What We Mean When We Say L.A.

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for Frieze Magazine (UK), October 2010

Close your eyes while I say ‘Los Angeles.’ What comes to mind? Your fantasy of the place is no less true than the diverse daily lives of it’s actual citizens, and part of the unique charge of this city happens when the quotidian and fantasy congeal.

It was without good reason when I impulsively moved from New York City to LA in 1999. Forced to explain the decision to confused family and friends (some of whom intimated that I was ‘giving up’ or ‘going soft’) I might say I was looking for an adventure. The truth that I felt mysteriously beckoned by this wild beast of a city – that I was hoping it would be uniquely able to prompt new directions in my work – was not confessed at the time. I wasn’t looking for the promise of happiness or comfort, in fact it was the comfort of New York that I was giving up. I wanted my nose pushed directly into the center of the dystopic mess of early 21st century urban life, with all of it’s accompanying discomforts, conflicts and contradictions. It was only later that the pleasures of the place would reveal themselves.

I had no immediate prospects there, and only three friends, all of whom had recently moved from New York themselves. In true immigrant style I stayed with one friend until another found an apartment for me in her neighborhood. Comparisons between the two cities are inevitable. Malik Gaines (who lives in Echo Park) of the performance art trio My Barbarian – esteemed anchors of a community of artists on the East side of town – puts it best:

In New York, art is ART, dance is DANCE, theater is THE THEATER, and so on.  These are disciplines with history, huge institutional support and entrenchment, impenetrable auras of high-art importance, and panic-stricken masses of up-and-comers hoping that if they live sufficiently horrible lives, they might become that one monstrously brilliant master whom they worship and despise. In LA, a lot of this making-it mania is relegated to Hollywood, which is basically trashy. The most celebrated artist, dancer, or playwright is a nobody next to Tom Cruise or Halle Berry. Even schmuck TV actors get better service. It used to be that personal earthquake procedure included seeking the safety of a doorframe when the tremors began, but now the experts counsel that one should rather find a potential air pocket by lying beside a sofa or beneath a sturdy table.  In LA, Hollywood’s enormous structure provides a similar pocket of air where artists can breathe deep under the rubble. [1]

Yes, L.A. can be a delightful place for artists to disappear. Many of whom eschew the outward appearances of a down-and-out bohemia, and instead of isolating into art ghettos, spread throughout the city as common citizenry. With artists as the perennial urban pioneers, their migrations should be carefully analyzed by anyone wanting to know where we are headed. In that spirit, I took a casual survey among a few local artist friends, enquiring ‘Why do you live in L.A.?’

Edgar Young, grandfather of Edgar Arceneaux (Pasadena), migrated to Los Angeles in 1923 from Mississippi, evidence that there are L.A. artists who were actually born Angelenos. The fact that this is so important to note up front, says something about the implied transience of today’s artists and our preconception of the city as a mecca for self-recreation. ‘I know where the bodies are buried’ is how Mark Bradford (Downtown) describes this condition of continuing to live among his family and friends in the city of his birth.

Others who didn’t make the conscious decision to move there, came to study at one of the twelve graduate art schools in Southern California and then never left. A few even went on to found their own schools, such as The Public School’s Sean Dockray and Fiona Whitton (Chinatown) and The Mountain School of Arts’ Piero Golia (Hollywood Hills) and native Angeleno Eric Wesley (Lincoln Heights). The art schools exert primary influence over the social structure of the local art community, and every spring an increasingly thick layer of local graduates – who a decade ago may have felt obligated to move to New York – is spread over the town like a fresh layer of garden compost.

Those who did not end up in L.A. by chance came searching for something – especially a sense of the future. The story of European colonization of the U.S. is the story of westward ‘progress.’ For Charlie White (Silverlake) L.A. is ‘always a little closer to the future… both a place to live and an idea to inhabit,’ and for Ryan Trecartin (Los Feliz) it ‘feels like the internet.’ The city evokes ‘a common time that moves both forwards and backwards, futuristic and ancient’ to Luke Fischbeck (Echo Park) of the music collective Lucky Dragons. His latest endeavor, The Elysian Park Museum of Art, is described as an experiment in amateur urban park management, and seems to epitomize a certain L.A. hybrid of homespun and expansive urban culture that has made the city so appealing to young artists. Despite the fact that, by some accounts, L.A. has more museums per capita than any city in the world [2], it is also a thriving center for artist-lead neighborhood-based activity. Here you do not have to wait for your big break, everyone creates their own, for themselves and for each other.

