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Control Room: Art Space Pioneers in Downtown L.A.

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Control Room at Night | Photo Courtesy Control Room.
Control Room at Night | Photo: Courtesy of Control Room.

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.

The first time I went to Control Room was in September of last year for the opening of Ragen Moss's "Decent Argument Over Obscene Matter." There was a mass of people standing outside, and I squeezed my way inside, drafting off of a particularly nimble person in front of me. There was a field of works hung on the walls. The lenses of 8mm cameras jutted out from vertically hung plexi-glass cases, behind each was silvery paper embossed with legal text -- "I know it when I see it" has stuck in my mind. I was struck by the aggressiveness of the work and, in fact, the space in general. I had come to see artwork that, in turn, seemed to be seeing me. Even though the gallery was packed, people tip toed around spliced 8mm cameras that were sitting on the floor, and Moss's practice seemed to come at me again, pushing my awareness and behavior into a tangibly spatial realm.

Control Room's aversion to defining themselves is one of their biggest draws, making each exhibition as conceptually combative as they are visually exciting. As this Hubs & Hybrids series draws to a close, I can't help but wonder how these experimental spaces can maintain freedom and autonomy when regulatory forces and community-wide shifts are so completely out of their control. Control Room was in downtown Los Angeles before the neighborhood began to have an arts rebirth, and during those years, they had the ability to produce exhibitions and have openings without many constrictions.

Demographic shifts in Control Room's surrounding neighborhood have translated into more policing, and plainclothes police officers shut down the space during a joint event with Cool World, a roaming concert of queer performers. Among other things, Control Room was accused of a dancing violation.

Last post, my collaborator Sue Bell Yank wrote about the recent closing of Concord Art Space and the fragile precarity of artist-run spaces in Los Angeles's cultural landscape. Evelena Ruether and William Kaminski launched Control Room on New Year's Eve in 2009, marking the transition into a new decade. Now, nearly four years later, Ruether and Kaminski are contemplating the bleak reality of a forced closure in the face of rising permitting costs and police pressure. Questions of context, control, and autonomy have driven Control Room's programming since its inception, so it seems especially painful to consider the space's current dilemma of following financially untenable bureaucratic stipulations or ceasing to exist.

Inaugural Exhibition, New Years 2010 | Photo Courtesy Control Room.
Inaugural Exhibition, New Years 2010. | Photo: Courtesy of Control Room.

William Kaminski: We met as undergraduates in the Fine Art program at Art Center, so we both were artists with art practices and slowly, both of us simultaneously, started thinking of a space. I was becoming more focused on installation and Eve was very much in that category, always responding to whatever was around the artwork as being part of the artwork.

Evelena Ruether: I had started in photography and then that turned into a sculpture-based practice and then the context of the artwork became what I was focusing on. Between being in a critique environment in undergrad all the time and talking about artwork and the space around artwork - the focus of where the art and how the art exists and that leading into showing other artwork and curating and supporting other artists and being a part of a dialogue. I didn't feel like I needed to be the one always producing the artwork. Producing a show felt just as much a part of my art practice at the time, so this is something we started thinking about together at the time.

WK: For me, curating was a way of getting out some aggression. Personally, I started becoming frustrated with any notion of--I don't know why I was responding to so much energy that's scary maybe--an autonomous artwork or an autonomous artist or an autonomous art practice--I was like, no! I think Eve graduated three months before I did. We did this show where this artist made this deconstructed bird's nest that she found in a tree. It was pretty delicate. You want to tip-toe around it. That's demanding such an intense context or behavior from everybody, so we'll put this in the show with this other artist, Jonathan Fields, who was always taking apart speakers and breaking glass and all this really aggressive stuff. I was like, "These things are in a show together." His felt overly aggressive and hers felt fragile.

ER: I had this space as a live-work space while I was in school. A lot of my work was driven by the space, and we were talking about sharing this space as a studio. At some point during that year when we had been out of school for a few months and we were watching what was happening to all of the artist's practices. This community that we had built in undergrad which I think can be really rare and we didn't want to see everybody drift apart. We didn't see our community as stepping into the door or showing our work in Chinatown or Culver City or these very established art communities. We felt the need to start our own, and make sure we could support the production of new work by these artists that we all felt really strongly about and have a space where they felt comfortable and invited and excited about continuing their practices because that's such a crucial time when people are figuring out whether they want to go to graduate school or not and how to continue making art.

LA News | Photo Courtesy Control Room.
LA News. | Photo: Courtesy of Control Room.

WK: There was an eagerness of that point in an artist's development where you're like, "A show?! Cool!" Of course, because there's no other opportunities to do anything like that. It's either you sit at home and look at your work there, and that's it. Maybe your friend comes over and sees it or something. Or you can put it on this wall and everyone can come and see it. We felt like that was something we wanted to give to our friends, because we thought they were great. Our first show was basically every artist that we knew, like eleven people or something. We did that on New Year's Eve of 2009.

