Commissioned by Hyundai Artlab, © Irene Suosalo
We land in Los Angeles to discuss the Felix Art Fair, LACMA Art + Technology Lab, and the city's history as a site of cultural confluence in the first Virtual Horizons dispatch.
“When I went to Los Angeles, it was really... three times better than I thought it would be.” —David Hockney
Beneath the lapping surface of the pool at the Hollywood Roosevelt lies a submerged mural: an allover rhythm of blue parentheses, painted thirty-five years ago by David Hockney. When the water is undisturbed, the parentheses wait dormant, almost shrugging at the inactivity. But the moment a swimmer dives through the surface, they dance to life.
Hockney is one of the countless artists drawn to Los Angeles’ sun and mythology. In 1964, he traded dreary London for life here, and embarked upon an iconic series of paintings depicting, what else, pools. I’m in town because of what is about to happen around the pool. This morning marks the kick-off of Art Week Los Angeles.
It’s the perfect opportunity to explore the history of art in Los Angeles, and to meet Joel Ferree, Program Director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA)’s Art + Technology Lab, where artists are hard at work envisioning what happens next. This is Virtual Horizons, a series of dispatches published by Artlab Editorial over the course of 2023. As we move from the art cities of the previous century to new capitals across the globe, we’ll consider how art emerges—and how it can clarify the distortions of contemporary life.
Image: Steven Heuer, Copyright Techne
Over the coming months, Virtual Horizons will explore Hyundai Artlab’s activations across the world. But first: why start in L.A.? Los Angeles is neither the latest art city, nor one of the art world’s original centers. Although Art Week has popped up in the last few years, the scene had been on the map roughly since the late fifties, when the legendary Ferus Gallery opened on North La Cienega. There’s something deeper than chronology at play. Something essential.
The city’s art history has two characteristics central to how art functions today. First, Los Angeles has done a great job at popularizing contemporary art—presenting it to a general public, or aligning it with pop culture or populist concerns. In 2007, MOCA and Takashi Murakami placed a functioning Louis Vuitton store within the museum—a brazen packaging of art as international luxury good. In 1962, Andy Warhol launched Pop Art in Los Angeles, when he opened a show of his Campbell’s soup can paintings at Walter Hopps’ Ferus Gallery. The year prior, in 1961, CalArts was founded… by Walt Disney.
Market speculation and self-mythology have guided Los Angeles through its history, as they have contemporary art. The root of both is close to what Adorno and Horkheimer so teutonically dubbed The Culture Industry. But what about the Industry Industry? Herein lies the second characteristic.
Any contemporary artist examining the creative potential of an emergent technology—say, using AI or the Blockchain as a medium—is operating in a tradition that has defined the arts here since the second World War. Look to how the streamlined geometries and aerosol clouds of hotrod culture were sublimated into the feminist sculptures of Judy Chicago, or the Light and Space works of Robert Irwin and Larry Bell.
Consider the experimental Art & Technology program (1967–71) at LACMA that paired leading artists with tech-focused corporations. All of these artists and projects pushed the boundaries of contemporary art, and culture in general, into a new era. Maurice Tuchman, the curator behind the LACMA Art & Technology program, put it simply: “In California, one is always conscious of the future.”
Courtesy of the Artist and François Ghebaly Gallery, Los Angeles. Photo: Paul Salveson.
Archeology of the Future
To get to the future, you drive through the past. From the Roosevelt to LACMA, it’s a short drive down La Brea. The road’s name, Spanish for The Tar, refers to two conditions of the city’s creation: its colonial Spanish history (and more recent identity as a polyglot melting pot); and the actual melting pot of the La Brea Tar Pits, the Pleistocene soup serving up souvenirs of epochs past.
The Pits in question are actually bubbling portals to an underground oil field—a sea of petroleum created by marine plankton between five and twenty-five million years ago. As it seeped to the surface, the sticky asphalt trapped and preserved countless plants and animals, to be found first by early surveyors, and then by scientists. Since 1906, over a million bones have been pulled from the muck, including the remains of 4,000 dire wolves and 2,500 grinning saber-toothed cats (though I prefer their cuter Latin name: Smilodon).
A deep-time cabinet of curiosities in the heart of a city unfairly called superficial and ahistoric, the La Brea Tar Pits are part landscape, part museum. Or rather: part nature, part culture. For this reason they make a great neighbor to LACMA. In fact, in 2006, during the construction of a new parking garage, the LACMA construction crew uncovered the remains of sixteen Ice Age fossil deposits, including a near complete skeleton of a Columbian mammoth nicknamed Zed.
At first glance, the contents of the La Brea Tar Pits and LACMA seem entirely opposite: two poles holding up the continuum of the city’s culture and life. But the more you think about it, the more these two institutions have in common: as archives and incubators of our understanding of both natural history and the cultural now—and how these come together to construct the future.
Credit: Yifan Zhang and Zhiyang Gao, Brownie Project
The only constant…
The future, or at least its construction, were very much on the mind of Maurice Tuchman, LACMA’s first curator of Modern Art, when he launched the Art & Technology program in 1967, and it’s a chief concern today, as the relaunched LACMA Art + Technology Lab celebrates its tenth anniversary.
