Q&A with Machine Project’s Mark Allen

Tomorrow, Machine Project will descend upon LACMA for ten hours of performances as part of the Machine Project Field Guide to LACMA. In anticipation, curator Charlotte Cotton, who organized the event on behalf of LACMA, chatted—actually, iChatted—with Mark Allen of Machine Project, to give a sense of what’s in store.

CC: So how are you feeling in the final countdown to the BIG day?

MA: Good-ish. I’m really happy with the rehearsals, the print material, and the plans. I was talking last night about how I basically experience large projects before and after but not really during. The fact that we have 250 [participants] involved blew my mind. How are you feeling?

CC: I’m at that stage when I swing between thinking it’s going to be me and you plus 250 brilliant people getting on with some absolutely fantastic scenarios at LACMA—and then wondering if thousands of Angelenos will be curious and come along.

MA: It’s hard to say, right? Neither of us have done something like this at LACMA before.

CC: It’s exciting, the part that we could only partly anticipate is about to just happen. I think we know how special all the thoughtful performances and interventions will be, but how that actually plays out all together, and how visitors will react and develop the ideas, we just don’t know.

MA: Yes, who knows! I think I’m pretty used to things not turning out the way I expected, since most of my curatorial practice is based on events.

CC: It’s an almost unique talent, Mark!

MA: My philosophy is that if you set up a framework and execute in it, whatever ends up will be great.

CC: Coming from the more anal and institutionalized end of curating, it’s been an amazing thing to go along on this journey with you.

MA: Well I hope it’s been somewhat fun. I am often curious about how curation works in a more professional sense.

CC: It involves low cunning and patience.

MA: One thing that is really different is the role of scholarship, which isn’t a big part of what we do at Machine (although I have great respect for it). The advantage of curating new work is I think there is less pressure to contextualize it historically. Is that fair to say?

CC: I think curating historical work (and that really is everything except very new work) involves a double contextualization.

MA: What do you mean?

CC: If you are a curator who specializes in a particular medium or period of history, then you are reconstructing a narrative that is not necessarily familiar to museum visitors. To try to explain the context is one of the first responsibilities you have to your chosen field. But there’s the second part to this—which is about contextualizing the past FOR the present. For me, that’s the exciting part—where you breathe contemporary life into history.

MA: Neat!

CC: That’s why I wanted to see what you would do at LACMA.

MA: How do you see your role in this project? Are you contextualizing what we do at Machine in terms of LACMA?

CC: I suppose there was the selfish role I chose which was to be participating from the outset and learn about LACMA from imaginative perspectives that you and the artists you work with bring to the museum. And to be the person who tries to keep the door open to as many of your ideas as possible but be clear when an idea might miss the mark.

MA: It’s interesting, that’s basically what I see my role being for projects that take place at Machine. Facilitator/guide. Something that was really challenging for the group of artists that worked on this project was dealing with the fact that it was at LACMA, since we’re mostly younger artists. For most people this is their first museum show, and I think in the beginning there was some concern about what it meant to contextualize their practice in the institution. But in the end, we decided to try an adopt an attitude that we could treat the museum like any other space or context. The same way we could react to a dry ice factory or a public park. To be both inside and outside if possible.

CC: Rather than being the David to LACMA’s Goliath?

MA: Yes of course—to avoid less productive approaches. Like a) “oh jeez, now’s our big shot, we have to make real art now,” or b) “museums are lame, let’s blow it up.”

CC: I’m glad you didn’t choose plan b!

MA: Well, it’s a fine line, I think, of how much one teases/abuses/interrogates the use of the museum. To be too respectful or too little. I think we tried to use it more as a “found context.”

CC: And that’s really worked with the character of LACMA.

MA: Yes, I can’t see this project working anywhere else in L.A. It requires the huge sprawl.

CC: It’s huge! Some parts of the campus are shiny and new and then other bits have cobwebs in them.

MA: If there is room for cobwebs there is room for us. That’s how I thought about it in the beginning.

CC: If you can relax into the confusion and contradictions of LACMA’s sprawl, you can really enjoy yourself.

