Saturday, December 15, 2007

Everything is still alive

In Highland Park, many of the plots I am tending are no bigger than a tree well, or a crack in the cement. It is incredible how much trash can accumulate on these sidewalk plots even during the course of a day. Imagine what the streets might look like if many of the business owners weren't clearing this trash every single day. "I do this every day because I love Highland Park," the owner of the Party Goods store told me.

To weed the plots, I push aside old cups, bottles, packaging, dried doggie doo. Reaching deep into the soil to pull up filaree roots without breaking them, I fear the occasional shard of broken glass buried within.

At the same time, reaching into the soil is always a turning point. Is the soil moist and rich? Is it the kind that appears hard as concrete, but which is just sandy granules packed tight? The initial repulsion fades. Instead, I wonder about the soil's capacity for holding moisture, or nourishing plants. Has it nurtured plants in the recent past? Is there sign of recent chemical use?

I have heard inklings that parts of York Boulevard once were, and other parts were crossed by intermittent streams. I would guess that the wide range of soil types I encounter gives some clues about where water used to run.

These are speculations. But I do know that each plot of soil holds a trace of many events in the past. Where it came from (if moved from elsewhere), what got mixed with it, what water washed into it, things that grew in it. 

In the same cumulative way, everything about our everyday environment is mutable. It is something that has to be recreated every day by us in a thousand seemingly uneventful decisions. The choice between driving by and ignoring, OR deciding to slow down. The choice between thinking "it's just that way" OR thinking "It's that way because I allow it to be that way."

Today, I bumped into Jeffrey Chapman, who told me about different native plants which he had seen relatively recently, growing on untended lots in the vicinity of the sites I've been tending. Shooting stars (flowers), Nassella pulchra, White sage.... not your usual urban "weeds". I could not believe that native perennial grasses existed until recently on a hill in my own neighborhood. I knew that the original plant ecosystems were decimated early on by the grazing of livestock brought by Europeans. But evidently the contemporary urban environment, even with all the weedy annual grasses introduced by the Europeans, doesn't have to be seen as the polar opposite of a "natural" ecosystem/environment.

A seed of a shooting star flower might still find a patch of untended dirt in Highland Park a promising place to grow.

Thousands of little poppy sprouts are now coming up in Highland Park and South Pasadena. Each of these seedlings appears as four delicate hair-like leaves, so slender one can hardly see them, except where they have been seeded too densely. In places where twenty or fifty seeds rolled into the same depression and simultaneously germinated, the sprouts collectively have so much upward lifting power that they push weighty chunks of bark or clods of dirt to float off the ground!

Some of these sprouts have another gargantuan task: mustering energy to push their roots through dirt that is a hard as a rock.

Ironically, the biggest threat to the poppy sprouts is now gardeners. In their habit of neatening things up, they might tear out any unfamiliar plants.

I'm now making up a flyer to spread the word, that at least for the span of this project (through the spring), that poppies are desirable. They are not a "weed." They are among the things that would have grown here, before any of us arrived. And also to spread the word, incidentally, that everything is still alive.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

A to B / LA to TJ

Having to commute between the US and Mexico in an almost daily basis seemed normal when Bulbo had a studio in Tijuana, Mexico and a space in San Diego. Until our commuting habits were dramatically altered once we relocated to Los Angeles.

Since the summer of 2007, our lives have been changing at a fast pace, and commuting has been an important subject in adapting to our new environment. Not only do we share a car and carpool but we also use bicycles as our second option of transportation.

Once settled in the city of Los Angeles, we slowly discovered ourselves as part of a network of more people from Tijuana who have also moved to the area. A small community with whom we share experiences, many of them about commuting between both cities.

Bulbo´s proposal for A to B consists of creating a video exploring the lives of people from Tijuana who relocated to Los Angeles. Addressing the reasons and implications of commuting between both cities and how it affects their lives.

The video is thought of as a result of the relationship bulbo has with the people who might be involved, but also about creating the environment to speak about these issues while recording the experience. The final work will be a 4 to 5 minute piece ready for broadcast on the Internet or Television.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Travelogues are made for the purpose of documenting a journey, a desire for adventure, pleasure and knowledge. Its open narrative form involves an autobiographical element combining life, performance and representation.

