Former Associate editor Margret Aldrich on the hunt for happiness, community, and how humans thrive
Tuesday, July 26, 2011 4:55 PM
Public transportation and (welcome) social interaction don’t seem like natural companions, but Los Angeles designer and architect Julie Kim is making the bus stop a more neighborly place—and recording the results.
At a buzzing LA Metro bus stop in Koreatown this summer, Kim set up a coffee table in front of a bench for waiting patrons and covertly filmed what happened, reports GOOD. In minutes, the stylish, hand-built table—complete with a vase of flowers and a short stack of local newspapers—generated kinship and conversation between the diverse riders that gathered around it.
“The number and variety of people milling about—workers, kids, the elderly, of every ethnic group—surprised me,” Kim told GOOD. Watch a quick video of her experiment here:
Kim has more ideas for engaging the public at bus stops, like setting up exercise equipment. What other accoutrements could create meaningful interactions? Perhaps a minibar or a stack of meditation pillows, or how about a collection of secondhand musical instruments to get a bus stop hootenanny started…
Friday, April 01, 2011 11:34 AM
Sometimes great cultural breakthroughs are watershed events, celebrated far and wide. When evolutionary forces conspired to mesh Appalachian hill music, Mississippi River Delta blues, and big-city boogie woogie and create a wholly new cultural entity in Elvis Presley, the country duly rejoiced. Other cultural milestones, however, arrive not at all with a bang. They percolate underground for forty years or more, roiling through several generations of evolution, adoption, innovation, and cultural adaptation, until they find a more gradual, quieter, and less publicized acceptance by the mainstream.
Such an anticlimax was the subtext of a peculiar moment during the most recent Academy Awards ceremony this past February. Only a half-hour into the event, presenter Justin Timberlake leaned into the mic, before announcing the winners of the best animated film awards, and deadpanned, "I, uh--… I’m Banksy." Then he straightened and said, "Wow, that felt good." The cryptic joke provoked mild and scattered laughter from the bemused audience, while another smaller, more select and distant subset of American culture—such as many Hollywood elites, who had become collectors after Banksy’s controversial Los Angeles 2006 show “Barely Legal”—rejoiced. At long last, Street Art had hit the mainstream.
The immediate impetus for Timberlake’s joke was Exit Through the Gift Shop, a film nominated for the 2011 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature that was made by the street artist Banksy and that much of which took place in and around Los Angeles. The film is notable for leaving the audience in the dark not only about Banksy’s true identity (his face is blacked out and voice altered throughout the film), but also about whether the actual subject of the film—a filmmaker-cum-street artist named Thierry Guetta, a.k.a. Mr. Brainwash—is or is not a hoax perpetrated by Banksy and others. This sort of “culture jamming,”—i.e., subverting, for political reasons, of mainstream cultural institutions (in this case, the art market and Hollywood)—is a hallmark of artists who work in Banksy’s chosen milieu and medium. After all, Banksy first came to international attention in the summer of 2005 for a series of mildly political guerrilla art works executed, by the artist and his assistants, in view of security forces on the Israeli West Bank barrier separating Israel.
But while Timberland’s joke may represent Banksy’s emergence into mainstream awareness, it also was an unprecedented mainstream nod to the legitimacy of graffiti culture and the entire street art movement, a nod that had been many, many years in coming. Exactly how many years is difficult to say, of course. Public scratch marks—“graffiti” derives from the Italian word sgraffiare, “to scratch,” and before that from the Greek gráphein, “to write”—have been found in urban settlements forever. The equivalent of “for a good time call _____” has been found in graffiti among the ruins of ancient Ephesus, Rome, and Pompeii. And while this shows that the impulse for public scratching and writing is essentially human, over the centuries these markings rarely, if ever, rose to the level of “art.”
The idea of graffiti as an art form (that is, street art) has a murkier history. While scholars note the avant-garde art adoption of graffiti forms as early as the 1960s—in the work of the Scandinavian Institute of Comparative Vandalism starting 1961 and of New York artists like John Fekner in the later 1960s—much of this work is coolly conceptual and somewhat lacking in the expressionistic verve, stylistic idiosyncracies, and other unique conventions of later street art. For my money, a more intriguing point of origin for the styles, conventions, materials, and means of expression of what we know today as street art can be found in the placas, or "wall writing," of los Sureños, or the Chicano street gangs of Los Angeles.
