New York

Lincoln Tobier

Pat Hearn Gallery / Gavin Brown’s Enterprise

Two concurrent projects by the same artist, one aspiration: to reopen the discussion about the relationship between visual art and the “public” sphere. Lincoln Tobier’s Studies for: (It all comes together in) Ruckus L.A., 1995, at Pat Hearn, and Mini-A.M., 1995, at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, represent the most recent articulations of Tobier’s effort to establish new connections between “artistic activity” and diverse sociocultural arenas. These projects may suggest that Tobier subscribes to a canonized set of principles about socially engaged artmaking. However, given that failure is built into both projects, the depth of his faith, and certainly our own, remains in question.

Tobier is currently attempting to realize a rather ambitious city-specific, collaborative project: to invite members of various Los Angeles communities to build scale models of their local environments, which he will then combine into what might be understood as an (anti)master plan for a novel kind of participatory urbanism. At Hearn, Tobier installed his own provisional, almost life-size models of three distinct L.A. edifices. Although the pieces had a certain formal charm, revealing a quirky sensitivity to architectural detail, Tobier seemed more interested in outlining the rudiments of his still-hypothetical project.

Acclimated to the claustrophobic, nearly implosive delirium of Manhattan and taking his cue from Red Grooms’ charmingly cartoony Ruckus Manhattan, 1975–76, Tobier seems to be asking L.A. residents to examine the fractured spatial, temporal, and social relations of their everyday lives more closely. In this enormously overpopulated, increasingly overbuilt land of low desert and crumbling hills negotiable only by car, people have fenced themselves—or have been fenced—into their respective neighborhoods or ghettos. Yet the real or imagined emancipation derived from being able to drive from point A (private habitat) to point B (job site) without having to consider or even see what’s in-between comes at a certain price: a pervasive sense of individual and social deracination. Understandably, L.A. residents are expert at making various links between the micro and the macro, but less inclined to contemplate the inverse—after all, it isn’t really necessary to construct a totalizing image of this urban/suburban sprawl. The resulting moments of connection and rupture, belonging and alienation, constitute the paradoxical ethos of this city. In deadpan fashion, Tobier invokes the embarrassing utopian aspirations of art and architecture on the one hand and L.A.’s tortured social landscape on the other.

After all, what could be more ridiculous, even absurd, and yet more conceptually “challenging” than the notion that art can somehow be an agent of social redemption, or even transformation? Tobier may even be hinting at the ideological and practical dubiousness of his own project by choosing to re-create two archetypal edifices from the Los Angeles cityscape that have come to symbolize the profound historical failures to salvage the economic, political, and psychic health of a social community: the Watts Tower and the Peace Tower. The two structures sat on the floor like excavated artifacts from a long-extinct civilization, props for a theater of urban archaeology. Near the front of the gallery stood a simulated fragment of L.A.’s infrastructure: an object resembling the on/off ramp of a four-lane freeway that ascended a few feet, only to curve and drop off into space. Tobier’s conceptual gesture is a poignant reminder of the terminally fractured nature of the City of Angels: were it ever to be realized, Ruckus L.A. would undoubtedly reveal the impossible contradictions that emerge when any form of democracy is used as a means of negotiating relations between art and public. With the Watts Tower and Peace Tower as its depressingly forlorn precursors, Tobier’s sprawling model seems destined, in the best-case scenario, to become a public monument—a testament to the collective effort to reimagine a city whose social conditions are unlikely to change for the better.

Mini-A.M. seems to have been born of a similar ambivalence toward the social role (or responsibilities) of art and artist. At Gavin Brown, the artist set up the fourth in a series of “Mini-A.M.” radio stations (others were created for sites in London, Vienna, and, in late 1993, Los Angeles, where Tobier’s program consisted of the Beach Boys’ entire oeuvre at a space formerly known as 1301). From May 27 through June 17, anyone could legally broadcast from 558 Broome Street, although with the station’s transmission capacity limited to 100 milliwatts, only listeners on that particular block could receive the signal.

Was this project meant to galvanize community involvement in radio, provoking the neighborhood to “take back” the airwaves and establish an alternative forum for localized communication? Perhaps, although that presupposes a community eager for new avenues of interaction. On the other hand, it could hardly be designed to give airtime to art-world types so they might reach a broader audience. So what’s it all about? Well, my best guess is that, as in Ruckus, doubt underlies Tobier’s shrewd invocation of the besmirched idealism associated with participatory, socially engaged artmaking.

Joshua Decter