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Behind the Scenes of 'The Works: The 60s in the 90s'

Peggy Moffitt

In the special episode "Artbound Presents The Works: The 60s in the 90s," airing Thursday, Oct. 23 at 9 P.M. on KCET-TV, host Mary Woronov, a former "Warhol superstar," reflects on the cultural discourse of art in Los Angeles in the 1960s, and how it contributed to a renewed cultural arts movement in the 1990s. This episode includes a survey of works by painter/photographer Ed Ruscha; the fashion model Peggy Moffitt; the L.A. writings of Mike Davis and Reyner Banham; the music of thrash band Suicidal Tendencies and 1960s surfer icons The Ventures; and the spoken word of Hittite Empire.

 

Prologue: Piss Christ

The 1990s Los Angeles art scene began on May 18, 1989, back in Washington D.C.

On that day, Senator Jesse Helms entered into the Congressional Record an emotional piece of photography criticism. The work under review on the Senate floor was a 60 x 40 inch Cibachrome print called Piss Christ. The artist was Andres Serrano. The photograph was accused of having been funded by the National Endowment for the Arts.

"What this Serrano fellow did, he filled a bottle with his own urine and then stuck a crucifix down there -- Jesus Christ on a cross," Helms said. "He set it up on a table and took a picture of it. For that, the National Endowment for the Arts gave him $15,000, to honor him as an artist. I say again, Mr. President, he is not an artist. He is a jerk."

The year before, Serrano was granted an "Award in the Visual Arts" from the Southeast Center for Contemporary Art. He was included in the prestigious group show at SECCA, exhibiting a photo series that included Piss Christ. He was also awarded $15,000 in cash.

Because the National Endowment for the Arts was one of several sponsors of the show, the NEA was singled out for criticism from the Christian political Right -- the new arbiters of cultural taste and norms. What blasphemy was the federal government supporting -- with taxpayers' money? (In fact, the NEA was only one underwriter of this SECCA project.)

Soon thereafter, in July, Robert Mapplethorpe's retrospective "The Perfect Moment" was scheduled to open at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. In June, under pressure from the rising cacophony of the country's conservative voices, as well as from the board of the Corcoran itself, the director cancelled the show, in fear of stoking more controversy. By now, there were demands for the total abolishment of the NEA, or, short of that, direct censorship of the art projects that were being funded.

In KCET's somewhat insular public television studios on Sunset Boulevard, arts and culture producers understood the seriousness of an attack on the continued funding of the NEA. The NEA was a major supporter of PBS programming and production.

All over Los Angeles, artists and arts organizations (big or small budget) worked on projects that had been partially funded with grants from the NEA. The Endowment was not a big, "hand-out" government bureaucracy, but rather an enlightened creation of civilized society recognizing the cultural value of art and art practice. It seems to me now that we were all suddenly connected by some kind of strike-shift tectonic movement across our landscape in the summer of 1989. The "art scene" was changing. The 1990s had begun.

Ry Cooder and Melissa Totten | Photo: Mitzi Trumbo
Ry Cooder and Melissa Totten | Photo: Mitzi Trumbo

KCET Takes Five

In the late 1980s, KCET set up two new local production units: "Arts & Culture" and "Science & Society." The goal of both new production teams was to create elite five-minute video documentaries that could be aired as stand-alone segments in KCET's programming schedule. They would also be packaged and edited with interstitial production as 30-minute specials for broadcast at regular time slots in the evening schedule.

I was hired as the Arts & Culture researcher and associate producer. We brought in freelance L.A. arts documentary producers and assigned them to direct and produce the five-minute pieces for the new series, "Take Five." The producers had the support of KCET's "engineers" -- a union term I always found to be clunky since they were integral members of the creative process. They also had the support of the content squad from KCET. After a couple of years laying the foundation and setting the bar high for our unit (many local Emmys were awarded), "Take Five's" Executive Producer moved along, and I inherited the job.

It was the best job in the entire PBS system, in my grandiose opinion. KCET's Arts & Culture unit was a unique documentary team with Los Angeles -- the definitive American city during the rise of global Pacific Rim influence -- as our subject. We were privileged to be able to create short programs about and with artists and culture workers who were reshaping the sprawling, shifting landscape and identity of this intense, vital, multicultural city that was Los Angeles at the end of the century.

