This is not a rant.
This is not a complete document, it mustn’t be.
It is my reflection upon a slice of LA’s “art scene” between the years 2006 and 2010. Though I have been a participant in LA’s art worlds since 1999, 2007 marks the general emergence of an ongoing commitment to a distinct and discursive social practice in the region.
The aim of this essay is to look at the social rules under which this specific scene operates. It is written as an open, public analysis of this cooperative social creation. It is sloppy. It also aims to help towards getting stuff done, effectively. Only through honest critical analysis and dreaming do we have perspective.
As Brian Holmes writes in Artistic Autonomy and the Communication Society,
My belief is that you can lonely have a real democracy when a societal concern with the production of the sensible is maintained at the level of a forever unresolved by constantly open and intensively debated question. This is why I like to work with Francois Drake, because he has developed a method, a kind of artistic trick- the “question banks” and associated procedures- that allows him to explicitly bring the sensible world into collective questioning. What we really need is to spend a lot more time asking each other whether our cultural fictions- our architecture and images, our hierarchies and ambitions and ideas and narratives- are any good for us, whether they can be used in an interesting way, what kind of subjectivity they produce, what kind of society they elicit.
In order to occupy everything, we must also constantly and realistically re-imagine how to best occupy our own perch. I write to reflect on the ground from which our individual and collaborative projects might be strengthened. So as to see who we really are and help us imagine who we can be.
I write in general terms, that is the nature of this essay. It glosses over individual practices and distinct collective projects to gather a mist of generalities, a tone of discourse.
There is much writing about creative cities. There is much writing about post-fordist labor and its relationship to the new social practice. I write to reflect a little of that community within Southern California from the inside.
This is about WE in Southern California. We who enrich our region’s intellectual and cultural life by committing to participate in cultural and political conversations at spaces like The Public School, LACE, Sea and Space, G727, FOCA, Outpost (which I rarely attend), and a host of other temporary and more long term galleries, project spaces, initiatives, and conferences. It is written for the artists, writers and thinkers who generally talk in order to create something together here somehow.
Within the creative world, and specifically within our sphere, it is possible to suggest that all of our work, whether done alone in a dusty studio or together as a collaborative – is cooperative. While Southern California’s geography is isolating, its constellation of ideas, its intellectual life, is rich. This case can be made for any milieu, so I repeat it here over and over: Southern California’s rich soup of intellectuals, visionaries, inventors, visual artists and project spaces constitute a collaborative creation. This is our scene. It is a collective project created by many.
Didactically again, we are a we. We are a we, albeit a we constructed from the actions and thoughts and creations of mostly independent individualities.
So in this together bounded by geography, interest and degrees of participation, our thoughts are challenged in these social contexts and settings.
Individually here present, our contributions are limited by our schedules (that zone of conflict between bodily needs, income needs, speculation, the search for joy etc…)
But when together, our possibilities are expanded in context.
We occur in dialog and on Facebook and at small non-profit spaces. We care about the political life of our city, state, country and world. In this desert south of the Tehachapi it is also us who have carved a specific niche in the art world for political practice.
Thus construed as a something, I now qualify what I perceive as the basic operating assumptions of this creatively radical culture we participate in down Los Angeles way.
When we are actively together among peers, there is a general assumption that we agree on what is said in total. This is my first point.
It is also my first point that this working assumption allows for the socialization of our group, thus constituted. There are squabbles and debate, sometimes we’ll attend an outside where the content is way off the map. But our space is constituted on a general agreement of a set of unspoken principles – this is standard for any sociological group. What is curious here is that we are a discursive grouping that never makes clear its ideological principles. In practice we censor ourselves not through ideology but through socialization.
This is notable. Do we miss an opportunity for self-constitution if we generally clarify what we do agree upon? Would the act destroy what is central to our lightly rigorous commons? I would argue that if we are not ideologically rigorous, let us name this and embrace this generative position for all its potential!
This is funny!
But this process does not occurs because we don’t have the time or place- the motivation really, to really understand our and our peers’ goals.
Why is this? This comes to a second important point. We participate generally in this collaboration for individualized political reasons. Here I use the gross definition of individual politics; including in this definition games of positioning that are idealistic and pecuniary. So then, to presently clarify our personal reasons and goals would be difficult. It could reveal schisms between action and word – or better – between the act of speaking and the potential for (future) individual gain. Remember, we are a multi-generational body of cultural workers who often bring collective knowledge and practice into privatized channels for profit (these channels are of course academic jobs, curatorial work, writing gigs, gallery jobs, lectures and speaking fees, the sale of artwork.) This is a contradiction, though perhaps is not so different from the rest of our culture… a culture just learning again that to be poor and in need is normal. It is a contradiction perhaps unique to our milieu but perhaps even more unique to our era. To recognize and collectively and honestly evaluate this conflicted position might constitute a path through this moment.
Due to this general culture of collaborative obscurity, we have rarely worked rigorously together on a singular political project.
