The hidden cost of culture
Long before Walt Disney Concert Hall materialized as downtown L.A.’s gleaming new cultural mansion on a hill, a loosely knit team of five photographers and filmmakers was anticipating the day when, figuratively speaking, some of the shine would have to come off.
Starting in 2000, when construction had just begun, they approached Disney Hall not as architecture to be judged for its function and form but as a social construct they believed would be laden with ironies and contradictions. Now the questions and issues they considered are embodied in “Facing the Music,” an exhibition that opened last week at the Gallery at REDCAT -- in the belly of the very building whose practical and philosophical implications for the surrounding downtown the show intends to examine.
The goal, says artist-curator Allan Sekula, is not to issue a manifesto but to get viewers thinking about what it means for a city to treat culture as fissionable material for a chain reaction powering economic growth.
“The reception of Disney Hall was of a magical vessel sailing into downtown,” Sekula says. “It’s a seductive building, and it’s easy for photographers to be seduced. We wanted to avoid that and look at the larger cityscape.”
He is standing on the broad sidewalk near the concert hall’s main staircase -- a stop on a mini-tour he’s giving of the intersection of 1st Street and Grand Avenue. For the city’s economic shapers, this corner is the focal point along a boulevard of dreams of downtown transformation.
A plateful of issues emerges as one talks to Sekula and the artists he recruited -- filmmaker Billy Woodberry and photographers Karin Apollonia Muller, Anthony Hernandez and James Baker. Not all of them take direct aim at the social implications of Disney Hall, but Sekula thinks the exhibition, and catalog with analytic essays to be published later this year, should raise questions for an entire city to ponder.
What happens when the arts and star-power architecture, with all their allure, rub up against government and the courts, with their typically unglamorous settings and metronomic but essential routines? How is Disney Hall to be construed when an evening walk up 1st Street to the cultural hilltop means smelling urine and seeing the homeless bedded down for the night? And where do the Latino shoppers and storekeepers in the bustling Broadway business district at the bottom of the hill fit into the idea of a downtown powered by high culture and big-dollar commercial development?
“Facing the Music” arrives at a moment when an ad hoc government agency, the Grand Avenue Authority, with Disney Hall benefactor Eli Broad among its main advisors, is mulling a proposed $1.2-billion real estate development intended to help turn downtown into the magnet-like cultural and business hub L.A. has lacked.
Sekula, who teaches at CalArts, is known for photographic series that trace, from a critical, left-leaning stance, the social impact of industry and global trade. Among his images are photos documenting the 1999 Seattle street protests against the World Trade Organization and sequences revealing what it’s like to work on the waterfront in ports around the world. Still, Sekula says, “This is not an advocacy exhibition in any strict sense. It’s just to say, ‘This is a pivotal moment for downtown and surrounding neighborhoods. Let’s think about what it means, and what’s at stake.’ ”
The project evolved from discussions in 1999 among Steven Lavine, president of CalArts, and top officials of the J. Paul Getty Trust, who were interested in helping establish a photographic document of Disney Hall’s arrival on the downtown scene. Lavine says he turned to Sekula “because he’s a really interesting thinker about social ramifications, and he combines it with a much more beautiful aesthetic eye than he ever wants to admit.” The Getty Trust kicked in a $230,000 grant.
All the artists have track records as chroniclers of L.A.’s social landscape. Woodberry, who also teaches at CalArts, is best known for directing “Bless Their Little Hearts,” an acclaimed 1984 independent film dramatizing an African American man’s struggles to support his family in South Central Los Angeles. Baker studied under Sekula and Woodberry while earning his master’s degree in photography after a career as a geologist. His work before “Facing the Music” includes a photographic project on L.A.’s home-building industry. Art photographer Hernandez specializes in unpeopled glimpses of hidden urban nooks; he often has dealt with the abandoned artifacts of L.A. life, including exhibitions focusing on homeless people’s belongings and on the detritus awash in the L.A. River. The German photographer Muller has made L.A. a second home and a subject for cityscapes expressing the strangeness and isolation of urban life; critics have found a dreamlike beauty in her portraits of alienation.
Sekula’s work for “Facing the Music” includes “Prayer for the Americans 3 (Disney Stockholders),” a 16-image slide sequence of ordinary, middle-class folks waiting uncomfortably outside the Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim before an annual Walt Disney Co. shareholders’ meeting, and “Gala,” a 25-minute video account of opening week festivities at Disney Hall during October 2003. In the video, Sekula trains his camera on posh guests and the young valets and waiters on hand to serve them. The video also depicts a protest by the Catholic Worker, a poverty-relief group, quietly insisting that the plight of the downtown homeless and poor not be ignored amid the hoopla.
Regular visits to Disney Hall while it was being built attuned Sekula to changes in the surrounding landscape. A telling one, he says, was the relocation, for the sake of widening the Grand Avenue sidewalk, of a bronze bust of President Lincoln by sculptor Robert Merrell Gage. It had long stood near the northeast corner of 1st and Grand, its beardless, wistful visage confronting jurors as they walked from a parking lot to the Los Angeles County Courthouse. Now it faces the back of a bus shelter and hides in the shadows of a large ficus tree.
