Hubs & Hybrids is an ongoing series of interviews with those at the helm of some of L.A.'s most compelling artist-run and experimental visual and performing arts spaces.
On a bright and sunny Sunday afternoon, Emi and I arrived at a nondescript brick industrial-looking building on the edge of Highland Park, marked only by its street number, 749. Old cigarettes lie stubbed inside a concrete block, and a patch of gold spray paint decorates the torn-up sidewalk, next to a beer bottle, residue of past openings and events. The Museum of Public Fiction is housed here and is driven by the vision and particular aesthetic of Lauren Mackler, which is evident in the well-produced exhibition within. Called "The Stand In (for a Glass of Milk)" the mix of painting, sculpture, video and installation is the second iteration of an exhibition that unfolds over time, rearranged over a series of months with the same artists but different configurations of works and visual priorities. Co-curated by Lauren Mackler and Alexandra Gaty, it is a nuanced experiment in exhibition-making, an active engagement in the relationship of artwork to audience and to other artwork. The iterations also require multiple openings, multiple re-presentations, and thus reconfigure the way L.A. art crowds experience an exhibition; rather than inviting a single glance in a crowded room, they become a site for repeat visitation, and a platform for a more rounded conversation around artists' work.
This reconfiguration of old paradigms is inherent in Public Fiction's name and its operation; Mackler describes this as a "leap of imagination" required of visitors as they cross her threshold, and it is not unlike the immersive capabilities of fiction or film. The title of each three-month-long thematic exhibition experiment is likewise evocative - from Free Church, Manifest Destiny: Gold Rush, and The Club, to Theatricality and Sets and Foreign Correspondent. They emanate from a mix, as Mackler puts it, of "cultural observation and personal narrative," and feature a dynamic series of programming like performances, classes, artist residencies, secret dinners, music, and lectures. Each culminates in (or generates) a publication that is neither document nor exposition, but rather a mix of fiction, real historical research, artwork and design. Though it seems that the exhibition generates content for the publication, it also seems that the publication is yet another platform for the exhibition to manifest. They are inextricably linked and both integral to the understanding of Mackler's curatorial process and vision.
Seated behind a large, impressive desk featuring a Scott Benzel collection of dirty cartoons and religious pamphlets pressed beneath a glass surface (it changes with every exhibition), Mackler walked us through her strong initial impulses to start the Museum of Public Fiction, and how her thinking has evolved over time.
Sue Bell Yank: What led you to wanting to open the space in the first place, and how would you describe your role and practice within it?
Lauren Mackler: I moved to the west coast from New York in 2010 with the idea to do this. I came here for a visit and I felt there was so much unclaimed space, so many buildings and storefronts and architecture and land. I wanted to experiment with an alternative model of institution, which is why it's called The Museum of Public Fiction. I wanted to explore how can I work with similar ambitions as a museum, but within my own set of parameters and my own freedom, my own choices. I'm trained first in studio art, as an art practitioner, but also in art history, and with a masters in graphic design, which I got because I wanted to find tools to be able to communicate ideas better.
So I moved to L.A. to open a space, with the idea that I was going to do exhibitions for three months at a time on a topic. During those three months it could be any series of solo shows or group shows or a combination of group show, solo show, and performance series. The performance events range from lectures, talks, screenings, secret restaurants, music, art performances, always on the same theme. And at the end, I launch a journal on the same topic that would bring together not only the things that happened at Public Fiction, but also around L.A. and beyond that resonated with that topic. The publications ended up being another exhibition, but in the form of print, or an added element.
The topics are always a little bit about the process, so the first was called Public Records because it was about records and archives, including records, collections, and music. We created the fictional space of a record store and recontextualized works that people were making on collecting, on music, or on archiving.
The next one was called Free Church, and for that one I turned the space into a church that six different artists took over and made it their own for two weeks at a time. Then, I found the funding to do the first issue of the journal, the Church issue. The journal is not a document, I call it ephemera tracing the show but not a documentation of the show. It's an anti-document. That's something I'm still figuring out.
The next series was Manifest Destiny/Gold Rush, and it was themed one month at a time. The first month was around "entrepeneurialism" and it was all LA-based artists working with the idea of ambition, and it was at a time when the economy was really bad so it ended up being a little bit about that too. The second month we turned the space into a hotel where different east coast artists would come and work and stay for the month. The last month was an earthquake -- one solo show by an artist that works with deconstructing architecture so it junctured the space. And all along doing performances and secret restaurants. The hotel from the second month was inspired by Allen Ruppersburg's "Al's Grand Hotel" from 1971, so he did the poster insert for the publication.
And the third was The Club, which happened at the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles. They had asked me to come be part of a show there, so I decided to make a timeline of social clubs, night clubs, and art clubs, and Laura Owens did the poster.
The fourth one was the Theatricality and Sets issue, where I dealt with the theatricality of L.A., and had three months on props, performance and stages and sets, theatricality of all sorts.
This past spring was the Foreign Correspondents series, where we turned the whole space into an office. For that one, the journal came out one week at a time as Dispatches.
The current show is The Stand In (for a glass of milk).
