Misery and Joy

pirate wires #39 // san francisco’s war on honey bears, the art of misery, miami tech week, and welcome to quantum beach (an idea inside a lambo growth culture)

A honey trap for activists. If you’ve spent any time in San Francisco over the last half-decade you’ve seen a playful honey bear or two — or ten — on the side of a building, or in the window of a coy Victorian. The bears range in size from a postcard to a billboard, and their population is as diverse as the city: from little artist bears and hippie bears to pride-themed bears, to nurses and doctors and firefighter bears. There are SF Giants bears. There’s a Ruth Bader Ginsburg bear. The project is a love letter to San Francisco, chosen home of Fnnch, the creative mind behind the work, and until about five seconds ago his bears were a beloved symbol of the city. But this week, while Fnnch was cleaning up a mural he produced for San Francisco’s LGBT center that was targeted by what we might I guess call anti-honey bear activism (homophobic bigotry perhaps? Let’s table it for now), he was harassed by a man named Dogtown Dro and baselessly charged with a variety of totally invented culture war crimes. Dro filmed the altercation and shared it to Instagram, as the entire dialogue was, of course, an exercise in attention grift. Then the conversation was picked up by our bottom-feeding regional media, which threw gasoline on the drama and catalyzed yet another embarrassing local outrage, this time directed against a man who has done nothing other than create art people like and donate money to charity. Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, a loud, colorful Bizarro World version of San Francisco flexed in its bedazzled thong, third drink in hand beneath a canopy of paints and palms and rainbow fabrics. When the sun set, a Ferrari grumbled, and high-rise neon burned across a Pink Moon sky. There was the unmistakable sound of easy, casual laughter. It was Miami Tech Week. People were happy. This was allowed.

A tale of two cities.

I had the chance to interview Fnnch way back last century at the top of this pandemic for Anatomy of Next (iTunes link, Soundcloud link). When he first began the honey bear project, he hoped to get people in the city excited about public space, and to challenge the public’s perception of street art, which has historically been seen as something more like vandalism. It was to be a joy offense. Fnnch believed a cheerful honey bear would be impossible to hate, and for the mentally well, at least, this proved to be correct. His work ultimately helped alter the city’s relationship with public space, and launched him into a rarely successful career in art. As success is something highly suspicious among contemporary artists, backlash was inevitable. But usually backlash against popular art reduces more simply to something along the lines of “this is bad.” San Francisco’s approach was unique. It was also perfectly of this moment.

Dro’s bombastic video went viral, but it was a KQED piece that really focused the honey bear drama, and wove it into a broader call-to-arms narrative neatly summarizing Fnnch’s many political crimes: gentrification, cultural appropriation, and being “a straight, white, former tech worker.” In addition to Dro, oddly here described as an artist rather than a political activist, the piece included critique from actual local artists like “Ricky Rat,” who mostly just draws a very simple cartoon rat that says unclever things, over and over again, now often in confrontation with honey bears (please God make it stop). The conversation carried over to Twitter, where it metastasized, and became yet another “tech is evil” pile-on.

Okay. Why does any of this matter? Americans talk about San Francisco as often as we do because from its inception San Francisco has been a microcosm of America. It was a frontier town. It was a gold rush town. It was the Wild West before it was a working-class Catholic town, before it was the capitol of counterculture, and LSD and flowers in your hair. Before it was crime, and harder drugs — the stuff that rots your soul and leaves you sleeping in the gutters in a city all too happy, now, to let you live that way forever. San Francisco built before building was illegal, before the city was technology, and another boom, with its illusion of hope, hated not because the industry hurt the city, but because the industry could have saved it, and the city had long since internalized the postmodern sense that misery is beauty, and pain is joy. Americans look to San Francisco because what happens in San Francisco often just begins in San Francisco. Last week, Fnnch’s cheerful offer to a broken city couldn’t stand. Is this who we are now? Is this who we want to be?

Onto the invented crimes:

The technology industry, of which KQED was sure to mention Fnnch was once briefly a part, has been accused of pushing poor people out of the city for years. This is a lie popular among the local politicians who are actually responsible for the dramatic spike in our cost of living, and who have almost without exception benefited financially from this dramatic spike. It’s an insidious piece of gaslighting I took apart in Extract or Die. In the case of Fnnch, this gentrification claim is only slightly warmed over with the bizarre argument that honey bears are only popular among rich people (???). But it was the claim Fnnch engaged in cultural appropriation that really lit my world up.

The basic idea here is white, straight men are “stealing” culture from minority communities. In the first place, I fundamentally reject the premise. In a healthy society, culture is shared, and anyway, especially today, culture is viral. You kind of can’t stop it even if you want to, and America is in particular a melting pot. If cultural appropriation exists at all, it’s a good thing. We’re all neighbors, and without a shared culture how can we share anything? But the meat of the accusation, here, deals directly in gay stuff, which is something I can speak to personally.

