Laugh Lines


Deborah Hay, Figure a Sea, 2015. Photo: Urban Jörén.

“IT’S A TERRIBLE WORD FOR A YOUNG ARTIST—creative dance; it’s oppressive.”

“I hope you can understand how absurd my practice is.”

These are two of the many very good lines Deborah Hay tossed off Saturday night on the stage of Zellerbach Hall, during a pre-performance lecture (a first for her and, no surprise, she nailed it) at Cal Performances in Berkeley. The occasion was her Figure a Sea, a 2015 collaboration with Sweden’s Cullberg Ballet.

Here’s a third: “They both happened to laugh a lot, and that helped me.” This in reference to John Cage and Robert Rauschenberg, whose art and thinking were an important part of her formative years in midcentury New York—which are, by now, synonymous with the formative years of postmodern dance. Talk about an oppressive weight for an artist—no one describes what Hay is doing now without foregrounding what she was doing in the 1960s (sorry). It makes sense that Hay also laughs a lot; how else to stave off being locked into your larger-than-life past?

Maybe making a ballet isn’t a bad idea, either. And Figure a Sea is most definitely a ballet, despite Hay’s ideas of multiplicity and uncertainty that are at odds with much of what the ballet industry churns out these days (insert predictable parenthetical about how dumb it is that the big American ballet companies have pretty much chosen to ignore the entire Judson Dance Theater crowd), and with apologies to the disgruntled audience members who trundled up the aisle once they, presumably, figured out their expectations were not to be met.

Fair enough. But the material of Figure a Sea is its dancers, and what they in turn make of their material, as much as anything else. And the majority of the work’s twenty performers (despite much more contemporary exposure than American ballet company dancers typically have) are shot through with ballet technique.

Deborah Hay, Figure a Sea, 2015. Photo: Urban Jörén.

This, and the size of the ensemble as it intermittently flocks, clusters, scatters, and grows still, lends Figure a Sea a different sort of plush and scope than other Hay dances I’ve seen. As Hay noted in her lecture, she one day had an epiphany that she was being “idiotic” in assigning a stage front to her dancing, and consequently ignoring as material “the space between these cardinal lines.” You see this space continually exploited and explored in Hay’s own dancing (not to mention her lecturing), or in master practitioners in her lineage, such as Juliette Mapp and Jeanine Durning, both of whom appeared in video clips while Hay spoke. The Cullberg dancers aren’t attuned in this same way; front still holds too much sway for them to consistently inhabit the strangest (most absurd?) depths of her choreographic practice.

Or perhaps it was just not so easy for me to see those depths in a large concert hall: While allowing for a grandness of shifting landscapes, this setting doesn’t love a close up. (Too bad: Strangeness loves details.)

Still, it was a pleasure to observe, from a remove, how these dancers constantly spilled over the proscenium margins of Zellerbach, noodling around in the exposed but dark wing space beyond the central stage design: white Marley and a bisected backdrop flooded by Minna Tiikkainen’s light grid. The backdrop’s central horizontal line was, of course, a horizon line; depending on how the light shifted, this looked like any number of northern land or seascapes, ever rich with impending snow. The simple stagecraft trick of that was an ongoing pleasure, altering how I perceived the dancers but oh so lightly. (Not so, disappointingly, the heavy shifts in Laurie Anderson’s score, which was best when silent and never as interesting as the initial murmur of the crowd before the house lights went down; I kept wondering how a real-time electronic wizard such as John Bischoff would have responded to Hay’s delicately shifting tides.)

When the stage grew very busy I thought of being on the far end of that horizon. Would I see any of this frenetic activity from there? What if, as Hay asked, “my past and future were now?”

Or there’s this: “The simultaneous experience of seeing and dis-attaching from what I see becomes how I see.”

The critics behind me at one point were kvetching about how the first part of the evening “should’ve been an optional” talk. But I found the pre-framing delicious, especially in its refusal to straightforwardly do the assigned task of explaining. I kept thinking of seeing the choreographer Sara Shelton Mann earlier in the week at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, as she engaged in her own preshow ritual of sorts, addressing the assembled audience members without a microphone, until someone complained that he couldn’t hear:

“You don’t hear? I don’t hear either. Well this is supposed to be subliminal. Never mind.”

