Los Angeles Times, By James Verini
April 3, 2003
Depending on who you talk to, you’ll get different answers about where L.A.’s current underground art-party scene, as far as you can put your finger on it, originated.
The Coffee House Anthropologists, as usual, will trace it back to the 1950s and ’60s, to Beat happenings and the Radical Chic parties where society matrons entertained the Hell’s Angels and the whole free-jazz-with-magic-markers thing that Ornette Coleman’s circle used to do.
The Desert People, however, will tell you that it all started with the legendary Moontribe parties in the Mojave (the annual Burning Man festival in Black Rock City, Nev., is now an institution), and even before that in the deserts of India. The Punks will scream that any original form of nightlife in L.A. crawled out of a dank bar from the 1980s like Third Eye or the Masque. The Beat Junkies and Hip-Hop Kids will insist the whole thing was imported directly from the turntables of Manchester or Detroit or the freestyle battles of Oakland to the decrepit warehouses of downtown L.A.
And the Artists whose work lines the walls — well, the artists aren’t sure, really. All they know is they haven’t been to the stuffy La Cienega scene in years.
But the one thing commonly agreed upon is that L.A.’s notoriously fragmented underground nightlife is coagulating more often lately, producing a new category, an uber-category, if you will, of event where everyone — the Punks, the Desert People, the Anthropologists, the Beat Junkies and the Hip-Hop Kids and Artists — can find something.
Take last weekend, for example. Had you wanted to skip the standard bar and club thing, and had you been on the right e-mail lists, you could have gone to the Optical Lounge and Audio Lab, a bimonthly event thrown by Michelle Berc and her group Create:Fixate in her enormous downtown Los Angeles loft. The Beat Junkies were there in force, but you also could have talked to — or at least sipped a Corona next to — any number of exquisite specimens representing every sensibility from Post-Mod to Eastern-European-Atari-Cool, and all of this while perusing some very good photography and found-object scupture and listening to, in addition to roughly a dozen DJs, a spontaneous outbreak of kitchen-utensil drumming.
The eclecticism was similar at a party thrown by Cannibal Flower, a traveling collective that bears its rave roots in its penchant, almost quaint these days, for hosting each of its parties in a new space. This one was in Boyle Heights and featured something north of 50 artists and four DJs.
Or if you’re somewhat adventurous but prefer to stay in the confines of sanctioned space, you might go on Saturday to Pure Monkey Lovin’, a bimonthly party at Star Shoes in Hollywood that showcases a handful of artists, designers and musicians.
“People in L.A. have come to think of their culture in two ways,” said Jose Angel, an independent promoter responsible for Pure Monkey Lovin’. “There’s high fashion — the snooty, accepted scene. Then there’s low — the back-alley stuff, which has its own brand of pretension. What I’m trying to do — what I think a lot of people are trying to do now — is find something in the middle.”
Teo Castro, a party planner, performer and minor hero (multiple titles are required in this world) in the underground circuit, put it this way: “Everyone’s tolerance was at the most jaded level possible for a while. All the glitz and glamour of the club scene or the arts scene or whatever scene got so stagnant.
“But now,” Castro said, “we’re making a new creative space — a sacred space, like in the desert. It’s not the club scene, it’s not the rock ‘n’ roll scene, and it’s not the arts scene. It’s a melding of all of those.”
Together with his wife, Mikiko (multi-ethnicity is important to this world too), Castro runs Dream Circus Theater, a collective that organizes a now-legendary series of theme events known as the “I Am … ” parties — highly influenced, as you’ve already guessed, by the theatrics and law-eschewing bravura of the underground desert party scene, as well as the abandoned-warehouse rave scene. They’ve included “I Am Superhero,” “I Am From Outer Space” and “I Am Coconut” (you probably didn’t go to that one, as it was in Thailand).
Perhaps the most notorious, the “I Am Metal” party, took place last year in a working laboratory on the outskirts of the city and included live welding by metal sculptors, partygoers in full armor regalia and heavy metal bands, among other things. The next installment, “I Am Technology,” Castro’s first effort at going completely above-board, will take place April 25 at Qtopia, a new venue in Hollywood, and will feature video installations and experimental electronic music, among many other things.
