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GLOW Festival in Santa Monica: The Trials of Creating an Art Show on the Beach

Mathieu Briand's rendering of 6:43, his piece for Santa Monica's GLOW festival
Mathieu Briand's rendering of 6:43, his piece for Santa Monica's GLOW festival
COURTESY OF THE ARTIST AND GLOW

A gas-fueled fire ring, held up by specially built scaffolding that rises over Santa Monica sand, will light up on Sept. 28 at sunset, as if capturing and keeping sunlight even after dark. Directly below it will be a corridor of sand-covered shipping containers, and though you might not be able to make out much of the containers, you should be able to see the openings on either end, ideally guarded by men in black. If you get close, you'll probably hear strains of eerie Aram Khatchaturian music that Stanley Kubrick used in 2001: A Space Odyssey. If you step inside, the sound will grow louder and you will see a faint glow of whitish light coming from near the corridor's center.

Mathieu Briand, a Paris-based artist, designed this temple to the sun. His other work includes an in-progress utopia on an island off Madagascar and a collaboration with his wife, choreographer Prue Lang, to outfit 100 people in London with highly realistic latex masks so they could impersonate someone else for an hour.

The temple is for GLOW 2013, the third iteration of Santa Monica's one-night art festival. Briand calls it 6:43 because that's what time the sun sets on the night of the festival, and his fire ring should remain lit from then until about 3 a.m., when GLOW ends. A gas cylinder will be nearby for refueling.

"I had this idea of, like, a mad-man temple after nuclear war, built out of shipping containers, because we can find them anywhere in the world," Briand says. Anywhere, perhaps, but not always effortlessly.

Briand, who arrived Aug. 27 to prepare the work while staying at the currently vacant Pacific Palisades home of a French cultural benefactor, had to drive with Marc Pally, GLOW's artistic director, out to Mobile Mini in dry, suburban Rialto to find containers light enough to be hauled out onto the sand. Once transported to Santa Monica, these containers, already sand-colored — "In France, containers are almost all red," he notes — will be parked in the Deauville lot adjacent to the large parking lot north of the pier. Then, starting around Sept. 24, they'll be moved one at a time by a four-wheel-drive loader onto metal plates already positioned in chasms dug into the beach.

Every GLOW so far has included a French artist, in homage to Nuit Blanche, the all-night Paris arts festival after which GLOW is loosely modeled, and because the French consulate and nonprofit France Los Angeles Exchange (FLAX) help fund the effort.

When Pally went to Paris to visit studios of potential participants a little more than a year ago, he was impressed by Briand's ambition — the way certain past projects, like the one with latex masks, have been out-there but still inclusive, and the way that his ideas, like the temple, can be futuristic yet nostalgic, fictional but kind of weirdly believable, too.

"At the same time, there's a real pragmatism that he has," Pally says, recalling how in their first conversation Briand asked about logistics. "The artists we invite work within constraints."

These constraints include time — this year, artists can test their projects on Friday night, but for the last two GLOWs they had to show up the day of and hope everything worked. They also include accessibility for the disabled, manpower, budget, environment. But it's remarkable, in a city with as many regulations as Santa Monica, that there aren't more constraints.

Read the press releases or city council reports and you'll hear GLOW described as "Santa Monica's signature cultural event." This isn't because of the success of GLOW's first two iterations. GLOW was developed specifically to be the city of Santa Monica's signature cultural event. "What I heard is that Santa Monica needs a major cultural event, some kind of Santa Monica Biennial or something, that would bring recognition of the depth and breadth of Santa Monica's art community," recalls Jessica Cusick, who surveyed residents after becoming the city's cultural affairs manager in 2005.

Alexandra Cohen, a French arts organizer visiting the 18th Street Arts Center, spoke enthusiastically about Nuit Blanche in Paris to both Cusick and Pally, an artist-organizer who had been orchestrating temporary public-art events in Santa Monica's Clover Park. "After we met with Alexandra, Marc and I were both incredibly excited by the potential we saw in Nuit Blanche," Cusick says. "It really was the right idea at the right time."