Starting in the 1960s, mysterious gang markings, usually made from black spray paint from the aerosol cans that had become increasingly common in the 1950s, proliferated all across Southern California. When I was a kid in the 1970s, you would find these hieroglyphs on the walls of city buildings, on suburban fences and playground walls, and under freeway overpasses or in flood control channels. Such graffiti served the purpose of marking territory and advertising a gang’s merits (over those of its rival Hispanic, African-American, and other gang), and also of culture jamming the dominant white culture of L.A.—i.e., sticking it in the face of the moneyed interests that ruled these kids’ lives. Each gang competed to develop more elaborate artistic flourishes—i.e, artistic style—in order to advertise what the gang was all about. In an era before the hyperawareness of gang culture—before N.W.A., Boyz n the Hood, and violence-glorifying video games focused on gang life—to many these markings were horribly evocative, infused with an abstract sense of menace and threat.
But the graffiti was not just advertisement. Sureño gang markings developed out of a long history of struggle against marginalization and prejudice. Beatrice Griffith, in her book from the late 1940s, American Me, describes the emergence of a proto-gangster lifestyle among the zoot suit pachucos who fought with servicemen stationed in L.A. during World War II and eventually rioted after the murder of a young Latino man in 1943. According to Susan A. Phillip’s history on L.A.-gang and hip-hop graffiti, Wallbangin’: Graffiti and Gangs in L.A., the graffiti of L.A. in the 1960s and 1970s was a means of communications that expressed something about hybrid cultural status of many of the young gang members making the marks. “Pachuco, cholo, pocho,” she writes. “Africans in America. People stuck in the spots betwixt and between cultures may be part of things but seem to belong nowhere…. Hybridity creates new social forms within the ‘layered conception of the modern world,’ balancing modernity and tradition.” This self-awareness among gangsters of their hybrid life led them to develop hybrid forms of communication that increasingly resembled art. Or, as Phillips quotes anthropologist Nestor Garcia Canclini: “Graffiti is a syncretic and transcultural medium. Some graffiti fuse word and image with a discontinuous style: the crowding together of diverse authors’ signs on a single wall is like an artisanal version of the fragmented and incongruent….”
For a skinny, faceless kid from Bristol, England, like Banksy to take on the style and working methods of the street-savvy Sureño wallbangers, and for him to come to Los Angeles forty years later to make a movie and earn hundreds of thousands of dollars from sales of his graffiti-infused works of art, is of course ironic. But it is also, in our increasingly hybrid, synthesized, mishmashy, and multicultural world, somehow completely fitting.
Michael Fallon is a guest blogger for Utne.com. He is a writer, editor, and non-profit administrator based out of St. Paul, Minnesota. His work has appeared in Art in America, American Craft, Public Art Review, Minneapolis-St. Paul Magazine, the OC Weekly, City Pages, and many other publications.
Both images are licensed under Creative Commons.
The author owes a debt of gratitude to the photographer Howard Gribble (a.k.a. Kid Deuce), whose Flickr photoset of 1970s-era L.A. gang graffiti (some examples of which are linked to above) is a treasure trove of visual information.
Tuesday, January 25, 2011 10:04 PM
In ordinary times, in the ordinary places of North America, emerging artists come and go like the passing seasons. If you’re a talented young video artist, say, living in Dubuque and gaining regional attention, or if you’re an edgy photographer who has won a big grant award in Baltimore, what you do, nine times out of ten, is move away. You take your potentially fleeting cultural capital and attempt to parlay it into a big-time career by going to the Big City. For most, this means escaping to New York, but it can also mean (if your art is more media-driven) going to L.A. or, if you're more intrepid and enterprising, Berlin or London. For years, the story of most smaller-market art communities—such as Minneapolis, Vancouver, Seattle (on and off), Detroit, Kansas City, Cleveland, Portland, etc.—has often been more about who has left the scene than who remains behind.
This peculiar dynamic in art is due to the economic realities of art-making. That is, first and foremost, the market for selling art is a constant buyer's market. Because of the intrinsic appeal of the creative life (as well as other economic realities explained below), there will always be a plentiful supply of people wanting to be artists and never enough people to purchase what artists make. A 2001 Rand research brief reported that between 1970 and 1980, the number of self-identified artists in the U.S. doubled to 1.6 million, even though the U.S. population grew only about 11 percent over the same period. “Growth [in the number of artists] is not a sign that things have gotten better,” wrote Bill Ivey in his study of the business of the arts, Arts, Inc.: How Greed and Neglect Have Destroyed Our Cultural Rights (2010). “Once entry into a creative profession has been secured, the challenges of piecing together enough income to sustain a quality of life commensurate with education or training become apparent. Worrisome trends in employment and compensation cut across the creative professions.” As a result of this dearth of opportunity and support, according to Ivey, “artists must practice where the action is, in big cities where the cost of housing and work space outstrips the financial resources of all but the most successful.”
