Photo courtesy of Justin Bettman.

Saturday morning, an unlikely arrival appeared at the corner of 18th and Valencia: a fully furnished, mid-century living room stage set.

The set, complete with a floral couch, carpet, side table, child’s rocking horse, and Christmas tree, showed up early Saturday morning and even had Don-and-Betty-looking models inhabiting it for a brief time in the morning. Throughout the day, dozens of passersby posed on the couch and by the tree, snapping photos and playing house.

By Sunday at 10:30 a.m., the entire set—tree and all—was gone.

The 18th Street living room was the latest entry in an ongoing project by New York-based photographer Justin Bettman called Set in the Street. For every set—which have ranged from a child’s bedroom to tub-equipped bathroom—Bettman, along with his collaborator Gozde Eker, collects items discarded on the sidewalk or through Craigslist, to create stage set.

In the early hours of the morning, they’ll create the set, take photos with models, then leave the set in place for a certain number of days—or, however long it lasts before it’s taken away by thieves or city employees.

A Los Altos native, Bettman was home for the holidays and chose 18th and Valencia for his Christmastime tableau. Besides an installation near Joshua Tree, this set was his first in a California city. We talked to him the day after the brief life of his golden-curtained, 1960s living room came to a close.

Mission Local: Do you know who took the set? Is there anything you’d like to say to them?
JB: No clue. There’s any number of things that could have happened. Someone could have stolen each piece separately. And sometimes, it’s sanitation that comes through and cleans it up. Though, I do leave a sign saying that it will be removed. It could be just one person to take everything or to call the city.

ML: Did this particular set last less time than you expected? What’s the shortest and longest a set has lasted?
JB: In New York, the shortest was there for three hours. The longest, eight days. I did expect this set to last a little longer. I figured, it’s in the Mission, they’re more receptive to art there. Usually, a lamp or some small item like the rocking chair will get stolen before it disappears. But I saw at 10:30 the night before it was gone that everything was there, so I was hopeful it might last longer. But all it takes is just one person.

ML: Is having it disappear quickly actually part of the appeal?
JB: To me that’s definitely part of the art project… I have no resentment at all when things, or all of it, goes missing. It is just sitting there on the street. And, I took everything from the street or Craigslist. It’s kind of just repurposing it.

And also, it’s great just to see how it evolves. I did a set in New York that had a coffee table, and someone took it, and then some one else added another piece of furniture to it. It’s always evolving.

ML: Why that location? Why that particular furniture for that particular space?
JB: Well, I wanted to do something Christmas themed, something seasonal. A lot of people throw out trees right after Christmas, so I knew I could find one. In terms of location, I went scouting with people who grew up in here and knew the city really well. There’s a few different factors that come into play when I pick locations. I take photos early in the morning and across the street, so I need a location with no street parking. This corner has a bus stop at it and I knew there wouldn’t be cars parking in front of the set. Also, I wanted to do 1960s vintage scene with curtains. Rather than ruin a wall by hanging curtains, I thought somewhere with a fence might be good. Plus, that area has so much foot traffic, and the Mission is an area that’s so receptive to art.

ML: So, it sounds like picking a location is all about logistics?
JB: Yes, it’s a big production and logistical nightmare to get everything in place by morning.

ML: Is all this illegal?
The one law that I could be breaking is littering, but I have no intention of leaving anything there. And when you bring a couch that’s already been left on the street 100 feet from where it originally was, is that really littering? I don’t block the sidewalk, it’s not for commercial use, there’s no artificial light, so, from what I can tell, I don’t need permits for what I do.

ML: Is a public living room, a completely domesticated, safe space, in a rapidly changing neighbor the ultimate symbol of gentrification’s end point?
JB: I leave it open to interpretations, for however people want to take it. I like to see how other people interpret it and see people reactions.

ML: Have you been surprised by how people respond?
JB: The first set I did in New York, I just wanted a good photo. But while I was shooting, people were really interested in the set and wanted to take pictures, and then I talked to a friend, and she was like: why don’t you leave it out for a few days and see what happens? I’ve been really surprised by how many people take photos and post on Instagram about the sets.

All the furniture is free furniture that people have thrown away and that they didn’t want, but if you curate it and put it together in an interesting way, it actually looks pretty good. I think that’s interesting to a lot of people. A lot of photographers pay a few thousand dollars a day for a studio, but all you need is a floor and wall. It’s all about perspective.

ML: Have you noticed any difference in people’s reactions in New York compared to the few times you’ve done it in California?
JB: In San Francisco, it was interesting, there were so many people taking photos but a lot fewer people posting anything on Instagram or Twitter [Bettman leaves a sign with the hashtag #SetintheStreet]. I’m not sure why that is. Maybe it’s because San Franciscans are less narcissistic and don’t want to put themselves on Instagram, or maybe they post it and don’t use the tag because they don’t want to promote the project. I just know there was a lot more people taking photos on Saturday than showed up online.

ML: Do you have a dream street corner and dream set that you hope to set up one day?
JB: There’s not one street in particular, but it would be cool to do a month’s residency in Paris, to do a set, take photos, and move on to next place. Go to Brazil, or somewhere. But it would be interesting to see how people respond in different parts of the world, how the different architecture and furniture impacts the photos.

ML: I’ve read that part of the point of this project is to draw people’s attention to waste—wasted space, wasted resources, wasted décor. But I’m wondering if since watching people on the street and seeing the photos they take has changed it for you?
JB: It’s evolved to this thing that’s almost a social experiment. It leaves you wondering: how long will it last, what will people do? At first, I was interested in taking photos using sets on the street and trying to see if you could even tell it was shot on the street. But now, it’s much more of a social experiment.

ML: Where’s the next set going to be? Any more Bay Area locales?
JB: TBD. You’ve got to pay attention. Some of these sets last hours, some last eight days. If it’s up you got to see it while it lasts. That’s been an interesting component.

Justin Bettman working with models for his lastest installment of the project “Set in the Streets.” Photo by Sam Hylton.
Man snaps a photo in the early hours of the “Set in Streets” tableau created by artist Justin Bettman. Photo by Sam Hylton.
Justin Bettman at work. Photo by Sam Hylton.

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Daniel Hirsch is a freelance writer who has been living in the Mission since 2009. When he's not contributing to Mission Local, he's writing plays, working as an extra for HBO, and/or walking to the top of Bernal Hill.

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3 Comments

      1. I asked my question 24 hours before they posted the interview. Thank you though.

        he says “from what I can tell, I don’t need permits for what I do”…

        anytime you block any part of the sidewalk you need a permit.

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