Exactly. Or, at least I think that’s what she said. But back to that horizon line. And to a lone dancer bounding around in a field of white, pausing periodically to rise up on wide-legged half toe. And to Hay’s ongoing experiments in how she chooses to relate to time, and space, and perception. There is a figure. There is a sea. Other things are up for grabs.

Deborah Hay’s Figure a Sea ran October 22 and 23 at Cal Performances in Berkeley, California.

Claudia La Rocco is a writer and the editor of Open Space.

Morgan Thorson, Still Life, 2016. Performance view, September 10, 2016, Portland Museum of Art, Portland, Oregon. Photo: Kat Jarvinen.

THE ARTISTS, MUSICIANS, CURATORS, AND WRITERS that work in and support time-based art are a small, necessarily close-knit tribe. Performance is, after all, easily the least lucrative of genres, a fact that has consistently made it the repository for work that is less monetarily driven and less safe, but which has also sometimes made it feel insular and uninterested in courting an audience outside its fold. This is why the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s Time-Based Art Festival, one of only a handful of such festivals in the US, feels so consistently fresh, both in its programming and in its outreach. The festival, now in its fourteenth edition, encompasses exhibitions, lectures, films, and workshops alongside performances by internationally acclaimed artists. I saw a number of exceptional pieces at this year’s TBA, most accompanied by my mom, whose presence lent the trip additional resonance. When you strip away the jargony shorthand and inside jokes that usually pass for discussion of art among the same-generation peers that see each other at every opening, the conversation can take unexpected, often illuminating, turns. On this journey two works, both dance, lingered with us.

Besides its uniquely pecuniary status, another condition of time-based art is its insistence that the viewer submit to the maker’s conception of the work’s duration. One is implicitly obligated to remain present for the piece’s entirety or until the video loop catches up to the point where you walked in. In this regard Minneapolis-based choreographer Morgan Thorson’s Still Life, 2016, performed in a small side gallery of the Portland Museum of Art, was unusually generous, even to the point of masochism, allowing the viewer to come and go as she pleased while the dancers themselves remained “on” for the work’s five-hour run. During this time both its cyclical choreography and its performers gradually broke down—a gambit that recalled Ragnar Kjartansson’s six-hour A Lot of Sorrow, 2013–14, in which the slowly unraveling band The National performed a single song on repeat.

Still Life is a danced meditation on temporality and geological time. Thorson developed the work over the course of a residency at the Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography at Florida State University, during which she spoke to scholars and professionals from various fields including religious studies, forensic anthropology, and contemporary hospice care. Twelve dancers from Thorson’s company, suited up with track shoes and kneepads for the long slog, filled the gallery with spurts of frenetic activity countered by moments of undulating calm, often with a single clique embodying a spastic mode while another group swayed slowly around them. Their movements were partly inspired by the choreographer’s research into physical decay and the subtle, time-lapse-visible movement of decomposition.

As dancers hugged the gallery floor, the viewer could readily imagine the gradual swelling of bloated bodies and their subsequent flattening as seeping and atrophying flesh merges with ground. At other times they seemed to follow unspoken improvisatory commands, with a single dancer setting off a chain reaction as if demonstrating evolution in fast-forward. The marathon, with its ambient sound-track, was divided into cycles signaled by oval pools of light that periodically raked over the audience members seated against the walls. Each projection marked the start of a new and diminished stage, and after each spot had run its course, an element (a dancer, an aural tone) was removed. As the performance wore on and its components dwindled, the remaining dancers began to visibly exhaust their reserves, until, by work’s end, they were spent.

Meg Wolfe, New Faithful Disco, 2016. Performance view, September 10, 2016, PICA, Portland, Oregon. Marbles Jumble Radio, taisha paggett, and Meg Wolfe. Photo: Meghann Gilligan.

While Thorson took the long view, examining biological systems over single lifespans and geological epochs, Los Angeles–based choreographer Meg Wolfe staked her claim in the recent past, positioning the discothèque as a site of liberation. Wolfe’s New Faithful Disco, 2016, was a joyful counterpoint to Thorson’s piece, revisiting a seminal space of celebration for gay men and other minorities, extending its berth to be even more inclusive of the wide spectrum of queer identities. Wolfe’s forty-minute fantasy disco routine came replete with high-drama props including massive lamé blankets and, at one point, and inexplicably, antler-like headgear.

