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Saskia Wilson-Brown: Rubbing Fenders in Shambolic, Egalitarian L.A.

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Each week, Jeremy Rosenberg (@LosJeremy) asks, "How did you - or your family before you - wind up living in Los Angeles?

Today we hear from Saskia Wilson-Brown, founder of The Institute for Art and Olfaction and Cinema Speakeasy and Director of Programming at LA Mart:


"My "Arrival Story" is more of an arrivals story, because I have come and gone from L.A. several times over the course of my life. But the arrival that stuck is the one in 2003, when I moved here from London.

"The move was meant to be temporary. I actually only came out for a month to try to raise a little money by doing some work as an art department PA. I was crashing at a friend's place and my dad had bought me some sort of beater car - I think it was a Ford LTD, one of those massive station wagons from the mid-`80s. It was almost a block long and it would stall out every time I braked.

"As a Production Assistant, this was a special kind of challenge. I'd have to make runs all over town almost every day - usually in various degrees of heavy traffic. I had to master the art of not hitting the brakes on the freeways of L.A. I became a maestro of the slow crawl.

"The car kept needing work, and I needed a car to do my job, so I kept postponing my return to London: Driving around town, running the car into the ground in order to earn the money to fix the car I had just destroyed. By the time the car died its final and terminal death, the constant repairs had put me in loads of debt. I needed to work more, so I bought a NEW beater car, and - long story short - here I am. Staying here was sort of accidental, but it's been wonderful.

"I say "sort of" accidental. Maybe part of me was ready to escape London. I had just finished getting a master's degree in fine art at Central Saint Martins

and was trying to make it as an artist, while working as a bartender in Soho.

"As many people probably know, Soho is a neighborhood in the heart of London that is part Skid Row, part Sunset Strip. I worked in the tiniest pub there, a very dark and dingy gay bar run by an ex-gangster who had gone to prison for "buggering a lesbian." This is true. Most of the regulars had AIDS, and they all were constantly in trouble with the law - at least it seemed that way. And, of course, they were total alcoholics (even by British standards).

"I remember one of our regulars ran the biggest prostitution ring in Soho. She would come in and be all funny and sweet to me in her gruff East London way, and then I'd hear her on the phone berating one of her girls - I'd imagine some cowering Eastern European sex trafficking victim on the other end of the line. It was a really sad, really dark place. But also, an extremely creative one.

"Soho, in addition to being seedy as all hell, is the center of the touristy theatre scene- so these actors and musicians on the make would often converge in the bar. The best thing about it, though, was my boss, Alfie.

"He was always tinkering with the sewing machine, producing - mainly - an increasingly alarming pile of half-finished sequined frocks for his ex-gangster boyfriend to scowl at. He was also a supremely hilarious drag queen who could really sing. Every night he would end his drag act by ripping his wig off to expose this shiny bald head. The tourists would go ga-ga over it. I never got tired of it, either.


"When I decided to go to L.A. for a month, I moved out of my place, packed up most of my stuff - which wasn't much - and moved it into my boyfriend's mom's flat. I stuffed the rest of it into a suitcase, and took the Tube to Heathrow.

"This was in January. It was thirty degrees in London, and everybody on the plane seemed to have a bad case of the sniffles. When the plane landed at LAX, the captain got on the intercom and mentioned that it was 90 degrees in L.A. The entire plane - full of depressed British people - spontaneously erupted into applause. It was an incredible moment.

"Early the next morning, I drove over to Casbah Café on Sunset Boulevard in Silver Lake and smoked ten cigarettes over my coffee - my usual morning routine. The day was warm and sunny. My first impression of being here again was this insanely potent sense of relief.

"Before London, I had been raised, in turn, in San Francisco and in Paris. My mother is English and my dad is Cuban.** He has lived in L.A. for most of my life, so I had context for the city. I already knew that this place could be difficult - but that there's also a strong sense of hope, here.

"Generally speaking, people will be more or less nice to you here, even if they don't actually want to help you. A lot of my friends think this is a social disease - it's "fake." But, I actually like it. You're not getting doors slammed in your face - it's more subtle than that. It's hard to break in, but at least the hope remains alive, here. I think the directness of the "no f--king way" that you find in other cities can be very discouraging, and actually ends up stifling a lot of good ideas.

"The shambolic Third-World-ness of L.A. also masks this incredible sense of opportunity and inclusiveness: It's a mess, but we can do something about it. In contrast to that, in London it felt like things were really shut down to outsiders. It was very opaque, and socially proscribed - especially in the art world. In fact, I would posit that the concept of the 'upstart egalitarian' makes upper class artsy Britons subtly want to vomit. But I don't think there's anything wrong with enthusiasm, and LA is a very enthusiastic place.

"People I meet from other places in the US - the Bay Area in particular - seem to think that Southern California is all about 'traffic-smog-superficial-people-and-strip-malls'. It's always the same thing. I think it's a mantra they teach them in their yoga classes.

