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Art Happens: Faster Pussy Bird, Kill! . . . Eat!

The setup: Saturday night, a basement in Chinatown, just down the alley from the Full House Seafood Restaurant. Two combatants gear up in chicken suits made of cardboard, foam, a rolling backpack (to hold computer wires) and feathers. Lots of feathers. The wings are wired to tilt-switches, which are wired to computers, which are wired to television screens, which project computer-animated chickens onto a big concrete wall. Flap your right wing and the chicken avatar on the monitor moves right. Flap your left wing and the chicken moves left. Bob your head and your chicken eats from a pile of birdseed. The goal here: Pummel your opponent. The grand prize: your pride, your prowess, and a dime-store wind-up baby-chick toy covered in yellow fluff.

Ominous fight-sequence music swells.

It’s T-minus 30 minutes to fight time at Cockfight Arena, and c-level, the cooperative of artists, programmers, designers, writers and engineers producing the event, are in prep mode. Mark Allen, tonight’s hardware expert, straps a girl into one of two chicken suits created by c-level artists Jessica Hutchins and Karen Lofgren. “Stop flapping!” a guy calls out from behind a curtained-off bank of computers. “I need to reprogram your head.”

Eddo Stern’s the guy behind the bath curtain, pulling the digital strings, reprogramming wings and other bird parts. He’s warm and rumpled, soft-spoken. Later, he’ll tell me by e-mail that the “simulation of violence offered an opportunity to ‘safely’ step into the role of a bloodthirsty mob.” Or, in my case, the role of a bloodthirsty chicken. I think about my dad in the Philippines, the stoic doctor who trained roosters for cockfights during his off-hours, about the miniature sickle blades strapped to chicken feet, the trophies, the squawking. I sign up to fight.

“Watch out,” says a friend as I await my turn in the chicken suit, “it’s an art-school crowd.” Two players ahead of me are strapped into their wings as the minutes count down. Three. Two. One. Let the cockfight begin! Bob. Weave. Peck. Kill. The first match is over quickly. It’s my turn in the AstroTurf arena. Cyril, c-level’s videographer, adjusts the wing strap.

“Is it too tight?”

“No, it’s good.” My opponent, a pleasant-looking girl named Molly, is the blue chicken. I’m green. The odds on our match are projected on the wall-screen behind us: 6 to 6. Molly keeps her glasses on. I take mine off. We smile and give each other the thumbs up. Seven to 6. Maybe she’d like a cup of tea afterward? Eight to 6. She is going to kick my ass. Ready? Set? GO!

I flap both arms at once and the bird launches into the air. The wings are light and wired for sound. Swoosh! I bend my knees, flap Molly in the head: “Caaaaw!”

Molly pecks me in the back: “Oof!”

I jump-flap-glide and nail her on the tail: “Bwaaauck!” The crowd is loud.

“Peck her to death!”

“Kick her chicken butt!”

“You fight like a hen!”

“Kill! Kill!”

“Fight, goddammit. Fiiiiiiight!”

Things to keep in mind: 1) It’s not the size of the cock, nor the vigorousness of the flapping that matters, but your responsiveness to the virtual fowl enemy that counts. 2) Less is more, or a cock can win simply by crouching and gliding. 3) An inexperienced cock can outwit even a seasoned, old-pro cock. Ergo, it’s not always easy to tell which chicken will emerge victorious. And, 4) when peck comes to shove, all-out flapping beats eating.

And so I flap. Molly flaps. “Energy!” the crowd screams, “Eat!” Molly pauses to eat. She bobs her head.

A moment of weakness.

I flap in for the kill: flap-drop-KICK.

“Caaaw!” Blue chicken busts up green!

The battle screen freezes.

“Did I win? Did I win?” Molly and I look at each other, confused.

“I think you won,” she says, grinning. We turn to the bookie: “Green!” he says, and points at me.

I flap a victory strut.

The night wears on and the crowd thins when one of the bird suits falls apart after some too-frantic flapping. The swirling mass of hipsters, Andy Dick look-alikes, girls in retro outfits and Vidal Sassoon–ettes disperses. At the core of the c-levelers who remain are Mark Allen and Eddo Stern assessing their pure idea of sharing technology, of coming together to explore the interactions and feedback loops between the roughhouse physical world and the so-called virtual world.

“I have this theory about art,” Allen says. “It’s like a giant brain. It’s common for artists to develop specialized skills and talents. You can combine all those skills to make a giant brain that has a synergistic ability to make or think things that no one could on their own.”

“Next time it’ll have to be bloodier,” Stern counters, watching the screen. “Maybe some of the chicken heads will have to explode.”

