Artist & Writer, San Francisco Bay Area

You Are Not Here

You Are Not Here (2014)

Kansas City based artist Laura Pensar and I sent each other on explorations of our cities: Oakland (for me) and St. Louis (for her). We used psychogeography, an approach to geography that emphasizes playfulness and “drifting” around urban environments. The results were transformative for both of us.

My artist collaborator Laura Pensar and I directed each other on Twitter to explore our local cities. Using psychogeography, we vicariously explored the other’s city, so that in our friendship we could both feel “here” and “there” at the same time. In the first iteration of You Are Not Here (YANH), Laura walked around Kansas City while I walked around San Francisco. In part two of YANH, it was St. Louis for her and Oakland for me (along with a couple Orange County days, see below). For five days, we each gave the other a daily directive, then the last five days, we traded those directives back to each other. In-depth text and images from our Oakland/St. Louis project are below, excerpts from my part of the project blog ( My artist partner (formerly @LauraIasaacArt, now @PensarCards) has her YANH posts here.

The Daily Directives

Oakland & Orange County, CA

April 2014

Day One 4/9/2014:

Look for the extremes of the familiar and unfamiliar

Day Two 4/10/2014: 

Look for places of friction and uncomfortable meetings

Day Three 4/11/2014: 

Look for the voids

Day Four 4/12/2014: 

Find the edges of urban and nature

Day Five 4/13/2014: 

Look for comfort

Day Six 4/14/2014: 

Find Stability and supports, whatever that looks like

Day Seven 4/15/2014: 

Find something moving, fast or slow

Day Eight 4/16/2014: 

Find out what color does

Day Nine 4/17/2014: 

Look into something so that you are looking out

Day Ten 4/18/2014: 

Find what overshadows you

You Are Not Here at a glance (Twitter feed & website)

Screen Recording: Twitter Feed for You Are Not Here

Day One

Look for the extremes of the familiar and unfamiliar

Oakland/Emeryville border, south to site of ’89 earthquake freeway collapse, east to Mountain View Cemetary 

Today really was unexpected. It’s just Day One, and this physical exploration of the city became the real life navigation of my own state of mind.  I started my day at The Compound Gallery & Studios, Oakland where I do my studio work. Laura gave me this directive: “Today I’d like you to find the extremes of the familiar and the unfamiliar.” How would I find the unfamiliar in this city that I have known for 20 years?

Almost immediately I started wondering, what exactly IS unfamiliar? Unusual does not mean unfamiliar. Oakland is diverse in so many ways; colorful graffitied walls are familiar, gentrification is familiar, organic food & artisan burgers are familiar, liquor stores & McDonalds are familiar. Broken glass, toy dogs, pit bulls, old/run-down, newly built, pretty gardens, weedy lots. It’s all familiar. I couldn’t find anything I didn’t recognize as I walked the neighborhood. Even if I’d never walked those particular streets (Helen? Herzog?), I had seen it before.

I got in my car and drove south. I turned left off 65th St, passed Powell & Stanford, and I made my way to Mandela Pkwy which runs along the freeway. I’d driven through but never walked the area. I realized my only path to the unfamiliar was through the familiar. I moved to places I knew less, but I still knew them. How could I go somewhere I didn’t know at all? I wasn’t following a map, I was following the streets themselves. I would have to turn opposite of my instincts, embracing the unknown… if only I could find it. So I ended up at Mandela Pkwy. I parked and walked around. I remembered the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake freeway collapse happened here. I found a mural marking the area in honor of that.

Today I found myself at the nexus of the very things that are already on my mind. Although I was on the move, in my Oakland space and watching Laura’s St. Louis space, even though I was immersed in the record we were making on social media, this is the first time I’ve slowed down this much in quite a while. Everywhere I have physically been lately, my mind has been in one or two other places, and this even without much use of social media lately. At Mandela & 26th St, I looked intently at the brick walls, the hundred year old factory windows, the open warehouse loading docks and the recycling collection centers. A tower in the distance captured my attention for a while. I watched the tall man walking his dalmatian and chihuahua. I saw the railroad tracks, once covered in pavement, now reemerging. It was time to go. I decided to find the opposite of this place, the other side of the city. I used my maps app, dropped a pin, and made my way east.

