At 6:50 pm on opening night, a ladder is still out in the middle of the gallery floor. Frederick Guerrero stands nearby, co-founder of Slow Culture and co-organizer of the finale show at its current Highland Park spot, set to begin at his space in less than ten minutes: What A Time To Be Alive.
Atop the ladder sits Adi Rajkovic of Sunday gallery, who is busy helping to align a piece with floral lettering that will soon spell the phrase “SAY HER NAME,” as others around her either tidy up or skateboard around the space that is lined with a truly multimedia—if not hodgepodge—display of works arranged along two parallel walls.
Guerrero leads me straight toward the back door, to a cement-lined outdoor space where a crude bar will later serve up free Pabst.
The partnership between Slow Culture and Sunday is a first for both galleries, who joined forces in an effort to integrate their distinct networks of artists, collaborators, and patrons and talk about “social issues and current events.” According to the show’s press release: “WATTBA is a critique and celebration of the modern world; solidarity and political platforms through social media, the emergence and importance of contemporary pop culture; the distrust of institutions, and the instigation of meaningful conversation between all people.”
“It's two galleries' perspective on this topic,” said Guerrero, taking a seat outside, away from the last-minute chaos. “I wasn't always in [this] position, with the gallery, where we had this platform where we're, like, saying something,” Guerrero said, “I think for the artists, it's about choice and that they're using their talents, their artworks, their platform to say something about something—about these topics.”
The group show features work from over eighty artists, each chosen based on how their work relates to the rather all-encompassing theme that evolved as more artists joined the roster. “I guess ideally [the show] is about [social justice] but it's also how…those things are more prevalent because of internet.” As Guerrero puts it, “It’s the best of times, it's the worst of times.”
Adi Rajkovic sits down to chat after finishing up inside. It’s now minutes past the hour and there are people forming a long line at the front door.
The concept for WATTBA has been rattling around in her brain since she was thrust out of the college bubble at CalArts and, even before that, when she worked as an intern for far-left Pacifica Radio during high school in her hometown of Houston. Later as a post-grad in Los Angeles Rajkovic did research centered around the death penalty and mass incarceration, subjects that “have always really, really fucked me up,” she said.
“I started just, I don't know,” she paused, “I started feeling really empty, or something, like, not doing anything and then all of a sudden I decided to start paying attention to the news and the world around me.”
Sunday began two years ago in Rajkovic’s living room with music and art shows as an all-around DIY community space; now, she and her co-founders also offer free art classes to the kids in her neighborhood who are affected by gentrification. “I've become so tight with these kids who live next door,” she said. “I'm just trying to change the things that I can immediately around me.”
Part of the problem, according to Rajkovic, is lack of interaction among class groups: “People are living in unnecessary exile of each other because that's how we're set up, taught to fear and hate each other,” she says, “Why can't I interact with the people in my neighborhood? Why are there these boundaries between us?”
At its heart, WATTBA fractures the rigid duality of the internet as a great force of both good and bad and brings forth the notion that with its great power comes great, and perhaps greater, responsibility. A smartphone grants those of us with enough privilege the world’s information at the tip of our fingers. Now what are we going to do with it?
Not even half an hour into the night and the room was bursting at the seams. At a table set up amid the bustling crowd sat members from the LA chapter of Critical Resistance, a national grassroots volunteer-based prison abolitionist organization founded by Angela Davis, among others.
“At a show like this, at a gallery that's gentrifying the neighborhood and where you have a lot of different people from a lot of different class backgrounds and a lot of different racial backgrounds, this is an opportunity to talk to people who are usually not present at those organizing meetings and at those organizing tables and who aren't usually at the forefront of the fight,” said Chaandni Raat of Critical Resistance. “[The goal] is to get people to see that they have a stake in this too and that they are also responsible for dismantling these systems that are not working,” said Raat.
“These are communities we haven't really been able to collaborate with so kind of the most radical work that we can do is infusing these worlds,” confirmed Ru Struct, also with Critical Resistance.
