Report: “CURRENT: LA”

Kerry Tribe and Sam Ketay.
Kerry Tribe and Sam Ketay.
photo: Panic Studio LA, courtesy of the artist

A new public art biennial takes root along the LA River.

Kerry Tribe and Sam Ketay.
Kerry Tribe and Sam Ketay. Photo: Panic Studio LA, courtesy of the artist

The center of an expansive revitalization project, the LA River has been getting quite a bit of press as of late. The reportage ranges from detailing the positive results of environmental restoration, to questions regarding the agreement that led to the involvement of renowned starchitect Frank Gehry with the area’s rebuilding, to cautionary tales concerning the looming gentrification of adjacent land tracks. Opening July 14, a series of new perspectives will emerge in the form of temporary outdoor art installations that will populate the river during the inaugural public art biennial, “CURRENT: LA.” The biennial, on view July 16 – August 14, 2016, involves 16 artists (10 individuals, three two-person teams) with installations at 16 different sites, winding from The Bowtie through the Sepulveda Basin and concluding with Los Angeles-based Kori Newkirk’s installation, Prime, at Point Fermin Park in San Pedro, each grappling with the vital resource of water as their subject.

“CURRENT: LA” first entered public consciousness at a press event earlier this year at which mayor Eric Garcetti, who has publicly proclaimed the river’s revitalization “a top priority” for his administration, announced the theme of “water,” as well as the curators and artists selected for the inaugural event. The announcement took place at Marsh Park in the Elysian Valley, itself the site of a 2014 revitalization project that transformed a former auto storage yard to a three-acre park in one of two designated “recreational zones” along the river. Financial concerns were also addressed: the temporary projects will be funded in part through a $1 million award from Bloomberg Philanthropies, with matching funds from the Department of Cultural Affair’s Arts Development Fee (ADF) Program and a $50,000 grant from The Ralph M. Parsons Foundation.

The award from Bloomberg Philanthropies is tied to the “Public Art Challenge” issued in 2014 to mayors across the country for “innovative temporary public art projects that demonstrate close collaboration between artists, or arts organizations and city government.” Nine months and 237 proposals later, the four winning cities, each eligible to receive up to $1 million in funding, were announced. To list: “Breathing Lights” a collaborative project between Albany, Schenectady and Troy, in New York; “Seeing Spartanburg in a New Light,” in Spartanburg, SC; “ArtHouse: A Social Kitchen” in Gary, IN; and in Los Angeles, “CURRENT: LA Water.” In addition to the temporary artworks, related programming will be scheduled to draw attention to the various installations associated with each city. For “CURRENT: LA Water,” the programming participants include nonprofits Barcid Foundation and Women’s Center for Creative Work, Self Help Graphics & Art among others.

Unlike the contemporaneous “Made in L.A.” biennial at the Hammer Museum, “CURRENT: LA” does not focus solely on works created by artists living in the title city. Instead, the impressive roster includes local, national and international figures including the likes of Houston-born conceptual artist and pioneer of social practice Mel Chin whose decades-long pursuit of socio-political and environmental themes was recognized in a four-museum retrospective, titled “Rematch” in his home town during spring 2015.

Mexico City-based Teresa Margolles and multi-national Rirkrit Tiravanija proposed architectural works for their projects, though each offers distinct conceptual underpinnings.  Margolles continues her pursuit to give voice to those who can no longer speak for themselves with La Sombra (the shadow), a structure built of concrete made under the artist’s direction to incorporate water previously used to absorb trace materials at 100 crime sites associated with gun violence in LA. The shadowed space offers hallowed ground to contemplate lives lost. Tiravanija, known for disregarding traditional boundaries between “art” and “life,” worked with the design studio wHY to create untitled 2016 (LA water, water pavilion). Located at the Sepulveda Dam Recreation Area, the timber-frame pavilion, evocative of those inhabiting Chinese Landscape paintings, provides shade and space to meditate upon the beauty of the nearby waterfall.

Los Angeles-based video artist Kerry Tribe chose to work directly with the subject and location of the biennial: the LA River. Her project, located in Sunnynook River Park near Atwater Village, is nearly the mid-point of the 51 miles of the LA River documented in her 51-minute film, titled Exquisite Corpse, to be projected nightly on a 30-foot-wide by 11-foot-tall screen hung on two rented telephone poles in a clearing along the river. The Boston-born LA-based artist/filmmaker has gained international recognition for her combinations of film and installation that explore the intersection of memory, language and perception, often through an intimate portrayal of a key individual figure. Here, that individual is fractured between portrayals of the river itself and episodes of human life which inhabit this terrain, ranging from “the guy who trains the swift water rescue team” to “a homeless man in his tent with his cats” before veering “under a drainage tunnel with an anthropologist talking about the hobo graffiti that’s been discovered.”