East on 26th (from lofts to !!! in one block), left on Peralta, under the overpass (homeless habitats), right (east) on 35th St, following the freeway until I hopped on, made my way left (north) around a curve, and hopped off at 51st, turning right to continue east. Passed Broadway, lots of walking students, most likely from California College of the Arts. Made a turn left (north) at Piedmont. Immediately I knew, I did not know this place. Two blocks and I was at Mountain View Cemetery. One hundred and fifty years old and sprawling.

What could be more simultaneously extremely familiar & unfamiliar than a place like this?  I know death is a part of life. But I’m never prepared for it. Even in the best case scenario, I don’t know really how to act or feel. My grandfather died last Friday night, age 97. His memorial and burial are this weekend (which is why the Oakland portion of our work here is “closed” Friday, Saturday, Sunday.) And today, in the spirit of putting my part of this project to work for me, with the trust that as I pursue what I need out of my art making, I will find the gem of what I need to make… that I will find the most meaningful, important things… today, I found what I needed. At the behest of the directive to find the extreme familiar/unfamiliar, using the parameters of our You are not here. project to make my way through the city, I made my way into the crosshairs of the most familiar thing that I’ll never get used to.

And I made it out alive.

@marzkim Twitter post, 1:09 PM - 9 Apr 2014 from Mountain View Cemetery, Oakland, CA via

Day Two  

Look for places of friction and uncomfortable meetings

Broadway, from north at Lake Temescal to south at Jack London Square

I started at the top of the city. It was just so peaceful. The green hills, the wide blue sky and the perimeter of trees made me want to breathe and slow down. Thursday April 10, I planned to cross Oakland via Broadway. Laura told me to look for the uncomfortable meetings and for the friction.

At my second stop, I made a new discovery. Lake Temescal? I didn’t know there was such a place. I parked my car. A group of 30-something & 40-something mothers had some sort of boot camp exercise class while their babies slept in strollers and their toddlers rode tiny two wheel bikes. What kind of kids have that kind of balance at such a young age? Were the mothers so ambitious that they not only hauled their tired bodies outside but their kids also now whizzed around on bikes at a mere two years old? I felt inadequate but continued my invisible art project. I wondered, who are these women? They pay money to exercise in groups with such determination, they have their babies hitting milestones, and– knowing North Oakland/Berkeley– these women have careers AND money in addition to these little successful families. But I remember the exhaustion of early motherhood. The striving. The never-ending days with never-ending tasks. Constructing the appearance of wellness and competence became some sort of replacement for other achievement. There’s no outside measurement of accomplishment when taking care of an infant. The real friction often happens behind closed doors. Finding uncomfortable meetings and friction in places with money takes a sense of truth that can’t be found just by looking at the external.

I got back in my car & quickly found the neighborhood next to the Temescal quietness. A private high school that I’d heard of before. Tiny streets with lots of curves. Expensive houses with incredible views. Clean. Updated. Smooth. No visible friction. Everything was comfortable. The homes in that area: $1.5M. How easy does money make our lives? It creates a salve, a comfort that smooths the rough edges. It makes the friction harder to detect, but easier to lie about. How much better is it?

I continued down Broadway. Turned around curves, started to hit the city. Homes there: down to $850K. California College of the Arts on the left. Coffee houses and laundromats. Retail. The hill descended a little more. It was a warm day.

I just went straight down Broadway.

I had never explored Oakland this way. Without a real destination, not swerving one way or another. Seeing each stop for what it was. Homes turned into retail, car dealerships, restaurants. What was I looking for again? Friction.

Was it about the money? Or lack of it? It being Oakland, I figured I’d see the lack of it, the trouble. But I wasn’t, not yet.

Broadway, a wide road. What was the original Broadway? The easy way? The main way?

Maybe I wouldn’t find the friction. I kept going straight down Broadway.

I did a lot of intentional looking. A lot of staring and hoping to get more understanding. I passed medical buildings. Remembered the time I took my little son to that place where they examined him closely to diagnose his vision problems (three things wrong.) That other place where they evaluated if he has a genetic disorder (he doesn’t). I was outsized scared. Parenting. The uncomfortable meetings happened behind closed doors. I took a deep breath & kept moving down Broadway.

