PRINT November 2008


Edgar Arceneaux and the Watts House Project

1784 107th Street with the Watts Towers in the background, Los Angeles, 2000. Photo: Edgar Arceneaux.

BUILT BETWEEN 1921 AND 1955 by Simon Rodia, an Italian immigrant cement finisher and tile maker, the iconic Watts Towers are fantastic, airy structures of rebar, mortar, found pottery, and glass that rise almost one hundred feet into the air above the Los Angeles neighborhood for which they are named. A United States National Historic Landmark and a powerful symbol of grassroots creativity, Rodia’s masterwork receives thousands of visitors each year. But this popularity has not benefited the working-class Latino and African-American community that surrounds the site: There are no stores, restaurants, or other businesses nearby that might encourage tourists to contribute to the social and economic vitality of the area.

Hoping to fill this gap while also developing an alternative to traditional processes of gentrification, Edgar Arceneaux has undertaken the “Watts House Project,” an artwork as urban development that involves neighborhood residents, artists, and architects in the renovation of twenty private homes across the street from the towers. The Pasadena-based artist is better known for esoteric drawings, videos, and installations connecting disparate schools of thought than for home-improvement efforts. Yet he envisions the street as an arts district whose form and character will be determined not by professional planners and commercial developers but by the people who already live there. In addition to the renovations, his plan includes an artist-residency program, a community-run café and organic garden, and low-income housing. Specific locations for these initiatives have yet to be determined, but Arceneaux hopes that his organization (which plans to seek nonprofit status) will be able to purchase properties in the area as they become available.

“Watts House Project” was actually founded in 1996 by artist Rick Lowe, who runs Project Row Houses, a similarly minded development in Houston combining an artist-residency program and gallery with low-income housing, assistance for single mothers, and after-school arts classes. Lowe, however, came to the conclusion in 2000 that he could not sustain both endeavors and so asked Arceneaux—whom he had invited on board as a collaborator some years earlier—to assume leadership of the California project. Arceneaux soon completed a series of small home renovations: a new driveway for one house, custom fencing for another, and a set of vibrant murals designed and painted by students from local Locke High School on a third.

Now he is poised to make a bigger impact. He recently recruited designer Francisco Arias and artists Tanya Aguiñiga and Edward Pine Stevens to work with homeowners Felix and Christina Madrigal on a redesign of their porch and entryway, and the work in progress was unveiled at a launch event coinciding with the Watts Towers Jazz Festival on September 27 and 28. In addition to viewing project information and plans, festivalgoers and passersby were invited to join in the porch’s construction. This informal presentation, albeit modest, marked the start of what Arceneaux hopes will be a phase of more concentrated and ambitious activity.

At the same time, his willingness to present the Madrigal remodel as a work in progress reflects his own iterative, process-oriented method. Arceneaux is often more concerned with exploring and embodying an activity or methodology than with creating a polished, finished product. For instance, his multichannel video installation at this year’s Whitney Biennial, The Alchemy of Comedy . . . Stupid, 2006, used spatial and temporal fragmentation to dissect the craft of stand-up, revealing multiple, typically unseen facets of comedian David Alan Grier’s monologue. Arceneaux finds this approach particularly suited to “Watts House Project.” “We’re not actually making anything which you can register as an aesthetic object,” he says. “Though I would argue that it is an aesthetic experience: the negotiation that goes on between all the stakeholders in this thing that we’re trying to build together.”

To the extent that it consists primarily of a complex network of relationships among residents, artists, architects, patrons, and institutions that are constantly in flux—recalling the 1970s and ’80s works of artists like John Malpede and Tim Rollins as well as more contemporary relational art—“Watts House Project” raises questions about how to deal with the power imbalances that it inevitably throws into high relief. It could be said to conjure the specter of what critic Grant Kester has called “aesthetic evangelism,” referring to works of community-based art in which artists make well-intentioned but, he feels, often self-serving interventions in a social group of which they are not a part. Or one could view the project in light of the trend toward client-provider relationships that Steven Henry Madoff described in these pages this past September: Madoff’s essay focuses on artists who transform the conventions of commercial exchange by offering typical consumer services for free, thus creating relationships based on generosity and benevolence rather than economic gain. Similarly, Arceneaux provides consultation, design, and construction work, much like a regular contractor, except, of course, that there is no charge. But while the artists Madoff discusses engage in limited, temporary interactions, as do most of the “evangelists” to whom Kester alludes, the relationships that Arceneaux has developed are ongoing and have evolved over several years. Moreover, rather than imitate existing commercial models of urban development, he seeks to create a new, more collaborative one. “Watts House Project,” in other words, attempts to actually build the type of community that artworks staged within gallery walls or for short periods of time can only gesture toward.

