In Partnership with Machine Project: As part of the Getty initiative Pacific Standard Time Presents: Modern Architecture in L.A., Machine Project asked artists to take on the whole environment of Los Angeles and create performances shot on video and edited into short experimental films in response to notable architectural sites throughout the city.
I was not the first to discover the quirky Happy Foot/Sad Foot sign just a few blocks down Sunset from Machine Project. My friend Kevin lives in Echo Park and explained to me the sign's supposed predictive powers. Locals say when you drive by, the side you see first, happy or sad, will predict the fate of your day.
I was enamored with a lot of the sites that I found when researching "The Machine Project Field Guide to L.A. Architecture," and while I matched most of them up with other artists, I kept the Happy Foot/Sad Foot sign in my back pocket for a potential project of my own.
Behind the scenes at Machine, all the staff are artists too. Grant writers are directing plays, video editors are singing folk songs, and even the bookkeeper is working on new sculptures. The project manager in me knew a web-based project would give me the luxury of working without, permits, insurance, or the site owner's consent. But we also wanted to activate the site, in line with the rest of the Field Guide performances. So I invited our Programs Manager Jessica Cowley to lead a singalong on the street underneath the spinning sign in conjunction with the launch of the website.
I sat down with Jessica after the singalong and website launch to talk about our mutual love of vernacular signage, collective memory, and the catharsis of singing together.
Jessica Cowley: I have no visual art background. I have always loved letters and type and signage for almost as long as I can remember.
I actually trained as an urban planner. I was living in Oakland at the time and there were things that I thought made a neighborhood really interesting, and I saw those things going away. I wanted to figure out how to protect those things. I think a huge part of that was actually mom-and-pop handmade signage. The signage I really love is clearly done by untrained painters who are just going for it. But I think that was what made me first think about how signs affect the visual landscape of a city in a critical way, and has always been in the back of my mind.
Bennett Williamson: I wanted to know more about the experience of being in the L.A. Trade Tech sign school. What's the story behind it?
JC: It's the only remaining sign program in the country that teaches hand painted techniques. The teacher has been teaching for 20 years and he graduated in '74 from the program. It's run like the Army. The teacher looks at it as a way to instill life skills first and painting skills second, with the ultimate goal that the students will either be able to get a job or run their own business.
I think the kids that are taking the classes now see themselves as the new wave that is going to revive this craft that's been dying since the early '80s when the first plotters came out and they were able to cut vinyl signs. But now, with so much emphasis on things being handcrafted and local, with a lot of thought and human touch, it seems like there might be more of a market for it.
And of course, there's the consistent market in Latino culture. That's never gone away, which is lovely, and that influence is what makes so many signs in Los Angeles so great.
BW: Doing the research for "Field Guide," I learned about all these signs and buildings that have been destroyed over the years. Especially some of the Modern and Googie-style signage and architecture that falls out of style, perhaps the business is failing too, and these places get demolished. I'm thinking of the Brown Derby, for example.
It was really interesting seeing how much of the history of those signs and places that have been destroyed is held in collective memory. On Facebook and blogs and amateur fan sites, like, "I remember seeing this when I was young. I remember going here with my family." I really liked that.
I became interested in the Happy Foot/Sad Foot sign because of its local significance, the way it's a sort of folk institution. I thought of building this website as a way to recognize that, and capture that memory while it's still standing. It has local lore, as opposed to the other sites that I was looking at, which had more official, historic, architectural significance.
JC: I have the crazy obsession with the Happy Foot/Sad Foot that I think a lot of people in this neighborhood do. I've been coming clean with my OCD tendencies -- if I see the sad foot, I have to wait until the happy foot rotates around and then turn and wink at it, which is really bizarre.
I have to say, as a sign designer, there are some flaws to the sign. That being said, the rules were broken very effectively. I think that the graphics can't be beat. There's nothing better than a foot with feet, with a Band-Aid on the big toe. It's one of the more engaging images I've ever seen on a sign.
BW: I really like the idea that the sign has a function beyond advertising, beyond just telling us what's there. If you get the happy side or the sad side, that's going to help you make a decision or tell you if you're going to have a bad day or not. If you don't live in L.A., you can just consult the sign online. The sign is facing different ways depending on what time you visit the site. It's random, essentially.
I don't really subscribe to the superstition at all -- I'm interested in it as a folk idea. My demeanor is definitely more like, "man, there's always a smile on the other side." Because if it's not smiling on me, then perhaps it's smiling on someone else.
JC: Across the street.
BW: [Machine Project Executive Director] Mark [Allen] was really interested in activating the space in a physical way. We were talking about the sign spinning, and had this idea of people around the sign singing a swirling kind of sound, we weren't sure what. Mark right away was like, "Jessica does these singalongs in public spaces." So we pitched it to her.
JC: The singalongs started out of the desire to recreate an experience I had when I was a kid. My grandfather would play the organ and we would sing weird old songs from the '40s. So I started them in my home, and then last summer, when I was doing some work with Machine, decided to actually take it into a public space in the 2nd Street Tunnel, because I found the acoustics and just the visuals of that space to be so beautiful.
People really love the opportunity to get together and play music in a low risk setting. I think so many people have this impression that they have to have a great voice, but when there's 40 other people singing, no one will hear you specifically, and you'll create something really beautiful together.
BW: We would sing a sad song and then a happy song, and we ended on a happy song to lift everyone's spirits. It's amazing how the themes in the songs were so consistent. They both had lots of heartbreak and love, yearning. Eternal love or eternal sadness.
JC: I also love in the public space setting picking up people as we go. We actually had several people I heard come out from the laundromat across the street and join us, or people biking by would stop. It's really lovely.
BW: In L.A. in particular, the sidewalk is an exposed and abandoned place, but also it's still public. In other cities I feel like people are competing more for that public space, so there's more antagonism, whereas here people were clearly excited that we were activating the streets, and that felt good.
Interview has been condensed and edited.
See more Machine Project:
Welcome to the Field Guide to L.A. Architecture
Artbound will be chronicling the collective creation of the Machine Project "Field Guide to L.A. Architecture" by featuring a diverse offering of essays, interviews, and the artists' videos.
Jmy James Kidd and the Sunland Dancers on Flat Top Hill
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In "Wash," an audience was encouraged to swim and explore an underwater viewing room over the course of a slowly shifting three-hour pool performance.
Jacqueline Gordon's L.A. Food Center Soundscapes
"Everyone Will Be Here Now But Me" is an immersive sound installation where the public explores endless hallways, windowless offices, and stairwells of a mixed-use building.
Cliff Hengst's Semi-Fictionalized, Drag Double-Decker Bus Tour
Artist Cliff Hengst embarked from The Beverly Hilton to perform "It's Not Right But It's OK," perhaps the first ever historic autobiographical semi-fictionalized disembodied drag double decker bus tour.
Sara Roberts' Clump and Whistle
Clump is an experiment in group/crowd behavior, a participatory performance based on a simple rule set but without fixed outcome or direction.