Los Angeles

Big Deal, Tiny Creatures and the Art History of Echo Park's Recent Past

Softboiled Eggies. | Photo: Ammo.
In Partnership with Mexicali Rose Media/Arts Center
Mexicali Rose is a grass roots communitarian organization dedicated to providing free access to artistic media for the community youth of Mexicali, Baja California.

By Marco Vera

Tiny Creatures was founded in 2006 by artist and musician Janet Kim in an effort to transform the Angeleno art landscape in Echo Park. She wanted change her community's art from something university-driven and directed into a DIY commune, opening an artistic revolution in the fledgling, slightly gentrified barrio. Knowing little about the art world and its trappings, she opened up a communal space for expression where anything went -- usually late at night, sometimes unannounced, but always nuanced. Until its close in 2009, Tiny Creatures was a hub for creativity. It could simultaneously be a music school, a record label, an underground venue for melodic experimentation, a performance space, a screening room, a gallery... anything was possible.

Artists, musicians, and writers -- such as Matt Fishbeck, Ariel Pink, Andrew Arduini, Jason Yates, Geneva Jacuzzi, Ramona Gonzalez, Tall Paul Gellman, Hedi El Kolti, and Eli Langer -- would flock to the space. And although Tiny Creatures did not produce an overwhelmingly quantitative amount of exhibitions and events, it nonetheless changed the possibilities of what an art space could be in Echo Park. The gallery was noticed by major art publications, and the art multitudes would crowd its diminutive halls as an obligatory "scene" to behold and observe.

Crowd outside final Tiny Creatures show. | Photo: Henry Liu.

Janet Kim published a manifesto:

tiny creatures is

a desire to find a way to live our own way

to have a sense of community,

to see each other while on earth,

to share our lives, our pain, our talents, our thoughts,

to capture a moment in time that will be lost or forgotten,

and to package it with beauty love, pain and all that we

can feel as humans.

tiny creatures is not a gallery ... is not a venue ... a label ... Tiny Creatures is a community center ... glorifies expression and communication, not the ego ... tiny creatures is not to be used to commodify art or music, but ... as an instrument of communication.

This is the story of a group of artists with a mutual set of beliefs, ethos, and influences, whose impact on the Echo Park vista prevails and remains inspirational. This is the story of Tiny Creatures, copped via a candid interview with its founder, Janet Kim.

Janet Kim, self portrait.

We spoke with Janet Kim, singer and songwriter of Softboiled Eggies and founder of Tiny Creatures.

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FACES OF MALEVOLENCE AND FOLLY
STARE FROM THE WALLS
and who could not love them for their innocence?
They are painted with the roars and whistles
of living voices rolling over on a wheel,
turning and laughing in the long fall to beginning.
-Michael McClure
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Tiny Creatures started out as a record label. What was the background of the people that were involved in this initial stage?

Tiny Creatures was an idea that came up during tea time with Benjamin White (of Gogogo Airheart, my band mate, lover, and partner of many crimes including Tiny Creatures) during the summer of 2005. We saw Ariel Pink at Little Joy in the fall and asked him if we could release one of his records. He said yes. And that was the beginning. We had a Christmas party that year and Ariel brought over Matt Fishbeck, who was Holy Shit and formerly in the Push Kings. I became his drummer that night. We ate spicy raw crab and rice for our Christmas meal.

Holy Shit. Left to right: Matt Fishebck, Janet Kim (on drums), Ariel Pink.

What was the very first record Tiny Creatures put out as a label? Can you elaborate a bit on that process and on the artist's career from then till now?

We put out Ariel Pink's "My Molly" EP. It was gonna be another Haunted Graffiti number, but it came out as an EP. Ariel went through a bunch of lineup changes. He used to play solo karaoke style to his 8 track recordings with a keyboard and manically walk about the stage. I really got a kick out of those shows. It was like a simmering shunning of performance art. And he'd play a lot of noise and improv on the keys -- atonal stuff -- and get booed off stage once in a while. It wasn't until he found the band he has now that Haunted Graffiti became more of a rock 'n roll spectacle. And they're great. I remember Ariel saying how much he enjoyed playing live shows now. I'm sure having an audience that adores him and a band that could really play those licks has a bit to do with it.

When did art become involved in the collective? What were some of the movements that inspired that, artistically and musically?

Friendship was our first and foremost artistic endeavor. But works on paper and such began spontaneously right away. We painted and drew and pasted collages on the first 100 releases of the "My Molly" EP at Fishbeck's behest. People got together at my house, and we'd listen to records and draw. That's the first time I met Tall Paul. He's got some covers with naked women and faces with big hair and big lips.