To Sekula, the about-facing and obscuring of the Lincoln sculpture symbolizes change in the downtown social equation: He sees the prestige and clout of government flagging, while patron-driven culture and private development take the foreground. “I was fascinated that every juror would be confronted by Lincoln, like ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,’ and you’d be encouraged to do your civic duty,” Sekula says. The bust’s displacement “became a metaphor for me of the disconnect between the political and the cultural.”
POINTS OF VIEW
Baker’s first idea was to chronicle the lives of the workers building the concert hall. But by 2001, he says, he began to feel that was redundant.
“Everybody from all over the world was documenting this building. I stopped photographing the building going up and got interested in downtown.”
He estimates he has spent 15 hours a week since then exploring the downtown streetscape. For his untitled digital installation in “Facing the Music,” he photographed encampments of homeless people beneath Los Angeles River bridges, captured a film crew staging a shootout along the riverbank for the TV series “24,” and surveyed life in the Broadway shopping district at the bottom of Bunker Hill. One day, he came upon a homeless man sleeping on a sidewalk along 5th Street. Pulled over him was a shining, silvery-metallic blanket that had become bunched into an architecture of uneven, rolling and curving surfaces and swooping peaks.
“I just immediately saw it as Disney Hall and thought, ‘There’s such a contradiction going on here,’ ” Baker recounts. Without disturbing the sleeper, he clicked the image that’s part of the show.
Muller began with sweeping, long-range shots of downtown, exploring, in a photo triptych called “City Blues,” one of her favorite themes: people’s tendency to find escape in private enclosures that shut out harsher realities. For all of architect Frank Gehry’s talk of his building as a “living room for the city,” Muller perceives it as “an environment on a floating boat that kind of takes you into a paradise world, away from reality.”
When Sekula suggested Disney Hall’s gardens as an additional subject, Muller came upon an intimate human drama that’s a departure from her usual distanced and detached view.
Mature trees, many from nurseries but some from private homes around the city, were being transplanted to create an instant garden of varying seasonal hues. Muller visited an elderly woman in Culver City who had sold her pink snowball tree to Disney Hall. “I sat with her and she just started talking about how she regretted it. She said, ‘I had to sell the tree, I have to fix my roof and get new tires for my car.’ ”
Muller photographed the woman opening her mail under the tree, her daily ritual for many years. She returned to capture workers digging it up for transplantation. “Tree Series” ends in the Blue Ribbon Garden at Disney Hall, with an image of the pink snowball barren and dead, having failed to survive the move. “It has the quality of a sad fairy tale,” Sekula says. “You see the old lady with her tree, then the house without the tree. She’s made an offering, a sacrifice for the greater ennobling of the city, I suppose.”
Hernandez chose three subjects that he thinks point to the contradictions at play downtown. As Aliso Village, the East L.A. housing project where he lived as a child, was being torn down, he photographed some of its remaining apartment interiors. At Disney Hall, he shot the building’s innards during construction. Then he spent a great deal of time sneaking into the then-abandoned Belmont Learning Center, the hugely expensive, half-built high school several blocks west of Disney Hall, where construction was halted after hazardous gases were discovered underground.
Hernandez says he found a surprising congruity between the embryonic guts of Belmont and Disney Hall: one a living civic triumph in the making, the other a stillborn civic embarrassment. His Aliso Village images are visions of impermanence and abandonment. “When you look at the details [in the pictures], you realize it was built not to last, and they probably should have torn it down a long time ago.” He’ll leave it to viewers to make connections and ponder the implications. “They’ll have to ask the question, ‘Why are these pictures here?’ Then they’ll start to figure it out.”
There’s also a lot of personal history in the photographs. “If Disney Hall is a living room for all of us in L.A., I’m part of that too,” Hernandez says. “But I’m also part of looking back at a low-income housing project that’s gone now.”
Woodberry also wanted to tell the story of something no longer visible: His two-hour video, “The architect, the ants and the bees,” gives a chronological account of the construction process at Disney Hall, documenting the painstaking, nuts-and-bolts work that formed the structure.
“My attitude was, ‘OK, when the building is finished I’m sure it will be striking and a marvel. But the process of its coming into being would not be known, and more than likely the people who built it would not be present at the gatherings and celebrations to be quizzed about what they did and how they did it. It struck me: ‘By their works you shall know them.’ ”
The exhaustive enterprise -- Woodberry shot 55 hours of video -- would on the surface seem more in line with the celebratory documentations of Gehry’s gem that have been commonplace. But the filmmaker also sees a social challenge implicit in the building of Disney Hall: “The workers left wonderful things, but will we have the interest to share that with all the people? Is it worth it if you only have rich people who buy season tickets? We should be giving some serious thought to how love of the classical music tradition can be cultivated, so that this place will continue to be of use. Otherwise, we’re talking about nothing.”
Facing the Music’
Where: Gallery at REDCAT, 631 W. 2nd St., Los Angeles
When: Noon to 6 p.m. (or curtain time) Tuesdays through Sundays; closed Mondays
Ends: May 29
Contact: (213) 237-2800; www.redcat.org
Mike Boehm can be contacted at email@example.com.
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