Places, Spaces, Art, and People: An Interview with Tre Borden
By Michelle Sweezey
Determining what it means to “work” is a common theme for millennials and Gen Y’ers these days. People are rarely taking traditional routes or jobs, are living for passion and purpose over financial gain, are choosing projects that positively shape the community and, most notably, are constantly redefining what success means and looks like.
Tre Borden, Sacramento’s master connector, is doing just that. This Jesuit almunus, Yale and UC Davis educated man is choosing to call Sacramento home again, and for big reasons— community, art, firsts, impact, and accessibility.
Girls on The Grid: First off, Tre, you’re one of the busiest people I know, so thanks for taking the time out of your life to chat with me! Tell me about yourself; what’s your elevator pitch? You’ve got three sentences, ready, set, go!
Tre Borden: I produce placemaking projects in Sacramento that bring vitality to under-used spaces. My past projects include pop-up galleries, public art projects, and curating the Warehouse Artist Lofts. I’m the guy who who takes a concept, connects the right people, finds funding, and carries the ball home.
GOTG: You’re up to some really cool things involving community, pedestrians, and art around Sacramento in the public art scene these days, what prompted you to start these initiatives?
TB: I love to see people have pride in where they live, and Sacramento offers a huge canvas to do things that haven’t been tried. No one gave me permission to do what I’m doing, I’m defining it as I go. I want to provide an example for others that you can take an idea, find some like minded people to do it with, get some money, and run with it.
I like working with artists because they are able to imagine possibilities, and often they aren’t interested in all of the fundraising, approval processes and hoops that make these types of projects possible, which is where I come in.
People have believed in me my whole life. They told me I could do whatever I wanted, and I intend to do that for other people. I want to do something that is iterative, sustainable, and impactful. This is a special moment for Sacramento, there is community here, and an open platform ready for growth.
GOTG: PORTAL was the first of these projects, and you had it up on the R street block for six weeks before taking it to TBD fest in mid September. You hosted yoga, movie nights, a fashion night, non-profit events, and encouraged the city to get out, connect, and envision their future in Sacramento by stepping into the the Portal with intent, and exiting ready to take action. How successful was it, in your opinion, in meeting your project goals?
TB: PORTAL was intended to be an experiment to show the public what could be possible in that location, so as a proof of concept it was a big success. Seeing people coming out for so many different ideas, enjoying them, and starting to reimagine what should come or expect of from our city was great.
It was also a unique way to give groups and individuals an exciting platform to engage with each other. Accessibility and providing amenities that everyone can enjoy are foundational to me, so I was happy to see that many different people could enjoy it for a bit in their own way. The fact that it was designed, built, and executed specifically for our community allowed it to resonate more strongly. I’m so proud of the team of artists, designers, fabricators and entrepreneurs who came together to make it happen.
Every new project offers lessons, and in this we were very constrained by time and financial resources. I am excited to approach a similar project with more time to plan and gather resources to make an even bigger impact.
GOTG: What surprised you most about PORTAL?
TB: I was surprised by how excited people were, and to see the shift in people’s reactions as the project continued. We didn’t do a lot of publicity beforehand, so its success was dependent almost entirely by word of mouth. People’s reactions were of surprise- they didn’t know anything about it, it was like a spaceship had landed and people were running into it asking, “what does it DO?” which is an unusual question for a piece of art, but there hadn’t really been anything like it before so I understand how that happened. The turnout and number of people involved in activating the site was really gratifying, and a pleasant surprise to say the least.
GOTG: There’s a lot of collaboration in these initiatives; with whom are you partnering, and why?
TB: PORTAL is a compelling example of many people coming together for a common purpose. One of the things that made it stand out is that it wasn’t just a cool art installation people could take selfies in (although people sure did plenty of that). The structure was simply a hook to get people to come to an unused area of town and experience possibility.
Our purpose was to spark community engagement, so the most crucial piece besides the structure itself was activating it through as many different avenues as possible, and this required many partners, Without starting capital, we relied heavily on people who were motivated by the spirit of the project to fund it.
