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The Mystery Theater at Machine Project in Los Angeles (photo by Laure Joliet) (all images courtesy the Machine Project)

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.

“Plant Vacation” (2011) at the Hammer Museum (click to enlarge)

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.”

Nate Page’s “Storefront Plaza” at Machine Project

“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.”

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Alicia Eler

Alicia Eler is a cultural critic and arts reporter. She is the author of the book The Selfie Generation (Skyhorse Publishing), which has been reviewed in the New York Times, WIRED...

4 replies on “A Well-Oiled Machine Project”

  1. Machine Project is Amazing but it’s been around a really long time and is already on the radar of the mainstream art world. As a cutting edge site I wish you would profile more of the promising endeavors that will be the next Machine Project out there.

    1. And we will. This is only the beginning of our increased LA coverage so Machine Project seemed like a necessary inclusion. Though we also don’t want to fall into an old mindset that celebrates the “new” perpetually in a consumeristic desire for the “next big thing” — that IMO goes nowhere.

      1. Machine project is a great inclusion It deserve all the love it gets! It’s already well known here though and with good reason. Its not a revelation at least to people in L.A. and there are plenty of things that would be. you don’t have to look for the “next big thing” to look for amazing under reported projects.

        1. True, but now it is known outside of LA. I am originally from Chicago and just relocated to LA, and I had never heard of Machine Project. This is definitely just the beginning of LA coverage!

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