IT COULD very well be a mirage: A trick of the glaring morning sun or something misread in the pre-caffeinated early morning haze.
But no. Upon closer inspection, that brown-and-white sign, hanging just beneath the red slash of the "No Left/U-Turn" symbol on a sparsely landscaped traffic island, proclaims exactly what you first thought: "The Islands of LA Nat'l Park."
The territory it demarcates along a busy stretch of Glendale Boulevard as it eases into Echo Park seems, at first, unremarkable: some California native brush; flattened and faded Diet Coke cans; Energizer batteries. Nearby, vibrant goldenrod poppies push up from the dirt. And sure, depending on the time of day, you'll find a few regular "campers" -- a couple of reliably resolute panhandlers: one with a dog, another alone and with his own sign whose message has become garbled, streaked and bloated from rain.
National park? Even park would seem a stretch.
Yet the sign is not a movie ad. Nor part of a clever labeling scheme for city districts. Nor is it a joke. Provocative and whimsical, it's a prompt meant to take the mind down a side road that's often as invisible as the traffic island itself. It's an invitation: " 'Come travel here in this idea,' " says artist and activist Ari Kletzky, who since last fall has been placing signs across greater Los Angeles -- both "Islands of LA" and another, "Shift: Do Art Any Time," that mimics the city's ubiquitous "No Parking/Tow Away" placards but done up in an arresting shade of canary.
Kletzky's aim is as multilayered and unconventional as the city it embroiders, drawing attention to islands of every shape, size and intention. "The signs are a way to start a conversation and an education," says Kletzky, whose project is still in the exploratory stages. "They are a gesture. An appetizer that inspires an appetite. I'm looking to generate discussion to explore use of public space by turning islands into a work of art."
'Territories of art'
We SPEED by them -- our traffic island archipelagoes -- rendering them a blur; or have become so inured to them along our well-worn paths that we tend to stare beyond them. Trapped on them as pedestrians, we find them an annoying interruption between intention and goal, departure and destination. But traffic islands, Kletzky suggests, are "inquisitive places." They are the pause in the city's long, rambling monologue to itself. And although the city has held its own "Adopt a Median" program through the Board of Public Works, Office of Community Beautification, that allows citizens to plant, beautify or tend a particular median, Kletzky sees islands as something even larger -- as "territories of art," places to create community, promote intellectual discussions in public and explore the use and availability of public space.
The big questions he poses -- what is public? who owns public space? who should create public space? -- are being explored on his blog, islandsofla.com, and in public gatherings -- talks, events, happenings from Santa Monica to Pasadena. In these discussions with curious Angelenos, says Kletzky, "We're looking at it not from the urban planning architecture angle, but how do you use public space to create community?"
In times past, Kletzky points out "public spaces were limited, not everybody had access. This goes back to the Acropolis, maybe further," he says, citing an essay written by an urban planning professor named Margaret Crawford that had a particular resonance to him. "[In the past] those excluded -- minorities, women, the poor -- went elsewhere: their homes, yard, etc." But there is something very democratic about the traffic island. "We can take hold of these public spaces," he says. "It's a chance to make the city seem more accessible."
His motivations were personal as well as political. Like so many Angelenos, Kletzky, 36, had been feeling hemmed in. "I was driving around, sitting in traffic and I just wanted a break. I wanted to take a vacation," he recalls. His eyes drifted over to a traffic island, "And I thought, 'I want to take it here.' " He pauses, smiles. "Well, I don't know if that's entirely true . . ." -- that is, that it happened in a moment. But the anecdote conveys the overall sentiment. That patch of green looked inviting enough. Why not sit a spell? Why not be carried away with a feeling?
Kletzky, a former rhetoric major at UC Berkeley, had come to making art late. To help cope with his father's passing, Kletzky began writing poetry in 1995, which led to photography, video and then video installations and performance. Art became not a form of expression, but rather "a form of exploration, interaction . . . even transformation." (He will begin working on an MFA in art and integrated media at CalArts come fall.) And once the island seed was planted, he started making connections. "I started reading philosophical theory about why it is that individuals are more interested in ideas than in objects. That's when I got the idea about prompting discussions and inviting people to think. To be involved -- be participants in the blog, or in their communities," he says. "The discussion itself is part of the project."