Slow Culture tapped into their network of usual corporate sponsors including Vans, Huf, The Hundreds, Obey, Altamont, and Quiet Life to design relevant t-shirts—20 percent of total sales will go to Inner City Arts, a non-profit art-subsidizing program for low-income kids based out of Skid Row. Sunday worked with LA-based clothing brand UNIF and Critical Resistance to design a t-shirt and 100 percent of those profits will go to the organization, along with a portion of the artwork sold.
Insta-celeb @OfficialSeanPenn acted as both DJ and artist, creating a soundscape of heavy pop and circa-2000 R&B influences; at least three Bieber songs registered throughout the three hours of sifting back and forth through the dense crowd of predominantly young—or yung—people. I overheard a guy telling a friend that people in the crowd were dressed just like characters he remembered from high school back in ’91. The art along with the crowd looked like they stepped out of my Tumblr dashboard, their physical appearances were as varied as the works presented.
Coco Howard showed part one of her series of 8-by-12-foot American flags on which she sequined in memorandum the names of those killed by the police since 2000, obtained from a comprehensive list of names by the founder of Fatal Encounters, a crowd-sourced database that documents police killings in the US. Howard told me:
I do feel like we've entered into a time in America where there is a social justice awareness awakening, which I think is really evidence to the Bernie Sanders campaign in a lot of ways; people are waking up to the fact that life is hard here versus the rhetoric about what America is. I feel kind of hopeful for the first time in a long time; I was a punk kid and my attitude was really like fuck the world. I still kind of have that but I'm starting now to think—I'm 48—about the need to unify and are there people that are down for that.
I ask if she’s planning to vote for Bernie. “Yeah, but I've never voted in my life.”
Jackie Robledo is lost in the crowd, clutching a skateboard tight against her side. She’s been coming to Slow Culture “for an entire year” and as she puts it, “this is definitely the most impactful show that I’ve been to… the shows that had been here previously have been artists that I've liked, and I'd never really visited Sunday, but I know they're strictly laced with all girls, you know, it means something.”
Yung Jake is one of the online superstars on the roster of artists participating in WATTBA, known for being something of an internet omnipresence. His work in the show is a portrait of Bernie Sanders whose likeness is created using only iPhone emoji.
“I voted in 2008 and then I didn't vote in 2012, half because I was lazy and half because I didn't feel a change,” he said, “I know that there was but I didn't feel it and what's proposed by Bernie makes me actually feel something.”
“I don't know, I didn't like look that much into it,” said Yung Jake, referring to the theme of the show. “I’ve been doing these [emoji portraits] and, like, the most political statement I could make would be to like actually, like, endorse someone.”
Another version of fandom was exercised by Mikal Howard, who created a piece centered around promoting rap artist and Twitter hero, Lil B.
“Listen to him… It might take a couple of albums, maybe a couple of readings, he has a book, you can read the book,” said Howard, who read the material “just once; it’s in Tweet form.” His message, albeit sparse, did get at the idea that in order to be prolific, artists like Lil B no longer need to rely on traditional outlets of expression to reach an otherwise nonpolitical audience of sympathizers.
A friend points out Hobbes Ginsberg, who is navigating through a sea of bodies inside the gallery, “I follow Hobbes on Tumblr,” she tells me.
Working in collaboration with her girlfriend, Chloe Feller, their photography piece in WATTBA explores identity and how growing up “as a boy” plays into her love of cars and other “weird tomboy things,” according to Ginsberg. Ginsberg has worked with UNIF and Sunday before, crediting Adi for her constant push for bringing diversity to the shows that she curates.
“Art shows sometimes tend to be like socialization instead of looking at the art, which you have to balance,” said Ginsberg. “I think what's most important and what I really try to strive for is being thorough and being nuanced. I talk about nuance a lot, I think that's really, really, really important; with art, with politics, with everything.”
“It's really great to see a lot of people coming out and I think that's the one thing about art is you can put something in a way that's palatable… I think this show could be a good starting point, and I think as long as you view it that way then you don't need to, like, shit on people for just making art instead of doing something, because everything adds a little bit to the greater picture.”
(All images: What A Time To Be Alive, Installation Views, Slow Culture & Sunday Los Angeles. Images: Morgan Rindengan)