As part of the lead up to the opening of LAForum’s Summer Exhibition, “Every. Thing. Changes.” we will interview each of the 20 participants in their collaborative groups, or “families.” The following E.T.C. “family” of participants interviewed here are: Sam Bloch (journalist), Julie Smith-Clementi and Frank Clementi (architects), Hyunch Sung (landscape designer and artist) and John Atkinson (sound artist). Find out more about each of them and their work at www.everythingchanges2020.org
The newly commissioned texts and visual works exhibited in “Every. Thing. Changes.” were developed over the spring of 2020, and are the outcomes of a “call and response” process between five initial writers, their texts, and the visual responses of designers and artists.
Sam, you’re a journalist and writer. Many of our readers are likely familiar with your work in Places Journal on shade equity. The topic LAForum gave you to ponder was “L.A. in the ‘20s”. What does that vision of the future, of next-decade L.A. look like to you?
SB: I started thinking about the fashion of climate change last fall, when I was reporting on L.A.’s plan to cover 250 miles of road lanes in creamy, light-reflective material by 2028. The idea behind these “cool pavements,” as city officials call them, is to lower ever-rising urban temperatures by bouncing solar radiation back into space, rather than allowing all of that asphalt to store and release it through the night as more heat.
The radiation doesn’t disappear. It hits people and warms them up—unless they’re wearing the right kind of clothes. An urban climatologist explained to me that clothes are like any other surface—they absorb and disperse heat based on things like their shape, material and color. So this is when I started to wonder: What could Angelenos wear to protect themselves from this coming abundance of killer heat rays, whether from the sun or the ground below?
There’s a bit of levity and glibness in framing the problem of extreme heat as a matter of fashion. (“What should I wear?”) But I think it’s instructive, because it acknowledges an ultimate truth about public health threats, which is that we’re probably most worried about how they affect us individually, as opposed to how they pound the most vulnerable people. We now know there’s a grave cost to that way of thinking—that a failure to protect each other devastates all of us.
When I think most optimistically about L.A. in the next decade, I imagine a Garden of Eden. I’d like to see sun-baked neighborhoods shaded by a lush tree canopy. I’d like to see streets made pleasant and tolerable, if only to invite more people out of their cars and take buses and walk more often. But I also foresee permanent social distancing—a fear of the public, and disengagement with shared space, that’s both an outgrowth of the pandemic and abetted by city coffers once again drained by economic depression. If we’re going to keep our distance, I can imagine the need for some kind of protective suit or armor—not just from the weather, but also from each other.
Julie, Frank, Hyunch and John, what are you producing for the exhibition in response to Sam’s text?
JSC & FC: We are producing shadow boxes and digital animations depicting environmental responsive fashion. Sam opened up a question about how people have always created skins to mitigate their environment. Initially these are practical skins in response to environmental conditions; it’s too cold, it’s too sunny, or it’s too wet. This results in rain gear, a hat or sunglasses. Eventually these become mixed with social responses as well; clothing like the proper hat, the proper shoes, the latest sunglasses. This was our starting point.
JA: I appreciated Sam’s evocative text on how climate change might affect our daily lives and relationship with the weather in LA — and, as someone who has worked in renewable energy and clean tech for most of my career outside of music, I was excited for the opportunity to mirror this with a sonic imagining of what a future of “climate whiplash” might feel like.
HS: I actually read all the texts for the exhibition, and was drawn to what Terry Wolverton wrote about the past and future evolution of feminism, art, and community in Los Angeles. I am creating a community mixtape/jukebox by collecting song-stories from mothers of color in Los Angeles. It feels urgent to think about how we listen to one another right now in the throes of a pandemic that is revealing and exacerbating a trauma of inequity. I chose mothers from communities of color because this intersectional identity is not given much air time in the world that we live in. Let us not forget that we all come from a woman’s body. One empathizes by listening to stories, and song is a lyric-story set to music. Music engenders primal feeling and memory. These songs are about the human voice. Listening to someone is the same as needing someone. We all need each other so much right now.
And how are you translating Sam’s text to a site and/or to a formal idea? And Hyunch, how are you translating Terry’s text?
