June 7, 2010  |  Intern Chronicles
The Art of Effecting Change: Travels in Los Angeles, Part I

Located in downtown Los Angeles, this neon sign quotes Manuel Castells, "Another city is Possible." This artwork was created in 2008 by Lauren Bon and the Metabolic Studio.

Equipped with insider tips and a thorough guidebook, and having arranged several meetings ahead of time, I recently embarked on my first solo trip to the West Coast. As the Kress Fellow in the Education Department at MoMA, I received a travel grant to broaden my knowledge of a specific area of contemporary art. I chose to go to Los Angeles to meet with various artists, collectives, activists, and educators whose practices are guided by socially constructive aims and whose creative projects seek to engage communities in environmental issues. In my trusty rent-a-car, emboldened by a knowledgeable GPS, I booted around to diverging corners of the city to see museums around town, meet artists in their studios or collectives at their “headquarters,” and visit projects in various communities.

Interior of Machine Project's gallery space, with Nate Page's installation Machine: Subject/Object/Project.

Among the first people I met was Mark Allen, co-founder and director of Machine Project, a nonprofit community space in the Echo Park neighborhood. There’s no sign outside, but I managed to find it with surprisingly little trouble. Taking the form of a gallery, a performance space, a gathering for miscellaneous artsy ideas, or a hands-on workshop space—you name it—Machine Project has become a welcoming, and highly accessible, venue for creative freedom and intellectual exchange.

The organization’s aim is to continually generate new propositions or experiments regarding how people use or interact with a specific “site”—whether that site is a constituency, a set of practices, or a physical location. When I was there, the gallery had undergone a takeover by artist Nate Page, whose approach involves using architecture to explore a space’s social function. His Machine Project installation, Machine: Subject/Object/Project, reconfigured all the tangible objects in the space, creating a series of sculptures out of the disparate parts. Any remaining supplies were shrink-wrapped, forcing the staff, during the project’s one-month run, to unravel and search through the plastic whenever they needed a stapler, some paper, or even a computer mouse.

“Collaborations that happen directly, like, you and I are going to do a project together, are interesting,” Mark told me during our conversation, “but in a way, the flows which happen by osmosis between people are just as interesting.” We were discussing the different ways in which people share or pick up ideas from one another. For example, the potential exchange between a poet, a chef, and an engineer that happen to find themselves together at an art gallery might be more interesting than learning in a formal intellectual setting. Mark told me that he thinks of art as “an open space in our culture for non-functionalist experiments to take place,” where the goal is not so much transforming large numbers of people in specific ways, as it is creating “moments of inflection that change thinking.” Machine Project’s interdisciplinary projects ask questions that challenge how we access knowledge, our methods for conveying information, and how we make sense of the environments around us—and by doing so, they seek to uncover, challenge, and unravel constructed realities that we have come to depend upon or unquestioningly accept.

Later in the week, I visited The Center for Land Use Interpretation, an independent, non-profit, educational organization that assumes the form of a bureaucratic, governmental entity “dedicated to the increase and diffusion of information about how the world’s lands are apportioned, utilized and perceived.” As I approached CLUI, I noticed a crowd of people gathered on the street around a water main that had burst and was spewing a tower of water several stories high!

Display of small-scale oil and desert objects at The Center for Land Use Interpretation.

Outside I met an excited Matthew Coolidge, the founder and director of CLUI, snapping pictures of the giant cascade billowing from the busted hydrant. Inside, Matthew offered me some insight into CLUI’s organizational philosophy and mission. CLUI thinks of “the environment” broadly; its concept of landscape encompasses everything, including how American culture plays a role in defining the larger idea of the environment. Taking the form of a place for research and preservation, while amassing a vast database of collected information, CLUI aims to cultivate what Matthew calls “perspectival diversity”: to offer alternatives to the accepted institutional mechanisms that purvey most of our knowledge and understanding of the environment.

CLUI’s approach is always educational—in addition to exhibitions, they offer workshops, field trips, and other participatory explorations into LA’s surrounding landscape. When I visited, an interesting exhibition was on view in the space, Opportunistic Vistas: The Films of Cynthia Hooper. Hooper has been documenting landscape processes for over ten years; sitting in the dimly-lit exhibition, I watched her protracted observations of large-scale decomposition and extraction from the land, which, staggeringly, eventually reveal a considerable effect.

Innovation in social and cultural transformation is at the root of many of these projects, which draw from art’s conceptual and performance approaches, and make paramount the audience’s engagement at an experiential level. Such projects aim to foster a sense of community, collective responsibility, and more personal connections to the issues facing a community—demonstrating how transformations can be prompted in the way we think about our environments and our relationships with the natural world. Having already met a few practitioners interested in this cross-section of ideas, I was beginning to feel welcomed and inspired by the LA community and those responsible for the moving and shaking going on in the city’s art scene. Looking forward to the next meetings and new discoveries…