Los Angeles, CA
Who is your audience and how does your work mobilize them towards strategic local concerns?
SARA DALEIDEN: The collective was formed in 2004 for an exhibition at Art Center College of Design called gardenLAbthat was curated by Fritz Haeg and Francois Perrin. The participants in the exhibition were coming from a diverse set of practices in art and architecture, and to some extent, also stemming out into urban practices, such as planning, geography, all with an environmentalist bent. We actually formed to function as a facilitator inside of the exhibition. Out of a series of projects we took on the persona of the National Park service ranger. We brought this persona into a very large gallery warehouse in an attempt to activate peoples’ use of that space and to take on an interpretation of it by posing the question, “How are environmental concerns actually being represented by an exhibition like this?” Additionally, we did a series of campfire talks inside of the space where we were able to look at different urban phenomena that were happening in Los Angeles, from freeway landscaping to toxic tourism—again, just how to take on L.A. as a site itself, that could actually be called nature.
But let me just back up: what we found in there, in that show, was that our audience was actually this progressive community that was also exhibiting within the show, in terms of being in art and architecture and urban practices. But because we took on this persona of the park ranger it was interesting to see that there was a certain familiarity with the public—this was up in Pasadena at the time—that were drawn to us and willing to come in and listen because we had this character that was recognizable from a popular recreational culture. Four or five years later, it’s been interesting to walk a line, in a way, of whether we’re functioning as an art practice or whether we’re functioning as an information source; and also, whether we’re functioning as an authority figure inside of that space. With our Malibu Public Beaches, due to a lot of the media coverage that’s come from Malibu being such a contentious space our audience has grown quite a bit to include beach lovers, real estate agents, and people from the neighborhood in Malibu that don’t feel like they have access, and people who might use a beach—in Venice or Santa Monica—who are feeling curiosity about this other space that’s there. It’s been interesting to watch the audience change as the media has changed in relationship to us. As we switch sites we find that there’s a neighborhood association, but there’s also interest in other areas of the city to try to penetrate that area.
ARMANDO DURON: For Self Help Graphics our audience is anybody who we can get to, who we can reach. The way we reach that audience to discuss local concerns is mostly through the prints that we made and the exhibitions that we have. To describe some of them for you during 2006-2007: we had a series called “Love in the Time of War,” and it was ten prints done by ten different artists that dealt with issues of war and immigration and genocide. We had some local, well-known artists and we also had an Apache artist from Arizona. All the prints were done in a cartoon kind of format but it was designed to reach mostly young people. We just finished an atelier called “Homobre LA” which dealt with the issues of gay men in our community. We try to reach and educate our own community through some of the programs that we’re now doing. Later this year, we’ll have a lesbian atelier production. The issue that came up earlier regarding gentrification is very much in the minds of the people of East Los Angeles, especially the Boyle Heights area. We’re calling it a land grab, if you’re looking for a term (LAUGHTER). In August we’ll have an exhibition by the works of Roberto Gutierrez, called “The Old Neighborhood.” As part of that we’re going to have panel discussions about that issue, because it’s very important. But we also participate in a larger level. In May 2006 we produced over a thousand broadsheets that were used for the May 2006 demonstrations in downtown L.A. Four artists volunteered and in a matter of three days produced a lot of broadsheets that were distributed for the demonstrations.
ASHLEY HUNT: The way I think about audience tends to be in terms of how the work that I produce or work within produces a public; understanding that a work has an address that calls people into it and produces whatever that audience is. I like to think of it as a public, because that can produce a conversation that might not have taken place without the work that helped to generate that public for that moment. One example of this is a feature documentary I did around privatization and mass expansion of the prison system, for which I got a grant to do a grassroots screening tour. The strategy was to locate people in different cities and different organizations who were already trying to directly address prison issues or people who find themselves accidentally working on prison issues because they’re in public education or they’re in welfare or they’re in any number of other service sectors that are being folded into the prison system. We tried to get them together and use the film as a way to start a conversation between them, and then left that there in the community so new conversations could emerge.
ESL | ESTHETICS AS A SECOND LANGUAGE: ESL does not have an audience nor is it a commercial gallery. We don’t have any econometrics, demographic exercises, any focus or target groups, and we don’t try to generate those types of contexts that seek to quantify audiences. Rather, we’re an exhibitions program that understands itself as a debate interval between academia, art institutions, and individuals interested in developing a conversation with only the artist and the members of ESL.
ROBBY HERBST (Journal of Aesthetics and Protest): One of the things that was really interesting about this project was that it came about through a collaboration that started off with a homeowner in Highland Park and outsiders to the neighborhood wishing to use the context of the 2004 election to focus on local issues, trying to focus on a specific regional area of Los Angeles. As the organizing collective expanded it became clear that we wanted to have a dialogue with as many stakeholders of the neighborhood as we could and we tried to define that as broadly as we could and to identify as many ways as we could to relate to as much of the broad populace as possible. We tried to organize homeowners with businesspeople and with users of the street throughout Los Angeles through critical interventions in the neighborhood. One of the collective members, Sondra, pointed out at one time that we were not strategically interfacing with youth in the neighborhood and it was a really great moment to begin to develop programming through the strategic intervention with kids—that was really utterly rewarding. One of the ways that we strategically presented local concerns was through a periodical that focused on making sense of the sprawl; the periodical contained dialogues around local issues there. Whether that way of interfacing with people ultimately was successful or not, I don’t know. It seems to be a big issue with pedagogical projects that have more open-ended structures reverting to pedagogical methods of discourse.
(Marc Herbst was the appointed spokesperson for the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest during the Los Angeles Town Hall meeting. JoA&P editors and collective members Robby Herbst and Christina Ulke were present and occasionally chimed in. Their comments are included here as well.)
PAMELA MILLER-MACIAS: The Utopia/Dystopia project is an example of one of the ways that the group galvanizes audiences, partly by blurring the distinction between participant and audience. In this project, the part of it that was the town hall meeting took place in the community: in a former firehouse and in a church across from the Midnight Mission on Skid Row. There are events like that within the community where the participants are the actors, the policy makers, and the audience that's coming from the community, because what happens [in those situations] is that the people who are sometimes the victims of public policy and the public policymakers themselves are in the same room at the same time discussing ideas, experiencing the work and creating the work.
In conjunction with our performances, we often have panel discussions. Following “Agents and Assets” where the work was a transcript of the Senate hearing, there was a panel discussion after the performance. In that case, there were actors who were survivors of the AIDS epidemic performing the play and panelists who are policy members as well as the audience. That play was produced in East New York as part of Housing Works, in a Harlem church, and in the Housing Works bookstore in Soho. So that was a pretty diverse audience. The panelists themselves were participants in the discussion as well as audience members for the work. In that audience we had an executive director from Break the Chains, the New York Civil Liberties Union, and Harlem Tenants Council, so they function on both levels, as audience and participants.
Given that the ways we make money impacts the type of culture we produce, how does the local economy affect your art practice? Or another way to look at it is, how do you work to obtain and share resources?
KELLY MARTIN: I’ll talk about myself as an individual artist and talk a little bit about how the Bicycle Kitchen gets our resources, because I think it’s kind of interesting in these modern times. For myself, I think that I’m probably like a lot of you here, where you cobble together economically whatever you can through either freelancing or adjunct teaching. I work freelance in the commercial production industry doing visual research for directors of commercials. It’s this niche field that I fell into; after I finished grad school I couldn’t find a job to save my life, and I ran into somebody I knew at a club and he said, “Oh, I know this production company that’s hiring a receptionist.” So I started working as a receptionist there, and then it was one of those things where somebody said, “Oh, you’re an artist? Could you put together this presentation?” So I did that and it grew into basically a nice reliable income. But last fall I took a little bit of time off to work on a project, and the bottom basically fell out from under me. After having done it for eight years suddenly I was not getting work calls and I had also missed the deadline for teaching in the fall. I don’t really think that the writers’ strike had much to do with that here locally, in Los Angeles, but what ended up happening was that I was forced to get a day job, which I’ve had now for three weeks. I have not worked full-time in ten years, and it’s basically making me completely insane. I’m commuting out to Santa Monica, the job is from 9 to 6, which essentially extends your day from 7 to 7. It’s been really interesting, because to take the Rapid bus with my bicycle down Wilshire takes about as much time as it does to drive a car on the freeway. And the riding home at night creates a nice taste of reality of the loveliness of a bike lane and then the sudden horror of it just dropping out. So all this leads into the Bicycle Kitchen: it’s partly a matter of having lived in Los Angeles for almost 12 years now, and partly from working with the Bicycle Kitchen, that there’s such a large love within the cycling community and those who know about the Bicycle Kitchen for the place. For example, when we outgrew our initial space at EcoVillage and we moved to a space on Heliotrope we essentially made that move within a week, in 2005, from people just coming and helping us build out the space, donating wood, donating time, donating labor. It’s nice to have a place that’s a resource. There are doctors, there are lawyers, there are grant writers, and there are artists. Through that you get access to a lot of information. I also want to put a shout-out for L.A. Culture Net, a listserv.
SANDRA DE LA LOZA: I work as an artist and I work as an educator. I think we’ve seen a disinvestment in both realms over a period of at least, I’d say maybe 20 years, 30 years. So my life is pretty precarious—I guess that’s the term a lot of people are starting to use now. Occasionally, I get a grant or I get teaching gigs here and there and it keeps me going. My biggest patron is probably EDD—unemployment (LAUGHTER). That’s the one perk of being a part-timer. But I think one thing that really has helped me live in this city is that I am very rooted here. My parents were born here in the 1920s, so I have people I’ve known my whole life. I have a lot of resources and I come from very working-class roots. Through these different networks we find ways to share resources. I think one thing that digital technology has done is made types of media that were previously inaccessible now affordable, and so tons of people have equipment and we share.
