The girls at the check-in table in front of the Standard Hotel Downtown fasten neon-pink wristbands on our arms and instruct us to retreat to the hotel lobby for drinks, deejaying and free wi-fi access once we’re finished viewing the art. They’re expecting more than a thousand people for the opening of SENT, America’s first phonecam art show, and need to keep the traffic flowing. We ride the elevator up to the fourth floor and walk down a long corridor of guest rooms, each with a HELLO MY NAME IS placard followed by the room number, before entering the Brunette Meeting Room.
It’s a small, stark, air-conditioned space with a tan carpet and white walls, save for a lone tan wall and modish wallpaper in the anteroom. Four iMac monitors positioned along the longest wall display loops of more than 500 photographs (and counting) submitted by camera-phone users from around the world. Only slightly larger than their actual size, the photos range from impulsive to mundane to utilitarian: a woman’s downward gaze at her breasts in a bra, the metallic buttons on a pay phone, a vehicle-registration sticker on a license plate.
An adjoining wall features similar photographs taken by celebrities, artists and technophiles, including Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban (a flat-screen TV airing a b-ball game), Weird Al Yankovic (a mirror image of his face) and ’80s counterculture photographer Glen E. Friedman (a clock with a sign below it reading, “Beware Pickpockets and Loose Women”). Viewers stand behind a black velvet rope, necks craned, eyes squinting, while electronic music coats the futuristic ambiance.
Xeni Jardin (pronounced SHEH-nee zhar-DAN), a platinum-blond technology-culture journalist for Wired magazine and NPR, came up with the idea for a phonecam art exhibition while in Barcelona last year for a bloggers’ conference. Experimenting with camera phones and inspired by Spain’s “beautiful collision” of wireless culture and Old World fine art and architecture, she began instant-messaging sixspace gallery owners Sean Bonner and wife Caryn Coleman about the new technology. Their ensuing virtual discussion led to a collective desire to convey the cultural change brought about by the evolution of cameras, and explore how phonecams and, by extension, digital cameras redefine not only the way we document the world around us but what it means to be a photographer — sort of like the way the introduction of digital music redefines what it means to be a musician.
Bonner says that the exhibition, which continues through Saturday and can be viewed at sentonline.com, was rushed into the Standard for two reasons: sixspace is booked for the next two years, and technological advancements such as mega-pixel phonecams, which yield essentially the same image quality as digital cameras, would undermine the show’s raw, extemporaneous aesthetic. “Camera phones bring it back to the basics,” adds erotic photographer and SENT participant Steve Diet Goedde. “Light, composition and content.”
Wil Wheaton is perhaps the most recognizable “name” in attendance; like the others, he received a V600 camera phone and free service for a month from exhibition sponsor Motorola. Since starring as Gordie Lachance in Stand by Me (remember the campfire story he told about the pie-eating contest that turned into a puke fest?), Wheaton rode the rails as a hobo, before becoming a writer and performer with ACME Comedy Theater. “Nowadays,” he admits, “I’m probably best known for my Web site, wilwheaton.net.” What Wheaton thinks is coolest about camera phones is just being able to photograph somebody doing something completely weird and random. Like eating pies.
There were more surf stars than movie stars at last Tuesday’s Hollywood premiere of Stacy Peralta’s Riding Giants. Which may be why the paparazzi lineup was low intensity until John Cusack showed up. That inspired a flurry of “This way, John! One more, John! Over here, John!” But as Cusack smoothed his way through the gauntlet, he went straight for one of the real stars of the night, the impossibly healthy and handsome Laird Hamilton, featured prominently in the film, and his impossibly lovely and tall wife, Gabby Reece, who was balancing their genetically blessed baby girl. During the course of the night, I heard two girls cooing over Hamilton: “If they ever make Barbie: The Movie, Laird would make a great Ken,” said one, and her friend responded: “Or G.I. Joe.”
Peralta, Hamilton and fellow watermen Sam George, Darrick Doerner, Jeff Clark and Greg Noll have spent the last month zinging all around the shady turf attending premieres for Riding Giants and doing endless press in Chicago, New York, Honolulu . . . by L.A. they were pros.
“We’ve produced enough bullshit to flood the Queen Mary,” Noll said.
But when Hollywood and the surfing world mix, confusion and chaos reign. Inside the Egyptian Theater, I had a reserved ticket and walked the aisles, passing surfer-writer-director-gazillionaire Chris Carter, until I saw two empty seats that had little paper signs reading, “Reserved for Flea and Guest.”
I thought, “Flea isn’t here. If he were here he would have gone out of his way to insult me.” I was thinking, of course, of the world-famous Darryl “Flea” Virostko, one of California’s best big-wave surfers and a multiple-time Maverick’s champ. I happily sat down in his seat in the best part of the theater. Then, a nervous usher confronted me.
“I’m sorry sir, but those seats are reserved,” he said.
I flashed my own reserved tickets and said, “Flea isn’t here. He would have already tried to pour his drink down my shirt if he was here.”
The usher looked nonplussed. Then he looked past me to a trim fella with dark hair sitting three seats away in the same aisle. It was Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I wanted to tell him how much I admire his music and that I consider “Under the Bridge” one of the finest compositions of the second half of the 20th century.
But then my tumblers began to click, and I had a “D’oh!” moment.
