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Incubators: Machine Project

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Machine Project storefront | Photo: Courtesy of Machine Project.
Machine Project storefront featuring the piece 'Give It To Me' by Corey Fogel | Photo: Courtesy of Machine Project.

Artbound's Incubators series examines the geography of Southern California creative spaces. These in-depth profiles seek to illuminate an interconnected ecosystem of artistic production, which is often obscured by the high visibility of commercial galleries and large museums. This cartography of creativity will delineate a new art map, charting spaces that don't just display artwork; they are active participants in the creation of it too.

Our first interview is with Mark Allen, Executive Director and Founder of Machine Project.

How was Machine Project conceived and how did you originally come up with the idea?

I had moved to California in '97 to go to grad school at Cal Arts, where I met Robby [Herbst] and a lot of the people I work with now. After graduating, this artist Eddo Stern that I worked and collaborated with started this place called C-Level in Chinatown. It started as the idea of a shared lab and it morphed into being more of a public space. We were having screenings and talks and presentations, [but] that project came to a close because some of the people moved. So I was looking for a place to live in this neighborhood (Echo Park) and this storefront was for rent. So I rented it without a firm intention of what I wanted to do with it. I was really interested in grassroots public programming and the implicit porosity of a storefront. The C-Level space1 had an amazing kind of theater to it a lot of drama, but it was not porous. People did not go there at random. Whereas this space seemed like a part of L.A. that was a little more pedestrian, that it had some mix of different kinds of people living here, and that it was more public in a sense. And I was interested in a lot of different threads of L.A. culture at the time - the science community, poetry, art - so I was thinking that it could be a space that could try and over time build a diverse audience. Each event could be quite specific and pointed. But over time you would manage to cover a fairly wide range of human culture. Small communities are very invested in specific discourses and feeling the value of that and those self-select - but Los Angeles had so many different versions of these that [I thought] they could start to relate to each other in a certain way.

It was a decision that you could make fairly esoteric or specific content accessible to people through hospitality rather than simplicity. There's this one idea that to make content accessible you have to dumb it down for people, whereas my experience is that people really want in-depth, complex information that they're unfamiliar with. It's more that they need it presented in a way that's comfortable. When human beings are confronted with things they don't understand, there's really only two core reactions we have to that. One of them is, "Oh, I don't belong" or "I'm embarrassed" or "I should know this" or "This isn't my thing." And the other is "Wow, what is that weird thing over there?" So what I try and do is connect people to that second feeling and I use really straight forward strategies for doing that. So those strategies are porosity, that the door is open, the window is open, you can see what's going on in there. We make the events free, so that people can just wander in. We tend to present things with a fair amount of comedy because that sort of sets a stage for comfort. And we just try to be hospitable. We just try to make it be a friendly and accessible sort of space.

And one of the things that I was looking at was, "What can you do as an alternative space that a commercial gallery can't do?" You don't have as much money, you don't have as many resources, and in some ways you don't have the same sort of cultural capital. But you can make people feel comfortable rather than alienated. Whereas in a commercial gallery there is a dynamic of economy built around scarcity and alienation. So I tried to look at the liberties it would allow us if we weren't going to use the commercial gallery model. How could that change the dynamic of how people could relate to the space, could relate to each other, could relate to ideas.

It seems that rather than conceiving of it as a traditional gallery space, Machine is more a fluid network where people are brought together in this particular location. Can you talk a little bit about how this facilitates a sense community?

I think about community not as a singularity that is constructed around traditional identity politics, but more that this community is both emergent and sustained. It is emergent in the sense that it is the people who thought it was an interesting idea to come out on a Thursday night to hear about the archeology of the moon. And that is constituted in that moment by the people who show up and they are having some kind of experience together. And then it has continuity over time: people repeatedly make a decision to come out for a certain kind of thing that starts from what they're initially interested in, but over time it becomes about the general aesthetic or ethos.

So at first, you come because you're interested in moon archeology, and then over time you come because you're interested in the things which Machine Project does. You make this shift from driving your audience from content to sensibility. And so in a way, I see what we do as editorial, as much as curatorial. We are trying to articulate a particular sensibility. Just in the way that the New Yorker is a sensibility, NPR is a sensibility, KCET is a sensibility. It takes more time for that to develop.