First, a brief word from talking rat guy:

Let’s charitably set aside the question of why no one wants to buy this man’s “art,” and speak directly to the substance of his argument. “Queer” is an important word here, as it’s not a sexuality. Queer is an ambiguous, constantly-changing political label associated with sexuality. It’s mostly used to argue political ideas while cynically hiding inside a culturally-protected minority bodysuit. Generally speaking, when you hear the word “queer” you can safely assume it has nothing to do with gay people and everything to do with niche, activist bullshit. This is because gay people — just people, it turns out — have all sorts of political opinions. Gay people have all sorts of cultural impulses. Are you sitting down? Some gay people even like Fnnch’s honey bears, including presumably the gay people who invited Fnnch to paint the honey bear mural. But the really interesting thing about gay people is they make up a small part of just about every family in America, including Fnnch’s, and Fnnch was moved by the opportunity to paint for the LGBT Center because he has a deeply personal attachment to the cause of young gay people who need help. Twenty-five years ago his uncle died of HIV, which is a story not a single activist seems to care about. Then again, should Fnnch’s personal attachment to the cause even matter? Straight people are allowed to like gay people. Straight people are allowed to honor and work with gay people. In fact, straight people getting along with gay people was supposed to be the entire point of gay activism. I’m not sure who this new class of activists are meant to be fighting for (is rat guy even gay?), but it’s sure as hell not me, a real ass gay person in the wild.

The truth is Fnnch’s work doesn’t stand out because he’s “taken over.” His work stands out because there’s very little else by way of art in San Francisco. This is because the culture and politics of the city — in terms of housing costs, a fetish for misery, and a local nativism hostile to people from out of town — are hostile to creative young people.

Meanwhile, in a city that loves immigration and building stuff:

Welcome to Quantum Beach. I’m sitting at a table on Brickell Key watching a crane — one of four visible cranes from this small corner of the city alone — lift steel to the top of a towering condominium under construction. That’s four or five hundred new units of housing, with work of this kind — right now — directing construction of this kind all over Miami. Brickell Key is itself a sort of… constructed island. Entirely separate from the “will they / won’t they?” Technology Industry Moves to Miami discourse, the people of Miami, and the people of Florida more broadly, believe in growth. This is absolutely what attracted technologists to the region, which will continue to grow with or without the industry. Last week’s unofficial Miami Tech Week, which started as a meme and evolved into a celebration, was as inevitable in this city as was the public tar and feathering of a too-cheerful artist in San Francisco. Construction, housing, nightlife, creative expression — the variable nature of the things that make a city wonderful is not first a matter of different politics in different regions. Culture shapes our local politics, and only then do our local politics accelerate or kill a city’s growth. From there, everything (or nothing).

I saw more Lamborghinis my first week in Miami than I’ve ever seen in my entire life. I’m including television and film. Everything is loud here — the traffic, the people, the leaf blowers, everywhere these leaf blowers, my God shut up with these leaf blowers already! While San Francisco is a city that likes to talk about the virtue of art, Miami is a city where artists can afford to live. The city is therefore covered in actual art, and where there isn’t art there’s color. People peacock in appearance here, from the way they dress to the way they move to the way they reveal their worked-out bodies hanging out of what really just is not very much clothing, let’s be honest (hell yea). It’s gym culture, it’s plastic surgery, it’s dancing and feasting and drugs, from what I can tell, with streaming sparklers everywhere you look, and bottle service. What we’re talking about here is a kind of shameless materialism, and it’s a popular point of conversation among San Franciscans and New Yorkers passing through the city, who generally find the display kind of jarring, and perhaps a little bit embarrassing.

Cars. Fashion. Fitness. Sex. Who cares? These things are not important. In San Francisco, we value “ideas.” In New York, we value “greatness.” But let’s attempt a little self-awareness. The physical stuff of San Francisco and New York is literally crumbling, which is something most reasonable people, including reasonable people from San Francisco and New York, find alarming. I don’t believe it’s a coincidence the most openly materialistic city in America also appears to be the American city most committed to new construction, chief among this new construction housing, which accommodates new people, with new ideas and new businesses, which generates new wealth and perpetuates the whole dynamic cycle. Lambo culture isn’t some shameful “other thing” that’s happening in Miami. Lambo culture seems to be the engine driving this entire city forward.

The question of whether or not tech will “happen” in Miami is not settled, much as the decline of the San Francisco tech scene has been greatly exaggerated. But while lamentations concerning the entrance of “tech bros” into Miami on behalf of the people who actually live here has become a whole new genre of content among tedious Twitter Bluechecks still afraid to go outside, the people of Miami have been overwhelmingly welcoming to the tech community. This is because 1) the people of Miami are overwhelmingly welcoming to pretty much everyone, and 2) success is not a dirty word in Florida. What can be said of the Miami tech scene with certainty is the seed of something interesting has now been planted in a growth culture. Only time will tell if all these memes will become something formidable, and exciting, and enriching of what is already a formidable and exciting city. But God knows there’s enough sunlight and water.

I’m not leaving San Francisco. The city is too important to me. But I’m starting to wonder: are we the microcosm anymore? Maybe the better question is should we be the microcosm anymore? You have to be at least a little materialistic to affect material change, as altering our physical world necessarily requires commitment to the physical, and whether or not the Lambo aesthetic offends you there’s no denying reality: there are cranes in every corner of Miami, and there are almost none in San Francisco. It seems the cranes may have to come with expensive sports cars.

I guess I fail to see the problem.


Link Library // May 4, 2021

Just read this crazy ass story about UFOs and call it a day.