These Classes Let You Get Crafty In Ways You Never Thought Of

In October classes at Machine Project, sew a unisex jumpsuit, learn to gesture, create a realistic open wound and explode pumpkins.EXPAND
In October classes at Machine Project, sew a unisex jumpsuit, learn to gesture, create a realistic open wound and explode pumpkins.
Photo by Lara Kastner

Choosing a Halloween costume isn't fun. Hand-wringing, poring over pop culture, picking something race-appropriate — only to be outdone by someone wearing a Netflix T-shirt and arriving with a bag of ice. Who has the time?

Simple solution: Wear a non–gender-specific, multiuse jumpsuit. Then, when the holiday is over, keep wearing it. Maybe get an extra for laundry day.

That's the idea behind a workshop held last weekend at Mystery Theater. The cozy, Victorian-inspired basement in the bowels of Machine Project, an unassuming Echo Park storefront creative space on North Alvarado Street, also hosts off-kilter events and shows. In this class, students learned to sew a tailormade unisex jumpsuit to wear instead of their usual clothes.

Maura Brewer, a video artist and instructor at USC's Roski School of Art and Design, and Abigail Glaum-Lathbury, a professor who teaches pattern-making and design at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, co-founded the Rational Dress Society, which is promoting the monochromatic garb as a means of rejecting the troubling gender and class issues of the fashion industry.

"Only 8 percent of women have an hourglass figure, but most women's clothing is made that way," Glaum-Lathbury said at the start of the filled-to-the-gills class on Saturday.

"It's not your body. Your clothes don't fit."

The Society has taught its sewing class and philosophy in New York and Europe. In the days leading up to its course in Echo Park, hand-lettered posters appeared touting an opportunity to "reject choice" on Oct. 9 from 7 to 9 p.m. and exhorting people to "please bring one or more hated garments to discard in the Rational Dress Society symbolic trash can!"

A couple of women at Saturday's workshop worried that their jumpsuits wouldn't accommodate their bodies: "I'm part of Team Small Chest," one student interjected.

The jumpsuits are sized using gender-neutral terminology. Glaum-Lathbury stressed that the fashion industry's approach of assigning a number to a garment is arbitrary. "Size 27 doesn't mean anything," she told the workshop. "It's completely made up."

The students plunged into their work. When things finally wound down, Machine Project facilities coordinator Lucas Wrench had to politely remind everyone their time was almost up. "You've been here almost 4½ hours; I don't know if you're hungry," he trailed off jokingly.

A day earlier, a crowd had turned out for the Rational Dress Society's pop-up shop in a gallery space in Chinatown, where a 50-foot-tall window was covered in a gigantic font: EMBRACE RATIONAL DRESS.

The Rational Dress Society threw a pop-up non-fashion show in Chinatown.
The Rational Dress Society threw a pop-up non-fashion show in Chinatown.
Jonathan Tolliver

It was almost a mini Halloween party, with cold PBR, people decked out in adventurous gear and nervous small talk. A "jumpsuit playlist" pumped from laptop speakers, with "Solidarity Forever" setting the tone.

"Just as we reject the mini-mansion in favor of the city, refuse the automobile in favor of the train, Jumpsuit offers a way to forgo the insular logic of self-expression in favor of forming communal bonds," Brewer said in prepared remarks, referring to the group's website, Jumpsu.it.

That class isn't the only Halloween-functional jumpoff offered this month at Mystery Theater.

With $55 and a few hours' time, students can learn to make prosthetic blisters and festering open wounds that they can either flaunt on Oct. 31 or, per the class website, wear "immediately for style and flair."

On Halloween Eve there's an exploding pumpkin–carving workshop, which is exactly what it sounds like. (It's held at an open, outdoor locale for cleanup, and perhaps safety, purposes.)

Mystery Theater, where most of the Machine Project classes are held, is not all that easy to find. Machine Project's storefront windows often are covered over from the inside with paper, which makes it look closed — another community stalwart shuttered by rising rents.

Not so. Typically, there are at least a couple events, shows or classes per week going on inside. Arguably, the classes constitute the weirdest collection of courses regularly held in Southern California.

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This month, aside from the Rational Dress Society course, and upcoming classes on how to make oozing boils and the best way to carve and explode pumpkins, Mystery Theater hosts a course taught by Martine Sims on "gesturing," which oddly fits into the Halloween tradition of taking on a persona.

Sims explains in her online class notes that she has been studying a set of gestures first defined and researched in 1644 by John Bulwer, the brilliant English physician who wrote five works on the body and communication — and was the first Englishman to propose educating deaf people.

Sims is charging $10 to teach what she has learned about "similarities and differences between real movements — and movements made for camera."

She's been poring over YouTube and GIFs to understand how people accumulate and control, or fail to control, their own movements.

If that's too much awkward self-knowledge for you, there's also pure entertainment on offer in the Mystery Theater, which regularly undergoes months-long transformations.

Right now, the space looks like a dark and dank imagining of Pee-wee's Playhouse.

That's because it's hosting "Return to Foreverhouse," an immersive mystery-cum-fantasy where up to six paying guests enter a malleable space to solve a puzzle using props and cryptic clues, at times wandering in darkness.

Cellphones (safety lines) aren't allowed.

"I love art, and I love theater, but I'm most interested in what happens when art kind of jams up against theater," says Mark Allen, Machine Project founder and a Pomona College art professor.

Allen talks enthusiastically about some of the more adventurous offerings in the Echo Park space over the years — "we did an opera for dogs" — and says they try to offer classes that can't be found anywhere else.

About half the people who patronize Machine Project's classes and shows, Allen says, are artists; the other half are just "open-minded people."

With Halloween damn near here, the audience could expand to revelers who are either bored by typical holiday fare — pumpkin patches, anyone? — or want to avoid the Monster Energy drink crowd at haunted houses and other too-hardcore haunts.

Machine Project's uncategorizable educational agenda has inspired tendrils of creativity well beyond Echo Park. Jason Brown, an offbeat multimedia artist and curator of curious artifacts who ran programs at Machine Project, now helps run Betalevel, an incredibly-hard-to-find basement art space in Chinatown.

The struggle to find Betalevel, whose pursuits are sometimes more abstruse than those of the Echo Park space, is part of the experience, says Brown, who just authored a notable chapter on forgotten battleground sites in L.A. titled "The Fortifications and Catacombs of the Conquests of Los Angeles" for the just-published, highly readable LAtitudes: An Angeleno's Atlas (Heyday).

"Things that are underneath and between other things really fascinate me," explains Brown, an instructional technologist at Pomona College whose online résumés variously describe him as an ambient noisemaker, janitor in a basement in Chinatown and constellation manipulator.

Which brings us back to the Rational Dress Society.

Most of what Machine Project is about is choice — the crazy, ever-expanding levels of choice in Los Angeles.

But Brewer and Glaum-Lathbury are singling out fashion as a part of culture in which an industry's choices, and the control those choices exert over individual self-views and personal emotions, can become our obsession, even our master.

They say choose not to choose.

"Picking out clothes is horrible. The fashion industry is horrible," Brewer declares.

If, on Halloween, hordes of L.A. residents partied on Hollywood Boulevard wearing unisex jumpsuits, Brewer says, that would be the most radical holiday outburst the city has ever known.

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