IRINA CONTRERAS: So I just want so say, first off, I love this question. This question was the deal-breaker, actually, when I got the email. I was like, “Oh, yeah, I want to do this.” No one asks this question. I would like to acknowledge that I definitely have privilege from attending two private art institutions, but nonetheless the class structure that I come from is definitely always apparent in everything that I do. My mother was a striking grocery store worker and my sister and I joined her on the picket line in 2003. I’m jumping all over the place, but there’s one little story I want to share that I thought was really interesting that I was just reminded of. I was invited to participate in a show of temporary installations at a hotel that had closed in Silver Lake last year or the year before, I can’t quite remember. The hotel was being remodeled to reflect the new residents that have been moving in: a boutique hotel with a spa inside, etcetera. It was a hotel that was notorious for, you name it—people doping up, sex workers, etcetera, etcetera. I really felt like I wanted to make something that was an ode—I don’t want to say an ode to that kind of violent culture, because I realize that there’s violence—but I wanted to make an ode to the disappearing culture that existed in Silver Lake when I was growing up and to the kind of communities that I grew up in, which I definitely [identify with]; I’ve always felt connected to the DIY punk rock/activist/hip hop communities, which I think all have roots in class struggle. I was thinking about the houses that I used to couch surf in when I was—well, I would like to say in high school, but even when I was 25, 26, probably. One of the things that I thought was interesting was a real division of class in the way that people received my work. There were some people that looked at it and said, “Oh, it’s scatter art, you do scatter art. How cool.” And I was really disgusted (LAUGHTER) because I do not do scatter art. And then there are other people that looked at it and said, “Oh, you make folk art, you make outsider art,” which also felt wrong. Outsider to whom? Mainstream culture? White culture? And part of me was thinking, I feel or I want to be [that kind of art] but obviously that’s not present, I acknowledge that’s not present. But I feel like I’m connected to communities that carry on legacies. And the legacies that I want to be part of are things that are connected to street theater, things that are connected to street performance, things that are connected to agitprop, to interventionism, and to direct action. Direct action, for me, is very much tied to my performance work. Besides that, I also think about how money impacts the kind of culture that we produce. I try to be a part of a gift economy when I can. And by that I mean that while I don’t have health insurance I think that health insurance is a façade to me, anyway. Before Michael Moore started talking about it, I didn’t believe that it was really going to make me safer, anyway. I’ve seen a number of folks in my family and community who even with insurance haven’t been able to get the care they deserve. I do, however, make more money than I have ever made, and I make more money than my mother, as well, which is sometimes really difficult to deal with. In that sense, I’m able to give whatever kind of video production services that I can. That specifically came up last week when there were Ice raids in high schools throughout South Central—one of the things that I plan to do is to tape the different trainings that we’re going to be doing.
MING YUEN S. MA: I have three main ideas in response to this question: the idea of economics, the idea of privilege, and the idea of self-sufficiency. Economics: in a lot of the conversations of this kind that I have participated in there is consistently a dancing around the economics of the art world. It’s actually a really important thing to have frank discussions about, but we almost never do because it’s a dirty little secret—people never talk about how they make money, how much money they make, how much of their work is selling for if they make a living by selling their work. I really like this question, and I think that, for example, if you think about the title of this project, the Democracy in America Project, and you substitute art world for America, if you think about democracy and the art world and maybe add a question mark and exclamation mark then we might be approaching the crux of the matter. I teach at a private liberal arts college that costs about $40,000 a year in tuition to attend. I teach full-time and I have tenure so I’m in a comparatively privileged position. My job, which is stressful and labor-intensive, allows me a good degree of access and freedom. That brings me to my thought about privilege. I’m not really interested in the liberal white left’s constant self-flagellation about privilege, such as, “Oh, we have this privilege. What are we going do with it? You know, we’re such bad, middle-class capitalists.” I’m much more interested in how one can use privilege—yes, one has privilege, and one acknowledges it. But how does one use it productively? My students at the Claremont Colleges are rather privileged; a lot of them are going to go on to occupy positions of power. It’s not fair, it’s very problematic, but it is a symptom of the kind of transnational capitalist society that we live in. For me, the issue is really, how do I work with this privileged group of individuals, who are going to have a very large degree of power, who can actually make change happen, in a realistic and pragmatic way so that what they do later in their lives can make a difference? For me, that’s how I chose to work with privilege. On a more institutional level, I think that collaboration is a very interesting way of thinking about it. I know it can be a cliché, but take my school, for instance, it was founded in the Sixties, and tried to incorporate the best and the worst part of that era. Community-based learning is a very important aspect of education there, and while it is not always successful, important lessons about collaboration with less-privileged communities are usually learnt, and this is happening in the context of a very privileged institution. That makes the access to power and privilege productive. My third point, very briefly, is that I think self-sustaining models are really important. Having a full-time job means I have health benefits, and that’s really important to me at my age. Also, I do not write grants anymore, and usually self-finance my projects through my salary and academic research grants that I did not have access to as an independent artist. This allows me a freedom; I don’t have to worry about the economics of the grant writing and the power play related to that. Another aspect of self-sustenance for artists to consider here is the model of nonprofit arts organization. I have had the chance to look at a few budgets for nonprofit arts organization over the past few years, and I just don’t think that model is self-sustaining right now. I think that we really need to find a way to make nonprofit arts organization truly self-sustaining.
PAMELA MILLER-MACIAS: I just want to speak for myself on this issue, because it’s something that I struggle with every day. I spent about 20 years at the top of the national magazine industry in New York, and when I found L.A. Poverty Department last summer it was really a soul-saving experience for me (LAUGHTER). Speaking of self-flagellation, I haven’t cut the purse strings. I do that three days a week and some days I feel like it’s a Robin Hood activity; other days I feel like I’m pimping myself out. But now, thanks to the term I just heard here, I can think of myself as a "self-sustaining model."
ARMANDO DURON: When you’re at the bottom, in a sense, of the economic pile, you’re not as affected by the ups and downs of the economy as some other people might be. In terms of how we look at Self Help in the relation to the world today, in terms of money, we are basically giving up, to a large extent, on foundations and government grants. They are extremely time-consuming grants, and so forth; I spend more time writing grants and having lunches and all that other stuff for the first year that I was at Self Help. This last year I’ve spent figuring out how we’re going to raise our own money and how we’re going to effectively use the community’s resources that are there because of the goodwill that Self Help has. In 2007 we started out with about $5,000; by the end of 2007, between earned income, in-kind income and volunteer muscle we spent $350,000. I think that’s a great feat, because aside from a little grant money from the city, which was the $5,000 that came in late—because you know the city money always comes in late—the rest of it has all been with, as I said, the earned income, volunteers and in-kind income. There are a lot of resources available in the community, and you have to figure out how to tap them. There are a lot of people willing to help; you’d be surprised how many people are willing to help if you know how to ask. If you know how to ask the person who has that particular resource to share that resource with you—not something that they can’t give you, but something that they can give you—for the most part they are willing to do that. So we got our roof fixed, we got our plumbing fixed, we got a full gallery program, we have all the paper we need for our printing program, and all the inks we need for our printing program, and a lot of that has to do with the resources that we’re able to marshal, without worrying about the government and the foundations.
