"Petal Drop L.A. 02" used jacaranda blossoms.EXPAND
"Petal Drop L.A. 02" used jacaranda blossoms.
Michael Wells

Beyond the Teahouse: Anonymous Art Collective Serves Up Poetic Urban Experiences

A narrow, old-timey brick alleyway in downtown is blanketed in an all-day shower of rose petals. An abandoned hilltop pool is filled with glow-in-the-dark lifeforms. Fire-ravaged trees are reclaimed, or repaired. A mysterious teahouse in Griffith Park creates an unlikely community of strangers. These and other interventions in ordinary city life are the work of an anonymous collective of interdisciplinary artists who take the city itself as their muse and co-conspirator. From forests to factories, beaches to blind alleys, they blend their talents and corral their friends in the creation of free, public, ephemeral, immersive, interactive and extraordinary site-specific happenings.

Though the three primary artists of the group had become friends in 2007, their now-legendary Griffith Park Teahouse installation of June 2015 was their first foray into DIY public art. A small gazebo-style building made of reclaimed wood from a recent fire in the park, it soon became a popular word-of-mouth destination for hikers and art folks alike. It lasted, to the surprise of all involved, for several months.

There have been a handful of further projects since then, most lasting no more than one or two days — each with its own unique set of materials and ideas, and each with a varying degree of advance notice and official permission. For example, the semi-secret happening in February 2016, "Petal Drop L.A. 01." Visitors who'd signed up for timed entry spots throughout the morning and into dusk encountered a magical, quiet realm, veering from a bustling downtown street into a soft, silent, rose-scented blizzard of memories. That was followed in May 2016 with "Petal Drop L.A. 02," which was a jacaranda-based post-industrial fantasy on a much larger scale.

Although most of their work requires the audience to undertake some kind of journey or perform some action, their November 2017 work, "Lost and Found L.A.," was in some ways their most hands-on. Two months after the La Tuna Canyon fire, this installation was inspired by kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with lacquer and gold. They applied a repair method to burned trees in the canyon, using beeswax and gold pigment.

"In marking breakage with gold," the group tells us, "kintsugi illuminates damage as a meaningful part of an object's history. The project transformed a site of loss into a place of memory and renewal."

In June 2017 they collected glowing, bioluminescent algae in a lifeguard tower on Dockweiler Beach in "Night Life L.A." — a version of which was re-created this past June in an empty swimming pool atop a hill in Griffith Park. (This time, they got permits first.)

"Lost and Found L.A."EXPAND
"Lost and Found L.A."
Mark Hanauer

L.A. WEEKLY: Of course I can't just ask, who are you? But ... everyone wants to know who you are! So in lieu of asking who are you regarding your identities, I can say, tell me about yourselves. What are your backgrounds? How did you all meet?

ANONYMOUS: We met on a midnight bike ride in 2007 at a 7-Eleven parking lot in Hollywood. It was a super foggy night; we were talking about the city and our love-hate relationship with it. That night, we were all feeling pretty in love with the city.

We had immediate chemistry around our shared curiosity about the city. ... I mean, not everyone you meet will be as excited as you are about touring L.A.'s first hydroelectric plant. We followed that meeting up with an Easter hike to a desert hot spring, outfitted in pastel-colored formal bridesmaid's gowns. We spent the next eight years touring some of L.A.'s finest establishments together, including Hyperion wastewater treatment plant, a pickle factory, the Bridge to Nowhere and the Puente Hills landfill.

We come from totally unrelated professional backgrounds. From performance, architecture and cultural history. We also come to the table relishing risk, fearing public speaking, and being possessed of a pathological optimism that often causes us to bite off more than can realistically be chewed.

Also: This kind of collaborative, bureaucratic art is what transpires when you've known each other for so long that you run out of things to talk about.

The Griffith Park Teahouse, with San Pedro in the distance
The Griffith Park Teahouse, with San Pedro in the distance
Michael Wells

I'm curious as to why the anonymity? At first I thought it was because the projects, at least the Teahouse, were, um, unauthorized. But in the years since then you've gotten more support, permissions, permits and the like. So why continue to keep your identities under wraps?

