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Concord Art Space: The Precarity of the Poets Next Door

PS1010, Break down outside Flagstaff. Photo courtesy Concord.
PS1010, Break down outside Flagstaff. | Photo: Courtesy of Concord.

Hubs & Hybrids is an ongoing series of interviews with those at the helm of some of L.A.'s most compelling artist-run and experimental visual and performing arts spaces.

As my collaborator Emily Anne Kuriyama and I near the end of this Hubs & Hybrids survey of seven artist-run spaces, we have been both awed by what these fairly young spaces have been able to accomplish in a few short years, but also painfully aware that their precarity is the greatest threat to the work they are trying to do. At stake in this balance is the unique ecology of Los Angeles as an arts capital and a center for experimental work to flourish. Sustainability is a problem for all of these spaces, especially those that lean towards more experimental programming, because they are doing work that does not conform to a neoliberal capitalist model of economic success. In some ways our focus this week, Concord, a two-year-old collectively-run space in an old warehouse in Cypress Park that recently closed its doors, took to an extreme the underlying themes of live-work space, networks of makers, and an interdisciplinary and a multi-faceted approach that we found so attractive about the other spaces. By living where they worked, creating artwork individually or together and investigating their own relationships as the raw material in their art practices, the members of Concord had so much at stake; they existed within the space and it existed because of them. It was tied to their livelihood, their values, and their friendships. One can argue this is true of many other artist-run spaces to lesser extremes; they thrive in the hidden corners of our society not yet consumed by ambitions tied to the accrual of capital.

These conditions cannot last though; neighborhoods gentrify and despite artists' best intentions they are implicated in that shift. Because of their precarity they can be easily repositioned by forces beyond their control. As Concord has been forced to close its doors soon after we spoke to them in early October (their landlord will not renew their lease), we are using this opportunity to discuss their brief legacy as a dynamic space and advocate for the kind of cultural and spatial production they embodied. Shouldn't artists have a right to the city equal to that of business owners? There must be a way to acknowledge the value of spaces driven not by capital but by other equally important forces- - of art, of ideas, of a deeper understanding of the world and ourselves.

Concord was on the edge of a residential neighborhood, with well-kept houses and framed by the picturesque San Gabriel Mountains. The only way we could enter the space was under a large rolling metal garage door, often propped up a few feet for ventilation. Inside, the building was airy and large, with high rafters and brick walls, a seamless intermixing of private and public spaces. Though it was constantly refiguring itself, at any given time there was a white-cube gallery, a library, a lounge area, a kitchen, cluttered workspaces, bedroom/studios, and a constantly shifting group of people living there. Concord engaged in a dizzying array of multi-disciplinary programs--from literary programs, film screenings, pedagogical events, exhibitions, and performances, to much more sweeping collectively authored projects and publications. The list of events and projects they have done in the two and a half years of their existence is staggering and impressive, but really was the product of a dedicated founding group of artists and writers and a revolving door of resident artists from all fields.

Two of the founders, Arjuna Neuman (a visual artist, writer, and documentarian) and Marco di Domenico (a writer who doesn't like to categorize his work too narrowly), as well as another member of the collective who had been deeply involved since the beginning, Tracy Jeanne Rosenthal (a writer and performer who characterizes her work as "the monster academia created") recently spoke to me about Concord's inception. Arjuna talked about wanting to start the space initially as a way to both continue the conversations started in graduate school (they all went to CalArts) and to fulfill their sudden needs for living space, studio space, and space to show work and experiment. As someone who has a history of living in and out of communes and collectives, he saw the value in combining all of these spatial needs in the same building, producing a kind of autonomous zone for experimentation in art, ideas, and communal living. Interdisciplinarity was an important factor too - though CalArts touts itself as an interdisciplinary space for production, these graduates experienced very little of that and were interested in experimenting with multi-disciplinary cultural production. In their first year, Concord grew to understand firsthand what is most challenging about interdisciplinarity; an overly disparate set of concerns with little overlap or shared language. They realized that the space itself was the only uniting thread, including the people who live there, their relationships, and what can happen in such an environment. According to Arjuna, this caused the collective to naturally gravitate towards artwork and events in the form of social gatherings, relational aesthetics, and social practice through which to explore the social nature of the space itself and the work of living together.

In the past year, Concord took this realization and organized several collectively-conceptualized projects around the concept of "collective feeling." Beyond having a depth psychologist as an artist-in-residence at one point, they also authored two projects that worked with the material of relationships, pedagogy and translation. Both included intense exchanges with collectives at other artist-run spaces, creating a feedback loop of process that amplified and intensified the projects themselves. The make-up of the collectives themselves was ever-shifting and characterized by Tracy as "amoeba-like" - expanding to include Concord residents, collaborators, friends and artists in other spaces on certain projects and rapidly contracting on others.

PS1010. | Photo courtesy Concord.
PS1010. | Photo: Courtesy of Concord.

