This is a project I started working on with painter Ellen Hackl Fagan several years ago to convert/interpret abstract visuals into sound. She has continued it with several other collaborators since. This is the current iteration. They are working on a version that works over the web…
For months now Metro LA has been taunting us, running test trains up and down the shiny new tracks laid down right along Alameda and over the First Street bridge out into East Los Angeles. The trains, all clean and modern, glide by with only a driver onboard, making all their stops. The ticket machines on the platform still wrapped up in shrink-wrap, platforms themselves empty too.
Last Sunday though, we finally got to ride.
The Gold Line Eastside Extension had been coming for decades, and when the Pasadena-Union Station part of the line was completed back in 2003 the planning was already well underway. This little 6 mile, eight stop run of track may not seem like much to those in mass-transit oriented cities like Boston (I do miss the T) or New York, but it brings the gold line practically to my doorstep (well, within a couple of blocks) and opens up easy access to Union Station and the Red Line to Hollywood or Wilshire, Chinatown and its Galleries, Pasadena, and East Los Angeles from the Rise Industries Studios. Need to get to LAX? Train to Flyaway. Need to hang out at Mariachi Plaza and then hit La Serenata di Garibaldi for dinner? Two stops. Need to get to the Armory Center for the Arts for an opening? Gold line takes you right up into Old Town Pasadena. Wanna hit a farmers market on Saturday morning? Train out to East LA Civic Center. Hollywood Bowl without traffic? Take Gold Line to Red Line and get off at Hollywood and Highland for a short walk up the hill.
But while its great for Rise Industries, the real hope for Metro is that it becomes the new commuter route for people coming into downtown from East LA, and that it brings more museum goers, bar hoppers, and food eaters in to the pretty lively downtown neighborhoods within reach of Little Tokyo. Its only a short walk to 4th and Main, or Second and Hill, or even Grand and the Disney Concert Hall. As most people who have been driving down here will realize, parking sucks and is getting expensive. Maybe even some of the hipsters frequenting Hipster Sausage (aka Wurstküche) will take the train and free up my parking spaces at night.
The Little Tokyo/Arts District stop opened to some low-key fanfare on Sunday, with a small array of booths from local businesses and cultural organizations. There were some speeches, a ribbon cutting, and then a few different bands took to the podium to play for the sparse crowd. The real affair was going on at Mariachi Square two stops away in East LA, where a couple of blocks were lined with booths, packed with people, and rocking to two bandstands, one at each end. Kids drew on the streets with chalk, bounced in Bouncy Castles, or tried out some Faux rock climbing, and crowds of people milled around checking out the booths, sampling Tamales, or moving to the music.
The trains themselves were really the main attraction though, with long lines just to get on, and packed conditions (like a normal day in New York at rush hour, I suppose), it felt like we just might one day have a full-on train network connecting all of Los Angeles. While that reality is still decades in the future, plans are already in motion to further extend both ends of the Gold Line, even as progress is made on the Expo Line into Culver City. If all of Los Angeles won’t be connected by rail, at least perhaps enough art hotspots will be to warrant gallery hopping across town exclusively by train.
A woman walks down the aisle of the grocery store. She is followed by three other women. They are wearing matching wigs, and singing about the things the first woman is buying.
In a gray, padded cubicle, an office worker opens up a corporate-looking envelope. In it is a formal letter urging him to submerge an enclosed capsule in hot water, so see which “exciting safari animal” it will turn into.
During evening rush-hour, a woman stares down the subway tracks, listening to her headphones. A man approaches her. He hands her a handmade pop-up book. The book is about a woman wearing headphones, and staring down the subway tracks during evening rush-hour.
Welcome to the nutty world of artistic interventions into daily routines.
–Felicity Fenton’s backup singers–
For “Backup” (2008-ongoing), Felicity Fenton hires anonymous women she finds on Craigslist. For the first performance, three of these women accompanied her while she shopped for groceries. The women wore matching wigs, and sang about Fenton’s purchases. “Strange men whistled,” Fenton tells me over email, “some people ducked out of the way (due to the cameras) and lots of people continued to go about their daily task like nothing ever happened.” And a security guard told them they had to leave.
(Image from Felicity Fenton's website)
A year later, she performed it again, this time writing lyrics and dance moves for her backup singers, and providing them with matching outfits. When one of the singers cancelled at the last minute, Fenton had to take her place. Now short an audience, Fenton called a friend, and talked him into doing his own laundry while the singers serenaded him instead.
“Performance always cheers me up. It changes the tone of the day — completely. I dedicated a performance to something I usually take for granted…It felt as though I was praising the grocery and laundry gods for an hour.”
Fenton is currently planning a few more performances of the piece. These will most likely involving cleaning her house, and driving in traffic. With backup singers.
