Early last Sunday morning, a long line of people formed outside the Cemex cement plant off Lamar Street downtown. Cheerful volunteers wearing dusty purple jumpsuits handed out job applications printed on pale purple paper to each person in line. People who arrived very early, around dawn, were offered purple popsicles.
“POSITION SOUGHT,” the applications read. Easy enough. Just check a box. There were three options: the Department of Speculation, the Department of Wishful Thinking and the Department of Restating the Obvious. Regardless of which department they selected, all applicants were asked to respond to the same prompt: “Recall a moment when Los Angeles revealed a secret that was hiding in plain sight.”
A spectacular sight awaited the applicants once they'd completed their paperwork. In place of piles of sand and gravel, mounds of luscious purple petals from jacaranda trees covered the concrete yard. Men in hardhats and jumpsuits pushed dirty wheelbarrows full of them from one pile to another. The petals spilled down industrial chutes and into massive containers.
As each person approached the front of the line, he or she was handed a delicate jacaranda branch in exchange for a filled-out application. A jumpsuit-clad “employee” then slowly, meticulously stamped and filed each purple application. A “foreman,” perched high amid the machinery, periodically read applicants' responses over a loudspeaker in a clear, robotic tone.
Once they'd viewed the beautifully bizarre purple-petal plant, applicants/visitors were invited to explore the surrounding streets, which were also blanketed in jacaranda petals. There was a park bench covered in petals and an open window across the street from which the fluffy blossoms periodically rained down. There were dirty drainage pipes overflowing with petals into petal puddles and street signs whose black arrows had been camouflaged by purple blooms. Around the corner, one side of the Los Angeles River bed had been covered in huge jacaranda petal graffiti that read “AS IF NOTHING MAGICAL HAD HAPPENED.”
All of this activity continued until around 1 p.m., as thousands of Angelenos stopped by to see Petal Drop L.A. (02), a uniquely interactive art installation/performance piece put on by a nameless art collective. This same group also was responsible for Petal Drop L.A. (01) in February and last summer’s popular (and somewhat illegal) pop-up teahouse in Griffith Park.
Over the phone last week, an anonymous member of the anonymous art collective said that this particular piece was inspired by a “strong visual image of wanting to see Los Angeles covered in purple.”
“We’ve been thinking of [Petal Drop L.A. (02)] as an installation,” another member explained. “But we keep ending up with performative pieces. We’re not totally sure why, but we seem to like introducing strange bureaucracies and overlaying them into these projects. I think there’s also something about inviting public participation that is something we have enjoyed. We’re asking people to come and not just be in this passive, observing role but contribute something, do something, share something that becomes part of the piece.”
The group is collecting and archiving the public’s responses to their installations, but they haven’t decided if or how they'll incorporate the responses into a future piece. For now, they're holding onto more than 8,000 “Wish Shingles” from the tea house, hundreds of inscribed pieces of paper from Petal Drop L.A. (01) and, of course, the purple job applications from Petal Drop L.A. (02).
The group also has not decided yet if there will be a Petal Drop L.A. (03). “No one wants to be typecast as the petal people,” one collective member said. Still, they are “in talks” with NASA about a potential future petal project.
For now, though, they are trying not to define themselves or their art. “We like the boundaries of our collective to be fairly ill-defined,” they explained. They value absolute anonymity and don’t want to name themselves because, as one member put it, “There are just a few things that are not selling something these days, and we’re staunchly anti-selling.”
While they’re not sure what their next project will entail, they are clear about their inspiration. “We’ve had a long and ongoing romance with industrial sites in Los Angeles,” one member explains. They have toured the now-closed Puente Hills Landfill, sewage treatment plants near the Port of Los Angeles and even a sauerkraut factory in Frogtown. They like to find the unexpected beauty that lurks in L.A.’s “industrial armpits.”
Like cement plants, for instance. “There’s something about combining one of L.A.’s most iconic artifacts of beauty, which is the jacaranda bloom, with a site that is almost universally overlooked as beautiful. That speaks to us.”
Judging by the number of Instagram posts with the hashtag #petaldropla, the unexpected beauty of the Cemex cement plant on Lamar spoke to viewers as well. After all, showers of purple petals are what Boomerang selfie dreams are made of, and this anonymous art collective is nothing if not social media–savvy. The location and details for Petal Drop L.A. (02) were a secret until dawn on Sunday morning, when the address was announced on Instagram and Twitter (@petaldropla Twitter followers were even offered “the luxury of a wake-up call on Sunday morning”).
The Instagrammable bits of Petal Drop L.A. (02) were nice, but the work was memorable because of its performance elements. The way in which the actors handled their roles as petal-plant workers elevated the piece from selfie backdrop to meaningful statement by enlivening the industrial location. On Monday morning, real workers would be in that location manufacturing real cement. The petals were, and are, ephemeral. The beauty that hides in and around L.A.’s gritty industrialism — the beauty this art pointed out — remains.
Pictures of this installation are great. But as with any piece of performance art, the only way to really see this work was to get up on Sunday morning, stand in line, fill out an application, choose a box, check it and interact with the plant “employees.” Without that performative element, this artwork would still be pretty, but it wouldn’t have as much to say.