On August 8th, 2020, the summer exhibition by the Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Urban Design will present 20 new works documenting collective views of life in Los Angeles by a group of 20 emerging designers and thinkers. Delirious LA is happy to be able to interview exhibition curator, Wendy Gilmartin, and assistant curator, Nina Briggs, as they complete preparations for the new exhibit entitled “Every. Thing. Changes.”
Hi Wendy and Nina, can you give us an overview of “Every. Thing. Changes.”?
WG: For the LAForum’s 2020 Summer Exhibition, we have commissioned 20 new text and visual works by 20 participants who have developed the work over the spring this year. We wanted to go big for the new decade and look forward.
When the LAF Board of Directors met at our yearly retreat in early February, a lot of topics were on the table to tackle and to talk about this year. Some of the quotes I kept from my notes were “What does it mean to support diverse voices?” “Anti-Nostalgia” “Rogue Spirit” “Change the definition of ownership” “Put groups of people in a space who normally wouldn’t be in that space” and “We can still change.”
Nina and I decided that — instead of issuing a call for proposals for this year’s summer exhibition, which is what the LAForum has typically done in the past — we would curate the exhibition and explore the topics set forth at our Board of Directors retreat as a way to commit to those ideas; especially those in relation to “What does it mean to support diverse voices?” and “people in a space who normally wouldn’t be there.“
But capturing and distilling the collective imagination of a diverse group is hard!
NB: Yes, it is hard to integrate the strengths, talents, wisdom, and perspectives from multidisciplinary and distinct creatives into a collaborative effort. But it gets easier and richer with practice. And isn’t this what we all need to do from now on? Are we not in – not a moment – but at the necessary intersection of centering the immeasurable value of diverse voices in all institutions, systems, cultures, and practices?
WG: So, we left some room for mistakes, mis readings, and messiness. We used words like “messy” and “uncertainty” in a lot of the writings we did leading up to the formulation of the call for participants. And we embraced those words as generative and opportunistic for the project. Thankfully all the participants we asked were down with that kind of thinking too, and they were game for a big, weird project no one really understood yet at that point.
How do the values of this exhibit relate to the overall mission of the LAForum?
WG: I think it is the LAForum’s job to frame architecture in L.A. within a set of larger questions or set of consequences — and hopefully that framing and those questions are really good and can be unpacked, challenged, re-framed and discussed. That allows us to get to a deeper level of thinking about cities or what we do as architects, so that we might pivot our thinking or get enlightened or connect the dots in some new way about what we do. Its also LAForum’s job to provide a platform for emerging thinkers and practitioners — those who lead the way with their new questions and re-framings.
NB: In the context of our mission, we ask what L.A. is seeking to understand through the multiple definitions of the city in 2020 — its attitudes, moods, disposition, burgeoning ideas, personal accounts, anxieties, speculations and hopes.
WG: I had a conversation recently with someone who described the LAForum as the “architecture illuminati” or “architecture Anonymous” because they see us as having this independent freedom (for example, we’re not a professional organization like AIA or an academic institution connected to a school), and we lie low for a while and then come up with some big, fantastic piece of programming and then go low gain for a while. I liked that image. And, yes, we have freedom to ask more critical questions than other organizations. I think we have a responsibility to do that.
On one hand, the formulation of the Every. Thing. Changes. exhibition itself is a question about how we support diverse voices. But on the other hand, it is also about asking those voices to expand upon a set of topical issues for architecture and life in L.A. this year. It’s up to the Every. Thing. Changes. participants to frame these and certain other relevant topics (climate change, civic obstinacy, the nature of collaboration, aging in an unconnected city) through an architectural or spatial approach. The hope is that all this challenges what architecture could mean in an evolving city, which is what our LAForum mission statement asks us to do.
By what process were the different project teams assembled ?
WG: We did not want to write a typical call for ideas or curatorial call. We wanted to re-write how we formulate an architecture exhibition and upend conventions around how to start the process. There was also an intentional motivation to stop ourselves from falling into any architectural feedback loop around current concerns that we as a discipline might tend to focus on. We were more concerned about what we might be missing if we took the conventional track.
So, we started with writers. Like us in the design profession, writers are good communicators and translators of the city and its socio-personal interactions. And they do it really well! The writers, in a sense, then wrote the prompt for the visual works. We are absolutely floored by the writerly talent who agreed to participate with us. Writers include: a poet and publisher (Viva Padilla), a novelist (Lisa Teasley), a poet and activist (Terry Wolverton), a critic and editor (Anthony Carfello) and a journalist (Sam Bloch). Their texts consist of: a speculative fiction piece in which the classes of L.A. are even more desperate and disparate than they are currently, a journalistic look at climate change fashion, a personal essay on aging in place during the COVID crisis, a long-form poem using the triangulation of google maps to describe the author’s own desmadre (chaos), and a fairytale about a group of collaborators who live in a seminar house in the trees.
Once we had the writers in place, we paired them with five designers/design teams, (well actually six): Jacob Sellaoui, Lorena Garcia, Yara Feghali, Orhan Ayyuce, MUTUO (Jose Herrasti and Fernanda Oppermann) and Julie Smith-Clementi and Frank Clementi. We asked the designers to each produce a visual response to one of the writers’ texts.
