Breeding Mosquitoes and Other Possibilities

Living & Working

Breeding Mosquitoes and Other Possibilities

By Vivian Sming September 30, 2020

How does one survive and thrive as an artist in the San Francisco Bay Area? Living & Working is a multi-platform column focusing on the experiences and strategies from those who continue to live and work in the Bay Area.

Living & Working is funded in part by the California Arts Council, a state agency.


One morning, I woke up with my hair disheveled from a dream in which I was a lead singer in a screamo band, whisper-yelling a single chorus over and over again: “THE DAMAGE IS PERMANENT. THE DAMAGE IS PERMANENT. THE DAMAGE IS PERMANENT. PERMANENT DAMAAAAAGE!”

My breath is short. My temperature runs hot. My stomach is perpetually twisted into knots, and my heart is kept pulsing at a rapid pace. Every ounce of my body rejects this place, this place I call home.

In the late ’90s and early 2000s, the landscape of Silicon Valley consisted of rows and rows of houses, corporate office buildings, and orchards. I grew up amidst these cookie-cutter homes, empty parking lots, and squares of grass called parks.

My parents were part of a tight-knit immigrant community—amongst many other immigrant communities—that consisted primarily of families from Taiwan who moved here to work in the region’s growing technology sectors, which at the time were in communications and hardware. They had come to the United States for the marketed better-life, leaving their families, friends, languages, and passions behind on the island. Business, technology, and science were presented as the only viable options for the future.

Amidst the homogeneity of this culture, there was my dad, who loved Ingmar Bergman films and backpacking around the world, and my mom, who grew up on a farm and studied Chinese literature and poetry. Between the two of them, I was destined not to belong. Their obsessions fused with mine. With music and dance as my lifeline, I desperately sought the unusual, things without function or purpose, the not-for-profit, the unquantifiable, the unscalable, the human. I wanted to experience love, joy, pain, sorrow—but found myself festering with rage.

After the dot-com bubble burst, which left my dad jobless ever since, all the companies vanished. For years, there was just a sea of vacant office complexes—described by my parents as places that only 養蚊子 or “breed mosquitoes” to indicate just how devoid of any human contact they were. As we drove by these empty buildings along the 101 at night, I would conjure up other possibilities—a large-scale shadow puppetry performance, perhaps, just for all the people like us driving by the glass-walled structures.

Growing up in the same area at an earlier time, my partner envisioned a city-wide choreographed performance by costumed 1960s style go-go dancers on the top of suburban rooftops and freeway overpasses. He and I have talked a lot about the importance of these daydreams.

Art lies within the site of imagined possibilities. If I could not imagine other possibilities, I would not still be here.

As a young artist, I was excited work with Susan O’Malley and to learn about her self-appointed artist residencies within our shared landscape. O’Malley also sought to counter the humdrum of this area through playful interventions. Her short films A Few Yards in San Jose and How to Be an Artist in Residence, San Jose, CA document her rearranging rocks and leaves, running around carefully trimmed and lined hedges, and wrapping garden hoses around tree trunks.

The current wave of software has now turned this landscape of manicured lawns into multimillion dollar condos, and all the once-empty buildings are now overfilled. I’m still imagining other possibilities, but these days, my imaginations have become darker—no longer responding to the banality of the landscape, but to the sinister remains of accelerated capitalism.

I am often in a stasis of shock, fear, disbelief, or grief. My body cannot adjust to this place. My body cannot adjust to Uber giving its employees free rides while contractors living in Sacramento camp out of their cars in the Safeway parking lot on 16th Street three nights out of the week just to get better-paid rides in San Francisco. My body cannot adjust to contracted drivers eating alone in their Google buses while full-time benefited employees make endless choices in all-you-can-eat buffets on blue speckled-glazed ceramic plates. My body cannot adjust to the full-time benefited employees living in RVs adjacent to the Googleplex parking lot because even their full-time benefittedness can’t cover their living expenses.

My body cannot and will not adjust, and my constant state of nausea is a result of refusal—a reaction to this toxic waste; an attempt to escape permanent damage. I can’t quite move, but I think of movement and desire it. I need noise, thrash, and sound to reverberate through my body. On my commutes, I imagine setting up a massive amp and having the feedback pierce at an ultra-high pitch. On days everything feels bleak, I imagine collectively throwing bricked iPhones as bricks of protest. On days of optimism, I imagine large groups of artists performing endurance pieces at the Googleplex. My body needs something that will shake things up, something to take me, and everyone else here, out of our virtual-dependent world and into the physical.

This is a place that forces you to be imaginative—to come up with ways of working, surviving, living, and refusing.

One day, as I’m festering on the fourth floor of the WeWork building in the Tenderloin where I do my work, someone on the street outside screams at the top of their lungs for a full two minutes, and it suddenly all becomes clear—screaming is the only way.

It is not enough to leave this place because that place will eventually become this place. This is a place of influence, where decisions are made that impact the rest of the world—both the Global North and South. Art lies within the site of imagined possibilities, so if we are operating on the belief that art has the possibility to shape culture, to change minds, to enact different futures, this is a place that needs art the most. 

This is a place that needs another possibility.

Comments ShowHide

Related Content