IN A SWIFT, BRUTAL DEVELOPMENT, America has suddenly become the greatest reality show on earth, its inhabitants in peril of being thumped as if they were nothing more than a prop conference table on the Apprentice set. There is something both comforting and invigorating about revisiting an earlier era when television was television and real life was real life, and when in the space between the twoat least in one singular caseart blossomed.
In 1995, the curators Julie Lazar and Tom Finkelpearl asked the artist Mel Chin to take part in “Uncommon Sense,” a group show at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, dedicated to exploring art that engaged the public sphere beyond the confines of the museum. At the time, Chin was already known as a Conceptual artist whose wide-ranging, community-oriented work often extended far beyond the gallery or the studio. (In the sculptural-environmental project Revival Field, begun in 1991 while Chin was in residency at the Walker Art Center, for instance, he collaborated with botanists on the design of gardens of “hyperaccumulators”plants that are able to draw heavy metals from tainted earth, cleaning it in the process.) In response to Lazar and Finkelpearl’s request, Chin invited students and faculty from the University of Georgia and CalArts (schools where he was teaching at the time), along with additional artists and friends from across the US, to form a 102-person-strong collective that they dubbed the GALA Committee. The work that Chin and his group created over the following two years for the LA MoCA show, installed in 1997, was a blend of long-game Conceptualism, Dada-esque intervention, and whoopee cushion–style pranksterismall played out against the highly unlikely backdrop of the wildly popular prime-time soap opera Melrose Place.
The Aaron Spelling–produced Fox show, a Beverly Hills, 90210 spinoff, focused on a group of twenty- and thirty-something professionals all implausibly living in the same Los Angeles apartment complex, and was renowned for its combination of improbable melodramatic plots (kidnapping, double identities, and characters coming back from the dead) with topical social issues (unwanted pregnancy, child abuse, alcoholism). Approaching the show’s set decorator, Deborah Siegel, Chin offered to provide free props, on the understanding that these seemingly mundane objectsa quilt on a sofa, a Chinese takeout container, a baby mobile over a crib, fabric sold at a clothing boutiquewould also carry hidden political significance: The quilt, it turns out, was patterned with the chemical structure of the then-banned abortion pill RU-486 (and made its appearance when the pregnant character Alison [Courtney Thorne-Smith] snuggled under it), the container bore messages in Chinese related to the Tiananmen Square protests, the mobile was shaped like a television remote control, and the fabric’s print referenced the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory tragedy. Incredibly (what a thing!), Chin and the collective got the go-ahead, and developed and crafted objects in a labor-intensive, organizationally complex process that led to planted props in countless Melrose Place episodesand eventually resulted in the exhibition of those same props at Lazar and Finkelpearl’s LA MoCA show. In a final twist, that exhibition was itself captured on Melrose Place’s fifth season.
These props were recently shown again at New York’s Red Bull Studios in a multifaceted historical resurrection: “Total Proof: The GALA Committee 1995–1997,” curated by Max Wolf. Alongside some hundred-plus objects (reassembled here for the first time after being auctioned off in 1998, with the proceeds donated to women’s literacy programs), the show presented a selection of Melrose Place clips highlighting some of the most absurd juxtapositions Chin et al. created: Amanda (Heather Locklear) with a sculpture of a T4 virus in the background of her visit to the LA MoCA show; advertising executive Billy (Andrew Shue), with a gay-rights poster at an ad-agency presentation; Sydney’s (Laura Leighton) blind date escaping naked from her apartment, clutching a pillow embroidered with an illustration of HIV to his groin. A number of the show’s sets, too, were reconstructed for the installation: the apartment complex’s Spanish Colonial Revival entryway; the interior of Shooters bar, the characters’ perennial hangout, complete with pool table and bottles discreetly labeled to gesture at social issues related to alcohol consumption; and even the complex’s poolthough drained of water and, in a nod to relational aesthetics, reimagined by Chin as a sofa-filled conversation pit.
Most interesting, however, were two additional elements: a dark room replete with beanbags in the back of the space, where the show’s seven seasons were streamed on a loop, and a collection of the rich ephemera related to the project’s plottingletters and faxes between the production staff and GALA members and among those members themselves (“We have a new set of pool balls. The 8 ball has the contour of Africa painted. . . . This piece is about the economic isolation and exploitation of Africa”); script pages (at one point during the project, GALA began to receive advance teleplays with which to work); copies of Chin’s personal mailer (“Friends of Mel Newsletter”); and sketches and diagrams of props in development.
These contrasting sides of the projectone having to do with the prone, viewing body, the other with the thinking, conspiring mindare equally significant, though the beauty of the thing was, at least partly, the potential futility of the group’s endeavors: so much planning and scheming and plotting that went into the construction of a joke, as all the while an awareness hovered that that joke might, in the end, remain private. Chin has spoken of his interest in the project’s viral sensibilityits dissemination of messages via television in a way that didn’t counter or subvert the medium but was hosted by it. Yet at the heart of the venture was also an embrace of its potential impotence: the understanding that viewers, motionless in their beanbags, might easily evade the blink-and-you-miss-it GALA infection.
This, however, doesn’t suggest that the work of the GALA Committee was meaninglessquite the opposite. By forging ahead collaboratively even while recognizing its own possible invisibility, the Melrose project acknowledged both the enormous power and pleasure of television and the importance of art qua artbecause of, rather than in spite of, the latter’s relative ineffectiveness. In the early days of 2017, we would do well to take a page from GALA’s playbook: We can open up a lot of room for art, not to mention politics, by reinserting reality into its representations.
Naomi Fry is a writer living in Brooklyn.
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