San Diego

David Avalos, Louis Hock, and Elizabeth Sisco

San Diego Transit Corporation Buses

“Welcome to America’s Finest Tourist Plantation”—this was the slogan that taunted the citizens of San Diego from the rear advertising panel of nearly one-half of the city’s buses during the month of January. It was art with a message inextricably tied to a specific place and time, designed by three local artists: David Avalos, Louis Hock, and Elizabeth Sisco. San Diego is a city with a boosterish attitude, based mostly on the climate and waterfront; it loves to call itself “America’s Finest City.” It is also a city that reportedly relies heavily on illegal immigrants for its support workers, including many in the tourist trade. January 1988 was Super Bowl month, a first for San Diego, and a much touted event for a tourist-hungry urban area. The artists’ design roughly approximates an advertising panel, in that it combines photographic images with a simple slogan, albeit a cryptic one. The message implies that San Diego’s comfort is dependent on a hidden slave population. The photographs make the same point with a cropped image of a handcuffed man and a lawman (focusing on the manacled wrists and holstered gun), flanked by similarly cropped images of a man scraping food from a plate, on the left, and a chambermaid bringing fresh towels to a hotel room, on the right.

As a work in a museum, the piece might not have had as great an impact. Compositionally, it vaguely resembles a work by Barbara Kruger, although the language and imagery don’t crackle with Kruger’s clarity. But the art did not stop with the piece. The artists turned it into a major media event, getting the press (including myself as a local journalist/art critic) to provide amplification of the work as it hit the streets. The execution of the event was as much a part of the art as the work itself.

The artists set out to publicize the plight of undocumented migrant workers, and they used the theater of the real world very effectively to achieve that goal. They decided that Super Bowl month in the National Football League’s host city would be a vulnerable time to bring out the dark secrets of the tourist industry there, and it was; city leaders reacted with horror. And when those local politicians discovered that the artists had used city-funded grants to pay for the advertising space, they were further incensed; they even tried to figure out a way of getting the art off the buses but found no legal recourse. Art’s right to free expression prevailed, even at the risk of alienating Super Bowl patrons and losing tourist dollars.

To my mind, the work proved particularly successful because the artists, true to their conviction that it is the responsibility of art to interact with its environment and its resources, had the courage to bring their work into the public arena. Unlike artists such as Hans Haacke, they ventured beyond the confines of the museum, the safe and liberal-minded environment where political statements are both sanctified and stripped of their power. This unusual site-specific work circulated on 100 buses, visible to 80 percent of the city’s population and subject to a certain amount of vandalism. It spoke out directly on an important issue, instead of skirting the issue with cuteness.

The work also proved far superior to the kind of intervention practiced by such artists as Krzysztof Wodiczko. Wodiczko, coincidentally, presented one of his photographic projections here in San Diego during Super Bowl weekend, concurrent with the bus art project. For his piece here, which was about immigration problems on the Mexican-American border, Wodiczko came in, assessed the city, made a grand technological statement, and then left. It entirely lacked the local perspective and commitment to place of Avalos, Hock, and Sisco’s piece. The three San Diego artists proved the point that political art is more powerful when it is informed by a deeper knowledge of its regional context. Although people in the city may not have changed as a result of the art, they certainly got the message. The statement addressed the tourist, but it was acknowledged by the local residents. For political art, that is probably the best possible accomplishment.

Susan Freudenheim