OMAR FOGLIO: How does the local economy affect our art practice? Well, it’s made us be honest, it’s made us be on time, pay our bills on time, and it’s made us be friendly and try to be as generous as we can. Sometimes these are things that you see are lacking. It’s actually made us be better, and by generating jobs you can give jobs to other people and that helps everyone, which feels good. How do we work to obtain and share resources? Well, we run our own company, but more than running the company is the same as doing an art project—we keep on doing projects that are creative, but that will actually give us the money to continue, and that’s why we formed the corporation. In reality, the corporation and bulbo, the art collective, is the same thing. The only thing that changes is how we organize and how we present ourselves to outsiders.
Describe a local cultural event that productively expanded the social networks that your practice operates in. That is to say that the event produced a nuisance of community that had political potential.
KELLY MARTIN: For me, it’s undeniably the Democratic National Convention of 2000. Basically, I had accidentally seen Marc and Robby Herbst, from the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest, in 1999 in Seattle at the battle in Seattle. I was coincidentally there for Thanksgiving to visit my brother, saw them, and then saw one of them in L.A. at an art event and asked them about what they were doing up there in the battle in Seattle. They invited me to participate in the Indymedia Radio arm of the Indymedia Center, basically an independent media recording of the Democratic National Convention that was located at the Patriotic Hall in downtown Los Angeles. We manned and womanned the Internet radio broadcast that was going on during the four to five days of protests and interventions and events. It was going between the Patriotic Hall and the Convergence Center, which the Arts in Action grew out of, on 7th and Wilshire. It also coincidentally ties back to bicycling, as it seems like everything does these days (LAUGHTER). During the four days of protests, a Critical Mass ride through downtown Los Angeles happened to be the largest mass arrest by the LAPD during the protest. There were about 300 people on bicycles, biking through downtown L.A., being escorted in front by motorcycle cops, and in the back by bicycling cops. Critical Mass, if you’re not aware, has a formation where the people who are in front lead the ride, so the cops led us to an alley off of Washington and 14th and blocked it off. All the people who were in front got mass jumped and arrested. There were 73 arrests and there actually ended up being a class action lawsuit that the people who were arrested won after a couple of years. But it extensively opened up my networks in a number of ways, obviously, by infusing my own personal artistic practice with ideas about direct action and intervention. Also, in a very local way of how I get around town.
SANDRA DE LA LOZA: One event I want to speak about, that speaks to an aspect of Los Angeles I love, is an event actually opening this Saturday at Self Help Graphics, and that’s the Mujeres de Maiz event. This is an event that has been organized over ten years, on and off, in recognition of International Women’s Day. It’s organized by a collective of artists, activists, and cultural producers. It’s a Chicana-centered event, but open to expressions by many women of color. The month long exhibit will be comprised of many mini events that will include, film screenings, a visual art show, performances; I think there’s a self-defense workshop, and there’s a day dedicated to healing, so healers will share their practices with the public. I think this event speaks to the question of visibility and brings together a movement, for lack of a better word, that has been present in Los Angeles for a very long time, but isn’t always visible. It brings together a lot of practitioners, a lot of artists, a lot of cultural producers, and for a moment it creates a temporary space, and that is a Chicana-feminist space, if I’d call it that. It’s a very strong and powerful event, and it makes visible this practice that’s ongoing and has been ongoing for generations. I think we get to see our collective potential during this event, as it brings together a lot of women who work in many different realms, and all of the work together creates a presence and a certain IRINA CONTRERAS: I’ll pick a recent somewhat sad, traumatic event (LAUGHTER) but happy in some ways. The South Central Farms, as many people know, was the largest urban farm in the country, until it was taken away. The loss of the farm personally affected me, and I could see the obvious ramifications of how it affected people that were growing food, and also the way that it affected my friends and people that didn’t know about it and had never been there. I really felt like I saw the city affected in a way that I’m not quite sure I had ever seen or perhaps hadn’t seen in quite sometime. I also felt it changing the way that I applied my time and my job skills. My initial experience at the farm was as someone who went to the events held there, which is part of the reason that draws me to answer about the South Central Farms, because I began going there as someone that just wanted to hang out and see this really magical, wonderful place. By the time that it was literally ending my role had really maneuvered into someone that was active in the media-making about it, for Climber Magazine and the Climber blog, as well as for different indie medias and really anyone that would listen. [I was involved in] even silly things like making signs and stenciling and stuff like that. I found it affecting me a year later during the Stories of Survival project with Suzanne, which was a storytelling workshop. One of the first things I was compelled to make a story about was the connection of coming from a migrant farm-working family and trying to talk to my grandmother about the South Central Farms, and her basically telling me that I was intruding on someone else’s land, and that when land doesn’t belong to you, you’re not supposed to be on it. It was a really interesting time, about a year long that I felt all these things; I felt really tested, really tested and challenged by my family, by myself, and by everything around me. I could see the connections coming together in a way that I hadn’t before.
