Actual Size: Chinatown’s Hybridized Art Space
Hubs & Hybrids is an ongoing series of interviews with those at the helm of some of L.A.’s most compelling artist-run and experimental visual and perfuming arts spaces.
By Sue Bell Yank and Emily Anne Kuriyama
Angelenos love to reinvent the city’s history — we often find value (or necessity) in reproducing movements with variation. Nowhere is this more evident than in the sphere of fine visual and performing arts, especially in a city that churns out MFAs like a factory for chronically underemployed creatives. In a field where supply (artists and their work) vastly outpaces demand (venues, exhibition spaces, and any kind of real compensation), artists and creative professionals quickly realize that they must create their own opportunities for exposure. School friends and recent grads band together, start their own spaces, make work, and thus enter a community of art makers, venues, ideas, conversations, and scenes. Although the term “alternative art space” recalls a particular time and space, specifically New York City in the 1980s, the rise of artist-run, not very commercial, experimental art spaces can be linked to several urban conditions, which art historian Julie Ault identifies in her seminal text Alternative Art New York, 1965 – 1985.Though she writes specifically about the New York movement of alternative art spaces, locating that phenomenon in a particular time and place, the catalytic factors resonate deeply with present-day Los Angeles. These factors include a young, resilient, diverse, and creative population (check, there are at least five world-class graduate art programs in the immediate area); affordable former industrial or rehabbed space (still available in many areas of the city); overarching economic hardship (i.e. lack of other job opportunities–check–see California unemployment numbers); and the opportunity for global art world exposure (perhaps not always true, but certainly Los Angeles’s current status as an art center is undisputable). This combination of urban conditions is not new; in fact, many art spaces have arisen, lived, and gone defunct in this city over the years, from purposefully ephemeral venues like Deep River (founded by Glenn Kaino, Daniel Joseph Martinez, and Tracy Schiffman) and in existence from 1997-2002, overseeing the millennial turn), to the rise of several experimental non-profits in the mid 2000s (LA>, Machine Project, Workspace, Les Figues Press, Mountain School of Arts). What began to interest my collaborator Emily Anne Kuriyama and I when conceptualizing this interview series was the rise of what we are terming “hybrid” art spaces. Unlike the defined non-profits, commercial galleries, and artist-run spaces of the past, this new crop is difficult to categorize. Sometimes run by artists, sometimes by creative collectives, sometimes by rotating groups, these spaces not only host more traditional exhibitions and performances, but also function as community centers, studios or living spaces for emerging artists, traveling educational initiatives, shops, event venues, publication houses, incubators, and artist service centers. Many have no defined tax status–they might have a fiscal receivership set up, or an LLC, but very few function as either purely commercial enterprises or as non-profits. Most are very small and nimble in their experimental programming and overhead, and many started in 2010. We selected just a few of these spaces to profile in depth for this series, probing why the spaces were started, what their programming ethos is, what the space’s lineage might be, and what the organizers consider success.
Actual Size is a small storefront gallery in L.A.’s Chinatown, just off the main drag of Broadway. Only 250 square feet, the tiny white cube used to be a convenience store called the New High Mart, and is surrounded by hair salons and souvenir shops. Chinatown itself is a bit of a cipher — though home to a Chinese community of business owners and residents, it has a long history of being a location on the cutting-edge of culture; once the center of L.A.’s punk scene and now a hub for small, experimental artist-run spaces.
On our way to visit Actual Size, Emi and I ran into each other wandering around a dark Chinatown block. We moved towards our obvious destination, illuminated by a beacon of light on the sidewalk, a tiny storefront door thrown open, and Corrie Siegel, in a stylish skirt, heels, and long braids, moving chairs and a sound piece in a white pedestal out front. Inside was a pristine white cube that was adorably small, maybe 8’x10′(I think they said it’s 250sq, but it felt a lot smaller), with a concrete floor and the skeletal outline of a drop ceiling overhead. Despite its dazzling white interior and sparse installation of films, drawings, and a sound piece (part of the show Borderlands), the gallery’s diminutive size and storefront location made it feel immediately intimate, cozy, and accessible. The place itself felt like a border, a porous membrane between the street and a community of contemporary artists and cultural producers, and embracing that precarity is reflective in its name. As we sat around a bucket of water and beer on mismatched chairs, at least three random people shouted in as they walked by. “Actual Size” began to feel like the perfect name, as comments ranged from “Is this an actual business?” to “What do you actually do here?” Corrie and Justin John Greene (two of the three directors of the space, sans Lee Foley) had clearly fielded such questions many, many times before.
What is your role in Actual Size? What other things beside this space are you engaged in?
Actual Size’s Co-Directors and Founders are: Lee Foley, Justin John Greene and Corrie Siegel. We work collaboratively on all of the exhibitions and events we organize and sometimes shift roles based on the requirements of each project. Lee Foley is currently a Masters candidate at Bard Center for Curatorial Studies. Justin John Greene is a painter. Corrie Siegel is an artist, and Education Manager at the Fowler Museum at UCLA.