New Faithful Disco’s trio (which included Wolfe herself alongside 2014 Whitney Biennial artist taisha paggett and the phenomenal Marbles Jumble Radio) rose from spotlit denim patchwork quilts, pulsing to abstracted beats that had been mixed by composer Maria de Los Angeles “Cuca” Esteves using samples and distortions of disco standards like Anita Ward’s “Ring My Bell” and Shalamar’s “Make That Move.” By the work’s end, the homespun quilts had been flipped to reveal gold brocade undersides on which the dancers writhed in a dogpile of undifferentiated bliss. Yet Wolfe also hinted at the limits of revisionary politics. “The hardest part is knowing I’ll survive,” warbles Emmylou Harris in another sample (“Boulder to Birmingham,” 1975), in a melancholic precursor to Gloria Gaynor’s 1978 disco anthem. “I have come to listen for the sound / of the trucks as they move down / out on ninety-five / and pretend that it’s the ocean / coming down to wash me clean.” Taken another way, New Faithful Disco is less an attempt to rewrite history than a celebration of survival and possibility, in which the highway may just reveal itself to be the ocean after all.

Cat Kron

The fourteenth Time-Based Art Festival ran September 8 through 18 in Portland, Oregon.

Romeo Castellucci, Go Down, Moses, 2014. Performance view, October 23, 2014, Théatre de Vidy, Lausanne, Switzerland. Rascia Darwish. Photo: Guido Mencari.

TO THINK AND SPEAK AND ACT in the way of madness—meaning, to speak in opposition to madness made popular, shared, atomized, taken as reason, as the natural way of things—only to be seen and heard and understood as madness, as criminality, itself: This is the condition of Moses’s mother, or rather the woman we think of as Moses’s mother in theater artist Romeo Castellucci’s harrowing and brilliant Go Down, Moses.

Spun very loosely from the story of the Biblical hero who led the Israelites to the Promised Land, Castellucci’s play doesn’t tell us the story of the great prophet. Instead, it follows an imagined fate of his mother, the woman who left her infant son in the bulrushes of the Nile so that he may meet his destiny: to free the slaves, to know God, and to deliver divine law. On stage there is no river, no burning bush, no golden calf. Rather, we begin somewhere closer to the present, and without the promise of a grand destiny for the child of this retelling. The only time we, the audience, lay eyes on Moses, he’s a wailing infant, just a few hours old, stuffed into a plastic bag and tossed into a dumpster. What future now?

The first time we lay eyes on the mother, she’s sobbing too, bleeding profusely from between her legs in a public bathroom, pressing wads of stiff paper towels against her to stop the flow. We later see her wrapped in a blanket, sitting in a police station, being questioned about the location of her missing baby. Is it a loss of blood or an abundance of grief or both that transforms her story into something unbelievable—dis-believable? You have done the cruelest thing that anyone could imagine, a police inspector tells her, to which she replies:

Must I acknowledge only this life? The only one, and unjust. Unjust because it’s the only one!

As she explains that she threw her son in the Nile—It was the only way to save him—the inspector becomes more and more distraught. She makes no sense to him. Her words, her experience of time and place, do not seem to line up with the moment they’re in together. Neither does her vision of how to save the world:

We are close, so close to a new beginning of the world.
How can we find a way to say this? How can we say this to the poor?
They are fated to toil.
And so it will be, forever.
No one will ever succeed in changing the perpetual reality of things.
This is why my child, Moses, was born.
He will make a new pact with God.
We must make God turn back. Into himself.

God may not be dead, but he’s certainly not himself these days, and if Moses’s mother is to be believed, only he—with the help of her son—can interrupt the terrible, static spiral of human life.

Romeo Castellucci, Go Down, Moses, 2014. Performance view, October 23, 2014, Théatre de Vidy, Lausanne, Switzerland. Photo: Guido Mencari.

Castellucci has long been considered a master of stagecraft and design, and his eye is nothing short of marvelous, even sublime. In Go Down, Moses, he keeps those of us stowed safely in our seats at an odd and uncomfortable distance from the play’s unfolding by complicating the stage’s depth of field. It may seem a funny thing to praise the dimensionality of a theater space, but the director—a canny visual artist who builds his plays out of what might be called “living images”—has given this work an uncanny presence through what appears as a simple gesture. Throughout, a scrim remains at the front of the stage like a veil through which we watch the scenes appear and vanish with the dexterity of apparitions. The effect is that of a looking glass, or more to the point, an inverted cinema in which we onlookers are seated behind the screen, the lights on the other side illuminating and projecting the visions in front of us.