MING YUEN S. MA: The example that I want to share with you is sort of an unusual one. I’m still trying to figure it out, so my comments are speculative. The event that I want to talk about as an example is Bricktops, which technically is definitely not an art event, it is not a proscribed political event—it’s a nightclub. It was a once-a-week club run by Vaginal Davis for about three to five years, I believe. [For more information on Bricktops, go to www.vaginaldavis.com.] The club doesn’t exist anymore; the space that it was in is now an up-market bar, called the Troika, in the east part of West Hollywood. Even Vag doesn’t live in L.A. anymore, she moved to Berlin. The temporality and ephemerality of it is partially why I find this so compelling. Bricktops was an actual nightclub in Paris in the 1920s on the Left Bank that was run by an African-American woman named Ada Smith—the original Bricktops was named for her flame-colored wig. The original Bricktops hosted this demimonde of the Lost Generation; it was the kind of locale where a lot of different populations mixed—artists, anarchists, sex workers, etcetera. Vag basically recreated this club, but for contemporary Los Angeles, circa 2002. What I find very interesting about it is that it really creates a community that defies expectations in terms of what it is. You have club kids, people are dressed up, some of them in Twenties vintage clothing, sometimes in contemporary clothing, sometimes a mixture. Usually some sort of performance happens. The music is a hybrid of both 1920s jazz and contemporary versions of that kind of music. I find it difficult to explain why Bricktops is “a local cultural event that productively expanded the social networks that my practice operates in” precisely because it was so unruly and undefinable. The point that I’m trying to make is that change and revolution, a lot of times—and probably usually— don’t emerge from the places that are proscribed, that we expect them to emerge from. Part of the trick is actually to have the awareness to be able to see it when it’s emerging, to identify it. Given that these moments are usually temporal, they’re ephemeral, they’re here and then they’re gone, the question is what do you do with that moment when it’s actually working, when those communities are formed? At the same time, the necessity of realizing that it is not a situation where having it reproduce itself ad infinitum is the productive way of looking at it.
CHRISTINA ULKE (Journal of Aesthetics and Protest): I just wanted to briefly talk about a very small experience that happened in 2006, in this space. It was Civic Matters. It was organized by Brett Littman, Irene Tsatsos and Veronica Wiman as an exhibition in progress involving local artists and practitioners and designers/artists from Scandinavia. JoA&P organized a campaign for it. Initially we called it ROCK WOMEN FOR REICH CAMPAIGN before we knew what the campaign was about. We had four hours to conceptualize it together with exhibition participants and whoever came for our event, invited or uninvited. What we did was address everyone who was in the space as one constituency including ourselves; there was no separation between the audience and what we were doing. We used activist organizing strategies, like consensus building, to break down the campaign and to develop its goals, strategies, aesthetics/banners and slogans in small groups. Then we worked with our limited time as our reality, the idea being that at this point this was all the time we had available to us, and to create common ground within that limited space. We had to use opportunities, small opportunities, and it was a very powerful experience because we managed to consent upon a campaign. We went out in the street, where the ROCK WOMEN FOR REICH CAMPAIGN had turned into the NICE CAMPAIGN and we gave apples to everyone. But I wanted to say, bringing it back to the first question, I think that the question of the audience is somewhat limiting, actually, in that it’s already describing a relationship that should take place. If you want to move towards a culture of caring you have to overcome the idea of the audience and think more in the sense of, “OK, we’re in the boat together. What can we do at this point in time?”
I want to share a recent submission for our next issue; it addresses issues of self and other, I think in a beautiful way. If you don’t mind, I’ll just read it. It’s by Lozeh Luna and it’s called “Detras de Nosotros, Estamos Ustedes.” It’s almost impossible to translate satisfactorily into English, as it contains a paradoxical use of plural terms for self and other. It would be something like “Behind us, are (in we form of being) you (all),” where the “we” form of the verb “to be” is implicit in “are” and “you” is plural (akin, but not identical) to the French “vous.” It is another way the Zapatistas articulate the encompassing and inclusive reach of their movement and ideology. Such notions of "I am you" and "us is them" are central to my work with communities in Chiapas, Lebanon, Iran, and the U.S. Through local and long-distance collaborations with others who are living, learning, and working in similar ways, I have come to learn and participate in transformational projects and processes such as those of Al-jame'ah, Universidad de la Tierra, and the Learning Societies Network.
(Marc Herbst was the appointed spokes-person for the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest during the Los Angeles Town Hall meeting. JoA&P editors and collective members Robby Herbst and Christina Ulke were present and occasionally chimed in. Their comments are included here as well.)
AMITIS MOTEVALLI: There are a lot of cultural movements in L.A., in particular, a lot of underground music movements that I have felt a connection with. One thing that existed here in L.A.—apart from a really beautiful punk movement of color, in particular, and also the Good Life and World on Wheels and a lot of incredible hip-hop movements—was the street rebellion in ‘92. The rebellion in ’92 was an intense time, because it was a few days that we really went out on the street and all the people who were in positions of extreme power were really, really afraid to come out. That was very empowering as a youth and gave the sense that change was possible. The only thing missing at that time was a unification of thought among the people who were out. I feel like the key is to engage in creating a vision of what we would like to live in, so when something like that jumps off in the future, we don’t just destroy but rather rebuild in a way that works towards equity and justice.
As a politically engaged artist or organization, how does your practice relate to existing social movements? Also feel free to shout out kind of like historical stuff, I guess, as well.
SUZANNE LACY: There are three things that I think about in terms of my context as I begin to work. One is social and political movements, and the ones that I’ve been involved with have been, first, civil rights, then farm workers, and then feminism, and finally racial politics, in particular white hegemony, in a variety of regions. The connecting theme is the discourse of oppression. Class is harder to work on here in the U.S., but is very important to me, as a working-class person. The way these are conflated and work together is partially what motivates me to enter the art environment, along with a love of sculptural and performative forms, but I think I enter it first through personal story. I’m committed in my performances to providing a public platform for multiple, sometimes hundreds, of people to express their experience, often around specific social issues, but they’re not proscribed conversations, nor are they scripted. The organizing that I did in the ‘70s around women and violence was quite emotional at times. I learned to start with the emotional and direct experience—often one not heard in the larger culture, invisible in some way—and connect that to larger issues of equity and justice through political and pragmatic analysis.
