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Machine Project's Oddball Take on L.A. Architecture, From a Helicopter Experiment to the Spirit of Whitney Houston 

Thursday, Jun 20 2013
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Kamau Patton was having a drink at the BonaVista Lounge, the rotating bar atop the 34th floor of the Bonaventure Hotel downtown, when he realized he'd been looking at architecture all wrong. The New York–based artist had spent the day driving around the city, scouting locations for a new performance piece exploring the relationship among L.A.'s buildings. "Sitting up in this rotating bar, seeing the entirety of these forms up high, it just clicked. That's what these buildings are all about," he says. "On the flight back to New York, things all started to gel: How do I get that perspective? It was one of those moments — a helicopter!"

On May 26, Patton boarded a four-seat Robinson R-44 at Van Nuys Airport with cameraman Jimmy Fusil and Bennett Williamson, event producer at the art collective Machine Project. As a crowd gathered at Machine Project's Echo Park storefront to watch a live video stream of the event, the helicopter headed to Bunker Hill for a choreographed fly-by of the buildings that have held the title of tallest in Los Angeles.

The livestream ended up petering out, but Fusil captured high-definition video of the project, which Patton named The Sky Above: a woozy, epic journey over downtown at sunset, its jaw-dropping, full-frontal skyscraper shots blending with Patton's experimental soundscape, the chatter from the helicopter's radio and the passengers' own commentary.

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"We had these super-sexy Michael Mann shots with a cool soundtrack, and on the other end we were like Huell Howser — 'Look at these buildings, this is so amazing!' " Williamson recalls with a laugh.

That's the sense of discovery Williamson hopes to deliver with Machine Project's Field Guide to L.A. Architecture (part of the Getty's Pacific Standard Time Presents initiative), which is getting audiences up close and personal with L.A. buildings using artist-initiated experiences. "We want to introduce people to sites they've never been to, and give them a fresh perspective on what they know," he says.

Founded in 2003, Machine Project has become well-known for staging exhibitions and happenings in its storefront gallery. In the last few years it has branched out into more traditional venues, with a residency at the Hammer Museum and another field guide–type project at LACMA. But this initiative represents perhaps another era for the nonprofit. "We're starting to think of ourselves as a citywide organization," says Machine Project founder and executive director Mark Allen. "That's thinking about how to do programming that's outside of our storefront but not necessarily inside of an institution."

Experimenting with this intersection between performance art and architectural history is a natural fit, Allen says. "What I like about site-specificity is that it gives you a place to start your work but it also gives you the opportunity to expand how we might understand something."

Displaying architecture in a museum is notoriously difficult. Machine Project's signature hands-on, tongue-in-cheek approach might be a better way to understand — and appreciate — L.A.'s urban landscape.

Starting in March and through Aug. 15, 30 artists are engaging with different architectural works at events and performances across the region. The onion-shaped dome of the Sepulveda Unitarian Universalist Society in North Hills served as the backdrop of a performance by Emily Mast and Hana van der Kolk, featuring six very pregnant women. Extended-technique opera singer Carmina Escobar used alternative singing methods to turn people's bodies into resonant instruments by the Korean Bell of Friendship in San Pedro. As a grand finale, Machine Project will screen a compilation film featuring video taken at every project.

To launch the field guide project, Allen tapped architect Matt Au to draw up a list of potential sites — buildings that fit the initiative's roughly 1945-90 timeline but likely wouldn't be featured elsewhere. "I tried to think of buildings that I know nothing about as a way of researching their history," says Au, who organized them into groups like "Underrated Anomalies by Corporate Firms." He also explored the lesser-known works of PSTP-celebrated designers like William Pereira, who designed LACMA but also the weird pyramid-shaped Braille Institute on Vermont, or Welton Becket, whose firm did the iconic Capitol Records building and also the horrific Beverly Center. “Everybody recognizes them but no one really knows who designed them,” Au says.

One of Au's picks was the Glendale Municipal Services Building, a 1966 cement block that appears to hover over a sunken plaza. It was this plaza that Sara Roberts chose for Clump and Whistle, her participatory performance based on theories of group dynamics. Roberts liked the space for its acoustics — a large fountain in the center turned out to create a "cavelike sound" — but also because the large public plaza was designed as a place for assembly. "A lot of the people had never been there before and they said, 'I want to come back here and have a picnic,' " she says.

Jay Platt, a planner for the City of Glendale who works in the building, says it soon will be nominated for Glendale's Register of Historic Resources, and any exposure helps residents to understand why it should be preserved. "It turns out we have a really nice collection of cutting-edge modern architecture, and this is one of the hidden gems of Glendale."

A more well-known Modern gem was explored in Asher Hartman's sold-out play Glass Bang, staged in a sleek, glass-walled, R.M. Schindler–designed house in Laurel Canyon. In the play, the audience of about 20 people become guests at a party while interacting with characters who are confronting issues around debt. "There's so much desire when you look at a home like that, how you want to live and what possessions you buy and your relationship to nature — and these all come up very subtly in the play," Hartman says. "It makes you think about home and home ownership and the way a residence affects a person psychologically."

The 1936 house is open to the public once a month as a don't-touch experience, but in Hartman's performance it was transformed back into a residence, with guests drinking wine in the kitchen and at one point all lying on the bed together. That's an intimate experience you won't get on the docent-led tour.

"The thing about architecture in L.A. is so much of it is so hidden," says Kimberli Meyer, director of the MAK Center, who collaborated on the project. "It's important to activate the many modern houses we have in these ways."

And that's the other strength of Machine Project's series: Architecture is interpreted through the perspective of its users. "One of the best ways to find out about L.A. is through personal histories," Williamson says. "The way people's experiences are layered over the city gives it a lot of depth."

Williamson himself will stage two projects around one of his favorite urban icons, the Happy Foot/Sad Foot sign in Silver Lake, to see if the sign's two-sided message indeed has the ability to predict a good or bad day. Then there's a performance of The Odyssey, staged by Johanna Kozma inside a Honda Odyssey minivan while traversing L.A.'s monumental freeways, taking place nightly July 10-17. And San Francisco artist Cliff Hengst will lead what is certain to be the most surreal of the performances, on June 29: a tour of the Miracle Mile by the "spirit of Whitney Houston," as the guide will morph into the famous diva (that's all we know). It begins, fittingly, outside the Beverly Hilton.

That last one seems like a stretch until you realize Machine Project excels at posing a question and then enlisting its audience on an adventure to figure it out together. Much of the city's conversation about architecture during PSTP is confined to museum installations and panel discussions — far removed from the structures they celebrate, and hierarchically dictated by a curator or institution. Machine Project is, in a way, using art and architecture to challenge a set of theories about L.A., and anyone can participate. The only way to find out the answer is to go along for the ride.

THE MACHINE PROJECT FIELD GUIDE TO L.A. ARCHITECTURE | Various locations around L.A. | Through Aug. 15 | machineproject.com/projects/fieldguidela

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