GLOW's title arose from conversations about how to make the event "uniquely Santa Monica."

"We were talking about all sorts of ideas, ranging from the importance of the Light and Space movement in Santa Monica ... to the grunion ... small fish who come up on the beach to spawn and create their own light," Cusick says. "Marc came up with the name."

Pally went to Paris for Nuit Blanche twice before the first GLOW took place. "The sheer dimension of their ambition is really staggering," he says. "The mayor [Bertrand Delanoë] really wants to reinvigorate Paris as a cultural center, to help return the urgency of contemporary art in Paris."

GLOW needed similar civic support, especially since Cusick quickly realized they "would essentially be breaking every rule in the book" if they wanted to give invited artists optimal freedom. Santa Monica has noise regulations, park hours, regulations about when businesses must close and where outdoor seating is permitted. "The only way to produce GLOW was to waive all of the applicable rules for this one event," she says.

So she and her staff proposed to the city council an ordinance that would temporarily void all conflicting ordinances within the designated GLOW area for that one night. This year, when they proposed the GLOW ordinance for the third time, self-declared Santa Monica peace activist Jerry Rubin spoke in support, sounding almost choked up, talking about how important the event is, "because Santa Monica, as you all know, declared art to be a sustainable city goal." Last year, the city council added "Arts & Culture" to the official Sustainable City Plan it first drafted in 1994.

GLOW 2008 brought in a staggering 250,000 people, and the 2010 event brought in closer to 150,000, which is why Cusick opted to wait three years for the next one, to take time to focus and strategize. There will be fewer but bigger projects this year — 15 total, versus 27 the first year. The list includes artist/nanotechnologist Victoria Vesna's reprogramming of the Ferris wheel lights and Glenn Kaino's bioengineered pool of glowing plankton.

The new scale and focus could increase the event's cachet in the larger community of L.A. culture makers. "We had a hard time trying to convey the idea of serious art on the beach," Cusick says.

GLOW enlisted respected artists, but the almost-too-pretty logo, the chipper KCRW ads, the clichéd setting of the Santa Monica Pier and the location's total lack of obscurity or exclusivity make its seriousness hard to accept. Among the scant coverage of the first 2010 event was an L.A. Times article that quipped, "Thinking ... may be optional, as many of the projects are geared toward fun."

"It's too populist," Pally hypothesizes about this pushback against the event's thoughtfulness.

Artist Steve Roden, who had a large sound-and-video installation on the sand in 2010, tells the Weekly via email, "Initially the fear was simply how a work that was intended to be subtle could exist in a situation where it might be drowned by the chaos. But because of that chaos, a ton of wonderful, unexpected things happened. A group of teenagers, who were clearly stoned, were standing between the projector and the screen, and they were having their pictures taken immersed in the light ... as if they were inside the images, and they were laughing their asses off and it was wonderful."

This kind of event can be frightening for artists, Briand says, as the work might become more mode of entertainment than means of communication. Still, he says, "At the end of the day, we do the work for the public."

Probably five to 10 people at a time will be able to enter his 6:43 shipping-container temple. It will be mostly dark inside, but as they move through they'll come to a projection of the moon's surface; then as they turn into the adjacent container, they'll see a record player faintly lit, on which a concrete replica of the moon spins. It's a live feed of this fictional moon that they'll have just seen.

"It's not to do something spectacular. I never think about that," Briand says of 6:43. "We have so much spectacle, 3-D movies and other things." Instead, he wants people to feel that slippage between what's real and what's fictional and to experience the familiar merging with the strange.

This sort of experience is what Pally says he wants GLOW to offer, too — something immersive but not obvious. "The public is entitled to be exposed to great art, to joy, generosity and provocation."

GLOW 2013 | Santa Monica Beach | Sat., Sept. 28, 7 p.m.–Sun., Sept. 29, 3 a.m. | glowsantamonica.org

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