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Current:LA, A New Public Art Biennial

Los Angeles River, Current:LA
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Michael Parker, "The Unfinished, 2014
Michael Parker, "The Unfinished, 2014. | Photo: Emma Sheffer.

A recent mayoral announcement officially launched the Department of Cultural Affairs’ new Current:LA initiative, an issues-driven public art biennial whose inaugural edition happens at non-traditional locations scattered across the city in July and August. The first edition, Current:LA Water, addresses the multivalent topic of water’s usage, history, and role in the city’s physical and social infrastructure. This includes the L.A. River, but as the organizers are quick to point out, it is about so much more than just the river. There's water infrastructure throughout the city from the Port of L.A. (San Pedro) to the L.A. wetlands of Ballona Creek, to Hansen Dam in the north), and of course, the coast. 

The DCA’s Public Art Division is using $1 million received through a grant program of the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Public Art Challenge, plus matching funds from the city’s Arts Development Fee (ADF) program, more commonly known as the percent-for-art program that taps developers and other kinds of businesses for sustaining funds for what is usually permanent works of public art. But forget that abstract-sculpture-in-a-plaza model of public art; the Bloomberg grant specifically called for temporary public art projects and public programs at outdoor locations, and the DCA has embraced this paradigm shift with an enthusiast, open-minded can-do spirit taking full advantage of what DCA general manager Danielle Brazell calls “L.A.’s inspired moment.”  

Besides reframing the conversation on what public art can be, Current:LA is also reconfiguring assumptions about what a biennial looks like. 

So what -- and where -- exactly will Current:LA Water be? And what is it going to look like? The non-answer is: we don’t really know yet. We know it’s “about water,” but that could mean a lot of things, by no means all of which have to do with the river, or even the drought per se. Brazell explains: “It's very much about how water flows through our city, with intersecting lines between the waterways, tributaries, and freeways. We are looking to layer and integrate art throughout the landscape and within communities and help to create greater connectivity between them, to look at local cultural connections and tourism in a different way.”

Danielle Brazell at Current:LA event
Anita Contini (Bloomberg Philanthropies), Danielle Brazell (Department of Cultural Affairs), and Ashley Jacobs (Mayor's Fund for Los Angeles) at the Current:LA Water press conference. | Photo: Jorge Vismara/Current:LA on Facebook.

Although the curators and core artists have been announced, the gestalt of the biennial is social practice art -- signifying works which do not always involve sculptural or other objects at all, and which are participatory, socially engaged, site-specific, frequently interdisciplinary, and inherently unpredictable. Calls for corollary programs and related local culture calendars are still going out at this time, so a whole universe of special events and nearby attractions have yet to be announced and will be rolled out as the opening date approaches. Additionally, the specific locations themselves have not been released, beyond the promise of there being at least one in each of the city’s 15 council districts, because in some cases, they are still being scouted and confirmed through negotiations with local representatives and stakeholders. 

The curators are Ruth Estévez (REDCAT, Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater), Rita Gonzalez (LACMA), Karen Moss (Otis College of Art and Design and USC Roski School of Fine Arts and Design), and Irene Tsatsos (Armory Center for the Arts). Felicia Filer, Public Art Division director, says that “very early on, we wanted it be a curatorial committee so there would be multiple practices and perspectives and not just the vision of one person; but we also knew that we wanted to use artists who are considered social practice artists. Again, that's not been the kind of artists that we've been able to support in the past, artists who were working in that modality. We wanted curators that had an interest in social practice art, an interest in the water issue itself, and experience in biennials.” Brazell concurs, adding, “I also think it's really important that the curators are here, they are L.A.-based so there's a deep investment in L.A., and understanding L.A. -- and giving back to L.A.”

The core of 16 artists -- 10 individuals and three teams of two -- has been working with this curatorial team and project managers for some time, but by necessity of circumstance, there’s nothing for the public to see just yet. They are a diverse group in demographics and styles, with some surprises. While some are indeed known primarily as social practice artists, many are not, being seen instead as more conventional gallery artists -- sculptors, photographers, painters. Though all are certainly engaged with civic issues and experimental and experiential art forms, this further clouds the predictions of what kind of art the city is about to receive. Brazell is sanguinely optimistic, expressing total faith in the process. “We are a global city, the world's creative capital. When we talk about that we always think of the sign on the hill, but right now we've got artists that look like L.A., that are going to be engaging in a conversation about a precious, complicated source of life, and directly engaging our communities. That's the catalytic paradigm shift that we at this moment with this progressive civic arts agency are getting into.”

Several of the artists are very well-known both in L.A. and globally, as figures who have brought a very high profile to the genre of social practice. Edgar Arceneaux is perhaps best known for his long-term and somewhat controversial tenure at the Watts House Project, though he also creates abstract works for gallery walls. Rirkrit Tiravanija is an international art star who, among other things, has served rice to viewers at his own openings in a gesture of connection and engagement. Kerry Tribe works frequently in film, video, and installation, bringing nature into the gallery realm, engineering salient collisions between nature and industry. Mel Chin is an international giant of political conceptualism and a pioneer of the social practice genre itself.

Teresa Margolles, "A Través," 2011
Teresa Margolles, "A Través," 2011. Photographical diptych, glossy digital print 71 x 51 cm each panel. Glass coated with sweat, grease and grime extracted from t-shirts worn over a period of time by 150 young Mexicans; mechanics, butchers and trades people. Over the last years more than 23 thousand young men have been recruited by criminal organizations in Mexico.  | Image: Courtesy of the artist and Mor Charpentier Gallery.