"In fact, I remember when I was a kid in San Francisco someone saying to me "Culture in L.A.? What an oxymoron!" when I told them what my dad's job was (he was in culture, in L.A.). It sort of stuck and I was pretty snobby about LA, until one day it finally dawned on me to question that assumption. I mean, WHOSE culture do they think is lacking, exactly? You can't go into MacArthur Park, or Leimert Park, and say we're lacking culture, here. It's just not true.

A logo for The Institute of Art & Olfaction, Saskia Wilson-Brown's newly-launched organization.
A logo for The Institute of Art & Olfaction, Saskia Wilson-Brown's newly-launched organization.

"I realized that people don't feel that L.A. is cultured because they don't recognize L.A. through Euro-centric goggles. L.A. doesn't look like Paris, therefore L.A. is uncultured. To me, to be properly understood, L.A. should be seen through the lens of Central America, the wild west, the twentieth century.

"It's sad to me that most people try to make L.A. palatable to non-Angelenos by pointing to things like the downtown renaissance: "Look, Charles! White people eating salads! Outside! Just like Manhattan!" I don't want LA to be anaesthetized. It's like giving Courtney Love a cutesy make-over and throwing her into the middle of a cotillion. It's just not honest.

"I mean - we have problems in this city. But the problems are also somehow an amazing asset. Car culture, for instance. LA traffic sucks, yes. We adapt to it by sticking to our neighborhoods, and that can limit our mobility. That also sucks.

"At the same time, the freeways here are our great equalizer. You're rubbing elbows - or rubbing fenders, maybe - with the man who just came back from fixing a roof, with some dude in a souped-up SUV blasting Armenian prog-rock, with dolled up famous people in their Bentleys, with a beat-up truck overloaded with oranges. We all have to drive through the same potholes, sit in the same traffic, avoid the same freeways at rush hour.

"People also criticize LA for having no street life. But, if you go to MacArthur Park (links here and here), to Koreatown, to Skid Row, you'll find plenty of street life. There's plenty of hustle, plenty to do and see, and plenty to run away from. Maybe this is not the street life that people like to think about.


"I recently launched The Institute for Art and Olfaction, which will open its doors in March of 2013.

"When people think of perfumery, the first thing that comes to mind are places like Paris, Milan, London, New York... The West Coast tends to be very much discounted as this end-of-the-line frontier town- nothing serious comes out of L.A.

"And yet L.A. is this hugely shifting mega-metropolis. There's this huge creative drive happening here - and a massive independent movement around perfume.

"I'm finding that all the thoughts that I developed around independent versus studio films, apply in the perfume world.

"Perfume production is run by these large multi-national corporations that control about 95% of what you smell. There are a handful of them in the world, and they are largely based on the East Coast or in Europe. So, there's this hugely secretive mega-industry behind perfumery, and while there's nothing wrong with that per se, sometimes secrecy and being beholden to sales can deeply hinder creativity.

"So now, as a reaction to that, there is an emerging world of independent perfumers - like emerging filmmakers - who are coming up and saying, 'What the hell? I don't want to smell like a goddamned rose-dipped-sexy-bimbo-clone! I want to smell like diesel fuel at dawn.' And they're making things to fit into their weird visions. Not that the large corporations don't do good work: They do! It's just that they're limited, just by dint of their size. Like the studios, in the film world.

"You asked, has following perfumery changed the way I smell the city? I smoke about a pack a day, so I'm not much of a nose. Having said that, this enterprise has very much changed the way I perceive Los Angeles in the world. I've become really aware of L.A.'s outsider status, in the world of perfumery & fashion. And I think that status is fair: LA is an outsider, in this world! But, I hope that the IAO will help people appreciate that L.A.'s weirdness and roughness are actually assets.

"What I want to do is place Los Angeles on the perfumery map in an inherently different way. It would be silly to ignore that L.A. is not a European city. It's a different kind of place - which means that different kinds of approaches are more acceptable here.

"What if it's not about making pretty smelling things? What if it's about intervention, weirdness, strange juxtapositions, science, discomfort...? Being an outsider means that there's no line to toe! That has its advantages.

"I think that that's sort of the crux of the challenge we're facing with The Institute for Art and Olfaction: To celebrate the mess we live in, while elevating perfumery into the realm of a critical discourse. All this, through one tiny non-profit. Oy vey!"

-- Saskia Wilson-Brown
(as told to Jeremy Rosenberg)

**Jeremy Rosenberg has written for Wilson-Brown's father, Adolfo V. Nodal. Rosenberg and Wilson-Brown both serve in volunteer positions for the Los Angeles Sister Cities Association. Nodal is the organization's President.

Do you or someone you know have a great Los Angeles Arrival Story to share? If so, then contact Jeremy Rosenberg via: arrivalstory AT gmail DOT com. Also contact or follow Rosenberg on Twitter @LosJeremy

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