July 28, 2010  |  Intern Chronicles
The Art of Effecting Change: Travels in Los Angeles, Part II

An automobile planter at the entrance to The Metabolic Studio, in downtown Los Angeles

During my first solo trip to the West Coast, which I wrote about in my first blog post, I continued to cover ground across Los Angeles and visited several of the many city museums. In addition to a walk through the LACMA collection and the Hammer Museum, I also managed to visit MOCA where I met up with Ed Giardina, one of five people in the Los Angeles–based collective Finishing School. He drove me out to their studio in San Pedro to meet the rest of the crew.

Many of the artists I met in LA are concerned with how the world works, so their projects often investigate people’s relationships to their environments–what the present relationships are, and what they could someday be. Like many artists engaged in forms of activism within their work, Finishing School is a collective that frequently seeks out multidisciplinary approaches to their projects, sometimes collaborating with experts from other fields to investigate and reveal alternative positions.

After a sunny 45-minute drive out to San Pedro, toward the coast and Finishing School’s studio space, I was stunned to find myself a mere stone’s throw away from the ocean’s edge overlooking Santa Catalina Island. An awe-inspiring scene to say the least!

The view from Finishing School's studio space in San Pedro, overlooking Santa Catalina Island at sunset

Over some fish tacos at a nearby restaurant, I learned about the inspiration behind this collaborative group, whose artists explore contemporary social, political, and environmental issues through their work. Seeking to engage members of the local community, their projects—often playful, participatory and activist in nature—challenge people to rethink existing understandings of their world, thus prompting a sense of agency among viewers.

Back at the Finishing School studio after dinner, the group took me on a little adventure through a few recent projects, many of which start with an idea or area they collectively want to understand better. One project, called Little Pharma (2008), was inspired by the artists’ interest in learning more about “alternatives medicines and lifestyles as viable antidotes to some of the Big Pharma pathologies.” Starting with an investigation into the ways in which society medicates itself, and what implications this can have on environmental conditions, the project evolved into a gallery installation of video and sound projections, a series of participatory workshops, a community challenge to grow plants and oversee a seed bank, and a creative, community-based Drug Run. One of my favorite of the group’s projects, Drug Run involved a costume-making session followed by a nighttime bike tour throughout LA to investigate all the locations in the city where people get medications. Finishing School said this event was especially fun for them because it brought together a diverse crowd, including the avid cyclist community in LA, a subset of night riders, and a group of people interested in learning more about alternative medicine. To me, several of Finishing School’s projects are examples of how art can become a medium through which environmental issues can be better understood and—here’s hoping—confronted in some way.

At the Finishing School studio, poster and communal bulletin board

As I mentioned, several of the projects and organizations I came across in LA blur the lines between art and activism. I discussed the difference between social activist projects and art practices with Mark Allen of Machine Project, who suggests this distinction really relies on the lens through which you analyze a given project. Depending on the framework you employ to make sense of a given art project, or the context against which you explore a proposition, it can be considered either art or activism, or quite often both. For most of the artists I spoke with, this distinction is not always clear, and whether it is labeled “art” or “activism” becomes less important than the process, the practice, and the potential results or effects the projects stand to bring about.

Edible Estates: Attack on the Front Lawn, an ongoing project by Fritz Haeg

A few days later, architect and artist Fritz Haeg—who I met for afternoon tea and conversation at the artist’s LA home, Sundown Schoolhouse—told me he believes that art should not necessarily be cast the role of “change agent,” since this is not its primary function. However, he went on to say, if art does play the role of solving problems, it should not be excluded from the definition or category of art. Haeg explained that he sees art as ultimately reflexive, emerging from an urgent need to respond to what is happening around us. It finds personal context and reference in its environment, and evolves in response to the time and place we inhabit. An example is his project Edible Estates, which proposes replacing the domestic front lawn with a plentiful edible landscape to create an innovative, pragmatic, and reproducible alternative to food sourcing. To a certain extent, this endeavor has taken the form of an advocacy project, and a book published about the project (now in its second edition) looks at the larger context of issues concerning the environment, global food production, and the importance of cultivating a sense of community in both urban and suburban neighborhoods. In describing his approach, Haeg talked about the art world as a staging ground for participating in culture; in his own metaphor, it’s “a Trojan horse that is wheeled out…and stuff happens around it which generates provocative discussions.” To me, he is a remarkable example of an artist who is concerned with conceiving and realizing ideas through art that address the vital issues in a community—and where the art praxis can be seen and experienced by more people. I love Haeg’s ideas of opening art up and creating opportunities to access it in daily life, of making art so inclusive that people can find their own place in it, and perhaps, through this creative mechanism, begin to view their own relationships to their environment through a new lens.