Todd Gilens

Invited by Susan Stone
CA

Endangered Species

This temporary public art project uses transit vehicles and their environments as a medium, investigating relationships between city and region, human and environmental values. From January  2011 through April 2012, four Endangered Species buses circulated throughout San Francisco, dispatched to different routes each day.

The idea came when I learned the SFMTA's “Transit Effectiveness Project” was measuring maintenance, driving efficiencies, ridership statistics, the bread and butter of transportation engineers work. But no one was discussing aesthetics, or what wider impacts and meanings transit has. It seemed to me that an assessment of effectiveness should include these criteria too.

Like street trees, sidewalk cafes, and parks, public transit vehicles can be lively, as well as useful visual elements of everyday urban life. But the buses are so assaulted by advertising, it’s as if our transit system is not our own. But whose environment is it? Who is looking after the places we live? Public transit is about pooling and sharing resources. Bringing the bus together with local ecosystems and  vulnerable animal species was a natural fit once I started to think about it that way.

The project is also a metaphor of the relationships it addresses, like a fractal whose structure is similar at different scales. The image - buses are at the center, but they are activated as the buses circulate through different neighborhoods and circumstances. And in parallel to the buses, there was the project website, opening doors to information and partnerships with area non-profits whose work addresses the questions the project is raising: what is beauty in everyday life? what are our responsibilities to the resources we use? How is ownership and power divided between people – and between species?

For more on how I’ve been thinking about Endangered Species, please see my article “In and Out of Place” in ANTENNAE: The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture. Photographs of the buses are posted on Flickr here.

I am grateful to the many people who have helped with Endangered Species, the animals and vegetables that have sustained me, as well to these supporting institutions: Community Initiatives, a San Francisco-based fiscal sponsor which is a 501 (c)(3) organization; Bay Nature Institute; San Francisco Metropolitan Transportation Authority; SPUR; and the San Francisco Arts Commission, Potrero Nuevo Fund of Tides Foundation, Zellerbach Family Fund, San Francisco Foundation, Adobe Community Foundation, and Christensen Fund.

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