In other words, the artistic draw of the Big City is also the result of another strange facet of the economics of art: It attracts, in a very limited way, very Big Money. Most art markets—in visual art in particular, but also in music, filmmaking, and so on—are essentially what economists call a “winner-take-all” economy. Meaning, for the very few who rise to the top of the market the payoffs are astronomical. But for those who don't rise up, income remains scarce. A few years ago, for example, the British artist Damien Hirst was selling paintings for more than $1 million apiece, and his steel glass pill cabinet installation piece Where There’s a Will There’s a Way sold for $7.15 million. And while artists are often conflicted about the influence of money on art—Hirst himself once said: “Money complicates everything. I have a genuine belief that art is a more powerful currency than money—that’s the romantic feeling that an artist has. But you start to have this sneaking feeling that money is more powerful”—very few artists would ever turn down a big paycheck for one of their works, nor would they propose spreading the paycheck around to support the activities of their peers.
Unfair as the art market is to the vast majority of artists, sustained economic malaise can be a great leveler. Poor times—like the ones we’ve been living through since 2008—can flatten the economic landscape, diminishing the advantages of living in the Big City in relation to the disadvantages of the monetary and personal/social costs. A recent, widely circulated story by Crain’s New York business website described the struggles that New York artists have been facing over the past several years: Increasing rents, heightened urban pressures, disappearing jobs, loss of sales, diminishing income, and the like. Because of these factors, a recent survey by the New York Foundation for the Arts found that 43 percent of New York’s artists expected their annual income to drop by 26 percent to 50 percent over the next six months, and 11 percent believed they would have to leave New York within six months. “In New York, you have so much pressure to survive,” one musician and composer said, “you don't even know what you did that day.” As a result, the report suggested, artists are fleeing the once-alluring Big Cities and giving smaller, more cost-effective American cities a try.
At the same time, a recently released report on the creative sectors in Los Angeles told much the same story. The report, conducted by the Los Angeles Country Economic Development Corp., found that the ten local creative industries it surveyed saw a 7 percent decline in overall income and a net loss of nearly 40,000 jobs. And while the report had no exact numbers regarding a potential artist exodus from Los Angeles, it’s easy to speculate, based on these numbers, that economic and other pressures on the local artist community will only continue, as in New York, to mount across the region.
So, with artists suffering in the two largest American cultural Meccas, where is a struggling artist to go? Where can artists find arms welcoming enough to provide a chance to sustain their careers? Well, as it happens, perhaps sensing an opportunity in the leveled fields of the current economy several of America’s bleakest, and most economically depressed, cities—Detroit, Baltimore, and Cleveland, among others—have begun making their case to become the next American artistic epicenter. All of these places have begun offering incentives like housing allowances (or otherwise cheap housing options), grants and other competitive awards, and other support to artists, even as they promise at least some of the cultural amenities—museums, arts events, and the like—that one can find in the Big Cities.
It will take a few years until we know for certain whether these smaller cities’ efforts will reap the cultural rewards that both urban planners and artists-on-the-make are desperate to harvest. Until things shake out, then, art lovers everywhere owe it to themselves to appreciate the art in their cities while they still can. Otherwise you never know: Next time you get around to looking for your favorite local artists, they may well be gone.
Michael Fallon is a writer, editor, and non-profit administrator based out of St. Paul, Minnesota. His work has appeared in Art in America, American Craft, Public Art Review, Minneapolis-St. Paul Magazine, the OC Weekly, City Pages, and many other publications. Read his previous posts here.
Michael Fallon is a guest blogger at utne.com. The views expressed by this guest blogger belong to him and do not necessarily reflect the mission or editorial voice of utne.com or the Utne Reader.
Source: City Pages, Broken Pencil, Gothamist
, licensed under
Tuesday, December 23, 2008 9:11 PM
Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art is in dire financial straits, having dug itself into a hole through rampant overspending. Billionaire Eli Broad has offered $30 million to the museum, but only if the museum raises an additional $15 million itself. Artists David Weiner and Angie Lee tried to help out the old-fashioned way: by holding a bake sale.
Almost all of the treats were based on pieces from the museum’s collection, including Giacometti-shaped baguettes and Jasper Johns-frosted cakes. But the most coveted treat was definitely the financier cookies, selling for a cool $1 million apiece.
In the end, the bake sale made just over $300. Alas, that means none of the high-roller cookies were sold, but the sale still drew quite a crowd to see the wares and watch Weiner dole out Claes Oldenberg-esque slices of fruit pie.
Image courtesy of douglemoine, licensed under Creative Commons.
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