Initially, yes, the Teahouse was unauthorized and we thought we might get arrested, so we figured it'd be best. But, in the process, we found that we relished the anonymity. It allows each project to stand on its own and not be about us. We also really wanted all of our projects to be free and open to the public, so being anonymous has allowed each project to feel like a gift to the city. Plus we still have clandestine ambitions.

An invitation to the Griffith Park Teahouse
An invitation to the Griffith Park Teahouse
Courtesy of the artists

What was the inspiration for the Teahouse? Walk me through how that came about.

We used to go running in Griffith Park all the time. We came across this empty foundation up near Dante's Peak, and we knew it called for something. Then, after the big wildfire in Griffith Park in 2007, we noticed that the city started mulching redwood trees that had been killed by the fire. This seemed like a waste of beautiful lumber. So ... we couldn't resist. We took the fallen, burned redwood from the park in a U-Haul and built the Teahouse in a woodworking studio nearby, using all mortise-and-tenon construction, so that assembly would be fast once we got the pieces in place in the park. We practiced assembling it a few times, so that it would go quickly during the install. It was a bit harrowing, but we got it up there and assembled it under the light of a full moon. We managed to finish and flee the scene before sunrise.

Were you surprised by how popular the Teahouse became? When people, like Moby at one point I believe, led the charge to save it, how was that time for you?

At first we were just thrilled to have not been arrested. Then suddenly the Teahouse was all over the news and thousands of people hiked up to see it. It's exhilarating to do something illegal and be met with praise for it. It was an incredible out-of-the-gate experience for us. And the press attention brought all these unexpected visitors. There were people who hiked 40 minutes to find the Teahouse, people who have lived in L.A. their whole lives but had never been to Griffith Park before. There were others who were park regulars who worked it into their daily 4 a.m. morning loop. And ultimately, the city and the park were creative and supportive in their response to the installation. They kept it in the park for a month and then they removed it as one piece with a crane. Now they bring it out from time to time for events in parks around the city. It now has the illustrious designation of being the city's only roving Teahouse.

Did you expect to do more projects, or was that supposed to be a one-time thing?

We had big plans, but we were also testing the waters to see how we could work together creatively. After the Teahouse, we knew this would just be the first.

"Night Life L.A." from June 2017
"Night Life L.A." from June 2017
Courtesy of the artists

For the other projects, please tell me more about what attracted you to each one? For example, the bioluminescent bacteria. How did that idea happen? And where do you even get that?

We're interested in interrupting daily routines and calling the public to notice moments of incongruous beauty in the urban landscape. The juxtaposition of mundane urban spaces with visual spectacle is super exciting to us. It can blur the line between everyday life and surreal dreamscapes. We're particularly fond of locations like traffic islands, abandoned swimming pools, concrete foundations and industrial sites, that draw people to see their own city with new eyes, and to engage with one another through social and entirely non-commercial, non-consumer interactions.

Each project starts with a seed of some kind — sometimes it's a visual; other times it's a concept or material or a site. One thing we seem to be drawn to, over and over, is Sisyphean tasks. We seem to gravitate toward challenging sites and mediums or materials that are finicky, fragile and what some would say "impossible" to work with.

For "Night Life L.A." specifically, after swimming together in ocean water sparkling with bioluminescent algae, we wanted to bring that experience into the city. We learned that bioluminescence commonly appears along Southern California beaches but is rarely seen due to light pollution. We started imagining a strange climate future, where we have to maintain these fussy single-celled organisms and, in order to see them, people have to take all these absurd measures to dark-adjust their eyes because the light pollution is so intense. We collaborated with marine biologists for years to develop a protocol for growing this algae in large quantity, which, turns out, is no small feat. We even started our own growing operation in L.A. and were heartbroken with various algae crashes. Over a two-year process, we grew enough algae with our scientist collaborators for this installation.

"Petal Drop L.A. 01"EXPAND
"Petal Drop L.A. 01"
Michael Wells

For "Petal Drop L.A. 01," when we were developing this project, someone mentioned her memory of lying under a cherry tree in Japan and watching the sunlight come through the blossoms as they fell on her. She just looked so swept away when she talked about it. We wondered if we could create that kind of experience in L.A. When we found this narrow alley between two abandoned buildings downtown, it was covered in pigeon remains when we first saw it, but we knew that the space and light in there were just right.

