This fall you may have seen an incredibly oblivious jerk hogging the sidewalks of the Mission to play basketball. In sweatbands and baggy athletic shorts, he weaved through the line at Bi-Rite, dribbled on the bench at Samovar Tea Lounge, and generally took up an annoying amount of space.
He was literally turning public space into his own, personal playground—and that was kind of the point.
The somewhat belligerent b-baller in question was artist Gordon Winiemko. A veteran video and performance artist, Winiemko played ball around the Mission and had assistants film him with their cellphones for a video exhibition called “My Mission Playground,” which opened this past weekend at Adobe Books Backroom Gallery.
“The video is about being in your own world,” said Winiemko who lives in Los Angeles. “It’s about the obliviousness of the gentrifier, who doesn’t pay attention to the social contract.”
Though filmed in October during the heated public outcry about actual Mission playgrounds, Winiemko says the role of self-centered basketball player came from a desire to address the “winner take all mentality of our culture.” It’s also not the first time he’s used sports as a metaphor for capitalism and an achievement-oriented society. As part of the duo Jeff and Gordon he once donned racquet ball attire in response to the subprime mortgage crisis.
“When the whole Mission Playground thing happened it gave my show a name: My Mission Playground,” said Winiemko of the controversy, in which neighborhood teenagers confronted employees of tech companies for hogging play time at the Mission Playground Soccer fields.
“The ‘mine’ is really important. It speaks to the acquisitive reality of our moment, it’s about my experience, not yours, my relationship to situation above all else,” said Winiemko of the show’s name.
In the “insurgent basketball performance,” as Winiemko calls the video which is officially titled “That Douchebag Was in My Way (FTW)”, the viewer gets a sense of how one man’s personal recreation can disrupt the lives of the community in which it’s situated.
Winiemko’s player is an equal opportunity annoyer as he blocks pedestrians from exiting a sidewalk narrowed by construction scaffolding, as he dribbles down the slide at Dolores Park playground preventing children from using it, as he cuts in front of shoppers sifting through produce at a Mission Street bodega. Pale and slightly gawky, he’s white, male privilege embodied.
The relationship of privilege, public and private space has long interested Winiemko, who moved to the Bay Area in 1996 before leaving to get an MFA in studio art at UC Irvine in 2004. During the first dotcom boom, Winiemko went around the Mission dressed in a suit “evicting” anyone in sight. This meant approaching al fresco diners and telling them: “You’re evicted. This is my space, because I’ve claimed it as my own.”
“My Mission Playground” similarly explores ownership of spaces public and private. The installation includes three monitors showing three separate looping videos; in one, the oblivious street player; in another, a meditative closeup of Winiemko’s hand’s clutching an “Elite Competition” brand basketball scored by street noise; the third is a video portrait of a young couple in their tiny Guerrero Street studio apartment.
Even though its inhabitants are total strangers to him, that tiny Guerrero Street apartment has a private and meaningful connection to Winiemko. It once was his home.
Compared to the prankster and almost slapstick nature of the basketball video, the video of the young couple in their apartment, who are only identified as Charles and Charishma, has a tender, intimate quality.
The camera lingers on them cuddling on the couch, working on their computers side by side, displaying the contents of their fridge, and looking into each other’s eyes. In the ten minute video, Charles and Charishma answer an offscreen Winiemko who questions them about their relationship, why they came to San Francisco, their hopes and dreams.
“When I first went into the apartment, I didn’t know what to think about them, but by the end of the interview, I wanted to take them home with me,” said Winiemko. “I mean, they’re adorable.”
But the gentle video portrait of the couple, who declined to comment for this article, is not without its leading questions or pointed editing. The image that emerges of them in the video veers towards that of stereotypical Mission gentrifier.
They’re recent transplants from New York— he’s a developer looking for work at a startup, she works at a tech-based social enterprise organization. They’re both highly educated and went to elite universities. They’re outdoorsy but not necessarily interested in culture or the arts. The camera frequently pans around a white walled space. They reveal they’re paying $2300 a month for the small studio that in cost Winiemko $700 in 2004.
“As I’ve worked on this video, and I’ve gotten some distance from them, I see things about class in their answers, but also that they don’t know anything about this city,” said Winiemko.
When asked what they know about San Francisco, Charles starts off by saying that the Chinese name for the city literally translates into “Old Gold Mountain.” He admits to not knowing much about San Francisco’s history and mostly refers to it as “part of Silicon Valley.”
After Charishma suggests the neighborhood is changing and that the Mission is dealing with “the whole gentrification issue,” Winiemko freezes the frame as if to underline the theme and her somewhat distant relationship to it.
Winiemko says the show isn’t meant to be agitprop or “finger pointing,” viewers aren’t necessarily meant to equate the eager and polite young couple on one side of the room with the obnoxious basketball player on the other. However, watching the video of the current inhabitants of his old apartment, Winiemko remarked: “this is what people don’t like about what the city has become.”
However, he also says that how you interpret the portrait of Charles and Charishma has much to do with what preconceived notions you bring to the show. Winiemko’s subjects came to the show’s opening and he says they were fairly supportive of the work and seemed self aware in their role as “the new kids on the block.”
“To whatever extent that their role is negative, I don’t get the sense that this has an impact on them,” said Winiemko. “They were excited to see their portrait… Ultimately, what I’m trying to get at in my work is that there’s always someone on top and someone on bottom, and asking what can we do about that without demonizing anyone.”
At one point in the three looping videos, the soundtrack of the central video “Sounds of the City” which centers on Winiemko’s hands holding a basketball, drowns out the other two with a song. It comes from a real life, often belligerent, sometimes demonized street presence, the longtime Mission busker Omer Travers (a.k.a. as Bum Jovi).
Despite Travers’ reputation for a hostile and aggressive performance manner, the song Winiemko chooses to include in “My Mission Playground” offers a sweet, folksy note—it’s called “Losers Could be Heroes.” As the song plays, and Charishma and Charles look out earnestly from their couch, and the basketball “douchebag” rolls on the sidewalk in the fetal position as if just hit in the groin by an opponent, the viewer is left wondering who exactly we are to identify as the heroes and who the losers.
Gordon Winiemko’s “My Mission Playground” is installed at Adobe Book’s Backgroom Gallery from now until February 1, available for viewing 12 to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.