Uncommon Sense
Various Artists
Museum of Contemporary Art
19 March - 6 July, 1997
Los Angeles
  Rick Lowe

Rick Lowe, Watts House
, 1997

Uncommon Sense brings into the museum six extensive artists' projects billed as exploring "social interactions and art" that bridge what are still often considered the separate categories of performance, installation and community action. Based on negotiation and collaboration, the gallery visitor needed to schedule visits to coincide with the many performances, drawing classes, discussions and meetings, to fully interact with the program. Or, suffering from overload, imbibe at the recreated Shooters Bar of Melrose Place fame (a work developed by Mel Chin and the GALA Committee).

Bought into existence over several years by MoCA curator Julie Lazar and MoCA Ahmanson Curatorial Fellow Tom Finkelpearl and their staff, Uncommon Sense allowed a number of artists to realise projects not normally supported in traditional museum programming. It is an exploration of the relations between artist, institution and public communities both as participants and viewers. The nature of the documentation and display is such that it can not necessarily generate an understanding of the complex interaction and requires substantial viewer commitment.

Building a wooden corral within the museum, Ann Carlson and Mary Ellen Strom collaborated to produce West, a rodeo act and video works. Carlson's periodic demonstrations of riding and roping explored relations between man (sic) and beast. She conjured up the pioneer spirit of the dream of the American West, with its historical associations of freedom, harnessing of nature and victory over adversity, and then concluded by casting off her control, allowing reversal of the balance of power. In the days between performances, the corral was lit by a slide projection of the horses hooves and a falling body. Video interviews made with women were presented incongruously through binoculars placed around the fence posts. The tiny films were less overt, more emotional narrations of the uncontrollable forces effecting women's lives in places of civil, criminal and military unrest; Bosnia, Northern Ireland and South Central Los Angeles.

Although supposedly pressing the notions of what constitutes offensiveness and the operations of censorship, Karen Finley's Go Figure presented daily life drawing classes juxtiposed with Finley's reworking of Sheppard's illustrations for A.A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh. The intent was to reveal sexual and psychological hangups of the story's characters. The figure drawing sessions contained little that was morally mystifying or challenging. In a darkened grotto, entitled Secret Museum, classical male and female torsos stood on pedestals and films of animals, objects and actions containing obvious sexual innuendo were projected onto stone genitalia in blatent reference to biological assumptions of gender. Responses to the question "What do you find offensive?" could be left on an on-line web site. Educational and entertaining more than provocative, Finlay posed controversial issues through subtle and aesthetic means.

Two metropolitan transport buses were parked in the Museum and used as spaces to stage the performances in bUSpLAy. Audiences were taken on imaginary bus rides, under the direction of the Los Angeles Cornerstone Theatre Company working with young actors and street performers, with MTA bus drivers 'playing' their normal roles. Nine different performances ranged from the poetic and imaginary to plays dealing with racism and immigration. In a city where only the underclasses regularly ride a bus, to stage events on public transport is a pointed reminder of inequities and divisions created by barriers to accessible modes of travel.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles and Rick Lowe produced community art activities. Ukeles objective was to produce a peace building in Los Angeles centred around the historical destruction of the Pennsylvania Hall, Philadelphia in 1838.The four day old hall, built by a coalition of African Americans, women and abolitionists was burnt down, representing the impossibility of free speech in Amercia. Ukeles worked with firefighters, sanitation and street maintenance workers and high school students to create peace offerings, "unburnings" which were installed in the museum. Individuals videoed their reactions to major events in their lives and how these impact on their own 'peaceful' relationships. Ukeles installed a mountainous 600 tons of crushed glass surrounding a meeting table, which was presented as a site of informal "peace talks" and a space in which to consider whether a Freedom Hall could be built in contemporary US society. Religious groups, dispute resolution workers, multicultural and neighbourhood outreach groups held talks and workshops in the space.

Rick Lowe's goal is to have a productive long term-term presence in the Watts Tower neighbourhood. In a architectural structure suggesting the timber frame of a house, Lowe installed assemblages and documents indicating the plans of residents, community leaders and city officials and ideas for developing an artists-in-residents program in Watts. It is important for Lowe that artists effect change and evolution from within a community, according to its history and the desires of the inhabitants. Lowe was previously involved in working towards renovating part of an historic African American neighbourhood with Project Row Houses in Houston, Texas. At the Geffen, visitors can sign up to attend community meetings and strategy sessions at the museum and the Watts Tower Art Centre. Lowe uses the museum as a line of communication and promotion, offering the audience and residents a part in the creative process that have potential long term effects in a rundown location bridging city and suburbs. The Watts House Project raises questions of how to gauge the effectiveness of art as social action and the future responsibility of the museum to the project.

Ninety artists, designers and students were involved as the GALA Committee [from the University of Georgia (GA) and California Institute of the Arts (LA)] with artist Mel Chin, intervening in television programming. In the name of the place involved an extensive collaboration - the management of Melrose Place providing scripts of forthcoming episodes, to which individuals from the Committee responded with 'altered' props for inclusion on the sets. Objects were produced with layered meanings and often humorous or subversive references to the program content, with the knowledge that management might reject the work, or it might be edited or not appear on film. References were sometimes pointed, sometimes obscure and always political, covering current affairs, gay politics and social issues, as well Melrose storyline (labels portraying the history of alcoholism on the bottles in Shooters Bar, the mosquito brooch, the condom bet set). The work was never acknowledged on the program credits but the project lives on in film. In the name of the place is an attempt to explore the relation between art and other audiences. Through the objects, process documentation and television footage the tables were turned on the viewing values of the audience usually comfortable with contemporary art.

Uncommon Sense is a major undertaking in the current activity in contemporary art institutions working to increase audience familiarity with installation practice. It is important for the level of co-operation achieved between artists, performers, their subjects and the museum, which continued to a lesser extent within the show itself.

Such processes and achievements do not in every instance make for exciting or rewarding viewing and risk turning away audiences unwilling to spend time comprehending the substance and extent of the program. But greater risks have been taken by the institution and participating artists; work never televised by Mel Gooding and the GALA Committee, reliance on the interest of city workers and students in constructions and celebrations of peace by Mierle Laderman Ukele and local acceptance of Rick Lowe's intervention in the planning and rebuilding of Watts. It is the least conventional schemes that have the most social potential but coincidently are the most difficult to bring into the site of the institution.

As an experiment, Uncommon Sense, offers the possibility of dialogue and action to different degrees and in a number of forms, giving artists the power to dismantle long established notions of audience interaction with the museum. Whether it presents a model that works in a museum will depend on further and more extensive collaborations that demand interest and commitment from a public unused to extensive interaction during a casual visit to an art institution. More importantly it indicates the breakdown of the constrictive predefined institutional notions of what the public like or want, allowing community investment in and ownership of cultural resources.

   bUs pLAy

Cornerstone Theatre Company,
bUs pLay, 1997

  Karen Finley

Karen Finley, Go figure, 1997

   Ann Carlson & Mary Ellen Strom

Ann Carlson & Mary Ellen
Strom, West, 1997

  Mierle Laderman Ukeles

Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Unburning
Freedom Hall
, 1997

  Karen Finley

Karen Finley, Go figure, 1997

    Zara Stanhope
May, 1997