LOS ANGELES — Machine Project is housed in a formerly unremarkable convenience store nestled in between a coffee shop and the Echo Park Film Center on Alvarado Street. On Saturday evening, I went there to experience a performance called “The Ship’s Recorder.” When some of the audience members, myself included, descended a spiral staircase to find seating at a theater underneath the storefront area, we landed right on stage. Already seated audience members and performers alike applauded us, for we had arrived. But where? And what was this theater in the basement of the 10-years-and-running Machine Project all about?
“I think about what we do as a very informal R&D lab for artists,” says Machine Project founder Mark Allen. “A lot of what we are invested in is working with people on new ideas and giving them a space, and then figuring out how to present to audiences.”
Much like Mess Hall, the bustling, experimental, artist-run Chicago space that recently closed its doors after 10 years of programming, Machine Project’s mission is simply the creation of new structures and spaces for presenting creativity in its many manifestations. There have been projects about the public’s relationship to designed environment, like Nate Page’s “Storefront Plaza,” and offsite experiments such as “Plant Vacation,” which offered houseplants some time out of their regular routines, parked in the sun at the Hammer Museum. Poetry readings, 3D-mapping classes, mask-masking workshops, and pretty much anything inventive can or has already happened at Machine.
This open-endedness is what makes it a creative hub, operating outside of the art world’s capitalist, market-driven scarcity model. For the organization, more is always more, and as such its staff are open to almost anything, so long as there’s a potential interested audience.
The downstairs theater was originally built out for a show in October 2013, but this coming Valentine’s Day (February 14), it will host a play by Seema Kapur called A One Woman Nutcracker, which is described as a “moving, non-ballet meditation on relationships past.” As for the theater itself, that will stay “indefinitely, or until we get tired of it,” says Allen.
Upstairs, the classes on offer range from “Improv for People Who Would Never Take an Improv Class” to “Becoming Anonymous,” a workshop focused on blocking surveillance both IRL and online. Machine also recently produced a compilation of its greatest hits, which include a film about babies, another about psychics, and something billed as a “Marlene Dietrich tableau vivant.”
“The way I see us operating differently from other sectors in the art world is that we are really focused on experiences,” says Allen. “The work is not actualized until the audience becomes a part of it.”
In much of the art world, the general audience is superfluous, as transactions occur between artist and gallery, gallery and collector. Scarcity increases market value.
By contrast, “we operate on the abundance model,” Allen says. “The more people see it, participate in it, the more it gains.”
To which he adds: “The economy of the art world is kind of bleak.”