Making art a team sport

Special to The Times

One of the more intriguing art world invitations in recent memory landed in e-mail in-boxes around town in March.

"Dear Friends," it read, "Friday night we will have three 2007 Escalades parked in front of Machine blasting whale songs. And other stuff. Saturday, we have a concert in the secret gallery that can be listened to on speaker phone. Both events are free. Details below. Love, Machine"

Machine -- short for Machine Project -- is one of the L.A. art world's more quixotic institutions: an artist-run nonprofit in a raggedy Alvarado Street storefront in Echo Park that has become, in the four years since it opened, a haven for the hip, the nerdy and the otherwise curious. Conceived, in the words of its mission statement, "to encourage the heroic experiments of the gracefully overambitious," it plays host to exhibitions, performances, lectures and workshops on a broad and sometimes baffling range of topics revolving loosely around the intersection of art and technology.

If you missed the cetacean-channeling SUVs (actually an installation by Peter Segerstrom), you might have caught "Psychobotany," an exhibition exploring "revolutionary breakthroughs in human/plant communication"; the Dorkbot Dorkbake, a bake-off in which contestants were required to construct their own ovens powered solely by the heat of a 100-watt light bulb; or the four-week Felt and Circuits Workshop, in which participants were instructed in the arts of both felt making and circuit board construction, with the goal of producing "your own noisy synthesizer creature from scratch."

It's an exciting time for art in L.A., and nowhere is this more palpable -- nowhere are the reasons for it clearer -- than in a place like Machine, where the siren song of a fevered market holds little sway; anything goes, curatorially; and no one's getting paid enough to be haughty.

Of all the city's cultural resources -- prestigious schools, ambitious museums, a robust gallery scene -- the most significant by far is its ever-welling population of artists, and it's from this pool that these organizations have arisen: institutions that function, to one degree or another, as art projects in themselves, driven by ideas and a spirit of collaboration, whose offbeat programming aims to challenge the boundaries of what we conceive art to be.

The progenitors, most would agree, are the Museum of Jurassic Technology and the Center for Land Use Interpretation (opened in 1988 and 1994, respectively). In their wake have come Machine Project, Betalevel (formerly C-Level), Farmlab, Telic Arts Exchange, Dangerous Curve, the Velaslavasay Panorama and Monte Vista Projects. There are also nomadic organizations like Art2102, the Institute for Figuring and Outpost for Contemporary Art, as well as educational experiments like the Sundown Schoolhouse (formerly the Sundown Salon) and the Mountain School of Arts.

They've opened for different reasons; they have different agendas, different vibes and different financial arrangements. Machine, for instance, has a technological bent; Farmlab's focus is environmental activism. Dangerous Curve has become a center for experimental music. Betalevel, located in a basement down an alley in Chinatown, has the furtive, secretive feel of a speak-easy; the Panorama, which occupies an old theater near USC, models itself on the entertainment culture of the 19th century.

Some (Machine and Telic) are registered nonprofits, surviving on donations and grants; others (Betalevel, Dangerous Curve) are internally funded. Farmlab is wholly subsidized by the Annenberg Foundation. They are, however, very much in communication, often sharing board members, as well as contacts and audiences. As Lauren Bon from Farmlab puts it: "There's a whole mushroom spore of them. They're all connected under the surface, but they are also very independent."

Outside the box

The notion of an alternative art space is nothing new, of course, but there are a few characteristics that distinguish this current crop from more traditionally structured nonprofits such as LACE and LAXART, or from artist-run commercial galleries like Overtones, Another Year in LA and Pharmaka -- characteristics that suggest something more along the lines of a movement. There's the radical quirkiness of their programming, for one thing; their enthusiasm for pedagogy and do-it-yourself culture; their focus on science, ecology and technologies both old and new; their disregard for the traditional boundaries between disciplines; and, most strikingly, their deep commitment to cultivating community.

While most of these groups produce exhibitions, what they thrive on are events: performances, readings, lectures, tours, classes, workshops, salons, parties -- any excuse to bring a group of people physically together in a room, so as to counteract the alienating tendencies of both the mainstream art world and the culture at large.

"One of my biggest pet peeves," says Fritz Haeg, founder of Sundown Schoolhouse, "is the way that art schools tend to set these precedents for their students on the first day of school: They send them into their white box all alone, like artists are meant to sit alone in white boxes and make things, and then those things go out into other white boxes where people look at them alone and then buy them.

"The most creative people in our society have self-ghettoized themselves so that they're virtually irrelevant to the society at large, and I am really interested in how artists or designers can step outside of those kind of boxes and have a bigger impact on that society."

The Schoolhouse, like the salons Haeg organized for six years prior, takes place in his own home, a geodesic dome in Mount Washington. Now in its second year, it assembles a small group of people from varying backgrounds to meet every Sunday for 12 weeks, 12 hours a day, to pursue a loose course of study revolving around a broad theme (this year it's "Planet of the Humans"), with a rotating assortment of teachers.

Each day begins with a period of nonverbal movement (yoga, dance, etc.), proceeds in a self-determined way through lectures, discussions and a communally generated lunch, and ends with a cocktail party. Last year's curriculum included a performance and video art workshop with artist Yoshua Okon, a writing seminar with poet Eileen Miles and a discussion with Mark Allen and Jason Brown of Machine Project on "the aesthetic, social and practical implications of experiencing/making/thinking art with other people." The term culminated in a 12-hour bike tour of Los Angeles, with each student sporting a red cape custom-designed by Andrea Zittel.

