“You remember the Emperor's New Clothes?” asked B.T. Tuggle, secretary of the Bixby Knolls Kiwanis Club. He set up a table Wednesday on Atlantic Avenue for Rockapalooza, the party Long Beach neighborhood Bixby Knolls threw during the LACMA rock's daylong stay on its main drag. The 340-ton granite boulder left a Riverside quarry on Feb. 29 for the museum, where it will become part of Levitated Mass, a sculpture by artist Michael Heizer. Right now, it's covered in white plastic and suspended in a 260-foot transporter. “Only in America would we throw a block party for a wrapped rock,” Tuggle said.
On its way to LACMA, the rock is passing through 22 cities, traveling at night at around 5 miles per hour. People have come out to see at every stop, but Bixby Knolls is the only place to stage an official celebration.
City Councilmember James Johnson learned the rock would be stopping in his neighborhood just one week ago. The transportation department knew, but no one had bothered to tell other local officials. “I thought to myself, 'What are we going to do with this?'” says Johnson. He called up Blair Cohn, head of Bixby Knolls' Business Improvement Association. Together, they phoned local businesses and booked bands.
Patricia's Restaurant set up a food stand in its parking lot, Arby's offered three roast beef sandwiches for $5, and you could buy T-shirts screen-printed on site (“Bixby Knolls Got Rocked,” said one). The Business Improvement Association set up a “Rock Art” station where children made pet rocks and a “Pop Art” display where Rock Star energy drinks were stacked next to Rocky Road bars and Pop Rocks candy. A local acoustic band played “Rocky Mountain High” on one side of Atlantic Avenue. On the other, DJ Mister Bill went from Queen's “We Will Rock You” to Joan Jett's “I Love Rock & Roll” to Dylan's “Rainy Day Women” (“They'll stone ya when you're tryin' to make a buck/ They'll stone ya and then they'll say, 'good luck'”). LACMA staffers walked around with “Ask Me” buttons, handing out bookmarks with renderings of Heizer's sculpture on them and showing people maps of the rock's route.
“I used to work in tourism,” said the woman helming the Christian Science Reading Room across from where the rock was parked. “So I knew there could be 10,000 people coming through.” She put a handwritten sign in the window: “Upon this rock, I will build my church.”
Just south of the Reading Room, on a thin strip of lawn, a group from Bixby Knolls' Expo Arts Center had set up makeshift easels to paint the rock. Some took a literal approach, rendering the transporter and the white-covered boulder. Brooks, of the AirGrafx Shop, painted a hooded superhero holding a smoldering stone in his hand. He thinks Heizer has done something brilliant by devising an artwork that had to pass through so many communities before reaching its final destination. “It brings the earthly back down to earth,” he said. Sometimes it takes something spectacular, he meant, to remind people togetherness matters most.
But community-building probably wasn't Heizer's goal. In a rare 2005 interview, the artist, who now lives in Nevada and has managed most Levitated Mass logistics from a distance, said, ''I'm self-entertaining. My dialogue is with myself.'' He also said he wanted to do things that are unprecedented. A last-minute, large-scale suburban spectacle for still-unfinished artwork must fit that vein.