I let this project lead me. I kept believing I’d find what I need, to make the connections I need. Beginning the next day (Friday Apr 11) I’d be leaving the project for three days. Because my grandpa died. It was expected, but the timing never is. I chose to just work with what I have, go where the project leads me, loosening all the pre-determined parameters and trusting in discovery. I had to let this project work be what it would be.

In the process, I’ve learned the city of Oakland in ways I never would have without this experience. I’ve challenged my expectations and made discoveries. The more I went down Broadway, the more I told myself, “I love this city. This is my city.” Oakland, with it’s history and ins and outs. With it’s particular localness, it’s particular grittiness, it’s particular gentrification and resistance to it. The further I went down Broadway, the more surprised I was by the variety of the city. It came alive. As I neared the end of the road, I passed the Oakland Police Station. I was amazed that I would stumble on the quintessential answer for “uncomfortable meetings/friction.” What physical place could better embody the notion? I parked my car and walked to the end of Broadway. I took in the sights and sounds of Jack London Square, the train that crosses the T intersection, the amazing soul food that’s presented in so many different ways.

I wrote this as I flew back home from my grandpa’s funeral in Orange County (Southern California). My seat neighbors had their windows closed. Electronic devices are permitted during take off and landing, so I didn’t have a marker for the end of my flight. We hit the ground unexpectedly. I was startled. The plane touched down (bam bam bam) in Oakland. I was home.

Day Three

Look for the voids

Buena Park, Orange County

It was Day 3 of the project, and instead of exploring the streets of Oakland, I headed out on a plane from the Oakland Airport. I took a quick flight to make it to my grandfather’s memorial, the nighttime service before the graveside service the next day. Knowing my state of mind, knowing that I wanted a distraction, I asked Laura to go ahead and give me a directive. She gave me something I think she knew I’d have an easy time finding: I was to look for the voids.

I went out on a walk in the very quiet Orange County suburb of Buena Park. One mile away was that amusement park (Knott’s Berry Farm) I visited with my family a year and a half earlier. I remembered riding the little train there, and the play actors  who boarded the train. They aimed their fake guns at us and told us to hand over our money, because they were train robbers. How unreal and it still felt so real, since in fact my husband and two children had actually been robbed at gunpoint in Oakland the week before. Not having been present during the real robbery, that playacted train robbery brought to life the void of the experience that I’d had once I learned what happened to my boys. It wasn’t something I’d wanted to know more intimately. My blood pressure strained high for the rest of that day.

The Orange County suburb streets looked like a still photograph. Long concrete sidewalks, tall palm trees, wide black roads. I walked slowly across the street and went to an empty schoolyard nearby. I aimed my camera phone into the empty field. After 30 minutes of one of the slowest shortest walks I’ve taken, I made my way back to my aunt’s front lawn. I lay down on the short spiky grass. I covered my eyes from the sun. The blue sky was bright and open above me. I breathed. My grandfather’s life lasted 97 years. No matter how long a person waits in expectation of saying goodbye to someone so important, the finality of death’s goodbye is not something people get used to. There is void. There is no getting ready for such a thing. Instead, I could only face the finality of a life that’s gone, and embrace the life I still have. So I got up, and that’s what I did. 

Day Four

Find the edges of urban and nature

Oakland Airport, then to southernmost border of Oakland

After the weekend away, I had two directives for the day, and the first would be to look for the edge of the urban and of nature. I looked at my map of Oakland and took the 880 Freeway south towards San Leandro. I planned to stop just short of the border between the cities. I rigged my phone to take pictures as I drove; the freeways’ concrete crisscrossing overpasses seemed like painted lines, and the greenery was the staccato brushstrokes. I overshot the border. To backtrack into Oakland, I dropped pins in my map app, looking for the nearest Oakland address. I didn’t know where I was headed, but I drove left around a curve, left again, and straight into a dead end. I parked while huge trucks sped past me on their way to the dump. On my right was a shooting range, with police cars coming and going. Where I sat, urban and nature seemed at war with each other, with urban clearly winning. I turned and headed north and faced Oakland Airport, where I had just returned home the night before.