It is this collegial and networked community that attracts Mark Allen (Silverlake) of Machine Project and Robby Herbst (Rampart Park) of the newly initiated Llano Del Rio. Other influential projects include the roving home-based exhibitions of Artist Curated Projects (ACP), the wild inner city expeditions lead by the L.A. Urban Rangers, and the new Chinatown hothouse for music and performance appropriately known as Human Resources. While many cities around the world have seen the rise of artist-run spaces and initiatives, in L.A they often do not feel like the alternative culture, but rather the de facto culture, engaging not just an insular community of fellow artists but the general public.

L.A.’s expanded sense of space can mean both the physical space appreciated by sculptor Liz Larner (Mount Washington), and the headspace identified by Anna Sew Hoy (Cypress Park). For Katie Grinnan (Topanga Canyon) this spatial freedom takes the form of a solar powered studio in an empty swimming pool at the outer limits of the city. Edges and interior pockets of the city are rough and unpredictable as human occupation gives way to untamed hillsides, canyons, beaches, and high deserts. The appeal of living with this wild precariousness is described in different ways. For Jedediah Caesar (Mount Washington) it is the sense of ‘retreating to the hills,’ for Zackary Drucker (Silverlake), ‘life on an urban ranch,’ for Alice Könitz (MacArthur Park), the ‘farm in the city,’ and for Stanya Kahn (Highland Park), who moved from New York because she heard about a 400-dollar-a-day job sweeping the floors of movie sets, it is the ‘open fields under smoggy moons’ in the middle of the city where she shoots her videos. Another facet of this wildness is described by Liz Glynn (Lincoln Heights) as ‘always saying yes to seemingly absurd pursuits,’ and the ‘perception of achievable impossibilities’ for Marc Herbst (Echo Park) of the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest.

Dimensions of artist’s activity can be released from the confines of interior spaces in this Mediterranean climate with 3000 hours of sunshine, and just 35 days of precipitation a year [3]. Emilie Halpren (Highland Park) and Lesley Vance (Laurel Canyon) – who grew up waiting for the school bus in sub-zero Wisconsin temperatures – confessed that they are in L.A. for the climate, and for Kim Fisher (Silverlake) this means ‘perfect painting weather.’ The quality of light that originally drew the film industry to this city, continues to attract artists such as William E. Jones (Los Feliz) and Wu Ingrid Tsang (Koreatown). In Lawrence Weschler’s 1995 essay ‘L.A. Glows,’ he investigated the particular nature of L.A. light and even found some scientific evidence for the dream-like trance that it can induce.

In Weschler’s 1982 book ‘Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees’ Robert Irwin describes his most profound state of well-being to be found while driving aimlessly around the hills of the city. This 20th century wild-west fossil-fueled version of the Situationist’s derive’ now seems like ancient history. Aside from Ryan Trecartin  who ‘likes merging,’ and thinks ‘traffic is sexy,’ the pleasures of driving are low on the list for the L.A. artists that I heard from. They are more likely to be found on bicycles, such as Lisa Anne Auerbach (Jefferson Park) whose celebration of slow movement on two wheels, in a city designed to be experienced violently speeding on four, has inspired some of her most exuberant work:

The fabled ‘sprawl’ has a veneer of sameness and a general mediocrity on a casual first glance. But it doesn’t take long for paths and furrows to be carved out by daily or occasional journeys and the city begins to yield to the patterns and paths, taking on a well-worn personality, distinct and individual, custom fit for every citizen. These paths become our personal urban universe, routes radiating from the core like sunrays illuminating the landscape. And then the city becomes yours, and home is everywhere.

– Fritz Haeg, 2010

Fritz Haeg lives and works in a geodesic dome in the Glassell Park hills of Los Angeles, which has been the site for Sundown Salon events, Sundown Schoolhouse meetings, and vegetable gardening that inspired his Edible Estates project. He is in residence at the American Academy in Rome from 2010-2011 on a Rome Prize Fellowship. fritzhaeg.com

  1. The quotes from Malik Gaines and Lisa Anne Auerbach are from Fritz Haeg’s The Sundown Salon Unfolding Archive, Evil Twin Publications, 2009.
  2. http://www.cedars-sinai.edu/International-Patients/For-Patients/Family-Fun-in-Los-Angeles.aspx
  3. http://www.weather2travel.com/climate-guides/united-states/california/los-angeles-ca.php

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