Sunday, March 9, 2008

Less Than Bright

I reference James Wolcott's arch dismissal of the '80s precursor of chick-lit - the phenom of "Bright Lights Big City" and "Less Than Zero" (coke lit?) as a way of setting the stage for the sadly familiar and dusty tropes rolled out at last Thursday's SDMOCA "gallery talk" with Sarah Wookey, Howard Blackson and Michael Stepner.

Sarah Wookey is a choreographer, recently relocated to Los Angeles from the Netherlands via Illinois and Ohio dance degrees. Howard Blackson is a San Diego-based urban planner who has recently left his own firm the join with Stantec, one of the giant octopus AE firms like AEC that are buying up firms all over the states - (this consolidation of smaller and mid size firms into larger corporate hydras is one of the untold stories of current architecture practice), and Michael Stepner, the former City Architect for San Diego (when there was such a position) and general all around point guy for urban studies and land use stuff in San Diego.

There was a moderator, but there was really precious little to moderate. Ms. Wookey earnestly described for us her amazement at arriving in Los Angeles and finding there is a fine grain to the City that is rarely seen in standard descriptions of Los Angeles... that she was intrigued to find these places that were really between the stuff you know about (Freeways, Billboards, Sunset Strip, Venice Beach, the Hollywood sign) and that the stuff was sort of dirty and unkept, and she found that she rather liked that part because she found all this unheralded work by simply walking or, like any good Dutchman, riding her bike! What the fuck is it about people coming from Anywhereinthefnworldistan and insisting on explaining Los Angeles to its benighted residents? I thought these people had been executed during the '84 Olympics.

But I am harsh. The charm and ersatz-worldliness of making one's way through any large city in large part means making your own discoveries and insights that thousands of other wide eyed innocents had previously unearthed long before your peepers took in the scene. Of course the brighter pilgrims would have done some homework and would have read Nathaniel West, Raymond Chandler, Charles Bukowski and Joan Didion. The would know the work of Ed Ruscha, Hockney, Chamberlain, Pettibone, even Millard Sheets. The hater in me wonders why we had to listen to this naif at an Art Museum sponsored lecture instead of surreptiously eavesdropping on the earnest twit with her group of out of town visitors at the Getty Museum coffee shop.

But enough about my problems... Ms. Wookey insisted (at least three times) that her interest in these spaces was romantic and poetic, and that she really couldn't explain how these spaces got this way, exactly why they intrigued her, but that they did and that is what interested her. Well. Maybe that second degree in Economics could help out with that, huh? But she will continue to search these spaces out - her grail to find something significant about Los Angeles outside of freeways, billboards, and one supposes- the taut tan skin of Baywatch lifeguards. Godspeed, Sister! Godspeed!

Mr. Blackson and Mr. Stepner stepped in on occasion, and considering their urban planning backgrounds, I thought they would have been a bit more "me too" about observing those lost places. Hell, they want to be artists too! But they couldn't make the connection between the interest our intrepid artist felt about those lost and vague spaces inbetween, and (drum roll, please) urban redevelopment. Her nostalgia for what was (a deliciously decayed urban sublime mis-en-scene) and her uncertainty about what they are, appears honestly tempered by her fear that once they are seen -especially by someone with her sensibilities and her privilaged ability to describe them to the hoi polli - they will vanish. Well, those spaces inbetween that our inchoate artist was describing is the very life blood of bohemia and artistic recovered memory- the madelaine fragrance merely replaced by the stench of the sweat of the working immigrant poor and the drying piss of the dispossesed.

If Ms. Wookey was Donald Trump, her observations would be read like an analysts report for the next big opportunity for investors. Just find these areas that artists like - eventually the gentrification process will clean the streets and another dream will arrive on Main Street. Of course that pretty dream will fail as well, as all things do, and the cycle will start again.

Once Mr. Stepner and Mr. Blackson found their voices, it was the voice of redevelopment. Smarter, greener, transit-focused and seriously concerned about the plight of the urban working class, but redevelopment nonetheless. Their partner in this was of course Ms. Wookey. As the advance scout, she, and other artists will continue to inadvertantly tame bohemia for redevelopment.

Mr. Blackson is a self-proclaimed New Urbanist, which on the left coast is not considered cool at all. But one of the odd things about the rearguard aesthetics of the New Urbanists is their reaching back to olden days for sustainable practices, something they share with the Greens. Like Christopher Alexander they are frustratingly consistent and wierdly pragmatic (brick stoops everyhere!). But here is one rule to reconsider: An old agricultural practice of allowing the fields to go fallow for 7 years provides an analogy for our current real estate indigestion. Gorging on unripe fruit and planting in depleted soils - well, pick your own metaphor. Our artist was trying to describe that delicious place of promise, the meeting of what was and what will become. The artist allows that potentiality all its grace and promise. I'm not sure what we architects and planners and developers do with the same opportunity. Leave it alone might work.