There’s something about having a certain thing in mind, something about concentrated purposeful looking. I wasn’t looking to get to a particular place. I wasn’t looking to get anything in particular done. I was looking for the edges of the man made and the natural. I looked at the paved roads, the warehouse structures, the odd golf course nature underneath the path of airplanes, and I saw the ways nature is cajoled and controlled for our purposes. Rip out the weeds, but they keep coming back. Cover over the land with things we make. Choose a spot for a tree, it’s natural.  I parked in an airport employee parking lot and examined a hill filled only with greenery that was completely off limits, fenced in with signs of warning for trespassers.  It seemed to be the manifestation of everything I’d been noting as I drove in south Oakland. Here, nature was contained and controlled, available for looking but not for feeling.

I pushed my camera through the fence, and I let it capture what I couldn’t: the sense that no matter the boundaries placed by our attempts to dominate nature, I would get closer to it. I would find a way to let that green hill stand in as real nature for me, amidst the giant sized warehouses and jumbo jets parked nearby. Maybe I couldn’t find real nature in the urban, but I could find a conduit to the sense that no matter our attempts to control, natural life makes itself known. If nature was ever tamed, would we have to tend to it? But we do tend to it. Because when we let it go, nature is sure to take over.

Day Five

Look for comfort

International Boulevard

My second directive for the day seemed easy enough. After the family funeral, I had the directive to look for comfort– it was something I wanted and needed. After finishing part one of the day’s work at the Oakland Airport, I figured I’d head west then north as I looked for comfort food in what I thought might be the most Latino part of the city. My intention during this ten day project was to explore every part of the city at least a little, and to not force any experience. Each day I’d have a directive (or two- to catch up for days lost) and each day I’d keep my eyes open as I moved around a map of Oakland. So, west I went, down Hegenberger Expressway, and I turned left on International Boulevard.

I didn’t really know anything about the area, other than that it was probably one of the more difficult parts of the city. I had intended to look for comfort, but as I made my way north on International, comfort wasn’t at all what I experienced. I looked left and right, and I started to shiver just a little. I didn’t know what was different, but something most definitely didn’t seem right. Were there abandoned buildings? Some. I looked back at google street view to remember what I saw. When I first turned onto International, I passed some schools and newer buildings. Slowly, the top silhouette of the streets changed. Nothing had been updated for years.  Hand painted store signs. Few trees. Dead grass. Fenced in empty lots. The neighborhood was both occupied and abandoned. I passed a police action (lights blazing, ten cars haphazardly surrounding a bar) and I said prayers about no gun shots. I stopped taking pictures and just kept driving, as quickly and unnoticeably as I could. Soon, there were more trees. Fresh paint. Indications that people felt it was worth spending money there. Maybe it was hope. I got to the end of International Boulevard and turned right.

Lake Merritt. Natural beauty. Lakeside homes. A different world.

When I got home, I looked up information about International Boulevard. This is what I found. International Boulevard: A Documentary. The physicality of the place in the daylight only hints at the hidden story. It is every bit as dark there as I felt it to be, and more.


Day Six

Find stability and supports, whatever that looks like

Lake Merrit

I stopped writing notes for the project on this day. While I left home that morning to do the day’s exploration, I found out that my dad’s cancer had returned, and it was late stage. I asked my art partner to send me a project directive anyway, so she sent me on the search for stability and support. I continued with images only for Days Six to Ten.

Here is a copy/paste from something I wrote on my blog a few months later, after my dad had died.

In the beginning of April, I worked in conjunction with friend and art colleague Laura Isaac of Kansas City on our second “You are not here.” project. This time she focused on the psychogeography of St. Louis, MO as I focused on my studio town in Oakland, CA. The project includes our interactions on Twitter, photos and videos posted, and lastly, our written blog posts about each day’s experiences. As Laura and I coordinated our project, it became clear to both of us that we’d be very hampered by many time constraints as we tried to arrange our schedules to work at the same time in our respective cities. Instead of carrying out a more choreographed art exploration, we’d have to see where each day took us, as well as just use the spare resources we had to make whatever we could. I already knew that I’d be traveling internationally just a few days after our intensive project, so our daily work was a commitment to make the most out of our 10 days together.

