12 september 2008 THE magazine 13
In considering the state of Underground culture in Los Angeles, finding a place to start is as hard as finding an unmarked club. Among artists, musicians, gallerists, and writers, there is no consensus as to whether an Underground persists at all — though most concur that if it does, it’s downtown — and a plethora of theories abound as to its viability and/or the causes of its demise.
Experimental music-lovers remain true believers — and their scene has proven to be fertile ground for visual art, performance, and fashion, following an international trend for genredefying, gregarious art forms tailor-made for illegal warehouse parties. Memories of the rosyhued past range from the Cacophony Society, Doo-Dah Parade, and Leimert Park jazz clubs to Venice Beach alleys and Los Feliz bars to volcanic experiments like the ONYX coffeehouse/gallery, which from 1997–98 was by all accounts the last bastion of L.A. bohemianism. Poet and painter Milo Martin hosted their most popular night, Projector, and describes a vision at the heart of what underground represents as, “a mystical community home for poets, musicians, speed freaks, young homeless girls, dancing dogs, soothsayers, communists, astrologers, Beat daddy-Os, performance artists, painters, and Hollywood fringe actor freaks.” Beck played his first-ever show at the ONYX; Zak de la Rocha (Rage Against the Machine), Angelo Moore (Fishbone), and Malcolm-Jamal Warner made the scene. Scores of these and other once-obscure figures from other nodes went on to success — from Jason Rhoades to Kim Jones to Ann Magnuson — reaching wide audiences without abandoning their roots.
Purity of punkitude aside, the collusion of communication technologies, short attention spans, and the insatiable desire for what’s next — not to mention a socioeconomic framework built around the acquisition of fame — makes an L.A. underground, on balance, untenable. Activists like Wasim Muklashy from The Whether Underground independent music and politics magazine Kotori decry snack-food culture (“It no longer exists because somebody, always somebody, is anxious to educate the population on their underground credentials via their iPhones, only to abhor the fact that what they were touting is no longer ‘cool’ or ‘tight’ or ‘gnar’ or ‘wicked’ or even ‘sick’ once they get there!”). Downtown denizens like Rick Robinson, a resident of the Brewery Complex, a businessman and collector as well as an artist, straddle the border between walks of life. Robinson and others wax poetic about “hidden, dark alleys, parking your car in a place where it will for sure get broken into, looking over your shoulder as you enter the place, scoring on the street. The funny thing is that it’s only underground to those who live above ground. It exists mostly in the mind of the newcomer . . .an elusive urban myth.” Painter Mark Dutcher also feels the tension between authenticity and posturing. “I think there are a real and a faux underground. Mostly, if you are looking for a real underground, don’t look to the fine art world because all that money and schmoozing and nostalgia for youth kills anything real. Nostalgia is the number one killer of the underground; that and a published manifesto.”
Pop culture archaeologists like Esotouric bus adventures’ Kim Cooper have a different perspective on the value of nostalgia, running tours around the landmarks of Bukowski’s Hollywood, the Black Dahlia murders, or the iconic L.A. rock scene. “It’s never been easier to communicate with like-minded and enthusiastic weirdos, and once you’ve got that, you’ve got the germ of a scene.” Fiora from Ghettogloss, who is currently unmasking the secret treasure of the Griffith Park golf course clubhouse and has branded her gallery’s projects with ape mask-wearing lingerie models, observes, “I create my own. I grew up here. I have been going to bars illegally since I was 14, and I go to illegal bars now. I cannot give up the names or locations of my favorite spots, but if you are resourceful enough, you may be able to have late night drinks, smoke inside, and see the best freaks tripping their brains out.” Anthony Ausgang, the Pop Surrealist and amateur semiotician who saw it all come and go from the top of Sunset Junction, seems to agree. “The only TRUE UNDERGROUND cultural activities left in L.A. are those that result in either death or jail sentences. All other cultural movements have been, or will soon be, co-opted by the corporate, retroactive pillagers of aesthetics. To remain underground, a culture has to be universally morally offensive, mortally dangerous, and have nothing to do with art.” The glass-half-full perspective comes, perhaps unsurprisingly, from electronic music heads like audio/visual authority Steve Nalepa who talks up the “optimistic urban romantics in the Burning Man, Do-Lab and Space Island tribes who embrace a ritualized community and identitybased dynamic” that is earnestly progressive but which many visual artists mistrust — and of course the art galleries want it both ways.
Bennett Roberts, the art dealer who discovered Raymond Pettibon, points to MOCA’s 1992 Helter Skelter show as a crossroads of elevation and mainstreaming of lowbrow outsider art muscle. He might be onto something when observing that “the printing press did not kill stories or words or oral tradition, it just allowed a much greater audience to come in out of the dark. All that’s new or noteworthy is instantaneous. Maybe blogs are the new underground.” Michelle Berc from Create:Fixate merges all these threads, watching her vision gradually become a staple of interdisciplinary art parties with a pronounced flavor of discovery and an exponentially increasing audience. “Gatherings start underground, and if they’re quality, they gain popularity. But the core thrives as long as they continue to represent alternative thought and lifestyle, showcasing emerging art and music you wouldn’t find anywhere else.” For his part,Nathan Cartwright from the Hive Gallery notes that “progress and knowledge has definitely affected the scene. Most underground parties are set up on the fly and are meant to be secret. Downtown was a hub for these adventures in the past, but with the building projects underway in all corners, it’s gotten difficult.” His openings are sensory onslaughts with overflowing crowds, but he has a business license and insurance and keeps regular hours. Likewise, the nomadic Phantom Galleries has worked it out with real estate developers, who generously lend their unoccupied properties for pop-up galleries and installations all over the city; Billy Shire cut his hair and discovered how great he looks in a suit, both building on and transcending his decades of work in alt-culture super gallery La Luz de Jesus with his move to A-list Culver City digs. Does that mean the underground is growing up, or giving up?
Mainstream institutions like the Laguna Art Museum curate retrospectives analyzing the influence of Juxtapoz magazine and graffiti art, Cory Kennedy has a blog on Uber, and studios are making movies about the Germs. The culture commentariat and a host of (mostly online) event guides like Flavorpill (the author is the L.A. managing editor), Defamer, and the Laist are in hot pursuit of the scoop. Lina Lecaro’s column in the Weekly mentions art more and more, and even Heidi Sigmund Cuda’s column in the Times is getting in on the act, in addition to the usual outing of hot spots. The current underground ethos is a scavenger hunt for something that might be an illusion anyway. Journalist Liam Gowing makes it clear we have no one but ourselves to blame. “You and I — and the media in general — are quick to jump on new things. Underground in L.A. doesn’t stay that way for long: Lucha VaVoom, Midnight Ridazz’ bike rides, Cinespia’s Cemetery Screenings. In this city, things that are really wonderful and offbeat develop an audience very quickly and seem “over” to us — but we’re the tastemakers for the rest of the country. You have to take a bigger view.” Fair enough. America needs us to keep at it, this balancing act of high art and low profile, making progressive culture to be stumbled upon by the brave and reckless, young and old, rich and poor culture vultures who never get tired of going out. The gritty spirit of underground art does live on, though mainly as the sexy style adjective of choice, denoting an elusive, urban, viral sensibility with a taste for anti-capitalist subversion, rebellion, and possibly dangerous games with drugs and with history — or at any rate, a safer version of the experience. If underground flavor is all you require, then you really are in luck. Otherwise, try Berlin. Or maybe it was Kim Cooper who put it best with what really ought to be the slogan of the times, “If you can find it, you deserve to enjoy it.”