Jessica Hoffmann and Peter Cochrane discuss Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s new memoir The End of San Francisco.
The End of San Francisco is an experimental memoir by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore that explores the limitations of straight and gay normalcy and the recurrent failure of attempts to create something different. Written in an associative, nonlinear style and merging social and personal history, the book documents the loss of a dream of radical queer community in San Francisco. Sycamore is an iconoclastic queer activist and author whose past books include So Many Ways to Sleep Badly, Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots?: Flaming Challenges to Masculinity, Objectification, and The Desire to Conform, and That’s Revolting: Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation.
Peter Cochrane and I are friends, radical queers who live or have lived in San Francisco, and are both artists/activists/media makers. After talking for years about our personal encounters and struggles with San Francisco’s queer and art scenes, we decided to share a piece of this ongoing dialogue by discussing The End of San Francisco, which is just out from City Lights.
Jessica Hoffman One of the first things we had a real conversation about was our disappointment in San Francisco art scenes.
Peter Cochrane I think that we both had the notion that if San Francisco is this beacon of radical thought and politics, it should/would be reflected in the art. I came to learn about the aura of the city in a slow way—I moved here in 2007 when I was nineteen after a complicated two-year stint in Illinois. I needed a new home, and after being shown San Francisco for a week by a friend, I fell impossibly in love. Amazingly, I didn’t know about the radical ideologies associated with the city when I moved here. My ideas of sexuality and politics expanded with my understanding of the place.
JH Admittedly, I am an LA booster. I never wanted to be in San Francisco but ended up splitting my time between LA and SF from 2009 to 2012 for family and other personal reasons. For part of that time, I was dating someone who was really into queer SF art scenes, and we would have these frustrating conversations where I would say I felt like it was so much about scene and superficial style (ironically, what everyone in the Bay Area says about LA, but I truly, and with evidence, protest!), and she would say something about how style is a way for subcultures to build or display community, and I was just like, Ugh, really? Not that style doesn’t have a place (you have certainly helped me value style much more than I used to), but it’s not enough.
PC There will be an aesthetic that accompanies any group, but to have the hammer strike and end in one's visual flair is mind-boggling. Maybe I am being too direct or pinning in saying that this fashion-based end of engagement is hyper-realized in San Francisco, but it is apparent. I am all for clothes as costuming, but it helps when there’s something backing the clothes. I loved reading about Mattilda’s intricate wardrobe choices and why.
Something that you and I both took notice of in the book is the parallel between queer political-activist and queer artist scenes. A great sadness for us both has come in realizing just how disjointed art and politics have become. I was thinking of three shows in particular—two I saw with you and one by myself—that were billed as transgressive illuminations by contemporary artists. One was a conversation between artist and author, one was a film series, and one was primarily portraiture by several artists in 2011 mirroring the work of the Farm Security Administration photographers of the Great Depression. It was so upsetting, so focused on a blatant “othering,” I wanted to walk out!
PC One in particular, Katy Grannan, shot portraits of marginalized, down-and-out people in the Tenderloin in SF and on the Hollywood/Sunset strips in LA. All were taken in the blazing sun, blowing out their features, with an extremely high-definition camera to focus on physical flaws. During the talk, she acknowledged that these people were out of work or on/off drugs. The only compensation was a print, if they wanted one. The entire body of work was about fetishization of disenfranchised people. Everyone in the room seemed enlightened by the beauty of the portraits, smiling and nodding away. I was horrified.
JH What was the audience like?
PC Given the fashion sensibilities in the room, let's go with decidedly, contemporarily counterculture. White, middle-to-upper-class (given the known tuition of the host institution). The quintessential art student.
JH The End of San Francisco made me think a lot about what it means for a city to signify so much, the way SF does for "queer" and "counterculture" and freaky outsider community, and whether there is a relation between romanticization/fetishization of a place and creative/critical engagement. Like does all that romanticization actually limit or dampen engagement?
