An indoor forest at Machine Project created by Sara Newey and Christy McCaffrey; Not For You, 2006, galvanized steel, dimmer, bulbs, West of Rome, 2006.
If there's one thing wide, sprawly Los Angeles can pride itself on having, it's an abundance of space. But now, as I walk though neighborhoods filled with empty box stores and strip malls, I realize we may have far too much of it.
Luckily, we're also blessed with an abundance of creatives who have the desire to occupy it. Emi Fontana has filled vacant retail stores with art installations, and even used an empty modern house high in the hills above Pasadena to install a site-specific installation by Olafur Eliasson. In L.A.'s Chinatown, Wendy Yao sells a collection of zines, handmade jewelry and records out of a miniscule strip mall, which has led to a variety of unusual temporary venues. Nearby, Mark Allen uses his small storefront as a place for identifying (and eating) edible insects, holding welding classes and orchestrating temporary takeovers of entire museums.
Last month I saw these three visionaries speak as part of a L.A.-focused program at ARCOmadrid, Spain's contemporary art fair. The panel featuring Fontana, Yao and Allen, and moderated by UCLA's Russell Ferguson, was entitled "Alternative Spaces for Art," but for me, it had a far more entrepreneurial tone than that. Each of them have filled a very real need in the community and turned wasted, overlooked spaces into destinations in themselves. The fact that these three creatives have founded true cultural centers and succeeded in doing it in a place as notoriously scattered as Los Angeles makes me believe their concepts are true models for success.
I bring this up now because probably every designer, architect or artist I've ever spoken with has expressed the desire to open and operate a space: a gallery, a store, a classroom. And I would say this is the time. There's a reason this is the age of the pop-up shop: space is available, and it's yours for the taking. Use this moment when you've got a little extra downtime to inhabit the empty space next door, or some available space in your office that's looking a bit lonely. Creating a space is the perfect opportunity to collaborate on a concept with other designers that helps all of you stay visible, busy, and creatively-fulfilled.
Ooga Booga's offerings range from zines to baby shoes; Manifest Equality's Oscar-weekend show in a former Hollywood
Fill a hole in your neighborhood
It doesn't take a real estate agent to see that storefronts are empty. But you might be surprised to find out how eager those landlords are to fill them, even temporarily. Fontana's company West of Rome was ahead of the curve when she used vacant real estate to show art, with Eliasson's show Meant to be Lived In in 2005. She then set her sites on retail: Monica Bonvicini's Not For You in 2006, occupied a 50,000-square-foot warehouse space in Pasadena. And in 2007, she launched Relay, a video installation by T. Kelly Mason and Diana Thater, in a former bridal shop in nearby Westwood. In all of these cases, the installations liven a street, says Fontana, and they also draw people outside their usual cultural orbit.
Here in Los Angeles, groups like Phantom Galleries (modeled after another group in San Jose) work with artists and temporarily empty businesses to create installations. The entire city of Glendale, an L.A.-adjacent enclave, is launching its own program to fill its (many) empty superstores. Recently the art show Manifest Equality placed the work of 200 artists in a former Big Lots supermarket in the heart of Hollywood. Groups like these are working in every city, looking for designers, architects and artists to activate their vacant spaces.
Machine Project's coatroom concert series in the lobby of the Hammer Museum.
Enlist all your friends
Mark Allen started the gallery and non-profit art space Machine Project in a small Echo Park storefront as a way to capture the brilliance of so many different artists, poets and musicians he admired. The wide circle of collaborators help bring more members to Machine Project's program, and they get exposure from being attached to Machine Project. For Yao, starting her store Ooga Booga was more of an abstract need she kept hearing from her designer and artist friends: They didn't have anywhere to sell the "in-between pieces"—things they made as side projects or pieces that were too small potatoes to fit into a gallery show. Yao's store became a place where they could come together and experiment.
