Collaboration Labs: Southern California Artists & The Artist Space Movement
18th Street Arts Center, Santa Monica
Through December 16
by Travis Diehl
In the spirit of a moment when artists spoke of consciousness raising and when pooling ideas and resources opened up daring new forms, Collaboration Labs seeks to inscribe the particular histories of five Los Angeles-based artist collectives into the larger narrative of the emergence of video, performance and artist groups in the 70s and 80s. The show presents a collection of documentation and wall texts that looks and feels like an exploded art history textbook. The old photos, sketches and props have their own appeal, but the most exciting discovery is perhaps how Los Angeles artists at this time seized on new technology as a means to raise consciousness across the globe.
The exhibition presents a few established artists such as Rachel Rosenthal, Barbara T. Smith, Suzanne Lacy, and Leslie Labowitz-Starus, though with a focus on their collaborative projects. For Field Piece Workers (1970), Smith preserved “glimmering pools of resin” black and white photos of the “art-workers, artists, and friends” who helped realize her monumental Field Piece (1968-71). One particularly savvy work by Lacy and Labowitz-Starus, part of their series exposing the culture of violence against women, was conceived for a television audience. Lacy, Labowitz-Starus, and a cast of other women artists performed Record Companies Drag Their Feet (1977) beneath a billboard for the KISS album Love Gun. The artists invited local news media, gave them a “shot list,” and then produced a kind of consciousness-raising telethon for the cameras.
Lesser known are the techno-collectives like EZTV and Electronic Café who experimented with the cutting edge broadcast electronics of their day in order to make sci-fi global unity a reality. In 1979, John Dorr founded EZTV, the first video theater in the country. Viewers sat in couches and chairs crowded around multiple television monitors. EZTV also functioned as a production studio; video was seen as a kind of homemade television—immediate, accessible, even democratic—where the means of production were within reach of the underrepresented and oppressed. At 18th Street, a handful of videos screened at EZTV loop on a monitor. These include stroboscopic, spectral visualizations by Michael Masucci and James Williams, which push the mind-expanding potential of psychedelic drugs into virtual reality.
Operating parallel to East Coast video collectives like Paper Tiger Television and Ant Farm, these Californian artists understood the dangers and potential of this new medium just as well. Early satellite works by Sherrie Rabinowitz and Kit Galloway as Electronics Café International even predate similar experiments by Nam June Paik. While the Getty's Pacific Standard Time initiative revives comparisons between East and West Coast art, Electronics Café worked to erase such distinctions. Their Hole in Space (1980) connected the public in Times Square, New York and Century City, California via satellite. Later pieces utilized a virtual, satellite-linked performance space, a venue “without geographical boundaries.” The exhibition includes a number of drawings and plans for Electronics Café works which are themselves remarkable. The sketches depict celestial bodies, meditative poses, and human silhouettes linked by ricocheting satellite beams. One unrealized piece joins the Pacific and Atlantic oceans in a televised split-screen image. These artists sought to realize collaborations in an expanded sense, overcoming through technology the limitations of nations, distance and ignorance.
Travis Diehl is an artist and writer based in Los Angeles.