Machine Project: A Field Guide to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Edited by Mark Allen, Jason Brown and Liz Glynn
When Machine Project, a gallery known more for holding DIY electronics workshops and cooking classes than courting collectors, was invited to stage an event at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, both organizations found themselves in uncharted territory. How would a staid cultural establishment, whose sprawling campus houses a vast collection of priceless objects, handle an intervention by a team of artists brainstorming ideas like “synchronized fountain wading” and “art appreciation air horn”?
Los Angeles is rife with artist-operated “institutes” and “centers,” organizations like Machine Project that trade in ideas, skills and collaborative investigations rather than objects and capital. Officially incorporated as an art educational non-profit, Machine, as it is affectionately called, was founded by artist (and Art Lies co-founder and former editor) Mark Allen. Over the past six years, Allen has cultivated a community of artists, writers and musicians who share his mission to increase access to technology and, as sometime-collaborator Margaret Wertheim puts it, “aesthetic experiences.” The LACMA opportunity, facilitated by curator Charlotte Cotton (who has since moved on to England’s National Media Museum), granted Allen and his cohorts a chance to test out their ideas on a larger scale.
The activities and performances that were a part of “A Machine Project Field Guide to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art” on November 15, 2008, were more poetic in experience than definition. Consider the following: a tour of the museum grounds as they would have existed during the Pleistocene epoch; a make-your-own birdhouse workshop using materials from a de-installed museum exhibition; musicians wandering the galleries, playing music contemporary to the surrounding artworks; and a courtyard napping area. In their emphasis on context, process and collective experience, these activities aimed to engage the passive museumgoer in a reinterpretation of the museum as public space, civic landmark and cultural progenitor—a Fluxus update of Hans Haacke, if you will.
It seems appropriate that the glossy-paged, softcover volume commemorating this exotic endeavor feels more like National Geographic than an exhibition catalogue. Equally resonant is the overwhelming, confusing, inspiring and exhilarating experience of actually reading it. Myriad texts (interviews, essays, instructions, recipes, artist statements and excerpts of original research) and images (photographs, video stills, drawings, maps, charts and model diagrams) casually yet intelligently represent the more than 50 participating artists and their activities, performances and interventions at LACMA. The editors manage to effectively convey the spirit and genius of the event in a way that is revelatory, not only of the ethos and modus of Machine but also the larger creative movement of which it is a part. A few key texts speak directly to this agenda of soft and playful institutional critique: Allen’s introduction and interview with Anthony McCann, Ken Ehrlich’s excellent essay “Learning from Learning: Machine Project Workshops as a Laboratory in Context,” and Liz Glynn’s reflective “Props for Performance: Some Notes on Methodology.” On LACMA’s side, Cotton reminds us of the museum’s past innovative partnerships with local artists, including the Art and Technology program of the late 1960s. In a time when museums are desperate to attract new visitors, and the art world continues to obsess over the latest young thing, Machine Project: A Field Guide to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is a testament to one community’s wealth of ideas, and one institution’s progressive outlook.
Vera Brunner-Sung is a filmmaker and writer based in Los Angeles.