Landscape Stories: It would be interesting to begin our conversation by speaking about the way you got connected with the world of art, and how is live in LA?
Elana Mann: As a young art student, I was very influenced by the Brazilian artists Lygia Clark and Helio Oiticica. When I was twenty-two I was awarded a grant to travel to Brazil and study Clark and Oiticica along with a contemporary generation of artists, such as Ernesto Neto, Laura Lima and Marcio Botner, who are carrying on a legacy of experimentation linked to the body, experience, and space. These artists really helped me connect my interests and desires to a larger history of art-making.
I moved to Los Angeles in 2005 to attend California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) for graduate school, as I felt like it was a place where I could continue to grow and deepen my artistic work. At CalArts, I learned from incredible artists (both mentors and peers) and worked within a rigorous atmosphere that taught me to always question the systems and contexts around me.
Growing up in Boston, MA, I never imagined that I would end up in Los Angeles, especially since Los Angeles is a city that the rest of the U.S. loves to hate. People who don’t live in Los Angeles like to complain about the traffic, the smog, and the artificiality of the city of angels. I was prepared for the worst. Despite all the trepidation, I immediately fell in love with Los Angeles when I moved here. I have found a certain amount of flexibility, openness, and experimental impulse here, both within and outside the art community, that I have not experienced anywhere else. Perhaps it is the open spaces, or ideas of “manifest destiny”, or the fact that the financial and political centers of the U.S. are on the East Coast, or a spillover of creative energy from the entertainment industry; who knows what causes a certain sense of possibility. Whatever it is, I am endlessly enthralled with the city.
Landscape Stories: You are an artist whose work investigates political, social and interpersonal exchange. Tell about the choice of research of these concepts.
Elana Mann: I first began thinking about ideas of exchange in relation to two separate interests: global politics and the history of performance art. Between 2003-2007 I curated an art exchange between artists I had met during my travels in Brazil and artists in Portland, OR (the town where I was living between 2003-5). Meanwhile, I began researching Fluxus performance scores and the history of Feminist Art, which propelled me to experiment with collaborative/collective art-making. I started to realize that an artwork (whether object-based or not) can create a unique dialogical space where intimacy, communication, and varied types of exchange occur.
Currently, my artwork has been exploring political and economic currency. Recent projects have dealt with issues such as the torture of prisoners, the 2008 U.S. presidential elections and gift exchange. I am committed to social justice and creating artwork that attempt to open up spaces within political, social, and interpersonal impasses.
Landscape Stories: Usually you don’t employ the photographic medium. What technical means have you used to realize the Improvised Balloon Device series?
Elana Mann: For years I have been employing my camera as a tool to help me develop ideas and document actions. Along with using the camera as a process tool I am tending to increasingly create discrete photographic works. I think of my use of the photographic medium as existing in a space between the genres of performance and documentary.
Often at the start of a project I will have a series of images in my head of performative actions in a specific space. Because I am usually performing within an artwork I am compelled to collaborate with photographers and filmmakers to help me create the images I desire. When I work with someone for the first time I have to direct her/him heavily in terms of the composition, perspective, and tone. After a while, my collaborator’s photographs or videos shots become aligned with my own eye. I try to use the same photographers or filmmakers each time to make the process go smoothly. My husband, the Production Designer Jean-Paul Leonard, is a talented photographer and he often collaborates with me to shoot my pieces. Although the photographs are shot digitally I rarely do much digital manipulation of the images. I tend to produce hand cut collages if I want to create an image that I cannot make with a camera.
Landscape Stories: You are the performer among the oil wells and the desert. Tell me about it.
Elana Mann: My artwork, Improvised Balloon Device (IBD), deals with ideas of protest and public mourning. In the photographic series and single channel video I am performing with an oil derrick that is located in Val Verde, CA, a residential area in the outskirts of Los Angeles. In the piece I am carrying a giant net filled with black balloons and wearing a black velvet jacket as I proceed around the oil derrick and eventually spill the balloons around me.
In developing this piece, I was looking at the use of black balloons in political protest and how masses of these balloons look like bubbling oil. Instead of functioning as a symbol of party or carnival, black balloons take on an ominous feeling when used in moments of political assembly. The balloons and my movements allude to the complexity of our societies relationship to oil and the soiled exchanges that surround our oil consumption.
Landscape Stories: Tell me about natural landscape!
Elana Mann: I am very inspired by the landscape of Southern California, including all the industrial and interstitial spaces in Los Angeles. Los Angeles county has some fascinating mixtures of spatial use and lots of spaces that have no function at all: abandoned lots, paper streets, and perpetually empty public plazas. The areas where different types of spaces collide are the ones that excite me the most, including unique blends of industrial and residential, residential and natural, natural and industrial, etc. Improvised Balloon Device (IBD) was shot at a location I passed regularly to visit a friend living in Val Verde. I have also shot pieces at river dams that are used as recreation facilities, rolling hillsides that abut dense residential areas and City streets that cut through empty lots.
Landscape Stories: I have curated Cities group show to the Torrance Art Museum this month, tell me about the Telephone exhibition to the Torrance Art Museum.
