Eight people are sitting in a circle near the doorway of Church of the Epiphany’s original sanctuary, a room that gets fantastic daylight. A few East L.A. City College professors will show up later today to tutor high school kids in this space.
The Lincoln Heights Episcopal church is over one hundred years old, “which is yesterday considering how old a building could be, but old for L.A.,” says Tom Carey, who has been the vicar here for four and a half years. It’s a place where Cesar Chavez gave speeches and Chicano civil rights activists congregated. Carey is sitting in the circle along with the choreographers, architects, musician and artists who will be performing at the church on Sunday and Monday in the L.A. iteration of CANDIDATE: Execution in Progress. Carey will perform, too. Past versions of CANDIDATE have involved intense electronic music, sculpture and dance, and have been described as “a spatial soundscape” or a “musical” addressing “diversity and authority.”
The vicar, who’s been talking about things like gentrification, silent collaboration and activism with the group for almost an hour, explains his role. “I believe I am an embodiment of Cesar Chavez,” he says, “because of our great physical resemblance to one another.” The last part is a joke. He’s white, blond-ish, and highly aware of those facts, given the church’s history and his predominately Latino congregation.
CANDIDATE began circa 2008 as a “ghost” band consisting of collaborators Alessandro Codagnone and John Lovett and their friend, musician Michele Pauli of the Italian band Casino Royale. Cadagnone and Lovett had been performing together for years, reading provocative texts loudly on empty streets or combining sleek black bullhorns with leather S&M straps, so that a propaganda tool becomes transgressive in a basic way.
By 2011, they had begun inviting others to perform with them, like Kate Valk from the experimental theater troupe the Wooster Group (she'll perform this weekend too) and quirkily incisive writer-poet Gary Indiana. The CANDIDATE performances always includes a series of musical “tracks.” One featuring Valk includes the lines “each man kills the thing he loves, each man has to die” and is surprisingly catchy. Indiana, writing in the liner notes to CANDIDATE's recent album, gives what might be the clearest description of how the performance actually proceeds: two people start at the same place “and gradually move at different speeds until they are at odds.” Figures in the foreground read aggressive texts and begin to sing, perhaps while wearing dramatically dark costumes (an executioner’s mask has appeared in past versions). Tensions that are political and personal build. Indiana describes the performance as teetering between amateurisms and polish, but, to the audience, “everything looks deliberate and completely thought out.”
The first CANDIDATE performance happened at the Sculpture Center in New York. Emi Fontana, who runs the public art non-profit West of Rome in LA, saw it. She had worked with Codagnone in Italy, where both of them are from, and wanted to bring the performance here. But she didn’t have a venue in mind until she saw the church. Her friends, architects Frank Escher and Ravi Gunewardena, were helping to restore it and told her about it. “As soon as I was here for the first time, I called Alessandro,” she says.
Codagnone resisted the idea of performing in a church at first. “The way we view religion in Italy, you never think that there is a way of being religious that is other than the really bigoted way,” he says.
Adds Fontana, “The only time we hear the word spirituality is in relation to that oppressive structure. Catholicism. But there are some other ways to access spirituality here that in Italy are not yet there.” Once he saw it, Codagnone found the Church of the Epiphany inspiring too.
They proposed the idea of a church performance to the vicar. “My theory is to say ‘yes’ to most things,” says Carey.
This doesn't seem like the sort of thing of vicar would easily say yes to, but Carey has been associated with art experiments before. A few years ago, poet Eileen Myles put his his photo up on the screen during a playfully unorthodox lecture. “That’s my friend Tom,” she had said. She thought the photo fit, though she was talking about light and searching, not about him exactly.
As Carey sees it, “Spirituality is reflected in what you do. People actually come to church because that is a metaphor for whatever is going on inside them.” This church in particular, he explains, “has a history of people acting out their faith by fighting for not only other people’s rights but, really, their own rights.”
The performers are as interested in this history as Carey is. “What this project is really about is the way that the voice and the opposition voice has a chance to mobilize, to move forward,” says choreographer Julie Tolentino, who will participate this weekend and danced in the church back in August, as part of a benefit Fontana co-organized to help fund the building restoration.
So far, the congregation has been hesitant to engage with these art events, however. “I think there’s a kind of cultural divide happening,” Carey hypothesizes, “between the world of art and working class people — working class people are like ‘it’s not our thing.’”
“But we’re trying to engage them,” says architect Escher, who is here with Gunewardena because they are designing the set and lighting for the weekend’s performances.
Fontana mentions a woman named Lydia Lopez, an older member of the congregation who had seen Tolentino's August performance and cried. “She was not making sense, really, of what was happening, art-wise,” says Fontana, “but she felt the energy.”
“But Lydia Lopez has this history of really strong activism,” says Carey. “She knew Cesar Chavez, she was coming from a place of being really empowered. Other people in the neighborhood don’t feel empowered to be, like, 'I’m going to walk in and look at this performance happening here.'”
“There’s also the reverse,” says Tolentino, who lives nearby, though across a gang territory line from the church — the gang that claims her block tags the church's walls. “The art world came here, and was confronted with the richness of the history.”
“If it happens over and over again, maybe we will actually bring these worlds together,” says Escher.
But how would someone explain to a member of the community, a person who isn’t art involved or a radical activist, what CANDIDATE is?
“I think we just described that to you over these last two hours,” says Tolentino. But the conversation by this point has been so sweeping and wide-open that it's hard to condense it. So now everyone is trying to articulate what exactly will happen Sunday and Monday nights.
“It’s a live performance,” says Escher.
“It’s not music. It’s not art. It’s all together,” says Pauli.
“It’s a political musical,” says Fontana.
“But that’s a stretch,” says Tolentino. “It’s an intersection…”
“It also has flow. It’s something that continues,” says Pauli. “It’s not like a concert.”
“It’s like a constantly evolving piece and this is the next iteration,” says Escher.
CANDIDATE: Execution in Progress takes place at Church of the Epiphany, at 2808 Alutra in Lincoln Hieghts, Sunday and Monday from 7-8 pm. The performance is free.
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