PC Right. Are we to stay in the poetic image of activism without actually living out the politics? In the five years I have lived in San Francisco, I constantly felt this alienation that I didn't understand until realizing that it was the place. Because it's easier to stand around the wine table talking about projects than to question how you, as an artist, are looking for the cheapest rent in the city and then how you are contributing to the obliteration of histories. And I can’t comprehend how people can dissociate from the massively complicated aspects of living and working and relating. That even though we are living in a place that is heralded as the instigator for queer utopian visions of nonviolence, immigration reform, safety and the building of communities steeped in radical politics, etc, the major visible change is swift, city-wide gentrification.
JH I think what Mattilda is doing in this book—and what we are saying—is not that there is something fundamentally superficial or disappointing about San Francisco creatively or politically (obviously), but that the creation of new counter/subcultural norms, and the resting on superficiality and fantasy, kills possibility—whether that's artistic possibility, or political possibility, or the possibility of radical-queer cultures, or whatever. The actual place San Francisco is full of many things, some of them superficial, some of them violent, some of them radical, some of them beautiful, some of them totally transformative. But the idea "San Francisco"—the mythology of it as the queer mecca, or a counterculture mecca, or whatever, is more tied to violence and conformity/normativity than the supposed transgression or outsider creativity or whatever it is meant to signify. That you brought up gentrification is important. Young, in-some-ways-marginalized artists literally pave the way for gentrification in city after city.
PC Mattilda acknowledges quite plainly that the groups she ran in were young, predominantly white kids. For a time, [the radical-queer activist group she cofounded] Gay Shame was bolstered by recent college grads and people working on their thesis papers. This is the crew that flooded the Mission district. I am in no way saying this was their intention (rather, quite the opposite), but fifteen-or-so years later, it has become the most financially outlandish neighborhood in San Francisco. The things they strove to create have all but been dismantled by corporations and renovated privatized housing.
JH The provocative title The End of San Francisco doesn’t refer to the literal end of a city that is clearly still in existence, but to the end of a certain hope of radical-queer possibility, which San Francisco has represented for many. And that can't be separated from how mostly white radical-queer communities in San Francisco helped end (through their part in gentrification and displacement) other San Franciscos—the working-class Latino Mission, perhaps most notably, and now in rapid progress, the historically Black Western Addition, where we lived together.
PC This is true in most large cities. New artists and others come in, dismantle communities, and discuss what they've done years later.
JH There actually are San Francisco-based artists and activists who are being displaced and making work and organizing about this. But it doesn’t often register as part of an “art” scene, or even an activist community, when activist communities are so about cool, especially a cool cultivated by people who came from somewhere else and connected around their outsider status.
POOR Magazine, a poor-people-led media and arts organization, is doing a project called Born and Raised in Frisco. It was a writing workshop, and they’re putting together an anthology of the work that was created—stories of people who have been or might imminently be displaced by a culture of outsiders coming in, paying higher rents, raising costs all around, imposing their aesthetic (the Mission looks completely different even over the last five years) . . . POOR is doing both this creative work, publishing marginalized voices, and literally creating housing. They're working on a project (in Oakland, because that's where they could even remotely afford land) called Homefulness, which will create permanent housing, gardens, and more for people struggling in poverty, many of whom have been displaced from San Francisco. They also do GentrifuKation Tours of the Mission and other parts of the city, loudly intervening in gentrified spaces, calling out what the spaces used to be and the violence of something that might seem innocuous (a stylish little gallery, a whimsically themed restaurant) but is not innocuous at all.
PC One of the threads in The End of San Francisco is the effect of trauma and the ties that bind people or the ways that they lose each other as a result. Laying out one’s traumatic experiences seems to either sever a relationship immediately or intensify and solidify it. There’s a resulting fear of commitment in that conversation that says, “I have been destroyed in these ways. I’ve learned to build myself again, and I am surviving.” For countless affected youth, San Francisco has acted as a safe haven. Do you think that trauma plays a role in the ways that queer youth escape and connect?
JH Trauma is an important part of why many queer people leave places and try to converge in others—and so it’s complicatedly related both to the effect of that convergence (gentrification, displacement, new norms) and to the ways radical communities fall apart, fail, and fail each other.
