The Many Faces of Public Fiction

Artbound episode "MOCA: Beyond The Museum Walls" explores the programming of the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, investigating new programming and curatorial methods that are redefining what it means to be a 21st century museum. This documentary features the The Underground Museum, Wolvesmouth, and Public Fiction. The episode debuted Tuesday, May 31. Check for rebroadcasts here.


Without question, Public Fiction is one of the stranger entities floating around the Los Angeles art world. It’s not a non-profit, but it’s not for-profit; it’s not an institution, but it’s not not an institution. Run by Lauren Mackler, the French-American daughter of two foreign correspondents, Public Fiction most closely resembles cloud-based computing in the form of an art exhibition. “I believe in complexity,” says Mackler when I visit her at her tucked-away backhouse she shares with her gray cat Frankenberry in Los Feliz. “There’s nothing wrong with a little confusion, of trying to understand an exhibition, but not understanding it. The lack of clarity is hopefully an openness that allows people to take a leap.” Viewers are asked to jump into the abyss for Public Fiction’s installation within the storefront space at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA), through June 19, 2016.

Lauren Mackler of Public Fiction
Lauren Mackler runs Public Fiction. | Image: Still from Artbound episode "MOCA: Beyond The Museum Walls."

In the show at MOCA, which Mackler has titled "The Poet and The Critic, and the missing," a few of the concrete aspects of Public Fiction follow: the exhibition is three months long, it moves across platforms (readings, talks, film screenings, performances), and it culminates in a publication. But instead of jumping off a conceptual conceit, Public Fiction’s show takes place in spiritual concert with chief curator Helen Molesworth’s "The Art of Our Time."

“The initial idea at MOCA was that I was to commission artists and writers to make tangents to the permanent collection exhibition,” says Mackler. “But it’s not a mirror or directly addressing the exhibition, but the space between the objects, which is what an exhibition really is. But instead of intervening in the gallery, we’re on the margins, and using the permanent collection as a common ground to reach out from.”

Public Fiction at MOCA
Installation view of storefront: Public Fiction: The Poet and The Critic, and the missing, March 19–April 25, 2016 at MOCA Grand Avenue. | Photo: Brian Forrest​, courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

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Mackler tapped Nathaniel Mackey, Nevine Mahmoud, and Lynne Tillman for the first iteration, which closed on April 25. On view now is work by Nancy Lupo, Litia Perta, and Paul Mpagi Sepuya.

“Nevine Mahmoud’s work has the same play with material and defying of gravity that is in this Liz Larner work that’s central to part of the permanent collection,” says Mackler, giving an example. “It’s also an experiment in creating compositions in the studio, similar to the Barbara Kasten works that are exhibited in the room prior to the Liz Larner works. So there’s a space in between those two works in which Mahmoud’s work becomes annotation onto these works.”

On top of it all, there was a screening on May 5, featuring works by Isaac Julien, Alfred Leslie and Frank O’Hara, Maha Maamoun, and Mungo Thompson. And finally, there's an online publication that features writing by Sophia Al Maria, Corrine Fitzpatrick, Quinn Latimer, Ann Lauterbach, Fred Moten, and Michael Palmer. The online publication, Mackler says, is meant to draw the permanent collection exhibition and the storefront show together.

Public Fiction publications
A Public Fiction publication. | Image: Still from Artbound episode "MOCA: Beyond The Museum Walls."

Public Fiction began in 2009 -- and officially opened in 2010 -- when Mackler visited Los Angeles for the first time after studying at NYU and receiving an MFA in design from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). She noticed a “for rent” sign on a storefront in the Highland Park area, and quickly set up shop. While in the process of thinking of a name, Mackler says, a neighbor’s cat bit her. It was while she was hooked up to an IV that the name Public Fiction hit her. “That’s the real truth,” she says laughing. “I mean, I had been thinking of different names that had to do with institutions and museums, like library, archive, public, common, temporary. But I wanted to come up with something that didn’t exist. It’s been used a little bit in political theory, social sciences, and studies of public myth, but it’s rare. It’s a story that belongs to everyone.” 

The fact that Public Fiction is based on institutions is no mistake. “I wanted to invent an institution,” she says. “I believe deeply in museums and their public potential. Michael Ned Holte wrote in ArtForum that I was presenting a form of institutional critique. I’m so proud of this article; it’s so beautiful. But if I’m making institutional critique, it’s critique in the most gentle way possible. Because I’m earnest in my belief in institutions.”

Public Fiction storefront in Highland Park
Exterior view of Public Fiction storefront in Highland Park. | Photo: Public Fiction. 

It’s important to point out that throughout its existence, Public Fiction has taken on a personality that goes beyond traditional thinking of what a curator is. Mackler has created hotels based on Allen Ruppersberg’s legendary month-long artist’s hotel “Al’s Grand Hotel” from the early-‘70s, and later worked with Ruppersberg to recreate the hotel at Frieze New York. Last year, she organized an exhibition by Anthony Lepore at a bikini factory. And whether it was early concerts by experimental and punk bands, or “The Free Church” (in which Mackler turned the Highland Park space into a church of sorts), or the inclusion in the Made in L.A. 2014 biennial, or this show at MOCA, Mackler always presents an idea, creates a space, and allows artists to work within that space. Those ideas are often literary, mostly with a broad swath of collaborators, and always challenging.

The MOCA storefront space turns out to be a perfect location for these ideas. Storefronts have been a mainstay in Los Angeles art history. James Turrell operated a space in a storefront of an old hotel in Santa Monica in the late-‘60s and early-‘70s, operating experiments that would evolve into his most prominent phenomenological light works. In a New York Times article dated December 29, 1992, Roberta Smith writes that “some [L.A. galleries] are in unrefurbished storefronts or private homes; others lack permanent addresses.” And even today, Farago Gallery in Downtown Los Angeles is a storefront space that resembles those makeshift galleries of yore.

Public Fiction at MOCA
Installation view of "storefront: Public Fiction: The Poet and The Critic, and the missing," March 19–April 25, 2016 at MOCA Grand Avenue | Photo: Brian Forrest​, courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

There’s a sort of poetic quality to Mackler’s wayfaring institution operating out of a storefront at a museum. But perhaps a more apt metaphor might be a Russian nesting doll. Inside MOCA, there is the storefront exhibition space, and inside that is Public Fiction, and inside that is this exhibition with each of these artists, whose work you can enter.

“You can take it as deep as you want to... and make so many connections,” Mackler says in response to a question about how literal some of the connections between "The Poet and The Critic, and the missing" are to "The Art of Our Time," but it may as well be a slogan for Public Fiction’s sprawling tendril estates.

 Public Fiction at MOCA
Installation view of "storefront: Public Fiction: The Poet and The Critic, and the missing," May 2–June 19, 2016 at MOCA Grand Avenue. | Photo: Brian Forrest​, courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.
Public Fiction at MOCA
Installation view of "storefront: Public Fiction: The Poet and The Critic, and the missing," March 19–April 25, 2016 at MOCA Grand Avenue | Image: Still from Artbound episode "MOCA: Beyond The Museum Walls."

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