ER: It was this new decade we felt like we were going into. The decision to start the space happened in November, like "Let's just do it. We're going to open on New Year's." The fact that it's four years later and we're still doing it isn't something we were thinking a lot about. We just did it, because we had the space and we wanted to, so it happened really rapidly. We did around six things that year, every two months. We were more spaced out and doing this as we could so we could put a lot of time and consideration into everything we were doing. Even at the time, everybody else was doing things every five or six weeks and that wasn't something we felt the need to compete with or keep up to, because we were working full time jobs and trying to make the space go. The next year, we both started graduate school.

WK: I found out that I was accepted to school in February, right after we had started the space. I had submitted my portfolio and everything two days after the opening of Control Room. From the time I had submitted a portfolio for the studio program to when I actually started the program, all of Control Room happened. Suddenly I was in a different mental space. My focus was not at all on objects. I was thinking about other spaces here and how they coalesce the energy that they have. Who are the people? What are the people wanting get out of it socially? I was starting to think about all these other things that have nothing to do with anything I submitted to UCLA, so when I showed up, I was like, "What? You want me to do what here?"

FRIDGE | Photo Courtesy Control Room.
FRIDGE. | Photo: Courtesy of Control Room.

ER: Our communities just exploded. Friends of ours who had been a part of our Art Center community were going to Claremont or CalArts, and there was this whole network. We were in this really great position to be a bridge between all of these schools. Group shows were really the thing we were using as our format for a long time, because that was a way of bringing all of these different ideas and people together in one place. That was working so well for so long, because we were meeting so many people constantly and seeing connections and building relationships. It was a really exciting time.

WK: Right. Not only did our community radically shift, but our purpose shifted. It was no longer like, "Oh, we're kids and we don't know. Nobody's going to give us a show, so we'll give each other shows." We started to think that this was actually a vessel that we could steer through this whole city, having people come to us with curatorial proposals. It was an incubator of a lot of different energy. And not just artists from L.A. but artists who came here from New York for school or came here from Chicago, all these other different places.

ER: We've never nailed down a mission statement, purposefully so, not because we don't know, but because I think it's really important to always be questioning what you're doing, figuring out as you go. The structure that we've put up for that, as difficult as it can be and sometimes as unsustainable as it may feel, is in order to keep things as free and up in the air as possible. We can always be figuring it out. We don't have answers.

WK: To be specific, she means that we don't get grants.

ER: We're not a non-profit, and we're not a commercial gallery.

WK: We're nothing. A lot of people think we're idiots, because we're not trying to be a non-profit.

Seven Minutes in Heaven | Photo Courtesy Control Room.
Seven Minutes in Heaven. | Photo: Courtesy of Control Room.

ER: You're [WK] always talking about how we started the space and the non-autonomy of the art object, but also the autonomy of the space being really important. I've never made that correlation before, as the space having independence and not being tied to something at a lot of sacrifice. We're pretty attached to that I think. What happens is we're out of school now and artists, like us and everyone around us, want only to move forward, and you watch spaces and artists around you taking different strategies that may or may not align more with commercial activity. When you've started something based on all the ideas we were talking about independence and autonomy and some DIY energy, it can be difficult to know how to navigate everyone asking if we're going to get a bigger space or make money. All these things that have never been an issue.

WK: No strings attached, that's the point. We just had an event and it was shut down by the police, which has happened one other time out of thirty events. Sometimes, we have 300 people in the space, another 80 people outside. And it was cool. I think that something about that very specific energy of nobody's watching, somehow this is ours. That's a feeling we could give to everybody who is coming to it. It's shared. For a long time, nobody else was down here. Of course, now that's changed, but for a long time it was like if someone came down here, they were going to stay down here. There's a great bar across the street, and we always have a lot of beer in our fridge. We would have six hour openings.

ER: I think what built our audience is the fact that all the artists who have been in or come to our shows can feel that the space is partly theirs, especially when they're in our shows. That's what we're after. We work really closely with everybody. That's something that went into naming the space Control Room. Like, are we in control? Are the artists in control? That was what we were thinking about when we started it. We don't just hand over the keys to the space, and the artist's don't just do it all by themselves. We're really closely involved with the moves we make, and that's what makes it exciting for us. It's an art project for both of us. Our practices have come in and out of this space being our focus, which can be personally difficult when you're trying to maintain everything at once. That hand that we have in the shows is what makes it feel as tied to the show as much as the artists feel like the space is theirs.

Sue Bell Yank: How do those decisions get made between you? Who do you decide to work with?

WK: That's really complicated. We talk about everything, but things come from different places. One of us will have a certain tingling hair about one issue that we want to unpack. I think it's important to let those motivations enter into it, because we think it's really important for this to be an artistic experiment for both of us. We want to follow things that are getting us irritated about something, letting our own experience and who we are affect the programming.

