Guest post by Jacob Wick.
Towards the end of The Function of Criticism, Terry Eagleton suggests that the “role of the contemporary critic,” which is of course a different thing than the function of criticism - right? a role and a function are different things, but of course the function of something might be to provide a role, or a role might be to serve a function, in both cases it seems like function is greater than, trumps or possibly dictates, role – is to reconnect “the symbolic to the political,” by which he means “engaging through both discourse and practice with the process by which repressed needs, interests, and desires may assume the cultural forms which could weld them into a collective political force.” He is emphatic in pointing out that this role, this idea, is not new at all, but – like many ideas around a libertory role for art, theory, etc – harks back to an earlier historical moment. Eagleton tracks the formulation of what would eventually become criticism to 17th and 18th centuries and the publication of pamphlets like The Spectator or The Tatler or the slightly later Rambler, and posits the function of this publications as the creation of publics against authoritarian rule. It was these publications, Eagleton argues, that began to bind together the bourgeois public sphere as such, and that would later provide foment for this public to assert its hegemony over autocratic rule. It is worthwhile pointing out here that the focus of The Function of Criticism is very, very narrowly trained on England; although in the colonies, I’m sure the publication of the Federalist papers and the myriad pamphlets that fluttered up and down the Atlantic coast would be a decent analogue. In any case, Eagleton’s estimation of publication meaning the creation of the public jogs handsomely alongside Matthew Stadler’s estimation of publication (Stadler is, of course, a former BaS star, on an interview that I was privy to in a relatively non-participatory, hungover fashion). The function of criticism, though, is slightly more pointed than the formation of a public around a text; it is the formation of a demos around an intertext or series of intertexts that weave(s) through contemporary cultural production. In my view, this amounts to provoking and/or fostering the articulation of a local discourse in relation to a larger discourse that supersedes it, for it is around this localized discourse that a public or counterpublic might begin to recognize itself in context.
The not-so-recent hullaballoo over the use or misuse of English in e-flux press releases, which started with the dubious assertion that a language separate from English was being used in the online listserv/journal in Triple Canopy and fizzled out with an entire issue of e-flux journal dedicated to half-assed rebuttals of that thesis provides some useful fodder. e-flux is a listserv that serves some 90,000 readers across the world, and to which are submitted press releases from everywhere, all of them in English, some of them in better English than others. These press releases are generally written in a similar tone and register, a tone and register that is relatively uniform throughout early 21st-century art writing in English. These press releases, because they strive to make sense with and to each other, constitute a discourse. This is not in itself a problem. Neither is the quality of English in use, nor whether this use constitutes a separate language – which of course it doesn’t, that’s ridiculous, if anything it might constitute a sociolect (unless we are going to start talking about International Baseball English or something) – or even that English is being used (lingua francas are important if a global discourse is to be established, right?).
The problem is twofold: first, that this global discourse is directed, at least in part, by the e-flux journal, a monthly publication usually consisting of around 7 articles generally written by a relatively small pool of artists, curators, etc that are recognized by the selfsame global discourse as important, and who are in general from a relatively narrow geographical context. This journal responds generally to the global discourse that is in part produced and supported by the e-flux listserv. The views of this journal, which are not necessarily bad, but generally do not address specific local contexts in any way; to do so in a monthly publication of 7 or so articles would be impossible. Because this extremely limited journal exists in a feedback loop with the global listserv, however, a rather distressing situation arises whereby the narrow view of the journal is regurgitated unproblematically into local contexts, without a consideration for whether or not this discourse is pertinent, or even relevant, to said context. Thus, an informal contemporary art space in Shenzhen might feel the need to publish a press release, in English, on e-flux, in order to participate in a global discourse, but in order to participate in this global discourse it might also feel the need to articulate itself using the tone and register, even the current relevant topics, of that discourse, set by the e-flux journal. The local tone, register, and topics of Shenzhen would then be reoriented in some way towards this strangely narrow global discourse in such a way that what is happening at the informal contemporary art space in Shenzhen reads exactly like what is happening at, say, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. This does not make sense.