Community over time then becomes people who relate in some way to that sensibility. You know, there is an aesthetic of how you write your emails, there is an aesthetic of how you update your twitter feed, there's an aesthetic of how you greet people at the door, there's an aesthetic of how you socialize with people - all those things construct a kind of culture that your audience aligns themselves with or they don't. Does that make sense?

Forest installation by Sara Newey and Christy McCaffrey | Photo: Courtesy of Machine Project.
Forest installation by Sara Newey and Christy McCaffrey | Photo: Courtesy of Machine Project.

Yes, and it seems to compliment other aspects of Machine Project, that there is this constant awareness that the audience is participating in what is going on and that feeds into this creation of sensibility as well. Could you give an example of this in practice, this creation of sensibility over time?

Well, the ways in which it functions have really changed over time. The first three years were about a venue and a space for presenting this trans-disciplinary discourse in L.A. So this was going to be a place where you had poetry reading one night, a science talk the next night, experimental music the night after that.

The next thing that started happening was that all these collaborative relationships started emerging with Machine as kind of the center of the wheel. For example, there is Corey Fogel, percussionist, and there's Joshua Beckman, poet, and there's Brody Condon, artist, and there's Emily Lacy, musician. And in the beginning Joshua Beckman2 comes first to read poems and then we start talking a lot about how the audience consumes poetry. And so he does a show where he's trapped under the basement reading poems to people through a tube in the floor. And then we do a project where we do a poetry delivery service where people can call a phone number at the gallery and then he'll walk to wherever you are, read you one poem, and walk back. Or we do a project at night in Santa Monica and he's in a sailboat offshore, you can signal a boat with a lantern, the boat signals you back, and there's a rotary dial phone on the beach that's a converted cell phone so that it looks like an old style rotary phone that rings and then he picks up and then he reads you a poem.

So the gallery becomes the center of all these different collaborative practices - often around how experiential or how performative culture relates to audience. And they happen here in a way that is very awkward or unstructured or not successful in a conventional sense. The gallery's purpose was to be this test bed.

Joshua Beckman's Sea Nymph. | Photo: Courtesy of Machine Project.
Joshua Beckman's Sea Nymph. | Photo: Courtesy of Machine Project.

So what was the next stage?

After about five years, two things happen. First, I did a retreat where I invited 20 people to this friend's lemon farm for three days and we talked about Machine Project. And this was the moment where the idea of a loose, informal, collective connected to the space first starts to be assembled. And then secondly, instead of everything coming through the center, it then becomes more a rhizomatic model, where Corey is collaborating with Joshua, who is also talking to Emily, who is talking to Anthony, who is also talking to Corey, and then Machine is kind of this cloud. So rather than everything coming through the center of me, there starts to become these other communications between various people.

The other thing is that Charlotte [Cotton] invites us to do this project at LACMA in 2008.3 And so this is a show where we got together a ton of artists in L.A. who were doing this experiential or performative work, ephemeral work, conceptual work, and for the most part not affiliated with commercial galleries, and for the most part not known. There is, and there remains, this very interesting thread in LA practice. These are people who are making spaces in their houses or they're already collaborating together. This [Machine Project] is like one cloud, but there are all these other clouds. So without a ton of intentionality, I brought a lot of those people together to do this show. And there was this moment of articulating a practice in the city that is underneath the surface, but hadn't been brought together. So in that way, it's kind of classical curatorial strategy. The other thing it did is it established us as an organization that could work outside of our walls to do these large scale projects.

Had you imagined that Machine Project would engage with a large public institution like that when you originally conceived it?

No, not at all. And I don't think I would have imagined it, except that Charlotte invited us to do it. In a way, that kind of came out of somebody else seeing that. So we did a variety of other projects with large institutions. We did something at The Walker4 and a year long thing at The Hammer.5 The shift that happens then is that we're less involved now in putting together great presentations and content, and we're increasingly interested in the research side, which started with the residency at the Hammer, where the most interesting thing about it went on behind the scenes.

