There is no better description of what it means—physically, psychically—to live in Los Angeles than this passage from Joan Didion’s 1970 novel Play It As It Lays:
So that she would not have to stop for food she kept a hard-boiled egg on the passenger seat of the Corvette. She could shell and eat a hard-boiled egg at seventy miles an hour (cracking it on the steering wheel, never mind salt, salt bloats, no matter what happened she remembered her body) and she drank Coca-Cola in Union 76 stations, Standard stations, Flying As. She would stand on the hot pavement and drink the Coke from the bottle and put the bottle back in the rack…and then she would walk to the edge of the concrete and stand, letting the sun dry her damp back.
Maria Wyeth eventually undergoes a psychotic break in Didion’s Los Angeles. We haven’t descended into madness—yet. One year after moving from New York to pursue MFAs in the U.C.L.A. Department of Art as part of a unique program called “Interdisciplinary Studio” established and run by artist Mary Kelly, we are slowly adapting to life in our new environs. Aside from the shared feat of crossing four lanes of traffic without slowing down—or, in our case, without missing the beat of yet another brilliant Rihanna song—Maria’s devastating experience in Hollywood looks little like our own. A confession: in our early days as Angelenos, driven along in our Jeep Patriot by an utterly new sense of vehicular euphoria (the Futurists were right about one thing), one of us tried the egg-on-the-steering-wheel maneuver. We’ll spare each other the shame of telling you which one of us forgot to boil the egg.
We are not the first New Angelenos to pay homage to Didion, the patron saint of literary Los Angeles. Justin Vivian Bond, whose two-night stand in April at the Roy and Edna Disney/Cal Arts Theater (REDCAT) was one of the highlights of the performance season, also threw down at the her altar. REDCAT is the interdisciplinary contemporary art center tucked into the corner of Frank Gehry’s iconic Disney Concert Hall, in downtown L.A. Performing songs from a new album, Dendrophile, the artist—who uses the gender-indeterminate pronoun “v”—channeled Didion, Wyeth, and Joni Mitchell all at once in a two-act concert accompanied by a live band led by the adorably devoted pianist Thomas Bartlett (also the album’s producer). The concert marked a turning point: Bond has managed to transcend the performance art juggernaut known as Kiki and Herb and firmly establish vself as a folk singer in the lineage of Mitchell, Baez, and Dylan. Bond has evolved into an Orpheus for a new kind of “folk,” queer as hell. Dripping with references from Genet to the transgender pioneer Bambi Lake, this new body of work articulates a queer poetics in that most Californian of traditions: folk-rock songwriting-as-storytelling. The personal and political meet in the music. “American Wedding,” the album’s first single, is set to a poem by the late Essex Hemphill and invokes a radical sexuality, largely lost in mainstream representations of queer people. One lyric in particular remains unforgettable, accompanied by Bond’s equally memorable embodiment of Hemphill’s words: “In America / I place my ring / on your cock/ where it belongs.” In the land of Proposition 8, so far away in spirit and law from New York’s recognition of same-sex marriages, the moment offered a profoundly fresh take on what has become a decidedly stale cultural debate.
To get by car from the Gehry-designed REDCAT to the MAK Center for Art and Architecture at the Rudolf M. Schindler House, you take the 101, a k a the Hollywood Freeway. In terms of art, you go from Andrea Fraser’s Little Frank and His Carp—a video in which Fraser literally and hilariously interprets the audio guide to Gehry’s more famous building in Bilbao—to the artist’s seminal performance May I Help You?, relocated this spring to the landmark Schindler House for the MAK Center’s exhibition 91 92 93. The show included key projects from the early 1990s by Simon Leung and Lincoln Tobler, revisited by the artists and imaginatively installed in the rooms of the Schindler house, but it was Fraser’s re-performance that managed to cut through the art-historical framework, a conceit which brought to mind a slightly depressing family gathering around the VCR to review the birth of institutional critique. Rather than reminisce over a time when criticality in art was at its apex, Fraser’s reworked performance attempts to address what the hell is happening in today’s art world, an increasingly fractured and monetized field that relishes its renaissance as a blue-chip asset even as it loses its so-called autonomy. In L.A., artists and movie people have the same gripe: Wall Street is ruining the business. Sometimes money turns good food sour.
In its first presentation in 1991 at the American Fine Arts gallery in New York, May I Help You? deployed three actors, in the role of gallery staff, to engage visitors with a monologue written by Fraser. Collaged from dozens of sources (Pierre Bourdieu to James Baldwin), the script represents different social positions within the field of art, from the collector-connoisseur to the outsider excluded from art’s discourse (“I don’t need to come here to be told I don’t belong here”). At American Fine Arts, the work was performed amid an installation of 100 of Allan McCollum’s Plaster Surrogates. Here, Schindler’s interiors were left empty, and Fraser performed the monologue herself. In this new context, the piece did not, as one might expect, replace architecture for art; nor did it explicitly address related phenomena such as the banalization and fetishization of modernist design or real estate speculation in California. Such allusions were available, but May I Help You? 2.0 seemed to sharpen its focus and, with the precision of a surgical operation, flay open the body of largely unarticulated projections, displacements, and assumptions that constitute what we know as the art world, or art discourse. Shifting from “character” to “character” while resisting playing the parts—or acting—Fraser floats in the space of discourse, embodying the social and psychological positions that collectively make up the contradictory and contested field of art. At the Schnidler house, by not referring to anything in particular, the voices of Fraser’s “characters” can only be speaking to each other; by not speaking about any specific artworks they are inevitably speaking specifically about the world of art.
