One of the more intriguing art world invitations in recent memory landed in e-mail in-boxes around town in March.
"Dear Friends," it read, "Friday night we will have three 2007 Escalades parked in front of Machine blasting whale songs. And other stuff. Saturday, we have a concert in the secret gallery that can be listened to on speaker phone. Both events are free. Details below. Love, Machine"
Machine -- short for Machine Project -- is one of the L.A. art world's more quixotic institutions: an artist-run nonprofit in a raggedy Alvarado Street storefront in Echo Park that has become, in the four years since it opened, a haven for the hip, the nerdy and the otherwise curious. Conceived, in the words of its mission statement, "to encourage the heroic experiments of the gracefully overambitious," it plays host to exhibitions, performances, lectures and workshops on a broad and sometimes baffling range of topics revolving loosely around the intersection of art and technology.
If you missed the cetacean-channeling SUVs (actually an installation by Peter Segerstrom), you might have caught "Psychobotany," an exhibition exploring "revolutionary breakthroughs in human/plant communication"; the Dorkbot Dorkbake, a bake-off in which contestants were required to construct their own ovens powered solely by the heat of a 100-watt light bulb; or the four-week Felt and Circuits Workshop, in which participants were instructed in the arts of both felt making and circuit board construction, with the goal of producing "your own noisy synthesizer creature from scratch."
It's an exciting time for art in L.A., and nowhere is this more palpable -- nowhere are the reasons for it clearer -- than in a place like Machine, where the siren song of a fevered market holds little sway; anything goes, curatorially; and no one's getting paid enough to be haughty.
Of all the city's cultural resources -- prestigious schools, ambitious museums, a robust gallery scene -- the most significant by far is its ever-welling population of artists, and it's from this pool that these organizations have arisen: institutions that function, to one degree or another, as art projects in themselves, driven by ideas and a spirit of collaboration, whose offbeat programming aims to challenge the boundaries of what we conceive art to be.
The progenitors, most would agree, are the Museum of Jurassic Technology and the Center for Land Use Interpretation (opened in 1988 and 1994, respectively). In their wake have come Machine Project, Betalevel (formerly C-Level), Farmlab, Telic Arts Exchange, Dangerous Curve, the Velaslavasay Panorama and Monte Vista Projects. There are also nomadic organizations like Art2102, the Institute for Figuring and Outpost for Contemporary Art, as well as educational experiments like the Sundown Schoolhouse (formerly the Sundown Salon) and the Mountain School of Arts.
They've opened for different reasons; they have different agendas, different vibes and different financial arrangements. Machine, for instance, has a technological bent; Farmlab's focus is environmental activism. Dangerous Curve has become a center for experimental music. Betalevel, located in a basement down an alley in Chinatown, has the furtive, secretive feel of a speak-easy; the Panorama, which occupies an old theater near USC, models itself on the entertainment culture of the 19th century.
Some (Machine and Telic) are registered nonprofits, surviving on donations and grants; others (Betalevel, Dangerous Curve) are internally funded. Farmlab is wholly subsidized by the Annenberg Foundation. They are, however, very much in communication, often sharing board members, as well as contacts and audiences. As Lauren Bon from Farmlab puts it: "There's a whole mushroom spore of them. They're all connected under the surface, but they are also very independent."
Outside the box
The notion of an alternative art space is nothing new, of course, but there are a few characteristics that distinguish this current crop from more traditionally structured nonprofits such as LACE and LAXART, or from artist-run commercial galleries like Overtones, Another Year in LA and Pharmaka -- characteristics that suggest something more along the lines of a movement. There's the radical quirkiness of their programming, for one thing; their enthusiasm for pedagogy and do-it-yourself culture; their focus on science, ecology and technologies both old and new; their disregard for the traditional boundaries between disciplines; and, most strikingly, their deep commitment to cultivating community.
While most of these groups produce exhibitions, what they thrive on are events: performances, readings, lectures, tours, classes, workshops, salons, parties -- any excuse to bring a group of people physically together in a room, so as to counteract the alienating tendencies of both the mainstream art world and the culture at large.