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ART US, June/July ’04.

The night before war started in Iraq Jennifer Murphy responded to a semi-anonymous email and left her home in Highland Park, California. Walking to the corner of York and Figueroa she was surprised to see other people attending the candlelight peace vigil. She reflects, “it’s amazing to me now that I didn’t know them all a year ago.” Fritz Haeg bought a geodesic dome on the other side of the mountain from Jennifer. He felt obligated to do something with it; “it’s absurd that it be for one person. Houses have other jobs than just living in.” Down the arroyo in Chinatown, a bunch of MFA grads came together in 2000 to build upon the camaraderie they shared in school. And three bumpy miles up First Street, several bikers found that they could share their tools, some beer, and their expertise creating the Bicycle Kitchen.

It’s a cliché to refer to Los Angeles as a collection of suburbs in search of a city. Demographically LA is multiple. Like other cities, the centralizing power of Los Angeles’ institutions have a difficult time containing the many faces of a place that is continually changing. Last year the city finally recognized my own neighborhood as “Filipinotown” fifty years after the fact of Filipino settlement. Meanwhile according to Los Angeles’ County Arts Commission, local government arts funding is miniscule in comparison to elsewhere. (The city of Los Angeles allocates $1.56 versus San Francisco’s $15.96 per individual.) I suspect that this poverty only continues the disenfranchisement of the many communities that make up our living cultural infrastructures.

Because of this you may not know, but currently there is a renaissance of sorts occurring here. You can’t read about it writ large, but you may receive a snippet if you are on one of many email lists. If you check the Los Angeles Independent Media Center web sight you might see an item about an event. Like most other unsubsidized functions and societies in the city (LA’s black churches, quinceaneras, Santa Monica Pier’s fisherman, gardeners, street races etc) a growing numbers of art and non-art groups support themselves through self-generated institutions. These anti-institutions are often collectively run and transparent. They offer culture for free, working against a profit motive at an interactive level. While arts organizations and the art press generally spend their time navel gazing at decontextualized objects, new spaces like C-level, Sun Down Salon, The Bicycle Kitchen and Flor Y Canto are practicing culture where theory becomes practice, and art blurs into life. Through self-generated projects as well as facilitated events, these venues add to the proliferation of a contemporary grassroots culture that should be understood as both casual and political.

Raoul Vaneigem’s The Revolution of Every Day Life is a book cited by Anita Martinez as inspirational, perhaps influencing the development of Flor y Canto. Because the Highland Park “info shop” doesn’t display overtly political posters and it "looks like someones living room," Anita says that folks sometimes refer to it as if artists, not “real activists,” ran it. Vaneigem’s paean to finding incentives outside of programmatic or ideological givens but within life itself, as revolutionary praxis, is fitting for this highly functional space. “People appreciate that we don’t get paid for this” Esteban Tuborcio a Flor Y Canto facilitator adds. For an illustration of this consider that last summer, after a gunman robbed the place, a rare call for help to the Flor y Canto community brought in more money than the thief got away with.

Flor y Canto is a welcoming seating area, a free foosball table and a row of computers. On one wall is a well stocked selection of books in Spanish and English. In the summer there is also ice cream for the neighborhood kids. The book sales and the tiny computer-use fees cover the cost of operating the space. During the day it’s all foot-traffic from the surrounding working class Latino neighborhood; kids doing homework, people talking politics, a game of foosball. At night it’s also folks who drive in from more distant communities. This includes Jennifer Murphy’s North East Neighbors for Peace and Justice, which now holds weekly film screenings there. Her favorite screening to date was a bill of both artistic and factual documentaries on the subject of biodeisel. At times A Free University also uses the space to hold “classes” in people-centered education. “Teachers” dialogue around topics that are there own “inspiration for liberation.”

In a city notoriously car happy, Ben Guzman describes the Bicycle Kitchen as a place to foster “bicycle culture”. “We socialize- we are creating a society because we are sharing a part of our lives.” By offering advice or cheap-to-free repairs in a fluid environment, Ben knows that he and his partners are helping the city and more importantly themselves. Besides operating the shop two nights a week, they run a program where kids get to assemble their own bikes from recycled parts. The group also just started an evening called “Bicycle Bitchin’ at Bicycle Kitchen” to support a greater presence for the ladies. Relating to the city in a manner alternative to chronic drivers, bicyclists have different priorities. “We are riding bikes because we’re dropping out,” declares Guzman.

“We want a world where many worlds are possible,” like the idealized gallery, these spaces offer support for worldviews that are other than the mainstream. Sun Down Salon’s Frits Haeg sees the act of holding themed salons, for everyone from knitters to architects, as adding to the overall artistic ecosystem of the city. In a similar vein, the members of the cooperative C-level stress that works shown in their space need not succeed in material terms as long as the ideas they generate are compelling. To illustrate this Michael Wilson recalls the night that artist Aaron Gache presented a cricket-launched missile system designed to defend old-growth forests from logging. The technology failed and the rocket missed its target. But there was palpable excitement amongst the artists, technologists, environmentalists and others in attendance. Mark Allen another dues paying member (fifty bucks monthly) says, "I used to judge the success of an event by the size of the crowd, but now I don’t. That’s a gauge of how well you’re doing your publicity. If only four people come to see a presentation- if those are the four people that need to be there to meet and talk- than that’s great.”

At C-level Mark tries to put together events that combine the carefree sociality of a party with the intellectualized atmosphere of an art opening. Member Marc Herbst (who is my brother) says that people come to C-level so they can stand in the alleyway above the basement space, smoke a cigarette and choose whether or not to talk about the event happening below their feet. Rather than describing putting together events as an "artwork," both members prefer the term "cultural practice." Mark Allen explains. "I could say that I am a cultural practitioner but every human does that. A lot of what we do comes from a deep desire to extend creativity into every level of peoples lives. It is beside the point to have a career; it’s a maladapted response.” Michael Wilson agrees. "C-level doesn’t fetishize these things. It doesn’t create a stage that is supposed to stand in for social interaction. It is the stage. We’re not talking about social interaction; we’re actually doing it. Relational aesthetics only fetishizes the social in an attempt to colonize it, instead of employing it." He goes on to mention artists who package themselves as creating objects or situations for social exchange. "Look how inclusive I am--now give me money. It’s the same model that non-profits have used and that are now such miserable failures." (All of the groups I have discussed have considered becoming 501(c)3s but have resisted so far, fearing the resulting bureaucracies would kill projects made of love.)

Allen points to a C-level generated project as emblematic of what the space does best. Members Peter Brinson, Christina Ulke and Michael Wilson wanted to develop a night of video programming that would find its own “self-organizing principle.” They came upon the concept of karaoke for an event called All You Can Eat. Any video that could be construed as a karaoke video would be shown. The project created a framework for others to make work- in this case musical videos. The event than created an additional framework for more people in C-level’s community to perform- when they sang along.

Over the past year there’s been several articles on art collectives published. One by Michelle Grabner in X-Tra praised the political subtleties of European collectives like N55 and Superflex, while pooh-poohing the apolitical, "countercultural" approach of North American counterparts like Milhaus and Royal Art Lodge. But these articles, when making their comparisons rarely consider the underlying economics underlying them. Scandinavian artists in particular, with access to greater public funding, are able to build careers around socially minded projects. American artists, on the other hand, feeling the need to market themselves commercially, often think that they can only have a revolution in style. Meanwhile grassroots collectives taking root in Los Angeles are finding ways to accomplish both.