This weekend’s ArtLabs, spinoffs from the big contemporary art fair downtown, involve a ton of people, ideas and local artists. I asked Xavier Leonard, the artist behind a smart phone app that showcases worker stories, to write about his perspective about what insights into San Diego his project lends. Here’s what he shared:

The Background:

The book “Building The Dream: The Design and Construction of the Hotel del Coronado” contains 67 pictures.

Only one of these features something like a worker engaged in construction. That’s the staged photo of bankroller John D. Spreckels. The Chinese-American carpenters are omitted. So are the electricians whose wiring of the massive hotel was an historic electrical achievement in 1888. Their work is not among the visions in the “dream.”

I saw the ArtLabs proposal request as a challenge to show “something else” about San Diego — something that’s not part of the standard story. The stories of workers are hidden narratives that have an unacknowledged impact on the nature of the place. Worker stories are also a resonant choice since the ArtLabs will run during Labor Day Weekend.

Like many American holidays, Labor Day’s meaning is embedded in the tradition but unknown by most who celebrate it. That deficit presents an opportunity for creatively reframing what people know, and grounding it in the fact that the holiday celebrates people who gave their lives to ensure the fair treatment of workers.

The Idea:

Incorporating an Augmented Reality (AR) browser in a cell phone app struck me as an ideal platform. Delivering media and information to accompany a real-world experience offers the promise of allowing viewers to “sense” their environment a new way. In the book “The Singularity Is Near,” author Ray Kurzweil points to a future where nano-sized robots will work directly with the neurons in our brain to provide full “virtual reality incorporating all of the senses.” If Kurzweil’s prediction comes true, AR browsers will have been one of the steps leading to it.

Regardless of where you are when you open the With These Hands app, you’ll see the image of the first memorial which honors the story of the dock workers responsible for San Diego’s 1950s milestone of 1 million bales of cotton coming through the port.

If you’re at the Embarcadero Marina Park South, near the Hilton Bayfront Hotel, you’ll see an additional three images floating in the air in front of the Coronado Bridge. As people send their comments on the installation via Twitter (#withthesehands), those tweets appear above the water between the park and Coronado.

Loaner phones will be on hand at the Hilton San Diego Bayfront and in Cesar Chavez Park on Sunday (1:30 p.m. to 6:00 p.m.), when I’ll include a tour of With These Hands in a day of family-fun activities.

Author Jim Miller points out the tradition of serving up a fictionalized San Diego for tourists (and residents) in “Under A Perfect Sun, The San Diego Tourists Never See.” Our simulated “New England fishing village” down by the harbor and Balboa Park’s architectural references to a “Spanish Colonial past that never was” are two such “substitution narratives.”

These fictional tales and notions like “the financier who single-handedly built San Diego,” gain currency at the expense of deleting from memory true stories like those of the workers who’ve inspired With These Hands. The real stories are more rich and offer models of heroism and achievement that are worthy of a broader hearing.

Xavier Leonard is a designer, educator and activist whose project is one of the 18 ArtLabs connected to the Art San Diego Contemporary Art Fair. To access his free “With These Hands” app for iPhone, iPad and Android phones, download the app “Layar” from your App Store / Marketplace. Once Layar is open, enter “With These Hands” in the search field and launch the app.

I’m Kelly Bennett, the arts editor for VOSD. You can reach me directly at or 619.325.0531.

And follow Behind the Scene on Facebook.

Kelly Bennett is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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