“It’s common to feel impatient or bored by things we do every day – brushing teeth, eating, making the bed, laundry, shopping, driving – and all the time it takes to do these things becomes convoluted and lacks presence because we think of the time as useless. But it’s not useless. We have to do these things, so why not find a new way to make them enjoyable? Art does this for me.”
–Chris Barr and the Bureau of Workplace Interruptions–
Groceries and laundry can be boring, but at least you only have to do them once a week. Work, on the other hand, happens a lot more often than that. Luckily, there is Chris Barr’s “Bureau of Workplace Interruptions” (2006-ongoing). Visitors to the Bureau’s website can sign up to have Barr or a volunteer from the Bureau interrupt their work-day.
“You know how receiving flowers at work can put a buzz on the rest of the day?” the website reads. “So do we. That’s why we create surprise, the kind that slices through the banal and opens up new places for your mind to wander. .. [W]e hope to invigorate some of the time you spend at work in order to create new experiences and possibilities outside the flow of capital.” All interruptions are guaranteed to not get you in trouble with your boss, too; the Bureau’s website stresses that their actions won’t be noticed by any of your coworkers.
Most of these interruptions take the form of emails. For instance, one volunteer who goes by the name Agent ChrisTwo invited an office worker to write a rap about his job. ChrisTwo starts him off:
“Yo, Yo, First City Loans is where Jason works,
His work is hard, have’n to give loans all day to jerks,
The office is nice but his cubicle is cramped,
the bathroom is clean but the floor is always damp.
Another volunteer, Agent J, advises an office worker to confess her sins to her coworkers. “Please, don’t feel judged by me; I’m an atheist,” Agent J goes on to explain to the recipient. “We would like to hear back from you, though, to see if this has had any impact on the dynamics of your work-relationships.” Documentation of these and other interruptions are available in a database on the Bureau’s website.
“I think what is important,” Barr tells me over email, “is not just stealing time, but a recognition that contemporary labor utilizes and exhausts our communicative and cognitive functions. So, the important thing to me is to insert non-saleable communications into those channels.”
I also like to interrupt people during their daily grind. My “Everyday Exchange” (2008-ongoing) involves paying visits to participants while they shop for groceries, commute to work, or do their laundry. During this visit, I give people a small work of art I’ve made, or a poem I’ve written, that is specifically about this particular routine of theirs. My visit, and the gift I bring along, are meant to make their routine a little more interesting.
(From my website)
I base these gifts on conversations I have with the participants beforehand. During these conversations, we tell each other about our daily routines. For me, these conversations are the crux of the project. One of the reasons I started the “Everyday Exchange” was to get people to discuss and examine daily routines—both theirs, and someone else’s. I’ve found that no one really talks about these things, because they don’t want to bore anyone. But this reluctance can only cut them off from a number of interesting observations.
Because these routines actually can be very interesting. For example, who else is on the train with you, and what are they doing? (Do they look bored? Bothered? Are they checking each other out?) Or when you go grocery shopping, do you always buy the same things? (Some people do. Others don’t.) Our routines can be very interesting—if only we would pay enough attention to them every once in a while.
I asked Fenton if laundry and shopping were different for her as a result of her project. “Yes!” she told me. “I value those mundane acts more than I did… It’s pretty amazing what happens to the brain when you become microscopically fascinated by things before you.”
“Backup” added a bit of magic to Fenton’s routines. The performances also made the grocery store and laundromat a little more interesting for everyone else around her.
Despite the different agendas behind them, each of these three pieces produces a similar result: a blip of surprise, or wonder, in an environment usually fuelled only by boredom.
Last night I stepped outside around 3AM to take a peak at the rare Leonids meteor shower. Bundled up in warm clothes, I layed down timidly in the sktechy alley behind my apartment and gazed up at the overly light-poluted LA sky hoping for a few fireballs to provoke my imagination.
Don’t get me wrong, I love seeing shooting stars….but the term ‘meteor shower’ evokes images more like the famous 1833 coming of the Leonids, when the sky was literally ‘showered’ with falling stars such that people were roused in the middle of the night to come out and witness the end of the world unfolding before them! Hype aside, that’s certainly not what I experienced last night.
I know this isn’t a direct comparison… but this gives me the same kind of feeling I got on a cold night when I was a little kid and my parents were roused to a frenzied search around the house to find that there was a, “draft coming in the front door!” Me… not understanding the word ‘draft’, was sadly looking to the front door and all out the windows up and down the street for the giraffe… Imagine my disappointment!
Now I think I’ve got most of my words figured out at this point in my life, but in my quest for idealism I must ask why they call them ‘meteor showers’ when they know that aint right? These more typical celestial events, that bring us outside to gaze at the sky for perhaps a glimpse of a small slice of happenings of the cosmos, should be called something more like ‘meteor slightly drippy faucets’. Then they won’t keep getting my hopes up!
Of all the various types of jealousy that fuel the art world, there are two that cause the most problems.