The play moves forward via a series of tableaux that come together like constellations, tethered by forces that push and pull them rather than strung along a tidy narrative arc. Two of the most striking: An enormous turbine appears on stage, producing nothing but the sound of its merciless momentum—not forward, but stuck in place, a useless machine that gets us nowhere and does nothing but catch wigs that descend from the ceiling and spin them around and around and around. It is a violent and unrelenting sight. In the penultimate sequence, we watch a primitive, prehistoric woman living in a cave mourn her dead baby and bury it. Surrounded by others, she paints the letters SOS with her hand on the scrim and then hits it, sending ripples across its neat surface, as though trying to shatter the membrane between us and them.

One may leave Castellucci’s violent world understanding that stories are perilous things too—what we tell ourselves to live, of course, but as well to abandon, to imprison, to diagnose. Go Down, Moses may be most striking in the way that it connects us to the experience of a certain chaos—marvelous, nightmarish—and to a feral, untamable present to which we all sooner or later will be held accountable, whether we understand it—whether it means something—or not.

Jennifer Krasinski is a writer based in New York.

Romero Castellucci’s Go Down, Moses ran at the Alexander Kasser Theater at Montclair State University from June 9 through 12 as part of Peak Performances. He will make his New York debut this autumn at Crossing the Line Festival with Julius Caesar. Spared Parts.

Deep Space


Adee Roberson, Brontez Purnell, keyon gaskin, Tasha Ceyan, and Wizard Apprentice, Blank Map, 2016. Performance view, Dance Mission Theater, San Francisco, June 2, 2016. Adee Roberson, keyon gaskin, Brontez Purnell, Tasha Ceyan, and Wizard Apprentice. Photo: Leila Weefur.

SHORTLY BEFORE I SAW BLANK MAP, a work created and performed collectively by five black, queer artists, an invitation for “Blackness in Abstraction,” a show at Pace Gallery curated by Adrienne Edwards, landed in my inbox. 
As I watched these five disparate individuals in Blank Map moving and not moving, together and apart, for roughly an hour, the concept of Edwards’s exhibition kept surfacing. When Brontez Purnell lay prone in front of a camera positioned on the floor, pulled down his pants and undulated his ass, the audience witnessed both the spectacle of bouncing flesh and the dark, wavelike shapes his action generated on the screen. Watching this beautiful, loaded provocation, I thought of the ways in which blackness (or abstraction?) might be engendered as much by a profusion as an absence of representation. 
I first heard about Blank Map as a work about blackness “instigated” by the queer white artist Keith Hennessy, who is older and considerably more famous than the members of the collective he assembled: Adee Roberson, Brontez Purnell, keyon gaskin, Tasha Ceyan, and Wizard Apprentice. Watching it on opening weekend at the Dance Mission Theater in San Francisco, I was acutely aware of not knowing where or how to position myself, a straight white cisgender woman who knows Hennessy’s work well and only slightly knows Purnell and gaskin, and the work of Roberson, Ceyan, and Wizard Apprentice not at all (all the tired ways in which knowledge breaks along axes of gender and race). Later that week, I began, I believe accurately, to understand the piece as two pieces: a collective interdisciplinary performance by five artists sitting uneasily inside a conceptual work (about whiteness?) by a solo author. And on the show’s second and last weekend as part of the National Queer Arts Festival, the same weekend that a gunman walked into a gay club and murdered forty-nine individuals within a collective of freely dancing bodies—I could only think of the quietly defiant demand for freedom and safety uttered throughout the work: “I want space.”
A blank map indeed. Which direction(s) to follow where? Which to reject? “Refusal and pleasure” are scrawled again and again in my notes. If the performance has any aboutness to it, I think it resides in the slippery, fraught crosscurrents between what one grants access to, and what one draws strength and gratification from hiding—and how that changes with patrons, with peers, with the public. “I’ve been committed to practicing authenticity throughout this project, though I alternate between worrying that I’ve given too much away or held too much back,” to quote a program note by Wizard Apprentice, who spent almost the entire performance sitting in the back of the theater, her body attendant to the music she was making, several rows of what appeared to be large white and black eyeballs arranged in front of her, staring out at her audience. “Gaze can make it hard for me to be authentic,” her note explains. 

