This evening I decided to take a walk by the Civic Center area to check out a brand new art installation: W.F.T (San Francisco) from artist Joseph Kosuth. W.F.T. — or “Word Family Tree” — is a neon light piece that wraps around the Polk St. side of the Bill Graham Civic, lighting up an otherwise boring brick wall with bricked-up windows.
I was held up too late at work to make it to the lighting ceremony though by the time I arrived there were still a few people lingering around taking photos. From the street level it’s easy to miss; the neon lights seemed dimmer than I’d expected, and are high enough from the ground level that the best view is from across the street.
The neon lights form trees breaking down the etymologies of the words “Civic” and “Auditorium.” It almost looks like notes taken by a college student in a linguistics course, except if those notes were inexplicably turned into light and attached to the wall of a four story building.
While I admire the unusual decision to put a brainstorm cloud of words in neon on the side of the building, the unfortunately ugly fire escapes get in the way, literally blocking your view depending on where you stand. It’s hardly the fault of the piece though.
My only critique is the use of the word “auditorium.” To most of us locals the building is called “Bill Graham Civic.” Honestly I’d forgotten the full is name of the place is “Bill Graham Civic Auditorium” until today. It’s not ear splitting like when an out-of-towner says “The BART,” but if someone told me to meet them at “the auditorium,” I wouldn’t know what they were talking about.
The building itself dates back to 1915 when it opened as part of the Panama Pacific Exhibition. Since then it’s served various purposes, including a basketball arena for the Warriors, an opera house for San Francisco Opera, and an exhibit hall where a very early prototype of what we now think of as a computer was first demonstrated.
Also, I saw The Smashing Pumpkins play there once back in ’98. Cool show, man.
These days it’s primary a concert venue. The name was changed by the city in the early 90’s to honor legendary local concert promoter Bill Graham after he died in a helicopter crash.
If you’re in the area when it’s dark enough — whether for a concert or just getting off work — you’d might as well wander by the Polk St. side of the building and take a look at W.F.T. for yourself. Until now you probably haven’t seen neon signs written in Greek and Latin, let alone many of them stuck all over the side of a building. There’s plenty of time to check it out in person as it’s considered a permanent installation. Of course even in the best conditions neon lights don’t last forever; better to check it out sooner than later if you’re interested.