Thursday, 27 February 2014

Birds Don't Recognise Borders







It was an honour, a privilege and a challenge to create a new mural in the grounds of SPARC during the last days of my residency.

The design developed quickly from a fairly vague idea of using birds as a representation of the positive multiculturalism of Los Angeles to a piece which hopefully speaks to the physical barriers thousands of people around the world are forced to negotiate on a daily basis. Barriers erected along racial, religious or economic grounds separating families and friends, all to often more than they separate enemies.
Here is the first design.


The design evolved through conversations I had with Judy Baca and was influenced from the conversations I have had with Los Angelenos over the last few weeks. I had not expected to be designing a whole wall and thought I would perhaps have the opportunity to help paint someone else's composition but as there were none in production it worked out this way.
I had help painting from several students and staff members from SPARC who also contributed content ideas. I am extremely grateful for their help. Especially to Daniel for the shelter/provisions, Michael for the Israel/Palestine section and Claribel for the skyline and repeat visits, juggling childcare and her studies to help on a number of occasions.


I thought borders was an appropriate theme to explore as it is my belief that forced separation of communities, often but not solely, as a result of British and American Imperialism (see the Middle East from the fall of the Ottoman Empire until today) creates many more problems than it solves. The restriction of movement and forcible displacement of people builds resentment amongst populations that are also often economically oppressed. This hostility towards them understandably leads to hostility from them. Those who profit from military machines know this. I would suggest that the majority of barriers installed around the world were done so for economic reasons, created by those who stand to profit the most.
At present the United Kingdom is about to go through a potentially irreversible change that will affect it's internal borders. The people of Scotland, a country of just 4.5 million people, will be asked to vote on September 18th 2014 as to whether they wish to remain park of the UK or to be an independent country. Having watched the debate in the media back home whilst here, my attitude has hardened and I am more in favour of independence than I was previously. Mainly down to the threats, the increasingly right wing agenda of Westminster and the fact that there is very little between the three main UK parties, illustrated by their decision to stand together to reject the idea of a currency union with Scotland, thus damaging business interests on both sides of the border in order to scare people into a No vote.
This issue has made me consider that even though things have begun to get nasty in terms of rhetoric at home, there are no calls for the erection of walls and there are no weapons involved, for this we should be thankful and we must work hard to keep it this way.

The composition starts, from left to right, with a representation of the Wall separating Israel and Palestine and a helicopter from a previous SPARC show pasted in the sky above the West Bank. A billboard featuring Scarlett Johansen advertising Sodascream looms over the town, she recently decided she liked the taste of Soda stream more than working for the charity Oxfam, so became the face of a company who has factories in occupied Palestine.
The desert in front of the wall represents all natural physical barriers that separate people with a specific reference to the divide between Mexico/US. The twisted metal wall was sourced from a barrier which had been pulled down between Israel and Palestine but it can also stand for all walls. In front of the metal barrier there is a painting of a bald eagle, symbol of the United States and of Mexico, devouring a bloodied quetzal, a beautiful bird hunted almost to extinction for it's tail feathers and a powerful symbol of Mexico)



The next fence is the Mexico US border fence, in front of which stands an open veterinary cage, representing prisons and detention centres. This was originally to have an image of detained families inside it but I thought a more positive image would be more appropriate so the birds are flying from the cage in a multi-ethnic flock; a pigeon (universal survivor scavenger and subject of one of my favourite hiphop tracks, Pigeon by Cannibal Ox), a green parrot (flocks of whom can be seen all over Southern California, made up of escaped or released pets, considered a pest by some, they are now endangered in their original habitats but thrive in Cali) and a common sandpiper (there used to be thousands of these wee birds along the shore of Venice beach, where I was staying in LA, but there numbers are now greatly reduced).
Below the parrot the wall is sourced from Belfast and is representative of a city divided along religious grounds. Above which is a US lookout tower on the Syrian border. The Belfast wall is attached in the painting to the border between Spain and Morocco/ Europe and Africa, the skyline has come to represent all cities.

I hope that this mural evolves over time. The billboard space can be changed by SPARC employees, students and guests depending on the issues of the day. Pastiches of consumer and celebrity culture with a cynical undertone would probably work best.
Items could be left in the dessert areas, e.g., split water cans, as a nod to those who traverse hostile and too often fatally treacherous landscapes in pursuit of a 'better' life for themselves.
I would also like it if more birds and a monarch butterfly were to appear in the foreground of the piece over the burning city. Silhouettes of oppressive buildings could be added to the skyline next to Dungavel Detention Centre (where Scotland locks up 'illegal' migrant families). Perhaps some Olympic or World Cup stadia erected in countries where there are oppressive regimes that perhaps had to decant local populations in order to do so or condoned the persecution of people due to their sexual persuasion... I think we could all think of a few places where this applies.
One wee thing I'd better make clear...