A global discourse does not make sense without the existence of local discourses that challenge or at least interact with that discourse. If New York used to be the center of the art world, the Internet is the center of the art world now. This is not an oxymoron; we should drop the tired hat of insisting that the Internet will make us free, is devoid of hierarchy, and so on. Packets of information float horizontally across a non-hierarchical field for a while, yes, but in order for them to be legible they are converted via Internet Protocal (IP) into the hierarchal tree of the Domain Name System (DNS). If you’d like to read an entire book about this, please consider Alexander Galloway‘s Protocol. If you wouldn’t, read this 7 or 9 page gem by Deleuze, “Postscript on the Societies of Control.” In societies of control, power exists in the form of internal and/or internalized functions that corral anarchic forms of life into easily-policed norms. One of these norms might be the notion of “our global society,” the general assumption that we live in a world where we are all flying to Mumbai or Vancouver or Philadelphia whenever the latest investigation of you know, whatever, that we are all part of an abstracted society of global travelers (for more about this, check out Lane Relyea’s book Your Everyday Art World, which I haven’t finished at all, in fact I’ve barely started it, but he writes about this stuff immediately and in a very engaging manner, like in the first chapter or possibly even the introduction). The problem with “our global society,” of course, is that it doesn’t exist, or that it only exists to those who have tremendous wealth or privileged access to tremendous wealth. I live in Los Angeles, for instance, and occasionally am able to access wealth in the form of grants, paid travel by host organizations, etc. I may have been “global” from 2006ish – 2009ish, while I was living in New York and playing relatively regularly with a trio I had with two Irish musicians. My residence in our global society ended abruptly with the crash of the Celtic Tiger. Anyway, the point is that our global society doesn’t actually exist, and by endlessly repeating how it exists, and how great it is, how revolutionary for all of us, local contexts lose the ability to recognize themselves.
For instance, Southern California! The California-Pacific Triennial, which closed recently at the Orange County Museum of Art, made an attempt to at least slightly narrow California’s global context to the Pacific Ocean, rather than across the continent to New York or across a continent and an ocean to Europe. This seems exciting and it probably is, but to be honest the show generally seemed directed at the nonexistent global public I have discussed above, not towards a discourse that exists between or among Pacific art scenes, probably because that discourse doesn’t actually exist. This discourse also does not appear to exist – at least not to me, and I am certainly new, but isn’t that at least sort of the point of this series of blog posts? – in the City or County of Los Angeles.
Last month, I went to an opening at Honor Fraser for Dawn Kasper’s THE ABSURD show. The opening featured a gospel choir of that sang and danced in the space between the PA, pictured, and the two platforms, also pictured, leaving almost no space for an audience. The choir was incredible, really, it reminded me of Andrew Hill’s gospel music, it reminded me of Don Byron saying in 2008 or 2006 or whenever that was that gospel music is the most interesting improvised music happening, the room – an art gallery, seriously – a huge mass of people feeling very intensely, sweating and confused, rich collectors baffled at why they couldn’t see better, everybody looking very confused and happy, some dancing or trying to dance, the singers occasionally falling down from the Spirit. The whole thing felt to me a bit like a gag in the sense that I described in my last post, the gospel choir wrecking the scene of the art opening in a positively heroic fashion. At the post-opening reception a man next to me gushed to the man next to him that he tries to visit New York City once a month for inspiration.
The County of Los Angeles sprawls across 4000 square miles and holds 9.8 million people in fifteen cities speaking something like 200 different languages. In my neighborhood, I hear Tagalog, Spanish, Korean, and Bengali regularly: what are they talking about? What is their discourse? According to the listing at LA Art Resource, there exist at least 50 artist-run (maybe 85) initiatives in the City of Los Angeles (one of the fifteen cities in the county), located in phone lines, apartments, the Internet, lofts, and so on. What are they talking about? What is their discourse? Are artist-run initiatives speaking Tagalog or Korean, Bengali or Thai? Are they speaking to each other, in English, or in Spanish, about their local contexts? What the hell is going on in Burbank or Lancaster, Pasadena or San Gabriel? Surely not nothing. And if nothing is happening, then shame on us allowing that narrative, that public, to disappear from our discourse.
