“We tell ourselves stories in order to live” writes the Californian-born writer Joan Didion in the opening sentence of her book The White Album: a collection of essays and previously published magazine articles that attempt to describe—through memoir and analysis—the social and political scene in California in the late 1960s.Joan Didion, “The White Album” (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979), 11. Telling stories as a means of making sense, makes sense to me. And for much of the time I’ve spent in Los Angeles, I’ve been doing exactly that: seeking out stories in an attempt to get under the skin of a place that, on face value and in truth, I simply didn’t understand.
I am a pedestrian. I’ve always gravitated towards high-density cities—ones that, like my hometown of Melbourne, are best experienced on foot. Rebecca Solnit has written on the generic suburban-ness of several American cities saying they have been “designed for noninteractions of motorists shuttling between private places rather than the interactions of pedestrians in public ones,” which is a sentiment that can easily apply to LA.Rebecca Solnit, “Wanderlust” (London: Verso, 2002), 172. And so, confronted with this city in which “shuttling between private places” is not only necessary, but celebrated as a culture of it’s own, was hard for me at first. But the more time that I’ve spent there, often alone, and usually in a car, the more the city has grown on me, and the less alien it seems.
“At times it can feel like a pastiche of itself; an unreal version of a very real city.”
LA is a city of clichés. Even the names of suburbs and places alone are enough to conjure stereotypes, assumptions and associations. Think what happens in your own mind when I list a few: Beverly Hills, Hollywood, Compton, Malibu, Silverlake, Venice Beach, Santa Monica, Skid Row… At times it can feel like a pastiche of itself; an unreal version of a very real city. For me, the fact that LA’s Chinatown was designed by Hollywood set builders, seems like a perfect analogy for the city at large: simulacrum of an authentic place that paradoxically, and through time, has become exactly that.
Settled by the Native American Chumash people around 8000 BC, Los Angeles took its Spanish name from a group of 44 Mexicans who settled by the Los Angeles River in 1781. In 1805, the first American trading ship arrived, and in 1848, following several battles and the signing of a treaty, Mexico formally ceded California to the United States.
The first known census, recorded as late as 1841, notes a population of just 141 people living in Los Angeles. By 1924—only 83 years later—the population hits one million. In its early settlement, fruit and vegetable farming was the primary industry, until 1892, when the discovery of oil lead to California becoming the country’s largest oil producer. In 1910, the first movie was made in LA, and by 1920, 80 per cent of the world’s films are shot in California—keeping the city insulated from much of the economic loss suffered by the rest of the country during the Great Depression.
“You can’t talk about culture in Los Angeles without acknowledging the profound influence of the film industry—the birth of which has shaped the city not only economically, but culturally.”
You can’t talk about culture in Los Angeles without acknowledging the profound influence of the film industry—the birth of which has shaped the city not only economically, but culturally. The visual flow-on is apparent everywhere: in streets named after actors; roads blocked off for film crews; giant billboards advertising new release movies over motorways; and buildings that are strangely familiar from their Hollywood appropriation.
In his cult 2010 documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself, film professor Thom Andersen compares the city as it exists in reality against its on-screen depictions to examine how LA, and its large and diverse community, have been misrepresented over the years. Over nearly three hours of footage, taken primarily from Hollywood films, Los Angeles Plays Itself presents an alternative view of a city that is synonymous with movies yet has rarely been seen on the big screen as it is in reality, acknowledging the relative erasure of the city’s working-class neighbourhoods; its black, Hispanic and Native American population; as well as its industrial heritage. In fact, Anderson takes issue with a writer who I quoted earlier: “Forget the mystical blatherings of Joan Didion and company about the automobile and the freeway,” insists the film’s narrator. “They say nobody walks; they mean no rich white people like us walk.”Thom Anderson, “Los Angeles Plays Itself” (Los Angeles: Thom Anderson Productions, 2003). Anderson’s mission is to counter the Hollywood cliché, which he sees as being distinct from the real Los Angeles. And in this sentence he busts the automotive myth as well: car culture does exist, but it’s not available to everyone.
One of the things that I first found most confronting about LA was the disparity between rich and poor. Of the major metropolitan cities in America, LA has the highest poverty rate—with 17.6 per cent of the population recorded as living beneath the poverty line (according to the 2013 census). A recent study by UCLA, The Color of Wealth in Los Angeles, estimates that the typical US-born black or Mexican family has just one per cent of the wealth of a typical white family in LA, that’s one cent for every dollar of wealth held by the average white family in the metro area. Koreans hold seven cents and Vietnamese 17 cents for every dollar of wealth owned by comparable white families.Melany De La Cruz-Viesca et al., “The Color of Wealth in Los Angeles” (Los Angeles: University of California, 2016) www.aasc.ucla.edu/besol/color_of_wealth_report.pdf.
