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Street Art Review: The Cardboard and Chalk of Downtown L.A.

Downtown Los Angeles was the stage for a series of pop-up street art designed to elicit response while invoking political and social commentary. Without a demonstration of conflict, and the media coverage that would follow, it may have failed an intent; to become performance art between artist as ideological protagonist, authority as hostile antagonist, and spectator as an involved or distant observer.

CRIME (2012)
Alex Schaefer
Temporary Installation + Performance Art
Artist. BID. LAPD. Chase Bank (and management).
Sidewalk. White and blue chalk.
6th and Figueroa streets
July 23, 2012
Photo by Rush Varela

Artist Alex Schaefer took his message of dissent directly to the source on July 13, 2012. On the sidewalk in front of Chase Bank, Schaefer re-crafted their logo and word mark to read CRIME. He then waited to be arrested.

The protest was done under the watchful eye of the same photographer who documents street art by Calder Greenwood and "Wild Life," plus whoever happened to be there. That included Arts District based photographer Rush Varela. Cameras also captured Schaefer being approached by bank management who asked if he had a permit, then warned she would call security. Schaefer was arrested on suspicion of misdemeanor vandalism around 12:30 p.m. The artist was booked, and despite having bail money at the ready, was not released until after midnight. "The process was real slow," said the artist.

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It is an extension of the artist's series of paintings of burning banks portrayed with a loose painted realism, a "branch off with a political angle," said Schaefer, in the first afternoon after his release. Citing Henry David Thoreau's philosophy of civil disobedience, it was with intent that the artist did what he calls a harmless "surgical strike." He also quickly disassociated himself from OccupyLA's Chalk Walk.

It counters OccupyLA's P.R. battle, as Schaefer calls it, that was held during Art Walk. He called it a "waste of protest. Real acts of protest are precious. That [Art Walk] was not the place to do it all. You have to go to the point of purchase." He adds, "the point is to change minds."

When asked why Chase Bank is the institution often selected to be painted as burning in his paintings, he replied he has nothing personal with the bank. It was the retro architectural style of some of the banks, of which a several are formerly Home Savings and Loans. Said the artist "They have the most interesting buildings."

Schaefer does not have plans to continue his on-site installation of chalk art in front of banks until he meets with a lawyer. As of late yesterday afternoon, one offered his services pro-bono.

The chalk art at the site-specific location was washed away moments after Schaefer was taken away. Video from the day has been posted.


LAPD At Art Walk I Photo courtesy of Mitch ReiterChalk Walk (2012)
Occupy LA
Temporary Performance Art
Occupiers, LAPD, Art Walkers and random pedestrians. Sidewalk. Walls. Misc color chalk.
Spring, Main, 4th and 5th streets.
July 12, 2012.
Photo by Mitch Reiter

Occupy Wall Street's collaborator, Occupy L.A., was once welcomed by members of city council for carrying through a message mixed with romantic radical idealism. Patience soon became as thin as the south lawn of City Hall -- which has now been repaired and rededicated -- when the messages became hazy. Since then, Occupy L.A. has shaped a tribal allegiance with Skid Row activists to share a common goal: consider gentrification the latest slow moving target, and provoke LAPD's tactical response to shape performance art.

By exploiting the crowd at Art Walk, many of which are there to participate in an active core of a city and not commited to an observation of art, Occupy L.A. engaged others to join in the act of chalking a sidewalk. That provided a cloak of innocence with a brilliant strategic move to instigate a response to police presence -- if that was indeed the method behind inviting others to write discontent on the walls of economic suppressors.

Response by LAPD was expected, though swifter than may have been anticipated, since Art Walk is saddled with keeping foot traffic moving on the sidewalks. The July act of chalking came one year after the death of an infant, and crowded streetscape has been a hot topic since last summer. Seventeen people were arrested, and several officers and bystanders were injured when police secured the streets around Art Walkers and Chalkers.

The group was founded on encamping public space to comment on a political system, but has long-left its utopian theatre of alternative social order. As the "movement" was a concept by Kalle Lasn and colleagues at Adbusters, a nonprofit magazine run by anti-consumerist advocates, it encourages this interpretation of protest as art. Lasn's movement was admittedly fueled by branding techniques, beginning with a hashtag of the snappy name #OccupyWallStreet. "This is what Adbusters has done for the past 20 years, to come up with these memes and to propagate them," once said Lasn in the New York Times. "That's what it's all about: may the best memes win."

The second part of this performance art involves Occupy L.A. swarming blog and media coverage with comments scolding LAPD and Art Walk management; sometimes even the crowd itself. Downtown activist Brady Westwater was quick to call the occupiers narcissists, and has been supported by the immediate community for his candor. He does not seem to mind the expected verbal spitballs by Occupy L.A. supporters.


Skid Row Estates I Photo by Stephen Ziegler


Skid Row Estates (2012)
Calder Greenwood and Wild Life
Temporary Street Art Installation
Cardboard. Electric Tape. Paper. Plastic ties. Store bought signs.
228 Winston (Between Los Angeles and Wall Street. Behind abandoned Engine Company 23)
July 18, 2012
Photos by Stephen Ziegler

Calder Greenwood and almost anonymous "Wild Life" used downtown's streets as a harsh mise-en-scene for the recent addition to their guerrilla street art portfolio. "Skid Row Estates" is a miniaturized housing development made of cardboard, which comments on pop-up residents. The installation was set against an underused building with a worn background of green paint on plywood. It was a serious turn in commentary -- the cardboard a switch from the recreational paper-mache of sunbathers in the parcel pit at First and Broadway and Snake Plissken riding the Los Angeles River. There is stilll that visual wit in the details of "Skid Row Estates." Boxes marked "fragile," "clothing wardrobe," or "dish pack," had windows, doors, and awnings, and, in what seems to be affordable housing for pets, a small unit with dog bone shaped peep-through.

According to Green and Wild's piece, technology is still accessible for the down-and-out. The highest tower of the Skid Row skyline had a television antenna and the neighboring residence was hooked-up with a dish. A touch of reality seemed forced with the out of scale "For Rent" signs. (Why were they not handmade and had a logo of a fictitious developer, providing distinct commentary?). Latino shoppers stopped to take a photo of the installation, and for an afternoon was an reminder of homelessness without the usual lecture.

Backed against the wall of the rear entrance of a shuttered fire station, a decorative sign gave the idea that housing in Skid Row is not a stop gap of poverty, but an organized industry.

That same day the assemblages were destroyed but not immediately taken away, leaving us to assume it was a random act of art criticism and not a BID related eviction.

About the Author

Ed Fuentes is an arts journalist, photographer, graphic designer, and digital muralist who covers a variety of topics and geographies in Southern California for KCET.
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