In fact, the methodology of “Watts House Project” is perhaps more closely aligned with that of community arts (subtly but definitely distinct from “community-based art”), a tradition—usually dismissed by the mainstream art world—of artistic production by and for members of a particular community that typically focuses on arts education and collective empowerment. As such, the project prompts us to rethink the rich history of community arts in Watts, which for decades has sought to effect substantive change in the neighborhood. Partly in response to racist housing covenants and, later, to de facto segregation that continues to this day, African-American artists in Watts formed a tight-knit, self-nurturing community that has played a central role in the social, religious, and educational life of the area. Scholar Curtis L. Carter attributes this level of collective involvement to the absence of established art institutions. “As a result, the artists had to create art in the community,” he writes in his 2003 essay “Watts: The Hub of the Universe.” “This meant redefining the role of the artist. The redefinition resulted in a concept of the artist as one who works in the community to engage, involve, and activate.”

Such efforts intensified in the wake of the 1965 Watts uprising, in which decades of segregation, police brutality, and economic deprivation erupted in six days of looting, burning, and shoot-outs between police and residents. With the ensuing influx of private and public attention and aid, existing arts organizations—Watts Towers Arts Center, Underground Musicians Association, Studio Watts Workshop—expanded and were joined by Watts Writers Workshop, Watts Happening Coffee House, Watts Repertory Theater Company, and Mafundi Institute. Through performances, workshops, exhibitions, and community service, these organizations not only provided outlets and training for local artists but also promoted participation in the artistic process as a way to engage people in what was, above all, a relationship. “We wish to establish that there must be more to art than the creative act,” wrote artist Noah Purifoy, the first director of the Watts Towers Arts Center. “There must be therein a ME and YOU, who is [sic] affected permanently. Art of itself is of little or no value if in its relatedness it does not effect change.”

1784 107th Street with a finished mural, Los Angeles, 2000. Photo: Edgar Arceneaux.

Arceneaux, who grew up near Watts, acknowledges that “Watts House Project” is part of this local tradition. But he also recognizes that previous efforts were hampered by a lack of sustained funding. The area’s economic fortunes haven’t changed much; poverty and disenfranchisement continue to fuel drug and gang activity. In this latest phase of the project, Arceneaux has been able to bring a wider variety of resources to bear on these problems. This is due in part to the visibility that comes with his rising profile in the art world. In addition to his inclusion in the Whitney Biennial, he was a recipient of a US Artists Fellowship in 2007 and has secured funding for the first home renovation as an artist-in-residence at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles.

However, he is quick to point to larger societal factors that may also heighten interest in the project. One is the impact of Hurricane Katrina and the ongoing neglect of New Orleans, which has raised public awareness of the ways in which poor, historically African-American communities have been systematically abandoned. Small, local efforts toward self-reliance seem all the more necessary now that government indifference has been so starkly exposed.

Another factor is a dynamic that Arceneaux frames in terms of the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama, who has short-circuited the traditional black political structure represented by figures like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. “I do think that I’m part of this same wave which has the mobility to move not only across different cultures, different classes, but also across different economic strata,” Arceneaux says. Unlike earlier generations of community artists who were resolutely anticommercial, Arceneaux has no qualms about using his art-world stature to secure project funding. In addition to support from the Hammer Museum, Creative Capital, and a host of other organizations and individuals, Arceneaux has raised money for the Watts renovations by making and selling limited editions of his drawings. Viewed cynically, such transactions might be seen as a way for art patrons to assuage liberal guilt by making a charitable purchase; but they could also be seen as a radical expansion of the notion of “community” to include wealthy collectors who have chipped in to help build a porch.

Of course, Arceneaux also brings his own aesthetic agenda, which may be at odds with local tastes. During a meeting with Felix Madrigal about the design of his new porch, it became clear that artist and homeowner had different visions. Arceneaux presented a sleek, modern design by Arias; Madrigal preferred a more traditional, practical approach. Yet the artist believes that the trust he and Madrigal have developed over the years will result in a formally adventurous design that both parties feel invested in. “There’ll be some parts that maybe people don’t appreciate in the beginning, because it’s different,” he says. “When our sensibilities get shook, our values get shook. There’s something out there—that discomfort that we have—that we shouldn’t run away from.” It is in light of such comments that “Watts House Project” can perhaps be placed within an avant-garde lineage that dates from the Constructivists, yet it’s also here that the distinction between the avant-garde and the everyday begins to lose its relevance. As Arceneaux puts it, “The ‘Watts House Project’ and every other endeavor that I’ve had as an artist have been intertwined—because these worlds are not separate from each other.”

Sharon Mizota is a writer and critic in Los Angeles.