Feature

From Machine to Museum Project: Interview with Mark Allen

Ken D. Allan
Phil Ross, "Chronic Revel" (detail), 2006. Photo: Anita Bunn.

Phil Ross, Chronic Revel (detail), 2006. Photo: Anita Bunn.

At the Pomona College Museum of Art in Claremont, a series of exhibits running from January to April and curated by Mark Allen and Jason Brown presented a refreshingly eclectic view of contemporary art practice. The series included Holly Vesecky’s “live” floral volcano, a collection of eggs being “tested” by amplified robotic hammers by Kelli Cain and Brian Crabtree, a visual exploration of the links between colonialism and ornament in the history of the map cartouche by Ryan Taber and Cheyanne Weaver, and a display by Phil Ross of several snapshot cameras that had been placed in a cement mixer to simulate the forces of natural erosion.

Allen and Brown are the founders of Machine Project, a non-profit, storefront exhibition and performance space in Echo Park where these pieces were originally exhibited, and their interests as artists and gallery directors address the relationship between art and technology. Allen was recently hired as an assistant professor of digital art at Pomona College and has been teaching courses about art and technology, such as “Electron Wrangling for Beginners,” which he describes as “building circuits, using sensors, and understanding how to use electricity to make stuff do stuff.”

Working at the intersection of new media and a variety of collaborative approaches, Machine Project has emerged as one of the most interesting new showcases for art in Los Angeles that doesn’t fit neatly into conventional critical categories. Considering what seems to be Machine Project’s commitment to process over the finished product, I was curious to see how the exhibitions would translate to the museum setting. The shows were popular with students and the college community at large, perhaps because Allen and Brown opened up the preparation process to viewers and aimed to bring the fluidity of their Echo Park gallery space into the institution. This attempt to eliminate the boundaries between viewers, the art object and the exhibition context is reminiscent of an earlier, more literal precedent in this regard which occurred at the same museum space: Michael Asher’s 1970 Pomona College installation piece in which the artist physically altered the galleries by, among other things, removing an exterior wall and opening the museum to the street. As Mark Allen discusses with me below, Machine Project’s address to the street, specifically Alvarado Street near the junction with Sunset Boulevard, is central to the nature of what the gallery is trying to accomplish. In light of recent discussions of the emergence of independent and alternative art spaces and exhibition projects in Los Angeles, I was interested in discussing the ways that Allen negotiated the different spaces—literal and conceptual— that this re-presentation of Machine Project exhibitions at Pomona College entailed. Along the way, Allen provides insight into the state of new art practice in Southern California and its relationship to the social, the political and the technological.

Our discussion took place at Machine Project in Echo Park on a weekend day shortly after the opening of Harris Wulfson’s LiveScore, a performance in which members of the audience could manipulate a computer interface to produce sheet music that was then sight-read and performed by classical musicians live in the gallery. The performance was part of a series at the gallery called You Too Can Play Difficult Music.

Kelli Cain & Brian Crabtree, "Almost Certified" (detail), 2006. Photo: Anita Bunn.

Kelli Cain & Brian Crabtree, Almost Certified (detail), 2006. Photo: Anita Bunn.

Ken D. Allan: Well, to start I want to get a sense of your mission at Machine Project. I am particularly interested in the transition from Machine Project here in Echo Park to the Pomona College Museum of Art series. How did you negotiate the change from a kind of anti-institutional space to the liberal-arts-college-museum space?

