“I watched a white riot in Portland, Oregon, the other night,” comedian Dave Chappelle said on Saturday Night Live, the weekend after the U.S. presidential election. “The news said they did a million dollars' worth of damage, and every black person that was watching was like, 'Amateurs,'” he continued. “So I’m staying out of it.”
His monologue was as much defined by pauses and long, skeptical stares as by his words. “I’m just gonna take a knee like Kaepernick and let the whites figure it out amongst themselves. Because for us, you know what I mean, we’ve been here before and I don’t even think it’s the most important thing we’re dealing with right now,” he said. “All these shootings in the last year….” He joked, albeit seriously, about Pulse Night Club, ISIS, police shootings, the Black Lives Matter movement, wealth gaps and gentrification. “If I could quit being black today, I’d be outta the game,” Chappelle said, after pointing out that “blue lives” are not the same as black ones (since “blue” refers to the color of a uniform). “I did the next best thing. I became a rich black person, which is harder than you think, you know, because your life becomes gentrified. All your black friends start moving out.”
That monologue is certainly among the most spot-on pieces of performance art from this strange, dystopian year, in which a reality TV star and real estate mogul became president-elect just as this city was seeing a swell in speculative real estate development. The local art scene also keeps swelling, and experiencing the attendant growing pains in the process. It’s impossible to talk about the defining moments in art in L.A. this year — or most recent years — without talking about gentrification, power plays and how civil rights relate to expression. Here are five moments that resonated in 2016.
“Hey, hey, ho, ho, gentrifiers have got to go!”
On the evening of Sept. 17, a group of protesters gathered in Boyle Heights. They held signs that said, among other things, “Keep Beverly Hills Out of Boyle Heights” and marched down Mission and Anderson streets, past a number of blue-chip and midlevel galleries that have opened over the past three years. They pasted eviction notices on a few gallery façades. The notice they posted on the front of a newly opened gallery run by United Talent Agency, which just recently began representing visual artists in addition to entertainers, read:
YOU ARE HEREBY NOTIFIED BY THE PEOPLE OF BOYLE HEIGHTS, who have fought for decades to preserve affordable housing for low-income families, reduced violence in the neighborhood, and have given their own labor and resources to make Boyle Heights a culturally vibrant community, that you must REMOVE YOUR BUSINESS […].
Defend Boyle Heights, a group composed of activists, community members and others representing a range of backgrounds and interests, has taken a hard line: The galleries are part of the gentrification process and must leave. The reality of the situation is, of course, more complex. Most of the galleries lease their spaces — many of which are owned by the same woman, clothing manufacturer Vera Campbell — and, if they moved out, it’s highly unlikely community-benefiting businesses or job-creating industries would replace them. Still, protests such as those on Sept. 17 generated nationwide attention and much-needed conversation about just how complicit art organizations are in ongoing gentrification. It was also a call for transparency: Many, though not all, of the galleries and arts organizations that moved into Boyle Heights for affordable space simply failed to openly address their context, or acknowledge the displacement their presence could represent for surrounding communities. Development is messy, and if art spaces — ideally places for critical, experimental engagement with a baffling world — don’t address the mess, who will?
A lack of Chrismas spirit
In April, Ace Gallery, a long prominent if often confounding fixture of L.A.’s gallery scene, saw a notable change in leadership. Its founder, dealer Douglas Chrismas, opened his first gallery in Vancouver in 1961 and has always been inseparable in name and reputation from Ace. His gallery filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in February 2013 — just one more in a decades-long run of bankruptcies — and a reorganization plan officially went into effect in April 2016. For the first time in 55 years, Chrismas wasn’t at the helm of his own gallery. A court-appointed plan agent, Sam Leslie, would take the reins instead.
Initially, Chrismas intended to stay on, running the business’s curatorial side. That changed quickly. “I have advised Douglas Chrismas […] that he will have no further role in ACE operations as long as I am the plan agent,” Leslie wrote in a May 12 report to the court. He made the decision based on a number of findings, among them that Chrismas allegedly had staff move 60 artworks from the premises in the days before Leslie took over.
When Ace opened late in the 1960s, L.A. had few art galleries and the market had few regulations (the art world is notoriously under-regulated anyway). It staged iconic, still-famous shows by Robert Irwin, Michael Heizer and others, but allegations of impropriety persisted. There were stories — whether apocryphal or not — of artists showing up armed to demand payment for their work, or an artist throwing a sledgehammer at the wall. L.A. Times art critic William Wilson wrote in 1987 that Chrismas had “weathered so much controversy that his operation somehow always seems new.” Was controversy part of his appeal, or was the promise of a profit just enough to keep people looking the other way? Either way, that era has ended — for now.
