Hands on

Beet papers at Machine Project

It’s no secret around here that I’m in love with something called Machine Project. It’s an entity that can at its most simplest be described as a storefront in Echo Park. It’s currently adorned with sheets of thinly sliced beets, creating a kind of vegetable stained glass across its front window. Last month, it contained a shipwreck.

You know, just your typical Echo Park storefront.

Emily Lacy sings us a musical introduction

Machine Project is an art space, yes, but it’s also an art collective, an art intervention, an art community. It’s a concept that’s kind of difficult to comprehend, so to make it easier to understand, when we arrived there, Emily Lacy sang an introduction to Machine Project on the banjo. Because everything makes more sense in rhyme.

Mark Allen solders on

Everyone has their own opinion of what Machine Project represents, but to me, Machine Project is a place where artists don’t just flit in and slap some work on the walls—they share how to make that art with their audience. And they allow the audience to participate. In fact, they require it.

Ryan plays the saw

So, for example, when our group walked into Machine Project, we didn’t get a lecture. We got our hands dirty. Founder and executive director Mark Allen showed us how to solder together two audio cables, plug them into baby amps, and make tiny contact microphones. We scurried through the space, carefully placing our microphones on surfaces like doctors wielding stethoscopes, listening to what sounds we could coax out of our environment.

The wolf plays a watermelon

Then Allen (now wearing a wolf mask, of course) proceeded to delight his enraptured audience as he inserted the contact microphone into the belly of a watermelon and used it like a percussion instrument. Here’s a video from my fellow Fellow, Jennifer Hsu, of Allen drumming and “scratching” (rinding?) on the watermelon. A group from Machine had just led the same workshop as part of EAT LACMA, a fantastic day of food and art curated by my friends at Fallen Fruit (which I was devastated to miss, but we were at the fellowship).

We played streetlamps and handsaws, ladders and water bottles, our iPhones and even ourselves. Here’s another video Jenn shot of me using the microphone as a voice synthesizer. She missed my Darth Vader impression.

Playing DJ with our contact microphones

I think this—the sharing of process, and the involvement of the audience—is a really important part of the art world that we’re not seeing nearly enough of in the galleries and museums that we’re visiting. Artists should have a responsibility to throw back the curtain on their work and pass along their skills and knowledge to their viewers. What about instead of the passive, zombie-like gallery procession of an art walk, we had nights where artists let us create alongside them? What if First Fridays became Sharing Saturdays? You’d bring a bit of that messy, uncertain studio right to the audience, ruining those white gallery walls forever. (Or at least smudging them a little.)

The incredibly stylish wolves

If you could have seen nine grown adults giggling like kids as we dug through the dusty archives in the basement, unearthing the perfect material to transform into a guitar, you would have agreed that Machine Project triumphs in a department where other art spaces are just, kind of, there. Machine Project spills out onto the street and jumps in people’s cars and follows them back to their houses where their contact microphone now sits on their desk and reminds them every day that hey, I made that.

Machine Project may encompass too many concepts to accurately describe it, but all you really need to know is that it’s one of my favorite reasons to live in LA.

More about the USC/Annenberg Getty Arts Journalism Fellowship. More photos here.

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