Elana Mann: he Telephone exhibit at the Torrance Art Museum follows the recent trend of exhibitions that are organized based on networks of friends, colleagues and acquaintances in the art world. The 2008 exhibition The Generational: Younger than Jesus at the New Museum in New York was based on the notion of global experts/correspondents who each nominated a few artists to apply for the show. Final participants in the Younger than Jesus exhibition were selected from the pool of nominated applicants. The Chain Letter exhibit, initiated by the artists Doug Harvey and Christian Cummings took place in locations all over the world and was founded on the principle of admiration. Each artist in the chain invited ten more artists s/he admired to participate and so on (as an aside, this exhibit caused two major traffic jams in Los Angeles due to the enormous number of participants!). For the Telephone exhibit at the Torrance Art Museum each artist was invited by a colleague and then asked to invite another artist of the opposite sex. In addition to selecting the participant each contributing artist wrote a paragraph about the artist they selected. While the Telephone exhibit was occurring at the Torrance Art Museum another Tel-art-phone exhibit was simultaneously happening across town at the Beacon Arts Center. For the Tel-art-phone exhibition each artist passed around an artwork and responded or contributed to it in some way.
For the Torrance Art Museum exhibition I invited the artist/composer Adam Overton. His contribution to the Telephone exhibition was to attend the opening of the Tel-art-phone exhibit, occurring the same night as the Torrance Art Museum Telephone show, and live Tweet about the opening on his cell phone!
Although I have no definitive answer as to why this phenomenon seems to be gaining traction, I am intrigued by the questions this recent trend poses. Clearly, as Adam Overton’s piece indicates, we are connected to each other in more and more ways through communication technology, but does this increased connection inherently mean more intimacy? Are these shows disturbing the power balance of who gets the opportunity to exhibit/curate artwork, or merely making clear the inherent nepotism in the art world? Or are we merely living out the next iteration of Fluxus, with a much broader reach and without a figure like George Maciunas to coin it?
Landscape Stories: You work as artist, as well as professor and writer, so could tell more about the projects you developed sine the beginning of 2007 and how are you connecting the theoretical and practical aspects of your works?
Elana Mann: As an artist I have many roles that I occupy; I make art, I teach art at Scripps College in Claremont, CA, I organize events and exhibitions, and I write. I find that all of these modalities feed into each other in very natural and organic ways. Although I make artwork as an individual artist many of my activities involve collaboration, collectivity, and social exchange. Working in a collaborative, socially engaged way aligns with my political and social ideals. I deeply believe in the power of dialog and the potentials of what can be gained through attempts to understand one another.
When I was a young artist I learned as a sculptor that you cannot make art alone, you need people to help carry and hold things. Years later I realized how much I internalized this teaching and literalized my dialog with other artists, students, and the public – working as an artist, educator, organizer, and writer really brings ideas of community and communication to the fore. On a personal level, it is really pleasurable to work with others in many different ways. I value improvisation and working directly with the public in a variety of roles brings out delights and surprises.
( Video caption: Embroid, Embroil, September 11, 2007 from Elana Mann on Vimeo. )
Landscape Stories: In your opinion which is the perfect icon of the America today?
Elana Mann: I was listening to the radio the other day and the station was broadcasting an audio recording of someone from the Occupy Wall Street movement who was addressing a crowd. The crowd was using the “human microphone” technology: the man speaking would make a statement and the crowd would repeat it word for word in order to amplify his words and allow more people to hear him. The man was suggesting how the Occupy Wall Street movement should reach out to the Tea Party, a grassroots movement in the United States that challenges corruption of the U.S. government from a radical right-wing position. As the crowd repeated back this man’s idea word for word I wondered how it felt to physically speak words that you don’t necessarily agree with. Do the people of the Occupy Wall Street movement agree that it is a good idea to reach out to the Tea Party, a party that is on the opposite extreme of the political spectrum?
Yet, it made sense the crowd of protestors were saying these words, whether they agreed with them or not. As the political positions of everyday people in the U.S. have become more and more extreme, I think one method for people to begin to empathize with one another is to understand the other’s words or perspective through one’s own body. Speaking someone else’s words could be an important key to empathy in our time.
The “human microphone” technology makes me visualize a body-sized ear, or a Louise Bourgeois type of suit with satellite dishes instead of breasts, or human sized sound receivers invented before the use of radar technology (I am currently building all of these as costumes for future performances).
Landscape Stories: What is always live about the era of Art in LA 1945 – 1980? Do you feel to be daughter of this period?
Mann: I am very influenced by researching artworks and art movements created in Los Angeles between 1945-1980. Studying at CalArts really connected me to this time period and to a lineage of artists who have taught and studied at CalArts since the 1970’s. Many artists active in 1945-1980 were asking similar questions to my own: how to create artwork that is meaningful to the political and social landscape we are currently living in? What sorts of non-art designated spaces and communities hold the potential for artistic manifestation? How to extend explorations of the body, space, and action within an artwork or public space? What are ways to disrupt the cultural and political status quo? How to work with one another in new and exciting manners?
Over the past few years I have made a number of pieces in relation/response to this fertile era of art-making in Los Angeles. In 2007 I was part of a collective exploring the history of Feminist artwork at CalArts, where the Feminist Art Program and Womanhouse took place in the early 70’s. We created a project called Exquisite Acts and Everyday Rebellions: 2007 CalArts Feminist Art Project, which included a symposium, an exhibition, and a performance/screening series. Performance artist Allan Kaprow has also been a huge inspiration. In 2008 I created a “re-invention” of Kaprow’s artwork Publicity with CalArts students, alumni and teachers, which was commissioned by the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art’s Allan Kaprow: Art as life exhibition. At the moment, I am working with a collective I co-founded called ARLA on the musical composition and deep listening techniques of Pauline Oliveros, an avant-garde composer active in Southern California in the 1970’s and 80’s.
The current city-wide initiative of Pacific Standard Time, sponsored by the Getty Museum, puts a spotlight on artwork made in LA between 1945-1980 with exhibitions in over sixty institutions in the Los Angeles area. I am sure that these series of exhibits will make a huge impact on my own artwork as well as other artists currently living and working in Los Angeles and abroad.
Interview curated by Camilla Boemio