The Los Angeles art world has been saying a collective "hallelujah" since the arrival in January of Philippe Vergne as MOCA's new director. Although some East Coast commentators condemned the appointment — citing in particular a budget crisis scandal in which Vergne resorted to selling off a number of works from Dia Art Foundation's collection while he was director there — the French–born newcomer has been making excellent first impressions here. In interviews and public appearances, he comes across as smart, thoughtful, passionate and, most importantly, comfortable with his role as director of a major contemporary art museum.
Behind the scenes, staff members have been enthusiastic about Vergne's sense of humor and easy camaraderie. And last month, he put the icing on the cake by appointing the highly respected Helen Molesworth as MOCA's chief curator, restoring a position that had lain dormant since the controversial dismissal of Paul Schimmel in 2012. Schimmel was forced to resign by the MOCA board in the midst of Jeffrey Deitch's stormy three-year tenure as director, during which rumors flew about clashes between the two strong-willed men.
MOCA also claims to have restocked its once nearly depleted endowment, announcing $100 million in pledges last year.
After five years of financial and managerial turmoil, the museum finally is poised on the brink of a bright new era, and community anticipation and goodwill are high. (Full disclosure: This writer was employed by MOCA from 2008 to 2009.)
This month, audiences will be able to check out the first program to emerge from Vergne's nascent administration: Step and Repeat, a multidisciplinary festival of performing arts, takes place at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA over four Saturday evenings, beginning Sept. 13.
Organized by MOCAtv creative director Emma Reeves and MOCA senior curator Bennett Simpson, Step and Repeat will feature a unique nightly lineup of poetry readings, noise/experimental music, performance art, stand-up comedy, live bands and deejays, all presented side by side.
At press time, confirmed artists include rapper Le1F; video artists Yung Jake and Jacolby Satterwhite; the DJ known as Ashland Mines; comedians Neil Hamburger, Heather Lawless and the Power Violence collective; performance artists Dynasty Handbag and Wu Tsang with Boychild; artists/musicians Brendan Fowler and Geneva Jacuzzi; and bands Nguzunguzu and Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks.
In spite of the labels used above, all of the artists tend to blur lines between disciplines; for example, Power Violence was founded by skateboarders, and its act, which is inspired by hardcore punk, includes music and video. Creative director Willo Perron, known for his work with high-profile acts including Kanye West and Lady Gaga, is in charge of tying together the event's overall look. Graphic design is by artist Brian Roettinger.
Reeves calls the festival "a big mosh pit of energy," which "celebrates all kinds of artists" and evolves naturally out of her programming at MOCAtv, the museum's YouTube channel, where a variety of genres and interests coexist. She also emphasizes the Geffen's prime positioning in a downtown that is becoming hipper and more heavily trafficked by the day, and the necessity both of exploiting that position and serving the neighborhood's growing audience.
Simpson, for his part, is particularly excited about the spoken-word component of the festival. Poetic Research Bureau, which he believes has the best reading series in the city right now, will be involved, along with noted poets including Fred Moten, Rae Armantrout, Aaron Kunin, Rod Smith, Vanessa Place, Trisha Low, Will Alexander, Kate Durbin and Jibade-Khalil Huffman. Although Simpson is currently in the business of curating visual art, his background is in literature and music; he received his Ph.D. in literature and was a critic before entering the visual art field.
The hope is that Step and Repeat will be an annual event, and that it will continue to evolve from year to year. Its name references the dance world (although dance won't be included in this iteration of the festival) and also is a play on celebrity culture, as it refers to the process of stars parading in front of a wall of logos on a red carpet, being photographed and doing interviews one after another.
Simpson says the name also could be read as a description of MOCA's own tentative steps forward following a period when many saw the museum as having lost its way.
In spite of a recent L.A. Times article expressing misgivings about MOCA's empty exhibition schedule, Simpson asserts that MOCA actually has exhibitions planned as far out as 2018. When pressed for details, he says they will be revealed in due time.
The idea for the festival emerged when Vergne asked the staff what MOCA needs at this point in time. Several people cited the need to restore performance as an integral part of the museum's programming.
MOCA's first public event, performance piece Available Light — which took place in 1983 at the Geffen Contemporary, back when it was known as the Temporary Contemporary — was a groundbreaking, critically acclaimed collaboration among composer John Adams, dancer-choreographer Lucinda Childs, and architect/set designer Frank Gehry. For many years afterward, performance would play a significant role in the museum's programming.
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But other than the excellent Engagement Party initiative — which took place from 2008 to 2012 and presented new social-practice works that often were performative in nature — the museum's involvement with performance has flagged in the last decade. Meanwhile, performance has gained ever more currency in the art world at large, as museums and galleries alike clamor to include it in their schedules. It was time to revitalize MOCA's commitment to performance, and Vergne wholeheartedly agreed.
Responding to whether Step and Repeat sets a tone for future programs to come, Vergne says, "In a way, yes, it sets a tone — and that is to be a platform for innovation across disciplines. For many artists working today, disciplines as they were constituted at the end of the 20th century are simply irrelevant; so many works now exist above and beyond traditional, even modernist and avant-garde traditions. The tone of Step and Repeat, as well as the tone I want to instill in the museum, is one of freedom and artistic independence. I want MOCA to be fearless."
Editor's note: This story was updated after publication to better reflect the current list of confirmed artists.
STEP AND REPEAT | MOCA Geffen Contemporary Space, 152 N. Central Ave., dwntwn. | Sept. 13, 20 & 27 and Oct. 4 | moca.org