“Oh shit, that Flea,” I said.
Changing of the Gardener
In the geographical green heart of Los Angeles’ concrete-and-plastic sprawl — deep, deep back in Griffith Park, past the Griffith J. Griffith statue and the pony-ride stable and the old L.A. Zoo and the even older merry-go-round, in the hills above the Boys’ Camp and the double-deck golf-ball driving range — lies a 5-acre hidden garden.
Hidden, but not secret. Amir’s Garden exists as two typewritten words and a black triangle on one of the three official photocopied maps of the park available from the visitor center. But there are no signs in the park pointing the way. If you want to find Amir’s — like all utopian spaces, a destination without an address — it’s best to know someone who knows how to get there.
It’s been this way since 1971, when the then-39-year-old Iranian immigrant Amir Dialameh started clearing debris from a serious fire on a hilltop along the park’s Mineral Wells trail. Over the next three decades, Dialameh labored, often alone, often seven days a week, always as an unpaid volunteer, to create an Edenic wonderland: part nature preserve, part sanctuary, part Zen center, part rest stop for hikers and horseback riders. Land was terraced; ground cover, flowers, eucalyptus, magnolia and a grove of palm trees were planted; a drinking fountain, a flagpole, and whimsically painted benches and picnic tables were installed. Eventually sanctioned by park officials, Amir’s Garden became a place where you could contemplate the cars on the 5-134 interchange, or the territory-marking habits of the local lizards, or the red-tailed hawks riding the airstreams above. Here, if you spent a moment, your senses would re-assert themselves. Your smog-caked nostrils could smell again. Your car alarm–damaged ears could hear again: the buzz of hummingbirds, the thwack! of golf balls on the driving range below, the bizarre cries of the peacocks from the zoo across the valley.
And, if you visited at the right time of the day, you might have encountered Amir himself, repairing a broken stair, or watering the ice plant, or reading a newspaper, with a blue jay sitting on his toe: Los Angeles’ own, benevolent Old Man of the Mountain. Soft-spoken and at ease, always interested in chatting with those who’d found their way to his garden, Amir would patiently explain why he did it: It needed to be done. The freedoms we Americans enjoy come through the volunteerism of those before us. With the patriotic zeal typical of immigrants, Amir had embraced America, and just wanted to do his part. “In the land of the free, plant a tree” was his slogan.
Amir Dialameh died last autumn from what were announced as natural causes. He was 71. Recently, wondering what had become of Amir’s Garden without Amir, I called Rob Zabrecky — musician, stage magician and the former housemate who first initiated me into the Garden’s delights — and we arranged, with Rob’s wife, Tommi, to foot it up to the park one afternoon and see firsthand how Amir’s Garden grows.
“You always get a sense here that there are trapdoors and hidden assistants, that there might be other rooms,” Rob says as we wander down the garden’s many paths, peering into the vined, shady alcoves and across the flower gardens full of late-blooming jade, aloe vera, oleander, ice plant, geranium and euryopis. The place looks like it’s being kept up. The American flag may not be flying, but sprinklers are running, most of the benches work, the paths are clear of weeds and overgrowth, the trash cans empty.
“Someone’s been looking after Amir,” says Rob, and he’s right. But who? Could the perennially understaffed park rangers be sending someone up here? A testimonial from a Boys’ Camp counselor named Scorpion is posted on the “Amir’s Garden — Since 1971” sign at the garden’s entrance — the only notice regarding Amir’s passing. Perhaps, I wonder daydreamily, the garden tends itself . . .
Drifting down the garden’s easternmost path, we find our answer. Two women are seated, weeding. Kris Sabo is the younger woman, wearing sunglasses, a hat, and a utility belt loaded with pickax, pepper spray and taser stun gun. She is Amir’s Garden’s new gardener.
“I first came up here at the end of ’95,” says Sabo, standing up to speak, hands on her hips, every bit the 38-year-old alpha-female den mother. I met Amir and said, ‘Oh, this is just bitchen — let me at it.’”
Lenore Wruck, a couple of decades Sabo’s senior, says, “I was a Sierra Club hike leader, and we used to lead hikes up here. That’s how I met Amir.”
“He and Lenore were working right here on this hillside when I first met them,” Sabo says. “They were hauling out the remains of a fire started by a barbecue.” She stares angrily. “If you go look at the big trees right down there” — she gestures — “they’ve got scars all over ’em.”
Then she softens. “I’ve been well-trained — I know the drill,” she says, chuckling as if she can hear Amir’s instructions. “How to trim, which plants can live around here, when to water . . . I used to live nearby, so I’d run up here the minute I’d get out of work, five days a week. I spent a summer up here putting in stairs with Amir.
“The last couple of years, he did not feel well. Things didn’t get taken care of. There are trails that need to be built, stairs that need repairs from all the soil erosion. But it’s getting put back together. It’s hard work, and I love it, but we certainly could use some regular volunteers . . .”
Quietly, Wruck says, “Kris can’t do this alone, forever.” Occasionally, volunteers do contact Sabo (ksabo@WildWildWest.org) and help out.
“Right now,” Sabo says, “I’m up here for eight or nine hours, two to three days a week. Sundays I try to be here all day.”
That’s a huge commitment, I say.
“Well,” Sabo says, a catch in her voice, “it’s all I can do for Amir now, isn’t it?”