March 2003
volume 1, issue 2


Arts and Action; Ben Ehrenreich interviews members of LA's own radical art space.

For a few weeks in the summer of 2000, a lot came together in the streets of Los Angeles. The Democrats gathered at the Staples Center to collectively wind up Al Gore and roll him off towards Florida. Bernard Parks took the retro craze to new heights with brutally nostalgic nods to the LAPD’s 1920s Red Squad. Thousands of activists of all stripes did their best to get along and to be heard above the din. The two main groups organizing for the protests at the Democratic National Convention , D2K and the Direct Action Network, proposed to merge their efforts, but succeeded only in uniting their art sub-committees, which once joined took on the name Arts in Action. At informal art parties at activists’ homes, and later at the Convergence Center on Seventh Street near McArthur Park, they designed posters and tee-shirts, built enormous papier mache puppets and painted banners. But something more happened in the process, something that participants thought was worth preserving. About a year later, they were able to lease out the fourth floor of the building that had housed the convergence space, and Arts in Action found a permanent home. It’s often been a struggle since to keep the momentum going, to focus their mission and expand their reach, and to somehow get the rent paid. But with nothing but buckets and buckets of volunteer sweat, Arts in Action has evolved into a vital source of creative progressive energy in Los Angeles. Ben Ehrenreich interviewed two of the collective’s longtime organizers, Kristen Guzman and Angelo Logan.

BE: Arts in Action started during the Democratic National Convention as a group that was subsidiary to the protests, specifically making art for actions. When you met afterwards, did you still have that same idea, that it would always be geared to specific actions, or was there immediately a vision of of a community art center?

AL: When we met after the DNC and cleaned out the Convergence Center and everything was over, we debriefed as an artwork group. People thought that the most important thing that came out of the organizing for the DNC was that as people were making art and coming in and doing creative things in the convergence space, people from all over — not just all over L.A. but all over the country — were coming together and being creative, talking and dialoguing and sharing ideas, and being motivated and energized. It was a whole different experience. We felt that there was nothing like that in Los Angeles. So it wasn’t necessarily to create artwork for demonstrations, but that through creating artwork for the social justice movement, people would come to this centralized place to meet and to interact with other people and share thoughts. We thought that there needed to be some kind of place where people could congregate and talk about progressive ideas.

BE: So there was a way that just the act of creating artwork together helped to build community and further the goals of the movement that was out there in the streets.

AL: Right, it was a vehicle through which people could build community and build a movement.

KG: We also felt that it was important to still be focused on the idea of action so that we weren’t just spending time in meetings talking about abstract ideas. That was a really important part of it and something that is still a challenge. We’ve done a lot of different things but we always have to keep focused again on the idea of actually being part of actions, doing direct actions. Sometimes that gets lost in the day-to-day of having to keep the space running, getting people to put out the time to put things together. We’re trying to find other ways to bring more people in and to keep focused on action, to actually make a difference, to make things happen.

BE: When I’ve heard Arts in Action described the expression that’s usually used is “community arts space” or “community arts collective.” What community is it that you see yourselves working with, and what is your relationship to that community?

AL: One thing that’s important to note is that we’re totally inclusive and not a member-based organization, so when we talk about people joining in or feeling part of it, it doesn’t mean that there is a member base or that the core group is an exclusive group of people. We’re non-authoritarian. We don’t have set policies. Everything is open to discussion, and this idea of community is ongoing. There’s a bunch of things that we try to synthesize. One, we try to work with the local neighborhood and try to be part of the neighborhood. We feel like what we really want to change is not the world, but the four square blocks that we exist in. We can’t try to make this overarching goal of changing the world, but we can try to work within the neighborhood we’re in.

But we also work with what people would describe as the activist community. We provide workshops in the space and resources for people who are trying to make change happen. There was this anarchist group called Power that wanted to hold an anti-war conference. They felt that there was no other place where they could hold this type of conference because there’s not a space that caters to that kind of need or has the resources, so that’s an example.

BE: What other groups have been using the space in that way?

KG: There’s a lot. For while the Zapatista collective used it for their weekly meetings, for a while L.A. Jews for a Just Peace, the Coalition for Educational Justice, Anti-Racist Action and Copwatch used it, and now, for example we’re doing a lot of work with the Garment Workers Center and Korean Immigrant Workers Association, and with CHIRLA and CARECEN. Sometimes members of Arts in Action hold trainings for some of the members of those organizations, or if people are going to be doing an action, people have just come to use the space to make their work and then take it with them. For example for a Women of Juarez action, people came in for a few days in a row and were just making artwork there in the space. So that was the other part of our mission — around the city there was no space like it where you could just show up and be able to use materials for free or for cheap and get some help if you weren’t sure how to do something.

The hope was that people would learn these skills and then they could go on to share them with other people and eventually you get a much broader network of people who are able to share those resources, and the more we develop our skills hopefully the more strength we have in terms of moving on different issues.

AL: One of the ideas was that there be space and resources offered to people that otherwise wouldn’t have them. So the ideal scenario would be a few streets down if there was a slumlord in an apartment and something really bad happens and the tenants want to start organizing, if they can’t meet at their apartments for whatever reasons, they can meet here and use the resources, from making artwork to using computers to print out things, to document, whatever it may be — they know that they can meet here. Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays they can come by and use the space to organize.

BE: How much of that sort of thing has happened and how successful do you think you’ve been in involving the immediate neighborhood?

KG: In our own assessment, we think we haven’t done a very good job. I think a big reason has been a desire to try and keep the space up and running, so we’ve put some of our efforts towards just trying to do fundraising, and it’s partly because there have been other actions where we’ve been involved, but more and more it is becoming a larger priority for us. We’re trying to figure out how to do it in more effective ways, not to try to impose what we want, but to try to introduce ourselves and say, “We want to be good neighbors and we want you to know that this is a resource and you can come and you can utilize it or you can change what you think the resource should be.”