Castro represents a new breed of party promoter: the “polymath,” we might call it. A veteran of one of L.A.’s niche scenes from the 1970s to 1990s, the polymath’s tastes have grown wider in his/her age. The polymath has an intimate knowledge of recent L.A. cultural history — from Black Flag to the Crystal Method, from Hockney to graffiti murals — and a multifarious solodex to match.
“None of these multiple forms are competing with each other,” said Kimmy McCann, a veteran of the downtown L.A. art scene. As a gallery owner, she’s been known to present homeless saxophonists alongside traditional Sikh singers — and once even a nature-inspired installation artist who planted grass in the stairwell of her gallery — at her openings. “They’re integrating. Maybe because things like MTV are so accepted now, we expect all of our media to come together.”
“Everybody just wants more now, more sensory overload,” said Liz Garo, an independent music booker and veteran of L.A.’s punk scene.
This has made for an underground party scene that is over-stimulating and all-inclusive but not so underground anymore. Go to one of Teo Castro’s parties, or to the Echo, where Garo books acts, and you will find Brit-punk Mohawks next to MCs in baggy pants. You will also find guys in ties — and not the thin leather Duran Duran ones. Real ties.
McCann’s mention of MTV is telling. Like that network, L.A. has a singular knack for absorbing the fringes into the mainstream. McCann, for one, has gone from organizing spontaneous street exhibitions on Skid Row to planning parties for established West Hollywood galleries, in addition to setting up her own downtown L.A. gallery, Zone 9 Art.
To the more hard-core advocates of the underground (to the shadowy figures behind Moontribe, for example, who did return messages for this article) this is surely dismaying.
Castro, who was for a long time strictly devoted to the desert underground, now throws parties in licensed places. He sees legitimacy as an inevitable step. “Everybody’s trying to go legitimate now — even the Desert People,” he said. “The cops have gotten a lot more savvy about busting us up.”
“With the underground people used to just find a warehouse somewhere and put on a show,” said Garo. “You can’t do that anymore.” Now Garo books for places like the Knitting Factory and the Echo, places where the underground and experimental have, in a sense, gone legitimate.
“Promoters realized that a lot of people wanted to come to these things and that they could make money,” she said. “And if you want to keep your work going, the fact is you have to make money.”
In addition to avoiding jail and making money, another upside to legitimacy is that people pay more attention to the artwork. “A lot of society overlooks young artists right now,” he said. “What we want to do with our parties is give some of these emerging artists legitimacy.”
Michelle Berc, who estimates she sells as many as 20 pieces of art at each of her Create:Fixate events, said her goal is to get music people interested in the visual arts and vice versa. “There are no venues for emerging artists. A lot of people are afraid of art because of the pretension of the gallery scene. I try to present it in a comfortable atmosphere. People come to hear the music and end up buying a piece.”
The Culturati, the Desert People, the Punks, the Beat Junkies and Hip-Hop Kids, the Promoters and the Artists — they all can find something to look at or listen to in this new legitimate underground. What are their thoughts on where it’s going?
Lynn Hasty, the producer behind Twine, an experimental electronic music show at the Knitting Factory on Wednesday nights that often features video art with the music, and a publicist for some of the people mentioned above, sees technology as the great equalizer. She’s witnessed the innovations of the recording studios and editing suites seep into the party scene, a development that in the future may allow any partygoer one weekend to become a sought-after DJ or video artist the next. “A lot of the DJs I like now don’t even use records — just Final Scratch,” she said, referring to the popular brand of sound-mixing software.
Indeed, at Berc’s, for every DJ with a set of turntables, there is another with nothing but a laptop computer. Probably the best balance of old and new struck at the last party was Volsoc, a duet who combine a laptop with a pair of $10 Radio Shack microphones and Peter Frampton-style talkbox.
Kimmy McCann looks forward to the art side of the underground expanding even further. “The people at the museums and institutions are taking notice,” she said. “They’re looking at something like Cannibal Flower, which is making money and getting hundreds of people to their parties to look at totally unknown artists, and saying ‘How are you doing this?’ ”
So what’s next? A multilevel, multi-artist, multi-DJ event shaking the foundations of the L.A. County Museum of Art next Saturday at 2 a.m.?