When we thought about "Petal Drop L.A. 02," it was all about the jacarandas. We were so taken by the way these bright purple blossoms carpet the streets each spring in this city. They're an iconic L.A. street tree and the bloom is so fleeting, it's easy to miss if you aren't paying attention. We started imagining a world in which L.A.'s factories collect jacaranda flowers — just another raw material from the L.A. Basin, like sand drawn from the San Gabriel Mountains — process them, and send them back out into the neighborhoods of the city. We wondered if we could create that ... but every floral expert in the city told us jacarandas were too fragile to work with. Then we found this incredible Cemex factory in Northeast L.A. and we knew we had to try.

"Petal Drop L.A. 02" used jacaranda blossoms collected from all over the city.EXPAND
"Petal Drop L.A. 02" used jacaranda blossoms collected from all over the city.
Michael Wells

We mapped thousands of purple jacaranda trees around the city and tracked when they bloomed. Then we fanned out around the city with a fleet of refrigerated trucks and hand-collected more than two shipping containers' worth of these fragile blossoms from the streets of Los Angeles. We installed the blossoms overnight, in a working downtown concrete factory and its surrounding neighborhood; the vivid purple flowers seeped into the city like some surprising, ubiquitous material.

The blossoms would only stay purple in the sun for a few hours, so the installation lasted from dawn to noon. It involved a surreal factory. Worker-performers in purple jumpsuits and hard hats emptied wheelbarrows of purple petals, collected job applications and took smoke breaks. The public was invited to fill out a job application to work at this unusual factory. Phrases drawn from the applications were read over a megaphone by a factory-worker performer, towering on a lift in a purple jumpsuit.

"Petal Drop L.A. 02" used jacaranda blossoms.EXPAND
"Petal Drop L.A. 02" used jacaranda blossoms.
Michael Wells

This happening was highly choreographed, but it also invited an open-ended conversation that relied on the public. That's what really intrigues us — what happens when we set up an environment and allow the public to engage with each other, the performers, and the space? We never know how it will go.

How do you select your locations?

We spend a lot of our time roaming Los Angeles, open to finding irresistible sites. It's happened both ways for us — sometimes a site suggests an idea to us, like with that empty foundation and the Teahouse; other times we have a project idea in mind and go scouring the Greater L.A. area to find it. When we fall for a site, we fall hard.

And following on that, since the work is so much about the locations, and the need for the audience to seek them out and sometimes make great efforts to arrive ... as well as other interactive elements, please tell me about how you design the experiences?

In a broad sense, we're interested in asking people to see or notice something in the city that they might otherwise just drive by at 70 mph. Maybe there's a working concrete factory right down the street, where they literally truck rock and gravel from the San Gabriel Mountains, and mix it together with water and sand, and send it out in trucks to build stuff all over town. It's fucking incredible. And then there might be an empty swimming pool in the hills of Griffith Park that you've hiked past hundreds of times without knowing it's there.

"Night Life L.A." from June 2017
"Night Life L.A." from June 2017
Courtesy of the artists

Each project is different with respect to the audience experience, but typically we try to bring the public into an immersive, surreal environment. We build the whole experience around the site. For example, "Night Life L.A.," our most recent installation, was at night in Griffith Park, as you know. At the heart of it was a wading area full of living bioluminescent algae. For people to really see the bioluminescence, their eyes needed to adjust for 30 to 45 minutes. So the entire experience was designed to allow for this visual adjusting, while also introducing a number of surprising elements along the way. The audience had to walk up a steep mile to reach the pool. There were interactions with performers, ringing telephones, performers in plastic suits walking white dogs. Each of these experiences was designed to elicit some form of attention, or to encourage interaction. It was fascinating. Not that we were watching.

What can you tell me about what you are working on next?

We're working on a few things, all in Los Angeles. One involves delicate things that float on the wind. Another involves a type of stargazing. And we might try to move an iceberg. We've fallen in love with a few different locations. Now we have to decide: Do we sneak it in, or do we call the City Council office?

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