The Cries of San Francisco: Artists celebrate the call of the street peddler

Photo by Erick Padilla, All rights reserved. http://www.erickpadillaphotography.com/

Last Saturday, June 11, 70 artists gathered in downtown San Francisco to call, cry, sell, barter, and gift items ranging from love poems to insect antennae. KALW’s Sara Bernard has the story.

*     *     *

SARA BERNARD: From balloons to time machines, dream collages to anti-depressant soaps, you can find pretty much anything you could imagine for sale here.

Where am I? Not the farmer’s market. It’s more like an artist’s market: nearly 70 conceptual artists have come together at Mint Plaza, near Fifth and Market Streets, to unearth, explore, and celebrate the historical traditions and contemporary manifestations of street peddling.

This event, supported by the nonprofit arts organization Southern Exposure, is called The Cries of San Francisco. It was designed by artist Allison Smith and modeled after The Cries of London, a historic print and audio tradition that’s traveled around the world. 

ALLISON SMITH: All of the participants in this project were invited to play with this idea of a peddler persona and use it as a means to explore how they might think about selling their work, operating within the complex art world economies that there are, and doing something theatrical and performative with that.

Although Smith chose people to join her based on their project proposals, she didn’t really know what she was going to see on Market Day until she saw it – on Market Day. And dozens of artists, including Maggie Lawson, showed up.

MAGGIE LAWSON: She trusted that we were all going to show up and bring quality work with us.

It’s a colorful, musical cacophony, with people clad all in crepe paper and playing tambourines...a theatrical, playful free-for-all: Fun things to buy, touch, taste, explore, listen to, and watch, full of laughter and surprise.

SMITH: One of the most fun parts of projects like this for me is to put an idea out there and to see what comes back. It’s usually really different than I originally imagined.

Allison Smith is dressed as Town Crier, in a suit and top hat – and fake beard.

SMITH: People responded to this project with very ephemeral, non object-based responses. Everything from love poems, dreams. There’s someone who’s doing a project called Offset Life, where he’s offering to offset your own carbon footprint by doing activities that will somehow counteract the damage that you’ve done.

The prices for what’s being sold – sometimes material, sometimes immaterial – are often negotiable.

SMITH: I’ve got plenty, one for twenty.

PETE HICKOK: Sometimes I get paid in donuts.

And out of context quotes? Priceless.

UNIDENTIFIED VISITOR #1: It’s an orange mustache that attaches.

UNIDENTIFIED VISITOR #2: Where’d you get that?

UNIDENTIFIED VISITOR #3: From a time machine.

According to the participants, this kind of event is not only kooky and creative, it’s inspiring. Performing in character in a public space gives artists the ability to break down barriers and create new, bizarre contexts for interacting with their audience.

MAJA RUZNIC: There was already a thing that happened earlier today. There was a guy who was preaching the Bible. Were you here for that?

Artist Maja Ruznic came as an emotional trash collector.

RUZNIC: It was amazing. It was almost like he was part of it. He inspired all of us and then all of us started singing our cries at the same time. So he became sort of diluted amongst all of us. It was this weird sort of, who’s real, who’s not? I mean, I’m not really an emotional trash collector. When you’re not wearing a costume, it would be weird to just go up to someone on the bus and say, ‘Hey, do you have some baggage for me?’ Whereas I feel this legitimizes that, and under the context of art, it’s okay.

And it is okay. Everyone’s learning from one another and exchanging gifts with strangers. After visiting The Atelier of the Absurd Dream, which invited passersby to share and collage pieces of their subconscious, I walked off with a whimsical Dream Kit, full of treasures wrapped in tissue paper and plastered with the words, “Dream more.” For at least one afternoon in San Francisco’s financial district, many of us did.

In San Francisco, I’m Sara Bernard, for Crosscurrents.

If you missed it, there’s more: the Cries of San Francisco gallery exhibit and several performance events will continue at Southern Exposure through July 2nd. There’s even a soundtrack with a 30-minute loop of all the cries at play.