For the final 10 participants, we asked each writer and each designer to choose a “plus one” collaborator to bring into the project. That makes a total of 20 participants. 20 new works in 2020.
NB: And in re-writing the call, beginning with writers, thinking about the power of language to spin narratives – to weave foundational ideas – and craft those inquiries into experiential concepts, I’m haunted by Toni Morrison’s 1993 Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech (eternally and especially apt for this time), in which she begins a story with one question – and as it goes unanswered – the perspective of who has asked, shifts to the asked being questioned and held responsible for the object of question. Morrison’s speech guides us through the process of reading language, its uses and ultimate demise – for which all makers are accountable. My favorite part is when she asserts: “The vitality of language lies in its ability to limn the actual, imagined and possible lives of its speakers, readers, writers. Although its poise is sometimes in displacing experience it is not a substitute for it. It arcs toward the place where meaning may lie.” And then the unanswered question is bombarded with more questions, until finally she concludes with: “Look. How lovely it is, this thing we have done — together.” In this Every. Thing. Changes. multidisciplinary team assembly, we’ve already had the privilege of witnessing the questioning, shifting, transferring and making derived from the writers’ language – it’s an imperfect, open-ended process and discourse, but oh so beautiful.
Dialogue seems built into the core of this exhibit; how did the different teams respond to the challenge of producing work through that process?
WG: Everyone seemed a little confused when we first started explaining the idea of the exhibition to them — especially the addition of the 10 plus ones. But, like I mentioned, everyone was willing to go with it and jump in together.
As for dialogue among participants, two participants started writing letters to each other (actual mailed letters!) as part of their process. A couple participants knew each other but had not seen each other in years. And another participant went rogue and joined another team without telling us, but that was great because it was one of the initial texts outside of her group that really resonated with her, and she wanted to respond to that.
It has been exciting to see how invested in one another’s works each participant has become, and they are in deep dialogue with one another — both through the work and in correspondence. It is beautiful and heartwarming, not to get all sappy. At some point we started referring to each of the five participant groupings as “families” based on the initial writer (e.g. Lisa’s family or Sam’s family). The participants all are very much aware of the content and development of other participants’ works; some have even adapted their own projects as a result along the way. But each piece still very much embodies the integrity of each artist or designer, obviously. That has been a great success of this collaborative experiment.
Since you framed the process as curators, have you been surprised by any of the project outcomes?
WG: We baked surprise into the cake at the beginning. We did not even know who these other 10 participants would be at the outset, until they were chosen by the initial writers and designers and brought into the mix in mid-April. We had a giant Zoom meeting at one point when all 20 participants were locked in, and I was looking around at all the Zoom boxes just astonished at the level of talent we had managed to gather. But we started with very good core participants, so the fact that we have ended up with 20 great works and 20 excitingly diverse and talented participants isn’t a surprise.
NB: No surprise that these chosen participants would produce such meaningful works, but I must admit a kind of awe for the revelatory concepts impossible to foresee.
What was it like to plan a “public” exhibition in a time of social crisis and quarantine?
WG: As of February, we had a goofy working title for the project — something like “2020 Visions LA” — and when the COVID-19 crises hit, our graphic designer, Jessica Fleischmann (Still Room), suggested “Every. Thing. Changes.” Those words really resonated. And then in early June, those words started to feel and sound like a chant in the street.
By Mid-March we knew the exhibition would have to be unconventional in its siting as well. For instance, the space that normally hosts our LAForum Summer Exhibitions, Woodbury University’s Hollywood Outpost location, is closed indefinitely until the University re-opens. So we knew very quickly this exhibition was going to have to take on a craftiness in planning we hadn’t anticipated and that we would have to design a deployable exhibit that embodied a high degree of flexibility in the face of a shelter-in-place to re-opening, back to shelter-in-place whiplash. The works will be exhibited in parking lots and other outdoor spots and on virtual platforms around the city, culminating in an opening reception outdoors and online. This will allow us to celebrate the new works together while safely distanced.
It was helpful to see some of the other drive-by exhibits folks have organized across town. However, unlike those projects, the LAForum Summer Exhibition offers a tighter framing and more concise set of ideas and questions because we have just had a longer time to plan and think about it.
Also, the exhibition website has taken on a much larger role than we had originally anticipated. The website is fantastic, and we will be holding roundtable discussions and a curatorial tour and other events virtually there. (The launch is coming soon!) The website gives visitors an ever-changing visual shuffle or re-mix of the works, potentially into new collaborative relationships — and curatorial re-telling — not initially offered in the physical, in-site experience.
NB: Although both our outside and inside worlds are in uncomfortably flux, there’s a curious comfort in these moving parts of the exhibition – a trust that, almost like Newton’s third law – the planning of this exhibition, even in its changes, provides a restfulness.
WG: This embracing of uncertainty really became just another constraint of the project and a significant part of the works as well. DLA readers will hear about in the coming weeks as we interview the participant teams.
EVERY THING CHANGES PARTICIPANTS
John F. Atkinson
Yara Feghali & Viviane El Kmati
Silvia Herrasti & Paulina Herrasti
Tory J. Lowitz
Julie Smith-Clementi & Frank Clementi
More information coming soon on event times, future programming and registration.