Ed Ruscha photographed by Jerry McMillan
Ed Ruscha photographed by Jerry McMillan

The Culture Wars

In our historic production headquarters on Sunset Boulevard, near the Silver Lake community, we were still a little removed from all the many arts and cultural neighborhoods of Los Angeles. Of course, we knew the large budget arts organizations in the city by now. We had done "Take Five" stories about curators and artists mounting a show at MOCA, we had visited Frank Gehry as he was collaborating with acoustic engineers to design the interior of what was to be the Disney Concert Hall downtown. It was time to get out of the studio and onto the streets of L.A., a little closer to artists and art colleagues to join them in confronting oppressive ideas and to see how artists were responding to the times.

In June of 1990, two L.A. avant-garde performance artists had been suddenly dumped by the NEA after being passed through for funding for their work. John Fleck and Tim Miller, as well as Karen Finley from New York, and Holly Hughes from Michigan, became known as the NEA Four when they filed a suit against the NEA and its director John Frohnmayer for political censorship of their art.

They ultimately pushed their fight to the Supreme Court. There was this decency clause that Congress had passed, dictating that the NEA fund only "decent" art, not simply meritorious work. The NEA Four's fight was now center stage on the Los Angeles art scene. The story of the NEA Four, along with the stories of Serrano and Mapplethorpe, were political narratives in the culture wars.

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The Works Arts Panels

When "Take Five" was retired from the broadcast schedule, we continued to produce one-off documentaries, but I also started looking to make a substantial monthly arts show. I wanted to push out the walls of the TV station a bit more. In 1991, as a first step, I worked up an idea for a twisted variety series called The Works.

Described in our funding proposalese " ...a combination video-magazine, performance-café, talk show and arts calendar, The Works will reflect and challenge the city's changing cultural identity."

We raised crucial underwriting from the City of Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department to produce The Works. KCET would pay the rest of the budget for several episodes of the planned series. But we wanted more arts community involvement in the content planning process. We looked for a cross section of artist and art leaders to get some curatorial input. In order to be able to host that process, and pay honoraria to the participants, we approached the Peter and Eileen Norton Family Foundation to see if they might support a series of small community advisory panels to be held in venues across the city. (At that time, it was rumored that Peter Norton had once received an arts proposal, written with crayon on a napkin, and had decided to fund it. We hoped that a slightly off-beat idea would appeal to the Foundation.)

Thanks to the Norton Foundation, we were able to do those Art Panels in April of 1992. It was an enormously fun and indescribably valuable process. Somewhere in storage, I have cassette tapes of each discussion, which never got transcribed. Peter Sellars was at one meeting, and we were all still coming off the high of the Los Angeles Festival he and Judy Mitoma (UCLA's World Arts Department) had curated nearly two years earlier. He challenged us to reexamine L.A. at one Art Panel, juicing up the room with the ideas that had helped driven the Los Angeles Festival. At that Panel, he sounded like he had when describing the Festival back in 1990:

"It's astounding what this city really represents. There are 85 languages spoken in Hollywood High School right now. The demographics of this city are astounding. The largest number of Cambodians outside Cambodia. The largest number of Koreans outside Korea. The largest number of Salvadorans outside El Salvador. The largest number of Burmese outside Burma. The largest number of Mexicans outside Mexico. The largest number of Filipinos outside the Philippines. And the point is, do we ever see that culturally? Almost never. What is Los Angeles? What is unique here? And what is here is the rest of the world." (From Mervyn Rothstein's "A Festival Embraces The Pacific Cultures," published August 27, 1990 in the New York Times)

Paul Schimmel from the Temporary Contemporary-MOCA was at one panel, Estella Holman, Director of the city's Afro-American Museum was at another; John Outterbridge from Watts Towers, artist Daniel Martinez, John Fleck, the NEA Four performance artist, and Duane Ebata from the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center were also on the list. With this multiplicity of neighborhood voices and ethnicities, and with KCET's own broadcast managers and independent film resources Claire Aguilar and Jackie Kain on the team, community dialogue became the establishing principle of The Works.

Suicidal Tendencies

The Works Pilot

I wrote up the pilot, hired the team, and called the first production meeting with the two guest hosts for the show. It was April 29, 1992. Diane Rodriguez (Téatro Campesino) and Milton Simpson (formerly of SPARC) had arrived at 3:00 pm. As we sat in my office at KCET, a buzz started in the newsroom, and crossed the hall to the Arts & Culture unit. The verdict in the trial of the four police officers that had beaten Rodney King to within an inch of his life had just been handed down. The jury had acquitted all four white cops, despite one minute and nineteen seconds of video evidence showing their continuous, revolting beating of Rodney King, who was black.