Elevator performance by Corey Fogel from Machine Project's Hammer residency | Photo: Courtesy of Machine Project.
Elevator performance by Corey Fogel from Machine Project's Hammer residency | Photo: Courtesy of Machine Project.

It seems that the engagement and interfacing with the institution opened up all these conversations that intrigued you...

Yes, and the way I think about Machine Project now is that it is a research organization that tests project ideas out, which involves trying to really develop a lot of tolerance for risk, failure, embarrassment, and awkwardness - that that's going to be built into the organization. That brings in these sort of three different ways that the audience becomes essential to what you do. So one part is the idea of an economy of attention. We really think about it as somewhat transactional. The artist is presenting something and the audience is paying attention, and that constructs a dynamic which allows the cultural things to happen. It's not, people pay $10 and they consume some great content. Rather, they witness and we do it. Together we are working on these ideas. When we move into this mode of being an experimental space or a research space [around 2008], the audience increasingly becomes a part of that. So what you're presenting to the audience is not "Machine Project has the best ideas in town, Number 1 quality! Come for the really high quality events." But more that this is an opportunity to be witnessing new things as they are emergent. And there's a trade-off for that, which is that it is going to be informal and it's not going to necessarily produce something to consume in the same way as you might in a more formal theater.

The Hand from Machine Project's Hammer residency | Photo: Courtesy of Machine Project.
The Hand from Machine Project's Hammer residency | Photo: Courtesy of Machine Project.

Can you talk about how this process-oriented aspect is foregrounded and the possibility of flopping, or failing as a potentiality?

I think it allows you to redefine what that means. So all you have to do is have an event and say, "Oh, that was kind of interesting." Something can be perceived as an awkward failure and still be super interesting and lead you to the next thing. It seems to me that it is difficult for larger cultural institutions to do this, for all kinds of systemic reasons around the way larger institutions are involved in the aggregation of cultural capital. If you're doing one show a year, you have a certain pressure to make that work. Whereas if we do three things a week and half of them suck, it's fine. And in a way, my biggest concern is that we don't push hard enough in that direction, that we don't have enough stuff where I'm like, "Wow, that was really awkward." I'm not interested in this idea of challenging the audience in this way that comes from ideas of avant-garde, or that the job of the artist is to shock the audience into a new form of consciousness. I'm very against that.

So it's not that the things that happen at Machine Project are shocking to the viewer. It's more that you're trying stuff out and you're acknowledging that the public is a critical ingredient to that. The modality that I'm interested in working on is where you say that the site or the context or the place - which in this case would be Machine Project - the audience, and the artist are three things which all come together in a moment in time that produce new knowledge. This will happen now in public because the site of Machine Project becomes this extension of cultural production that happens before things are assessed as being valuable or not, rather than after. And that the museums, rightfully so, they come in after things have been assessed as valuable. So a work of art doesn't enter a museum until a lot of people have decided it is of interest, which is fine. It would be hard to work otherwise.

Whereas we are interested in saying: here's an artist who we think has a lot of potential and is interesting at this moment and we want to be part of them making the next thing. And that moment of making actually doesn't happen alone in the studio but in public with a public. In public with a public [laughs].

How would you gauge whether these events are effective?

Before I did this, I did C-Level, and before I did C-Level I ran a couple tiny alternative spaces in Houston, so at this point, I've probably done a thousand events or fifteen hundred events. And over time what you realize is, it's not the numbers that really matter. It's a bit of a cliché to say that but its very, very true. That you can have an event with a very small number of people coming that can be very influential.

It's Brian Eno talking about The Velvet Underground...

Yes. And think that is a truism. Our audience changes dramatically from year to year and project to project, you sometimes have things, that for whatever reason, capture the culture's  imagination and a shit-ton of people come out. And sometimes you do things and only two or three people come. I think that the audience does change as our focus changes - I just get interested in different stuff. When we started, we did more things involving technology than we do now. Now we do a lot of workshops and classes on technology. The content that happens here mutates. This year I'm very interested in theatricality and performance and the intersections between theater, performance, and art performance. And so our programming chases along with that. The last three years, I've become very interested in how making videos connects to making ideas, and so a lot of my creative work is working on videos with Emily (Lacy) and also doing interviews [with artists].