Mark Allen: When preparing for the show at Pomona, we tried to figure out what was central to what we do, and could that be taken somewhere else. I think some aspects of it can; some aspects of it can’t. A lot of what makes this space function—here—is that the agendas for the gallery are embedded in the space, not only in architectural form and what neighborhood it’s in, but also because we invest [in] the activities here in a certain way. People have become used to the ethos of the space, and that resonates in the nature of what happens here. And I have a lot of control, obviously, over what goes on at Machine. You go into the museum institution, there’s a lot less control. One of the things that was hard for all the artists to deal with was shifting away from an improvisational production model where we stay open 24 hours if we need to stay open; we drill a hole in the floor if we need to drill a hole in the floor. And so just having to stop work at 5:00 PM instead of 3:00 in the morning was hard for some of the artists. But it was interesting, too. For example, Holly [Vesecky]’s piece — the volcano [Mt. St. Holly]. We had done that at Machine a year and a half ago. And Holly said [at the Pomona College Museum opening], “This is the first time I’ve been able to enjoy my piece because normally I’m up [all night] working for three days beforehand.” So the institutional limits forced her to go home and sleep. Also, one of the things that I like about this space [in Echo Park] is that people will wander in off the street out of idle curiosity, and that couldn’t really happen when we’re sequestered in the depths of the museum.

Something else that I found interesting about doing the Pomona show was how at Machine Project I have a very clear idea of my role in that I’m not [the artist] — they’re not my pieces—but I bring all the artists in. The gallery feels like it’s a very direct expression of who I am—my interests and my sensibilities. The Pomona Museum is not my space. And throughout the show I found myself [asking myself] what am I supposed to be doing? I would like to think I played the role of critical catalyst, but I was never clear on what my real role was. And at the openings viewers were never sure either, [and often asked] did you make the art? What was I doing there? So that was weird, actually, and educational for me. But part of the reason I was hired at Pomona, or at least what I interpret my mission [to be] there, is to make stronger connections between the students and the larger Los Angeles art community. So just being able to bring in four different artists whose work I really admired and who had, I thought, a really different kind of approach to being artists was useful.

Ken D. Allan: As a model for students.

Mark Allen: Yeah. Each show was up for only a couple weeks, and we kept the gallery open during the whole installation and de-installation process. So I could bring [students] over and [show them the artists] setting up. And then once the shows were up I had each artist talk to the classes and kind of demystify [their practice] or create a more casual relation between the students and the artists. The demystification of process is something that’s really important to me, agenda-wise, on a variety of different levels. Part of that for students [is showing that] this is what artists do; this is a studio. This is how you start an art gallery: you find a space; find some friends to help you pay the rent. This is how you have an art opening: you invite everyone you know, get a keg of beer. None of that stuff is really that complicated. So providing a very approachable model of the practical aspects is how I see my purpose.

Ken D. Allan: And do you feel that kind of leveling also comes out of a need to demystify the concept of new media? Or is it also perhaps about defusing the sort of uneasiness with becoming a participant in an art exhibit where viewers ask themselves, “Is this an art experience?” or, “How do I behave in this new kind of art experience?”

Mark Allen: I think there are a couple of agendas at work there. One is that I’m really interested in creative culture, rather than consumerist culture. Another is asking what can I do in a practical way to attempt to create a society that is more engaged. It just feels like we’re so driven by this consumerist culture that suggests peoples’ roles are to work and consume, and obviously none of us, especially in the arts, think that’s a great way to live as human beings. So one of the ways to work against that is to create really easy and fun models of creative production, and to try and break down the idea that it’s a separate class—this creative class—and that creative work is for specialists only. Finally, it’s about trying to change people’s relationships to technology from being something that’s consumed to being a source of play.

Ken D. Allan: So, that’s why this space doesn’t look like the Apple store?

Mark Allen: Yes. I really specifically wanted this to not be about hiding the seams. The seams can be the most interesting thing. Art can function in a really generous way when it can do the sort of transformative and impressive things that art can do, at the same time revealing its process to a certain degree. I don’t feel like it takes away from something to see how it works.

Ryan Taber and Cheyenne Weaver, "Yink of the Medusa/How to Navigate the Climactic Shifts of the Map Cartouche," 2006. Photo: Anita Bunn.

Ryan Taber and Cheyenne Weaver, Yink of the Medusa/How to Navigate the Climactic Shifts of the Map Cartouche, 2006. Photo: Anita Bunn.