We were inspired by the British bands The Homosexuals and Sara & Amos, Recommended Records. Entranced by D.I.Y. Messthestics, Search & Destroy magazines. Being in bands, watching bands play at the Smell and at Part Time Punks. The Velvet Underground. The cafes of Paris in 1920s with Erik Satie and Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia. American Beat poets, Drunken Master Bukowski... Absolute Despair of things in Los Angeles at the time...

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Beauty is always the result of an accident. Of a violent lapse between acquired habits and those yet to be acquired. It baffles and disgusts. It may even horrify... Those who actually saw the accident hasten away, overwhelmed, unable to describe it. Those who did not see it are left to bear witness... The accident remains in the road, bloodied, petrified, awful in its solitude, a prey to gossip and police reports.
- Jean Cocteau
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Elaborate a bit on the role Matt Fishbeck played within Tiny Creatures.

I was Matt's drummer before Tiny Creatures became a frolic space. Matt, Ariel, and I got closer through all those days of playing, praying for our equipment to work, being around each other almost every day and every night. We were, some say, in love with each other, and others say, "a thorn on my side." Definitely a dent on the left side of my car.

Opening night at Tiny Creatures. Left to right: Andrew Arduini, Matt Fishbeck, Janet Kim. | Photo: Benjamin White.

Matt was the first enthusiast (besides Benjamin White), the first to be committed to the project, even lived on my couch for a month. Tiny Creatures would not have been the same without Matt. He introduced me to Tall Paul and Paul introduced me to Hedi El Kholti and those owls were in the art world. They read Art Forum, wrote articles and such, went to galleries, went to art school. They took to us and Paul not only participated in many events and became himself a Tiny Creature, he also wrote an article about us in Art Forum. So without Matt, who was a Harvard graduate by the way, he even had sights for the White House, was on the debate team of his alma mater.

Arts and crafts night with Tall Paul

Art by Hedi El Kholti

Matt was a great promoter, a walking billboard with his handmade t-shirts. He would pass out fliers in Chinatown. He'd bring people and ideas around. He walked all over L.A. He'd walk from downtown to the Westside, take the bus, hitch rides to and fro... He drives fast down any road, straight and narrow or windy and steep. He lives in Oakland now. He sings songs in Italian and rows a gondola in the summertime. The rest of the time, I imagine he does the same thing, just move around and about town, move people like pawns on a chessboard. He probably could move kings and queens if he can get his finger on them.

What other bands/people were involved in the space/collaborated/played there?

Emily Kuntz, who was in Bubonic Plague. Ivory Lee, who formed Weave covered the gallery floor with living sod. We carved pumpkins on that grass, celebrated the Day of the Dead... I worked with a lot of kids from the Smell. Andrew Arduini did two poetry readings and had an array of ephemera up for a show... Ariel did a sparkling performance with Nick Amato, doing projections on the ceilings, inside the bedroom, on soft slim bodies. People were sprawled on the bed, crawling on the floor, heads on the ceiling. Everyone ready to sweat on each other. All of the Human Ear crowd, Geneva Jacuzzi did her solo performances there for the first time. Jason Yates, a.k.a Fast Friends Inc., did a great show of his handmade psychedelic posters. The corner drug dealer really dug his work. You know you're doing things right when the local street gang starts coming in to check out the work in your house.

Jason Yates

Did the creation of the Part Time Punks night at the time have an effect on the creation of Tiny Creatures?

Benjamin White was one of the founders of Part Time Punks. He showed me so many rare records with covers that folded out to be printed artwork and such. Michael Stock has a library at his house with his latest finds neatly displayed on a display table. I think Ben had more of an influence of bringing in the bands at first since he was in a band himself and knew people who made music. Michael is a professor. They made a good team. A bunch of people involved with Tiny Creatures would go there. Sometimes we'd be the only people in the audience and be playing in the band too. At that time, we were all one big group of people hanging out, making music for each other with each other to each other. I used to go there every Sunday to watch the bands and dance.

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Poetry is a religion without hope. The Poet exhausts himself in its service, knowing that, in the long run, a masterpiece is nothing but the performance of a trained dog on very shaky ground.
Naturally, he consoles himself with the illusion that his work is grounded in some more concrete mystery. But this hope comes from the fact that every man is a night (harbors a night), that an artist's task is to bring that night into the light of day and that this secular night provides a comforting extension of man's severe limitations. Man thereby becomes a sort of sleeping cripple, dreaming that he can walk.
- Jean Cocteau, 1953
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How did Softboiled Eggies come about?

