Close to the ground, beneath the noise of tech industry hype cycles, San Francisco operates in the usual patterns of labor, attention, and change. It is a relief to see this subtle reality depicted in art when so often the city is represented via its most contrived and rapacious aspects.
There is a moment in Ben Grossman’s film In the Clear Stream of All of It that at first struck me as so relatably self-conscious I felt uncomfortable. Caitlyn Galloway, a farmer at Little City Gardens and the primary on-screen figure, sorts radishes into pretty little bunches and glances around as if trying not to notice the camera. Then her voiceover resolves the tension: “I think farming is art. Especially in the city. There’s more performance in a city farm than a rural one. People are watching what we’re doing here. Neighbors are literally watching out their windows. This place is outside of what’s commonly understood to be a normal part of a city. It’s an in-between space. It’s not legible to everyone.”
I met Galloway—who is also a trained sign painter, fine artist, and a producer of the film—in 2019, when we gave lectures one night at Place Talks, a series for visual artists to present research-based ideas at the Prelinger Library downtown. Hers was about tending a sense of place in San Francisco through growing dahlias, and I felt an immediate kinship with her and her work, surely due to the careful cultivation by co-curators Charlie Macquarie and Nicole Lavelle. Little City Gardens had already closed by then, and now Place Talks has ended too. A lot has changed, but we reorganize ourselves into new arrangements to keep going. It is always someone’s turn to play the farmer, but we need acreage.
In the Clear Stream of All of It is full of imagery that reinforces the legibility and necessity of a garden in a city. Quiet passages of digging, planting, and maintaining some order amidst the inclinations of non-human nature are interspersed with footage from the intervening years, like empty alleys in busy neighborhoods, a butterfly and poppy mural hovering near a construction crane in smoky air, and people fishing the bay alongside tourists. A terrific ringing and buzzing soundtrack composed by David Coulter reinforces the resemblances. Many places a city holds in common are rather agricultural in form.
Later Galloway harvests dahlias into bunches and drops some that look pretty nice to me onto the ground. I think it must be so painful to work hard on something beautiful but the timing is off. There is an unseen, unnamed protagonist whose identity is either composed or obscured, I’m not sure. Real or not, he embodies the precarity and alienation that many people encounter when they try to find a place for themselves and their art. This film blurs the boundaries between the past and the present, between art and other sorts of production, and between the truth and fiction, as well it should. Not everything is fixed, not even an end.
In the Clear Stream of All of It shows Saturday, September 9, and Tuesday, September 12 at The Roxie Theater.