“Up the road—opposite the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) and adjacent to Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Museum Hall—billionaire philanthropists Eli and Edythe Broad opened The Broad, a $140 million museum to house their art collection.”
This is most visually evident to an outsider like myself in an area of Downtown known as Skid Row, which occupies a couple of blocks between the Financial and Arts Districts. At the same time, Downtown as a whole is rapidly gentrifying, with young professionals moving into warehouse apartments and designer stores springing up to cater for visitors staying in newly-opened nearby hotels. Up the road—opposite the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) and adjacent to Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall—billionaire philanthropists Eli and Edythe Broad opened The Broad, a $140 million museum to house their art collection. Just one block away from Skid Row is MoCA’s Geffen Contemporary Space—a large warehouse that houses temporary blockbuster exhibitions—and a ten-minute walk (or a three-minute drive) from Skid Row into the Arts District, is the brand new Hauser and Wirth, one of many international blue-chip commercial galleries to have recently opened in the city.
Much of the current mutterings that you hear about LA as an up-and-coming arts scene, or indeed a rival to New York, are centred around this gentrification of the Arts District. The area was officially named in the 1990s, twenty years after artists began to move to the area. Priced out of neighbourhoods like Hollywood and Venice, the burgeoning arts hubs of the time, these artists often lived in illegal squats in dilapidated industrial buildings. Until recently, the area retained a certain edge to it. Anecdotally, I found in my most recent visit late last year, the area felt safer, buzzier—with noticeably more cafes, urban breweries and visible tourists than just a few years earlier.
Only a few months ago, anti-gentrification activists in the neighbouring suburb of Boyle Heights voiced concerns over the opening of two new art spaces in the area: UTA Artist Space, a wing of the Hollywood talent firm United Talent Agency; and Ibid Gallery, a commercial gallery originally based in London. UTA were under attack for the content of their opening show, which included Larry Clark’s controversial Tulsa photographs from 1971 depicting young adults shooting up—perhaps an insensitive subject within a neighbourhood where drug addiction and violence are very real concerns.
Yet some interesting organisations operate out of the Arts District, illustrating the independent and enterprising spirit that is indicative of the LA art scene. There is 356 Mission: a 12,000 square foot warehouse first used by the LA-based artist Laura Owens for her 2013 exhibition 12 Paintings. Since then, Owens has run the space with her New York gallerist Gavin Brown and longtime friend Wendy Yao. In its few years of operation, 356 Mission has gained a name for itself as one of the most interesting art spaces in LA, due, in part, to their prolific programming. Across the river is Night Gallery, named for the 10pm—2am opening hours that the original gallery kept in a Lincoln Heights strip mall. Next door, separated by a hole in the fence, is Ghebaly Gallery, operated by French-expat François Ghebaly, who previously ran smaller art spaces in Chinatown and Culver City. And down the road is the not-for-profit venture The Mistake Room, which, in its few years of operation, has presented ambitious solo shows by international artists including Oscar Murillo, Korakrit Arunanondchai, Cao Fei, Carlos Amorales and Thomas Hirschhorn.
“All concentrated within the Arts District, these organisations are proof that the art scene in Los Angeles, outside of large-scale commercial and collecting institutions, is alive and kicking.”
All concentrated within the Arts District, these organisations are proof that the art scene in Los Angeles, outside of large-scale commercial and collecting institutions, is alive and kicking. Further afield, alternative spaces including Otherwild in Los Feliz and the Women’s Centre for Creative Work in the Elysian Valley, provide further hope. Otherwild takes the shape of an ordinary shop front but in fact functions as a studio, store, community centre, workshop and event space. Founded in 2012 by Rachel Berks, Otherwild runs as a hybrid-business—offering visitors the chance to buy locally-produced wares with a feminist slant. Otherwild’s sister organisation, the Women’s Center for Creative Work (WCCW), was inspired by a physical home for feminism known as the Womens’ Building, which operated in LA between 1973 and 1991 as a space dedicated to the social, political and creative empowerment of women. Since 2013, WCCW has continued this legacy through a series of creative workshops, from skateboarding to sushi-making. In their manifesto, WCCW state that they have “a radically expansive understanding of creative practice.” And I think that this “radically expansive understanding”“Women’s Center for Creative Work,” www.womenscenterforcreativework.com, (14 October 2016). trickles through the creative outputs of LA—with a healthy culture of artists putting on independent shows in their own homes and temporary pop-up spaces across the wider city. One artist who I met on my most recent visit was simultaneously preparing work for a significant solo show in London as well as a group exhibition that would take place in a residential LA swimming pool.
