On a bright, hot day in August, more than 100 people gathered around a large, stone, obelisk-shaped plaza that had been carved into the ground next to the Los Angeles River. A sculptural installation by artist Michael Parker called The Unfinished, the work mimics an ancient monument that had been commissioned and then aborted by Pharaoh Hatshepsut. The piece is intended to be a meditation on the workings of civic power.
On this particular day, artist Rafa Esparza and dancer-choreographer Rebeca Hernandez were performing an artwork of their own, titled building: a simulacrum of power, on top of Parker's. Esparza had enlisted members of his family to make adobe bricks by hand, using materials sourced from the river itself as well as nearby foundries, and then laid those bricks atop The Unfinished. Esparza's father was a bricklayer who'd built his own first house out of bricks back in Mexico.
Hernandez and her company, dressed in simple jeans and flannel shirts, began the performance with a dance that evoked both yearning and hardship. Dressed in ceremonial Native American garb, Esparza used a round mirror to reflect sunlight onto them as they danced.
When they finished, he did a brief dance himself before climbing onto the obelisk for the dramatic final act: a slow crawl, from the flat bottom of the obelisk to its pointed top. The audience watched as his mostly naked body scraped its way along the path covered by his family's handmade bricks. When he finally reached the top, he paused for a moment with his ass resting on the point, which looked as if it were penetrating him from behind. He then proceeded to calmly dress himself in a Western-style suit and tie that had been lying on the ground waiting for him. He finished the performance by lighting branches of sage on the tip of the obelisk.
The obelisk and the performance, which together evoked centuries of working-class labor along with the elusive promise of upward mobility, are thanks to a unique programming initiative called the Bowtie Project. Begun in early 2014, it is a collaboration between California State Parks and the tiny arts organization Clockshop, based in nearby Frogtown. It seeks to enliven and bring awareness to a raw but scenic patch of land called the Bowtie Parcel, located alongside the L.A. River near where the 2 and 5 freeways meet.
California State Parks purchased the parcel in 2003 with the intent of creating the first L.A. River State Park — a key component in the growing movement to revitalize the river and convert portions of it to public recreation areas. Following the economic crisis, however, the parcel lay dormant for several years. While the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers did recommend last year, to much fanfare, a $1 billion plan to restore a key portion of the river, including the Bowtie Parcel, the particulars of that deal are still being worked out, and no outcome has been guaranteed.
In the interim, California State Parks Superintendent Sean Woods got the idea to employ a mix of arts and recreational programming on this piece of land in hope of building support for the future establishment of a public park. Woods says he feels strongly about the potential for art to empower communities and “encourage them to participate in the civic processes that are rapidly changing their neighborhoods.”
At the same time that Woods was getting his project off the ground, Clockshop had been organizing a series of talks, screenings and workshops called Frogtown Futuro, designed to address local residents' concerns over gentrification, which had been creeping into their neighborhood, much of it spurred by river revitalization plans.
Julia Meltzer, Clockshop's founder/director, happened to approach Michael Parker about a possible Frogtown Futuro art project just as he was about to meet with Woods to propose The Unfinished. Following their successful meeting, it turned out Woods would need a nonprofit intermediary in order to work with Parker, due to insurance and liability issues. The State Parks' partnership with Clockshop was born.
Long one of L.A.'s best-kept secrets, Clockshop, with a handful of staff members, has quietly been producing unique projects since 2004. At the heart of its programming is a fruitful marriage between private creative efforts and the public interest, countering both the insularity that can plague the former and the dryness that can typify the latter.
For example, a discussion series called Cheap Talk pairs a cultural producer, such as an artist or writer, with someone involved in the public sector, such as an elected official or activist. One early event featured Matthew Stadler, a novelist with an interest in the development of cities on the West Coast, and L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, at that time a member of the Los Angeles City Council. Their discussion explored Stadler's fictional creations while also touching on real-world urban-development issues faced by Garcetti.
Clockshop frequently partners with other organizations, and its current alliance with California State Parks is its biggest and most significant to date. Over the last year, the Bowtie Project has organized a variety of events near the river, on the Bowtie Parcel. Olga Koumoundouros, an artist known for critiquing the ideology of the American Dream, created a colorful installation and performance at an old train turnaround. Titled Roundhouse Shines, the work touched on themes of displacement and renewal. Several outdoor film screenings were held as part of the Ambulante California Documentary Film Festival. An evening of readings and festivities celebrated the recent release of L.A.-themed literary anthology LAtitudes.
The project also has organized the highly popular L.A. River Campouts, in which guests can participate in activities such as stargazing and bird-watching before pitching their tents for the night. These tend to sell out within days or even hours of being announced.
In addition to The Unfinished, the Parcel currently has on display Rafa Esparza's Con/Safos, a collaborative mural project on a wall built with the same bricks from the building performance. Upcoming events include a new work by critically acclaimed dancer-choreographer taisha paggett, readings taking place at moonrise with writer David Kipen and a new performance by artist Carolina Caycedo.
Clockshop also is developing a yearlong project revolving around groundbreaking, Pasadena-born science fiction writer Octavia Butler, whose archives at the Huntington Library were opened to the public in 2014.
The ultimate fate of the L.A. River and many of its surrounding lands is still up for grabs. While politics, funding and activism play themselves out, sites such as the Bowtie Parcel represent a blank canvas of possibilities. As Meltzer says, “It won't be like this forever, so why not experiment? Now is the time to imagine all the possibilities.”
The Bowtie Project, 2800 Casitas Ave., Glassell Park. (323) 522-6014, clockshop.org/thebowtieproject.html.
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