The analysis of teen pregnancy, for example, is based on a much deeper look at the research information available to us, on the conflation of race and class and gender politics at play, and the actual experience of young women. What is apparent, according to sociologist Mike Males, is that teen pregnancy isn’t necessarily an example of youth promiscuity as much as it is adult predation, as the largest percentage of teen moms had their first sexual experience as an underage female with an adult male.
Finally, whenever I start a project I track the organizations that exist around these issues and engage with them to understand how the community is already working on the issues. On any project I might work with between 10 and 30 organizations over time, depending on their political strategies, but I don’t necessarily support one strategy to the exclusion of others. For example, Cop Watch organizations and Police Athletic Leagues and city council and mentorship clubs—all with differences in strategies and analyses, but all concerned with youth wellbeing. Even within political divisions there are ways, often, to bring people together around a shared value.
SARA DALEIDEN: Given that the nature of our project is to actually ask a question about nature, one of the major existing social movements that we think about a lot is just that—those that surround the term “environmentalism.” I’d like to try to answer the question by actually talking about sister projects that are here in the city. One, a major precursor to us, is the Center for Land Use Interpretation [www.clui.org] without whom I don’t know that we would have such a strong response in terms of the art community here. One of the ways they’re looking at environmental concerns is actually just to talk about land use, which means to look at the phenomena of who owns spaces, how they’re actually operating, how they’re connected to each other. And in the end to ask provocative questions through mapping or site visits or asking what is this term “environment” and how are we actually going to make decisions about our use of it? On the other end, we were part of a recent special on KCET, which is the PBS branch for Los Angeles, along with three other practices: Farmlab [www.farmlab.org], which is directly involved with the cornfield project downtown; Edible Estates, with Fritz Haeg [www.fritzhaeg.com/garden/initiatives/edibleestates/main.html], they’re looking at turning front lawns into vegetable gardens; and Fallen Fruit [www.fallenfruit.org], which is trying to get people out to gather a lot of the fruit that lands on a public/private boundary in the city. All these practices, as with ours, I think, are very much concerned with how you actually get people out into the city space and change how they’re using it, but often from a very individual relationship to, again, this term “environment.” Inside of that, it’s important for us to think about how a city actually still relates and how you have a one-for-one active interpretation going on inside of the city space.
MING YUEN S. MA: I have a fairly thorny relationship negotiating between art and politics. I’ll give you a statement and a polemic, and then an example. For me, art is a really good way to engage with politics, because a lot of times it’s open-ended and process-oriented, and those aspects allow for a lot of freedom on one’s engagement with these issues. But I also think that art could be a self-contradictory way to engage with politics; here, I refer to my first comment about the economics and power structure of the art world, and that a lot of political art, by virtual of being a part of that economy, end up being about self-aggrandizing and sets up unrealistic goals and expectations in terms of political change. So for me, the polemic is that “all art is political.” Even the artist who makes the most formalist, abstract work; in making that choice, s/he is making a political choice. My most intense engagement with politics actually has very little to do with art. In the mid to late ‘80s and early ‘90s, when I was living in New York, I was a part of the AIDS activist movement. I primarily worked with a group called ACT UP [AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power]. The area that I chose to focus on, even though I was coming out of art school and was working in the art world at the time, had nothing to do with art; it had to do with education for Asian-Pacific communities. At that time, there was no culturally specific education directed to Asian-Pacific islanders in the New York tri-state area. I helped to set up the first community-based Asian-Pacific Islander AIDS organization in that area. At that time, I had made a very conscious choice to separate my art and political practices. I understand that mine was a very radical or severe way of approaching the relationship between art and politics. But for me, at that time, art was not enough. I don’t know if any of you lived through that, but it was a very dire time. People were dying, a lot of people in the art world were dying, and for me, the logical response was to be engaged politically, not through art but through organizing. Although I still see dangers in confusing art with politics now, I am less rigid about its division right now, where I can actually see moments when they do come together. I do want to offer my personal experience as a case study, as a way of thinking about it. Yes, we are all involved in art, but sometimes we should be able to be involved in politics and not make art out of it.
MARC HERBST (Journal of Aesthetics and Protest): How do we relate to social movements? This may bleed into the local and the national, but we meet, we email, we phone, we write, we network, we think with people and theorize by speaking and by mixing dough. We open our mouths when invited to do so or not. Many people do all these things. One thing that we do pragmatically is that when we send out announcements we include other peoples’ announcements. We also put up things not related to us on our website which we think are important. This is very small, but I think a good symbol of relating.
As a journal, we show other peoples’ productions, we ask other groups of people “What needs to be said right now? What needs to be thought about right now?” We actively edit and participate in their thinking and editing of it. We generate ideas in spaces. I wanted to give a few examples. As a magazine, we’ve documented ideas for the globalization movement; we’ve done that in the past, with our first issue, especially- documenting gas mask projects for street protests, doing interviews with Indymedia workers. We put out specific calls: we put out a poster project about the war on terrorism in 2001 and 2002, which was trying to connect the war on terror and its effects on our communities to the neighborhoods people wander through on a day-to-day basis by doing site-specific stuff. Open call projects like these get people to say, “We need to think about this.” We ran a symposium for a while entitled “Inventing Antiwar Culture” that aimed to work with artists of all stripes to foment an antiwar culture. All these acts are key to seeing how we try and relate to existing social movements. On May Day in 2006, during the called general strike, we tried to organize a general strike among artists, contacting several art organizations and saying, “Let’s put out a call! Let’s shut our spaces down for the day as well! Lets do this as a public act!”