Of the 14 artists that I did studio visits with last year in LA, only two were originally from there. Each had come for a different reason: for school, for love, to connect to an art scene, to escape from one. I asked each of them to define what they saw in the city’s art scene and the following words surfaced: dispersed, diverse, relaxed, collegiate, spacious, light, decentralised and reclusive. There was also a sort of self-consciousness about defining the city as an international centre for art, as if preferring it to be free from the commercial constraints and pressures of a city like New York. Bordered by the Santa Monica Mountains to the north, the San Gabriel Mountains to the east, and the Pacific Ocean to the south and west, LA can feel self-contained, but also isolated.
LA seems to have a strange sort of creativity; a creativity that’s born from necessity, and one that emerges from within, rather than in response to environmental or social surrounds. It comes from having space, both mentally and physically (some studios I saw in Los Angeles are among the most generous I have seen), and it can also come from boredom; the kind of boredom that comes from consistent weather and relentless commutes. And this is where collegiality and community also comes in. When you live in a city that is constantly defined by its comparison to another—as LA is becoming to New York—you tend to stick together, support each other. The downside is that it can become a little bit insular.
Like art scenes in any city fortunate enough to have multiple art schools, the LA art community can sometimes appear divided into alumni cliques. LA has three major art schools: California Institute of the Arts (affectionately abbreviated to CalArts); the University of California, Los Angeles (or UCLA); and the Roski School of Art and Design at USC—the latter of which recently suffered a blow to its name when the entire 2016 MFA class dropped out in protest of administrative changes that made their education less affordable.
In light of decreasing access to fine arts education, independent endeavours like the WCCW become increasingly important. Among the best-known places for radical independent learning in LA is The Mountain School of Arts (MSA); a now nomadic organisation that takes its name from its former home: the Mountain Bar in Chinatown. On the MSA’s mysterious-looking website it proclaims itself to be “the oldest, continuous artist-run school in California” and “a supplement and amendment to the university system.”“The Mountain School of Arts,” www.themountainschoolofarts.org, (12 October 2016). The school offers free education to a small number of students over a 90-day program and focuses on inter-disciplinary learning.
In 2005, at the time of the school’s foundation, Chinatown was an important area within the LA art community, with a racially diverse neighbourhood and a quirky history. The school’s founders thought of the area like a campus: the bar at the centre surrounded by important galleries. The bar was founded by artist Jorge Pardo and gallery owner Steve Hanson, and the MSA made use of a private bar upstairs, which Pardo built himself. In 2012, when the bar was forced to close, the MSA’s founders responded nimbly and have managed to stay afloat while tuition costs, budget cuts and internal politics continue to plague larger colleges. It’s illustrious faculty of guest teachers—all of whom are unpaid—are testament of the good will towards the MSA that exists within the LA arts community. Artists including Dan Graham, Simone Forti, Tacita Dean, Paul McCarthy, Vanessa Beecroft and Pierre Huyghe have all taught there at some point over the last decade.
“In a city where the art scene is as diverse as it is dispersed, I felt as if I’d witnessed just a moment of it; of history and present colliding, spilling joyously together out onto the concrete streets and into the night.”
In 2014, Pardo rebuilt the original bar for an installation at Tif Sigfrid’s gallery in Hollywood that I was fortunate to see. Crammed into her tiny shop front gallery on a hot afternoon with cold beers—for a variety show performance of comedy, music and magic tricks— I felt for a minute like I was beginning to understand the laid back, collegiate and independent spirit that I’d heard so much about. In a city where the art scene is as diverse as it is dispersed, I felt as if I’d witnessed just a moment of it; of history and present colliding, spilling joyously together out onto the concrete streets and into the night.
The more that I’ve tried to define LA, the more I realise that it is a city still trying to define itself. The recent changes to the cultural landscape are just the latest in a long history of continual change. It’s impossible to define a scene—and in trying to do so—you ruin it, you make it history. In this case it’s also a futile task; there isn’t one LA art world, there are many. Just as there are many stories that we tell ourselves in order to understand it.
If there is one truism about the place, it’s that it is a city built on myth. The reality is very different from its image or reputation. And so by way of conclusion I’m going to leave you here, at one of my favourite places, a badly kept secret: The Museum of Jurassic Technology. On an unassuming stretch of Venice Boulevard, in the midst of the dross on the way to the beach, stands a place devoted to blurring fact and fiction, reality and myth. Here, in a warren of dimly lit rooms, amidst museum displays of mice on toast and portraits of cosmonaut space dogs, is a world of artificiality, eccentricity and incongruity—every bit as inventive and original as the city waiting for you, when you return to the bright light of the sun outside.
This essay is edited down from a talk originally presented at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne, in 2016.
This essay is edited down from a talk originally presented at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne, in 2016.