I really appreciate Tim Koh for encouraging me to get a band together. He got Jimi Hey. John Maus and Ben came on board. Ben actually came up with the name. We ate soft-boiled eggs as a midnight snack. His mom is British, born there, grew up there... In many ways, [Softboiled Eggies] started out as a very personal project. Just recording sounds and songs in my bedroom. Hitting things and making a loop of it. Putting whatever thought came to mind without edits. And if Ben felt like chiming in, he would. Ariel put a bass track on a song. I realized after the first show that people wanted to play this music out live. So we did, through heaven and hell and lots of wonderful players.
.

What were some of Softboiled Eggies' major influences?

I dreamed of being with Mozart when I was ten. I think I still want that! I used to play gospel music and formed a band at my church when I was 13. We got really good by the time I was 16, and we sort of toured other churches and religious revivals, with people shaking hands, speaking in tongues, and falling on the floor in complete religious ecstacy... I remember the first time I saw a punk band at a house party in Chicago. I was turned on. I also heard Velvet Underground and just knew there was something special going on. No wave, New wave, the dead 80's, John Cale, Brian Eno struck me in college. The Homosexuals, Sara & Amos stayed with me through time. I love DIY, and just kinky sounds and recordings. I love it when people experiment with sounds in a pop structure. The Pop Group, Raincoats, The Fall, The Stranglers, The Clash, The Slits. I heard Ariel and John Maus' music, All Night Radio (with Jimi Hey and Farmer Dave) in the spring of 2003 and was totally loving it... I do love John Lennon and the old classics, the jangly pop songs of the '60s, the Supremes, Phil Specter. Needless to say, Iggy Pop and the Doors. The Los Angeles landscape, Mickey Mouse if you dig deep. A need to go back to the womb... Movies, movies, movies.

<

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Upstairs he pulled open the bottom drawer of his desk and drew out a pint of bourbon from a lunch box. He handed me a man-sized slug of the stuff and set up one for himself. I poured mine down in one gulp.
"Want another?"
"Nope. Want some information. What were you going to tell me?" He went over to a filing cabinet and drew out a folder. I noticed the label. It read, "Myrna Devlin."
Pat sat down and shook out the contents. The dossier was complete. It had everything on her that I had and more. "What's the angle, Pat?" I knew he was getting at something.
"Are you connecting Myrna with this? If you are you're barking up the wrong tree."
"Perhaps. You see, Mike, when Jack first found Myrna trying to go over the railing of the bridge, he treated her like any other narcotic case. He took her to the emergency ward of the hospital." Pat rose and shoved his hands in his pockets. His mouth talked, but I could see that his mind was deep in thought. "It was through constant contact with her that he fell in love. It was real enough for him. He saw all the bad side of her before he saw the good. If he could love her then he could love her anytime."
"I don't follow, Pat. I know Myrna as well as Jack did. If you smear her all over the papers as a number-one candidate for the hot squat you and me are going to have it out."
- Mickey Spillane, "I, The Jury," 1947
+++

Tiny Creatures. | Photo: Henry Liu.

L.A. can be such a collage-like hodgepodge and that's why I find it alluring. At the same time, sometimes that element is what can make it quite a challenge to create community. How did your Korean upbringing play a conscious or subconscious role in the creation of Tiny Creatures?

Identity and cultural heritage is something I struggle, fight for, and discover and surrender to every time I step out of my house. I came from a predominantly Mexican-American neighborhood, mariachi and ranchero music blasting from rolled-down car windows. My street had a lot of different kinds of Asians, neighbors with snails in a wine barrel with lotus leaves growing. There was only one white person in my high school class of over five hundred. I also grew up in a church with 7,000 Koreans by Elysian Park. My grandmother, who is 94 now, has been living a mile away from Echo Park for over 20 years. She rides the bus with her bottles of kim chi. I'll be downtown doing something discreet and there she goes. This tiny, wrinkled, old Korean grandmother in her little pink Chanel suit running for the bus. Ha ha. My mother is really old now too. We are generations apart.

The thing is that I grew up reading American and world literature, watching Hollywood movies. My older sister and I used to drive to Pasadena to go thrift shopping when I was a little girl. We watched all the Vivian Leigh, Marilyn Monroe, Dennis Hopper movies, the BBS movies like "The King of Marvin Gardens," Hitchcock, some Japanese movies, lots of B horror movies that you're not supposed to watch as a kid. But she was more like my mom. My real mom was born in Manchuria and went through the Korean War and all that. My dad was born a farmer in Southern Korea. He had a hemp farm, and opium used to grow in his back yard. He would make tea whenever he was sick. He grew up without electricity or running water and put himself through school in the city when he was 12. My dad's a self-made man. His mom -- my grandmother -- took care of me when I was a little kid. We used to pick dust off the floor by hand because she hadn't used a vacuum before, listening to old Korean blues where the women tore up their vocal chords to sound even more like a crying banshee.