At the end of the spring term, HaeAhn Kwon, the only student still enrolled in the MFA program at USC’s Roski School of Art and Design, dropped out. The class ahead of her had dropped out collectively the year before in protest of curriculum, faculty and funding changes. In the letter she addressed to USC’s provost, Kwon wrote of the school’s “downward spiral of predatory, wrongheaded and woefully oblivious decision making.”
Greater L.A. has long been known for its art schools — Light and Space artists graduated from Chouinard in the 1950s; CalArts became home to the Feminist Art Program in the 1970s; UC Irvine graduated impressive classes of performance artists. But the game started to change in the later 1990s, before Dennis Cooper wrote his sensationalized Spin article about the cool kids at UCLA, some of whom were already having commercial gallery shows. The game became pay-to-play, a degree a high-priced entree into a professionalized art world. But few artists have ever been able to succeed in the gallery world. And the economics of being an artist, always hard, are becoming increasingly prohibitive in L.A. as rents rise. USC once gave its MFA students exceptional scholarships, allowing them the possibility of an education without debt. The backlash over its changing policies may just be a reminder that the current system no longer works as it once did. Maybe it’s time to take alternative, collectively run education programs more seriously (such as the DIY Ph.D. that artist Sarita Dougherty is pursuing, the $10-per-class Public School or the participant-generated programming at the Women’s Center for Creative Work).
We who believe in freedom
On July 7, one day after a Minneapolis policeman shot and killed Philando Castile and two days after Baton Rouge, Louisiana, cops shot and killed Alton Sterling, MOCA hosted an event attended by 800 people. The event, which was originally supposed to be a conversation between Black Lives Matter activists Patrisse Cullors and Tanya Lucia Bernard, had been on the books for a while. They were supposed to talk about activism and art, but instead they performed their activism and, making themselves vulnerable, invited the audience to join in.
“We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it's won,” Bernard began to sing, and kept singing as Cullors spoke. “Hashtag Sandra Bland,” said Cullors, then recited Bland’s biography and the circumstances of her death. She did the same for Ezell Ford, Sterling, Castile and others who were killed by police or died while in custody, before yelling and then whispering “Black Lives Matter.” Bernard kept singing. Cullors asked the audience members to name aloud those killed at the hands of the state and racism. Always, Cullors and Bernard were aware of their audience, and eventually the event transitioned into a forum. People came to the mic. One woman's voice trembled with emotion as she spoke: “I don’t really know what I’m going to do next. I don’t know what healing looks like.” She continued, “You’re talking about imagining a black future, and I have no idea. I do hope that, starting with everyone in this room, we can really do our part to move this forward, because it’s a lot.”
It was powerful to acknowledge collective uncertainty, as well as an inability to imagine a different future without a lot of help.
Helen Molesworth, MOCA’s chief curator, wrote about this event in her end-of-year roundup, as did Carolina Miranda at the L.A. Times. We already had it on our list, too — the wide attention a tribute certainly to the event’s effectiveness but also perhaps a reminder of our limitations. We should be generating more of these moments in our museums and major institutions, so that it is not just this single night that stands out at year’s end. Still, honoring what works encourages more.
Blood coming out of her wherever
The evening of Nov. 18, Yvonne Rainer and Simone Forti were on the floor. The artists, who both dance and are both in their early 80s, have known each other since at least the 1960s. Rainer was trying to teach Forti a routine. Steve Paxton, 77, and also a dancer, leaned against the wall, wearing a hoodie. He didn’t want to participate, he said, because he’d just forget right away anyway. The two women complained about their limited agility. The performance, called Tea for Three, marked the first time in about 40 years that the artists had performed together. They seemed still to know each other’s bodies well.
A few minutes in, Rainer would plop herself into a red bucket on one side of the room, reading while Forti and Paxton leaned into each other, then slowly moved toward the bucket. Rainer read about many things, including food and flogging. Paxton and Forti wanted to hear more about the food. Why not the flogging? Rainer wondered. Forti acknowledged that people were probably being flogged somewhere else in the world, when others elsewhere were eating.
The performance felt improvised but was based on a loose plan and the performers' deep knowledge of one another’s temperaments and desires. Exercises and games transitioned into monologues, and then into physical comedy. As a prop they used a radio with a built-in flashlight. Rainer held it between her legs at one point, struggling to turn it on. “Blood coming out of her wherever. Who said that?” Rainer asked. Forti came over to help. “That nasty man,” she answered. “I'm going to turn you on.” Soon the light was on. Later, Forti was in a red bucket reading something else, a statement from Judge William O. Douglas: “As nightfall does not come all at once, neither does oppression. In both instances, there is a twilight when everything remains seemingly unchanged.” Forti added, “This isn’t fascism, but this is where it starts,” as she flipped over, walking on her hands and feet with the red bucket still covering her rear.