Fraser’s performative approach in May I Help You? called to mind the performance of another seminal work on view this season at the MAK Center: Yvonne Rainer’s Trio A. Both pieces radically juxtapose the elements of their composition, privileging an evenness of tone and resisting any tendency toward the ups and downs of narrative development. In May I Help You? the actor’s trained ability to build a monologue or role toward the revelation of character or psychological motivation is given over to a singular delivery. In Trio A, the dancer’s habit of articulating the beginning and end of a phrase of movement is absented so that each movement can be seen, one after another. The formal concerns of what makes up the performance, apparent in both works, reveal a distance from the current vogue for the “immaterial.” The structure of these works reminds us of a performance’s materiality, its existence as a socially constructed and contingent object of discourse, a thing in the world, to be internalized, forgotten, lost, studied, discussed, repeated, worked through.
This spring the MAK Center hosted an exhibition and platform of public events, Work After Work, organized by graduating students of the Master of Public Art Studies Program: Art/Curatorial Practices in the Public Sphere at USC. Exploring issues of artistic production and labor, Work After Work also included a “transmission”—on a stunningly sunny afternoon—of Trio A. Sarah Wookey, one of four people officially selected and trained by Rainer to teach the dance, led two free workshops in the open-air courtyard of the Schindler-designed Mackey Apartments, today a residency center for young artists and architects. Participants received step-by-step instruction on the first section of the dance; afterward, exhibition co-curator Chloë Flores led a conversation with Rainer and Wookey on the theme of the work’s transmission over time, via official and unofficial means. Rainer notably told of a performance she had seen of Trio A in which the dancer had learned, or attempted to learn, the work solely by watching the YouTube video of Rainer performing the dance in 1978. Rainer, who at the time the film was made was already in the process of stopping dancing to devote herself fully to filmmaking, has called her own performance in this YouTube version sloppy, and referred to this after-YouTube version as “Trio Oy vey.”
Rainer is on faculty in the art department at U.C. Irvine, just outside Los Angeles proper. Last fall she led a course at the university on what was touted as her final teaching of Trio A. We took the class alongside a dozen other artists and dancers and learned the 4 ½ minute dance over ten weekly lessons. Rainer inserted anecdote and metaphor into her detailed directives on the movements’ execution. Trio A is surprisingly difficult for a dance that is believed to be danceable by anyone. The movements are extremely specific and a keen control is required in order to execute them without shifting rhythm, speed or pacing. Much ink has been spilled on the work’s intervention in the history of dance and performance, but little has been written on the particular experience of learning the dance. Trio A is a machine built for two audiences—the spectator and the participant. It is a pedagogical work in many respects, reserving its most powerful impressions for the student, and challenging every system for learning the dancer has acquired. Without phrases, each successive movement feels inorganic and strange. The mind must work faster than muscle to maintain an even-keeled performance. Trio A trains the way the dancer sees his own body as much as it challenges how the spectator watches.
The L.A. art world is a satellite of the New York/London art world. It stirs below Hollywood’s belly and is floated by the many university art programs in the region (Cal Arts, U.C.L.A., USC, U.C. Irvine, U.C. San Diego, Art Center, SCI-Arc., etc.). This diminutive status in the culture of the city, sheltered but rarely supported by the movie business, permits Los Angeles artists to do something their New York counterparts haven’t been able to do for quite awhile: hide. The city allows for work to gestate, to stew, and artists have a lot more space to work through ideas. They also have a lot of space to work in. Artist-run spaces are on the way to becoming as common as corner bodegas in eastern neighborhoods like Lincoln Heights, Chinatown, Echo Park, and Highland Park. One such space particularly committed to showing new performance is Pieter, established in 2009 by Jmy Leary, known to New Yorkers for her affiliation with the AUNTS and as a member of the performance group MGM Grand. Pieter offers residencies to local and visiting artists with a bent toward contemporary dance. It’s located a few miles from downtown and set against the backdrop of a train track in a still active manufacturing zone; visiting is not unlike spending an evening in Bushwick in the early part of the last decade. It feels like home to displaced New Yorkers not only by fact of its environs but also due to its constituency. We visited Pieter for informal and invigorating performances of new work by Leary and Ben Evans. We partook of the Free Bar.
Showbox LA, a back-of-my-apartment-run organization headed by New York transplant (are we seeing a trend?) Meg Wolfe, produced a performance in June of Miguel Gutierrez’s Heavens What Have I Done at the Palm Court Ballroom in the Alexandria Hotel. The setting, a mirrored ballroom with cracked linoleum floor and folding chairs, captured the fake glamour of Hollywood’s simulacrum. Like Gutierrez’s not-so-experimental show itself, the not-quite-gilded interior was more aspirational than accomplished. Gutierrez’s show did not deliver on its promise of formal experimentation, but it did by token of this failure capture an enduring spirit of the city, one of emblematic charm playing cover to the dry fact of a desert basin. In Los Angeles the desert is as real as it is in fiction.