I came with this formula, and that's evolved as time has gone by because originally I was thinking the space was a way to manifest content for the publication, and now I see that the research for the publication creates the exhibition, the exhibition creates the content for the journal, this interplay of experimenting and producing. Making the exhibition allows me to create the journal.
What is your process for generating the ideas for these themes?
LM: Well, [Stand In (For a Glass of Milk)] is the first series that is collaborative. Alexandra Gaty, who is the co-curator for the show, and I tried to emerge ideas that we saw as the zeitgeist of what artists were doing in conjunction with what we're interested in. It was a really interesting process that was invested in what's happening.
For the other ones, there's personal narrative as much as cultural observation involved in the topics. The Public Records and Archives is something I came to LA with, but the churches and new religion made sense to me in regards to LA, a site for new religions and cults of all kinds.
The Gold Rush/Manifest Destiny, that had been after a year of running the space and I was so poor, we were all so poor, the artists that were involved were poor, so the idea of money was on the forefront. What is the ambition that brings you west? Citrus, Gold, celebrity or space?
The Club was prompted by the fact that the bigger MOCA show that I was a part of was called the Transmission LA: The A/V Club, and I was challenged by how to relocate Public Fiction somewhere else. I felt that it would be, in a sense, a service to create a timeline. What does it mean to be in a club or create a club, or to want to be in a club? It made sense for it to be a grounded, research-based project, even though the space that I created at the MOCA was actually a stage, in a pitch-black room with projections by a variety of LA-based artists.
The Theatricality and Sets exhibition emerged from Los Angeles as a city which can be likened to a set or stage. I was really inspired for this one by William Leavitt's work.
For the Foreign Correspondent I actually got support from the French government to do an exchange project between France and LA. I am French, and the child of two journalists, so I grew up traveling the world. My dad was a foreign correspondent, and he passed away. I thought it would, in part, be a nice memorial. The Foreign Correspondent office was a blend of fiction and reality, where I was doing research about journalism and reporting, so the dispatches on one side were the writings of a Los Angeles writer, the other side a French artist, and my own research on journalism throughout history.
[Lauren pulls out a set of Dispatches, on large glossy, poster-like paper, almost like broadsides or a highly produced version of a newsprint plate]. For example, this was a letter that Nixon was going to read if the moon landing had been a failure. So it's important, but it didn't happen so it was never reported. This is an evidence photo of an insurance agent who was shot in the heart, but his calculator stopped the bullet. So this is the spirit. There's writing by Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer, work by Neil Beloufa, and a pigeon telegram from World War 2 that has yet to be decoded. An amazing letter from Robert Irwin to Clement Greenberg that says "Thanks, but I don't want to be in your show." There's a serial story that goes from Dispatch 1 to 3 to 7 by the photographer Charlie White, he's an incredible fiction writer. He wrote this story about these two twin sisters who became academics on the topic of imagery in the 50s in Pasadena. It's fiction but it is based on pivoting facts, real people, real places, real events.
The desk came during this time as well?
LM: The desk came along during Foreign Correspondent, but it changes with every show. Now it is Scott Benzel, who is displaying collections on every one of them. The first one had a series from a teenage girl's fan collection of boy bands from the 60s, and this one is religious pamphlets and dirty cartoons.
So who would you say comes to Public Fiction events?
LM: I think it really depends on the opening. It's also changed, and it changes on an event by event basis. I used to always notice music crowds at music events, and at art events it was an art crowd, and I started trying to collide them.
After your initial conceptualization of the space, and after having been here for a while and doing this, have you found some evolution in the way that you think about it?
LM: It's still quite young, but I think it does evolve in the sense where it's the constant rethinking, for my part, of the curatorial process. My ambition is to have an idea that's going to temporarily contextualize all these artists' work, while preserving the integrity of the piece and that's been an exercise in progress. I think it's had its successes and failures in that sense--there are times when it has worked better than other.
I initially described Public Fiction as an experiment of graphic design in space. Graphic design is not just a visual practice, it is very much an intellectual practice, like being a reader and a visual maker at the same time. Later, I found that thinking of it as a graphic design process was limiting, it was more of a curatorial experiment. Lately, I've been toying around with seeing Public Fiction as a literary project. Literary in the sense of building a novel, telling a story, constructing a plot. I think that's one sense through which you can look at evolution -- design, curating, and literature.
Embedded in the name of the space is "fiction," so it makes sense to think about it as related to a literary process.
LM: It is connected to writing in the sense that you take step away from hard fact for the sake of storytelling. Design is also based around principles of the imagination, as in gestalt theory. [Lauren draws three circles with slices cut out of them]. Gestalt theory is based on the fact that we as humans see a white triangle where there is none, just by looking at an arrangement of circles with wedges cut out of them. That visual connection that we're capable of making is what most design is based on. It's what typography is based on, the relation of image and text, and it's similar to the leap you take when you enter a movie theater.
SBY: Earlier you had mentioned success and failure, and I know they are strange terms in this context, but it's more of a provocation than anything else. Do you have any kind of metric for what you might consider success, or not?
LM: I think the nature of ambition is that it's hard to admit success at any instant. I don't know what success is. But I'm going to keep working on it. I think maybe success is being able to keep going. I often arrive at something and I think "Ah, I can do the next thing so much better" So success is creating situations where you have an opportunity to do the next thing.