The setup, or lack of setup, of the City of Los Angeles, a setup that Brecht derided in the early 20th century as a collection of culturally vacant suburbs haphazardly roped together under a dubious civic entity (a situation only slightly ameliorated by the Interstate system) might prove actually beneficial to the development of a sort of critical ecosystem, a local discourse that might operate as the conglomerate of a series of hyperlocal discourses. Perhaps it is beside the point to fret about what Los Angeles’s unified cultural identity is, and instead ask what the cultural identity of Koreatown is, and how that relates to neighboring Mid-Wilshire or Historic Filipinotown. What is happening in Los Angeles is not what is happening in New York, but it shouldn’t be, namely because Los Angeles is not in New York. But what is happening in Los Angeles surely has the potential to be absolutely fascinating and exciting, if – maybe only if – we can get a little critical.
Jacob Wick is a conceptual artist living in Los Angeles, CA. For more information, please visit jacobwick.info.
Guest Post by Jacob Wick.
So far, the things that have made the most sense in Los Angeles to me have been the things that make no sense at all. I’m writing about Juliana Paciulli‘s recent solo show at Greene Exhibitions, “Are you talking to me?” and Andrew Choate‘s poetry, like this one from Stingray Clapping:
more nipple than fig
more fig than nipple
dress up as fig
dress up as
nipple for birthd
Choate sings his poetry, or singsongs it, more of a sprechstimme than a musical. I’ve never seen him read the poem I have placed above, but there’s probably a tune it goes along with, and somebody always snickers at it, as I have seen them snicker in, now, several situations in Los Angeles. It’s the same kind of snicker, or nervous laugh or outright laugh, perhaps if one is confident, that happens at a total failure of communication, when there is some kind of sudden – perhaps sudden, perhaps dramatic, possibly completely banal, like being hungover or otherwise exhausted – breakdown in a conversation or scene.
A scene perhaps like that in the title video of Paciulli’s exhibition. A teenage girl, wearing a sagging black American flag as a cape, stands in typical suburban house – indeed a suburban house so typical it played Ferris Bueller’s house in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off - rehearsing De Niro’s famous scene from Taxi Driver. She raises her gun; the shot centers on it: it is a yellow watergun (full disclosure: my yellow watergun; fuller discloser: John Paul Glover’s yellow watergun), apparently empty, or mostly empty. The shot returns to the girl’s face; she finishes the scene, pauses, says “oh, ok,” and looks down and away. A housecat jumps over the flag/cape, which has apparently fallen off.
More forceful, adjacent to the sags another black flag, printed on bamboo twill, with a banana-yellow QUACK printed across its lower third. The flag might signify something, maybe national pride or Jasper Johns or Black Flag, a band I very unfortunately saw recently – a bunch of pathetic, ridiculous old men prancing around the stage like a bunch of assholes, which they certainly appeared to be – but the QUACK arrests its signification in the act, leaving the viewer speechless, in the strange afterimage of a short-circuit of meaning.
It has been important, certainly since the turn of the 20th century, to ask what things – not just art, everything – mean. What does this abstract painting mean? What does this realist short story mean? What does this rock mean? I learned at the Santa Monica police station, from an incredibly chatty technician who gently rolled my finger on the scanner, that the print on my left index finger is of the sort that less than 1% of people have. I asked, laughing, but not really, I felt pretty serious about it – it was my first thought – “what does it mean?” She said, “oh, probably nothing.” If I look it up online – I think it was a double loop or a Peacock’s eye or maybe a tented arch, I wish I remembered or wrote it down, but I didn’t – it might mean that I’m a perfectionist, that I’m indecisive or diplomatic, that I’m independent and inflexible, or that I am “fiery.”