In THE last six months traveling the city and its unincorporated parcels, Kletzky has seen it all: painted-green islands, crowded-with-benches-billboards-and-electric-box islands, neglected islands, in-construction islands, even gated islands. Some islands are only to be jogged or walked on -- no sitting, no loitering. "There is an island in West L.A.," says Kletzky, "that the city paid $28,000 to put a fence on to keep out the homeless."
Some are lush with palm and pine trees. Others seem to exist solely as the home to some city generator or mysterious energy source.
Kletzky pauses at the islands that call to him -- those, in particular, that offer a steady flow of traffic, either pedestrians or drivers. "Not in the middle of the block," notes Kletzky, "unless there was pedestrian traffic or a T-intersection." He puts up a sign or two, and, should he spot a driver idling at a traffic light who has left a window open a crack, he slips in a card, which asks a question and plants a seed: "Who should create public space?" The card directs drivers to the Islands website, where respondents are then invited to an activity -- making art, discussion or performance -- on a traffic island.
Kletzky is full of stories about the islands and his interactions with the people who wait there for their buses, ask for change or sell flowers or food. He has received e-mails from folks who note gathering spots -- schoolgirls who have identified a "signed" island as a designated meeting place -- and has invited some of those interested to talk, over coffee and muffins, "about the nature of L.A.'s built environment." The islands, he's learned, are often microcosms of neighborhoods they are a part of, full of clues about an ever-evolving place where class, race, culture and language intersect. And the only way for someone to see it is to become part of it, interact with it, he explains, by making a trek to an island.
An island divided
On THIS particular spring morning, when Kletzky arrives at the island at Glendale Boulevard and Berkeley Avenue, toting his bulging backpack, a camera and two Coroplast signs, John Emerson, one of the island denizens, is stationed there. He calls out a greeting: "Hey! Whussup, Sign Guy?"
Emerson's face is lined and tan as dry clay, his eyes the color of a cold mountain spring. As the two talk, it becomes clear that Emerson is an actor who has fallen on hard times. He tells Kletzky how he was rousted from his squat just a few blocks north of here, and now he's back to less than nothing: "People don't really start giving money until after 10:30 a.m.," Emerson explains. "Before that they're all angry. Late for work. Can't be bothered. Even to let the window down."
Kletzky inquires about his wife, his health, and when Emerson asks for money "for my methadone treatment," Kletzky unzips the pack, pulls out a plastic bag with bagels and hands them to him. There is tension on the island, Kletzky has noticed over a period of months, between Emerson and another drifter and a group of Latino vendors, some of whom are working to pay off coyotes who brought them over. The vendors often make more than the homeless can panhandle, and each wants the other to stick to their own side of the island, a trenchant metaphor for some of the city's rumbling hive of tensions.
As Kletzky sees it, visiting the islands is a way to plug into what's going on at ground zero -- and shape a discussion of the problems that come into focus there.
How PUBLIC is the public space Kletzky has his eye on? He got one answer recently at an event in Santa Monica near Highways Performance Space and Gallery, where he hosted half a dozen or so writers, urban planners, students and artists to discuss the islands project and mount a public art piece that reflected the discussion. They built paper mailboxes and quotes hung from trees that went up on a busy island on Olympic Boulevard. Only a few hours later, the display was gone, as if it had never existed. (Subsequently, the City of Santa Monica cited Highways, which was fined $150 for the removal of six signs "unlawfully posted on a public right of way.")
"In some ways they are saying: 'You don't own the city.' But I think it compels the participants to deal with the issue of temporariness. This is about the disposable moment. I know the limitations of the traffic island," he says.
He's aware that the islands are temporary "stages" -- and Kletzky has been careful to make sure in mounting the signs that they don't harm property. "One of the things that keeps coming up is, 'Is this guerrilla art?' Do I have authority or approval?" There is no tape or glue or paint. "It's why I don't like graffiti. It's marking territory by changing something irrevocably. I prefer not to damage property." Because in the end, says Kletzky, "It's not about the product but the ideas generated."
Though it's still early, a cacophony of responses has let Kletzky know he's onto something. For someone who was feeling isolated, set apart from the city, it has evolved into a way to stitch together community despite the region's growing congestion and unwieldy expanses. It's building community out of an idea. "It's made working in public much more interesting because the public exists," in it he says. "The project is about using this vehicle of art -- slap some wheels on it and see where it goes." It's Kletzky's message in a bottle. "The collaboration is really essential -- the repetition of it. It's in that process that something takes form."