What was the impetus for starting this space? (when, where, how was it incorporated, who is involved?)
We started the space in April 2010 as group of friends and artists. We are still at our original location, a small storefront in Chinatown. In addition to projects at the 741 New High St. location, Actual Size serves as a collaborative creative platform for curatorial interventions and artistic projects that take place across the world and in digital space.
When we began Actual Size we had recently completed undergraduate degrees from the School of the Chicago Art Institute and Bard College. At the time there were just a handful of artist-run spaces in Los Angeles that were operating. We missed the intimate interactions that college art studios, classrooms and darkrooms provided. We witnessed a flourishing apartment gallery scene in Chicago that inspired us to build a space that adapted to the needs of artists in Los Angeles.
One of the cornerstones of the project was an interest in showcasing innovative work in an accessible and conceptually rigorous manner. Our goal was to bridge the gap between the studio and institution in order to engage the community in the culture of the artist’s work. To do this, we aimed to maintain a formal but accessible environment so that our programming could be thoughtfully considered at the same time as it could excite or surprise our visitors. We also liked the opportunity to operate as a storefront in a primarily commercial street with its own rich cultural presence. The small space creates an outpost and intersection of sorts. It enables artists to present investigative and focused projects that may be too ambitious or costly at a larger scale. Actual Size aimed to work with the community through layered projects that can be understood or interacted with on many levels, as practical services, intriguing presentations, or conceptual actions. We like the idea of creating events that provide services to the community and can also be read in a formal or conceptual way by an audience who considers the actions as an art-related construction.
Actual Size registered as a business initially, however the intent from the beginning was always to funnel all profits into the programming for the gallery. We thought operating as a business would allow us full autonomy to structure the space and organization with creative freedom, however non-profit organizations served as our model from the start. Since August 2013 we have operated as a fiscally sponsored organization as a project of the Pasadena Arts Council.
What are the different types of things that happen and why?
Events range from formal exhibitions that feature established and emerging artists to more performative curatorial interventions. Our 250 sq. ft space provides a framework for our programming. Since the physical space is so easy to transform Actual Size can highlight a small body of work and encourage viewers to spend time with only 1-4 pieces in a single visit, or it can be the site for an immersive environment, performance or installation. Our programing varies from events that draw hundreds of people at a time, to intimate gatherings meant for no more than 20 people. Within a year, a visitor could encounter an exhibit of black and white photographs, a large scale installation, an arm wrestling competition, a salon, a continuous song performed by over 50 artists that lasts for 12 consecutive hours, a seating area, a lecture or panel discussion, a class critique, a curated party, the opportunity to read to dogs, experimental food, or a performative garage sale.
Who are the people involved?
We work closely with artists, curators, community members, colleagues, and friends to craft our exhibitions and events.
In general our projects demand a dedicated investment on the part of artists and collaborators. So, in a sense everyone we have worked with in the past is an honorary member of Actual Size.
Who are the programs for? And who shows up?
We have a core group of people that follow our programming, but with each exhibition and event we attempt to target an added audience. Many of the guests are creative producers engaged in the Los Angeles art scene, however some of our most dedicated visitors that attend all of our events are local community members that happened upon an exhibition or event one day and keep coming back to see what is next.
How is the location of the space and its surrounding context pertinent to its program/existence/operations?
Who we are as a gallery and how we conceive of our projects are closely tied to our location. In our weekly meetings, we consider how to build shows that are demanding an arts educated audience but also engaging and valuable to the foot traffic. This is a challenge because we want to allow the artist or the exhibition to exist in its pure form, and we also don’t want to assault the neighborhood with aggressive performative situations all the time. We often place artworks and hold performances outside the gallery so that viewers passing by can take part in the experience. This can help to break the seal between the street and the exhibition space.
We like to think about the neighborhood, our dedicated audience, and the way we can facilitate critical interaction. An example of a recent event was Garage Sale. This exhibition was presented in conjunction with Perform Chinatown. For Garage Sale we set out objects ranging from art, furniture, electronics and knickknacks on the street and inside the gallery. These objects were contributed by artists and supporters. Many objects were presented with a tag that shared their stories. We also invited two bands whose music we felt had a lo-fi, garage band-esque sound, to play music in the driveway space towards the end of the evening. By considering the sale as a performance we wanted to explore the potential of the objects as facilitators of action, and equalize the objects in some way. What we found was that offering things for sale and using the language of a yard sale display greatly engaged the local community. Even though Chinatown is a place in LA where you can buy most everything very inexpensively we found that there was a real interest in the items that we presented. This curiosity about furniture, clothing, toys, etc. also carried over to the art objects. Visitors asked very pointed questions about the work, and demonstrated an active level of investment as a buyer rather than a passive observer. Since that exhibition we have found that the local shop owners seem more interested and confident in visiting the exhibitions and asking questions about the work.