We heard that rioting had begun in South Central. Diane, Milton, and a bunch of KCET producers and researchers went up to the roof of the studio. Down in the street, directly across Sunset, the scene in the Circuit City parking lot below was surreal. Huge cardboard boxes of television sets and audio components were moving in slow-motion from store to waiting cars, like bits of crumb carried by ants. Looting had begun. I don't remember what happened to our meeting. It took me four hours to detour through the valley and home to Santa Monica, far from the intersection of Florence and Normandie, where Reginald Denny was beaten.

How does art respond to cultural, political and racial conflagration? Everything needed reevaluation now. All of Los Angeles. The show, too. We pushed on with the pilot, in which we saw the city through the eyes and voices of L.A. artists and culture workers, but the program had a sort of pre-riot feel. The most political material was in the poetry monologues, delivered directly to camera by the poets, among them Wanda Coleman and Marisela Norte. I liked the stark visual treatment of the pieces, fairly tight on the poet's head and shoulders, against a black ethereal space. Those women brought it.

The first Works debuted on June 25, 1992 with guest curators Diane Rodriguez and Milton Simpson. Ry Cooder, his son Joaquim, David Lindley and a traditional Hawaiian slack key guitar band, the Pahinui brothers, performed an outstanding segment in studio. The show featured five poets, Diane visited Gronk's downtown studio and neighborhood; Milton fed chickens with Elyse Grinstein, who had co-designed the KFC "chicken shack" on Western.

The Hittite Empire

The Works 2: Utopia/Dystopia

We had launched the series, but I felt we needed a stronger narrative theme for the next one. Waves of anxiety were crashing all around the city; the riots had tested the version of L.A. as a happy multiculture. The "culture wars" had become real. We were fragmenting along racial, economic, and ethnic lines.

KCET's Claire Aguilar introduced me to the acclaimed pioneering video art of directors Bruce and Norman Yonemoto. It would be a stroke of luck to collaborate on an hour-long program with the Yonemotos. Their world-class video art repertoire was well-known in the local art world: their characteristic deadpan irony; their visually provocative treatments of the much-hyped myth of California as a golden land; Hollywood as the Los Angeles dream factory. That was the subject I wanted to tackle with the art community: the dystopia that we were now living in.

They agreed, and were hired in April of 1993, a year after the riots/uprising. (Subsequently, Norman had a stroke, and was unable to work on the program. We hired an up-and-comer Bruce knew, named Ed. De La Torre, who had been designing video installations for high-budget features in the dream factory.)

I wrote a press release after meetings with Bruce and Ed., and summarized the direction The Works 2 would take:

...Los Angeles has been dreamed, drawn and portrayed as the land of lotus, and eden on the beach. Southern California has long been our country's landscape of expectation, a geography of hope. But it is also a land where hope keeps running out; where canyons, plains, streets, and society burn, and raging fires repeatedly wipe out the sunny image of "surfurbia."

These two portraits of Los Angeles cycle over and over again in a familiar dialectic. After the conflagration: regeneration, boosterism, and a return to Eden. Our program is going to look at those visions of Los Angeles. Our focus is on the cultural and artistic links between the 1960s and the 1990s, in popular culture and in the avant-garde...

I'm not sure that this summary ever reached the press, but here I was combining some Yonemoto ideas with those of a few of my favorite writers on the subject of California: Wallace Stegner, Joan Didion, Reyner Banham, and Mike Davis.

Bruce and Norman came up with the idea of using the English architectural critic Banham's seminal piece of writing on the built environment, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies (1971) as an intellectual thread for the 1960s themes in the show. For the 1990s, there was no question that we'd use cultural critic (and former meat-cutter) Mike Davis's prophetic book City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (1990). Most people I knew had been flabbergasted by his book in one way or another. It was weighty, full of Los Angeles's deep dread about itself. He was making his name then as a prominent urban historian, politically savvy, with a really cutting read on social class in Southern California.

