SF Techies take Poverty Porn to the Next Level

16 04 2014

Back when I worked in documentary film production, I worked with youth programs in the Tenderloin and East Oakland that taught young people how to tell their own stories via digital video, with an emphasis on giving students the tools to empower themselves with their own cultural agency.

With “Homeless GoPro“, SF techies appear to be doing quite the opposite:  literally strapping HD video cameras onto the chests of homeless people, instrumentalizing them as walking cameras to gather images for the techies.  Where is the authorship for the people with the cameras strapped to their bodies?

The project was founded by a “sociologist/entrepreneur” (isn’t that an oxymoron?), whose team includes a lawyer as well.  When I studied sociology in college, it was a lot of Marx and Durkheim.  How do you reconcile that with Silicon Valley techno-utopianism?  To quote sfgate:

Adler and his fellow techies aren’t sure what will come from their venture, but at the very least they want to connect more homeless people to the non-homeless world. That may mean strapping cameras onto a half-dozen more indigents. Or just arranging for those with money to spend a few bucks taking homeless people out for coffee.

Those with money taking homeless people out for coffee? The guy they strapped the camera to needs money for new teeth, much less a grande latte.  The entitlement and condescension are straight out of Mike Judge’s Silicon Valley, but this is not a satire.

“Connecting more homeless people to the ‘non-homeless world’,” as if this utopian ‘non-homeless world’ didn’t play a role in forcing people out of their homes?

To add to the absurdity, the sfgate article quotes “the mayor’s point person on homelessness,” supervisor Bevan Dufty, who has consistently sided with property owners around issues of tenants’ rights.  Who better suited to run point on homelessness than he who plays an instrumental role in the disenfranchisement of renters in a city with trebling eviction rates?

Instead of turning homeless human beings into animated ethnographic tools for techno-voyeurism, why don’t we examine the role of growing economic inequality at a time when tech-based stratification is reshaping this city—and determining who can no longer afford a roof over their heads—at an alarming rate.

Why don’t the Techies turn the cameras on themselves to interrogate their own elitism and hypocrisy, and the role they are playing in forcing people out of the homes they’ve lived in for decades to make room for upscale condos for more tech elites? Or how they’ve leveraged the mayor to give tax breaks to tech companies who set up shop here, thus denying the city’s coffers enormous tax revenue that could be used to do a lot more for homeless people than take them out for coffee?


#WhitePeopleDoingYoga @ the Asian Art Museum

4 04 2014

#WhitePeopleDoingYoga 01

Last night I went to check out #WhitePeopleDoingYoga at the First Thursday event at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.

#WhitePeopleDoingYoga is an installation by *Pardon My Hindi / Chiraag Bhakta.
On view from March 28th – May 25th.

#WhitePeopleDoingYoga 02

#WhitePeopleDoingYoga 03

Kudos to the museum’s education department for exhibiting Bhakta’s project, which is showing in the Education Resource Center in conjunction with the feature exhibition Yoga: The Art of Transformation.  While I couldn’t find much information about the project on the museum’s website, *Pardon My Hindi posted a video and artist statement here.

Chiraag Bhakta

Click for more on Chiraag Bhakta

Artist Statement

This piece is a reflection of my personal relationship, as an Indian American, with yoga and its migration to today’s Western context. I call this piece #WhitePeopleDoingYoga, the hashtag symbolizing the commercialization and commodification of a culture.

Not too long before moving to the Bay Area seven years ago, I began to collect grassroots-level meditation and yoga ephemera from the 1960s through the 1980s. During that era, particularly in the Bay Area, yoga started making a big impact on Western culture. I became interested in how yogic practice was being mined and commercialized; how the South Asian face of the discipline was being removed in the branding and portrayal of the practice and culture. Today, an online image search for “yoga” mainly returns images of white people in various poses, followed by images of dogs and cats doing the same.

This project is not about the individual pieces in my collection, but the overall voice that is put out in front of us, which is overwhelming and suffocating to me. After you go through the exhibition Yoga: The Art of Transformation, you will notice a sharp turn as yoga enters a new level of commercialization in the West. The $27 billion yoga industry in the U.S. has rebranded a complex and rich discipline to make it easier to sell “yoga” as a line of products. Brands like Lululemon and Nike have started appropriating and trademarking phrases, postures, and clothing—aligning and embedding themselves in our understanding of yoga. Simultaneously the South Asian face and voice are relegated to an exotic caricature—cartoons, adoption of South Asian names by Westerners, mystical creatures, Hindu gods. One archival study of the health and wellness magazine Yoga Journal found that over the course of two years “there was never a South Asian person on the cover, and less than one percent of content contributors were South Asian.”1

The act of selectively choosing what works in popular Western contexts, while ignoring aspects of yoga’s core philosophy and historic practice, is telling. It shows an ironic attachment of one’s ego to a desire for ownership over an ancient practice of material denouncement that emerged from an altogether different, South Asian, tradition.

In the end, I feel compelled to draw parallels between the current state of yoga and the industrial colonization by the same dominant voice that now adds another conquest to its collection. Meet the new founders of Yoga™.

—Chiraag Bhakta

1 Roopa Singh, Esq., Archival study for the South Asian American Perspectives on Yoga in America, SAAPYA

#WPDY totebags available at PardonMyHindi.com

#WPDY totebags available at PardonMyHindi.com

Meanwhile upstairs in Samsung Hall, mostly WhitePeopleDoingChanting


%d bloggers like this: