Los Angeles

Occidental College SOCiAL Symposium: Can the Sidewalk Be a Stage?

bodycity. bodydesert: end trails, High Desert Test Sites, October 2011. Image courtesy bodycity.
In Partnership with SOC(i)AL: Art + People
A series of discussions around LA about Socially Engaged Art, September to November 2012. Instigated by Anne Bray of Freewaves.org

By Sue Bell Yank

Continuing with the third in my series of conversations with artists and organizers engaged with multivalent social and public practices as part of SOCiAL: Art + People, I was pleased to speak with participants in a panel that will take place on Thursday, October 18th at 7pm on the Occidental College campus. Organized by artist Mary Beth Heffernan with the Center for Community Based Learning and the Department of Art History and Visual Arts, the panel will include artists Tucker Neel, Stephen van Dyck, Geneva Skeen, and the collective bodycity. Though their practices are diverse, they are linked by their critical and performative interventions into the public sphere, be that bodily, sonically, or via technologies of communication. All slide through liminalities, through the political and the poetic, and are deeply influenced by the context of Los Angeles.

Sue Bell Yank: The title of this panel is "Can the Sidewalk Be a Stage?" but Mary Beth [Heffernan] said that the discussion will be primarily driven by your practices. How do you find your way into this question through your own art practices?

Mary Beth Heffernan: A little context on the first question...Anne Bray kindly came up with the title after our conversations about younger artists whose work engages the public sphere. She had a summer deadline and I didn¹t have a snappy title yet. I'm not sure I would have chosen the word "stage," as it has theatrical connotations, but it does pose the question about a rhetorical shift in action and/or speech that I think can be helpful here. My intentions with the panel are to interpret the notion of stage widely to mean a theater of action in the spirit of Augusto Boal's notion of theater, a prompt to dialogue, break down hierarchies, and re-narrativizing space.

Tucker Neel: My practice consists of art making, writing, teaching, gallery management, design, and curating. My "art making" can best be characterized by long-term and short-term projects investigating how different types of communication contribute to identity construction, memory, allegiance, and politicized histories. These projects occur both in public and private, digital and physical spaces, basically whatever situation best fits the needs of the project. My recent work is most often positioned outside of the traditional art market but does not totally negate commodity exchange. I write about art because I am enthusiastically interested in what other artists' make and enjoy contributing to an ongoing discourse about the value of art, exhibitions, and art institutions. I teach because my students give me the best ideas and the classroom allows for my own continued educational growth. My gallery, 323 Projects, is a telephone-based art venue existing as a phone number: (323) 843-4652. Anyone call this number any time to experience audio art. The gallery exists to provide an alternative venue for artists to push the limits of their practices without worrying about having to sell anything.

323 Projects Street Sign

As for the title of this panel, "Can The Sidewalk Be A Stage?" the answer is obviously yes, evidenced by nearly half a century of art practices, both in America and abroad. One could say the sidewalk was always a stage, that one's public identity is always a performance. And of course art history has given us countless works sited specifically for the sidewalk, from Adrian Piper to Asco, and all the actions in between. I am not, nor have I ever been a "performance artist." But I am extremely interested in how people "perform" every day. I have not taken the opportunity to reflect on where this interest first bubbled up, but thinking back I am instantly reminded of the first time I went to Venice Beach after moving to LA in 1999. I was on my way to the car to leave and two men started walking in my direction along the sprawling sidewalk. One was dressed in a three-piece suit, the other was wearing soiled, tattered pants and a t-shirt. Both were talking out loud. The man in the unwashed outfit was speaking loudly, gesturing, and having a lively conversation with Jesus - THE Jesus, saying something like, "Oh Jesus! You are Lord! Cast out the demons! I hear you! What can I do?" After this jubilant man passed me without a glance, the other business-attired guy followed, speaking equally as loud, gesticulating even more emphatically, saying something to the effect of, "We've got to move the meeting to tomorrow and make sure to get all the reports ready today! And filed on time! Can you help with that?" I know now that the business suit guy was wearing a wireless headset connected to his cell phone, but at the time I had never seen someone using this technology before. I was flabbergasted and remember laughing out loud. This event really stuck with me because for a moment I had a magical thought that everyone suddenly had amazing untethered communicative powers. The public performance of actual communication was pretty much identical between those very different people, and both were in a way putting on a show without knowing it (I assume). I look back on this event now and see how the work I do today continues to ask people to engage in various acts of communication, often with no prescribed results in mind.

bodycity: bodycity was born in and has been inspired by the city and its edges. bodycity has always been about "the sidewalk" in terms of walking the line between our public and private spaces. The sidewalk is a stage just as much as a living room is a rehearsal space. Part of our process is engaging in conversations about proximity and acceptable behavior through "pedestrian movement". For bodycity, there is no hierarchy between stage, sidewalk, gallery, and park bench; they are all spaces with potential.

bodycity. River Parade, 2007. | Image courtesy bodycity.

Stephen van Dyck: Organizing the fourth Road Concert, Mulholland Dérive, I am walking along all these cliffs staring at the skyscrapers and sprawl. The drive is a potential slide-lecture: scenic overlooks, seeing the theoretical city in the distance, like photographs, and in the foreground, this unusual cross-section of LA, Mulholland, as a site to talk with and about the city. Yet the discussions (the projects) are enmeshed with Mulholland itself, with all that is rehearsed and aestheticized that already occurs in public. During the event it's sometimes hard to tell what is for the show or just funny, beautiful coincidences of life. There is a sense that anything can happen when you're out on the street, and I think that gives people permission to let themselves be open or even disagreeable with the status quo.

Each Road Concert contains site-specific works by over 100 artists along the entire length of an LA street. It suggests that events are happening in a series of spaces where events are already happening. I put out a call for projects on art mailing lists and also flyers on the street. I discuss each project with every participant, which takes up a massive amount of my time. How is it engaging with its site, an outdoor unused public space? If someone's project doesn't really have much to do with their site, then I explain to them that that would need to be an important element. But it's a very inclusive event. It'd be silly to reject people when they could still show up and perform or install along the street anyway. Ultimately artists are getting out of the house and showing work to the world and don't depend on the gallery as a middle man. It started with a vision of LA's long streets as music staves that could be "played" by artists through their interpretations of particular spaces along them.

Geneva Skeen: My practice really comes out of my work and training in theater and music, and has developed into something that is seeking to step outside of both of those traditional mediums as it is influenced by contemporary critical thoughts and conceptual performance art. So the majority of what I do ends up being about the use of voice as a way to connect and to express experience, whether that's in the public sphere or in a recording and use of the recording being in a public place. How voice activates subjectivity in a visible, audible way for an audience outside of a black box or white cube. Or outside of headphones. So that's definitely the overarching theme in terms of form. In terms of content, it gets a little more project-oriented. I started making a lot more work when I became involved with Killsonic, an avant-garde jazz ensemble meant for the street. I got involved with them when they were doing their opera at Redcat, and I ended up directing the womens' chorus. After that experience, which was really amazing, I continued working with the womens' chorus and composing pieces with them, which were largely improvisational and collaborative. We would take sketches we came up with during rehearsals and turn them into pieces meant for the street, which were performance pieces in a certain way, but still about vocalization and about this group of womens; voices taking over public space in a visually disruptive and sonically super-disruptive way. I worked with that project for a year, and that has definitely started to inform more private work that I do now, but it largely informed The Saffron Green, which I did in collaboration with the poet Mat Timmons. That piece, we called it "the space opera for public space" because we wanted to look at protest in an abstract form. This was right after the Arab Spring revolts, the advance of social media as a tool for protest. We asked, well, what about the other mediums that people use in protest, do those things have meaning any more? Can we lift out every aspect of a protest and have it mean nothing in particular, but still resculpt the public space using sound, using a bunch of analog technologies, and using the body? So we did that piece at Perform Chinatown in summer of 2011, and we did another iteration of that piece at the rooftop bar of the Standard this spring, which was a totally different experience. It was a lot more oppositional, and it became a lot more rowdy, and a lot more disruptive.

Geneva Skeen and Mathew Timmons. The Saffron Green, 2011. | Photo courtesy Ben Rodkin.

Sue Bell Yank: Something that all of you have in common is a drive beyond the white box and into the public sphere--whether as a location for performance, participation, a tool for pedagogy, or a democratizing context. Can you describe what drives you to the public sphere and what it means for you and your practice?

Tucker Neel: My intention is to make work that takes into account its site as content. Where something is located gives it meaning. I've made work for large and small audiences in public and private spaces. This does not necessarily preclude making work for the "white box." I continually find work in contemporary galleries to be thought-provoking, blisteringly critical, and important to art and history. Though recently my projects are more often than not destined for spaces outside the white cube. In fact, I like to create works where the reception of the art is constantly in flux, causing one to continually ask where the work "is".

Additionally, my using telephone numbers as a vehicle for making art available to people, both through 323 Projects and my own individual art works, isn't motivated by a singular interest in the "public sphere," but in wherever one is when they interact with the work, be it in a park, at a protest, shopping at Costco, or on the toilet. I'm interested in opening up the site of reception to include all spaces. I'm just as skeptical of fetishized public space as I am of private space; both platforms are vulnerable to co-opting by exploitive institutions.

bodycity: It is a very simple desire to share that makes bodycity a social practice. We have so many digital mechanisms to share information that the act of physically being together and building something out of an analog group process is uniquely satisfying. And it's that same spirit that drives us to the public sphere; we want to share the insights and ideas, that come out of that process. As dancers, we call it a performance; our performance becomes a part of the fabric of the city, non-durational. Our process is democratic and our performances inclusive, something a passerby might catch a glimpse of, smile, participate in or simply continue along.

Stephen van Dyck: In a gallery space, you're engaged in a conversation with and about art and galleries. In public, my hope is to expand it to be with and about all people. Ana, an In-N-Out employee, once told me she loves working there because she meets people of all kinds: rich and poor, educated and illiterate, young and old, local and tourist. When I'm in public I'm thinking about how I want to talk more to people but don't know how. That feeling inspires me to examine my borders with others and the cultural norms and expectations that are performed in different kinds of spaces. There are so many rules about being in public that we learn from a young age, so many you could slice them in the air. Ultimately I just want to go inside everyone's houses and see what they're doing. Actually, I've met hundreds of people from the internet, mostly for dates, and it was a way in: to get to engage in depth with so many kinds of people.

Geneva Skeen: I think it comes out of a real sincere desire to engage with people. I am convinced that the work that I do by myself has value and is interesting, but, perhaps out of my training in theater, collaboration, and improvisation, I am highly aware of the power of a collaborative action that doesn't necessarily have a script outlining what it's supposed to do. And I think that possibility is a lot more interesting than just whatever I can make in my own studio, all the time. I'm curious what other people have to say, and what they have to say if they're not part of that community already. If they're not a traditional art-goer or someone who has a whole lot of context, and they find themselves in this unusal situation in a public environment, it can totally change their perception of something. Or totally change their attitude or even just change their day. I think that, when you think about the transformative power of art, I think that immediacy is really exciting, especially in a city where strangers don't really interact with each other that frequently, as compared to another walking-style metropolis.

Killsonic Womens' Chorus. Banshees, 2010 GLOW Festival. | Photo courtesy Jason Savvy.

Sue Bell Yank: One thing that Mary Beth and I were talking about is the state of public space specifically in Los Angeles - that it is sparse, heavily surveilled by law enforcement, and not bodily inhabited, and that this can lead to art practices born out of frustration and a desire to intervene. How does the context of Los Angeles influence your practice?

Tucker Neel: I agree that LA has a very troubling relationship to public space, but not due to a dearth of physical land. This is a truly gargantuan city with miles and miles of public space in the form of sidewalks and freeways. However, it's not easy to "inhabit" this space using East-coast metropolitan models like physical bodies in one location doing one thing. We don't operate like New Yorkers and our understanding of public space is particularly Angeleno, which means we communicate with each other across great distances, in moving vehicles. We do have substantial parks, like Griffith Park, MacArthur Park, Elysian Park, and the beaches. But these spaces don't necessarily lend themselves to the grand assemblies that places like Central Park do, though as we have seen with events like the May Day celebrations, and protests downtown, LA can bring out a crowd. I think my work in and around and against public spaces is driven much more by working with what is available to me than a frustration with my environment. I feel that I look at what is in front of me, at phenomena in my life and in the city I inhabit, and I try to investigate that using the objects, events, subjects and technologies available to me. If anything I've tried to create situations where people in public spaces have the opportunity to have private experiences, to experience art wherever they are.

Tucker Neel. Share The Light, 2009. Instructional text and downloadable art.

bodycity: "There is no public space in LA". In Los Angeles one must make an effort to commune - not so in some other cities. We make space public by using it. The context of Los Angeles is as much a member of the troupe as the rest of us. As a performance-based effort, surveillance, or the potential for it is inherently on-board for the site-specific work we do. We have danced in rivers, freeway overpasses, staircases, rooftops, sidewalks... bodycity, is very intentional when "siting" a dance in the city but embraces the accidents that ensue in our urban wilderness. We approach performances with a desire to intervene in the collective perception of the city we inhabit, to see it differently for even a little moment.