Designers can use their spaces as an intermediary between clients and
vendors, allowing people and projects to mix, and promoting them at the same time. The store/gallery Touch here in L.A. uses its showroom to hold salon-style dinners where they can invite collaborators and artists as well as hype the skills of a local, independent chef to the design community. Conversation, design and food is scientifically proven to cement new relationships.
Wendy Yao wearing the pop-up version of her store Ooga Booga, housed in a trenchcoat; Ilan Dei's shipping container gallery-slash-event space.
Create an unusual experience
Sure, you could find a storefront, but who needs an entire room to set up a store? Yao's tiny boutique named Ooga Booga forced her to think creatively about small, well-curated spaces, so much so she created a coat-as-a-store—goods stuffed into a pocket of a trenchcoat, Inspector Gadget-style. The coat went on to hang in other boutiques as a "traveling exhibition" or as part of pop-up displays.
Instead of thinking about filling a whole gallery, brainstorm mini-opportunities where you can showcase your work. Why not set up a tiny pop-up shop or gallery inside your own firm? The Venice Beach designer Ilan Dei dropped two shipping containers next to his shop and merged them into a place where people can experience the furniture he designed. It gives potential clients a great excuse to pop in to see what you're up to.
Ooga Booga's reading room filled with zines and books at the Swiss
Institute; Commune Design showcases their wares at the Community Shop at the Ace Hotel in Palm Springs.
Collaborate with bigger institutions
Machine Project worked with LACMA for a one-day "takeover" of the space, which turned into a book published about the interventions, A Machine Project Field Guide to LACMA. Now Machine Project is in residency with the Hammer Museum for a year, where it has most recently began curating "coatroom concerts" in the Little William Theater—which is quite literally a coatroom, with seating for two people (remember, no space is too small). Yao was able to curate a "reading room" at the Swiss Institute of Contemporary Art where 350 books and zines, as well as artwork and design pieces from her friends were set up in a sunny, comfy space.
The same relationship can be applied to designers working with organizations or corporations. Ask your client if you can carve out some space for yourself inside one of their projects. L.A.-based Commune Design worked on the new Ace Hotel in Palm Springs, and banded together with several collaborators to open the Community Shop, a sliver of a space at the hotel where they can sell their goods.
Jenny Holzer's text was found around construction sites; a video showing the installation of FreshPressed's mural.
Take your work public
If you are already operating in slim square-footage, grab your work and hit the streets. Fontana prides herself on having such a small footprint that she has no footprint: Her work is built upon the concept of not being anchored to a permanent space. Instead, she uses reclaimed retail spaces or even public spaces, like the temporary walls around construction sites, to install art. These flimsy plywood boards were used to post a series Jenny Holzer's Inflammatory Essays as part of the massive public art installation Women in the City.
Stake your claim in your neighborhood by orchestrating a public installation on the street or an anonymous beautification project (guerrilla gardening?). FreshPressed, a DIY silkscreening shop in East Hollywood, used an exterior wall of their building to showcase artists they work with, starting with Shepard Fairey. All they had to do was ask their landlord.
A Tranimal make up class at Machine Project; Ooga Booga zine offerings.
Serve your community Spaces need to go beyond simply serving as eye candy—they need to provide a service for their audience. That's why Allen holds classes in everything from circuitbending and video art to mushroom
walks to Tranimal make-up (your life will never be the same after knowing about that). The classes create a sense of community but—perhaps equally importantly—they also generate income for Machine Project. These services can even also go into the online realm: As a seller of so many tiny printed books, Yao decided to create a resource on how to make tiny printed books, and created a website, Printer Resources for Independent Art Publishers to serve her customers.
This could also be a great way to teach design skills to the public: Michael Lehrer, an L.A.-based architect, holds life drawing classes at his studio every other week. If your office can't support it, look to free spaces around you. Maybe there's an opportunity to hold design-focused seminars at a local library or community center.
These are just a few of the exciting interventions in space that I've noticed while strolling the streets of L.A. Surely there's some exciting work being done in the area all over the world. Do you have a space you've activated? Share your experiences—and your stories—below.