Is that performance art? Not an uncommon question in Los Angeles, where you might see a guy in a mud-caked bodysuit marching down Wilshire, a fleet of pink Range Rovers hauling ass through West Hollywood or a frazzled cat lady walking her pets through a corporate plaza. You look twice and wonder: Did they do that on purpose? Am I supposed to notice? So is that art?
It's therefore fitting that the organizers behind Pacific Standard Time continue to commemorate the postwar art of the Southland by turning to the work that was done outside the studio. It's called the Performance and Public Art Festival (Jan. 19-29) — 11 days and more than 30 performances, including experimental music and theater, social and political protest, sculpture and installation, and old-fashioned spectacle. A bunch of them are contemporary re-enactments of works first performed by seminal California artists more than 40 years ago.
We've profiled five works that push the limits of performance art.
1. Best hike ever
When Santa Monica's 18th Street Arts Center asked Lita Albuquerque to restage her 1980 work Spine of the Earth, she didn't think the process would become a work all its own. The first time around, Albuquerque and a team of assistants were working in the El Mirage dry lake bed, using blood-red powdered pigment to create interlocking geometric shapes against the stark flats of the Mojave Desert. Unable to re-create the work outside the city, Albuquerque moved to the Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook, home to a dramatic panoramic view. But when she learned the pigment would stain the steps of a beloved running trail, she replaced painting with something bigger: 500 volunteers in robes, unfurling across the landscape, not unlike a paintbrush in the desert.
What was once a desert pilgrimage has become an intervention into the humdrum of the everyday. Because it's held in a public park, there'll be nothing to stop a jogger from weaving through the red-robed procession. And the best view of the skydiver who kicks off the performance — a stand-in for the aerial perspective that's key to understanding the original work — might be from a car on the Santa Monica Freeway.
And that's cool with Albuquerque. "If the original was about utilizing the Earth as a blank canvas," she says, "then this is about the movement of people in this extraordinary city." Lita Albuquerque's Spine of the Earth 2012, Jan. 22, Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook, 6300 Hetzler Road, Culver City.
2. America's most-watched performance art
The similarities between performance art and sports aren't lost on the Pomona College football team. Football games are elaborate stews of choreographed routine that are meaningless without an audience. So it didn't surprise head coach Roger Caron when two dozen players volunteered to take part in John White's Preparation F.
"This isn't a Division I school, where kids are here just to play football," Caron says. "For them, it's a part of their day-to-day lives as mild-mannered college students."
First performed in a campus ballroom in 1971, this new performance will take place in the gym. Audiences will watch from the bleachers as the team stretches and scrimmages and, after a shamanistic intervention from an audience member, changes back into street clothes and walks offstage. By moving a football practice onto a stage, White has moved the game out of the arena of entertainment and under the critical microscope of art. It will ask the question: Why does society condone violence if it's committed while in uniform?
White's performance precedes Judy Chicago's A Butterfly for Pomona, a pyrotechnic display inspired by her fireworks performances of the 1970s, Atmospheres, to be held on the football field. Curator Rebecca McGrew says the pairing is coincidental but wrought with dramatic irony: taking the team off the field before creating the illusion of blowing it up. John White's Preparation F and Judy Chicago's A Butterfly for Pomona, Jan. 21, Pomona College, Memorial Gymnasium, 333 N. College Ave., Claremont.
3. Painting with a 12-gauge
In the early 1960s, L.A. was taking the piss out of action painting, the solitary practice of splattering paint all over a canvas. Behind a beatnik hangout on the Sunset Strip, the glamorous French émigré Niki de Saint Phalle hung bladders of paint and King Kong masks on a wooden canvas and shot it up with pals like John Cage and Jane Fonda. She called these communal paintings tirs — French for "gunshot."
Meanwhile, in a studio in Pasadena, Richard Jackson was emptying buckets of paint and canvases into a washing machine. He dreamed of painting with a Cessna 150 for a brush.
Today staged violence is no cakewalk. For safety reasons, the re-enactment of Saint Phalle's tirs will be invitation-only, held at an undisclosed outdoor shooting range in the foothills. "I'm open to reinterpretation," says curator Yael Lipschutz, "but to do this with stuntmen or fake guns seems silly."
And Armory Center curators had to promise Pasadena officials they'd keep spectators hundreds of feet away when Jackson flies and crashes a 15-foot model airplane, loaded with paint, into an enormous concrete wall in Arroyo Seco's Brookside Park. "From very early in his career," says curator Irene Tsatsos, "Richard's been pushing the idea of how a painting can be made." His brand of deliriousness might be up to code, but it's still your best bet for catching a whiff of neo-dada funk. Niki de Saint Phalle's Tirs: Reloaded, Jan. 22, invitation only. Richard Jackson's Accidents in Abstract Painting, Jan. 22, Brookside Park, 360 N. Arroyo Blvd., Pasadena.
4. Feminism via Twitter
To hear Suzanne Lacy talk about it, staging Three Weeks in May — her 1977 attempt to tackle issues of sexual violence in L.A. with visual art — was like running a grassroots political campaign. Small groups got together to discuss what couldn't be said in public. Demonstrations and community organizing raised awareness.
For her reconceptualization of the project, now called Three Weeks in January, Lacy, inspired by the Obama campaign, has added another tool: social media. Like the original work, she is hosting demonstrations, classes and public forums around the city and stenciling the word rape on locations reported to LAPD on a map outside its downtown headquarters. But Lacy also is facilitating online forums and updating the map with data from Twitter.
"Over 30 years later, we can no longer say that rape is unspoken, nor that services and policies do not exist," Lacy says. "But in terms of conversation and awareness, can something like a Twitter feed really compare to going door-to-door, or occupying public space?" Suzanne Lacy's Three Weeks in January, Jan. 12-Feb. 1. Candlelight vigil Jan. 27, 7 p.m., Los Angeles Police Department, 100 W. First St., dwntwn.
5. Musical hotel fun house
On the final night of the festival, experimental music collective Society for the Activation of Social Space Through Art and Soundcalls (SASSAS) will create a museum called the Welcome Inn Time Machine. The rooms of a homely motel in Eagle Rock will be transformed into what SASSAS curator Cindy Bernard calls "galaxies of work" — spaces that visually and sonically evoke the landmark music of the PST era. You might catch an all-star fusion combo ripping up a late-'50s Ornette Coleman musical score. Wander into another room to subject yourself to the laborious detuning and screeching of a violin, like a performance from conceptual artist Bruce Nauman in 1969. Or call a number to hear Robert Wilhite, locked in a room on the other side of the motel, performing a telephone concert written in 1975.
PST's festival celebrates 40 years of art vanishing without a trace, and what better way to capture that than in an ephemeral hotel fun house? As Bernard notes, "There's all kinds of one-night things that happen in hotels all the time." SASSAS's Welcome Inn Time Machine, Jan. 29, Welcome Inn, 1840 Colorado Blvd., Eagle Rock.
For more events and information, visit pacificstandardtimefestival.org