Ken D. Allan: Along those lines, I am interested in the way that the models that you seem to put in play here are much more about sociability, about improvisation, and a certain kind of interactivity. It isn’t about being acted “on”; the art work isn’t “interactive” just because it’s like a video game, for instance. It seems Machine Project puts forth a different kind of model, perhaps a more contemplative kind of interactivity. Is that a conscious choice, to sort of counter some other models of new media?

Mark Allen: Yeah, definitely. The specific model of interactivity that I’m interested in asks what kinds of relationships can exist between artwork, creator, performer, and audience, and how can those roles remain dynamic. What kind of osmosis and flow can happen between those roles, and how can art experiences attain a singularity as experiences from the specificity of the occasion? This comes from the audience having something to do, which, with the breakdown of pure passivity, brings the potential for a more meaningful experience.

Ken D. Allan: It seems like you’re also talking about the way that audience will recognize themselves as being a part of something.

Mark Allen: Yeah, and how that can make the experience more intense for them. And the other thing I wanted to say—and this is something that I talk about a fair amount — is that sociability, social life and intellectual life, are reinforcing; they should work together, and they gain strength by working together. I believe most interesting creative work comes out of the community.

Ken D. Allan: Right. I am also interested in how you dealt with the different roles of being curator, gallerist, or program director between Machine Project in Echo Park and the series at the Pomona Museum and in the classroom at Pomona College

Holly Vesecky, Installation of "Mount St. Holly," 2006. Photo: Anita Bunn.

Holly Vesecky, Installation of Mount St. Holly, 2006. Photo: Anita Bunn.

Holly Vesecky, "Mount St. Holly" (detail), 2006. Photo: Anita Bunn.

Holly Vesecky, Mount St. Holly (detail), 2006. Photo: Anita Bunn.

Mark Allen: I see my roles as extremely similar between what I do [at Machine Project] and what I teach. And one of the ways I think about it is I find things that I’m excited about, and I just try and convey what’s exciting about them—it’s really just to give a little energy to an idea so that it can come alive for other people.

Ken D. Allan: This kind of enthusiasm that you’re talking about bringing to the space and to the classes—I wonder if that is about breaking down boundaries? Is it also about creating a sense of wonder, as might be the case with the “secret gallery”? [The secret gallery at Machine Project in Echo Park comprises a permanent collection of works on view through small peepholes in the floor.-KA]

Mark Allen: Yes.

Ken D. Allan: The secret gallery reminds me of the Museum of Jurassic Technology and things like that — spaces in LA that project a kind of enigmatic appeal.

Mark Allen: Well, the MJT has been a huge influence, obviously, in what I do. And I’ve always admired their space a lot. There’s a number of similar groups in LA — clearly the Museum of Jurassic Technology, the Center for Land Use Interpretation, the Institute for Figuring. It’s been illuminating to know them because we all have different styles and different things we’re interested in, but there’s also a similar sensibility that’s about more personal or idiosyncratic models of what an art space is.

Ken D. Allan: But do you find that the socially critical or progressive political stance that you see the work here [at Machine Project] embodying is something that you see as overlapping those other spaces, too?

Mark Allen: I think one of the ways that this space differs from other spaces in LA is that I’m very interested in how social dynamics can create certain kinds of intellectual life. And I’ve really focused on setting up the space to facilitate that. I don’t think other places are directly about that. They’re more about experiences for individuals. Mine is really about what goes on between the people who come. It’s very audience driven, in a way, and so that’s what I talk about, about thinking of myself as a facilitator. And that’s where there’s a big overlap between [my work at the gallery] and teaching. Some of it comes out of my thoughts about school. I went to grad school out here at CalArts, which was a great experience for me, less because of the teachers or classes, and more because of the informal flow of ideas that happens when you have a bunch of people working around each other. When you’re in school you may have political, aesthetic, or personal differences with the people you’re going to school with, but there’s an underlying commonality because you’re all committed in a pretty serious way to a specific idea, which is that art is something that has some worth. Regardless of your differences, there’s this thing that you share. Something that I thought about after being in school is: How do I create a space that can have some of that energy, but that you can come to after your day job? In other words, you don’t have to be [an MFA student]—you don’t need a $60,000 student loan—to come to Machine Project.