ROBBY HERBST (Journal of Aesthetics and Protest): Just to add two sentences: As a group with an expertise in expanding the discourse around politics, we find it interesting, surprising and/or problematic that our relationship to social movements in L.A. is largely one-way—one-way is underlined. We ask for collaborations; they either do or do not happen. We are never asked by social movements in L.A. to collaborate with them. That’s just interesting.
(Marc Herbst was the appointed spokes-person for the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest during the Los Angeles Town Hall meeting. JoA&P editors and collective members Robby Herbst and Christina Ulke were present and occasionally chimed in. Their comments are included here as well.)
PAMELA MILLER-MACIAS: As I’ve mentioned before, how the L.A. Poverty Department relates to existing social movements is basically to interweave our work with the community members. I just wanted to put some faces to some of the things that I’ve been talking about. One of the social movements that LAPD works with is the L.A. Community Action Network, LACan, and one of the things that they do on Skid Row is to police the police, so to speak, and monitor the abuses that are taking place by the police toward the residents there. One of those members is a man named General Dogon. The General was incorporated into the REDCAT show; he had an autobiographical piece where he was sitting in the audience and when his vignette came up, he stands up and he says, “I am General Do-gan. The police will tell you what you can do." Or, “The police will tell you what you can’t do. I will tell you what you can do. If the police stop you, ask them, ‘Am I being detained?’ If they say no, walk on. If they say yes, ask them why.” And it goes on like that. That’s a specific example of involving individuals from the existing social movements into the work. Another thing that happened in the Glimpses events, where people gave their individual glimpses of utopia, someone named Redd, who is a member of the Skid Row community—meaning he’s someone who lived in a box for ten years on the corner of, I think, 5th Street and Crocker, and is a survivor of addiction and is now a counselor in prisons—spoke at one of the Glimpses of Utopia events. There was also someone there who is the director of special projects for Skid Row Housing Trust, which is a nonprofit developer that operates more than 1,200 units, and people who work as policymakers on Skid Row are pretty connected to the community. It’s not an up here/down here thing. But I do remember really, really vividly a moment when Redd had given his talk—he’s a beautiful orator—and he was talking about what goes on in his visits to the prisons. And Molly, this person who makes the decisions about housing on Skid Row, was saying something like, “We have all these debates among ourselves about zero tolerance policy versus harm reduction,” and talking about the relative merits of each, in this very intellectualized way. She looked at Redd and said, “Well, what do you think of that?” For me, that was a really profound moment, because I know that they’re not so far removed from the street, but in that moment, she really wanted to hear what Redd, someone who lived that kind of experience, had to say. And I don’t know how she took that information and translated it into what she does in her day-to-day work, but it’s an exposure that she had; I don’t know if she would have asked someone that kind of question that directly otherwise.
ARMANDO DURON: I think the very existence of Self Help Graphics is a political act. The kind of work that we do, almost without even thinking about it, without asking about it, becomes political, from the very obvious pieces that we produce, the exhibitions and the other things that go on, to even what appears initially to be a very introspective piece is, itself, a question of the political and social concerns that are involved in the community, and in the world at large. Bringing it back to the topic of the Democracy in America project, I think the fact that we are a venue that has largely been an alternative space is an act in democracy. It’s an act that, despite the efforts of many that we thought were friends but turned out not to be (LAUGHTER), despite those efforts, we are still in existence, and providing that venue is, in fact, participating in the democratic process. The artists are largely free to do a lot of what they would want to do because the pressures that would otherwise exist in commercial print houses don’t exist, and we’re not tied into the commercial gallery world, either, so the artists are free to do a lot of work that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to do. The community continues to support it and it’s so obvious, when you come to an event like Day of the Dead at Self Help Graphics, and you see families—not your usual museum-goers, but you see families standing in line for 45 minutes to go in to see an art show in the middle of East Los Angeles. That is an act of democracy.
These conversations come out of a nationwide concern about the fate of democracy. How do you see your projects tying into a larger national structure? Is organizing nationally productive? What are its limitations?
SARA DALEIDEN: We’ve often wondered, “Can we make Urban Rangers in other major cities in America?” and realized that part of why it works out here is because of the notion of the West and the landscape and this idea that you need a guide, somehow, to be able to start to decipher this sense of space. That space comes with national parks, it comes from a sense of great mountain ranges or other kinds of unusual landforms. That’s happening inside the city of Los Angeles, as well, partly through being a car-centric culture, and also from the variable forms we’re constantly building here. Somehow, we think Los Angeles is standing as a representative of some unique set of symptoms in how cities build. I don’t believe it would be a direct translation, but somehow, the way it connects into a national structure is through the idea of looking at the local condition and how to respond inside it, and also how to walk it, how to be part of it, because walking in Los Angeles is a little bit of a contradictory act. I would say that there’s less of a direct translation, but the question of how do you take your local situation and your urban condition and actually figure out a response that’s going to try to expand the type of behavior that’s possible.
