Late one night, the furniture on the side of the building on Howard Street started to move. It had been suspended up there on the wall for 17 years; but one night, one of the chairs wiggled, pulled, then popped a leg free. It tore another rusted steel foot off the wall, shaking loose a few rusty bolts that tumbled down onto the sidewalk below.
The others looked over, lamps craning their necks and throwing oblongs of light, the grandfather clock swiveling its head to see. The chairs plunged down the wall, scampered onto the sidewalk, and out into the dark.
Before long, the tables and televisions made their way down, one fat couch inching down like a caterpillar, thumping away in all directions. After 17 years, Defenestration was no more.
“This is the castle of Bohemia,” said Defenestration creator Brian Goggin, standing outside the Hugo Hotel during a going away party. The hotel had been a blown-out shell of a building when more than 100 people crawled all over it, driven by humor, love, and incredulity to install coffee tables on a building.
The art installation Defenestration – a real word which means the act of throwing something out the window – has been a San Francisco landmark for years, at a busy SOMA intersection downtown, proof that enough people working together can make the contents of a Goodwill store march up the side of a wall. If you never had a chance to see it, it was more than 30 pieces of furniture, tables, a TV that worked, side tables jumping out a window, lamps that turned on and off. In the fog, on your way to work or the water, day in and day out.
Goggin would, incognito, join walking tours to hear what people said about Defenestration. “One told me that it was it was representative of people in San Francisco being kicked out of their homes,” or “the dreams of all of those who live on the street to have a home,” he said. The Hugo Hotel will be torn down this year to build affordable housing. In some ways, it’s the opposite of Burning Art ethos: an installation that was only supposed to last six months, staying around for 17 years.
Goggin has continued to hang things from buildings – most recently a bunch of flying pianos - but for the Burning Man community, Defenestration has special meaning.
“Defenestration was the first large-scale art project produced by Burners outside of the Burning Man event,” said Burning Man co-founder Michael Mikel (aka Danger Ranger), who wired the electricity to the lamps, TVs, and a phone set to randomly ring.
About 40 people lived in the decrepit building during the moving-in period, cooking meals, throwing concerts inside, hanging off of walls.
“The first thing we built was a chest of drawers coming out of the window,” said Mikel. “A neighbor saw it and called 911. The fire department came and chopped it down. The first art piece was chopped down by the fire department.”
Defenestration was conceived and designed by Brian Goggin, but it was scores of Burning Man community volunteers that came together to support, build and install the artwork, he said.
The massive opening party in 1997 closed off the street, and had tall bikes rambling up and down. Fire artist Scott Generic swung a giant flaming ball of steel wool around on the roof, sending mass sparks into the crowd. Some of them landed on the SFPD, setting their uniforms on fire. They ran into the building and up the stairs to stop him, but Generic made it down a staircase and escaped out the back of the building.
The art gallery Varnish is running the Defenestration garage sale, returning the former Neighborhood Cleanup furniture to its new vaunted place in arts heaven. They do not require that you hang one of the chairs from the side of any walls, although the furniture will always be animated.
“This is the castle…” said Goggin, stopping to convince someone to let a piano stay on the sidewalk. “I regret that I can’t put cannon up there and protect it better. I would shoot flowers out into the city to stop them from taking it down.”