In March, the week before Los Angeles’ Mayor Garcetti announced the Stay at Home order for the city, LA Forum Board Member Emmanuelle Bourlier interviewed artist Lauren Halsey at David Kordansky Gallery, where her installation was on view through March 14. “A vivid, mythopoetic hauntscape of South Central Los Angeles, [t]hese latest works continue Halsey’s exploration of monuments, memorials, and public space, particularly her reckonings with gentrification and the threatening economic displacement of Black and Latino/a stores and shops.” (Douglas Kearney, exhibition text.)
The world has changed abruptly and significantly since the interview took place, but Halsey’s thoughts on art and social justice in the city remain relevant; perhaps especially her view of the need for urban space to allow for a smaller scale of living and for “space for folks to dream”
This installation, like much of your prior work, has an architectural, urban sensibility in the way it creates spatial sequences, deals with materiality and signs. How do you feel about your work being characterized as architectural, and architectonic?
That’s my dream. I see things through the lens of art, of course. But I wanted to become an architect. In everything that led me to this path, I truly believe I have been appropriating and myth-making the processes of architecture; how you engage and get to form. Even leading up to this project, for seven years I made blueprints where I was re-organizing the city, my neighborhood of South Central. Just as exercises. Formally, a lot of the stacking happened very early on in blueprints where I was sort of making ideal city blocks. And poetics. Knowing that the first phase in an architect’s process is the flat work. Those blueprints are not a one to one thing, but they definitely explored the affect. Then, thinking about the second phase as the model-making. So far I feel like I’ve just made models that are very large. The next phase will be the actual architecture. Where a foundation is poured. You know, it’s just a different set of conditions. So, I mean, I’m excited someone would even use those words. I feel like I’m getting closer and closer. I am interested in getting to that level of building where it becomes animated not by the conversation or dialogue but it’s an actual architecture that people inhabit. For a long time.
You’ve said that you originally considered architecture “an emancipatory solution to oppressive spatial paradigms in the hood.” Do you believe that architecture and urban design can provide solutions to issues of race, class and gentrification? And if not, if architecture isn’t now an instigator of change, what can we do differently?
I’m not currently in the field to know. When I was in design studio, we were given these speculative proposals – conditions for a film school or a library or a parking lot. These were always devoid of the real demographics that make a city a city, a neighborhood a neighborhood, a street a street. Poetically and in the real sense of things. It was never about class or race. It felt like we were dreaming up form that just didn’t trickle down to an authentic reading of a place. I was looking for a more holistic approach. So I went back to community college; I did some more architecture classes, and then I did a bunch of art classes and I started thinking about how I could appropriate what I was learning to propose space, and to do it more urgently. I went to a community college, El Camino, and in the architecture department, once you did a certain amount of pre-requisites you were able to take a design build course, which was the cherry on top, because you get to build these free-form designs. So you took your blueprints, and went to this huge construction build, and you built your designs, with people, you know, your friends. That’s how I started this path, which is my ethos. We would build very fast. It just made sense that it would happen that way. Rather than [my art] being divorced from the making process, you know?And what’s beautiful about it is that I am making [my art] with people who have lived it and who know it. So even when they’re helping me build this box or paint this letter, whatever that is, they are part of an aesthetic family that’s in a certain community, and it’s recognizable. It’s just more soulful. The cues are already there because they were ours first. But I’m not saying it’s Disneyland either. It’s really hard. There are really hard days.
You have deep roots in LA; your family has been here for generations and has been very invested in the community. As we enter a new decade, what is the most urgent issue facing our city?
Space. Space that’s not about and for capital gain. Spaces for folks to dream. Whether that means at a smaller scale of business or at a smaller scale of living. I think people are getting pushed out and having to make these new migrations. Cities do this, I know that. Cities do this. But I would love to see the Community Land Trust model. Where council members hand over some of the city-owned plots of land to people who have successfully engaged in these models. I just don’t know why not. It just seems like the right thing to do. Especially because everything is happening at a very aggressive pace and I just wonder what the city could look like if the powers to be leveraged space for folks that don’t have all the power and all the money. Instead of for luxury condos or a five-dollar apples. So equity, fairness. I look forward to one day being able to buy land and engage some of these models. And invite people to participate, you know. Even if it takes ten years. Meanwhile I’m opening a community center in South Central this summer. It will be for children and young adults and supporting all sorts of intelligence, creative to intellectual; from sports, dance, to SATs, ACT prep, learning to read, to gardening to yoga to field trips and art making. So I’m excited about that contribution.
What are your thoughts about “holding Black space”?
That is in everything that I do. I mean, I propose explicitly Black spaces. We need them. The history of the world is our fight for space in every sense. I think what compelled me to the idea of architecture like fantasy space-making was creating and holding space through form and through these experiential objects, installations, because of our historically very oppressive relationship to space. I wanted to create spaces without all that baggage. And weight. And stereotype. And the ugliness and the mess. To be in spaces absent of all that and see what happens. I think every single thing in my work is already that. Creating with a freedom from baggage. Five hundred years of baggage.
On behalf of the LAForum, we are questioning what our role could be in the city, how we could start to bring more diverse voices to the table. What does the word Forum mean to you, and do you have any advice to offer us?
Well it depends. I would think, “what is it supposed to do? Who gets a voice in the Forum?” And if those other voices aren’t there, how to extend the opportunity for that, so that the conversation is a total view. I would intentionally invite people who don’t have that expertise, or the degrees, but have an interest in space-making. I have four or five friends who wanted to become architects but it’s just that five years is so expensive, and then interning after that. It’s just about expanding the dialogue to all sorts of class levels. Especially in a city like this which is so diverse, maybe it should just be reflective of that.
What inspires you most about LA right now?
Well, what I said before [about the potential to build actual urban spaces for folks to dream and learn, free from baggage and oppression]. But also, what inspires me is the palette of LA. It’s just beautiful. No matter how ugly it can get, as far as the newness of things. There is always the palette, colors, the sunset. The beach, the tacos, the smells, my family.
And another thing that inspires me, I think there is something very empowering about building with your hands. There is something that I enjoy and that also happens in the making, when I’m a participant. Of course I couldn’t have built all of this alone [gestures to the show], I would have taken 50 years. There is something about doing it in a collaborative spirit and energy. It makes it a lot more monumental. Then it becomes also, even though I author it, it becomes a part of others, that they own. So then it just expands, the ego of the work changes. For the MoCA project, applying the concrete and all that, it started with my best friend and I, then it was my best friend, me, and my girlfriend, and then three weeks before it was going to get picked up it was twenty of us in my grandma’s backyard. Including my little cousin. So when [my little cousin] is giving the tour with her friends in school she is able to talk about his moment that she sculpted, to other 9 year olds, in this way that I could never do. It’s not my hand. She definitely shaped the concrete, you know. She gets to re-present the form and re-address it. Without my lens. Which is powerful.