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EXHIBIT REVIEW: Gabriele Basilico’s Silicon Valley at SFMOMA (Through June 15)

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In January two Bay Area scholars joined the Italian urban landscape photographer Gabriele Basilico for the opening of his SF MOMA show, “From San Francisco to Silicon Valley,” which runs through June 15. Fred Turner, a professor of communications at Stanford, and Dick Walker, a professor of geography at UC Berkeley, had less to say about the formal aspects of the work, its traditions, and Basilico’s artistic achievements than the social history of the landscape itself. Basilico’s work has focused on urban landscapes and architecture, especially peripheral parts of cities from the Middle East, Europe, and South America, for over 30 years.

Speaking through an interpreter, Basilico called Eugene Atget and Walker Evans his major influences in his body of work and in the show. He suggested that he is working in a post-1970s paradigm shift of contemporary landscape photography that is moving architecture and urban landscapes closer to traditional concepts of natural landscapes. The photographer has been the subject of several major international retrospectives. In addition, his work has been collected in several books: Cityscapes (2000), Berlin (2002), Bords de mer and Beirut 1991 (both in 2003), Scattered City (2005), Work Book: 1969-2006 (2007), and Silicon Valley ’07 (2008).

For the SFMOMA commission, Basilico would travel 5000 kilometers and shoot over 600 photos. In approaching the project, Basilico commented on his earlier work as trying to create a new vision for urban landscapes, removing subjectivity, “just looking,” and shying away from iconic portraits. He frequently worked on the outskirts of cities, preferring unfamiliar views and the transition zones between neighborhoods and industrial zones. He had never been to California, but researched the project from home: he suggested that while San Francisco was over-represented he could find no representative images of Silicon Valley. He chose highways 101 and 280 as a mode of “surveillance,” a paring of the western Bay Area landscape, and a “typology” of the landscape, as he called it. (A map of the Bay with the freeways highlighted is a centerpiece of the exhibit.) Basilico’s work at the freeways’ periphery from San Francisco to south San Jose lies on the borderlands of tourism, landscape painting, documentary photography, geographical surveillance, and architectural and planning history.

The scholars then applied social history to the landscape represented in Basilico’s work.

Turner challenged the audience to remember that the military-industrial complex built the Valley. It was a combination of major defense spending by a Cold War federal government, and the economy of WWII that boosted Sunbelt America. (The politics of the gun, bible, and sun belts extended all the way west to the Bay Area.) Radio research at Stanford in the 1910s and 1920s got things started, and by the time WWII came around, Stanford constituted the vanguard what Eisenhower deemed the “military-industrial complex,” the network that tied federal defense spending to local economic boosterism and the Cold War research university. Stanford not only served as an incubator for industrial R&D, but also as a political purveyor of local boosterism and development. Famously, Stanford’s research park embodied the collaboration between these three entities, and housed some of the early tycoons of the Cold War high tech industry. Stanford, of course, was the landlord and chief broker of these deals. In the talk, Turner reminded us that nearly every microchip that was produced from 1959 to 1972 was put into a missile, not a computer.

Walker’s assessment was more somber. Where are the people?, he asked. You have to look carefully. There are a few, but they are dwarfed by the software campus architecture of Oracle, views of new “smart growth” development in the old Japanese agriculture and garbage dumping ground of Alviso, the massive pavement curves of 101 and 280, and the proliferating black streaks of electrical wires that dominate Basilico’s landscapes. Where is East San Jose?, Walker asked. Somehow, Basilico and his MOMA contacts who guided him through his 101/280 tour of the Bay Area missed every community of color except the historical reference to Alviso, and the detached, birds-eye view of distant San Francisco and Valley neighborhoods. Most of the Peninsula is also absent in the show.

The tension of the visible and the invisible emerged as the focus of discussion.

Turner charged that the networks of capital that pervade grocery store and flower stand encounters around San Hill Road are virtually unknown. No one, except the extreme elite of venture capital, can track the networks of deal-making. The purveyors of big transnational capital interests command billions at the epicenter of San Hill Road, and paradoxically, the effects that handshakes go without input from the local communities on which they have an immense impact.

Walker charged that the invisible in Silicon Valley lies along the directives of race, class, gender. Walker, a Marx-influenced political economist, knows that the service sector in the Valley is powered by an underclass of people of color, and that many of these people live in East San Jose and the triangle from Story and White in the East, to 10th and Taylor in the Northwest, to King and Alum Rock in the West. They appear nowhere, not in body, or in reference, in the landscape of the built environment in Basilico’s work. (Ironically, Walker’s father was a professor at Stanford and chair of the committee that approved the industrial park. He worked closely with Terman to push the idea through the university administration.)

These are images of the built environment with a nod to Atget and Evans, but they contain none of the humanity and social function or humanist documentary of Evans’ depression-era urban landscapes. They contained none of the mystery and aura of Atget’s haunting, mysterious Paris views. The tourist and the institution, perhaps, tell a more cutting story about the Valley than Evans-style portraits of workers could have. In a way, the images serve as a negative for the kind of American social documentary photography tradition of which Evans is a part. It is in the invisible that these images reveal what is unanimously and ubiquitously left out of the arch-industrial narratives of the Valley. The naiveté of the tourist’s eye, the institution’s orchestration of the project, and the brilliance of the photographer’s craft have created an alternate story of this place. The invisible of the military industrial complex combine with the invisible of the directives of race, class, and gender, producing the hard-to-define region called the Silicon Valley. Basilico’s photographs tell a story of race and capital formation in this landscape. It’s what is not there that tells a truth about this place.

–Aaron Wilcher

Some examples of Eugene Atget’s work

Walker Evans photos from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

Evans Farm Security Administration (FSA), Depression-era street scenes in New York.

A few of Basilico’s 1991 Beirut photographs.

Basilico at MIT.

Basilico’s SF MOMA show “From San Francisco to Silicon Valley.”

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