What do you consider success? Or is that not a consideration?
We measure success in many ways.
Our projects teach us. Our goal is to challenge ourselves with each exhibition and event. We grow as artists and curators with each new initiative.
We want to showcase artists work in a clear way. We hope that our relationship with the creator and their work as well as our investment in it results in an exhibition that shows the core of what the artist practice is about. We want them to be proud of their exhibition, and it’s especially rewarding when artists thank us for clarifying certain themes or pushing their practice in certain ways.
We want to provide artists with resources that help their project come to full fruition, whether that means writing a grant, applying for a visa, connecting them with companies that may offer them a discount with fabrication costs, chipping in to help install, writing a press release, curating, helping with certain supply costs, brainstorming and letting them stay at our houses.
We want the public to gain exposure to artists and ideas. It’s great to hear feedback from our visitors and read articles that are written about the exhibition. We have been delighted to see exhibitions at Actual Size result in press, awards, other exhibitions, residencies and collaborations.
We like to use the space as an access point to the culture around an artist’s practice, which can be just as vibrant as the final product and enrich the viewing experience. We hope to gain insight about an artist’s interests, and working style through collaborating with them to develop new points of entry for the public and their preexisting followers. We hope people who are unacquainted and familiar with an artists work are surprised by the new connections they make on a visit.
Actual Size hopes to connect different circles of artists, and people. We like when we see new faces at our openings and enjoy watching kinships develop between artists in group shows. We also like to see passers by getting haircuts from artists and stylists or sitting next to a curator or gallerist to enjoy a lecture or performance.
We want to create a welcoming space that fosters exploration and fun. It’s great when people show up enthusiastically, and when locals pass by and strike up a conversation.
Although commercial profit does not drive any of our choices we welcome it when someone purchases a piece to support the exhibiting artist as well as future experimental projects.
What do you consider failure?
Things don’t always go according to plan, but sometimes that’s for the best. Experimentation and allowing for different results is part of our mission as an organization. So, we try to leave wiggle room along an agreed trajectory. In the process of mounting an exhibition, we aim to be as clear as possible with each other and with artists about the few rules and standards we have as an organization. We consider certain situations less successful when miscommunications occur. We have learned that almost all miscommunications can be avoided by talking frequently, in person.
Do you feel this space is fulfilling a need or contributing to a lack? Why and how (or not)?
Like a little venue where a comedian can test out new material, Actual Size presents opportunities outside of more established institutions and schools for emerging and established artists to get feedback on the work that they want to make. Actual Size is a testing ground for exhibitions that a museum or a commercial gallery might not have bandwidth to support. The size and location of the gallery allows for us to take on challenging projects. We hope that the consideration that goes into presentation and planning elevates the work, so that it can be appreciated in the best possible light. The range of exhibiting artists and audiences produces critical conversation that celebrates creative ventures and diversity on both a micro and macro level.
Most of our programming accesses several aspects of the artist’s practice. For each exhibition, we ask the exhibiting artists to help plan a supplemental event that occurs in addition to the opening reception. The artist can use the event to elaborate on any of his/ her interests that inform the exhibition. The event further investigates the work on view and welcomes those who might not regularly attend our gallery openings- from religious groups, to students, to families who may have never been to an art gallery before. Past supplemental events have ranged from screening series, to lectures, an image swap, a robotic poetry reading with fresh flowers, a brunch, to a therapeutic session where families could read aloud to dogs.
As a curatorial collective, the directors of Actual Size also generate interactive events that engage the local community and present conceptual questions. For instance, last summer we were thinking about how the competitive spirit varies between gender groups, artists and non-artists. We decided to hold an arm wrestling competition in the gallery. Anyone was welcome to sign up. There was a real diversity of competitors. It was funny to watch art critics arm wrestle with artists, and to see local muscle men and women show up for the competition. It was amusing and illuminating to witness certain artists act so outwardly competitive.
The location’s facade as well as our approach to programming gives the Actual Size the posturing of a white-walled gallery, however our small size and out of context placement makes it an idiosyncratic space that can interest all kinds of curious people to experience art in a discrete and considered way if they choose to take a few minutes to do so.
How would you locate this space in the midst of all the other spaces in LA? What are you most like and what are you farthest from?
Actual Size could be classified as an artist-run space, in that exhibitions and events are produced primarily by artists. However, the directors also have experience as curators, museum professionals, community builders, and educators and we carry these ways of working into Actual Size. We try to look and operate like a commercial gallery or museum. We are interested in providing a modest but formal space that participates in the same dialogue as these institutions. In the past 3 years we have collaborated with local universities and other galleries in the area to build a supportive network of organizations in Los Angeles and elsewhere.