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Drawing Attention to a Sinking High-Rise in San Francisco

Postcommodity’s sound piece will play every day in San Francisco until the Millennium Tower is fixed or torn down.

Millennium Tower. (photo by Robert Canali, 2019, image courtesy the San Francisco Art Institute.)

SAN FRANCISCO — Since opening in 2009, the Millennium Tower, a 58-story luxury condo building in downtown San Francisco, has sunk about a foot and a half and tilted about 14 inches. A slowly descending high-rise in some of the most expensive real estate in the country was too rich a symbol of a system collapsing under its own weight for the Indigenous art collective, Postcommodity, to resist.

Cristóbal Martínez and Kade L. Twist, the artists in the collective, made a data map of the tower’s movement and created a conceptual sound piece based on the minuscule, if perceptible oscillations. Starting November 15, the work, called “The Point of Final Collapse,” will be played from the tower at the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI)’s campus on North Beach and projected to downtown San Francisco by long-range acoustic devices.

Postcommodity are currently artists in residence at SFAI, where they received the Harker Award for Interdisciplinary Studies. Creating a work about the sinking high-rise was an easy choice, according to Martínez.

“We started researching San Francisco, and current events in the city, and the Millennium Tower popped up,” Martínez said. “We knew almost instantly we wanted to do a project that was in some way going to connect with some of most expensive real estate on earth collapsing under the weight of itself as a metaphor for late capitalism.”

Postcommodity, “The Point of Final Collapse” (2019) (image courtesy the San Francisco Art Institute)

Martínez is now the chair of Art + Technology at SFAI and Twist is in Los Angeles, where he teaches at the Otis College of Art and Design. They both lived in San Francisco in the ’90s, drawn by the literary and music and art scenes. They liked going to hear noise music at a bar in the Haight and seeing Chicano art in the Mission district. Twist says the tremendous economic disparity in the city existed then, but has been intensified by the tech boom, which he calls “Google kids with their backpacks overtaking places they never used to go.”

“There’s the creative community and tech community, and you have radical desperate capitalism and people who just want to tell stories and those just don’t really mix,” Twist said. “I remember us coming here and seeing a line of people off a bus all walking into one bar with their backpacks, and it put a fire under us to want to isolate a metaphor that could help clarify those tensions and render more legible those economic disparities and the market forces that are driving it — and just how irrational it is that we have this sinking ship, this tower that is sinking while increasing in value.”

Residents of the Millennium Tower, who paid $1.6 to $10 million for their condos, have access to a wine cellar, pool, a movie theater, and concierge service. In September, the city endorsed a multi-million dollar plan to fix the building’s foundation, involving anchoring one side of the building to bedrock and allowing the other side to continue sinking until it evens out.

That people continue to invest in the building and have confidence that it will be fixed, says something about the city, according to Martínez.

“It’s not only the Millennium Tower, but it’s the whole downtown that is bursting with new development in the most vulnerable part of the peninsula,” he said. “We know that’s the place where liquefaction occurs when we get hit with next big earthquake. The most expensive real estate is the most vulnerable real estate in the city.”

Cristóbal Martínez and Kade L. Twist (courtesy Postcommodity and Bockley Gallery)

Postcommodity did a previous project called “If History Moves At the Speed of its Weapons, Then the Shape of the Arrow is Changing” — about a successful campaign of the Pueblo Indian against Spanish colonists in 1680 —where the artists mapped the data of the weapons in flight to sound.

You can graph out data and look at a chart, Martínez says, but making it audible is another way of perceiving data. This data of the tower’s movement has been mapped to autonomous sensory meridian response, or ASMR audio, considered healing and soothing.

The sounds will be played for four minutes from SFAI’s campus at 5pm every day. The time of day was significant, Twist says.

“Our goal was to create a moment of repose, of thoughtfulness, a call to prayer,” he said. “A lot of things happen at five — you get off work, happy hour starts, it’s like this first moment of freedom, and everybody’s mindset changes — you’re thinking about family, you’re thinking about everything but work. It’s rush hour, and it’s the noisiest time of day.”

The audio will change based on the building’s movement, and although one inch a year is rapid for a building, the daily changes are almost imperceptible to the eye or ear, Martínez said.

“If you think of the tilting itself as a sort of clock, a kind of time bomb if you will, this is something that takes years to pull off,” he said. “But what we’re going to listen to when this piece opens in mid November compared to what it’s going to sound like perhaps three years from now, there will be a marked difference.”

Martínez and Twist say the installation will play every day until the tower is fixed or torn down.

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