KELLY MARTIN: When you think about one of the definitions of democracy as just directly meaning the common people, especially with respect to their political power, it’s doomed. It’s impossible to talk about it without mentioning its destructor, capitalism, or the domination of the corporate class, like the privatization of social institutions such as healthcare and education and now art. Thinking about even five to ten years ago, if you went to an art opening that was sponsored by Red Bull or Stoli vodka, it was a different kind of art opening than a fine art opening; and now it’s normal, it’s a normalized activity. Not only are institutions and individual artists now competing for funding and approval from companies and corporations, they’re also looking for hipster cachet. It starts to get really scary then. I was thinking about that as an artist; I was applying with my collaborator, David Jones, for a Center for Cultural Innovation grant, and we had to choose between going for tools or going for marketing and planning. And I was thinking about that whole idea of, well, how would I even talk about, as an artist, what is my marketing strategy? (LAUGHTER) It just seemed really ludicrous and scary to me.
On a positive note, thinking of a national or international model, I’ve been talking with some friends about the ways that locally there are all these great groups that are doing things, and that you come across them in various situations and there are these cross-pollinations or exchanges that happen between cultural, community and activist organizations. We were saying we should just print our own money or scrip to use between us, and my brother-in-law, Angelo Logan, said, “Use the word barter instead,” because obviously money or scrip needs to have gold behind it or whatever. And of course, obviously, bartering is a lot more realistic and viable. But then it really got me thinking about maybe what we need is a grant kitchen, much the way we have the Bicycle Kitchen, which would be made up of kick-ass grant writers who effectively could go after the big money hoops that are out there and around town. Organizations could be members equally and then the cash could be distributed equally. You wouldn’t have to apply. One other thing on that is—just thinking about the idea that there are a lot of groups that are fostering new ways of thinking and producing cultural activity. I think that the next step is to go nationally and internationally, and one local example is the model of the Bicycle Kitchen. There have been groups in Santa Monica that started a similar space called Bikerowave, and then in northeast L.A. and Highland Park, there’s the Bike Oven. Their name gives a nod or a shout-out to the model of the Bicycle Kitchen, and our model is one that’s national, and the way that we come together and share information and ideas is this conference called the Bike-Bike Conference. I think that that could happen on a national level with other things, as well.
AMITIS MOTEVALLI: I think one of the issues I have with this question is—well, of course, I wasn’t born in this nation, and I have never seen this nation as a place that actually contained any kind of democracy. So the fate of it is kind of obvious to me, but in terms of actually trying to produce democracy, that’s another question. For me, a lot of dialogue and a lot of what moves forward has always worked through relationship-building and working through those relationships; sometimes in small collectives and small groups, where a lot of threads tie people together and reach beyond. Recently, I was able to work with a group of women, and a book that we were involved in called Voices of Resistance brought us all together. It was basically all women who were Muslim, either born Muslim, converted into Islam, or gave up Islam, but it had something to do with Islam. And through that space I was able to develop relationships that built into something else. One of the things that I realized was that every time my family members ever wanted change in their life it was sparked through intimate dialogues. A lot of those dialogues happened in the hamam, in the bath space, in the kitchen, in friendships, and at small gatherings and parties. Again, some of our personal issues were turned into something that was much more political and dealt with what was going on in the world.
IRINA CONTRERAS: I felt really, really frustrated reading this question; it wasn’t a deal-breaker, but it was frustrating. One of the things that I started to think about was that I have my own questions, because I’ve done a few things like this, and I wonder what are the limitations of us consistently framing our artistic practices, our activist practices or social practices, within this national sphere? Why do we continue to do it? The way that we view history, the way that, despite not wanting to belong to something so linear, is it perhaps that we really do? That we just find ourselves in this constantly, myself included. I realized that my [answer to question] number five is a lot like my [answer to question] number one (LAUGHTER). Part of what I tried to journal my number one about today on the subway was about really thinking—I like thinking of art as being a tool or art as a hammer, as some would say. I don’t think that it can stand by itself. When I think about the practice of the artists that I respect and the kinds of things that I want to make and perhaps will make or do make, I see them as being created in some way that’s connected to those actions, those beliefs. But again, I don’t feel that they can stand alone.
MARC HERBST (Journal of Aesthetics and Protest): The journal is in contact with folks around the world, so this one we think a lot about. It is very clear to us that it’s easy to make a local and global movement if we got over issues of individuality and ownership. In answering this question we’re not talking in terms of political movements, but more in terms of art and cultural workers and cultural spaces. Our feelings about this are based on our experiences with Reclaim the Streets, a non-situated, non-identity based movement that was broad and extremely effective in putting issues around public space and corporate ownership on the table through cultural actions; it had a practice that was married to its theory, but also generated many other practices. Many of us have benefited from the concepts that Reclaim the Streets created. It’s very easy to create a larger structure, a movement, by doing collective thoughtwork and saying, “Hey, let’s all agree to work on subject X, even if we all do our bit just one day a month,” and then follow through on it. Not in an egotistical way, and also not in a sense of personal ownership, but in a way where occasionally folks could say, “Hey, I run a space, you run a club. We need to work on X, the agreed upon subject.“ I’m just going to give one example of what subject X could be. We could generally decide, “You know what? Private property and individualism is a huge fucking issue. So why don’t cultural spaces around the country make it so that to enter the club, you had to arrive in pairs?” It would put this question of individuality onto the table. Artists would do work around that. Musicians would, instead of singing about a couple, they’d sing about foursomes. You get the point. Social movements, that create a blossoming of ideas and a dialogue around this theme. It’s clear that things would happen if people got over the ownership over their ideas and projects.
(Marc Herbst was the appointed spokes-person for the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest during the Los Angeles Town Hall meeting. JoA&P editors and collective members Robby Herbst and Christina Ulke were present and occasionally chimed in. Their comments are included here as well.)
Listen to MP3 Transcript
Print on demand publication