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. My collaborator Emily Anne Kuriyama and I have been interviewing the founders and directors of just some of the proliferation of new spaces in this city, and the interviews are published throughout fall 2013 on KCET Artbound and this blog.
Angelenos love to reinvent the city’s history — we often find value (or necessity) in reproducing movements with variation. Nowhere is this more evident than in the sphere of fine visual and performing arts, especially in a city that churns out MFAs like a factory for chronically underemployed creatives. In a field where supply (artists and their work) vastly outpaces demand (venues, exhibition spaces, and any kind of real compensation), artists and creative professionals quickly realize that they must create their own opportunities for exposure. School friends and recent grads band together, start their own spaces, make work, and thus enter a community of art makers, venues, ideas, conversations, and scenes. Although the term “alternative art space” recalls a particular time and space, specifically New York City in the 1980s, the rise of artist-run, not very commercial, experimental art spaces can be linked to several urban conditions, which art historian Julie Ault identifies in her seminal text Alternative Art New York, 1965 – 1985.Though she writes specifically about the New York movement of alternative art spaces, locating that phenomenon in a particular time and place, the catalytic factors resonate deeply with present-day Los Angeles. These factors include a young, resilient, diverse, and creative population (check, there are at least five world-class graduate art programs in the immediate area); affordable former industrial or rehabbed space (still available in many areas of the city); overarching economic hardship (i.e. lack of other job opportunities–check–see California unemployment numbers); and the opportunity for global art world exposure (perhaps not always true, but certainly Los Angeles’s current status as an art center is undisputable). This combination of urban conditions is not new; in fact, many art spaces have arisen, lived, and gone defunct in this city over the years, from purposefully ephemeral venues like Deep River (founded by Glenn Kaino, Daniel Joseph Martinez, and Tracy Schiffman) and in existence from 1997-2002, overseeing the millennial turn), to the rise of several experimental non-profits in the mid 2000s (LAXART, Machine Project,Workspace, Les Figues Press, Mountain School of Arts). What began to interest my collaborator Emily Anne Kuriyama and I when conceptualizing this interview series was the rise of what we are terming “hybrid” art spaces. Unlike the defined non-profits, commercial galleries, and artist-run spaces of the past, this new crop is difficult to categorize. Sometimes run by artists, sometimes by creative collectives, sometimes by rotating groups, these spaces not only host more traditional exhibitions and performances, but also function as community centers, studios or living spaces for emerging artists, traveling educational initiatives, shops, event venues, publication houses, incubators, and artist service centers. Many have no defined tax status–they might have a fiscal receivership set up, or an LLC, but very few function as either purely commercial enterprises or as non-profits. Most are very small and nimble in their experimental programming and overhead, and many started in 2010. We selected just a few of these spaces to profile in depth for this series, probing why the spaces were started, what their programming ethos is, what the space’s lineage might be, and what the organizers consider success.
Actual Size is a small storefront gallery in L.A.’s Chinatown, just off the main drag of Broadway. Only 250 square feet, the tiny white cube used to be a convenience store called the New High Mart, and is surrounded by hair salons and souvenir shops. Chinatown itself is a bit of a cipher — though home to a Chinese community of business owners and residents, it has a long history of being a location on the cutting-edge of culture; once the center of L.A.’s punk scene and now a hub for small, experimental artist-run spaces.
On our way to visit Actual Size, Emi and I ran into each other wandering around a dark Chinatown block. We moved towards our obvious destination, illuminated by a beacon of light on the sidewalk, a tiny storefront door thrown open, and Corrie Siegel, in a stylish skirt, heels, and long braids, moving chairs and a sound piece in a white pedestal out front. Inside was a pristine white cube that was adorably small, maybe 8’x10′(I think they said it’s 250sq, but it felt a lot smaller), with a concrete floor and the skeletal outline of a drop ceiling overhead. Despite its dazzling white interior and sparse installation of films, drawings, and a sound piece (part of the show Borderlands), the gallery’s diminutive size and storefront location made it feel immediately intimate, cozy, and accessible. The place itself felt like a border, a porous membrane between the street and a community of contemporary artists and cultural producers, and embracing that precarity is reflective in its name. As we sat around a bucket of water and beer on mismatched chairs, at least three random people shouted in as they walked by. “Actual Size” began to feel like the perfect name, as comments ranged from “Is this an actual business?” to “What do you actually do here?” Corrie and Justin John Greene (two of the three directors of the space, sans Lee Foley) had clearly fielded such questions many, many times before.
Read the full interview on KCET Artbound here.