Though our topics (insurrection, student unrest, prisons, public space, labor, open access, environmentalism, post-marxism, etc…) easily suggest focused ideologically based activist/art hybrid projects like “Picture the Homeless,” a creative contingent for a major anti-war march, or the invention of a creative approach to precarious labor like San Precario. How about a collective revisioning of space like “The Midwests Radical Cultural Cooridor.” We have not done this.
(Yet, it should be noted that we have have organized a few big umbrella projects- Beyond the UC Strikes (Continental Drift), Publico Transitorio. Their nature clarifies further the individualized nature of our collaboration. Both projects acted as social umbrellas or frames for individual voices. The collective voice of the projects’ organizational perspective and structure was consciously obscured to facilitate the individualized voices of singular participants.)
Our interests are too fickle for concerted collective creative focus. Together we are generalists. We act in an apparently casual manner toward the things we care deeply about. Our public culture tracks this tendency with a calendar that remembers a broad range of topics. Our calendar, our public space is bottle rack, a capturing vessel to share privatized creation. It allows a space where we do not have to suss out a collective goal, while allowing for the resemblance of general agreement.
When we do create something, these somethings are art, a text for a singular and carefully curated event, discourse or website. Rarely are these projects emerge from a concurrent social movement (be those movements political or cultural).
And when we display specifically our artwork (the highest commodity form of our collective labor) in our common contexts, it is as often at the behest of an outside curator. An outside curator acting invited as an interloper between our practice; between our practice (though often the curators share similar assumptions as our own). And as I get older, I am pressured to only share work with curators who would pay me, and thus money and the curator fall between us.
We know then that a deeply critical engagement is thus meant to be practiced in isolation. We are light in our analysis. We are light on rigor. Even The Public School models the learner as an individual self-guiding through through a collective drift of a structure. This is a school with no prerhequisites or entrance exams. Its multiple curriculum allows for equal part intellectual achievement, equal part attainment of social status through hobby, socially-responsible consumer patterns, and smart art production. This is not an ironic statement, it is the marker of our day.
For the privatized artwork that is critically engaging and/or smart– what are their intended political results? Here I do not ask about the more mundane business truths of capitalization. Our works (in performance or sculpture) are generally effective in two ways.
One, they act to map complex emotions and thoughts through socialization. When viewed or engaged with via participation, the work leaves an impression, a memory.
Two, the work models possible behaviour patterns – interpersonal behavior, behavior between ourselves and our unique SoCal urban space, between ourselves and (potential) resources (social or material) and technologies. This work shows possible futures.
These two effects idealize the notion that consumption of work by viewers contributes to an edifying, exemplary or more responsible relationship to the world.
What I am trying to do in this article is another effect… as mentioned in the Artistic Autonomy and the Communication Society essay by Brian Holmes. I am stating that an intimately reflective mirror can successfully ground the creation of realistic but outrageous possible futures. Currently, we are limited by our lack of self-visioning.
We are involved in important work here. What is our culture of criticism? Is there any? Studio visits? Gossip? Public conversations? Someone elsewhere who writes about your work? We do not have a system to analyze our works within the framework of our own ideals – that critically views what has been done and whether the desired political effects have been achieved. This too is left in the private realm.
Our scene is self-selecting. “Come if you are interested.” A conversation around its constitution, in terms of race, gender and class is rarely engaged.
One more thing, how might we build an institutional memory for this scene despite the obvious limitations? How do we lessen redundant projects so that the generations moving through our scene are able to build off of other’s work? What sort of institution could financially and structurally facilitate the most audacious projects that are totally in line with the highest ideals of the scene?
What we really need is to spend a lot more time asking each other whether our cultural fictions- our architecture and images, our hierarchies and ambitions and ideas and narratives- are any good for us, whether they can be used in an interesting way, what kind of subjectivity they produce, what kind of society they elicit. But to do that effectively, we also need to invent new fictions, to shake up the instituted imaginary with what Castoriadis calls the “radical” or “”instituting” imaginary. Only by actively imagining different possible realities can we engage in the operations of desymbolization and resymbolization, or in what Bureau d’Etudes call “the deconstruction and reconstruction of complex machines”- taking the notion of machines in the strong sense whereby it denotes the symbolic, technological and human assemblages that configure ourselves and our societies, and make them work in specific ways they do.
Our scene is a complex machine we have so far scarcely analyzed from within. Let us own a rigorous analysis in order to reconstruct it in a way to more effectively launch our already amazing fictions – our privatized works. Let us critically analyze the intricacies and conflicts of our post-fordist bohemia. Let us understand it for what it is so that we can better understand how it might become what it (larger society) could be.
As an author of this piece, I have my vision for how I would analyze and reconstruct. But it is far more productive to do this together. Also, I’m currently in Germany.
Thank you Michael Wilson for your motivation and Christina Ulke for your contribution of ideas.