David Thorne

David Thorne talks about elysian

An event at elysian.

In a 5,000-square-foot warehouse in East Los Angeles, artist David Thorne spearheads elysian, an event space and occasional restaurant that began last November with “Night In” dinners. The building is located in Elysian Valley (aka Frogtown), and has recently hosted a benefit for the LA-based nonprofit Machine Project as well as an evening with the food writer Molly Stevens. Here, Thorne—whose background includes farming in Vermont and working with the famed Bread and Puppet Theater—discusses the space, as well as his other recent work.

THERE IS ALWAYS SO MUCH HAPPENING IN LA, but because of the difficult layout of the city, there’s a need for more places where people can congregate. My sense is that there’s also a desire and a need for things that are happening on a smaller scale—a little bit deinstitutionalized, and a little more down-to-earth—but still stable; things that are self-supporting. That’s where we hope to fit in.

I used to live in this warehouse with my wife, Julia Meltzer, and during that time her arts nonprofit, Clockshop, coordinated a lecture series here, which generally brought into dialogue an artist and a civic leader or someone working in the social sciences. It was very different from just going to hear an artist talk, or a social scientist speak. With this new project we want to carry on that spirit of exchange.

Since 2005 one of my primary interests has been cooking. After I finished grad school I worked professionally in several LA restaurants. It’s not easy to make a living just making art. More recently, I decided to try to use this space for something new, and I also wanted to keep cooking but in a different type of setting, just to see what that would be like. Nonetheless, for all intents and purposes, the “Night In” suppers work like a restaurant. You make a reservation, you show up, then you sit down, someone comes and brings you something, takes your order, puts the order in, the food comes out, and so on. But people seem to sit and stay here longer, which has been really nice to see. It has to do with the feeling of the place. A lot of restaurants are just too schticky for me—even if they’re trying to be casual. I also feel fortunate to have the artist and filmmaker Wu Tsang managing events and developing that whole aspect of the enterprise.

We always have an interesting mix of people coming to the dinners and events, and we’re really trying to keep it accessible in terms of the price. Overall, the dinners have been good because they have helped us to quickly develop a presence and a feel. People see the place, maybe they refer others here, and an audience has developed out of that.

Julia and I previously worked on a number of projects together, beginning in 1999 with the Speculative Archive for Historical Clarification. She just finished a film, The Light in Her Eyes, which is quite different from our work: It’s more of a straight-on documentary about a girls-only Quran school in Damascus that encourages women to pursue higher education and jobs using Islam as a catalyst for change. But even though we’ve been working on different and separate projects, we have recently revisited two videos we made in the mid-2000s with a young Syrian actor, Rami Farah—a great performer, who thankfully is not in Syria right now. So we’re now taking segments from these pieces, Epic . . . and Not a Matter of If but When . . ., and posting them on YouTube as short clips.

The material from the videos was originally developed as short monologues, which we compiled into longer pieces. Recently it felt right to us to begin breaking the works apart again—and every other day, or maybe twice a week, we put up another video on YouTube. Given the current dire situation in Syria, and after several long Skype conversations with Rami, we decided that we had to do something else with this work. And it’s interesting that although the material is dated, it’s still very resonant.