"We're surrounded by media that's so predigested and so homogenized," says Haeg, who spoke from New York, where he was working on an unrelated project, "that people are just craving one-off, unique kind of messed-up experiences that aren't fully formed or fully figured out yet, that are more tactile, that are about putting people back in touch with each other and encouraging some real critical thinking."

Play it forward

One word that came up frequently in conversations with the people who run these spaces, many of whom have art school backgrounds and also currently teach, is "model." The institutional structure of these organizations is not an incidental factor -- not a shell for the project to exist in -- but the essence of the project itself. The availability of viable models is a matter of great interest, therefore, and reflected, in several cases, in the spaces' names.

"The idea with Machine," says founder Allen, "was that we would feed in ideas and different people and different technologies and it would be generative, it would be constantly producing projects, so that the people who might be our audience one day might be teaching a class the next day, and somebody who learns something in one of the classes might be producing a project with that knowledge later in the gallery. So that there was more of a flow of resources, more of a rhizomatic model, if I dare, than the sort of traditional gallery system."

This kind of generative potential is also central to Telic directors Fiona Whitton and Sean Dockray, who added "Arts Exchange" to the gallery's name in 2005 for that reason.

"What we've developed within the mission," Whitton says, "is kind of an exchange between artist and viewer, gallery and artist, artist and artist, that builds on a notion of a social space. We don't want to just see an artwork coming in, being here, being viewed, and then leaving. It actually comes in and activates the space, or the space activates it."

The link, for Whitton and Dockray, between the work and the space is the event. To these ends, they encourage the artists they work with to orchestrate performances, readings, discussions and other functions in conjunction with any physical installation they create. This summer's "The Fundraising Show" consisted exclusively of events. Every day for about a month, a different artist was asked to perform some kind of moneymaking endeavor in the vicinity of the gallery. ("Like a group show," Dockray explains, "but extended over time, not in space.")

S.E. Barnet and Hillary Mushkin sold lemonade and watercolors. Anna Oxygen hosted a "grandma-themed dessert auction," with a live phone line to her grandmother, who offered advice on various topics.

While Telic did retain a portion of the proceeds (it was a genuine fundraiser), the idea, Dockray says, was "to make the transactional nature of the artwork fundamentally a part of it" -- something, he adds, that "comes up in a lot of the work we show."

Planting, healing

Farmlab, for its part, feels every bit a laboratory. Located in an old warehouse just under the Spring Street overpass downtown, the sprawling headquarters includes indoor and outdoor exhibition spaces, offices, large workshop and discussion areas, a spacious kitchen and, tucked between the concrete overpass supports, an open-air performance venue they've dubbed Under Spring.

The centerpiece of a recent exhibition, "The Garden of Brokenness," was a working carousel built from old chairs, tables and other found objects, designed by Bon, artist George Herms and composer Jeremy Mage and intended (somewhat ironically) as a monument for Confluence Park. Surrounding it, and spilling out into the outdoor space, were a number of "Junker Gardens": abandoned cars, reclaimed by the Farmlab team, whose various cavities had been filled with soil and planted with vegetables and flowers.

The organization, which includes a core crew of six and a rotating array of consultants, is non-hierarchical and all decisions -- "from budget decisions," Bon explains, "to things like the dishes" -- are made collectively.

Stop in for one of their weekly Friday salons, when they serve lunch and host a variety of speakers (recent visitors included a team from the L.A. Planning Commission, an L.A. River activist, a carousel historian and a mushroom expert), and you might think you stumbled into some utopian hippie collective: people of all ages, from all (or at least many) walks of life, milling about, talking about the saving the planet, while children and dogs scamper happily underfoot.

"This is a place where people come together," Farmlab's executive director Adolfo Nodal says over slices of his wife's bread pudding, just after one of the salons. "From the art world, from the environmental world, politics, science -- all together to rub shoulders and figure out what to do."

To call Farmlab "alternative" might be a stretch, given its scale, its affiliation with the Annenberg Foundation (where Bon, granddaughter of founder Walter Annenberg, is a trustee) and the stature of many of its team members. (Nodal, for instance, ran the L.A. Cultural Affairs Department for 13 years and now heads the Cultural Affairs Commission.) This is not a starving-artist enterprise. Its mission, however, is far from mainstream.

Recent projects include rescuing fruit trees from the South Central Farm, a community garden that was recently lost to development (they're being replanted at the Huntington Gardens) and installing 30 portable "ag bins" -- wooden crates converted to planters -- on skid row for growing vegetables and flowers for the homeless community.

"Farmlab feels that creativity can bring recognition to some of these things," Bon says. "It's really an action-based project that's about revealing values we all share; we just don't know how to manifest them because we're in a strange juggernaut between politics, real estate and the disempowerment of those without the capacity to buy into those arenas."

When Bon described this network of alternative spaces as a "mushroom spore," it was likely because she had mushrooms on her mind: another of Farmlab's current endeavors is an investigation of microremediation or, in her words, the "healing of toxic sites through the growth of mushrooms."

We might consider the metaphor, then, on another level as well: that these spaces play some part in regenerating the soil of the art world.

Without overestimating the present toxicity of that soil, it's safe to say these spaces bring a number of qualities deficient in periods dominated by the logic of the market: ideas, convictions, a communitarian ethic and -- something one almost forgets to even expect anymore -- integrity.

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