In addition to the spontaneous cast of participants, it is the river that acts as the main character of Tribe’s self-described documentary-style film. “From an ecological perspective, the LA River is so much bigger than the 51-mile main stem that’s been labeled on a map,” she explains. “More critically, it was really important for me not to seek to ‘represent the LA River’ or ‘make an argument for the kind of restoration that should happen,’ but to go in a very intimate way and try to capture exactly as things are now … what happens if you actually pay attention to all of it.”

Where Tribe explores the river as source material, a collaborative project between light artist Refik Anadol and digital media designer Peggy Weil explores its potential as a canvas. Their work will be projected at two sites, the First Street Bridge-familiar territory for Anadol who is known for his video projections onto architectural structures-and the river itself. The collaborative nature of the work also pushed each artist into new territory, “Peggy didn’t use technology in the public space before, and I never did much with data-oriented research, so we merged our powers,” Anadol says with a laugh. “She did extensive research on hydrographs and well information, finding meaningful data regarding earth and water information and [we] turned this information into a light installation.” The projected light patterns use state-of-the-art technology to map out abstracted imagery based on Anadol’s digital translations of the data and terrain Weil culled on the historic usage of water in Los Angeles and its ecological effects. Anadol continues: “The question from us is: can we use this history as an artwork? Can we find what is poetic in these numbers? Can we find what is meaningful, and find the poetic imagery for the public space?”

“New Weather Station,” 2016, Chris Kallmyer
Photo: courtesy of the artist

Founding artistic director Marc Pally and a four-person curatorial committee selected the impressive roster of artists for the biennial. The curatorial team, who also oversaw the subsequent planning and implementation of the projects, hail from institutions located across the LA Basin: Ruth Estévez, Gallery Director and Curator of REDCAT; Rita Gonzalez, Assistant Curator, Special Exhibitions at LACMA; Karen Moss, an art historian, curator and writer who also teaches at the Otis College o
f Art and Design; and Irene Tsatsos, chief curator at the Armory Center for the Arts, in Pasadena.

Unlike the typical biennial, where selected works might find additional resonance through their proximity with other works, there is a good chance that a number of the attendees may come across the artworks by chance and see only one or a few of the total collection. “The formal decision to use the river as an organizing principle and finding a geography that runs through the political boundaries of the city is an interesting organizing device,” Tsastos explains. “The idea of temporary and public was already inherent in the project we were invited to participate in, we didn’t shape or design the biennial as being ‘outdoors’ or ‘along the river’ or ‘thematically organized around water.’ We were given parameters and we were asked to find artists that could fit within those parameters as well, and we were considering this very rigorously.” She pauses, “You know, anytime you put together a program like this there is a risk, and I think we were looking for people that we were excited about taking those risks with.”

The excitement of the roster continues with Edgar Arceneaux, co-founder of the Watts House Project, who is known for his incorporation of non-traditional materials to explore societal constructs, which surely continues with the artist’s use of aluminum, gravel, and fountain pump in his Center of the Earth. Also showing, LA sculptor Candice Lin, multi-disciplinary artists Gala Porras-Kim (also showing in this year’s “Made in LA”) and Michael Parker, and collaborative teams Lucky Dragons (Sarah Rara and Luke Fischbeck) and Josh Callaghan & Daveed Kapoor.

Rounding out the list, sound/performance artist Chris Kallmyer’s installation at Baldwin Park, New Weather Station, consists of a geodesic dome “that hearkens to California’s great history with utopianism” installed in a sunbaked and “under-loved area of the park.” The site will also host performances by Kallmyer’s collaborative group “Department of Weather Modification,” a name inspired by the scientific, conspiratorial, purposeful, accidental by-products, and ritualistic processes of weather modification that can be traced back to the roots of human civilization. He notes, “the history of weather modification is the history of water in LA.”

The overall theme of the biennial is water, and though not necessarily addressing the LA River, the decision to stage the works along its winding path inherently returns the subject to public consciousness. As Kallmyer recalls his of first impression of the river, walking along the Glendale Narrows: “there is a whole world to the river that runs independent to the city. When you experience a place like that, it really makes you feel like there is all this wilderness that exists and that LA is in negotiation with the wilderness around it way more than any other city that I’ve ever lived in… I didn’t go to the river and generate a new project for this, I’ve spent the last eight years thinking about water in LA, just as a citizen, it’s always on my mind.”

Originally published in art ltd. magazine (July/Aug 2016)