The trouble with asking what things mean is that they often mean nothing, and those things that don’t mean nothing often could mean many things along a varying scale of possible validity. I once wrote a review, for a class in undergrad, of that Ann Hamilton piece that is a bunch of white shirts, seams opened and singed, on a table. I wrote that it “meant” something about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. You know: sewing machines, fire, melancholy, death, feminism. It’s certainly possible that the piece meant something, and that that meaning had something to do with about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, but it’s equally possible it meant something about self-image, about burning or singing the demand to appear a certain way, or even the privileging of appearance (it’s on a table after all). I point this out not to champion a wry, pseudo-”ironic” approach, an approach that I find vapid and profoundly irritating – and completely dissociated from the actual function of irony, but that’s another story – but rather to wonder if it is not more interesting, or exciting, or even relevant, to ask what things do, rather than what they mean. In the case of Choate and Paciulli, their work could mean a variety of things, doubtless some of which are fascinating, but what is most important – to me at least – is what they do: they short-circuit or gag the transmission of subjective information. In so doing, they resuscitate the possibility of gesture.
What is gesture? Giorgio Agamben, in his enigmatically unfinished “Notes on Gesture,” refers to the ancient Roman philosopher Varro:
The third stage of action is, they say, that in which they faciunt “make” something: in this, on account the likeness among agere “to act” and gerere “to carry or carry on,” a certain error is committed by those who think that it is only one thing. For a person can facere something and not agere it, as a poet facit “makes” a play and does not act it, and on the other hand an actor agit “acts” it and does not make it, and so a play fit “is made” by the poet, not acted, and agitur “is acted” by the actor, not made. On the other hand, the general [imperator], in that he is said to gerere “carry on” affairs, in this neither faciti “makes” nor agit “acts,” but gerit “carries on,” that is, supports, a meaning transferred from those who gerunt “carry” burdens, because they support them. (57)
The three categories of action are, then: to make or produce; to act or perform; to carry on or support. Agamben identifies gesture with support, with gerere, to carry or carry on. The error that apparently was being made in the first century BCE, that of confusing performing with supporting, is simply exacerbated in the twenty-first century CE, where that which is supporting simply disappears. We see the actor perform, and admire the poet who made, but we miss, or fail to focus on, the gesture that supports: the tone of voice, the rise and fall of an arm, a certain tenseness or relaxation. It is the gesture that finally closes the act of signification, and for Agamben, this carries tremendous weight. As that which supports or endures, the gesture “opens up the sphere of ethos as the more proper sphere of that which is human” (57). It is not – or should not be – the sphere of production, nor the sphere of praxis, that determines one’s humanity, but rather the manner in which one supports or endures, one’s gestures. It is in one’s gestures that one’s character appears.
“Notes on Gesture” tracks the disappearance or capture of gesture from the late 19th century to the present. Beginning with Gilles de la Tourette’s catalogue of irregular gestures, which became the basis for what is now called Tourette’s disease; to Tourette’s catalogue of normal gestures, which he describes with pre-cinematic relish. According to Agamben, after numerous cases being reported in the late 19th century, cases Tourette’s disease “practically cease to be reported” from the beginning of the twentieth century until Oliver Sacks reportedly noticed several apparent cases of Tourette’s while walking down a New York street in 1971. Agamben suggests, somewhat amusingly – a nervous laugh, a snicker – that this could perhaps “in the meantime ataxia, tics, and dystonia had become the norm and that at some point everybody had lost control of their gestures and was walking and gesticulating frantically” (51). The reemergence of Tourette’s in the 70s signals not a sudden gaining of control of gesture, but perhaps the moment when the obsession over gesture – as one obsesses over anything one has lost, as any lost thing becomes transfigured into “destiny” – reached some kind of mark.
