With the famous and elusive Kogi Korean BBQ Taco Truck parked just outside, the foot traffic in and out of LAXART, a small non-profit gallery on the Culver City art row, was astounding last night. The crowds might also have been due to the dearth of good summer art shows, and a heightened anticipation for the fall season of edgy new shows and lots of fabulous new work. A steady stream of people wandered into Mexican artist Gustavo Artigas’s project room and filled out ballots to petition that one of six Los Angeles landmarks be demolished. The buildings in question – the Disney Concert Hall, the Pacific Design Center, the Broad Contemporary Art Museum at LACMA, the Kodak Theater, the Staples Center, and the Rodeo Drive boutiques – were selected by a group of Los Angeles architects as those with the least aesthetic value. The voting structures were giant podium-sized ballot boxes with color photographs of the six buildings in question under a piece of plexi on top, and pollees filled out small printed ballots to drop in. The LAXART voting site was the project’s hub, but it was certainly not the only one – the artist has created a website as well as a series of voting structures to be placed throughout the city.
The press release describes this project thusly: “Artigas’s highly accessible yet formally and intellectually advanced artist interventions in Los Angeles expose the thinness of community and the vast tensions that can foreshadow societal breakdown.”
In general, I agree with that statement. Artigas has a knack for pointing out tension and social resilience in highly elegant metaphors, like his Games series, but I was less certain of the efficacy of this Demolition project in achieving the same results. I actually wrote this bit of the press release on his Games series, about a year ago when I still worked at LAXART and the project was in its initial stages. I’d like to quote it here, because I think reflects quite accurately what I like about Artigas’s work, and will help to highlight some of my issues with Vote for Demolition.
“Gustavo Artigas’s broader practice encompasses institutional critique, the exposure of social tensions through artificially devised, game-based platforms, and the exploration of how abstract notions like borders and social contracts affect reality. These provocative interventions progressed to a new level at the cross-border exhibition inSITE 2000, in which Artigas realized his two-part piece Rules of the Game I & II. In Rules of the Game I, the artist installed handball courts on both sides of the Unites States/Mexico border, which were quickly taken over and utilized by residents. The playful interactions that occurred when a ball would fall on the opposite side of the fence only to be congenially returned emphasized the realities of migration and the superficiality of the made-up border space. Artigas further developed this layered social commentary with Rules of the Game II, in which a Mexican football (soccer) team and an American basketball team negotiated for space on the same court in a Tijuana high school. The tensions and jostling, sometimes approaching violence, were ultimately resolved as the players learned to move fluidly around and between one another, living symbiotically but within two very separate frameworks. His work is simultaneously instantly accessible and highly poetic, and he masterfully uses conflicts to tease out insights into the real out of a morass of socially abstracted concepts.”
Glowing press release language aside, I do actually love those two pieces in their simplicity and their power. With Vote for Demolition, though, I just am having trouble making the metaphor work in quite the same way. It is real, in the way that these games were real – there is a familiar process of voting, the petition will be formal and legal, and the possibility of demolition does actually exist outside of fantasy – but just like the games, the actual results are likely to be inconsequential, and the greater meaning is grasped from the symbol this staging becomes. So what does the symbolic hope for demolition, both the voting process and the destruction of a building mean? Clearly Artigas wants to shine a light on the arbitrary nature of the built environment, and recast spatial configuring as a democratic process. He singles out architects to make the building selection, highlighting a generational divide in architectural taste, then polling the public for their opinions on these supposed eyesores. But how is he defining the complex layers of community in Los Angeles? Is he really digging deep into the process of polling, investigating how spatial imaginations shift if you are the audience member at Disney concert hall, or the homeless man outside, or the juror who must park there, or the resident of the apartment building across the way who is blinded by the reflected sun every morning? How are we able to do anything other than speculate randomly about this process and its results?
I am curious to see how the data is brought to bear in the finished incarnation, what insights can be garnered from this demolition effort. Artigas seems to have little commentary on the meaning of architecture in our lives, and is relying on the results of his data to interpret its effect on the societal fabric. Yet I fear his simplistic polling process will yield very little information, and is an underdeveloped idea in comparison to the magnetic poetry of his Games pieces.