For some time I have been interested in incorporating ideas related to travelogue and ethnography in my work. For A to B I plan to investigate the mobile space of the commute in Los Angeles by exploring three routes (river, railroad, freeway), solitary and collective modes of transportation (walk, train, car) from my house in Altadena (mountain) to Long Beach (river mouth). Although the routes have the same beginning and end point, for the most part they run parallel to each other. They are: Walk (Arroyo Seco-LA River); train (256 Metro bus-Gold Line-Blue Line); car (I-710 Long Beach Freeway).

I will use a video camera to document my journey(s); a search for events, people, sights and the empty melancholy of the city itself. As in early travelogues, the video will consist of long shots with no camera movements and formal compositions. Through traveling I will confront myself as artist, tourist, ethnographer and wanderer. From “foot-slogging” to modern modes of transportation, the travelogue will present a look at the physical and social landscape inquiring about how the route and the experience of the route changes depending on the mode of travel. It will also reflect on how LA has developed and changed over time and how our way of moving through space has changed.

In addition to the video, I plan to print a map suggesting a series of points of interest to be distributed to FOCA visitors and in the commuters’ routes. Similar to a travel guide, the map will contain historical and cultural information gathered during my research as well as personal stories or insights collected during the trip. Besides mapping the space of the commute, the project will also intervene in it by encouraging new ways of looking at the space of the commute and experiencing the city.

Ultimately the project will provide a portrait of Los Angeles reflecting on issues of stasis and motion, physical and mental movements, self and other, the familiar and the new, geography and social inequality, all of which are embedded in the commute and in the different routes we take on a daily basis.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Vincent Ramos

As the only native of Los Angeles in the exhibition and with a family history in the city dating back to the 1920's, I became interested my family's various work-related commutes over a prolonged period of time. I have been, for the past few months, investigating this idea by conducting interviews with select members of my family about their commuting history and in cases of deceased relatives, constructing their commutes through their personal papers and the recollections of others. The project deals with the attainment and erasure of memory as it relates to larger social, cultural and political issues inherent within the city's history, especially those related to the working class Chicano experience. Collectively, the different commute memories of all the participants will create a much larger non-linear narrative that, because of its inability to travel smoothly from A to B, will function like a drive where the ultimate goal is to get lost.

The interviews will be displayed along with related objects from all the participants, as well as select items culled from the artists'various collections of paper ephemera (i.e. vintage maps, photographs, musical soundtracks, and overall traces of evidence related to Twentieth Century Los Angeles history.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

During my commute, I am constantly listening to the news, talking on the phone, signing along with music, swearing at the people in front of me. The ever-changing variety of sounds marks the time-span of my commute and the car itself becomes a pod of sound experience that carries me from here to there. More recently the sound space of my commute has been occupied by thoughts of the war in Iraq. I often listen to the radio and think about the connection between driving and Middle Eastern politics.
For the “A to B” exhibition I will be focusing on sound as a key element of commuting. I will produce an audio map of sounds and stories from the daily commutes of 10-15 participants in Los Angeles and Iraq. The aim of the audio map is to relate the everyday experiences of these two politically connected spaces; the car saturated and oil infatuated freeways of Los Angeles and the demanding, unstable and mundane roads of Iraq. These two spaces are deeply tied and have an intimate, almost familial, dependency and complexity.

The audio map will be produced as an unlimited edition on a multi-track 29 minute CD (the average length of a commute in Los Angeles). Visitors to the FOCA gallery will be encouraged to listen to the CD in the gallery and take a CD with them for their own commute. The sound map will also be available as a MP3 on the internet. Thus the audio map, containing the transitory spaces of Los Angeles and Iraq, will extend even further into the commuting spaces of gallery and its audiences.

(As I was researching this project I came across this photo by Hans Hemmert. The photo evokes the sense of the car as a space of isolation, mystery and performance.)

