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Social Practice Art the Gestalt of CURRENT:LA

Michael Parker, "The Unfinished, 2014
Current:LA, A New Public Art Biennial
Shana Nys Dambrot, Artbound

A recent mayoral announcement officially launched the Department of Cultural Affairs’ new Current:LA initiative, an issues-driven public art biennial whose inaugural edition happens at non-traditional locations scattered across the city in July and August. The first edition, Current:LA Water, addresses the multivalent topic of water’s usage, history, and role in the city’s physical and social infrastructure. This includes the L.A. River, but as the organizers are quick to point out, it is about so much more than just the river. There's water infrastructure throughout the city from the Port of L.A. (San Pedro) to the L.A. wetlands of Ballona Creek, to Hansen Dam in the north), and of course, the coast.

The DCA’s Public Art Division is using $1 million received through a grant program of the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Public Art Challenge, plus matching funds from the city’s Arts Development Fee (ADF) program, more commonly known as the percent-for-art program that taps developers and other kinds of businesses for sustaining funds for what is usually permanent works of public art. But forget that abstract-sculpture-in-a-plaza model of public art; the Bloomberg grant specifically called for temporary public art projects and public programs at outdoor locations, and the DCA has embraced this paradigm shift with an enthusiast, open-minded can-do spirit taking full advantage of what DCA general manager Danielle Brazell calls “L.A.’s inspired moment.” 

Besides reframing the conversation on what public art can be, Current:LA is also reconfiguring assumptions about what a biennial looks like.

So what -- and where -- exactly will Current:LA Water be? And what is it going to look like? The non-answer is: we don’t really know yet. We know it’s “about water,” but that could mean a lot of things, by no means all of which have to do with the river, or even the drought per se. Brazell explains: “It's very much about how water flows through our city, with intersecting lines between the waterways, tributaries, and freeways. We are looking to layer and integrate art throughout the landscape and within communities and help to create greater connectivity between them, to look at local cultural connections and tourism in a different way.”

Although the curators and core artists have been announced, the gestalt of the biennial is social practice art -- signifying works which do not always involve sculptural or other objects at all, and which are participatory, socially engaged, site-specific, frequently interdisciplinary, and inherently unpredictable. Calls for corollary programs and related local culture calendars are still going out at this time, so a whole universe of special events and nearby attractions have yet to be announced and will be rolled out as the opening date approaches. Additionally, the specific locations themselves have not been released, beyond the promise of there being at least one in each of the city’s 15 council districts, because in some cases, they are still being scouted and confirmed through negotiations with local representatives and stakeholders.

The curators are Ruth Estévez (REDCAT, Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater), Rita Gonzalez (LACMA), Karen Moss (Otis College of Art and Design and USC Roski School of Fine Arts and Design), and Irene Tsatsos (Armory Center for the Arts). Felicia Filer, Public Art Division director, says that “very early on, we wanted it to be a curatorial committee so there would be multiple practices and perspectives and not just the vision of one person; but we also knew that we wanted to use artists who are considered social practice artists. Again, that's not been the kind of artists that we've been able to support in the past, artists who were working in that modality. We wanted curators that had an interest in social practice art, an interest in the water issue itself, and experience in biennials.” Brazell concurs, adding, “I also think it's really important that the curators are here, they are L.A.-based so there's a deep investment in L.A., and understanding L.A. -- and giving back to L.A.”


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Image: Michael Parker, "The Unfinished, 2014 | Photo: Emma Sheffer


Graduate Public Practice faculty Karen Moss is currently consulting curator for Talking to Action, at the Ben Maltz Gallery, Otis’ participation part of the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time Los Angeles/Latin America initiative and is also on the curatorial team for CURRENT: LA. The CURRENT:LA biennial will feature works from Fine Arts faculty members Kori Newkirk and Joshua Callaghan.

Graduate Public Practice is the only educational program in the Southern California region dedicated exclusively to providing artists with advanced skills for working in the public sphere, the Program focuses on both collaborative and individual art production.