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Word on the Street: Yarn Bombing Los Angeles and Black Lives Matter

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#BLACK LIVES MATTER at the Craft and Folk Art Museum. | Photo: Courtesy Urban Letters.

Self described "knit graffiti collaborative" Yarn Bombing Los Angeles' (YBLA) most recent bid to colorize and textualize our streets hangs directly to the east of the Craft & Folk Art Museum, two rows / seventeen characters worth of multi-hued text lashed to a grey metal fence and projecting north across Wilshire towards the La Brea Tar Pits.

The materials and phrase are both easily taken in in their entirety during a quick drive-by: "#BLACK LIVES" at rough eye level with "MATTERS" just below, all of it in pink, red, mustard, orange, blue and green knit (some shag carpet-like pile?) laid out on an area about the size of two tightly parked vans. The letters on Wilshire are part of Urban Letters, an ongoing project of YBLA's where epigrammatic or gnomic texts "that might otherwise remain unsaid" are solicited online in order to be made softly manifest IRL. It also reflects an ongoing and instructive engagement between ad hoc collaborative YBLA and the more properly institutional Craft & Folk Art Museum (CFAM). YBLA's monthly meetings are held at CFAM and the same gray fence that now recalls the value of Black lives was the site of several months of Urban Letters interventions in 2013, among them "LACK OF PASSION IS FATAL," a useful corollary to the current assertion if there ever was one.

"LACK OF PASSION IS FATAL" | Courtesy Urban Letters
"LACK OF PASSION IS FATAL" | Photo: Courtesy Urban Letters.

CAFAM was also the site of YBLA's most explicitly monumental work to date, "Granny Squared," wherein several thousand crowdsourced crocheted squares were applied to the museum's multistory front facade. (It's worth noting that that grey fence was site of a hashtag in 2013 as well, the more traditionally marketing minded #GRANNYSQUARED.) Janet Owen Driggs aptly described "Granny Squared" in an Artbound review as "bold, jolly" yet also, well, crafty, its ambitions extending beyond CAFAM to the other museum across the street. "Operating as caricatures for the 20th century's tussle between "old" and 'new,'" Owen Driggs wrote, "CAFAM and LACMA signpost an abundance of related binaries, which history and culture tell us are mutually exclusive, with one having less value than the other in each pair: domestic and public, female and male, body and mind, fiction and truth, vernacular and formal, low and high, and of course -- even without taking the functions of the buildings into consideration -- craft and art."

YBLA's "#BLACK LIVES MATTER" (spaces included) also has ambitions about binaries and value and function that extend beyond CAFAM's physical location. Like the hashtag-slash-movement to which it owes the phraseology, the piece at 5814 Wilshire is working language, a kind of materialized tag that YBLA and CAFAM have embedded on the museum's physical plant. This tag opens CAFAM up to another conversation even as it takes us away from the museum, leads us somewhere else.

By Black History Month 2015, almost everyone knows the "somewhere else" associated with "Black lives matter:" Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin. The weekly parade of police-co-produced snuff video, hashtag black lives matter, hashtag yet another American city, hashtag another dead Black name, hopefully not yours. The phrase has entered what passes for a commons in this country (Facebook) even as it remains contested offline, attaining a kind of fraught ubiquity where it is easily unmoored from its foundational specificities, its historical points of origin.

#BLACK LIVES MATTER at the Craft and Folk Art Museum | Courtesy Craft and Folk Art Museum
#BLACK LIVES MATTER at the Craft and Folk Art Museum. | Photo: Courtesy Craft and Folk Art Museum.

In "A Herstory of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement," Black queer activist Alicia Garza is very direct about the phrase's specificity and point of origin: "I created #BlackLivesMatter with Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, two of my sisters," Garza writes, "as a call to action for Black people after 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was post-humously placed on trial for his own murder and the killer, George Zimmerman, was not held accountable for the crime he committed."

Garza goes on:

"It goes beyond the narrow nationalism that can be prevalent within some Black communities, which merely call on Black people to love Black, live Black and buy Black, keeping straight cis Black men in the front of the movement while our sisters, queer and trans and disabled folk take up roles in the background or not at all. Black Lives Matter affirms the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, Black-undocumented folks, folks with records, women and all Black lives along the gender spectrum. It centers those that have been marginalized within Black liberation movements. It is a tactic to (re)build the Black liberation movement."

Whereas a previous Urban Letters aphorism asserted "ITS JUST ART," it's work now aspires to assert the opposite.

Mindful of the unique erasures Garza cites her piece (and perhaps mindful of Printed Matters' recent missteps, YBLA and CAFAM have organized an event with Black Lives Matter Los Angeles on February 22. Dubbed a "pop-up" the event, will feature food, political organizing, music, and, of course, the kind of collaborative, engaged making that are YBLA and CAFAM's hallmarks: live storytelling, silk screening, a group mural project, all the tiny human interactions needed to support and extend each.

The upcoming event illustrates the kinds of distinct intelligence that organizations run, and staffed, by women can bring to bring to bear. The event is also as much an aesthetic intervention as a political one. Like most of YBLA's work, "#BLACK LIVES MATTER" is vibrant, colorful, and whimsical. But, depending on the time of day, the foot traffic on Wilshire, it can scan as lonely in ways that much of their work resolutely does not. Driving past at least once a week over the last two months, often at night, I've not been able to help starting a little at it as if catching sight of a roadside memorial out of the corner of my eye. I wonder who died here, I thought, before remembering. It will be good to see it again on Sunday under conditions that better align with the way it was made: surrounded by people and life.

"As a part of the Yarn Bombing Los Angeles (YBLA) Urban Letters project. CAFAM, YBLA, Black Lives Matter - Los Angeles (BLMLA), and World City Center (WCC) have come together to produce a BLM Pop Up to celebrate Black Futures Month on February 22, 2015 from 12:00pm-5:00pm."

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