Interview with Alice Konitz on the Abandoned Freeway to Beverly Hills

Alice Könitz is a Los Angeles based artist who was in the 2008 Whitney Biennial and in the recent 2014 Made in LA Biennial at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. On Sunday, July 20, 2014 I met Alice at her studio in Highland Park, Los Angeles for an interview and to recreate the visit of the raffle winner from the 2008 Whitney Biennial. Alice was to fly a winner to Los Angeles to view an area of unfinished freeway littered with detritus and construction materials--an unlikely destination that the artist nonetheless considers a source of inspiration. The prize included 3 nights at the Triangle Motel in Los Angeles and roundtrip airfare from NY to LA. We recreated that visit. During the recreation, Alice talks about her work and her current shows at the Hammer Museum and at Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena, California.

Mario Vasquez (MV):  We are recreating the raffle winner’s visit from the 2008 Whitney Biennial. Tell me about how the raffle and the winner came about.

Alice Könitz (AK):   I had first noticed this empty concrete surface when I had just moved to Los Angeles and started going to CalArts. I went on many walks around Echo Park, where I lived and I took the new landscape in with the open enthusiasm of someone who experiences a place for the first time. Back then Los Angeles was both exciting and absurd to me. I found abandoned pedestrian tunnels underneath Glendale Blvd, a river flowing in a concrete bed and this enormous concrete surface that is practically invisible when you are driving onto the Glendale Freeway with your attention focused on the road in front of you. Nevertheless I did notice it turning my head to catch a glimpse. Curious to find out what was there I parked my car and climbed up the Freeway embankment. It was fascinating to find this huge empty slab of concrete  and exhilarating to watch the cars driving by at quite a high speed, while being in a spot that was almost invisible and inaccessible to the cars driving by. At the time I was interested in nature expeditions, I read Robert Smithson's writings and I was preparing for a residency with the Center for Land Use Interpretation. This was in 1998. In 2001 I made a small sculpture out of cardboard, bamboo, colored acrylic felt, and rocks  that was a model for an elevator that I had proposed to install in the freeway overpass. I revisited the project in 2008, after I had done a performance/ exhibition project where I had spent 24 hours at a 24 hour donut shop, an event that was related to an exhibition of sculptures at Susanne Vielmetter Gallery in 2006. In 2008 I thought it would be interesting to take visitors to the actual site. I took the opportunity when I was invited to the Whitney Biennial that took place in the same year. I proposed a raffle for an airplane ticket from New York to Los Angels. To set up the raffle in New York, I made three sculptures that were exhibited in the Whitney Museum of American Art. One of them had a fan motor that blew cellophane pieces with ticket-numbers around in a clear acrylic tube. Attached to the tube was a round disk with faux leather upholstery that was supposed to function as an integrated table where you could purchase your ticket and write the number on it before it was dropped into the tube. I have always been fascinated by design that prescribes a whole sequence of actions.  The other two sculptures were displays for a travel magazine and for a ghost that would help you win the raffle. The drawing of the winning ticket happened at the end of the biennial. The winner was a guy from New York named Mark. He postponed his visit for several months Unfortunately I was out of town when he came to Los Angeles and I couldn't meet him. I asked my friend to take him up to the overpass instead. Unfortunately I didn't hear back from him afterwards, but my friend said that he enjoyed the visit.



MV:     So, when the winner arrived he would stay at the Triangle Motel. That was our first stop?

AK:     Yes, that’s correct. Although the winner opted out of staying at the motel because he wanted to stay with his local friends. I chose the Triangle Motel because it was close to the overpass and I liked how the name connects to the piece. I was also intrigued by the literalness of the sign that was just a metal triangle with the word triangle in script lettering on it.

Magazine Table, 2008.
Displayed at the 2008 Whitney Biennial
MV:     So at the time of the 2008 Whitney Biennial what was your approach about your art that you wanted to convey to, not only to the visitor here in LA, the viewer of your work in New York?

AK:     I wanted to connect the biennial to this particular site. I was interested in making a sculpture that would extend over space and time. The piece provides different levels of   experience. The winner got the full experience of the trip. Everybody else got to see the sculptures at the Whitney Museum and the opportunity of becoming an active participant in the piece by buying a $4 raffle-ticket and learning about the empty concrete slab that's 2790 miles away. I was interested in staging a journey to the place that I found 10 years earlier. The sculptures were a means to an end, but the narrative of the journey was also a means to determine the rules for making these particular sculptures. This came out of a decision that I made early on, which was that I wanted to create sculptures that weren't determined by composition, but by parameters that were set by describing a function.

We parked our car and walked up the embankment on the side of the bridge over Glendale Boulevard. We both accidentally woke up a homeless man who was sleeping beside the hill. We ended up walking around the sleeping man. I carried the chairs, and Alice carried a crate that contained hot tea, coffee, croissants, strawberries, and nectarines.  We both then sat down and completed the interview.
  
Interview site from where we parked.
Interview Site on the top of the Glendale Blvd. bridge overpass.
Strawberries, pastries and green tea.

MV:     You are currently participating in the 2014 Made in LA Biennial at the Hammer Museum. However, you are showing as the Los Angeles Museum of Art (LAMOA). Tell me how you came about this project.