I do feel there is a sadness in the Korean culture, perhaps from being oppressed their entire history, having separated into two states, and the North being so twisted and sick as they are, and being a drinking culture... I think some of that is passed onto me... It's hard to let go of all the negative things that society passes down. Murder and violence have been a big deal in my life. Lots of serial killers come out of the San Gabriel Valley. A lot of my friends and myself included know someone who's been killed, either by sheer random violence or by gang-related stuff.

Long Jerry Curls on Chicanas and Japanese tagging crews. Locked in a fence at school. Fights everyday. A rebel without a cause... Bruce Lee was my Hero.

+++
The writer sees himself reading to the mirror as always... He must check now and again to reassure himself that The Crime Of Separate Action has not, is not, cannot occur...
Anyone who has ever looked into a mirror knows what this crime is and what it means in terms of lost control when the reflection no longer obeys...Too late to dial Police... I personally wish to terminate my services as of now in that I cannot continue to sell the raw materials of death... Yours, sir, is a hopeless case and a noisome one...
"Defense is meaningless in the present state of our knowledge," said The Defense looking up from an electron microscope...
Take your business to Walgreen's
We are not responsible
Steal anything in sight
I don't know how to return it to the white reader
You can write or yell or croon about it... paint about it... act about it... shit it out in mobiles... So long as you don't go and do it ...
- William S. Burroughs, "Naked Lunch," 1959
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Name some of the hardships you faced trying to maintain Tiny Creatures going.

The higher you are, the harder you fall. Running with a band of the Lost Boys, Peter Pan, and Wendy, is a big risk. Sometimes you get the loot, most times you're mopping the floor. Unless I'm selling to a secondhand buyer, a criminal lawyer perhaps, it's hard for me to sell anything. I figured if you wanted it, you'd buy it. Ordering people around makes my stomach curl. Tiny Creatures was my personal need for anarchy and utopia, destined to fall apart... Records are harder to sell with the internet and things being so easily accessible for free. The economy went down. Very Randy Female Rats moved in. Baby Rats started cuddling with our toes. Has the Leaning Tower of Pisa fallen over yet...

Final day at Tiny Creatures. | Photo: Henry Liu.

What are you working on now?

Comedy, on becoming invisible, on transforming objects into sounds, on my garden. Unleashing batman, opening boxes and doors, moving my body, walking in the city, investigating my private eye.

What sounds are you digging now?

Country music. Dolly Parton, Flying Burrito Brothers, Gram Parsons, Harry Nilsson. Also, Chris and Cosey, which is very urban and sexual and electronic. I've been digging the Los Angeles culture of the '50s and '60s, Wallace Berman and his crew. They are all grey-haired and emanate something like a halo from the tops of their heads. Roger Corman, pornography with gushing vaginas, monstrous cocks. I'm digging into my own past, finding some interesting things. My own private investigator. Very L.A. film noir.

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Prudence drank of the moon honey spilling upon the lawn; Caution got smashed under the tread of an apple blossom; Manly Reserve was carried off on the saddle of a junebug; Proper Respect for Elders succumbed in the process of a becoming that was more like a begoing. But bless them and me.
- Kenneth Patchen
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What do you feel is the legacy Tiny Creatures left behind for that generation of people?

To feel empowered to express oneself, to be an outrage to modesty, to not be afraid, to fight for your rights, to run faster than beauty. Be noble, especially in the face of ignominy and ignoble parasites. Uncover yourself and get naked.

Is there a possibility that you undertake something like Tiny Creatures in a foreseeable future?

I'm currently getting a certificate in E.S.P. (Experimental Sound Practices). poetry. poetry. poetry. poetry. poetry. poetry. poetry. poetry. poetry. poetry. poetry.

Dreams and clouds. Untitled Photo by Garrett Cathey.

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This day of life, to render some unimportantness beautiful. Without "effort," "thought," or "cunning," to do that; and to leave it - whether "gesture," "look," or "touching" - intact and untarnished in its ordained place. What an undertaking!
- Patchen
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Top Image: Softboiled Eggies. | Photo: Ammo

About the Author

Marco Vera is the founder and director of Mexicali Rose Media/Arts Center, a grass roots communitarian organization dedicated to providing free access to artistic media for the community youth of Mexicali, Baja California. He is a...
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