THE bleary-eyed young man looked perplexed by the empty black box on the floor of the Museum of Contemporary Art. He squinted at it for a few seconds, then up at the row of metal clipboards on the wall in front of him, then back down at the box, part of Robert Rauschenberg's 1961 sculpture Combine "Black Market." Nattily dressed older couples and young fashionista types frowned as they strolled past him. He scratched his curly hair, which poked out the sides of a purple Tibetan knit cap.
"Excuse me, sir," said a dark-suited security guard. "Sir. You need to put some shoes on if you're going to be in here."
The young man looked down at his dirty bare feet. "Oh," he replied, and quietly shuffled off to the lobby. He returned a few minutes later with a pair of oversized flip-flops that didn't appear to be his, and kept staring into the empty black box.
The weekly summertime series, Night Vision: MOCA After Dark -- with its open-till-midnight hours, live music and literary readings -- certainly draws the spaced-out crowds you'd imagine trolling the modern art gallery in the wee hours. But Night Vision's mishmash of highbrow art and poetry, kid-friendly crafts and Sparks-tongued DJs like Squeak E. Clean and Steve Aoki is turning the museum into one of downtown's busiest and most diverse Saturday night destinations.
MOCA founded the series during last year's Basquiat exhibition as a way to raise its profile among nightlife scenesters and art-goers whose schedules keep them away from the museum during the day. "It's about increasing access," says Jeremy Strick, director of MOCA. "It's so people could use the museum in a different way."
On a recent Saturday, the pack of yuppies in blazers and T-shirts gabbing around the outdoor bar early in the evening used the museum to score a vodka tonic.
Even the performers were a bit confused at the night's eclecticism. "It kind of freaks us out, not playing at a music venue," said Gram Rabbit frontwoman Jesika von Rabbit before their set on the main patio. "But by the end I think we'll be having a great time. Maybe even in the middle."
The Joshua Tree psych-rockers played to a sizable if distracted crowd split between fans of the band (who showed their devotion by donning fuzzy rabbit ears) and curious passersby checking out Von Rabbit's macabre Mardi Gras getup. But if desert-fried acid rock isn't your flavor, Night Vision is like L.A. nightlife in general -- there's always something different the next block over.
While Gram Rabbit droned above, poet Ralph Angel read from "Poem of the Deep Song," his new translations of Frederico Garcia Lorca's poems. "It's kind of you to put up with my quiet ... ness," he told the 40 or so people seated in the exhibition room downstairs. "You don't have to buy my books, but you can buy me a drink afterwards."
The crowd at Angel's reading behaved much the same as at Gram Rabbit's set -- appreciative but a bit antsy to see what other fun stuff there was to do. For most patrons, this included a swing through the main gallery's retrospective of Rauschenberg's Combines, which fuse found objects and abstract painting in ironic, sometimes unsettling ways.
Once they got the itch for cutting and pasting, many museum-goers hit up the tables lined with craft supplies, where they could make their own Rauschenberg-inspired sculpture Combine. Mark Ramadan, 19, sheepishly toted around a piece of posterboard with two dismembered stuffed animals glued on top of each other.
"They're both suffering together. They bleed from the same flesh," he said as his friend Carla giggled next to him. "I think I'm going to give this to my girlfriend."
The curators of Night Vision planned for this kind of entertainment ADD. Over the 15-week season, slam poet Saul Williams, turntable fiend DJ Z-Trip and folk songstress Kaki King will draw very divergent crowds, and MOCA's vibe will be noticeably and intentionally different each week. The wide-ranging options seem to be working -- the first night of this year's season drew more than 1,300 people. Like much contemporary art, Night Vision isn't necessarily trying to please everybody. But the curators are bringing many different artistic and nightlife tribes under the same tent. So as long as you mingle and try something new, it's probably OK to skip an exhibit or two.
"Rauschenberg came to the members party two weeks ago," Strick said. "He walked in with the curator and said, 'I've seen the exhibit. I want to go to the party.' "
August Brown may be reached at email@example.com.
Night Vision: MOCA After Dark
What: Late-night series with live music, art-making, screenings, spoken word, DJs and tours. Schedule includes DJ Nobody (Saturday), Future Pigeon (June 24), the Like (July 22), Saul Williams (Aug. 12) and the Crystal Method (Aug. 26).
Where: Museum of Contemporary Art, 250 S. Grand Ave., downtown L.A.
When: 6 p.m. to midnight Saturdays through Sept. 2.
Price: Free with general admission ($8 adults, $5 students with ID and seniors, and free for MOCA members and children younger than 12).