In any case, the desire to reclaim gesture or the nostalgia for gesture propels cinema. Extending Deleuze’s term “movement-image,” which implies that cinematic images are themselves in movement, Agamben writes:
Every image, in fact, is animated by an antimomic polarity: on the one hand, images are the reification and obliteration of a gesture (it is the imago as death mask or symbol); on the other hand, they preserve the dynamis intact (as in Muybridge’s snapshots or in any sports photograph). The former corresponds to the recollection seized by voluntary memory, while the latter corresponds to the image flashing in the epiphany of involuntary memory. And while the former lives in magical isolation, the latter always refers beyond itself to a whole of which is it a part. Even the Mona Lisa, even Las Meninas could be seen not as immovable and eternal forms, but as fragments of a gesture of as stills of a lost film wherein only they would regain their true meaning. And that is so because a certain kind of litigatio, a paralyzing power who spell we need to break, is continuously at work in every image…
Cinema seizes and redeploys gesture, and as such “belongs essentially to the realm of ethics and politics” (55). For cinema suggests or imposes character, characters, ethos. For if it is through cinema, as Agamben so eloquently writes, that we dream of gesture; the question then becomes how to “introduce into this dream the element of awakening” (56). How do we, how can we, pinch ourselves back into awareness of our own gestures?
For Agamben, the key is to forget, or to remember, or to forget to forget, to forget to remember. Gesture appears involuntarily, in moments when we lose our track, when we are gagged, “indicating first of all something that could be put in your mouth to hinder speech, as well as in the sense of the actor’s improvisation meant to compensate a loss of memory or an inability to speak” (59). Perhaps this is what Cage dreamed of when he asked for silence. When we are gagged, when we forget suddenly or witness a forgetting – for the gag is more than the actor forgetting, it is everyone in the theater witnessing that forgetting, participating in it – we witness gesture as pure means, dissociated from production or praxis.
And if cinema is the tool by which we dream of gesture, then Hollywood is the capital of dreams, of dreams suggested or imposed; and if we consider gesture to be the sphere of politics, as Agamben does, or if we consider gesture to be the support or character of ideology, as I do – or both, for that is perhaps two ways of saying the same thing – then Los Angeles becomes perhaps the ideal place to think about gesture, or to focus on work that brings forward the possibility of gesture, work that stops us from explaining what it means and forces to encounter what it does.
Jacob Wick is a conceptual artist based in Los Angeles. For more information, visit jacobwick.info.
This week: Duncan and Brian drop in to LA’s Chinatown and visit the Institute for Figuring!
The mission of the Institute For Figuring is to contribute to the public understanding of scientific and mathematical themes through innovative programming that includes exhibitions, lectures, workshops, and participatory, community based projects. The IFF is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
Located in the Chinatown district of Los Angeles, the IFF’s venue functions both as an exhibition space and as a “play tank” for developing new methods of creative engagement with topics ranging from geometry and topology, to physics, computation, and biological form.
Founded in 2003, the IFF has developed exhibits and programs for museums, galleries, colleges, and community groups around the world. We have worked with: the Andy Warhol Museum (Pittsburgh), The Hayward (London), the Science Gallery (Dublin), the New Children’s Museum (San Diego), Art Center College of Design (Pasadena), the Museum of Jurassic Technology (Los Angeles), and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.
The Institute’s Crochet Coral Reef is now one of the largest science + art projects in the world.
At the core of the IFF’s work is the concept of material play. We believe that ideas usually presented in abstract terms can often be embodied in physical activities that engage audiences via kindergarten-like practices. Through activities such as cutting and folding paper, we affirm that the hands and eyes can serve as guides to developing the human mind. By inviting our audience to literally play with ideas, the IFF offers a new, hands-on approach to public science education that is at once intellectually rigorous, pedagogically rich, and aesthetically aware.
Guest Post by Jacob Wick.
Before we begin, perhaps it would help to get acquainted: in what follows, and in what follows what follows – over the next few months, or however long Bad at Sports allows me to report from my swiveling office chair in Little Bangladesh – I will be concentrating on what I would say is my main area of concern, or perhaps, to be redundant, a concentration of mine: the support.