The Oldest of Rainbows | Photo Courtesy Control Room.
The Oldest of Rainbows. | Photo: Courtesy of Control Room.

SBY: Who would you say ends up showing up for your programs and events?

WK: UCLA undergrads.

ER: Every show is interesting especially when there's a guest curator. A lot of different people come to each show. It's funny that after four years I still feel like we're always getting new people who have or have not heard about us. There are people who have known about our space for a long time and finally make it. I think that's always happening. The longer you go, the more people make it to your space. We do lots of different kinds of events that draw different people.

SBY: As soon as you have a space and it has a name and you're showing artists, there's a level of establishment that happens almost automatically, subsumation or something. You mentioned that, in the beginning, wanting the space to be really open and accessible and friendly to artists, and I wonder how you continue to balance between those two things?

ER: That was part of the environment of the openings being really long, and being a place where people were hanging out and talking. The physical space always changing created something else. Every time people came in here, it was different. That was a great energy, and something that I cared a lot about as what initially started the space and thinking about what context the work is placed in. We were doing whatever best suited the work. A space conforming to what the artwork needed and not the other way around was really interesting to us. That's off a tangent of your question, but I think artists feeling like a space can be beholden to their work is pretty cool.

WK: I liked your question about success and failure.

SBY: I feel like you touched on that a bit, but if you have more thoughts...

WK: It's a much harder question to answer. If we have a big opening with three of four hundred people here and everyone is really excited and the space is open until midnight, that seems like success.

ER: It's so much of the behind the scenes process of putting together a show and the relationships that are built that have left us feeling really great. That's not visible to anyone. It wouldn't be visible in a review. It wouldn't be visible at the opening, but the process of collaborating is really important to us.

WK: I think it's feeling that our space is useful to the artwork and the artists generating things in Los Angeles. That in the end is the most realistic thing to think of as being success. We are at this crossroads obviously now, considering the legal issues. It seems so real to me that if things don't go well in the next month when we're meeting with people and figuring things out that, in a year, Control Room could be a distant memory that a few grad students from a few years ago had. Would I feel like a failure or would I feel like it failed because it ended? I certainly know some spaces that are still around, but aren't doing anything interesting. That question was exciting to me because it was scary. We're facing that.

ER: On the level of the space itself, not each show, but what we are.

WK: We also don't want to be a space that's like, "Hey! Come on. We're having another opening. Please. We're still around ten years running." We definitely see no point in doing that, but I don't feel like our work is done. We're starting to think more aggressively about curating, like there's this problem and this problem and this problem in the art world. We have a space, that's agency.

ER: A lot of our shows come out of a really intense frustration, like "The Privilege Show" which was super overt and all of the gestures leading up to that came out of this frustration we have and feel around us also. Again, that's what makes it an artist's project. There's a reason that commercial galleries cannot do something like what we did, and that's a freedom that would be lost if we took other avenues.

WK: I've used the phrase "wanting to weaponize the space" going forward, thinking about how we can really bump the discussion, shift things here or there. We're all in. We have nothing to lose. I'm definitely not going to be very good at flirting with collectors at lunches. That's not who I am, and I never will be that way. Artists who can do that, that's great, but this is what we do. We have a space and we set our sights on problems and do whatever we can that the space gives you. I feel like it'd be really sad if it stopped right now. I don't want that to happen, but we'll see.

FLICKER | Photo Courtesy Control Room.
FLICKER. | Photo: Courtesy of Control Room.

Emily Anne Kuriyama: Your biographical storylines align a lot with the space, and you mentioned the neighborhood and how when you started there was nobody coming down here. I was wondering if you could expand on how that has changed or if it has changed?

ER: I got the space in 2008 as a live as a live-work space because I found it. This bar was not here. It was not a cool place where people would go. Pizzanista was not there. There was no reason to come down here. People were like, "You're living where?! Isn't that three blocks from Skid Row? What is wrong with you?" It happened really slowly. I'd see Hollywood-looking people walking down the street to the bar, because there was a new owner and he didn't change the sign or anything, so people started to come here. At one of our opening, this guy was like, "I'm opening a pizza place across the street." And it was Salman Agah, this famous skateboarder. He opened that place and it's hugely successful and now there are two other galleries who might be involved in a different art conversation, but nonetheless, are down the street. We have a friend who just got one of the spaces behind us as a live-work studio.

WK: The fanciest grocery store that I know of in L.A., Urban Radish, is a block away. The neighborhood is almost unfamiliar.

ER: Really early on, people had this really accusatory thing about gentrifications, but the thing is, these were sweatshops. This is industry. Nobody is getting displaced from their homes. It was only last year that we walked outside and there were arts district signs on the telephone poles, and I'm like, "What?" This stuff just shows up. When it's happening around you and you feel so involved but somehow...

SBY: Without any agency in it.

WK: And alienated. And we're going to die just as everyone is starting to come here and define it as a new arts place.

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