by Aimee Chang
Ever since Arnold Schwarznegger's election I've been thinking a lot about how privatized a sector of Los Angeles is-a sizable portion of the population live in gated communities, send their children to private schools, drive climate-controlled cars from place to place, and relax in private clubs. I was thinking about all this because I wasn't sure how anyone with a view of the world from behind thick, sound-proof glass could possibly be responsible for public life.
After being asked to write something on an alternative art space called Six Months, these thoughts started to run together with reflections on this project. Looking back, I started to think of Six Months as a kind of public space within the Los Angeles art community. Programmed by anyone with the time and energy to realize their ideas and attended by those interested in the topic being presented at any given time, the space was, in my mind, a big"Welcome, We're Open"sign in the cultural landscape.
Launched in January of 2003, Six Months operated until August 2003 as an alternative model for an art space in Los Angeles. In this essay, I examine reasons for its success and attempt to pinpoint insights that I think might be useful for future projects.
Founded by Eungie Joo, a curator and writer, and Kehinde Wiley, an artist, Six Months arose out of their concern about what they identified as"a second, (third, fourth?) swell of interest in diversity"in the field of artistic production. According to Joo, they felt that this interest"was being catered to by a sometimes naïve, sometimes exploitative, rarely historical, group of emerging non-white artists". She and Wiley felt"annoyed at our own complacency and craved a space where we could challenge each other."Six Months became that space, hosting over twenty events ranging from critiques, installations; panel discussions; performances, and script readings.
Though originally conceived as a place for people of color to examine their role in the larger art world, the space was not exclusive. At our first meeting about twenty of us discussed and decided that a protectionist approach vis-à-vis race was not of interest to the group, and in the next few months a number of white participants joined in the discussions and presented their work. People were invited to participate via a growing email list forwarded from friend to friend.
Together, we were interested in examining the ways we operated in a diverse art community and in taking responsibility for our own participation. Joo and Wiley shared a clear ideological vision of the space as participant-run and took a hands-off approach to the programming, announcing that the only limitation was the availability of time slots for each participant.
After our first meeting, Wiley returned to New York and Joo remained in Los Angeles where she maintained an event schedule, assigning slots as requested and forwarding announcements to an e-mail list. She attended most, but not all, of these events and refrained from directing them beyond voicing her opinions as a participant.
This left us, as participants, with a sense of communal responsibility for
the project. We found that as we became increasingly engaged with our role
as cultural producers, a tired us-versus-the-"art world"stance
gave way. This feeling was characterized by the point made during one discussion
that we, as artists and curators, are the"art world."
During our first meeting there was some debate whether to document the space or involve press. Ultimately, we decided press requests would be turned down and the events remain unrecorded. In retrospect this was a crucial decision-it led to a degree of openness and vulnerability on the part of participants allowing Six Months to function in part as an incubator. A number of artists held critiques in the space, presenting new bodies of work, some of which were made for upcoming exhibitions. Many who participated in these discussions expressed appreciation for the renewed access to critique outside of studio visits and the academy.
Attendees varied from event to event but were drawn, for over three months, from a relatively established core group of about thirty people. Over half of this group presented their own work and there was a sense of give-and-take in the discussions. In hindsight, the intimacy of the group was partially a result of the short timeframe of the project. During the last few months, the number of attendees grew and the dynamic of the group shifted from one of participants and presenters to presenter and audience. A number of exhibitions were scheduled during these closing months and this growing audience supported Six Months' function as an exhibition space. however, given the number and variety of exhibition spaces in Los Angeles, the need for spaces dedicated to discussion and focused on studio practice is more pressing.
A question that came up on occasion during the run of the Six Months project was how the space might have interacted more purposefully with its neighbors. Six Months was located in a vacated storefront in the working class neighborhood of Jefferson Park / West Adams. In between a martial arts school and a corner market and near a church, the project was in the middle of a populated area with a large number of children. Though several participants voiced the desire for more outreach to the surrounding community, it is interesting to note that, as a participant-run space, only one artist made a direct connection to the neighborhood, working with local students through their school.
And yet, Six Months' ultimate success was the community that it did build. Rather than look for"community"outside of its ranks, the intimacy of the space and the sustained interactions between participants led to a strong sense of camaraderie from within. These participants-a group of largely non-white artists, curators, and writers-formed lasting relationships. This led almost immediately to a number of creative collaborations and exhibitions. The"space where we could challenge each other"envisioned by the founders now exists without a physical home. In addition, Six Months underscored the need for more artist-run, non-commercial art spaces in Los Angeles. Artist-driven rather than audience-focused, it provided critical support for art making in addition to art showing.