Adee Roberson, Brontez Purnell, keyon gaskin, Tasha Ceyan, and Wizard Apprentice, Blank Map, 2016. Performance view, Dance Mission Theater, San Francisco, June 2, 2016. Tasha Ceyan, Adee Roberson, and Brontez Purnell. Photo: Leila Weefur.

gaskin and (especially) Purnell went the other way, playing explicitly with artifice and theatricality (something the others would at times flirt with, and meet head on at the end in a moment of “smile for the camera” artificiality that felt drawn from another, more predictable world). At one point Purnell took to a drum kit and gaskin donned a single tap shoe and the two did rhythmic battle, a host of black American entertainer histories simmering between them. Earlier, Ceyan had crawled around the stage with coiled kineticism, that same tap shoe hanging from her neck.  
Who claims space, who is allowed to claim space, and how? Whether instigated by an outsider or not, collectives throw power dynamics into stark relief. In her note, Roberson (who also had good things to say on the drums) underlines “a lot of problematic things. Like the fact that a white man could write a proposal about Blackness, and get money for it at all. When perhaps any of us could write a proposal about our experience and NOT receive grants or funding… And the general lack of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color on the boards of these funding organizations.”
Hennessy, of course, is well aware of these things too, having spent his career in part inhabiting the fractious fault lines running between, through, and under activism and art. I am reminded, in thinking about Blank Map, that Hennessy describes his 2010–2012 work Turbulence (a dance about the economy), as “a collective failure.”

It’s easy to see only failure (or to see failure as only bad). Yet Hennessy’s art, even when full of darkness, always feels deeply alive to me. Blank Map isn’t Hennessy’s work—but it is in conversation with it. Roberson ended her written thoughts by hoping her actions might contribute to change—a necessary thing, and a hard thing, to locate and hold inside oneself these days.

Claudia La Rocco

Blank Map ran June 3 through 12 at Dance Mission Theater in San Francisco.

View of “Lutz Bacher: Magic Mountain,” 2016.


That’s what I kept thinking while standing alone in 356 S. Mission’s industrial backlot amid shifting clumps of art-world denizens. The late-day golden light was fading, and wave upon wave of Biblical so-and-so begat so-and-so washed up and over us via James Earl Jones’s unmistakable voice.

It was the opening night of Lutz Bacher’s Magic Mountain, an expansive installation that is one of the best things—full stop—I’ve been inside of in ages. All of the choices on display feel inevitable, unerring: complexity and clarity wandering hand in hand.

Found objects and materials abound, as is Bacher’s wont; Jones arrives courtesy of a book on tape, slowed down and edited to form Sweet Jesus, 2016, an eight-and-a-half-minute loop that turns the cracked-concrete, weed-bedraggled, razor-wire festooned rectangle in which it resides into a space of latent drama. (A 356 S. Mission representative informed me that Bacher “dates works according to when the idea for a piece originated,” and so one imagines—hopes—Sweet Jesus found its final form after Bacher knew where it would live.)

Magic Mountain is shot through with the performative, including Bacher’s titles, which shuttle between the factual and the fantastic. Fire, 2016, a print of a fire truck on plywood and wood, zooms forward from the corner of the Ooga Booga store just inside the entrance, while PLEASE (LC), 2013–15, a four-channel video of a man-behind-the curtain snippet of a Leonard Cohen concert, stops and starts endlessly in the basement, flanking the show’s title work: jagged slate-blue foam modules piled up like discarded crowns. One man’s treasure… I thought of the royal dwarves in Lord of the Rings who “delved too greedily and too deep” underneath those other, ominous magic mountains. (Thomas Mann has never been my cup of tea, nor killer roller coasters.)

View of “Lutz Bacher: Magic Mountain,” 2016.

Perhaps all kingdoms come to this. I was prepped to see crowns by Godfathers, 2016, a print of men in suits at a long table, doubled to form a V, that stands behind the front office’s actual table (with, yes, Chairs, 2016). These men might have been at home in the sinister Kurt Jooss ballet The Green Table, made in 1932 as Germany staggered between wars—masked diplomats dance around the table, and the deaths they decide are not their own.