The Banham-Davis segment got a bigger audience later, when Bruce surreptitiously edited it from the show and submitted it as a stand-alone piece to Germany's 26th Kasseler Dokumentarfilm & videofest, where it was accepted and screened in 1994 and again in 2009. The curator's review of it for the catalog said "It is a comparison of two perspectives of the city in the disguise of a sequence of images, which is graphically and musically smart. It is a very impressive juxtaposition and illustration of two sociological studies -- we simply had to show this in the hated and loved Kassel."

The piece was also included in a video art exhibition Intelligent Ambience organized by Carole Ann Klonarides and Kathy Rae Huffman, held at the Long Beach Museum of Art from December 1994 through February 1995. Carole Anne, a prominent Los Angeles curator, was responsible for several other European festival showings of the Banham-Davis segment.

The Yonemoto style gives The Works: The 60s in the 90s much of its visual camp. The blue screen was a huge contribution to the ideas and look of the show. In Bruce's initial notes for the show, he wrote: "The live performances to be shot on stage 'blue screen' to give the sequence(s) an experimental 60s feel á la Nam June Paik."

We found the perfect host in Mary Woronov, with whom Bruce had worked before. Her performances were drawn from the repertoire of movie characters she had played, from her early days as a Warhol Factory girl to her contemporary cult movie roles. The physicality and choreographed gestures she brought to her blue-screen interstitials were funny, exquisite, and canny. She pretty much directed her own performances. Was she kitsch? Maybe, but maybe not. She walked the edge, just like the show, and just like the Los Angeles we were presenting.

Her blue screens were carefully costume-designed. Each garment spoke for a 1960s or 1990s fashion designer. We loved 1960s fashion icon Rudy Gernreich, obviously, and tried hard to convince Mary to wear his topless bathing suit (the "monokini") for the surf segment. But that was going too far out on a ... surfboard? She couldn't do it.

JoAnn Lopez's very hip fabric collage garments, which Mary is wearing to introduce the Banham-Davis segment, were infamous in 1969 when the murdered Sharon Tate was pictured on the cover of LIFE Magazine wearing a JoAnn Lopez dress for the issue about the Manson Family mass murders in Benedict Canyon. I have searched for that LIFE cover for this article without success, but no one would doubt the understated and modest JoAnn Lopez. When I heard that story, I bought one of her signature vests, paying her a little at a time until I'd paid her in full. Macabre? I guess. But very Los Angeles.

Mary Woronov

A Musical Break in the Action

I should say something about that overly long live musical interlude by the Ventures. Bruce, Ed., our editors, and the executive producer, all had pleaded with me to cut it down. It was a drag on the show. I insisted on keeping it. In my defense, I had designed The Works as a show that would feature live music in every episode. I wanted a music segment to give breathing room to the program. Boy, was I wrong. Once it aired I could see that everyone hated it. I guess my vision of little living room watch parties, where people would refresh drinks and roll joints during the Ventures segment was delusional.

I had tried desperately to get Dick Dale, the Lebanese-American Los Angeles musical genius that pioneered the surf guitar sound. As is often the case, managers and record labels didn't respond. The surf sound was all about Dick Dale, who was from Boston, yes I know, but he learned to surf in California at age 17, and was all L.A. from there on out. (And Tarentino's Pulp Fiction had not been made yet. The revival of surf rock had yet to sweep America.)

If the Ventures represented Southern California utopia, skate/surf rock band Suicidal Tendencies was dystopia incarnate. We shot the interviews on the rooftop of an apartment building that Ed. had scouted, "stealing a location" because we didn't have permission to shoot there. I remember charging up the dark stairwell with our whole troupe and all the camera and sound gear, trying to keep silent.

Back then, S.T. was known for its ongoing battles with Tipper Gore and LA venues over the issues of censorship and violence. They attracted L.A.'s underground punk scene and hardcore metal fans. In Nocture Magazine, reviewer Louie Senorelli commented, "...[They] lived in a metropolitan area that for eight years restricted the band from playing live shows due to the possibility of revolution."

It turned out that Mary had appeared in the cult band's first music video for their 1983 hit single "Institutionalized". That video was "the first hardcore video to be featured on MTV." The single was re-recorded in 1994 and was nominated for a Grammy for Best Metal Performance, losing to Ozzy Osborne. In the video for the song, Mary played band leader Mike Muir's really square mother-- a serendipitous thread that wove Mary through the show's wild content. Guitarist Mike Clark was an active songwriter for the band, and bassist Robert Trujillo, who is now with Metallica, stole the show with his sweet nod to his "Nana" in Mary's interview on the roof.