...I am not condoning fire raising. That would be irresponsible, particularly when next door to the decent folk of the Venice Fire Dept who were so encouraging when we were creating it. What I am suggesting is that this forced separation and oppression leads to tinderbox situations and it is no wonder that riots and civil wars occur when people are marginalised. It is always only a matter of time.

In keeping with the location of the mural within the grounds of SPARC I thought it was important that I tried techniques and materials that were new to me; rendering a vector file of the digital sketch through Adobe illustrator, producing a paper stencil to transfer a dotted outline of the main compositional elements on to the wall with chalk through an age old mural technique called pouncing, using Nova color acrylic paint with 206 medium and a gesso primer on an outdoor wall (usually our budget and the expected lifespan of our productions make this an impossibility and the sunlight levels are considerably less in Scotland). I have also cut in using spray paint and a paper stencil more that previously.


I am happy with (most of) it considering the time restraints, the use of new methods and the hot weather! I am hoping it evolves and that folk do add to it as suggested above, if not I may have to come back to finish it....

There are more images and the text of an email I sent to Judy Baca on the SPARC website here. 

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Wall

After a great couple of days discussing and designing a potential mural with the good people of SPARC for a wall in their car park, we have come up with a (rough) design and concept. The concept speaks to the internationalism of this organisation, the multi ethnic city that is LA and my own personal interests and beliefs. I'm quite excited about it. I'll maybe put a sketch up tomorrow for you to see.
Its a long short wall, 4ft high and 50 long and I now have just three days to paint it. So if your in the Venice area Sat -Monday between 12 and 6 pop by and say hello. (and maybe bring some painting clothes)

Monday, 17 February 2014

LA Zine Fest and the Boonsburg Egg


After a couple of days dossing about on the beach and the flitting home of my travelling companion, I thought I'd take a wander up to the Culver City, where I'd heard there were a few galleries, to see what was on.




 As I walked through Culver City I started to notice more and more crisply dressed tattooed folk, wearing hats and cut-off denims, checked shirts, black rimmed specs and dyed hair, all moving in the same direction. What could be drawing these hipsters along the road I wondered. It must be some art.


I came across this wee van selling books and the kind of stuff you buy in gallery shops, badges and crafty things. I had a wee chat to the couple managing it and the proceeds of everything sold goes towards funding LA's public libraries. 


Next I came across this kid tagging a relatively new car with a sharpie. He wasn't the first one at it it seemed. In fact there were sharpies hanging from the window so I got involved.

A wee bit down the road I discovered what all the hipsters were gravitating towards. 


A bit like the Art Book Fare, but much more dishevelled... in a good way. There were folk playing home made computer games.

 Hundreds of stalls and huts, selling, swapping and giving away limited run prints, zines, stickers, books, t-shirts and records.


This guy and his mate had some really sweet painterly prints and a screen made up. 

Totally dug their work. 

Here's their website 
Looks like a pretty cool place. 
The kind of place I'd like to maybe have myself someday. 


This guy here was selling prints for two dollars as a wee girl he'd been drawing with took him to task for art being to expensive so he thought he'd do something about it. Bloody commendable. I bought a couple and gave him a wee Mild Vandals luggage tag of mine.

I also picked up some stickers and a 7''vinyl with songs with names like Shitty Cloud and Ant Massacre.


I saw this sign but I think the gallery was too tiny and I missed it.

Up the road from this I saw a sign for a two day art show from a reclusive artist inventor in an art book shop. He claims to have discovered how the Egyptians built the pyramids. It's pretty convincing. He seems to have funded his research by selling the crystal ball from the Wizard of Oz. Here's a mobile phone vid of the guy who works in the book shop demonstrating the Boonsburg egg
He's making one which could transport a shipping container. 
The one in this wee film weighs a couple of tonnes.
video
Insane Genius. I want to see the shipping container moved in the same way as those bricks. There's more info on his website. 
One of the best shows I've seen since I got here.





Recap #4 Museum of Jurassic Technology

After Skid Row we stopped off at the Museum of Jurassic Technology on Venice Boulevard.
You're not allowed to take pictures inside so no photos.
It had been recommended to us by just about everyone we met and some folk back home.
It's brilliant. I can't really describe it save for I now know what mice on toast cures, but I'm not going to tell you.
Find it here.
http://mjt.org/


Recap #3 Downtown Woman's Centre

After the LACMA/Charles White visit we were kindly invited downtown to Skid Row to the Downtown Women's Centre by Dena Younkin a previous recipient of the Fellowship I am travelling under (she visited the UK from LA last year to look at the UK's social enterprise models in order to apply them here).
The centre is great. It provides cheap supported residential accommodation for homeless women in need of it. There are two retail outlets selling soaps, candles and craft items produced by the women in the centre in conjunction with volunteer designers, developing soft and vocational skills in the women who participate, supporting the running costs of the centre and paying the women for their work. Many of whom have been out of work for decades or indeed never worked a regular job.
There's a cafe and a canteen where homeless women can come and get a hot meal and a dorm where a few can bed down during the day. It's safer to stay awake at night on the streets. The centre was set up in 1978 by Jill Haverson, a social worker who worked in Skid Row in the 70's and 80's and her client/friend Rose.
Here's a painting of the two of them produced from the fingerprints of the centre users for the opening of their new building in 2012.