PS1010, on its surface a large teal school bus that housed the entire provisional Concord collective in a mobile laboratory for a month-long journey across the country, started out as an exchange with Good Children Gallery in New Orleans at the behest of Concord resident artist Siobhan Feehan. Concord was invited by Siobhan to do an exhibition at Good Children, and they were influenced by a recent event with Ultra-red's School of Echoes project (which focuses on popular education and processes of listening) to collect experiences, conversations, and objects along the journey that would manifest in the exhibition at the end. This was poetic way of reflecting on their own dialogical process, horizontal communication and methods of experimental pedagogy. Because so many writers were part of the collective (one Concord collaborator even began referring to them as a literary collective), building a shared language and vocabulary around such projects became an important way to open up the process. For PS1010, they organized an intense conference which was both a powerful send-off, but also a way to, as Tracy Jeanne Rosenthal put it "introduce our different influences to one another and to our community." Marco described it as a method for gathering things to take with them on their journey; not just food and clothing, but concepts, epistemologies, and a language for decoding what they were embarking upon together.

"Transpositions" was a multi-layered exchange with Sydney University's Verge Gallery, realized by a different (but overlapping) provisional 20-person collective made up of Concord members and Australian artists associated with the Sydney gallery. Concord became interested in the concept of exchange, translation, and what becomes lost or collectively found in that process. They began with an exchange of artworks between LA and Australia, but used those works "to read the space" as Tracy described it, by superimposing the art on top of a map of their space to begin to map a topography of Concord. With the Sydney gallery, they organized a slumber party where the Australian half of the collective slept in the gallery, then Concord skyped with them first thing in the morning to interpret their dreams. They then used those dreams as the inspiration for a script with a cast of characters, which actors planted in a dinner party in Sydney played out a week later. That four-hour dinner party was recorded in full, and Concord held a subsequent silent dinner party later and listened to the field recordings as they ate. They ended the month-long process with a trans-pacific reflective panel. Tracy characterized the project like "Russian dolls," and Marco noted that the "confusion was interesting," because it was meant to be confusing and somewhat untranslatable. (Though it was quite eloquently described here in an essay by Esther Rolfe.) Projects at Concord tended to roll on like this--finding new iterations and new meanings as they are unpacked and repacked and torn apart again.

Exchange is what kept Concord dynamic, and nowhere was this more apparent than in its residency program. Resident artists (or writers, curators, anarchists, anthropologists, and depth psychologists) came and lived at Concord for three months at a time, contributed events and exhibitions, and helped out in the running, cleaning, and conceptualization of the space itself. Their full integration into the collective characterized this residency above all others, and challenged the practices of the artists involved and the collective itself. Arjuna recalls some of the most interesting early residents, who were kind of broke and needed a place to live and ended up contributing enormously to the space and its direction. Since those early days, the residency programs became submission-based and increasingly expansive, including artists from abroad or locally that were part of "emergent collectives that are capable of springing up or dissipating" at a moment's notice. (Tracy Jeanne Rosenthal)

Ultimately, living together, being close to one another's disparate practices and ways of thinking, was the core material of Concord's experimentation, and seeped into every aspect of its program. The catalytic influence of the space was key to how its members define success; metrics include the lasting partnerships formed, conversations that started there that have not happened elsewhere, and the challenges to entrenched disciplinary ideas that are upended by close proximity to diverse (ware)housemates. Marco summed it up eloquently: "After living here for two and a half years, it's not just a space I organize, it's part of my life. So when people come into my home and have a sense of wonder, walk out with their minds changed, or form new lasting relationships as a result, that's worth it. And I enjoy being hospitable, giving food to nourish their bodies and art and ideas to nourish their minds." Concord closed its doors just last month, and though its core members plan on continuing their work, by leaving that space, they are releasing a core aspect of their current identity. The anchor, the thread is no longer present, and by necessity they must become something else entirely.

While they were open, Concord was engaged in a kind of spatial production that cannot be understood as a "strategic site for commodification processes," as capitalist cities have been characterized by urban theorists like Henri Lefebvre, Manuel Castells, and David Harvey. Their processes and the space they have produced, as is true of all the artist-run spaces we have encountered, adheres to a different set of emergent properties. What is the value of these non-commodified spaces for art? Lefebvre has argued for a radically democratized process of production described as a "right to the city" which urban theorist Peter Marcuse says is two-fold--including both the right to enjoy and consume what the city has to offer, and the right to produce the city. An alternative vision of the city, according to Marcuse, is found in the sectors of society that are not operated on the profit system (that are "within it, but not of it") and that rely on "solidarity, humanity, the flexing of muscles, and the development of creative impulses, for their own sake." (from "What Right to Whose City" by Peter Marcuse, in Cities for People, Not Profit ed. Neil Brenner) By what processes can places like places like Actual Size, Favorite Goods, Pehrspace, Elephant, Public Fiction, Concord, and Control Room (next week's post) realize their work without "swinging from vine to vine, with that moment of freefall, never sure if the next vine will materialize" as Lauren Mackler put it? How to translate the value of these spaces into relaxed zoning and permitting requirements, increased funding opportunities, low-cost legal and insurance services for artist-run spaces? It is up to we who value this kind of democratized creative production to advocate for the continued existence of our artists and poets next door.

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