Ken D. Allan: This also brings up the notion of collaboration. In the Pomona series you’ve got pieces by artists working in twos and threes. Is that something you have done by design to present different models of how to be an artist or how to make work?

Mark Allen: I had done collaborative pieces before [in my own work as an artist]. And that was interesting to me, specifically in the way that the conflicts that arise out of it are really productive. You have different people with strongly held ideas of how things should be, and then the clash between those ideas. Interesting things happen. But there was something very tiring about that, too; any product or any process that involves a lot of conflict can be tiring. So what I find I really liked about Machine Project is that all the things that happen here are really collaborative between the artist and me. But our roles are also defined, so that clears a lot of the chaos out of it. It’s not that I have a strict agenda on having people that collaborate. But a lot of the artists I’m interested in do that.

Ken D. Allan: Thinking about interactivity again in this context then, is improvisation another term that could be used to tie interactivity and these models of artistic practice back to earlier modes of art practice in the 20th century? For instance, it makes me think of the jazz combo and the kind of listening and sociability that’s modeled by the small jazz band.

Mark Allen: I think if I were to talk about that, I would probably talk about it in terms of a really larger scale, where it’s about the improvisation of [the art opening]. One of the things that I love most is the 45 minutes before the event. I won’t start preparing until the absolute last minute. And we’ve probably done over 60 shows here. And always 45 minutes [before the opening] I’m running around with a ladder. I’ve actually become a little bit addicted to it.

Maybe we can make a parallel to musical improvisation. You become, you know, a tool of the music; you’re not thinking, you don’t have time to think about what you want. You just have to do it, and the music tells you what to do. In a way, I love the liberty of no longer having time to think about if I really feel like stopping or not. You just have to do it. It’s the loss of volition that comes with a mild state of panic. It’s the kind of improvisation that we really like [at Machine Project]. And a lot of the more ambitious projects that we present have that aspect. In terms of improvisation with the performers that we have, sometimes it’s there, and sometimes it isn’t. I don’t think of it as something that I particularly emphasize.

Ken D. Allan: Would you consider what you’re doing here as a new media space? Or how would you characterize it?

Mark Allen: Well, I get a lot of interviews from people trying to talk about new media in Los Angeles. Because we do a lot of technology here. And art galleries don’t, generally. And we teach a lot of classes here and they’re almost all around technology to some degree. But it’s not any more dominant than our interest in poetry or anthropology or music or anything like that. It’s more that, if you call something an art space, then people don’t have to use their brain to try to figure out where they are, no matter what’s happening there. So, I try and set the level of cognitive dissonance as low as possible so they can get on with it. I think most of the writing about the gallery has been more about the sort of social framework of it. And I think that’s where this space is most interesting.

Ken D. Allan: You know, this notion of sociability resonates with my interest in thinking historically about LA as an art center that—in the 1960s, anyway—was about creating this kind of improvised social space, such as the early Ferus gallery. Or Wallace Berman showing his work at his house in a loose situation where there could be a lot of collaboration, or a kind of work that got done through sociability. It’s heartening to me to think about that still being able to happen.

Mark Allen: Yeah, I feel like that’s a perennial flower in Los Angeles.

Mark Allen is a founding director of Machine Project and assistant professor of digital art at Pomona College. Machine Project is located at 1200 D North Alvarado Street, Los Angeles, CA, 90026; httpp://www.machineproject.com

Ken D. Allan is an assistant professor of art history at Seattle University. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 2005.