The first is the one you feel when someone you know is in a show that you would have liked to’ve been part of, but weren’t (or they’ve been given an award or a grant, or have gotten a good write up…). This tends to make you feel left out, and then Wrathful. For a few short hours, at least. Because after a few hours, you calm down, and realize that both the other artist and the gallery (or the grant people, or the journalist)—that everyone concerned is just plain stupid, and that you’re much better than they are. All of them. This calming down usually involves telling other people about how stupid the other artist is; and your jealousy melts away into an uneasy sense of verbal superiority.
The second type of jealousy is a little less vocal. It’s the jealousy you feel when an artist you know or admire creates a work of art that you wish you’d done yourself. This one is the more painful of the two, because you can’t find anything to criticize. And because you can’t tell anyone about the piece, because you don’t want to help the other artist out by publicizing this perfect work. And so, all bottled up in your throat, your jealousy lives on. Sometimes, for a long long time.
My feelings of jealousy towards the League of Imaginary Scientists, for example, have been making solid food hard to swallow for well over a year now. Coming up on two, in fact. The specific piece that rankles me is their Childhood Machine.
The Childhood Machine was a hugely imaginative piece that lived a brief few months in Trondheim, Norway in late 2007. Alternatively, if you take the project at face value, it is a permanent piece that has, and will always live in Trondheim, Norway.
Near the entrance to the show stood a double-bodied bicycle, which, when pedaled, would reverse time; attached to the bicycle was a chain that would also turn a wheel of progress—backwards. This bicycle was created, according to the League’s website, for the single purpose of “reversing the psychological and ecological damage wrought by Western Civilization.”
Surrounding the bicycle were items meant to evoke childhood. Over a PA system, visitors to the gallery could hear a sound piece designed to remind them of childhood. They could also use a search engine to “search time’s index for isolated moments in childhood.”
Beyond all this, in one corner of the gallery, was the specific slice of genius that’s kept me up, perfecting my tossing and my turning, and teaching my face to wrinkle. On two walls of the gallery was a horizontal black line. Above and below this line were post-it notes, left by visitors. And on these post-it notes were childhood memories, arranged in the best chronological order that the writers themselves could arrange. In this corner was an archeology of an entire town’s childhood memories.
As I mentioned before, the installation was created by the League of Imaginary Scientists. The League is the brainchild of Dr. L. Hernandez Gomez, which is the alter ego of an LA-based artist who also goes by the name Lucy H.G. The League itself is an ever-shifting group of collaborators, who gather together to create elaborate and whimsical installations and participatory events. This particular project was created by Hernandez Gomez, with the help of artist Matt Solomon from Los Angeles, artists Anne Helga Henning and Pol Buyesen of Trondheim, with remote engineering by Jeremy Schwartz and Steve Shoffner in Los Angeles and sound by Imaginationandmymother in London.
I’d really hoped by sharing this with you that I’d feel a little less jealous. That by analyzing the project again, I’d find some little hole in the cloth to poke my finger through. It really didn’t work.
A couple of weeks ago I took a nice bike ride from my place up to Sunset Junction to meet a friend for lunch. Very nice ride by the way, I had forgotten Sunset has a bike lane, so I didn’t actually feel like my life was in danger the whole way there. Anyway, on the way home I came down Second Street and came across the nice new pocket park (I guess you’d call it? Lawn?) on the south side of the brand spanking new Los Angeles Police Department headquarters building. The new building is by AECOM (used to be DMJM, but maybe they found that acronym to not be corporate sounding enough?) and is really surprisingly pretty fantastic. I don’t mean surprising for AECOM, corporate joking aside they do some pretty great work and I know some talented designers who work there, but surprising to me that the headquarters for the LAPD could come out just so damn nice and open and become a part of the urban fabric so smoothly. Of course, the biggest thing is the landscaping, and the conscious choice to give the public the south lawn as the aforementioned mini-park. So now there is this great little lawn on Second Street that I totally want to play croquet on, and the rest of the site is well developed and meticulously planted. Maybe the police will take Rise Industries up on a game or two? I will try to overlook the use of decomposed granite on the upper levels instead of concrete in order to defeat skateboarding on those sweet stairs and handrails. I guess all building developers will always hate skateboarders.
I can see that this building is an exercise in trying to revamp LAPD’s image, to give downtown a very open, transparent building with inviting grounds and hope that the message translates to the organization it houses. If so, we will see how that goes. It’s certainly a great gesture. Also on site is a series of dark bronze, abstracted animal-ish sculptures by Peter Shelton which were the topic of some controversy last month. Apparently Chief Bratton hates them… as does LA Times writer Steve Lopez. I was particularly fond of them myself, especially in the context of downtown LA. Head over there and take a look for yourself though, as they read better all lined up as a kind of progression. Then chill out with a book on the new lawn, maybe some good LA Noir like Raymond Chandler or something, right?