The first and most crucial partnership was with Kimberly Garza who is the landscape designer who designed PORTAL. Together we brainstormed how to create something that would engage Sacramento in a new way. That was a fun process in itself, and without her the project would not exist.
Todd at CADA agreed to fund the materials and help us find a site, and at Todd’s suggestion, Mike Heller at The Ice Blocks offered us permission to house it. Kimberly’s firm Quadriga Landscape Architecture agreed to come on board as a partner and assisted us in finalizing the project.
The Hacker Lab allowed us to build PORTAL in their maker space and we found our fabricators (Matt Porr, Trent Dean and Nile Mittow) there as well. We were able to find other people who believed in it enough to give us funding including SMUD, The California Endowment, The Public Library, The Sacramento Republic FC to name a few.
We also partnered with Sacto MOFO and Cousins Lobster truck, we had a resident DJ (DJ Rockbottom), The Capital Dance Project, Sacramento Steps Forward were a few of the groups we had on site. Unseen Heroes partnered with us on a Silent Disco and we convinced Silent Events (who produce Silent Discos all over the world) to donate all of the equipment. Vics Ice Cream donated a pop-up ice cream stand for our movie night. Farm-to-Fork sent Nicole Rogers to give a lecture, and the list goes on and on from there.
Probably one of the most incredible things that happened was when the local chapter of American Society of Landscape Architects took over the street for a day and did a pop up urban park that completely transformed the streetscape. It was magnificent and to see so many people on site starting at six AM putting thousands of plants on the street . The amount of effort it took to make a park that stood for just twenty-four hours was incredible.
GOTG: What do you see is the end result of these projects? What kind of impact do you aim to make in shifting the culture and perception of our city?
TB: I think the end result is that people are more excited about where they live, and have an entry point to get involved in their own opportunity. People naturally want to be a part of something larger than themselves, and Sacramento is positioned so perfectly for real impact. Sometimes, people just don’t know where to start so projects like PORTAL show what is possible and introduces them to like-minded people.
I am working to make Sacramento a city where everyone feels there is a place for them. I like projects that are accessible to everyone— from the homeless, to the hipster, to the wealthy art patron, to someone who doesn’t speak any English. We are all people, and we all get to live together. My work is to continue generating ideas that leverage our community’s diversity and grow connections between people and places that didn’t exist before.
GOTG: What projects are in the works now; what can we expect to see next from you and your collaborators?
TB: Right now we are executing Bright Underbelly, which has been in the works for a very long time and is finally underway. Sofia Lacin and Hennessy Cristophel will be painting the underside of the freeway, the site of our Sunday Farmer’s Market, and is part of a pilot program we developed with CalTrans and the City of Sacramento that may literally pave the way for similar projects around the state as we transform this space.
As for what’s next, you’ll have to stay tuned! Ideally I would be able to work on an idea that picks up where PORTAL left off but on a much bigger scale. We’re going to take an idea, market the concept, and give ourselves time to plan it and execute on a very high level. I’m already excited, are you?
GOTG: Why art? Why you? Why now? And, why Sacramento?
TB: Art is a great way to transform a community in the short term, and get people to consider being in places they hadn’t before thought about. Sacramento is the home to so many talented creatives and people who support them and I think I’m uniquely suited to help bring people together around a vision and cement our city’s identity as a place where new things are happening. Now is the time, and it feels good to be making a difference in my hometown and see where we can take things. Connecting people and ideas is who I am. It’s what I love, and it’s how I access my world.
GOTG: What else should we know? What’s your message to the public?
TB: We all have part to play, and it’s up to all of us to do what we can if we want this community to be the place we want to live. There is nothing as unproductive as criticism without action. If you see something you don’t like, then change it! If it doesn’t exist, then create it. Don’t sit back not doing anything and expect to have your opinion respected. Don’t be a hater. Be a doer.
GOTG: How can people provide you with feedback, get in touch with you about ideas, or get more information?
TB: People can visit my website www.treborden.com or hit me on twitter or instagram @treborden.