But there is an actual, quiet performance tucked inside the installation’s center. Paradise (2016): a piano, painted white, from which emanates a recording of tuning periodically punctuated by the presence of a live tuner. Someone told me the building was once a home for baby grand pianos, stacked, unbelievably, from floor to ceiling and owned, naturally, by Liberace. (If this isn’t true I don’t want to know.) For Magic Mountain, the great central chamber of 356 S. Mission is left largely empty, the better for its scale to act on visitors. As you gaze up, over, across—at other people; at The Alps, 2015, a giant Mylar hanging of blue and white snowy crests; at Blue Infinite (Horizon), 2016, a blue chalk line running the length of the back wall—Bacher is creeping up on you via Divine Transportation, 2016, iridescent glitter coating the floor like the barest dusting of snow.

In the beginning is the end. At the opening festivities, there was an outlier among the straight-out-of-central casting art-world types milling around like Hollywood extras awaiting their minutes of fame. An unkempt man, sitting quietly on the bench just outside the lot. Was he also listening to Jones? As the car I was in was pulling out of its parking space, there he was again, walking too slowly for us to figure out his path, his hair wild, his arms directing invisible forces.

I thought of him a few days later when I was back in the Bay Area, where Bacher lived and worked for many years. I was visiting the Wattis Institute to see Ten Paintings, new work by Laura Owens, a cofounder of 356 S. Mission. On the front desk, should one manage not to get immediately swept up in Owens’s mark- and meaning-making, lies a neatly folded, yellowing copy of the Los Angeles Times from January 17, 1991. “U.S. Stakes Hopes on a Quick End” to Iraq invasion, reads the above-the-fold headline, while the Metro section announces “Lost Souls Lose: Caltrans Prepares to Evict Squatters in Self-Styled City.”

The more things change the more they stay the same; i.e., as Bacher writes in SHIT FOR BRAINS, “THE WORLD IS A SHITHOLE.”

The Wattis could be a smaller, more manicured version of 356 S. Mission, and it’s easy to find echoes between the two shows, with their luscious juxtapositions and hidden messages. In Ten Paintings, if you followed instructions to text a question to a phone number, you would get audio answers that seemed like punishment for being unable to look without mediation. (Weirdly, there has been something of a hubbub around Ten Paintings, concerning who gets what information, and why.)

People are forever writing that Bacher is impossible to write about. But it seems like just the opposite (look how many ridiculous things I just wrote). Or rather the impossibility only presents itself if you assume there is ever a right way to talk about anything. Or that an artist who presents a less tricksterish public persona than Bacher is any more knowable in the end.

Claudia La Rocco

Lutz Bacher’s Magic Mountain runs through July 31st at 356 S. Mission in Los Angeles.

Los Angeles Poverty Department, What Fuels Development, 2016. Performance view, Armory Center for the Arts, Pasadena, March 2016. Photo: Monica Nouwens.

IT’S HAPPY HOUR IN AMERICA. A day’s work done, the gainfully, under- and self-employed rush home by way of a well-earned pint. On South Main Street in Los Angeles, from a sidewalk cluttered with chalkboards, a dozen upscale haunts beckon the thirsty. 452 South Main is not among them.

That address, the once and future home of a food truck turned brick-and-mortar hopeful known as Great Balls, has stood empty for four lucrative years. The blank storefront has its neighbors to thank. In 2013, residents of the New Genesis Apartments, the low-income and recovery housing complex for which 452 is ground-level retail, balked righteously at the liquor license issued on their doorstep. Their building is owned and managed by Skid Row Housing Trust, a community bulwark which, they argue, should stick to addiction-recovery services, and leave alcoholic serveries to the profiteers.

On March 25th, I lined up not downtown, but in historic Pasadena; not for the opening of Great Balls, but of Great Ballz. It was the debut performance of What Fuels Development?, the centerpiece of a retrospective at the Armory Arts Center for John Malpede and the Skid Row–based performance troupe Los Angeles Poverty Department, or LAPD. Nine plasticky tables crowded a round, faux-wood stage beneath lozenge-colored lamps. The maître d’ handed each guest a menu as we took our seats, soon to savor the irony of dishes like The Urban Pioneer (squirrel meatballs), Gentri-Fried Chicken (it’s free-range), and drinks like Redundant IPA and Open Container. No liquor served here either though—only an impassioned dramatization of the true-life fight to keep Great Balls dry, a specific episode to counter the abstract surety of gentrification. On one side of the gallery, under a row of banners sewn in gold lamé with the puffy faces of Skid Row luminaries, was a lectern; on the other was a conference table, mics and placards, where zoning commissioners Brown, Acevedo, and Martorell would hear the arguments both for, but mostly against, the restaurant’s alcohol permit.

