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Chats About Change: The Intersection of Art and Activism

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East Hollywood Utility Box Project, 2012, East Hollywood, Medium: Acrylic on Metal, 72" x 48" x 36" Artist: Stephanie Argueta & Helen Bernstein High School Youth, Commissioned: Nissan Foundation, Weingart Foundation, East Hollywood Neighborhood Council. | Photo: Martha Benedict.

Chats About Change: Critical Conversations on Art and Politics is five conversations addressing contemporary themes that artists and activists are developing in Los Angeles today.

Los Angeles is at a critical moment when it comes to art. Not because it's "underappreciated as a world art center" as The New York Times informed us in 2011. Or because it's a "burgeoning art capital" as The New York Times revised in 2014. No, it's because L.A. has actually moved past the "up-and-coming" stage into a fully integrated part of the art world. (Look no further than The New York Times' recent article about art advisor Stefan Simchowitz to measure L.A.'s influence in the market).

There's no denying L.A.'s impact anymore, ergo the city's need to dig into some critical issues -- how to involve people outside the art world in creative discussions, how to make sure the art world is an equal place, how art plays into sociology -- something that will happen at Chats About Change: Critical Conversations on Art and Politics in Los Angeles, a two-part series of panel discussions that will take place at California State University Los Angeles on January 15 and at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE) on January 17.

Chats About Change co-organizer, and Artbound contributor Robby Herbst, an L.A.-based artist and educator, had the city's situation in mind last year when he stumbled across an impassioned Facebook post by artist Christy Roberts about seed bombing, the practice of making balls of seeds to throw in hard-to-reach urban places in order to symbolically -- and physically -- take back the land. In the comments, the post germinated into a discussion about the various artists in Los Angeles who use seed bombing as a tactic in art making. Another artist, Elana Mann -- who works mainly in a medium of art called 'social practice' that conceptually deals with political and social agendas -- chimed in that they should take the discussion live.

Daniel Joseph Martinez, "Bail Bonds Oxygen," 2012, Mixed media with colored neon
Daniel Joseph Martinez, "Bail Bonds Oxygen," 2012, Mixed media with colored neon.

"It's exciting it's on Facebook," Mann says with a laugh over the phone, "but let's make this more public. I said, 'I'll organize it, maybe Robby can moderate it, because he's contributed a lot to the conversation.' We got together and talked about the project being bigger than one discussion."

As the former editor of the political art publication The Journal of Aesthetics & Protest, Herbst was aware of the national and international conversations that were happening in the art world. "We were always trying to figure out how to bring that dialogue to Los Angeles," said Herbst in a separate phone interview. "I have always wanted to have a convening of politically minded artists and interdisciplinary practitioners in Los Angeles."

Mann and Herbst took to the community and began to meet with their peers as they built a program. "We had a few ideas between the two of us looking broadly at different seams like environmental issues, strategies, and problematics within working methods," says Mann. "We also met with small groups of our peers to discuss with them: if they were going to go to Chats About Change, what would they want to talk about? What would be important to them, and who would they want to be involved? One of the things [our peers stressed] was to not make it so art world insider-y, and bring in people that were working on the fringes or even just activists who maybe didn't identify as artists. We involved a number of those sorts of folks in the chats."

Harameh Massoumeen va Shohadha, "Threshold of the Innocents and Martyred," 2009. | Photo: Jonas Becker
Harameh Massoumeen va Shohadha, "Threshold of the Innocents and Martyred," 2009. | Photo: Jonas Becker.
Walk The Talk | Courtesy of LAPD.
Walk The Talk | Courtesy of LAPD.

The duo modeled their panels after other creative conferences held recently around the nation, such as the Creative Time Summit in New York and Open Engagement in Pittsburgh, but wanted to expand upon the political nature of those talks, which weren't actually as radical as they boasted they would be. "What we heard from our peers was that [these conferences] really weren't diverse at all in terms of perspective, strategy, and ethnicity, and that that was deeply concerning for people. Our conference was a response to these recent gatherings," says Mann.

The resulting program includes a talk titled "Flowers for Action, Seeds for Change" about transdisciplinary approaches to art and activism held at Cal State L.A., as well as talks entitled "How Can I Participate?," "Creative Dissonance," "Pivoting: Ethics and Aesthetics," and "Between the Artist, the Organizer, and the Social Worker." Participants will include artists and creative individuals from around Los Angeles, including Jennifer Moon, Micol Hebron, Taisha Paggett, Sandra de la Loza, and Christy Roberts, the seedbombing impetus behind the talks.

"The Giving Tree (in collaboration with Yarn Bombing Los Angeles)," 2012
"The Giving Tree (in collaboration with Yarn Bombing Los Angeles)," 2012.

In between the panel discussions will be set-aside time for audience participation and workshopping, as well as cocktails at the end of the chats.

What do Herbst and Mann hope to see come from Chats About Change?

"As an organizer, I would love for this to continue to seed the desire to have more of these conversations," says Mann. "I was inspired by the 'Decolonizing the White Box' conversations [about diversity in art] that have been going on at Human Resources, and I just want to see more. I'd be excited to see people leave Chats About Change, and say 'I'm going to get a group of people together to talk about gentrification.' I want this to be a spark for further projects. Those are my lofty goals."

Lauren Bon and the Metabolic Studio, "Strawberry Flag" 2009-2010 Westwood, Los Angeles
Lauren Bon and the Metabolic Studio, "Strawberry Flag" 2009-2010 Westwood, Los Angeles.

For Herbst, it goes back to the issue of wresting the conversation about L.A. art making practices from the often-booming voice of the market. "[I want] to really build the consciousness amongst people that if we want to maintain the relative independence of creative production that is not determined by the marketplace, then we really need to understand that the works that we're doing are about things greater than what can be bought and sold," he says. "Right now, as the market starts to skew dialogue away from some of the more longstanding questions of Los Angeles around DIY, independent, freaky production that characterized L.A. from Mike Kelley or [Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro's 1970s performance space] Womanhouse forward. Now you have this thing where the market is developing as its own force in Los Angeles. Now is the time to insist on other languages and to start to develop a consciousness around what it means to not lose that. We need to really enjoy what we do have here."

Read our entire Chats About Change series:

Chats About Change: Critical Conversations on Art and Politics
The event "Critical Conversations on Art and Politics in Los Angeles" addressed the stakes for work that engages in the space of art and politics.

Chats About Change: Changing the Terms of Engagement
"Chats About Change" questions and reflects on people's relationship to the land as a colonized space.

Chats About Change: Ethics and Aesthetics
The third panel in social practice conference "Chats About Change" was devoted to artists' anecdotal experiences rotating between ethics and aesthetics.

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