Saturday, December 1, 2007

sowing seeds, giving thanks

Everything is still alive involves planting native california poppies Eschscholzia californica on any patch of exposed earth along my commuting route, which cuts from Highland Park, via South Pasadena, to San Marino. Along this route, the landscape shifts from the sun-baked concrete and graffittied York Boulevard, to the well watered private lawns of South Pasadena and San Marino.

The first European settlers in California vividly described seasonal fields of wildflower color-before the land was subdivided and overbuilt. Sowing native poppy seed was a popular beautification strategy during the first half of the last century. But in contemporary urban space, the patterns revealed by the bursts of orange will indicate something about the character of each of these different neighborhoods.

On Thanksgiving, a group of us prepared ground and sowed seeds for the poppies in several locations in Highland Park, and on one lot in South Pasadena. The poppies were blessed with a group of five women (Jennifer Murphy, Orchid Black, Ann Kaneko, Donna Conwell, and myself), lots of tools, and water. Thank you, friends!

One of the poems I read at the planting, was read by Jeffrey Chapman at a guided wildflower walk at the Arroyo, about a year ago:

In the next century or the one beyond that
they say,
are valleys, pastures.
We can meet there in peace
if we can make it.

To climb these coming crests
one word to you, to
you and your children:

stay together,
learn the flowers
go light

— Gary Snyder, from Turtle Island

As we worked, some people stopped by. One of the most common comments I get when tending the plots in Highland Park is some variation of: "In the past we planted lovely flowers here, but some kids just tore the plants out. There are some very destructive people in this neighborhood." On this day, however, one man expressed thanks that we were doing something to take care of the site. He offered us a box of latex gloves to protect against the black widows on the ground. A young woman asked us for advice about growing poppies. In South Pasadena, some curious neighbors invited us to plant on their very gorgeous property, under the roses and well-trimmed hedges.

It's been about ten days since the first seed planting. I've been tending the plots every two days.

Yesterday, as I heard rain drops falling before dawn, I immediately prepared for more seed sowing. It was pitch dark and cold. Wunderground predicted an entire day and evening worth of rain, followed by several days of cool cloudy weather. This is a stunning development for anyone planning for wildflowers after two years of drought. The December rains are on time! I seeded a couple choice areas at daybreak, and another plot in the dark, after work. There might not be another opportunity so perfect for wildflower seeds this winter!

Thank you sky!

Thursday, November 22, 2007


On November 18, 2007 the project group met up for a potluck lunch to discuss proposal ideas for A to B. Since late August 2007 ideas have been percolating away. Each artist spent about twenty minutes discussing their proposal, which was followed by feedback and general comments from the group.


In July 2007, I was invited to propose a project for the Fellows of Contemporary Art 'Curator Lab' series. For sometime I had been interested in working with artists to produce new work in response to the itinerant site of the commute. I was intrigued by the way that the commute from home to work, from A to B, has increasingly become a condition of urban life, as well as one of the primary modes by which we interface with and experience the city.

Marc AugĂ© has argued that if point A (home) and Point B (work) are places, then the space between them is a non-place. If places can be identified as relational, historical and concerned with identity, spaces associated with transitory functions are thus paramount examples of non-place. Should we thus conceptualize the commute as being “out of place”? What is certainly true is that the environments of home and work seep into the space of the commute. The multitasking commuter is found putting on makeup, fielding calls from home and the office, drinking coffee, listening to the radio, reading the paper, eating, contemplating the work tasks of the day, planning and arranging family activities, and zoning out in Zen-like meditative repose. Is the space of the commute a threshold between two points of mooring, a space of passage through which the social body traverses as it transitions from the private self—associated with the home—to the public self—associated with the world of work? Or is it rather a mobile place that is employed by the commuter in order to fulfill a series of tasks and activities that the pressures of everyday life have rendered impossible to complete elsewhere? If one spends up to two hours a day commuting does the space of the commute become a place, albeit an itinerant one? In an effort to reconsider our relationship to a space we inhabit on a daily basis, I invited six Los Angeles based artists to produce new work that would map and intervene in the mobile site of the commute. The project group first met at the Fellows of Contemporary Art's space in Chinatown in August 2007. Subsequently, we reconvened for an informal working session to discuss our past work and interests in September 2007.