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'Sea Sick' Investigates the Right to be Represented On the Beach

Installation view of Depart Foundation’s Sea Sick in Paradise | Jeff McLane |Courtesy Depart Foundation.
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This article was produced in partnership with UCLA's Laboratory for Environmental Narrative Strategies (LENS), an incubator for new research and collaboration on storytelling, communications, and media in the service of environmental conservation and equity.

Representation, noun: 1) the action of speaking or acting on behalf of someone or the state of being so represented; 2) the description or portrayal of someone or something in a particular way.

...people want to see people like themselves in public places in order to feel welcome there. You might say they want to feel represented.

Representation is a powerful concept in politics and art. Though it operates in different ways, representation does similar work in both, publicly making a presence known, visible, heard. In this way, the art of representation may at times be as important and powerful as the politics. Often, they go hand in hand, though they speak in very different registers.

I’ve been thinking about the meaning of representation while staring out at the ocean, as blank a canvas as nature presents anywhere for us to impose meaning upon. It’s early in the morning. The sun is about to rise. The beach is empty. Soon, the people will begin to trickle in and the drama of representation will begin.

Who and what will be represented here today? That, as we all know, depends on where you’re standing.  

Installation view of Depart Foundation’s Sea Sick in Paradise | Jeff McLane |Courtesy Depart Foundation.
Installation view of Depart Foundation’s Sea Sick in Paradise | Jeff McLane, Courtesy of Depart Foundation.

I’ve often said in the past, including here on KCET, that people want to see people like themselves in public places in order to feel welcome there. You might say they want to feel represented. I still believe this is true, and a variety of solid research, good history, and strong voices supports this claim, which underwrites important efforts to make parks, museums, libraries, and other public institutions accessible to all, including our public beaches and coastline in California.

But a year spent looking out at the sea, conducting research on the coast, and collaborating on an art exhibition on surfing have led me to revise my thinking about representation. Two data points from surveys conducted over the past year stand out. The first was when 94 percent of Californians told a survey conducted by a colleague that all Californians are welcome at the beach. The second came when we asked visitors at 11 beaches in Southern California to rank the importance of different attributes of beaches and “seeing people like themselves at the beach” came in dead last.

Now, you may say that the first belief is wishful thinking, and the second may reveal that people don’t want to disclose their cliquishness to strangers. And I would agree, to some degree. But the overwhelming response to both questions demands to be represented. It echoes anecdotal evidence that I heard while interviewing people on the beach who told us that they come to see the world — all the different people — at the beach, as well as my own delight in seeing the great diversity of Californians and visitors from around the world on the coast in the northern and southern reaches of the state.

Installation view of Depart Foundation’s Sea Sick in Paradise | Jeff McLane |Courtesy Depart Foundation.
Installation view of Depart Foundation’s Sea Sick in Paradise | Jeff McLane, Courtesy of  Depart Foundation.

Some people go as far as to say that the beach is one of our greatest small-d democratic spaces, and I tend to agree. We romanticize that, to be sure, especially when we assume that taking off most of our clothes somehow makes us more equal. But it is true, I think, that we meet on somewhat more egalitarian terms when we are stripped of many signifiers of class, wealth, and power. Not all, of course.

For as we all know from our own visits to the coast, beaches look very different when we see who is represented there, as the results from our beach surveys confirm. Dockweiler, my favorite, under the flight path of planes taking off from LAX, does not represent itself in the same way as Doheney in Orange County. The two graphs below represent beachgoers at 11 Southern California beaches based on our random sample. The beaches are arranged on the graph from north to south, just as they would be on a map, starting in Ventura, moving south through Port Hueneme in Oxnard, to Zuma in Malibu, through Santa Monica and Los Angeles, to Orange County.

As with the U.S. Census, survey respondents could check more than one box for their ethnic identity or none if they preferred, so the totals in the first graph do not add up to 100 percent.

This next graph shows the household income of visitors at the same set of beaches.

This next graph shows the household income of visitors at the same set of beaches. 

This next graph shows the household income of visitors at the same set of beaches.

It turns out that beachgoers at Santa Monica Beach represent the demographics of California fairly closely, while also drawing visitors from other states and countries. So it makes a good comparison. A little farther south, Dockweiler State Beach attracts more Latinos, African Americans, and families with lower household incomes than Santa Monica Beach, while much farther south, Doheney State Beach in Dana Point in Orange County attracts more white visitors from families with higher household incomes. These patterns are likely the result of a complex combination of factors, including self-sorting, or people choosing beaches where they feel comfortable; availability of amenities, such as the fire rings at Dockweiler; historical patterns of visitation and discrimination; and the proximity of different communities to each of the beaches.

Two pieces of art in “Sea Sick in Paradise,” the exhibit we collaborated on with the Depart Foundation in Malibu this summer, represent these differences—in different ways.

Jeff Ho’s mural “Black and White,” created for the exhibit, explicitly represents the localism, which everyone knows sometimes turns aggressive, even violent, in the lineup at surf breaks. Ho is a legendary surfboard shaper and skateboarder, godfather of Dogtown and the Z-boys of Venice.

But what work is this piece doing on a gallery wall? Representing, to be sure. In a straightforward way? That seems unlikely. Ironically? Critically? Historically? As a piece of art, on a white gallery wall, the representation may be open to other interpretations than it would be as a warning on a seawall. It provokes thought and reflection about access and who gets to represent themselves on the coast.

Installation view of Depart Foundation’s Sea Sick in Paradise | Jeff McLane |Courtesy Depart Foundation.
Installation view of Depart Foundation’s Sea Sick in Paradise | Jeff McLane, Courtesy of Depart Foundation.

Cristine Blanco’s painting “Sharks,” on the other hand, represents a different assertion: that she and her friends belong on the coast and in the lineup in the break visible offshore, just as the artist’s work with the organization Brown Girl Surf asserts as well.  

Sharks May 2017 | Cristine Blanco
Sharks May 2017 | Cristine Blanco

As Brown Girl Surf’s co-founder and executive director, Mira Manickam-Shirley, once told me, the organization, which brings girls and women of color to the coast to experience surfing for the first time, helps them see “that the ocean is not someone else’s place. It’s theirs. And they have a way to access it, to see themselves reflected there, and enjoy it.”

Art, even representational art like Blanco’s, is rarely simply literal. It represents in more different ways to different audiences than any interpretation I might impose on it from my own point of view, even knowing that the car is modeled on her dad’s car, because she told me so in a public conversation we had about access and diversity and representation on the coast. So there is a personal history being reclaimed here by the sea, too.

Installation view of Depart Foundation’s Sea Sick in Paradise | Jeff McLane |Courtesy Depart Foundation.
Installation view of Depart Foundation’s Sea Sick in Paradise | Jeff McLane, Courtesy of Depart Foundation.

I learned from these conversations and this art that representations of our diversity are not always already present in public spaces, but they can be created, whether by Jeff Ho and the Z-boys or by Cristine Blanco and Brown Girl Surf. Sometimes that might entail defending turf, and other times it necessitates crashing the lineup, asserting your own right to be represented.

So I’ve had to modify my view that people want to see people like themselves in public places in order to feel welcome there. The view from the coast has convinced me that people also have to believe in their own right to represent themselves in public and find ways to represent themselves in public places in order to become part of the public represented there. And this is where art meets politics. I know, this is an old story, and a particularly American story, but it is still being made anew every day on the coast of California.

Top Image: Installation view of Depart Foundation’s Sea Sick in Paradise | Jeff McLane, Courtesy of Depart Foundation

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