John Hulsey, The Land Under Iron (DTLA) (2017), HD video still (courtesy of the artist)

Invested in documenting and preserving contemporary creative processes, the Los Angeles Contemporary Archive (LACA) is not a place in which documents pile and gather dust. LACA opened its doors in 2013 to catalog artistic activity in Los Angeles. While the purpose of an archive is ostensibly to preserve the material culture of the past, LACA’s focus is on collecting and historicizing the present. Its non-circulating collection is an ever-expanding project, encompassing documents and ephemera from contemporary artists, researchers, and writers working in and around Los Angeles. While it might be difficult to decipher today, tomorrow it will shed light on the past.

“I wanted you to have a space that you could walk into and immediately know it was for research. Not a white cube. You might have missed a performance or exhibition but the ephemera is still accessible. You can access it knowing that you missed the show,” explains LACA Co-Founder and Executive Director Hailey Loman.

LACA also doubles as an exhibition space that coexists with the workspace designed for archive-users and offers programming in which presentations emerge from archival projects. As a nonprofit, its doors are open to the public, free of charge, and its stacks are open to artists wishing to contribute to the collection. The collection refuses categorization, including quotidian objects that could easily be regarded as superfluous. Such items can be difficult to archive and preserve and haven’t necessarily acquired archival value. This makes the collection personal and unique. Although it is unclear if the donated materials are worth preserving, they provide deep insight into an artist’s practice. Since LACA started collecting actively in 2014, it has grown to house thousands of objects, including the entire archive of Los Angeles’ KChung Radio, used garments, bags of trash, and pay stubs.

Installation view of Los Angeles Contemporary Archive (courtesy of LACA)

Notions of the unfinished and yet-to-be-fully-researched, as well as spontaneous creativity, are at the very core of LACA’s philosophy. By putting materials in conversation with each other the collection engenders more in depth and multilayered perspectives on singular topics. Along with individual artist archives, it has accepted archives from institutions and organizations, such the library of the Mountain School in Los Angeles and Villa Aurora’s residency archive, as well as those of curators and writers. For instance, the collection includes six bags from critic and curator Michael Ned Holte, containing all the printed matter he acquired during gallery visits. These documents are integral to understanding the kinds of art shows, events, and programs taking place in Los Angeles and formulating what might become a historical resource in the future. Carol Cheh’s more conceptual contribution consists of all the pay stubs she received as a writer for LA Weekly, covering Los Angeles art happenings over many years. These contributions chronicle the chroniclers and critics of the Los Angeles art scene.

LACA also highlights the more mundane activities of organizations in its neighborhood. A note left on the door of Actual Size Gallery reads, “Be back in 10 minutes. Using the bathroom,” a playful nod to the gallery staff’s quick absences as they run downstairs to use the restrooms at dim sum shops. A quickly scrawled note that could have just as well been tossed away can now be a humorous record of the dynamic of this alternative space in Chinatown.

LACA was initially located in Downtown Los Angeles, in a complex shared with François Ghebaly Gallery and the FLAX Foundation’s Fahrenheit gallery, with the archive and exhibition space separate. Since moving to its smaller Chinatown location, exhibitions take place inside the archive. As a result, resonances between the two are often strong, and convergences emerge from their proximity.

Installation view of Johanna Breiding, “End of The Line” (2014) and John Hulsey, The Land Under Iron (DTLA) (2017) (courtesy of the artists)

Exhibitions do not have to be directly related to the archive, but we ask that they be research-oriented, around memory, marginalized groups, what can be forgotten, what’s ok to not remember, what’s missing, evidence,” Loman states. “We also ask for something to go into the stacks after an event. Even if it’s bootlegged or ephemera. That way, there is a constant thread between the collection and what’s happening,”

LACA’s final exhibition of 2017, entitled break down re source, brings together multimedia work by John Hulsey and Johanna Breidling. Both artists explore the significance of the visual language used to map the geography and history of Southern California cities, and how it reflects and impacts memory. Hulsey installed road signs as site-specific interventions between Downtown Los Angeles and San Pedro and documented their interaction with the space in which they were posted. “These signs are meant to mimic the language of public or civic address,” he relates. “It’s important to me that, at first glance, they are immediately understood as legible parts of a rapidly transforming built environment. As soon as someone begins reading the text, the immediacy and legibility of these signs dissolves. Rather than being told where to go and how to move through space, one is sent tunneling through the palimpsest of history.” Breiding looks at the death of analogue photography, using the small town of Keeler, California as her case study; Keeler’s natural resources were doubly depleted when its water supplies were drained and its native silver dust sold to film processors like Kodak.

It is no coincidence that break down re source explores notions of place and memory. Place has been at the forefront of LACA’s considerations since its relocation to Chinatown and informs its attention to contemporary production in its neighborhood. Just as LACA’s mission oscillates between remembering the past and developing new modes of historicizing the contemporary, the exhibition’s nuanced exploration of movement, displacement, spatial belonging, and historical mapping draws attention to shifting notions and markers of place.

Johanna Breiding, “End of The Line” (2014), digital c-print, installation view (courtesy of the artist)

LACA is a growing archive of oddities and printed matter that provides ever-changing insight into the private space of the artist’s studio and the public forums for art around the city. According to Loman, “We had to make a flexible architecture for the archive because we had no idea what we were going to receive. I’m interested less in being an artist maintaining the archive, than in the fact that artists are shaping the collection when they donate materials.”

break down re source continues at Los Angeles Contemporary Archive (709 North Hill Street, Suite 104-108, Los Angeles, California) through January 13.

Michael Valinsky is a writer from Paris and New York. He received his B.A. in Poetics and Praxis at New York University. His work has been published in i-D Magazine, Hyperallergic, OUT Magazine, BOMB Magazine,...