The title says it: Do you want the cosmetic version or do you want the real deal? Los Angeles Poverty Department, 1985-2014. When John Malpede founded the LAPD (a play on the police department’s name) thirty years ago and began collaborating with the homeless and formerly homeless to stage performances and confrontational theater, it was a decade before relational aesthetics was coined by Nicolas Bourriaud, and more than two decades before MFA programs in ‘social practice’ began sprouting. In light of all that has come since, LAPD and their first museum exhibition feels particularly refreshing. The methods, settings, and goals of LAPD’s work fuse arts and activism, while so much ‘politically-engaged’ art maintains the professionalized, middle-class stances and practices of the art world under the rhetoric of activism.
LAPD began and continues to be based in Los Angeles’s Skid Row: a longstanding homeless enclave, and a constant battleground between the residents who have formed a community there and the combined muscle of the police and developers. How many of the social practitioners of today, who discuss issues like war or poverty, are themselves at the frontlines of those struggles, or cultivating sustained engagements with those who are?
State of Incarceration, 2010-ongoing,Performance view, Queens Museum, January 31, 2014; Courtesy of Queens Museum.
The exhibition itself is half traditional survey and half an update and staging of some of LAPD’s recent works. One gallery is devoted to the performance piece State of Incarceration (2010-ongoing), stacked wall-to-wall with prison-style bunk beds. The audience is mixed in with the performers, who offer monologues and reenact scenes from prison. They shout about remaining silent, of obeying authority; the formerly incarcerated take on the roles of both prisoner and warden. It is a theater piece, but strips away the glamour of staging, lighting, and design. It is performance, but the experiences related are concrete, lived by its performers.
This productive tension between performance and testimonial runs throughout LAPD’s work. The exhibition offers an archive of LAPD’s past actions and performances, some thirty hours of video for the dedicated visitor. In South of the Clouds, a series from 1986, members enacted rote motions they had learned—e.g. boxing routines—as stimulus for their monologues. Like many of the other pieces on view, the works navigate between truth-telling and performance, narrative and reflection. 'Homelessness' as discussed by media and politicians tends to imply a lack of agency. These performances defy and complicate that assumption, not only giving ownership of stories to homeless people, but allowing them to decide to what degree they tell ‘their’ stories or the stories they want to tell.
In another piece, Is there History on Skid Row? from 2002, and Skid Row History Museum, staged at the Box Gallery in 2008, the collective acts as curator and archivist of their neighborhood. Homeless communities are barely acknowledged by most institutions, much less thought to have histories and textured pasts. The LAPD turns that generalization on its head, pointing to the area’s 'amazing community assets.' The installation, like any exhibition or museum display, was created to 'highlight the cultural, civic and political initiatives and the community people' who created the neighborhood. The installation includes a timeline of notable moments in Skid Row’s history, photographs of community leaders, and proposals for monuments and plaques to be installed in the area.
Do you want cosmetic version or do you want the real deal? Los Angeles Poverty Department 1985 -2014, installation view, On view at Queens Museum, NY January 31 – May 11, 2014; Courtesy of Queens Museum
LAPD’s first exhibition, some three thousand miles from Skid Row, feels surprisingly at home here. Queens is not unlike Los Angeles; its inhabitants are largely immigrants and working class, speaking dozens of languages, reliant on cars, and spread out over a large mass of land. It bears little resemblance to the glittering images of opulence and celebrity associated with the Manhattans and Hollywoods projected around the world. And questions of police presence, urban development, and public space are ever-present. Sometimes the local is not adjacent.
(Image on top: Walk The Talk, 2012. Performance view, Skid Row, Los Angeles. Photo by Avishay Artsy, KCRW, Courtesy Los Angeles Poverty Department.)