Tom Recchion, another Angeleño artist, designed brilliant digital tracks for the show, reworked and looped musical phrases from 1960s L.A. songs. Tom did a mash-up of licks and beats from Spirit, the Byrds, Jim Morrison, others, before mash-ups became popular.

Established Artist

Mary's interview with Ed Ruscha was meant to tap into his deadpan humor, which echoed Bruce's own. Mary and Ed really connected on that level, and it helped that they already knew each other. His painting "The Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Fire" (1965-68) was probably the perfect encapsulation of our themes. That work pre-dated the Watts riots, and in many ways was a prophetic commentary on Los Angeles.

We chose to present "mechanical reproductions" of the paintings of Ed Ruscha from a book he was holding on his lap for the interview. We also showed them in the standard documentary way, shot from original transparencies and presented full screen. But since we were dealing with Ruscha's influence over many different media, and in a nod to his own artist books, we set up directly in front of him so we could see the book's images and Ruscha at the same time. It was by accident that this vantage point gave the audience a perfect view of his crotch. That seemed okay.

1990s Avant-Garde: Moving Target

The Works opened a door into some of L.A.'s best-known artists, and was thereby not as obvious an excursion into the politicized underground scene of the 1990s that I had designed for the series, and that we had discussed during the Art Panel process. My collaboration with Keith Antar Mason and the Hittite Empire would be the most intense engagement with the 1990s underground.

Keith Antar Mason was a force. He and The Hittite Empire presented fiercely honest theater. Mason was getting outstanding reviews before the 1993 Los Angeles April Uprising. His avant-garde performance collective was provocative, and the writing almost always confronted the theme of the racism that has always and continues to surround black men. The troupe had appeared at The Walker Art Center, at Lincoln Center, and elsewhere, but the work was deeply Los Angeles. It was autochthonic. And after the riots, his work took on an urgent relevance. He performed spoken word in the First AME Church downtown, at Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica, at large and small neighborhood venues all over the city. Keith's performance segment in the show was always going to be a risky segment, not because of the material, but because of the inherent issues of taking a live theatrical production and reworking it for television.

The piece we chose to present was built upon a section from "49 Blues Songs for a Jealous Vampire," written and directed by Keith and premiered at Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center. The section was called "Moving Target." To that, Keith added new elements for The 60s in the 90s.

The whole play had to be squeezed down to about 10 TV minutes. We shot the field pieces near Skid Row downtown, and used the big soundstage at KCET for the Dr. Spookmynigga scenes, played by Keith and by Ellis Rice as the psychiatrist's patient. The blue screen elements, called "1-800-MYNIGGA" were shot separately.

Now that we had the performance in video pieces, I became the TV show author and director of Keith's material. I wanted and needed to assemble the video material with Ed. and our KCET editor, without Keith and the troupe in the edit bay. Though Keith had always known this, it was a rough fact. This negotiation took lots of trust on Keith's part, and he did not want to relinquish artistic control over the segment. I was very concerned about the artistic integrity of the piece and being honest to the work, but I was also thinking about edit time and edit efficiency, as we careened toward the air date. So we had a bit of an artistic struggle, but that comes with the territory.

The Ventures

Finale

On the night the show aired, we had a private screening for all of the artists and makers at a restaurant called Atlas near the Wiltern. The producers and crew were bleary. We had just barely made our deadline. None of the assembled artists had seen their performances or appearances in the final show. When the Hittite Empire segment started, I glanced over at the guys hoping to get a positive read on their reactions.

Tom Recchion, Mary Woronov, Ed Ruscha and a host of unnamed generous artists who donated key visual elements to the show all came from the amused genius of Bruce Yonemoto. Bruce and Norman were rock star directors. This had been a remarkable collaboration for me and for KCET -- all of the creative crew and executives who helped shepherd the show.

When The Works: The 60s in the 90s aired on June 19, 1993, the Arts & Culture unit had already been shuttered. Nonetheless, The Works went on for a few more episodes. Locally, the rise and fall of the opposing mythic visions of Los Angeles continued to animate the art scene throughout the decade. Sometimes Peter Sellars' utopian view would reign, and sometimes the only thing we had left was a city on fire, an uprising, the dark mayhem from which our artists continued to draw inspiration. And this was always already Los Angeles's identity.

 

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