MA: That same statement will apply to our show I hope.

CC: Exactly—the field guide may only be visible for one day but I think that the encouragement it gives to visitors to just enjoy the fact that each visit we make to a museum is idiosyncratic, full of the unexpected and not just about the label texts, is an enduring fusion of what you do and how LACMA actually gets experienced.

MA: Thanks! I’m not sure how conscious that was on our part, and how much a result of the museum having an influence on how it unfolds. The form of the museum had a lot of influence on how the show evolved.

CC: Do you mean both the architectural spaces and also getting to know how it works?

MA: I think the architecture, because of the sprawl, but more how the size of the museum interacted with our curatorial process since we visited so many times, with so many people.

The curation of the show is almost a trace of how we experienced the museum during the brainstorm sessions and the process of thinking up the ideas was really interesting, because we all experienced the museum so differently when we were there looking at it as a site instead of a museum. Lots of the curatorial team spoke about that. Hence the title—”field guide.” It will be interesting to see how the book reflects that experience as well.

CC: I like your idea for the book to not only document and evaluate the ideas that were realized on the day but also list the projects that didn’t happen.

MA: Yes, and treat them on the same level. I’m actually still not sure how the book will unfold because I think it’s also an opportunity to speak about the group of people involved who are an interesting cross-section of California (for the most part) artists and performers who are mostly outside the commercial art world.

CC: Is this one of the reasons that you set up and have continued to host Machine Project in Los Angeles?

MA: Do you mean to provide a forum for this kind of work?

CC: Yep, and that it’s a particular strength of artistic practice in Los Angeles—that so much functions outside of market and institutional structures.

MA: First and foremost, I want to provide a really casual interaction between performers and audience. And support projects and artists I believe in. But also provide a place for people to experiment with their normal practice. I could go on about Machine’s motivations at great length… I’m interested to see how the show is received in the art world context.

CC: I can’t think of how else the museum could genuinely respond to and acknowledge the hub that is Machine Project, nor the strength of Los Angeles’ artists other than by trying to just open its doors to your way of thinking. Could you imagine if we’d tried to create a separate space, like a temporary exhibition gallery, for Machine? It would have been disastrous.

MA: Yikes.

CC: And you probably would have said no.

MA: Yikes.

CC: So which project that isn’t going happen on the 15th but you dreamt up are you going to miss on the day?

MA: #1: our handwritten donor list, next to the $$$ LACMA donor list! #2: drivers’ ed. school valet parking. For the most part, I think the best ideas triumphed. What about you? What do you wish we had done that got scrapped?

CC: I really liked the idea of growing plants along the link between the European paintings galleries and the Arts of the Americas. Going from a little oak tree to potato plant.

MA: Oh yeah, all the gardening projects. Those were good. I think we needed to think of those much earlier. Like five years ago.

CC: I also would have liked to have set up more games for the BP Grand Entrance, which you are naming “Mission Control” for the day. Maybe there is still time for me to get prepared. I like guessing games:

1. Guess how many security screws in the jar
2. Guess how many words on all the labels in LACMA’s galleries
3. Guess the square footage of LACMA (I don’t think anyone knows this really)

MA: These are great ideas! Why am I just hearing about them now?

CC: I’ve been busy being a proper curator. I also wish the field guide could have included food but the health and safety issues were insurmountable.

MA: I know. We do a lot of food. We have a pie expert spending some time with us in December. Many pie-related activities coming to Machine.

CC: I’m especially looking forward to the Murder Mystery competition with clues through the museum’s galleries. I love any activity that brings out the fiercely competitive spirit of whole families. Remind me what the prize for the winners will be?

MA: No idea! We need to figure that out.

CC: How about the sum total of all the crochet bonnets that will be made for Chris Burden’s Urban Light installation? To keep the lamps warm this winter?

MA: I think we’re giving them to needy children.

CC: Bless you! Or maybe the most beautiful urn made for Liz’s recycling project?

MA: That might be good.

CC: Okay, well that’s another thing to add to our “to do” list for tomorrow.

MA: It certainly is.

Charlotte Cotton

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