—Gendy Alimurung

Photo by Jack Gould

D.E.A.th Watch: It’s gone now, but last week there was a pretty intense anti-Bush banner hanging next to an upside-down flag on the shuttered Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Center in West Hollywood. The scene gave us pause, particularly in this political climate. The message: Shame on Bush and the DEA for closing down the center earlier this month. Directly across the street were “In Memoriam” markers depicting some of the center’s members who depended on the LACRC for medical marijuana. Dissent lives.

Hollywood Opening: White Elephants on Parade

Near the end of the Friday-morning opening ceremonies for Hollywood & Highland, TrizecHahn’s $615 million entertainment/retail complex vaunted as the centerpiece of a new Hollywood renaissance, Randy Newman took the stage to churn out a performance of “I Love L.A.” No one in the well-dressed crowd of city officials, TrizecHahn executives, industry types and the media, seated on folding chairs in the middle of a closed-off Hollywood Boulevard, seemed to care that Los Angeles’ unofficial anthem doesn’t even mention the city of Hollywood or Hollywood Boulevard. And Newman didn’t bother to rework the lyrics for the occasion.

The symbolic center of the film industry, Hollywood Boulevard has long been Los Angeles’ secret, sick joke on hopeful tourists. Even I once had a chance to deliver the punch line. Earlier this year, a British visitor, his girlfriend at his side, stopped me on the corner of Hollywood and Highland, not far from my apartment, to ask for directions. “Can you tell us where the Walk of Fame is?” I pointed toward the sidewalk. “You’re standing on it.” The couple followed my finger to Lou Costello’s radio star, and as they looked at the gritty tourist trap around them, their fresh young faces sank like stones. I left them standing on the corner with their disappointment.

On Friday, I was stopped again for directions by an elderly Filipino couple from the San Fernando Valley. “Please, where is the new big thing opening?” the husband asked in halting English. I pointed over his head to the complex’s towering replica of the Babylonian Gates from D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance. “That’s it there,” I said. “Just head toward the arch. Have you been to Hollywood before?” “No, this is our first time,” said the wife, as she and her husband turned eagerly toward their destination. Yes, as Rob Reiner, Anjelica Huston, TrizecHahn executive Lee Wagner, Police Chief Bernard Parks and Fire Chief William Bamattre each declared from the podium earlier in the morning with mercilessly optimistic rhetoric, things are looking up for the neighborhood.

When the speeches were over just after 10 a.m., a chorus line of men and women wearing tuxedos (the women in tights) flanked a red carpet as the dignitaries and celebrities made their way off the stage toward the Kodak Theater, the new permanent home of the Academy Awards. Suddenly, American flags were everywhere. They waved on temporary video monitors and in the hands of the chorus line. Air cannons fired blasts of red, white and â blue paper stars and red and gold streamers over the street. The loudspeakers blared “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” and an LAPD helicopter circled overhead.

September 11 and its ongoing aftermath were evoked repeatedly throughout the ceremony, sometimes eloquently, sometimes less so. After pledging to keep the streets of Hollywood safe, Parks told the crowd, “Particularly after September 11, [Hollywood & Highland] brings back uncomplicated pleasure — just to stroll through a neighborhood.” Fire Chief Bamattre added, “The only fear we feel today is what Judy Garland described as ‘Lions and tigers and bears, oh boy.’” Oh my.

In all, the festivities were a let’s-go-on-with-the-show extravaganza, underpinned by the unspoken credo that now, more than ever, it’s our patriotic duty to shop. Still, while standing beneath the massive white elephants (themselves a spectacular tempting of fate), which reign above the mall’s central panopticon, the Babylon Court, and its warren of shops, it was hard to shake the impression that at a time when we should be turning our attention to the world, TrizecHahn has just opened the mother of all distractions. Of course, it’s easy to be cynical when you’re covered in confetti.

For Jacqueline and B.G. Beane, Hollywood & Highland was exactly what they’d hoped it would be. Native Angelenos and Hollywood residents since 1985, the couple arrived in the morning (Jacqueline took off work) just as the complex opened to the public and the UCLA marching band ran through its set at the foot of the mall’s Grand Staircase. They made their rounds of the facility, and by noon they had staked out a cozy spot on the fourth-floor walkway overlooking the Babylon Court in time to watch the crowds and the In Style fashion show below. “Look at that view,” said B.G., a saxophone player who used to sell newspapers on the boulevard as a kid in the 1950s. “You can’t beat that.”

“This spot has brought a lot of class back to the neighborhood,” Jacqueline said. “It’s like a movie set.”

“It’s nice that we could walk out of the house and, after a few blocks, be here,” B.G. added. “Hollywood is our place.”

