I ONCE MET a woman at Machine Project, the long–running and now closed Los Angeles arts collective and gallery. I was managing director at the time, and we were holding an event on how ancient ice samples are excavated, and the relevance of geothermal data interpretation on our past and future. The woman told me that she had been a fan of Machine for years and loved the space, but when I asked if she had attended any of our events recently (we usually hosted at least one a week) she said immediately, “No! None!” Instead, she had been following us virtually for years: subscribing to our weekly email correspondence and following our social media content and Vimeo documentation.
This was in keeping with one of the guiding principles of Machine Project: the idea that a story, a performance, or a work of art can exist without being seen in person and that its existence can take many forms, like a retelling, a documentation, or a myth. In fact, many events had extremely limited capacity, some as little as five or six spots. But each event was scrupulously documented — an artist-made print was produced, a recording or transcript collected. Mark Allen, the founder of Machine, felt strongly that if you approach art as something that changes our perception of the world, you don’t necessarily have to be physically present for that to happen. It’s entirely possible for that perceptual transformation to take place through virtual infrastructures.
Emerging technologies, documentation, and virtual space have been changing the nature of gatherings and cultural architecture long before today, but it does feel like we are currently undergoing a seismic shift. The pandemic has forced something open — a way to reimagine the rules of engagement.
The system we’ve had is profoundly flawed. The lack of resources for artists and smaller institutions has diminished the potential for creative engagement across arts communities. Never has the need for new approaches been more urgent.
The era of the blockbuster show is over. There is a momentary leveling of the means of production, immune from the bureaucracy of larger institutions. How artists map their work onto this new geography is more flexible than ever. The independent artist, curator, or producer has access to not only these ever-evolving tools of technology, virtual spaces, and distribution mediums, but also the possibilities of offline content distribution. However, the mammoth funding crisis still looms large. This moment is just amplifying the startling lack of institutional support for the arts.
Can we take an activist role in directly funding the work of artists? Can we use this window not only to think imaginatively about content, but also to plan out strategies for unionizing artists, to consider the future of artists’ workspaces, and the real magnitude of historically underrepresented artists in institutions? We cannot expect artists to fulfill the full potential of creative expression if we haven’t figured out how to provide a basic standard of living.
Oxy Arts, where I serve as director, is tied to Occidental College, which is undoubtedly undergoing the same hardships as other higher education institutions. But even with those hardships, our situation is more stable than what a small nonprofit neighborhood arts organization might face. We have a secure physical space, we’re not scrambling to pay our rent, and we have access to resources that can be leveraged. This all may change swiftly, but in the meantime my goal is to provide as much support to both artists and our dedicated community of supporters as possible.
We have a responsibility to engage with all of these issues more deeply, not retreat. We have to use this time and energy to create partnerships and higher levels of relevance for the arts sector. One of the projects we are currently working on is a partnership with In Plain Sight. The project, led by Los Angeles–based artists rafa esparza and Cassils, has brought together 80-plus artists to launch a nationwide site-specific series of public activations aimed at bringing attention to the colossal migrant detention crisis in the United States. The nature of the activation, a synchronous series of artist produced sky-writings above each detention facility across the country, expands what constitutes “exhibitory space” and “performance” in the current moment, and it allows us to support a national network of artists in a project that attends to issues critical to our time; and, more importantly, it allows us to integrate the project’s themes into our courses and pedagogy. Ultimately, and hopefully, this project will engender support for a new generation of leaders and activists in the fight for migrant justice, at the same time that it imagines new and accessible forms of aesthetic experience.
As an institution whose emphasis is on the surrounding community, we must also acknowledge that our ecosystem is changing. Of course, there have been longstanding equity concerns, but some of these issues have become particularly acute. Many of our neighbors, already experiencing food insecurity, job loss, or homelessness, are now confronted with increasingly extreme conditions. Our artists, who survive on performance or exhibition gigs, do not have the institutional support to sustain them through this period.
This shift has made certain priorities very clear: when we reopen in a physical space, our service to the community cannot only take the form of providing sites for cultural output. We must think of applications of our work that involve providing social services and support functions. We are now planning pathways to intersect with our local schools, community groups, and social service agencies to address the imperative task of providing real, practical value when we return.
It’s crucial for us to think in these terms, given the unique capacity of the arts to offer interventions in moments of crisis. For example, my colleague Professor Mary Beth Heffernan has reactivated her PPE Portrait Project — originally created to assist in the Ebola epidemic — to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. The project is a simple gesture of rehumanizing the PPE–clad health–care workers by adhering their portraits on their PPE suits. The project has now been adopted by institutions across the United States and abroad, and in the process is transforming best medical practice during COVID-19.
Artists are uniquely capable of coming up with creative interventions to our everyday lives, and this ability is critical right now. It is going to take relentless innovation and envisioning to lead us ahead.
I’d like to think that the virtual architectures and stories created at Machine Project over those 15 years (2003–2018) will continue to reverberate for years to come. How artists adopt and channel the generative possibilities available today can have far-reaching implications, both in decentering physically sited institutions and in transforming modes of artistic production and distribution toward new forms of community engagement.