Thinking about support originates, for me, with Shannon Jackson’s book Social Works: Performing Art, Supporting Publics, which I read two or three years ago and which burned a hole in my mind as I drove, with Marc Riordan and Frank Rosaly, around the Midwest and Southeast on tour with Tres Hongos. Driving the potholed and congested interstates of America through climate-changed constant downpour, hating everyone on the road and being hated by everyone on the road, arriving in what might as well have been safehouses in Lexington, Columbia, Asheville, Charlotte, places where I used to be surprised but now am simply glad to arrive…
From what I can remember, and from what I can glean from skimming the book again, three or two years later, Jackson points out that much recent performance work, “relational” work, socially-engaged work, “social practice,” and so on depends on a paradoxical relation to the conditions that make such work possible. A free school might, for instance, fill a vacuum left by a closed or too-expensive school; it might also absorb energy that might otherwise be used to advocate or agitate for better public access to education. The free school then either functions as a boon or a leech or both, a condition that many such attempts happily ignore. In any case, what stuck with me about Jackson’s thesis – which of course is, as she writes, inherited from Marcel Duchamp and Bertolt Brecht, among others, which I write not so much for the currency of either of those names but to point out that this, like so many other “contemporary” issues, is not new at all, or is related to the period directly before the Great Depression, or, again, both – is this focus on the support rather than the effect. Instead of bitching about a free school as too aesthetic or too political or not aesthetic enough or not political enough or some combination – a, b, c, d, all of the above, none of the above – it behooves us to wonder why on earth such a school might be necessary or appealing in the first place.
Nato Thompson’s recent piece in e-flux appears to be the beginning of a process wherein he either compares the strategies of socially-engaged artists to those of the US military in “counterinsurgency” mode, or compares them with the sorts of insurgent groups that counterinsurgency aims to eliminate. Regardless, I would write that what is most interesting or alarming about this comparison is not that it is possible to make – the similarities between insurgent practice, counterinsurgent practice, and “social practice” are stunning, in fact – but that the conditions that allow insurgent groups like Hezbollah or the US Army to function exist not only in what used to be the Third World but also in what used to be the First World: in Oakland, in Chicago, in rural Ohio, pretty much anywhere, even in Los Angeles. These conditions amount more or less to a vacuum of support.
In his alarming book Brave New War, published in 2006, military theorist John Robb makes an example of Hamas. Writing that Hamas thrives “in the vacuum created by failed states,” Robb points out that Hamas’s validity emanates from the social services it provides: education, food distribution, youth recreation, elder care, public safety, religious services, health care, grants to students and small businesses, and so on. Robb goes on to present a more-or-less identical model as an ideal model for security services in a post-nation-state age: something decentralized, something specific to its locale, something transparent: something rhizomatic, something site-specific, something participatory. Robb calls this the resilient community. The resilient community, in its very organization, builds the notion of resilience “into the fabric of everyday life,” so that, when presented with a threat – a threat posed by more-or-less identical groups like Hamas or the US Army – it responds in “what seems like an effortless way.” The idea seems to be to subsume ideology into everyday life, to make it seem not only beneficial, but necessary; not only ideal, but inevitable. Whether that ideology is that of an Islamic republic or that of neoliberal/-libertarian “resilience” or whatever ideology a given socially-engaged artwork might wittingly or unwittingly transmit, the methodology is the same: provide support where it is missing.
When I moved to Oakland two years ago, I read a book – American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland, by Robert O. Self – thinking I was going to take a class at CCA whose purpose was to create some sort of site-specific project in West Oakland’s historic rail terminal. I did not end up taking the class – which, by the way, failed in its internal negotiations and negotiations with the relators at the terminal, who were/are intent on it becoming yet another yuppie mall in yet another tedious yuppie development in West Oakland – but I did read most of the book. As one can imagine, the history of Oakland is not pretty, and books like this tend to weigh heavily. Self focuses on the lead-up to the overwhelming passage of Proposition 13 – arguably the beginning of the nationwide tax revolt that led to the election of Ronald Reagan and the subsequent gutting of social services – as a turning point in the city’s history. Beginning in the 50s, white residents in and around Oakland – with an emphasis on around, since many white residents simply left Oakland for whiter hills or whiter pastures in surrounding San Leandro, Hayward, Walnut Creek, etc – began a campaign of racist real estate practices against black and Latino populations, ghettoizing them to tiny neighborhoods, shuttering or draining business districts, reducing civic services to a bare minimum or below.