Stephen van Dyck: I grew up in grocery stores and malls wanting to climb the clothes racks like trees and run the wrong way up the escalator like a sport. And when I was 13 we got the internet, and I stopped leaving the house. It's about a need to be a natural human being, and the city not always feeling supportive of that. There are a couple of infamous places in LA so documented and loaded with stories that they hardly seem like spaces. In contrast, public space outside of those places is not ergonomic to humans. Most of the feeling of "being in public" in LA is in private spaces: stores, restaurants, homes and online. Norman Klein once said to me: the bedroom is the new urban, the living room the new suburban, the outdoors the new rural. This is especially an LA thing. When we have a Road Concert, going to that empty outdoor in-between and finding other people, it has a funny feeling, like being in the back stage of LA, or in the inside of the building you are merely in front of. Performing and presenting projects on the curb or in the arroyo: this turns spaces into new places, just through laying out dialogues about LA in LA. Like a memory palace, one can walk through the unused urban landscape and deposit new conceptions of the city. There is a lot to say, so, thankfully, a lot of unused space.

Stephen van Dyck. Road Concerts. | Image courtesy Stephen van Dyck

Geneva Skeen: I lived in New York for a year when I was studying at NYU. I moved back to LA because I really felt like it's still the Wild West to me, you can get away with a lot of stuff. There's room to experiment, there's room to push boundaries. There's room and space for the unexpected. Even if you're doing something in public space and nobody sees it, LA still has this amazing landscape and backdrop for experimental work or performance work. This is embedded in its history, obviously because of Hollywood, but also the geography of it. It's such an open landscape, I find it very inspiring. But I also just feel like it begs to have its energy pushed, because it is just so, so vast. It really asks for artists to tie these dissonant or disparate communities together somehow, and individuals also. I feel like my role in that is entirely based upon my own experience and where I've found myself enlisted. For example, a big part of my community is here at LACE. But I'm still tied very closely to Oxy, and closely tied to Killsonic, which is another big family to me, and to a number of LA locals, so the way that my work ends up tying these people together, ends up reaching all these other people across boundaries also.

Tucker NeelTucker Neel is an artist, writer, educator, designer, curator, and gallery director. Neel's art employs project-specific media to address issues of communication, political allegiance, memory, and collective experience. You can view his complete projects at tuckerneel.com. Tucker is also the founder and director of 323 Projects, a telephone-based art gallery accessible any time, day or night, by simply calling (323) 843-4652. For more info visit 323projects.com.


bodycitybodycity is a democratic dance collective comprised of varying levels of formal dance training, from none to much, in which each dancer is both teacher and learner. Through a series of games and associations, together we create works of dance for site-specific experiences. We are based in Los Angeles.


Stephen van DyckStephen van Dyck, a CalArts MFA graduate, has performed at LACMA, MOCA, Machine Project, LACE, Wildness, Public Fiction, Workspace and Sea and Space. He is author of People I've Met from the Internet, and organizer of Los Angeles Road Concerts and Bellyflop Gallery.


Geneva SkeenGeneva Skeen's experimental works in performance and vocal composition explore emotional memory, improvisation, and the psychogeographic revision of public and private spaces with use of the body. She has created a number of solo and collaborative works throughout LA, including the public-space-opera The Saffron Green and Killsonic's Tongues Bloody Tongues at REDCAT, in addition to LACMA, Human Resources, RAID Projects, Les Figues Press, and with the WONT Collective in Long Beach. She studied Critical Theory and Social Justice at Occidental College and Theater at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts.


Mary Beth HeffernanMary Beth Heffernan is a Los Angeles based artist whose sculptures, installations, prints and photographs explore the intersection between language and physicality. Awarded the 2010 COLA Individual Artist Fellowship, critic Peter Frank writes in the catalog, "her praxis is [rooted in] epistemology - the knowledge of knowledge. Heffernan is fascinated with things and with the human drive(s) to make and to know things..." Her art is included in numerous private and public collections, including the UCLA/Hammer Museum (print collection), Light Work of Syracuse, NY, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Heffernan earned her MFA at the California Institute of the Arts followed by a studio fellowship at the Whitney Program in New York City. Heffernan is Associate Professor of Sculpture and Photography in the Art History and Visual Arts Department at Occidental College in Los Angeles.


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Top Image: bodycity. bodydesert: End trails, High Desert Test Sites, October 2011. | Image courtesy bodycity.

About the Author

Sue Bell Yank is a writer, producer, and arts organizer. She currently works as an online education producer for the Oprah Winfrey Network and was formerly the Associate Director of Academic Programs at the Hammer Museum. She grad...
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