts (GAFFTA) is anchoring the programming, although events will be strewn across the Tenderloin and Mid-Market street area. Mission District-based KQED, another sponsoring organization, will also be a venue.

City Centered inherently crosses boundaries between journalism, visual art, data-mapping and community organizing — Stanford Knight fellow and radio journalist Krissy Clark, one of the presenters, normally works as a reporter rather than artist, for instance. But what unites all project producers is their interest in “locative” media, “loosely defined as technology that involves moving around the in the world,” using tools like cell phones, GPS systems, maps, etc, as Clark writes in an email.

Many of the projects will unfold in real time. Artist Matthew Roberts, for instance, doing a project called “Every Step,” will be giving participants armbands with mounted cameras and pedometers; an image will be made with each step and then converted into animated sequences.

“The artists are using neighborhood-based data to tell a story,” says GAFFTA founder and director Josette Melcho. “It’s an extremely powerful form of storytelling.”

The timing of City Centered coincides with a major revitalization effort underway in the Tenderloin/Mid-Market area. Arts organizations such as GAFFTA and Intersection for the Arts new gallery could play a large role in improving the area. Mayor Gavin Newsom, for instance, unveiled his latest budget last week featuring Mid-Market arts grants in Luggage Store gallery, one of the City Centered venues on the corner of Market and Sixth streets. (Other venues include Archetype Boutique, Tenderloin Tech Lab and Shih Yu-Lang Central YMCA.)

“The idea of the name — City Centered — came through conversations about changing the perception of the center of the city,” says Melchor. “The mid-Market, Tenderloin area is the center of downtown, but people are still thinking about it as a district you avoid.”

The projects come from both locals and out of town media specialists. “Urban Remix,” by two professors from Georgia Institute of Technology, takes neighborhood noises and turns them into a music mash-up. Northern California’s Dacha Art Collective’s “Tender Secrets” asked neighborhood residents to leave voicemails detailing their secrets and the text of those messages will be projected on a storefront. “Block of Time: O’Farrell Street,” by Clark, uses audio clips to marry a 19th century description of a Tenderloin street with its current inhabitants. A cell phone audio tour of the street, with both historical and current takes, will commence on Sunday.

City Centered’s chief instigator is Kari Gray, the program manager of SF-based Access Now, an organization that offers community tech support to people who currently don’t have so much of it. She has been planning City Centered for about three years, initially thinking that S.F. art nonprofit Southern Exposure would provide a main venue. When the busy exhibition schedule in its new digs proved unworkable, Gray hit upon GAFFTA — “a perfect fit.”

In addition to Access Now, KQED Public Media, Berkeley Center for New Media, media arts space Gray Area Foundation for the Arts (GAFFTA), Center for Locative Media and S.F. State are all partners, providing space, support and, in GAFFTA and KQED’s cases, funding for art pieces and related workshops.

The combination of community and new media proved to be a powerful draw for artists. After brainstorming some initial thoughts, S.F. urban planner Jake Levitas and his team settled on a two-pronged approach— Tender Noise, a data visualization effort that maps out the heavy noise pollution in the area and Tender Voice, a project whereby the team recorded interviews with locals about the bevy of nonprofit organizations in the neighborhood.

They also conducted impromptu focus groups. “We went around the neighborhood and talked to people. We told them about our initial concept, and they said, this is a good idea, this is a bad idea, and so on,” Levitas notes. “Their input grounded us.”

Melchor has a very simple barometer of success for the festival: to get more people into the neighborhood. Grey has a slightly different agenda. “My main goal is my organization’s goal — to increase internet use,” she says. “A secondary goal is to build the community of tech advocates in the Tenderloin…to make [Tenderloin residents] feel like they are part of a bigger community of tech and media advocates…to change the way they think of themselves.”

And someone not ensconced in the media arts world —“I don’t know a lot of hack and hackers” — Gray has been happily surprised by the character of the artists’ projects.

“I didn’t know we’d get so many great community-based projects that are so good at reflecting the place,” she says. “I thought we’d get more cute toys.”