It seems like a fantastic facility and sounds like there should be more places like it. There are a few hundred people on the waiting list for the 70 odd rooms. Find out more about it here

Skid Row is grim. The level of homelessness and poverty is shameful, as it is across the city. The fact that the richest most powerful country in the world can't provide for vulnerable and mentally ill citizens is a disgrace. It's president's day here so a good time to remind people of Ronald Regan's
closure of mental hospitals causing this explosion in homelessness.



It's a reminder that we need to fight really hard back in the UK to maintain the fragile safety nets we have created to prevent destitution, not that they catch everyone.

People who are homeless in California at least have the minor blessing of relatively warm winters. I spoke briefly to a guy in Venice in the phone shop on my first day, I think he was sleeping rough. He said if you are sleeping out this time of year in New York you don't survive. I wonder what the mortality figures are with the weather this year.



Recap #2 LACMA and the Charles White Elementary School


After the previous evenings Badu/Killer excitement, I got back to doing what I was funded to come here to do and went and tried to 'steal ideas' from successful arts professionals. (not how it was worded in the application)

In the afternoon we visited the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to speak to the Curator of Special Initiatives, Jose Luis Blondet and Miranda Carroll, Director of Communications about the LACMA public engagement programme. Jose has to be one of the most enthusiastic people I have met and I can see how he manages to convince all those at LACMA to invest in the large scale projects he manages to pull off; making sweets from the fabric of the building and asking visitors to eat at their on risk, 200 tonne sand displacements involving articulated lorries, supporting artists to making casts of Rodin sculptures )conservationists nightmare I would imagine).
I'm only sorry I didn't time my visit better to catch one of these performances. The time Miranda and Jose took to speak with us was hugely appreciated and it was good to speak to people concerned with producing spectacular events with academic rigour and intelligence rather than spectacle for spectacles sake.
Speaking of time, we failed to leave enough of it to get a proper look around the galleries. LACMA is huge. We managed a quick walk around the grounds and dived in to see the contemporary football exhibition where one of the warders eagerly encouraged us to visit a cinema space in the show as it was the signature piece. I should have know what was coming. The 'most successful' contemporary artist to come out of Scotland, Douglas Gordon's video portrait of the 'most successful' French footballer, Zinedine Zindane, scored by the (I'll keep with it) 'most successful' Scottish post rock band Mogwai, named after the 'most successful' cute 80's alien that turns into a monster when wet.
The fact that I could tell the warder something about the piece made me feel 'most successful' or smug if you want another adjective. It's a great bit of work and worth catching for the soundtrack alone.


We also popped in quickly to see some fantastic ancient Pre-Columban artifacts from Mexico in a room designed by artist Jorge Pardo, who also designed the LACMA Film Lab we visited last week.



There is an article about the exhibition and the design here. 

A life size, Diego Rivera sketch. That guy could draw. The weight of his lines are bold and perfect.

This is my new favourite painting. Roberto Matta's Burn Baby Burn. His visual description of the LA riots and the horrors of the Vietnam war. There's more info on it here.

I wasn't so impressed with the new contemporary acquisitions exhibition, especially after reading the intro panel with what I consider to be its too dense artspeak. A sample '...reflect the proclivity of contemporary artists to reject medium specificity and experiment with new forms'.
When I go to a gallery I want to spend time decoding the artworks not the introductory panels and I think this type of language is a huge turn off for many people who don't have a good knowledge of art terminology. But maybe that's the point. 

Following our rushed visit round the main LACMA campus we drove up Wilshire Boulevard to the old Otis College of Art and Design Building which is now the Charles White Elementary School. 

 
Bit of a dodgy mural this one. Hand painted advert for a fight.



Wilshire is a interesting street.

So... to get into the LACMA offsite gallery based in the Charles White Elementary School you have to first walk through the school reception and playground, which is unusual. It's funny how primary schools smell the same all over the world. The gallery is brilliant. We were met by Amber Edwards, who grew up nearby and I believe attended Otis and now works at the school/gallery for LACMA. 
It's a fantastic facility that every school should have. A high spec gallery, with workshop space that hosts exhibitions of really good work created by the school students and a well know artist, alongside their own original work and other relevant pieces from the main LCMA collection.
It's brilliant. The artist in residence is currently Kaz Oshiro the abstract work and constructed canvas sculptures he has produced with the kids are really great. There's also a great piece by Ingrid Calme in the show alongside Kaz/the students pieces.


This is an airbrush bike.

Here's a wee video of the exhibition being constructed.



There's a pretty famous Kent Twitchell mural in the playground. Pretty inspiring place for a kid to go to school and Charles White was a pretty inspiring guy himself.