PC Mattilda went to Brown University to, as she writes, "do better, better than my father—he went to Oberlin, medical school, became a psychiatrist, a psychotherapist—I had to go to a more prestigious school, become more successful, buy a bigger house, make more money; this was the only chance I had, the only chance not to die. Except then I started to realize that was death too. That’s when I knew I was trapped."
Much later on, after San Francisco and Boston and San Francisco again, she says how her friend Zee "went to Yale and it traumatized her in some of the ways that Brown traumatized me, but she stayed longer and it got worse and she tried to kill herself." This kind of deistic belief in education is also realized in an intensified manner in San Francisco. I guess everything is since the city itself is only seven by seven miles and the population size has barely changed since 1970.
We need to think about the ways that institutionalized education are damaging to people, and what value they really instill. There are four major privatized art schools in the Bay Area, one of which hosts nearly twenty thousand students. My hope has always been that these exorbitant schools would be producing enormously thoughtful, aware, politicized artists. In some very conservative ways I think it is dangerous for these schools to hire educators that will teach the foundationally flawed premises of assuming masses of debt for a non-lucrative interest. Academia can be destructive emotionally and financially. We have to question the risks involved in this over-emphasis.
JH The mythology of the place seems more diminishing than true at this point. There is a line in The End of San Francisco about "loyalty to social status and scene over critical engagement." That is how most of the art and activist circles I encountered felt to me in the couple of years I lived in San Francisco, and it was especially alienating how other people seemed to feel like that's not what was happening. So to relate to you about it meant a lot. There’s another line in the book, about friendships in a radical-queer community Mattilda was part of building: "that strange combination of alienation and kinship that always feels like hope." This theme of friendship as crucial to a sense of radical possibility is central to the book.
PC And it is inseparable from Mattilda's desire to integrate everything into her relationships. As she writes about engaging with one of the most influential queer activist groups ever, "ACT UP meant politicizing everything, and that's what queer meant to me," which I also think relates to deep friendships. Quite early on we laid out our lives for one another—the dramas, contentions, elations that brought us to where we were at that point—and then integrated the world and the conversations grew infinitely.
JH Our initial connection over feeling disappointed by art events blossomed into wide-ranging conversations over walks, cooking together, etc, and ultimately a really important friendship. The End of San Francisco presents different kinds of relationships beyond the hetero norms of couple and nuclear family as crucial to survival—and says they have to be critically engaged, they have to go deep and involve accountability and real commitment to change and intimacy.
This is why I wanted to read this book with you, because our friendship involves almost constant critical engagement (with art, politics, queer possibilities around gender and desire and connection and more, family, money, etc).
And I feel like what Mattilda is doing in the book is demanding everyone dig deeper—whether in creating communities, actions, art, or lives. We can't rest on counterculture style or pretend shallow "scenes" are transformative. We actually have to go deep with each other and build these things.
PC The End of San Francisco begins and ends with intense wants for recognition and connectivity. Throughout, there isn't one part where she is disengaged from this intensity. But that want for more, for something deeper, for integrative relationships and structural change, which is so often mistaken for cynicism, is fueled by love and aspirations.
JH How do we sustain that? How do we create art and political communities that sustain that desire for something better (structural change, justice, a world free of violence), rather than sink into superficial style that masks complicity with violence, whether through gentrification or something else?
PC I’m trying to actually define my understanding of my alienation, slowly. And what these important connections have meant . . .
The most devastating part of the book for me occurred about halfway through. After she has built these relationships she has spent years trying to find, create, and foster, her friends turn violently against her. It is clear throughout the book and particularly in that moment that dreaming of difference is dangerous. If we are hoping for relationships that dive into our innermost thoughts and our broadest, demanding visions of sustained, transformative community, we are working against massively ingrained cultural limitations about how we are supposed to casually, superficially connect with one another. To not feel alone in our sense, in Mattilda's sense, of relating is to constantly create something new.
Read a conversation between Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore and Jessica Hoffmann at the Los Angeles Review of Books
The End of San Francisco is out now from City Lights