Electric Melon Drum Circle Workshop hosted by Machine Project in the LACMA Ampitheater. Let Them Eat LACMA, 11.7.2010 | Photo: Marianne Williams.
Electric Melon Drum Circle Workshop hosted by Machine Project in the LACMA Ampitheater. Let Them Eat LACMA, 11.7.2010 | Photo: Marianne Williams.

So how do the workshops work? And how does the educational aspect tie in with Machine Project's evolution?

So that's changed over time a ton, too. I would say it started ideologically, it moved to practicality, and now it's moving again to a different kind of production. So, the ideological stage was this idea that the world is full of stuff made by giant corporations that are super frickin' mysterious. Almost every aspect of our built environment is the result of some kind of process. So when I started doing the technological workshops here, I felt like we were right in the middle of this really exciting moment. You know Make Magazine was part of this, and the internet was part of this, and all of a sudden it seemed that if you wanted to make your own tape from scratch, there was probably some bizarre way you could figure out how to do it. And I was interested in articulating that to an audience. I wanted, in a very literal way, to teach them how to do electronics because I'd gotten interested in electronics in grad school and I taught myself, and that was really hard. After three years of teaching myself, I could very easily teach people what I knew. So, some of it was very practical. Second, was that conceptually, not everybody is going to take the workshop and become an engineer and learn everything that corporations do, but the potential was there. So you're demonstrating, just as you learn this thing, anybody can learn any of these things...

And there are resources out there that anyone can access, open source for instance...

That's right. And so it was a bit of a cultural moment. Make, maker culture, Maker's Bill of Rights, open source culture, all that stuff I was interested in, interested ideologically. Over time, that became a way for us to make money. The events are free, but it's good to have a funding source. I think of Los Angeles as this ecosystem and there's all these kinds of interesting educational institutions in the city, and what we often look at is, "What is something that people are interested in that there is not an existing outlet to learn?" So often what we teach changes over time and mutates. We used to do a lot of sewing and crocheting and stuff like that maybe four or five years ago. And two to three years ago there was a real emergence of craft stores and spaces and workshops and schools in L.A. So in a way, as the ecosystem finds other ways to fill those needs, we move on and do other things.

So how has your approach to workshops changed over time, what are you interested in currently?

Now, I'm thinking increasingly about how I do these things because I have ideas of how I like culture and I'm trying to influence the culture in my own modest way. I noticed a lot of people were emailing me and saying, "I'm interested in starting a space, can I have lunch with you and talk about it?" That's actually how I started doing electronics classes because I was helping ten people independently with their electronics projects and I was like, "Can we just do this all at once?" It's exciting because they have new ideas and I really believe in that model of culture in the city. But I started feeling like all of my time was having the same conversation. So I've started doing this workshop where I just share my story. My role now is to say, "It's not that hard, you can do it any time, you can do it in your house. I did it here. Other people do it together. This is how you do it this way. This is how you do it this way. Oh, you guys are interested in the same thing, maybe you should talk about it..." So that's a way the workshop becomes a way to influence what happens in the culture. Which doesn't say that I'm starting a hundred spaces or even that I'm that involved in it, but I'm able to have a slight moment of leverage where there are people who want to do it, they have a lot of energy, and for whatever reason spending two hours with me saying actually changes what happens in the city. So people start doing more spaces.

This summer we did this curatorial workshop where we took applications, we had 100 people apply and we chose six people to work with us intensely over the summer around the idea of event as the site of curatorial practice. We met once a week for the whole day and worked on ideas and discussed projects and each person in the class is then going to produce two events or projects here at Machine. Rather than just relying on random people coming into my orbit with a good idea or event, I'm going to explicitly construct the people to do this through this class. So I'm putting some effort into teaching people my idea of event curation.

So workshops feeds into the programming?