Several of the others have done work that uses various kinds of technology to engage public spaces and architectural instances in innovative, ameliorative or subversive ways. Refik Anadol and Peggy Weil employ and design digital media, projection, and appropriated technology to interact with the physical/built environment (for example when Anadol’s projection mapped the exterior of Disney Hall). Joshua Callaghan often uses photographic vinyl murals and he is partnered with Daveed Kapoor who has a deep interest in architectural idioms as well. Some take interdisciplinary approaches that present more like music or performance art, but are always oriented to socially engaged agendas. Lucky Dragons (Luke Fischbeck and Sarah Rara) is an ongoing collaboration which the artists describe as “researching forms of participation, dissent, perception and attention in performance and public art, purposefully working towards a better understanding of existing ecologies through workshops, publications, and recordings.” Chris Kallmyer works within the framework of music too, and is a Lucky Dragons collaborator in that same vein.

But a significant number of the artists are known for other things entirely. Kori Newkirk is known as a sculptor and photographer, but his work is always tethered to social issues, especially about labor as a social construct, considering material sources and economic resources with site-responsiveness and upcycled materials. Candice Lin works in film and sculpture, in the format of more traditional gallery installations, but with a topicality of environmental degradation and mutation. Teresa Margolles is a conceptual artist, photographer, videographer and performance artist. Michael Parker works in performance, book-making, photography, architecture, video, and film. Gala Porras-Kim works in drawing and sculpture with interests in conceptual linguistics and abstract social anthropology, and is also included in the Hammer’s Made in L.A. Biennial opening this summer. That bi-annual schedule will of course continue, and although nothing has been mentioned, it’s easy enough to imagine their eventual confluence or cooperation through future concurrent iterations of both.

But for now, it’s all about water. Brazell characterizes their choice of theme as both nuanced and obvious. But again, as Brazell reiterates, it’s not just about the L.A. River.  “What Felicia and the public art team came up with was the concept of actually using art to do something for our city. And while water is not just a local issue, it's a global issue, it's a major issue for L.A. and one that we need to address and deal with, so the idea was to create something that is issue-driven but also anchored along infrastructure that connects Los Angeles to itself in a way that we haven't really been able to do before.” Besides seeking the active involvement of sister agencies like Mobile Bike Share, DASH and Metro, there are also the agencies and organizations more directly involved in river rehab and other ecological and usage issues. They have River LA (formerly the LARRC, or L.A. River Revitalization Committee) as their “location managers,” a kind of outside production team overseeing the environmental interactions, for example.

People have started calling now that the initial announcement has been made, asking about getting involved, and they are going to be folded in. “I think that's a shift in the culture of this department,” says Filer. “We're creating a mechanism that allows for inclusivity. And that's what the Call of Calendars will do, by adding in all the activities dealing with water that might be happening nearby given sites throughout the summer.”

 Rirkrit Tiravanija, "Untitled 2005"
Rirkrit Tiravanija, "untitled 2005 (the air between the chain-link fence and the broken bicycle wheel)," 2015. Glass and stainless-steel structure with transmitter; wood structure with receiver and furniture; DVD player and two monitors; two antennas; wallpaper. Installation view, Hugo Boss Prize, Guggenheim Museum, New York.

Filer continues: “I think the other sort of paradigm shift goes back to this idea of having 15 sites. If you've gone to a biennial, you know there's a central ticketed pavilion where everyone goes. There are satellite and collateral projects, but often those communities don't even know what's happening in their own neighborhoods, much less are they engaged or participating. So that's a big part of it. Just to traverse the city is quite a journey -- there are 15 council districts -- but because we wanted to make this a citywide initiative, we wanted to make sure there was something in each one, so that all of our communities had something in their own backyard.” It’s an idea for a biennial that is as far out, fragmented, eccentric, and unique as the city itself. It’s a large-scale project that's extremely intimate, says Brazell. “The scale is sprawling, but the work itself has a more intimate quality to it, happening between the artist and audience/participant. It reflects L.A.'s geography; you won't be driving through its midst, you’ll have to seek it out a little bit, so it becomes a special experience -- which reflects how people use the city.” Eager to let each project reflect its situated neighborhood, to be itself, transforms the challenge of the map into a uniqueness to be celebrated. “Why,” she asks “should we try to be another city than the one we are?”

And Filer, too, has faith in the process and framework they are building working itself out. “I think with artists that are engaged in social practice, they are actually on the ground, establishing relationships with stakeholders in the communities in which they are going to be making work, seeing what the local resources are.” And it’s true, this is what those artists already do, at least in part -- and when it comes to the river, it's probably exciting for them to actually have a permit instead of a fake safety vest and a clip-board. Because physical access to the L.A. River and other kinds of infrastructure or privately held lands has been one of those things that's enchanted, seduced, and sometimes gotten artists in trouble many times over the years. “Current:LA is not just about the river,” Filer reminds us, “but it is going to be activating parts of the river, amplifying the work of FOLAR and other folks who have been fighting the good fight for years already.”

Water as an issue is of course more than fraught with economic, political, historical thorns, but Current:LA seizes the opportunity for public education and discourse that the biennial represents.

Top image: Los Angeles River from 7th Street bridge. | Photo: Steve Devol/Flickr/Creative Commons License.

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