Because the group is a collective, it’s completely run on consensus. We’ve had some interesting times where people have come in and said, “Where’s your director?” We don’t have one. Or we’ve applied for a foundation grant and they’ve wanted to know who’s on our board and we don’t have one. People have said, “You’re not going to be able to get money that way,” but we’ve decided that’s not what’s important to us.

AL: This space is everyone’s space that lives around here or just happens to wander through. It’s always open. It’s everybody’s space, and it translates in the name of the gallery.

KG: It’s La Galería de Nadie, the Gallery of No one, which allows it to be for everyone.

AL: But it’s kind of a vicious cycle as well — the more people that get involved with the space, the more that sets the tone for who’s in the space. The more mainstream white activists are involved with the space, the more the mainstream white activists are going to be involved with the space. Whereas the more the local neighborhood gets in the space, the more the local neighborhood is going to get involved with the space. So we’re trying to figure out a way to balance that to make it welcoming for everyone. It takes effort in the same way that it takes effort for us to make it a space that has a good gender balance and that bridges gaps between generations and sexuality and the whole bit, but it takes effort. It’s not just going to organically happen.

BE: You’ve also been doing some activities which are more conventional for a community center, giving classes of various kinds.

KG: We do have classes that have ranged from yoga classes, which we still have every Saturday, to capoeira, which is a Brazilian martial art. We had silkscreening classes for a little while, a bookbinding class that will happen occasionally, dance classes — flamenco and contemporary dance. The latest thing we’re trying to get going is open hours for our computer lab and potentially classes at some point, so that not only can people learn how to use computers or get internet access but learn different skills. What we’d love to do ultimately is not only have the space open almost every night of the week, but offer some sort of class or opportunity that people who just drop in can be part of so that we really have a more open presence in the neighborhood.

AL: We really wanted to be recognized as an organization that promotes direct action in social justice and implements art within that. People sometimes say, “How do these cultural classes fit in to that?” And what we believe is that everything that’s political is personal and all these personal things are also political. Learning how to make a book — there’s all kinds of political angles to that as well. It’s empowering. It’s learning skills that sometimes only privileged people have access to. And when people talk about building a political movement, you start with your heart and you move outwards. You can’t really help your neighbor if you can’t help yourself, and some of these classes are for that. It’s physical, emotional, spiritual, social. The idea of making a movement stronger is not just in what we consider to be the political arena. It’s not just through the City Council or the Board of Supervisors or against the police, it’s about how we’re going to be proactive and not just wait and fight things, but develop a tight-knit community and work from there.

BE: You’ve also done things that more conventional art collectives do, like having gallery shows and performances and things like that. What relation-ship do you see the space having, if any, to the more mainstream art scene in LA, to the art that goes up in galleries and museums and that whole world?

K: It’s similar in the sense that we’ve had gallery openings. People come and there’s food and drinks and sometimes there might be music, but after that the comparison sort of ends. Part of the reason we wanted to create the gallery was the idea that it’s a non-juried show. You don’t have to go through hoops. You don’t have to know someone special to have a place to show your work. You can come and make a proposal, and if we have the space open you can do your show. The people that have come to do shows there have been artists who’ve just for the love of it wanted to come and show their work. The performances and other events that we’ve had have been a really interesting mix of artists and musicians and documentary filmmakers or other folks who just couldn’t get another place to do this sort of thing and I think those have been some of the best ways for us to make connections. People happen to come in because they heard about it on the radio or in the Weekly, and they say “I never even knew that this place existed,” and some of those folks have come back to help out with different things or share skills.

AL: This is where we differ from other galleries or other venues, because we really feel that art and politics are not what they seem to be, or not how people frame it in a mainstream setting. The people we call artists or what we call art could be totally different from what a mainstream gallery calls art, and what we call political is different from what mainstream America might call political. What we’re trying to create is a space where there are no labels on art or politics or anything else. We’re trying to redefine what those things are.

K: That’s true, but I also would argue that some of the material is explicitly political because the text or images convey some very specific message about some particular issue that is either so different from what the mainstream press talks about or so challenging that I don’t think it could get the space to be hung and shown somewhere else. That’s what we can be a space for, and I think its important to do that.

BE: It seems like you’re working with a very different notion of art than galleries that work in the consumer art world in which art exists as objects that are bought and sold.

KG: You’re right, we’re not about trying to commodify what we are. We’re about trying to build up something that’s bigger than that.

AL: What some of the people do in terms of displaying their artwork is really similar to illegal graffiti. They have no possession of it. It happens a lot at Arts in Action that people say, “I just did it for this show. They wanted me to do something and I did it. It’s there and you can throw it away if you want to afterwards or you can just hold on to it.” Other people are more possessive of their work, but some just do it and it’s just done for that moment, anything can happen to it.

Everyone that’s part of the collective has been creative in their ways, whether it’s development or making art or dance or music. Everyone has been creative and feels that it’s important to mix art into the social justice movement, to mix it up, that art is the vital component, that it’s like science — you can’t really invent anything new without being creative, without doing something that’s totally wacky, without being totally berserk in some way. We have to think totally outside of what social justice movements have been in the past, because they haven’t necessarily been all that successful. If you get creative with it then maybe there are some other ways that people can be successful.

KG: Which is not to say that we think everything we’re doing is brand new and original, but we’re working. We’re working.

For more information, to get involved or lend a hand, drop by the fourth floor of 1919 West Seventh Street, call (213) 483-3504, or check out