JSC & FC: We are architects, which are inherently site-based, but for one reason or another we’ve had the luck to deal with design at a spectrum of scales. So rather than deal with the site as a physical place, our site is the human body.
JA: Like most of my recent sound design and composition, I started with field recordings: One, from a walk through Silverlake in the heat of June while helicopters circled in the early days of the George Floyd protests, and the other of a summer thunderstorm on the east coast on the same day. In the same way that anthropogenic climate change is transforming and interconnecting our environment in new ways, I used a variety of sound processing techniques to reshape these sounds from our present day world into a narrative about our future.
HS: I am creating a community mixtape or jukebox by collecting song-stories from mothers of color in Los Angeles, as inspired by Terry Wolverton’s text.
The individuals in this particular group are spread across the country (N.Y., L.A. and Oakland, which was totally unintended by the curatorial team, by the way), so when the pandemic quarantine required other participants’ to work remotely starting in March, you all had worked remotely from day one. Did that distance influence production? And did the pandemic change your work at all?
JSC & FC: Absolutely, and when we started before the pandemic, the responses were mostly to the environmental conditions Sam described, (i.e. climate). But the pandemic has shown how creative people are by making social distance prosthetics, from school kids in China with their Song Dynasty influenced hats to the Sparkletts bottle masks people were wearing in India and Vancouver. We took that as a starting point to imagine protective fashion that is both useful and symbolic.
In terms of collaboration, the discussion was easier and arguably more productive than it would’ve been if we had smaller one on one meetings with our collaborators in New York and San Francisco. Which actually calls into question the constraints of site in the coming paradigm or the coming normalized context. The pandemic forced us to stay in one place, each on one side the conversation, but all together. It normalized a relationship of a multi video conversation. Now, post Covid, cross connection is much easier permitting richer arbitrary adjacencies. You can assert your identity through your site. All the sites are cross connected.
JA: Absolutely for me too. Since giving up my full-time apartment in L.A. in 2016, I’ve been living as a bit of a nomad, splitting time between Melbourne Australia, Los Angeles, and New York. My last stay in Los Angeles ended in February; since the pandemic has put future plans to return on hold, I had to rely on my friend Jesse Novak (composer of TV soundtracks including Bojack Horseman and The Mindy Project) to record in Silverlake while I remained quarantined in New York.
HS: My piece is created by having conversations and recording sessions with mothers from communities of color in Los Angeles over the phone. I chose the phone as the mode of communication to emphasize voice and sound. I also thought it would make people feel less self-conscious. It is lulling and special to just listen to someone’s voice. Video conferencing feels disconnecting to me because of the lack of real eye contact, and the unrelenting grid. I also dislike how I’m basically watching other people watch me and others, and watching myself being watched and watching. It is like a cray cray mirror from a Tarkovsky movie. It’s very comforting to just focus on what another person is saying or singing on the phone.
Question for all of you: What’s been the most surprising thing about the exhibition in general?
SB: It’s been a treat to collaborate with Frank and Julie. It seems obvious in retrospect, but the notion that clothing, or bodily appendages, could be architectural was fairly mind-blowing to me. Their ideas and concepts about instigating risky movements pushed me forward—and I’m grateful to have learned from them.
JSC & FC: We have really enjoyed the overall collaboration and the expansion of the original group with arrival of the “plus ones.” By them joining mid-way through the process the themes developed from the texts in unexpected ways.
HS: I am surprised by how much some women have shared with me in my conversations with them. I feel that they have given me gifts. I’ve learned that song is a part of a cultural diaspora, and that each and every song is political and personal. Identifying as a woman, who is a mother, from a community of color is a particular intersection of identities. I spoke with African-American women, Black women, immigrants from Afghanistan, Taiwan, South Korea, and the Philippines. Each story was a facet of a world I have not lived. I am super grateful to the contributors.
JA: Given the constraints of the pandemic, I feel like you folks at LAForum have had to be as creative as the artists in mounting this exhibition! We’re all learning to do things in new ways during this time, and it’s been cool to see this become something so different yet still so quintessentially L.A.