Then, just before our project began on April 9, 2014, my elderly grandfather–my mom’s dad–died. He was 97. He lived a very long life. His illness and hospitalization came just as Laura and I were finalizing our project plans to explore our specific cities. Now I’d be leaving town in the middle of our project so I could be with my family for the funeral. I’d root myself in Oakland, then remove myself, then return. Despite the overwhelming pressure of everything that was going on, instead of abandoning my work, I decided to seek out how this project could support my life. My biography seems to weave its way into most of my work, and I had hoped this project would really take me out of my head and into Place. Now it seemed to do the opposite: each physical place became part of my mental state. So, moving deliberately forward, Laura and I continued with our plan to give each other topics to guide our explorations of our cities.

On Day One, Laura asked me to look for “the extremes of the familiar and the unfamiliar”. I started at my studio environs in Oakland, went south to where the freeway collapsed in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, then I headed east across the city. I documented with cell phone pictures along the way. Almost directly east just happened to be Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland. It was established in 1863 and designed by Frank Olmsted, who also designed New York City’s Central Park. So I finished my afternoon by myself in a cemetery, knowing I’d be burying my grandfather in just a few days. Forced to contemplate where I was, I realized one main thing.

I thought: What could be more simultaneously extremely familiar and unfamiliar than death? I see smaller deaths all the time: insects, plants, and even small-town woodsy animals that get hit by cars on neighborhood roads. But the deaths of people we know and love, even of the pets that become family members: these rock us, and we’re never prepared for them. Looking at the headstones and tombs all around me, I saw that we remember the dead, we mourn them, miss them, still try to keep them nearby… they’re not here anymore, but they are still a part of our life. And life goes on. So I saw my very large family at my grandfather’s funeral, and for reasons that would make a long story (some else’s to tell), it was harder than I expected. But he had a long life, and I have a big loving family, both good things.

I flew back home, continued the work on my project.

The morning of the sixth day, I got the news that my dad’s cancer had returned. I knew he’d had some tests done, but I don’t know what I expected to hear. I just hoped… for something else. We knew it might be serious, and because of that, my dad and I had talked the morning before. We hadn’t talked in at least 10 months. That was his choice, not mine, and yet I always knew (despite everything) that he loved me very much. As he spoke that morning, he seemed to feel it was time to call everyone and get things cleared up. Honestly it wasn’t the first time he reached out for that reason, but it was the first time he apologized without any qualifiers. It was gratifying to hear. And when someone unequivocally apologizes, it feels natural to say No, no! It’s OK. Just good to hear from you. And it really was good. And the next day, the cancer was confirmed. Serious. Stage 4. I just sat by the water at Lake Merritt in Oakland. Laura sent me a directive for the day: “find stability and supports, whatever that might look like.” So I looked for them, and I quietly stayed in one place. Laura knew what I needed to look for, and in this case, staying still was how I found it.

Some link for a relevant article must’ve come across my Twitter feed as I documented the area where I rested. Because I read this startling quote by John Updike: “Each day we wake up slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead. So why, one would say, be afraid of death, when death comes all the time?” So went the rest of the project for me- going from place to place in Oakland, finding its matching relevance to what was happening in my life. It helped. It worked.

And on April 21st, my family and I flew out to South Korea. It was a trip that had been planned for a few months, and while we knew my dad was now diagnosed with cancer, my plan was to visit him in Arizona when I returned 10 days later.

Then, I can’t remember the date, since South Korea is about one day ahead, but about a week later, I got the text from my sister. She asked if I had spoken to her mom. I called my sister immediately. Found out my dad was at the hospital, with pneumonia, and he wasn’t likely to make it. I was at least two days travel away, and I wasn’t even in Seoul (where I’d need to fly out from) but a couple hours away from the second biggest city of Busan, on the southern-most tip of the country. There was nothing I could do.
Just after midnight May 1st in Korea and on the morning of April 30th in the US, my dad died. And that was it. All I’d been able to do was say goodbye to him by recording a video in Korea and my siblings played it for him in Arizona. We never saw each other again. 

Day Seven

Find something moving, fast or slow

Children’s Fairyland, Oakland

Day Eight

Find out what color does

Oakland Museum of California

Day Nine

Look into something so that you are looking out

Oakland Public Library, Montclair Branch, near Piedmont

Day Ten

Find what overshadows you

Telegraph Ave, Korean Market and the First Friday galleries near 23rd St.