LOS ANGELES — For 30 years, Santa Monica’s 18th Street Art Center has been an incubator for experimental art practices. It has fostered the growth of Los Angeles performance art through its black box theater, the Highways Performance Space, and expanded the city’s creative voices through its international artist-in-residence program. On November 10, the 18th Street Art Center celebrated its anniversary with We the Artists, a multimedia festival in which current residents welcomed the public with performance art, music, dance, open studios, and video installations.
Performances took place on a stage set up in the parking lot. Every artist heavily referenced pertinent issues in our current political climate, like immigration and racism. Overall, many artists expressed rage and frustration towards authoritative powers, particularly Trump and the police.
The night did not end on such a somber tone, however. We the Artists wrapped up with a dance party in the Highways Performance Space. Guests jammed out to the experimental post-punk band Egrets and Ergots with carefree abandon, trying to forget their grievances for just a few moments. Below are some highlights from the evening.
Bethany Ward-Lawe’s performance in the Highways Performance Space began as a screening. Without warning, we were shown the notorious footage of Los Angeles police officers beating Rodney King to death. The video proceeds to juxtapose the 1991 incident with more recent footage of news reporting the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Philandro Castile, Michael Brown, and the subsequent Ferguson riots, and an interview with the emerging Black Lives Matters movement’s organizers. Ward-Lawe then entered on stage, passionately executing an interpretive dance set to a Jeff Buckly cover of “Strange Fruit.” Behind her, the footage shifted to violent, historical images of black violence. But then the music picked up, transitioning into Kanye West’s “I’m Up in the Woods,” and more revolutionary images cut through the racist montage; the march on Selma, Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s black power fist-in-air at the 1968 Olympics, and Black Lives Matters rallies. Ward-Lawe changed into a black hoodie, raised her arms in the “hands up, don’t shoot” pose that has been appropriated into a protest call, and fell to the ground as the sound of a gunshot rings through the theater. The last image listed the names of all the black Americans shot by police between 1999 and 2016, a slide so dense that it could only be skimmed before the stage went dark.
Asher Hartman’s plays are campy and often delightfully unsettling, and his new work Stigmata in the Rose Garden with the Gawdaffel National Theater troupe (Asher Hartman, Brian Getnick, Arne Gjelten, and Tim Reid) indulged this signature style. A troupe of raggedy, disheveled, clowns danced and sang a catchy ditty that included the phrase “rage in the parking lot” —the very lot in which the audience stood — while another bemoaned the current troubles he faces in this country. He feels guilty because he didn’t vote in 2016. He feels sick all the time and there’s no access to healthcare. He can’t get an erection. The nihilistic beat disguised despair in cheerful tones, and the audience laughed uncertainly at the clowns’ misery, identifying those problems as their own.
Iranian artist-in-residence Amitis Motevalli fired up an overhead projector and slapped down a transparency of the Declaration of Independence. With class in session, she worked with the audience to collaboratively re-write the document. She changed out the word “men” for “people” or “beings” and crossed out all references to King George III. In one sentence, an overtly racist description of indigenous people was crossed out and replaced with “fuck that.” Motevali’s performance showed how inadequately the Declaration of Independence serves the broad culture of Americans in 2018 (let alone 1776) and how it might be ready for the country to re-think who, specifically, is equal in the eyes of the government.
Separate from the main stage, artist-in-residence Arzu Arda Kosar held a durational performance in which she assembled Map of California: crocheted bricks stacked into the shape of the California coastline. The plush yarn enveloping the bricks, which made them appear soft and safe, actually made the bricks’ flat surfaces uneven, causing the structure to be wobbly and more likely to fall apart. At one point, the Central Coast toppled over and Kosar was forced to rebuild it.
Apart from the performances, the open studios offered a look into the lives of the international and local artists who have spent the year at the 18th Street Arts Center. David McDonald, one of the few formalist artists in residence, crafts spindly sculptures made from fragmented pieces of wood, sand, and polyurethane grafted onto bamboo spines. He stretches dense elements into thin architectural structures, like columns and bridges, which create gaps that test the strength of the material.
Aska Irie’s wall works are made of materials you’d find in a kindergarten ats class: pipe cleaner, sequins, rhinestones, glitter, and perler beads — the tiny plastic pieces used to make mosaics by placing on pegboard and running over with a hot iron to fuse the beads together. Irie’s world feels like a playground; her canvases are full of cartoonish sumo wrestlers, snails, and mythical creatures.
Near the end of We the Artists, host Guillermo Gómez-Peña called for an impromptu die-in. He listed current injustices and asked for audience members to fall when they felt than an issue personally affected them. As Gómez-Peña paid tribute to those caught in the California wildfires, queer people, feminists, gun activists, the homeless, and passengers on the migrant caravan, one by one, people hit the ground.
We the Artists took place at the 18th Street Art Center on November 10.