It is too tempting, at this point, to not bring up the striking similarity between the services Hamas provides and the services the Black Panther Provided in Oakland in the 70s, as described by Thompson and others, and to marvel at the implication that the Panthers, too, operated in a vacuum created by a failed state. West Oakland, at this point, had been ghettoized by racist real estate practices; physically separated from the rest of Oakland by a highway; and had lost its historic business and cultural center to the development of that highway. I suppose here the state did not so much fail as leave, or actively act against the people that constituted it (or decided, more accurately, that these people did not belong in the state and tried to make them disappear); the effect, though, was the same. The emergence and subsequent demonization of the Panthers made the “grassroots,” “populist” campaign of Howard Jarvis and Paul Gann, a wealthy white realtor and a wealthy white former realtor, appear logical to white people across California; Proposition 13 passed with overwhelming support.
Proposition 13 limits property tax to 1% of real property value. Cities use property taxes to fund civic institutions: public schools, libraries, transit systems, and so on – even the police. When Proposition 13 passed, California’s public schools were ranked among the nation’s best; since the passage of Proposition 13, California’s public schools have scuttled down to 48th. Which brings us, finally, to my swivel chair in Little Bangladesh.
Since moving to LA, I figured I should start reading City of Quartz, a sort of go-to history of the city by Mike Davis. So far, I’ve read the preface, which is a sobering catching up of the first edition of the book, published in the late 80s, with the second edition of the books, published in 2006; and the Prologue, the first chapter of the first edition, which relates the history of the early-20th-century (1914 actually, the same year as Bottle Rack) socialist Llano community, its demise, and Davis’s discovery of and conversation with two undocumented itinerant day workers in its ruins. For now, I’ll focus on the preface, which makes the case that the conditions that produced the riots of 1992 – which I think went all the way up to my neighborhood, here in the north of Koreatown (here in Little Bangladesh, in the north of Koreatown, between Historic Filipinotown and Thai Town/Little Armenia) – persist. Since the early 90s, manufacturing has continued to decline, corporations have continued to not headquarter themselves in LA, and
real household incomes fell throughout much of Southern California, but the worst drop in the median income was in the City of Los Angeles, where it fell by 9.1 per cent. At the same time, the percentage of households in poverty increased from 18 to 22 per cent, while the percentage with an annual income of more than $100,000 increased from 9.7 to 15.7 per cent. Almost 700,000 working adults in L.A. County have incomes below the poverty line, and seven of the ten fastest-growing occupations in the city, including cashier and security guard, pay less than $25,000 per year. (xvi)
If this sounds familiar, you’ve probably been listening to NPR or reading the news lately. Both Morning Edition and To the Point – produced here in LA! – have featured segments on growing income inequality recently, spurred by figures published last week by the Atlantic that show that the very richest Americans got even richer, richer than almost ever even, last year, richer than they’ve been since right before 2008 or right before the Great Depression. Davis places the blame largely on Proposition 13, writing that its effects ensure that
the greater part of the real-estate windfall annually passes through the economy, on its way to buy Hummers, Laker tickets, and vacation homes, without paying a tithe to schools and the creation of the human capital on which the future of California will rest. Luxury lifestyles are subsidized, as it were, on both ends: by a seemingly infinite supply of cheap service labor, and by the tax advantages that accrue to real-estate and sumptuary consumption. (xvi)
In the seven years since Davis wrote this, not much seems to have changed: Bentleys and helicopters shuttle the rich (or the police, or the news) across Los Angeles’s jumbled civic topography while precarious service workers cram limited and inefficient public transit and the rest of us in the ever-growing swath between stew in traffic. If anything, these conditions have simply spread across the US. The evaporation of traditional middle-class jobs – manufacturing, teaching – means that a huge range of people are clamoring for the same unpredictable and unreliable service sector jobs. As one of the commentators on the To the Point broadcast mentions (I think), the evaporation of the middle class means also the evaporation of class or income mobility. The poor will stay poor; the indebted will stay indebted; the rich will stay rich.
