MUNI gets beastly, in a nice way

Pub date January 24, 2011
SectionPixel Vision

A horde of salt marsh mice scurry down Market Street. Salmon leap across Divisadero traffic. Blue Mission butterflies cover your #22 Fillmore. If you haven’t been doing any wildlife-spotting recently, keep those binoculars close by. A new MUNI art program seeks to bring endangered species to the forefront of our transit consciousness — making our much-maligned buses prettier to look at, and bringing Bay nature back into our daily lives all in one fell swoop.

Visual artist Todd Gilens and an installation team wrapped four city buses with large-scale images of local endangered wildlife in their natural abodes as part of a project called “Endangered Species.” In a space normally reserved for advertisements for bail bondsmen or the new season of Real Housewives, you can now peep aforementioned mice broods and threatened fish and bugs. Gilens came up with the idea after the publication of a municipal transportation agency’s transit effectiveness project. The report used stats to measure the efficacy of SF public transit, but the visual artist felt that something was missing from the survey’s findings: namely, the community presence of our modes of public transportation. 

“I’m a ‘thing’ guy,” says Gilens. “Objects have lives and tell interesting stories. I wanted to think more about what buses are, beyond their technical character.” In the case of buses, Gilens thought it possible that they could be more than just people containers from here to there. “Endangered Species,” a project that took years for him to research and secure funding for, is his aesthetic reclamation of public space.

He eventually found a partner in The Bay Nature Institute, a Berkeley-based publication and project dedicated to celebrating and conserving nature and wildlife in the Bay Area. The group’s website is now the online home for  “Endangered Species,” and houses a bus tracker application that give fauna fans the current locations of all four Endanger buses.

It would stand to reason that the Endanger buses would have some direct conservationist agenda. But for Gilens, the moving art is only about calling attention to the natural beauty in and around the Bay Area. When asked if the project was meant to engage with the public on an ethical level, he said the Endanger buses purpose was really in the eyes of the beholder. “Art helps us to refine our noticing, and from there we can respond according to our capacities.” 

MUNI gets mousey. Photo by Todd Gilens

But Gilens choice to focus on the Bay’s circumscribed members of the animal kingdom might have another reading, one that strikes close to home for creative types being priced out of the city’s stubbornly sky-high rent prices. He made an interesting connection between art and endangered species: “Art is also not very ‘useful,’ perhaps in a similar way that a unique butterfly species or a marsh mouse is superfluous in their environment — But without them we have a flatter, duller, and certainly less robust world.”

Gilens hopes that seeing Endanger buses amongst the city hustle and bustle, will promote new ways of assessing personal experience – and one’s morning commute. “I hope that the beauty and unexpectedness of the images in different situations will invite playful associations. Perhaps the project will encourage a more connected and creative approach to everyday life,” he says. “Whether it’s allowing oneself to be moved by something beautiful, making room for another stranger on a bus, or becoming curious about even stranger life forms beyond urbanization.” Endangered artist or domesticated office rat, at least San Franciscans can agree that Endanger buses will be a refreshing sight to see amongst the city’s urban forest.

The Endanger buses will be out and about until April on different city lines each day. For more information on them – and how you can participate in MUNI’s bus-spotting game for prizes — go to