Per LAPD’s mission, current or former tenants of Skid Row played almost every role, on both sides of the issue—playing themselves, or people like them, or people opposed. “It’s the center of Gallery Row, and Art Walk,” said a “twelve-year resident of downtown” (not Skid Row, note), voiced by a Skid Row local. But an art gallery closes at 6, so, in the interest of safety, the neighborhood council insisted on a late-serving restaurant. You’ve heard about business, said one New Genesis resident, after listing the block’s extant bars. “Now, Commissioners—what about me? I live here.” The restaurant owners don’t. “And I have to live with their mess.” He’s worked for years on the Skid Row cleanup crew, and blames the littered street on its fickle customers, not its citizens.

Los Angeles Poverty Department, What Fuels Development, 2016. Performance view, Pasadena Armory Arts Center, March 2016. Photo: Monica Nouwens.

Suddenly the cast surrounded us and, kicking in unison, rotated the stage—a giant lazy Susan—90 degrees. Our perspective shifted, jostled, like we’d had a few, fast-forwarded through months of local bureaucratic process, tumbled through a litany of names and acronyms and hearings—between the main audience with the Area Planning Commission/Central (APC/C) and internal SRHT board deliberations, Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council (DLANC) meetings and speculative handshake deals in hallways and back rooms.

Spin to a scene at a cafe table cluttered with empties, where DLANC members, development rep-for-hire Elizabeth Peterson, and Clint Peralta, cofounder and public face of Great Balls, discussed the fate of the New Genesis like some debauched Weimar landlords in a Grosz painting. True, SRHT struggled to get seventy-nine new very-low-income units added to an above-market-value Main Street—Skid Row side or no. “But we’re housing the homeless!” insisted one politician. “You can house them,” said another. “But you don’t have to showcase them!” Yet the Armory is that showcase. The cast in their imaginary council dock murmured genuine assent, called out heartfelt support—“That’s right.” “Tell the truth!”—for their real-life friends and neighbors.

For the stuffier, pitiless, victors’ version of history, see a string of editorials from LA Downtown News—three in two years—plus one from the Los Angeles Times, enskying the “progress” of the “Historic Core.” And by the way—why meatballs? “Because meatballs are universal,” Great Balls on Tires has actually claimed. Turns out the LAPD’s satire isn’t far from the inane ball-boosting rhetoric of supporters, or from downtown’s childish (not to say Freudian) fixation on having meatballs, and having them their way. Jane Jacobs urged mixed-use, including restaurants and bars, but Main Street’s zealous developers ignore other features of healthy neighborhoods: gradual change, a sense of common past, and—that old number—diversity. Alas, in LA’s pyrrhic imagination, success always has a bar.

In March 2013, the APC/C granted Skid Row residents’ appeal. But in June the next year, the Commission reinstated GB’s right to booze. For those who call New Genesis home, the events portrayed in What Fuels Development? (the answer, by the way, is money) mark only a brief reprieve between a slap in the face and a kick in the… I’ll say mouth. Let downtowners eat their balls. Let them have their Red, White & Brew. (And yet, as of this writing, Malpede and co. have taken the fight to the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control; a public hearing is pending.) Regardless, the Skid Row community, through the artwork of LAPD, has won something that will likely outlast a trendy meatball stand: a moment of collective history, the legend of that spring day in 2013 when their voices made a difference. A final slow turn of the stage, all the way, 360 degrees. Another view. In March 2016, at the Armory, their appeal was granted once more. The residents clapped for joy. The LAPD cast surrounded the Great Ballz restaurant floor, joined hands, and took a bow.

Travis Diehl

Performances of What Fuels Development by the Los Angeles Poverty Department took place on March 25th and 26th and April 1st through 3rd. The group’s retrospective, “Do you want the cosmetic version or the real deal?: Los Angeles Poverty Department, 1985–2016” is on view at the Armory Center for the Arts, Pasadena through May 15th.