Hours later, as the sun set against the alabaster elephants and the palm trees along the Grand Staircase, B.G. and Jacqueline were still there, poring over the mall’s glossy directory, checking out upcoming events at the Kodak Theater, talking, people watching and making plans to stake out another good spot for the Hollywood Christmas Parade.

—Paul Malcolm

Biker Life: Ride, He Said

Biker Butch Morin found Jesus eight years ago, and it wasn’t in a monastery. “My stepdad said something to my mom I didn’t like, so I shot up my house. I had two Mac 10s,” he says matter-of-factly. A Perris, California, judge diverted Morin to a Christian jail unit, and after 90 days, he joined other parolees as a caretaker at a Fullerton church.

“Before, it would have been about hurting you and stealing from you,” the burly, leather-clad heavy-equipment operator says. “Now it is about brotherly love. Remember: The dog will always return to his vomit. Jesus won’t let me return to my vomit as long as I stay right with him . . . Let’s pray.”

Morin is one of five bikers representing Soldiers for Jesus, a Christian motorcycle club with 10 chapters worldwide, at the 18th Annual Love Ride last Sunday. The all-day charity event, hosted by comedian Jay Leno, brings together 20,000 bikers from clubs across the U.S. for a 50-mile ride from the Glendale Harley-Davidson store to Castaic Lake. It’s a day of drinking, carousing and live music. The money made from the event goes to the L.A. Times Reading by 9 literacy initiative and, this year, also to the New York Firefighters Disaster Relief Fund and the Port Authority Police WTC Disaster Survivors Fund.

A few feet from where we pray, Walter (a.k.a. Soldier) Martin, founder of the Ghost Riders motorcycle group, browses through the knickknacks at one of the Love Ride booths. Martin, a member of the Altadena City Council, founded the small and somewhat secretive Pasadena-based biker club to give Vietnam vets like himself a place of their own. “We had a gang problem on our street in Altadena,” says Martin, a rather large and formidable-looking former Green Beret. “We calmed it down. We do things that law enforcement can’t do.”

“Excuse me?” I say.

“We are all law-abiding citizens,” he quickly adds. “There is a very thin line between police and bikers.”

“Do the other City Council members know you are a biker?” I ask.

“Not all of them,” he says. Martin’s wife, Anita (a.k.a. Mrs. Soldier), cannot join the men’s-only club, nor can she ride on the back of a bike at a member’s funeral. “It’s tradition,” Martin explains.

“Does that bother you?” I ask Anita, a short, middle-aged Latina who wears a thick American-flag bandanna across her forehead.

“No, I am going to start my own biker group for women,” she says with a grin.

Other bikers are from more family-oriented clubs like the American Cruisers, or clean-and-sober groups such as the Messengers of Recovery. But a smaller number are from the “one percenters,” or outlaw biker gangs.

I spot another outlaw biker, David “Teacher” Rodarte, passing out fliers for a future charity ride sponsored by an anti-helmet motorcycle lobbying group. Rodarte, an LAUSD schoolteacher and former Vietnam vet, is a member of Solo Angeles, a Tijuana-based biker group. You can tell the members’ outlaw status by the three-piece patches on the backs of their jackets, Rodarte explains. Family and religious biker groups have only one- or two-piece patches, he says.

“What about the Soldiers for Jesus?” I ask. “They wear a three-piece patch. Are they outlaws?”

“They are Outlaws for God,” says Rodarte.

Later, I spot more three-piece patches, this time in the VIP area adjacent to the front of the stage where Joe Walsh is playing. “They probably won’t talk to you,” my friend warns. She is right. “We don’t talk to the press,” says the mustachioed Latino member of Hell’s Angels. “Not even about the weather?” I persist to his redheaded biker cohort who sports a ski hat with 666 emblazoned across the front. “What does SFV mean?” I continue, gesturing toward the sleeve of his leather jacket. “Searching for Virgins,” he says. “I haven’t found one in a long time. Maybe you can be my virgin?”

My friend and I look at each other. “It means San Fernando Valley,” he laughs.

Close to the stage, Weasels motorcycle club members T and Bill are enjoying their view of six biker girls drunkenly shedding their shirts and bras. “We are a drinking club with a motorcycle problem,” T says. “We only have two rules. Number one is we don’t have no rules. Number two: Refer to rule number one.”

“Are you an all-male group?” I ask.

“Hell no. We are a drinking club. We like to drink with women,” pipes in Bill, the lone member of the Connecticut chapter of the Weasels. “Want to be a member?” he inquires, pulling out his flask of whiskey and offering me a belt.

—Christine Pelisek