“How to Change” is a limited series for “Southland Sessions” exploring the most critical issues facing Southern California culture makers in this pivotal historical moment. Each column will explore a question posed to a range of artists and culture workers, and include recommendations to address these concerns from a practical, action-oriented perspective.
Using Public Spaces?
For the fifth installment of "How to Change," I asked, "How are artists sharing their work and building community under socially distanced conditions that have moved art activities outdoors?” While the volume of activity is nowhere near pre-pandemic levels, the prolonged shutdown has seen many Southern California artists get creative about exhibiting their work in outdoor spaces. I spoke to a few who have organized shows and events this fall that are ongoing or can still be viewed online.
Alessandra Moctezuma is Director of the Mesa College Art Gallery and faculty in Museum Studies at San Diego Mesa College. This fall, she was challenged to come up with a viable final project for her students in the Museum Studies emphasis. Mesa College is a community college that seeks to create pathways to professional access for its students by offering a skills-building curriculum such as the hands-on first-semester practicum that Moctezuma teaches. She laments how, in spring 2020, “we had to shut our college gallery completely. We were just about to open an exhibition when the shutdown occurred, featuring four women artists,” including two based in Ensenada and Tijuana, Mexico. “It was ceramics and painting and sculpture. It was a really nice collaboration between artists in Mexico and artists here in San Diego. That was pretty sad that we had to just shut down completely.” Online programming on Instagram, virtual gallery tours, and a website were strategies that she used to keep attention on the exhibition remotely. “I explored some of that for my museum studies class," she explains. "I was thinking, I can't really do an exhibition in the gallery, and I'm not really so convinced about doing a virtual exhibit." Access for low-income students, who might not have broadband WiFi or computers with powerful processors, was also a concern. “[Virtual exhibits] are hard to navigate and, if you're on a laptop, it's really difficult. As a user, it is not so great.” The alternative of creating a website for the artworks, while more accessible, didn’t spark excitement. For Moctezuma, a curator and artist who got her start painting murals with Judy Baca at SPARC in Venice, and later went on to work for the MTA in Los Angeles as a project manager for public art projects, an outdoor site seemed an obvious solution.
Getting permission to turn the Mesa College parking lot into an art exhibition for a night was another matter. “I needed to go through a series of steps to get them to approve this because it involves people coming onto campus, traffic, police,” Moctezuma describes. “But the college, in the summer, did a drive-in graduation. And we've also been doing a monthly food distribution for our students who are food insecure, every month. And we also have WiFi access in the parking lots so students can park their car and utilize the college's WiFi for their classes if they need to.” She leveraged these precedents to persuade the administration to give permission for the exhibit. “They even gave me permission to have a few of the students come on campus, wearing masks, just outdoors, to help hang the exhibition.” Learning to install the artworks, write about them, and promote the exhibition are crucial elements of the hands-on curriculum. With 90% of the students based locally, the class was excited to work on a project that would allow them to collectively assemble on campus again, safely.
“Mesa College Drive-In: An Outdoor Art Exhibition" opened on November 13, 2020, with a drive-in reception that included a receiving line to greet attendees, as well as an audio tour explaining each artwork in detail. The works were printed on vinyl banners that the students affixed to a fence lining the parking lot’s perimeter. San Diego audiences can visit the exhibit in their cars until December 9. Says Moctezuma, “I wanted to orchestrate that event almost as a performance, a happening. What we did is we created a whole circuit for the cars to come through.” The event brought approximately 160 cars through on the exhibition’s opening day. For the students who were not physically present, including one in Texas and one in Berlin, “I actually narrated a Facebook live stream explaining what we were doing,” Moctezuma reports. “We also had a video of a panning shot of all their banners. So they could see it that way.” Though Mesa College primarily caters to San Diego students, its unique approach to curating in an undergraduate curriculum gives the program a broader reach.
Click right and left to see art from the Mesa College Drive-In exhibition:
The sense of connection that the event generated was felt by the student curators as well as the participating artists. “One of the artists in the exhibit whose work was selected is a young woman who has autism,” she explains. “She's a wonderful painter. And she had been so sad when everything shut down because she loves participating in exhibitions.” After the event, Moctezuma was thrilled to receive an email from the artist's mother. "When she came, and she saw people stopping by her artwork, and she was able to experience it, it broke down that distance that she had felt of being so far from people." Indeed, many artists are motivated to create art by the interpersonal connections that they discover when they present their work publicly.
One such artist is Warren Neidich, a conceptual artist and organizer who has spent more than half his time in Los Angeles over the past decade and is currently riding out the pandemic in East Hampton, New York. While getting to know the east end of Long Island last spring, Neidich hatched a public art exhibition, “Drive-by-Art (Public Art in this Moment of Social Distancing),” which spawned a Los Angeles edition co-curated by Neidich, Renee Petropoulos, Michael Slenske and myself. This fall, Neidich has teamed up with curator Rita Gonzales (LACMA), poet Joseph Mosconi (Poetic Research Bureau) and writer Andrew Berardini to present “5-7-5,” a series of text installations by local and international artists on the marquee of the Theater at the Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. At the Ace, “It's an old fashioned marquee with three sides,” Neidich describes. “And originally they had only wanted us to use the front, but then they got so excited about the project that now we're using all three [sides].” The first artist, David Horvitz, premiered his text piece in late September, while the last, poet Joyelle McSweeney, will present hers during the week of December 2-9.
Click left and right to see art from "Drive-By Art" :
Each week-long installation employs the Japanese haiku form of poetry, in which the first line contains five syllables, the second line contains seven syllables and the third and final line contains five. Mosconi designed a template that allows each artist to map out their own text installation according to the parameters of the marquee. Says Neidich, “The artists are given multiple ways that all three of the scrims can be used and the haiku gets kind of broken up and becomes fractionalized, because of the way it's distributed.” The visual form of the marquee, indelibly linked to stage performance and cinema, is repurposed as a literary medium. Neidich had been organizing projects of this nature in New York, including Exhibition 211 in 2009, and in Los Angeles, collaborating with LAXART and artist Elena Bajo, his partner, for “Art in the Parking Space” in 2011-12. “I don't consider myself a curator. I consider myself an organizer,” he explains. Acting as an organizer offers a freedom that institutional curating may not. Creating temporary and immediate public spaces within the increasingly privatized landscape of contemporary Los Angeles seems in itself like a destabilizing act.
Click right and left to see more work from "5-7-5":