Essays

Ephemeral Art in the Perpetually Transforming City of Los Angeles

Many artists are staging temporary events and public works, adapting to a city that is constantly in flux.

Enter>Text, homeLA, “Erin Schneider, Emily Meister and Gema Galiana at Entertext & homeLA in One House Twice (photo by Andrew Mandinach)

LOS ANGELES — Inside the historic Neutra VDL House on Silver Lake Boulevard, two dancers fold themselves over midcentury modern furniture. In the corner of the room, another performer plucks a book from the shelf and begins reading seemingly to no one, despite the dancers in her orbit and a steady flow of onlookers absorbing the late architect Richard Neutra’s former home. For one night only, One House Twice, curated by the dance project homeLA and live literary journal Enter>Text, opened the by-appointment-only institution to the public. Guests roamed around, discovering art installations, dance, literature, and sound performances in all corners of the property. The event would never be performed again once the show finished its six-hour run. A year and a half later, the show lives on with brief snapshots on homeLA and Enter>Text’s web archives and in the faint memories of the 100 or so attendees who were lucky enough to catch the moment.

Emily Meister and Gema Galliana at the Neutra VDL House (photo courtesy Ruben Diaz)

One House Twice was just one of many ephemeral events that are carefully built around Los Angeles landmarks, only to quickly vanish, sometimes overnight. Other recent happenings include Ain’t I a Womxn? A Genders Promenade, an expansive set of performances, installations, and activations that explored queer identity, which took place at Los Angeles State Historic Park on July 28, and Night Life LA, an interactive installation and performance that guests had to access by going on a late night hike through Griffith Park. Each organization crafts unique experiences that will entwine a specific slice of Los Angeles with a personal memory. There may be no physical evidence that an event took place, but the artwork grafts a new narrative onto the location.

“Your mental map of LA changes,” said Anthony Morey, co-curator for the now-defunct event One Night Stand, which would rent a motel for an evening and gave architects the freedom to install work in its suites, balconies, and stairwells. “It took people to places they’d never really drive through. Now, [they] drive by and say, ‘oh that’s where One Night Stand was.’”

Enter>Text, “Kate Durbin at Entertext In the Air” (photo by Mark Bernal)

Those precious memories feel all the more important in a city always in a state of flux. Many artists are adapting to Los Angeles’s perpetual transformation, which is fueled by commercialization, development, gentrification, and financial interests. In its seven-year history, Enter>Text has staged events in three locations that no longer exist; their first shows were in a converted warehouse in Cypress Park inhabited by CalArts alumni, where co-founders Henry Hoke and Marco Franco Di Dominico met. In 2015, they collaborated with Machine Project, a beloved alternative art space that closed its doors in January. This past April, Docent took place at the Pasadena Museum of California Art, which will be shuttering this fall.

These ephemeral events play into the myth that Los Angeles is a place without history. With frequent turnover, the city feels like “a place between,” a phrase coined by the theorist and architect Jane Rendell in her 2003 essay on art, architecture and critical theory. According to Rendell, “a place between” is a triangulation of ever-changing spatial, temporal, and social qualities. It could refer to a place or a person, but mostly it points to an entity that’s restless, liminal, and fluid. The Los Angeles skyline, dotted with steel cranes, hints at a history unfolding while these artistic endeavors slowly evaporate from the city’s cultural conscious.

“For a long time, the idea of LA was of an open space,” Hoke said. “I think it’s important for people to interrogate what that ever meant.” Hoke was touching upon the city’s early 20th-century transformation from orange groves into a booming metropolis, a city willed into existence by real estate moguls who attracted wealthy transplants based on the land’s speculated value rather than its physical development. Los Angeles gives the illusion of an uninhabited oasis cultivated by the Broads and the Tapers instead of the Tongva who lived on the land centuries before.

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Materials Applications, “From Above Looking Down” (image courtesy Materials Applications)

Many outsiders view art galleries as the harbingers of new money, gentrification, and displacement. Temporary artwork, however, may be a step towards avoiding creating irreversible change in at-risk neighborhoods. Jia Gu is the director at Materials and Applications, an organization that invites architects and designers to create temporary, public architectural installations in outdoor locations. She is hyper-vigilant about the ways in which the community responds to their work.

“In an economy of scarcity, art becomes the most unnecessary,” Gu said, referring to a general attitude towards art in society. She noted that the question of “who has the right to exist in a neighborhood” is embedded in a lot of conflict between art spaces and long-term residents facing displacement. “Why should this space be used for art instead of housing?’” is a question, Gu says, that comes up when artists attempt to open new galleries that encroach upon established communities. “It’s a privilege to access land, exhibit work and produce content.”

Ephemeral structures and performances are difficult to monetize, collect, and recreate, which challenges artists to think about making art in a way that doesn’t have to permanently occupy space to chase profits. Rebecca Bruno, one of the homeLA founders, has discovered that using dance to collapse the boundaries between domestic and commercial zones allows “some people to be arts patrons in ways they can’t be. They can’t write a check, but they can open their home.”

Llano Del Rio, “The Radical Imagination,” a reading held at the LA Department of Water and Power (image courtesy Llano Del Rio)

“Art has many uses,” said Robby Herbst, co-founder of the Llano Del Rio Collective, a small press that creates free alternative guides to Los Angeles and produces site-specific performances alongside publication releases. “One of its uses is by capitalists to make commodities to sell, whether that is the commodity of a new building, or a painting to trade on its symbolic ideal.” Herbst creates art under a different motive. “Llano Del Rio makes language for people to formulate forms of resisting. It’s not symbolic capital, it’s communication. . . It’s an artwork that addresses people who resist capital and people who may find that they resist it.” Language, like landscape, is constantly changing and evolving.

“This is Los Angeles. This is the end of the world. It’s always been kind of an apocalyptic space. I don’t believe things are going to last forever,” Hoke said. In this city, both land and art have precarious futures. Instead of establishing a legacy, temporary artworks preserve the present.  

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