“Ten years is a long time in ‘technology-time,’” says Joel Ferree, the Art + Technology Lab’s Program Director. “It’s hard to predict the future, especially with technology, but you can work to maintain a position where you are nimble enough to respond quickly to whatever the future throws at you.”
The framework of the Art + Technology Lab allows for artists to explore the high-speed futurity we all have to navigate every day. It’s a program built on collaboration, cross-pollination, and emphasizing the research and development of ideas over the production of an end product. “We are conscious of the future, but more than just being aware, it’s important to remain open and receptive to new ideas,” says Ferree. “We provide a failure tolerant space where, with the help of artists, the museum can experiment with new technology.”
Artists collaborating with corporate partners to experiment with, and thus both familiarize and explore, new technologies was also a guiding principle of the original program. As Samantha Culp puts it in her 2022 Artlab Editorial essay on the program, “The rolling list of prospective and participating artists and firms reads like cut up poetry from the collective unconscious of sixties America: Andy Warhol / Disney / Richard Serra / NASA / Robert Rauschenberg / IBM / Roy Lichtenstein / the RAND Corporation / Donald Judd / Lockheed Martin…” Today, the caliber of the artists remains, even if the technologies are vastly different.
The Lab’s 2022 grant recipients push our technological imagination to the brink, establish a new frontier, and then push even further. This often involves rethinking what an artwork, or an artist, could be. For "Fissures," Kelly Akashi uses X-ray lasers and microCT scanning to record data with which the artist can create sculptural forms like none other. Daniel R. Small’s "Techne" project pulls a wide variety of datasets—from astrophysics to AI—to consider the evolving place of art-making and artistic inquiry in culture.
While the projects have global ramifications, they’re also often clearly the product of Southern California. Take Lauren Lee McCarthy’s project, "Drive-Thru": “a performance that will unfold in participants’ cars, with an AI voice assistant providing geolocative and narrative direction…[to] explore themes of navigated risk assessment, control, and shifting boundaries.”
Taking place on surface streets and freeways—L.A.’s only site of secular communion, according to Joan Didion—"Drive-Thru" is in dialogue with iconic works like Judy Chicago’s airbrushed car-hood sculptures, and Ed Keinholz’s “Back Seat Dodge ’38,” which was censored when it was first exhibited in 1966 (the back seat in question being less important than the amorous bodies ensconced there), but now enjoys a great parking spot in LACMA’s permanent collection. McCarthy updates the city’s automotive art history for our increasingly networked age of ride-share apps and driverless sedans.
Also engaged with networks is Nancy Baker Cahill’s "Substrate," which uses mycelium networks—the subterranean webs of fungal spores—as a jumping off point for emergent technologies of distribution, from blockchains to DAOs. Discussing Baker Cahill’s project, Ferree says: “She is thinking critically about the various promises made about decentralization, and has been working to see where blockchain technologies can actually serve a greater good.” Though mycelium is the stated inspiration, Baker Cahill’s project finds physical analogue in the landscape of L.A. itself: a desiccated garden city, fed by distant reservoirs; an endless circuit of freeways.
This networked aspect of McCarthy and Baker Cahill’s projects also defines Joel Ferree’s day-to-day management of the Lab. “The Art + Technology Lab is very much about process. You often hear about museums being object-based, but when you bring technology and collaboration into the mix, things become very process-based…. While it doesn’t have a specific place, the Lab does have a deep network of partners throughout Los Angeles that it works with closely on artist projects. This network is a key component, and in addition to the LACMA campus, fulfills the function of ‘place.’”
Network as place: it makes sense, especially in 2023. Especially in Los Angeles. I ask Ferree his predictions for the future. “There is no doubt that the region is already a tech hub, and we will certainly continue to see more artists who are working in art and technology call Southern California home. I think the next ten years will be quite promising.” As for the Art + Technology Lab, “Our relationship with technology never stops evolving,” he says. “The only constant is change.”
Back at the Roosevelt, the morning tranquility has broken, and Hockney’s brushstrokes have started to dance. Taking place in the hotel’s 300 rooms, the Felix Art Fair revs to life, and a feeling falls over the Art Week crowd. A version of excitement; an automatic expectation. Here we go again. It’s a feeling endemic to art fairs, a jetlagged speedball of novelty and repetition. New season, same carpet. It’s a feeling of being stuck in time. Viewed one way, this is less than inspirational. But seen from the perspective of the Art + Technology Lab’s experiments into the art forms of the future, or from that of la brea, which holds everything from mesopredator to microfossil in democratic suspension, new considerations emerge.
When you say contemporary art, most people focus on the art itself—the objects. How does our thinking change when we shift focus to the contemporary? How do we view our cities, our culture, and ourselves when we remember that the now exists in a vast continuum, of distant history, and a constantly encroaching future? That our latest technologies are just repackaged networks of fungal spores. And that we’re just saber-toothed cats, toeing the edge of the lake of time.