L.A. // Letter from Los Angeles
I spent the past summer in Chicago on a Threewalls residency with my collaborator, Jemima Wyman. It was my first real break from Los Angeles in four years. While I was in the Midwest, lots of people I met wanted to talk about LA and its hostile yet mythical nature. So, I talked about it, but all I kept thinking and eventually saying is that despite the city’s reputation, the art in LA is still really good. Though much of the entertainment is spectacle, the predominate aesthetic being produced out of LA continues traditions of performance and event based work developed by artists like Barbara T. Smith, Suzanne Lacy, all the women of Womanhouse, and of course, Allan Kaprow.
This isn’t new news, but given that the fantasy about a California populated by Baudrillard’s joggers and Entourage’s girlfriends cavorting in ocean-side groves of orange trees raining money and weed still dominates small talk about the state, I wanted to write about a few contemporary projects emerging from other LA legacies at work—the ones that I actually experience. I need periodic intense embodied experiences to counteract the freeway days and Facebook nights that I am so prone to in LA.
Liz Glynn’s work, 65 | 77 | 03 |, was an intensely embodied participatory performance that awkwardly emphasized pleasure, sensory deprivation and experience to a degree befitting the disaster narrative always floating around this city. 65 | 77 | 03 | was hosted by Glynn and Matt Timmons, curator of The Ups and Downs (“an installation series”). The work was a two-night event and the first evening was an invite-only dinner. Logistically, all I knew before I arrived the first night was that dinner and drinks would be served, no cell phones were allowed, and that the event was of indeterminate length. The press release set the scene toward the NYC blackouts of 1965, 1977, and by virtue of the title, 2003.
The dinner had us at an Italian restaurant in ’65. When I arrived, the studios-turned-gallery-turned-restaurant was dressed with just enough mise-en-scène to put me in the mood. Martinis and wine were offered beforehand and at the designated time, the doors to the space were shut and the performance began. We drank, chatted and pretty soon the lights—you guessed it—blacked out. Then candles were lit and dinner orders were taken by two officious servers. And that was it…food, drinks, talking: all this while the sealed room’s temperature went up
and up, very quickly getting so hot that some participants stripped off articles of clothing. Dressed or not, we all used our menus as fans, talking incessantly yet languidly about how fucking hot it was. Eventually we lost all decorum, wandering in search of more water or wine, another body to tell about the heat. I was stupefied yet strangely stimulated, flirting with the hairy naked guy on my lap while boring myself with endless comments about how good the chunks of ice getting passed around felt dripping on my thighs.
The artifice with which 65 | 77 | 03 | was foreshadowed and executed served as an obvious pretense for a lock-in style get-together with people familiar and strange. It was a daggy slumber party version of relational aesthetics; not a send-up, exactly, but similarly exaggerated. We all knowingly submitted to the piece, and were rewarded with sweaty good times that were self-conscious, but also made unavoidable the rewards of proximity and bodily experience. Given Glynn’s interest in simultaneously debunking and emphasizing the romanticization of imperial power (see her well-known 24 Hour Roman Reconstruction Project or Building Rome in a Day most recently staged at Arthouse in Austin and earlier in the year at the New Museum), this new work is a nod to the potential of reenactment, that no matter how prescriptive the script at hand, the drama of the present will intervene and filter. Thus, history becomes visible and “told,” but only as much as the actors are able to relay through their experience of the present moment. Telling stories becomes inextricably linked to the material world, thus presenting a version of history in which our subjectivity is undeniable. Epic narratives can only remain so if they are told and re-told by the living. Epic narratives become much less epic when you’re trying to tell it drunk with two sweaty people sitting on you in the dark. The role we have to play in accepting or rejecting the “facts” of imperial power is made more obvious by Glynn’s invitation to participate.
Elana Mann’s new work, Retirement Bash, is in progress as I write this, and is another participatory performance work interested in enactment. A collaboration between Mann and students at a Culver City high school, the project is a ten-week workshop culminating in a “paradigm-shifting event in which outdated sayings, symbols, image, and mottos will be performatively ‘retired.’” In preparation for the event, the students will conduct field research in their immediate community, surveying what is in need of retiring and, also, any new sayings or ideas to take their place.
Some of Mann’s previous work (for example Exchange Rate, www.exchangerate.com) solicited the participation of many artists generating performative or interventionist work around a specified theme. Retirement Bash looks to be more pointed, with a fairly direct premise already in place from which the student artists develop their individual works. It encourages participants to assume a kind of agency with regards to representation, spin culture, and the way language is both a tool for expression as well a barometer for social change. I appreciate the way Retirement Bash doesn’t just assume that the expressive needs of teens are taken care of by self-publishing “opportunities” like Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube. Mann encourages young people to engage in face-to-face dialogue between generations, cultures and classes rather than relying on virtual facilitators that we all know by now are quite possibly not anything more than sophisticated advertisements.
With all these opportunities for highly mediated utterances meant only for our circle of friends at one end of the spectrum, at the other end is “the outburst,” a new trend made visible by Kanye at the MTV Video Music Awards and Joe Wilson during one of President Obama’s healthcare speeches. Apparently spontaneous public speech still occurs and when it does, people take note. Rhetoric and criticality about it is still important to examine. Cathartic rituals are one way to do this. When the ‘Bash happens on October 24, I hope it is a rowdy and smart moment of oral culture passed down and swished around, bath water that gets saved while the baby is tossed. Fighting words with words is still possible, especially when they’re spoken in real time, face-to-face.
Artist Lara Bank started Sea & Space Explorations a little more than two years ago in an effort to support artists and art that are underrepresented by commercial galleries. Initially inspired by some of LA’s other “feral institutions” (a phrase coined by Christine and Margaret Wertheim, founders of the LA-based Institute for Figuring), including Machine Projects and the Museum for Jurassic Technology, Bank has determinedly kept to her own vision as the space has gathered steam. Her programming is focused on presenting work not otherwise visible which often involves one-night performances or workshops, as well as a fair number of gallery-centric solo exhibitions. As comfortable as Sea & Space is with the ephemeral, Banks also wants to provide resources to artists working materially. One of Banks’ guiding mantras is, “opportunity awaits the marginal,” and her commitment to providing a context in which artists have carte blanche in mounting a show is testament to her deep understanding of how important it is for artists to—with her help—create the most valuable opportunity for developing their practices.
The Sea & Space physical space, complete with a chicken coop out back with a lovely silkie, is integral to its success. Although it’s cumbersome and costly to maintain the space, occupying real estate allows for Banks’ curatorial and community goals to be visible to various art worlds near and far and for LA-based artists to be visible to each other in a way that they couldn’t be otherwise. Even ephemera needs structure and often the material needs temporary shelter.
As the international art market begets more and more generically “global” work, I appreciate more and more the benefits of spaces and contexts that resist the lure of the disembodied network and of infinite mobility. I keep getting the feeling that we’re all supposed to be “past” the negatives of network culture and just moving onto the next challenge-opportunity-failure-temporary-reality-to-be-dumpstered, but this requires a level of irony that I thankfully shirked several years ago. It takes a great deal of energy to cultivate the local in LA, so I really appreciate the artists and projects that, if they’re not directly cultivating a community, are at least facilitating a kind of embodiment that requires feet on the ground and sometimes sweat on the brow. We are looking; we are looking at each other. I am talking while I’m looking. I don’t want to stop looking. I definitely don’t want to stop talking to you.
by Anna Mayer