On a rainy Valentine’s Day this year, thousands of unorganized pillow fighters gathered by word of mouth and Web in San Francisco. They left behind a mess of wet gooey feathers that city officials and local businesses claim cost nearly $30,000 to clean up. A representative of the Recreation and Parks Department threatened to shut down such events if the organizers don’t obtain permits, pay usage fees, and cover the costs for cleanup. One possible problem: The events frequently do not have “organizers” as such.
In early April, San Francisco police threatened to ticket any participants in a planned Big Wheel race down a twisting, infrequently traveled street. (The police relented.) Neighbors who wanted to help make the fun manageable intended to rent portable toilets and clean up the neighborhood afterward.
Despite city officials’ threats and a series of recent clamp-downs on impromptu events in public spaces (savvy city officials can follow Twitter and Facebook chatter as easily as the next hip prankster), local event participant Aaron Muszalski says he doubts there has been a city-level decision to smash public art shenanigans. Mostly, he says, police show up because of complaints from killjoy citizens.
A small cabal of San Francisco artists and organizers met in April to discuss how anarchic public gatherings can be carried out responsibly. Most agreed it might not be prudent to launch projects, such as the pillow fight, that leave behind a big mess. If it gets to the point where any event with a public profile has to cover the cost of permits, use fees, insurance, security, and portable toilets, they fear, free gatherings will become impossible without corporate sponsorship.