That's right, it feeds back into what's happening here. And the question that I'm thinking very seriously about now, and have not cracked, is a big question: "What does an art school do?" One aspect that an art school does is accreditation, whether it's an arts school or any kind of school. But there's this other thing that happens, which is enculturation and discursivity. Enculturation happens by the ways in which ideas and value systems circulate in the art world, circulate in all kinds of ways. But one of the ways they happen is through experiences in art school. And that happens by a kind of osmosis. That if you're at CalArts, or maybe UC San Diego's art program, when you come out of school, your belief system is a weird amalgam of everyone else's. Part of what allows this to happen is proximity, the other thing that allows this to happen is that everybody in these schools thinks art is important enough that they're going to dedicate their time and money to be in this one place. The second thing which happens is the discursive part, where the negotiation of these different systems happens consciously through proximity and conversation over time.

This discursive process happens very strongly at Machine Project for the people who are here. But that's only 5 people. So what I'm thinking about is how this can happen here for 30 people, or 50 people or 100 people without the part that is unsustainable about art school, which is the $100,000. Art schools can circulate way more people through than I can, or am interested in doing, but I think I can do it for more than 5 people. I think I can do it for 20 people or 30 people. Lately, the next level of support that I'm interested in developing are these things which a school does. So a school is this time out of your daily life that constructs this intense support system for the development of ideas and concepts, I'm interested in thinking about what this is like on an ongoing basis. So people have jobs, they can't come all the time, but is there some way this discursivity and this enculturation can happen here? Because this drives how cultural is produced, and I'm interested in making more culture that I like [laughs].

Nate Page's Installation. | Photo: Courtesy of Machine Project.
Nate Page's Installation. | Photo: Courtesy of Machine Project.

Machine Project is a place now, not just a space, so it changes the meaning of what gets done here...

That's right. I'm curious and thinking about "Can we carve out a space inside of place?" During Nate Page's installation5 - when he moved the front window back - one thing that Nate did was he had a whole series of events that were at night. So after I would go home, there were events that happened here and they didn't go on our website. They weren't in our email announcements. It's more really informally people using it to try ideas out, and I'm really interested in [whether there] is a way that could keep happening too, but I haven't kind of cracked that nut yet. And so with Nate's thing, I knew they were going on but I would be at home with my wife, and I would be like, "Oh Emily, there's an all night cuddle party at Machine Project tonight, as I just learned from Facebook. I'm going to stay home." He kind of carved out a shadow organization inside of the thing. So I don't know how we can do that, but I want to think about it. Maybe I just can't be that involved in it. Maybe my role is to be the thing which the shadow hides from.

Mark Allen | Photo: Courtesy of Machine Project.
Mark Allen | Photo: Courtesy of Machine Project.

For more information on Machine Project, visit their website, or check out their extensive video documentation on Vimeo.

1C-Level was formerly located in Chinatown and was "a cooperative public and private lab formed to share physical, social and technological resources. Its members are artists, programmers, writers, designers, agit-propers, filmmakers and reverse-engineers. Part studio, part club, part stage and part screen; C-Level islocated in a basement in Chinatown Los Angeles and plays host to various media events such as screenings, performances, classes, lectures, debates, dances, readings and tournaments." (according to C-Level's website).

2 "For a period of seven weeks Josh Beckman's Sea Nymph hosted a whole series of nautical-themed events, performances, lectures, and workshops, as well as an opera by and for dogs. Inside the capsized hull of the ship there was a crystal cave." (according to Machine Project's website).

3 Field Guide to L.A.C.M.A. "On November 15th, 2008 Machine Project was invited to visit the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, orchestrating ten hours of performances, workshops, and events experimenting with LACMA's expansive grounds and enormous collection of stuff." (according to Machine Project's website). For more images, click here.

4For images of the Walker project, click here.

5"In 2010-2011, Machine Project produced a year of programming which proposed new, alternative, and experimental ways of presenting work at the Hammer Museum. Projects included a vacation for houseplants, a two minute performance series underneath the stairs, an overnight dream-in and a ton of other stuff documented and discussed in this here report." (according to Machine Project's website). For more photos, click here.

6"Storefront Plaza by Nate Page relocates the windows of Machine Project and reinstalls them twenty feet back into the main gallery space. To achieve this the exterior walls of the building stretch deep into Machine's storefront along a constructed support structure which re-assigns much of the interior space as exterior space. As a result, the public will be able to access what was formerly Machine Project's front room now transformed as a large sidewalk alcove; the storefront pulled back like a slingshot from the street." (according to Machine Project's website).

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