AK:    I founded the Los Angeles Museum of Art in 2012. I invited a small number of artists whose work I've been following for a long time to create exhibitions of their works as they make sense in an open structure with removable walls. I was part of a group of artists participating in Made in LA who make their own work, but are also involved in communal, or collaborative projects like Kchung, Public Fiction, and James Kidd Studio. I proposed to make sculptural display systems for individual art works that I had collected and curated. I wanted to establish LAMOA as a collecting institution and at the same time create sculptures that would be formally determined by the objects that are displayed within them. There are two sides to LAMOA, you can see very straightforwardly as a small exhibition space, but it's also an artwork that is not so different from my other work as an artist. A lot of my work combines hypothetical situations with the ones that are already there. I was excited about LAMOA's potential as a functioning institution. Most of my sculptures could be described as contemplative objects, things that reflect on their environment and on themselves, while not necessarily being a functioning part of their environment. This gap or distinction between art and everything that's not art has always been very puzzling and interesting to me. With LAMOA I was interested in creating a sculpture that would be an active part of a community, a structure that could function as a conventional institution; one that could serve as a platform for an exchange within a community of artists. It was fascinating for me to see how well it worked. The title was pure fiction, but it had the power to turn the humble wooden pavilion into a recognized exhibition space. At the same time LAMOA retained the meta narrative of the contemplative object (reflecting on exhibition spaces/museums/sculptures/city structure etc.). 

MV:   Do you see the structure as both a museum and a sculpture?

AK:   Yes. It started out as a sculpture and it was turned and into a new kind of exhibition space with every show.

Los Angeles Museum of Art (LAMOA) with installation by Katie Grinnan

MV:   How do you think that LAMOA reflects the current Los Angeles art scene?

AK:   LAMOA grew out of a lack of art exhibitions that I wanted to see. By now I think that   
there are a lot more diverse art spaces, too many to really follow up on everything that's going on. My focus was on giving artists a small space to work on one project that wouldn't get sidetracked by commercial considerations. The scale of LAMOA would allow for exploratory work, the dialogue and viewing experience was important.

Installation view of LAMOA for the Made in L.A. Biennial at the Hammer Museum
From left to right: Display System#2

From left to right:  Judith Hopf: Smaller Mask, Judith Hopf: untitled,
Matthew Waller: Peel, Katie Grinnan: The Matter and a Story (mostly hidden, additional image coming soon), 
Daniel Mendel-Black: Naked Dark,

MV:   You are also currently showing at the Armory Center for the Arts in the group show “The Fifth Wall” as the LAMOA. In that show, the idea of the Fifth Wall is a notion of alienation. Do you see this view, with cars passing by, palm trees in the distant and the landscape of Los Angeles as a part of that idea of alienation that Bertolt Brecht contemplated?

AK:   Brecht's idea of “a representation that alienates is one which allows us to recognize its subject, but at the same time makes it seem unfamiliar. The classical and medieval theater alienated its characters by making them wear human or animal masks; the Asiatic theater even today uses musical and pantomimic A-effects” (Brecht On Theater 1957) The goal of the epic theater was to make sure that the audience wouldn't be completely consumed by a total immersion in the play that's going on on stage. As a viewer you were asked to keep your emotional distance by being reminded that you're watching a play. You were observing an actor in a constructed situation, you were not meant to identify with the actor. This distance would enable you to take a critical position on what's going on in front of you. It's much easier to step back and keep your critical distance from a sculpture than from a theater play or a movie. I generally assume a critical distance in the viewer when I show my work. Even though my work sometimes offers an immersive participation, visitors of LAMOA will be aware of its difference to other museum institutions, and participants in the 'Glendale Freeway Raffle' might wonder what they're getting themselves into. As Irene Tsatsos describes it in the catalogue, my work and the work of the other artists in the exhibition show “familiar constructs but the viewers perspectives are changed which may cause them to question the authority of their previous interactions with the object or concept.”

View from the Interview site.
Yes, I do see the freeway overpass in itself as an alien place within the city. It doesn't belong to the functioning infrastructure that surrounds it and thus creates an interruption just by being there. If we stretch the term 'alienation effect' in regards to how we normally approach the city as a well organized system that we are immersed in, visiting or seeing this unused piece of Freeway might question  our generally adopted views. I was definitely interested in it as a gap that takes you outside of your everyday experience.

MV:     When you invited artists to display their work at LAMOA, how did the artists react to the space? Did they consider it a challenge? 

AK:     I invited artists whom I expected to be able to take advantage of the space. Everybody made something that considered the conditions of the space directly. People addressed different aspects of the space, the fact that it was a communal space, the natural light conditions, the fact that it's a museum, the idea that it embodies a fictional location, it's self reflexivity, the stage like character etc. It think it challenged worked the work in a positive way.

MV:     Final question, what are your future plans? Do you have anything upcoming?

AK:     Yes, I'm working on two exhibitions. One of them will include a curated show at LAMOA and new works that I'm making. The other one will show a number of small pieces that I'm currently working on.

Postscript: On August 23, 2014, the Mohn Award for artistic excellence went to Alice Konitz, and the Los Angeles Museum of Art 





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