In the months between when I decided I was going to move to Los Angeles and the day my boyfriend and I actually did move to Los Angeles, I think the most common question – after, perhaps, a disgusted “have you been there?” – was a disgusted “why?” To which I would reply something vague and unhelpful about Los Angeles being ludicrous, fun, etc. Something about the discombobulated setup of the city being exciting, full of holes in which to do something. Perhaps also I would say something about LA being a place where dreams go to die and that I was interested in being in a place where dreams died and seeing what happened next. Actually, I probably never said that; I think I wrote it in a grant application though. Since moving here, I’m beginning to wonder if Los Angeles is just a microcosm – I hate that word, but there you go – of the US generally. In Los Angeles, there is a horrific gap between the rich and the poor; general public disregard for public institutions; shitty public transit; overwhelming belief in outmoded or disappeared dreams. Proposition 13 heralded a nationwide tax revolt and subsequent gutting of social services, leading in part to the evacuated and disjunct nation we have today. And if art can do anything in LA, perhaps it is a signal of what art – or anything, or anyone – might be able to do in the US generally, across all of its destroyed or depressed cities and towns.
Writing seven years ago, Mike Davis argued for a “more, not less, ideological politics.” Perhaps this is analogous to means more, not less, awareness of the ideology or ideologies buttressing a given socially-engaged project, relational event, or what-have-you; a focus on the support. What’s interesting about Los Angeles and the projects being undertaken here is not that they exist or that their structures might be analogous to those of Hamas or the Black Panthers (or InCUBATE), but rather the ideology being communicated by their action, the thing that they aim to build into everyday life, the thing that will appear effortlessly; what’s interesting about Los Angeles and undertaking a project here is not how hard or easy an environment Los Angeles is to undertake such a project, but rather if one can be organized in such a way that transmits an alternate ideology, something that focuses not on the same old neoliberal catchphrases - innovation, progress, a new vision - but on support, on fostering the conditions where mobility might have a chance to begin to occur again. We’ll see…
Jacob Wick is a conceptual artist based in Los Angeles. For more information, visit jacobwick.info.
After losing his job and apartment on the same day a couple of years ago, Los Angeles-based street artist Gune Monster says he contemplated a suicide. Instead, he picked up a marker and begin drawing the toothy, ghoulish figures that would eventually become the hallmark of his alter ego.
First, he drew about 50 stickers a day. The number quickly climbed to upwards of 350 hand drawn, colored and cut stickers , many of which would eventually make their way onto the poles, benches and other public spaces scattered around Los Angeles. Larger murals would eventually follow as the street artist’s ambitions grew.
“Murals change people’s lives” he says. “They change your opinion of the wall. It changes it from being some ratty wall that’s got some tag or some weird penis that’s got some hair to an amazing, beautiful mural that’s got a hummingbird flying through the sky with birds and mountains.”
Gune Monster also feels that creating murals offers developing graffiti artists an opportunity to mature by forcing them to openly confront the public with their work in a more much more personal and direct way.
“You’ve no longer going out at night” he says. “You’re no longer hiding in a gallery. You’re no longer putting up stickers. You are now in daylight, in the public, being judged by everybody that sees you. And that’s when you’re at that point where you’re confident enough to spread your art.”
Gune Monster returned to his hometown of Kansas City this past June to live mural at the City Ice Arts Building — a converted warehouse in the city’s arts district that houses a collective of local artists and artisans. Though he wasn’t able to paint at the Kansrocksas Music Festival (the event was cancelled), his new clothing line and projects in Los Angeles, Miami, New York and Las Vegas continue to keep this elusive artist fully occupied.
Check out his website for more great images of his work.
Words by Carolyn Okomo, a Kansas City, MO-based writer.
Images by Dave Dumay of City Ice Arts and Carolyn Okomo.