Social Art, Ambiguity, Oil, Critique, Compromise, and Los Angeles Art Museums – Robby Herbst

The truth is that strategies of liar’s poker are inevitable today, as cultural institutions both public and private try to mediate between the logic of profit and prestige and the desire for alternative valuations. But that can be put more bluntly; in the age of corporate patronage and the neoliberal state, art is becoming a field of extreme hypocrisy. And so it directly reflects the crisis of the representative democracies. – Brian Holmes, Liars Poker

On May 22nd Fallen Fruit, the Silverlake based eco-artist collective organized Tomato Hootenanny in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) BP Grand Plaza. This was the first iteration of EATLACMA, a yearlong collaboration between the museum and the collective. At the hootenanny the old-time band Triple Chicken Foot provided music and Fallen Fruit gave away tomato plant starts to museum visitors. Nothing out of the ordinary for a collective committed to stimulating peoples connections. Bow to your partner, bow to your corner, now promenade back home and plant this tomato and consider the relationships between your partner, your corner, your concept of what art is, hierarchical institutions, and this hybridized species of Lycopersicon esculentum.

BP GRAND Entrance at LACMA at BP Plaza.

During the weeks leading up to the event, the museum and the artists promoted the hootenanny and, by association, the oil giant British Petroleum (BP) whose name the plaza bore. BP paid for LACMA’s entrance, donating 25 million dollars in exchange for naming rights and the solar panels upon the museum’s Broad Pavilion. This scrub went down a couple of years before BP spilled their million barrels of crude in the Gulf of Mexico. On April 20th The Deep Water Horizon exploded killing 11 people.

The Deepwater Horizon rig on fire in the Gulf of Mexico.

Between the dates of the explosion and Fallen Fruit’s party on the 22nd of May, a group of UK artist known as Liberate Tate denounced and called for London’s Tate Museum to divest from their partnership with BP. Liberate Tate surreptitiously released helium filled balloons into the museum’s massive Turbine Hall – dead fish and birds tethered to the balloons hovered far out of reach of Tate’s clean-up crew. As the helium dissipated, the museum’s floor was said to be littered with stinking animal corpses, akin to the ones dying in the Gulf of Mexico.

Dead bird on the floor of Tate.

Interestingly, some of the artists who formed themselves as Liberate Tate had previously been invited into the Tate as members of the UK artist group Laboratory Of Insurrectionary Imagination (LABOFIL). The museum asked them to run a participatory workshop on art and activism, yet specifically required LABOFIL not to engage the Tate itself as a possible site for civil disobedience. According to LABOFIL, during their workshop the museum policed the group making sure that the content was “commensurate with the museums mission,” uncritical of the museums own fiscal relationships. Later the people of Liberate Tate breached this contract with their act of old fashioned oil-coated institutional-critique, reaching beyond the contemporary social-practice of inviting “social-minded” artists into the museum as institutional collaborators.

On May 18th, four days before Fallen Fruit’s event, Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight penned a suggestive, if not critical, column on the topic of art and oil titled “BP Grand Entrance at LACMA Looking Not-Quite-So-Grand.” Nonetheless Fallen Fruit’s party went as planned. Pictures of the event show folk dancers spinning on an oil free piazza. The irony of a group committed to “reconfiguring the relation between those who have resources and those who do not” holding a party in a plaza built and paid for by a corporation doling out destruction and poverty in the gulf was lost.

That Fallen Fruit found itself in this situation can be seen as a case of very unfortunate timing. The group has been at the forefront of what can be described as a movement to creatively resource food and collective creativity in urban environments. They have encouraged and popularized gleaning, canning, jamming, foraging, gardening and sharing. Though decidedly political in their artist statement, their work doesn’t wrestle with political philosophy nor engage in confrontational radicalism but plays with social ambiguity and pleasure as a means to activate and address obliquely environmental themes. Fallen Fruit is on the proactive tip that dominates much of a kind of social-artwork, advancing playful solutions for entrenched problems (in their case food scarcity, agribusiness, and waste). While the abstraction of the economy of the store-bought banana plays a part in their work (along with eroticized images of people contemplating fruit), the realism of institutional critique does not. According to Fallen Fruit members David Burns, Matias Viegener, and Austin Young, the group “came into being through the Journal of Aesthetics & Protest’s call for artist’s projects in 2004: to address social, political or civic issues but to do so by proposing a solution rather than mounting a critique.  The critique may underlie the work, but it is in the shadow of play, engagement and even provocation.[1]

Tomato Hootenanny Poster for Fallen Fruit EATLACMA event.

Fallen Fruits’s collaboration with LACMA and BP is extending out into Los Angeles along with a push by many of the cities cultural institutions to increase their own popularity and demographics. The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), the Hammer Museum, and LACMA all are currently running programs that engage publics through participatory art events[2]. And as Fallen Fruit’s Tomato Hootenanny illustrates, this kind of institutionalization of what was formally understood as collective, contextual, DIY, and independent art practices do not arrive without contradictions. Least of all amongst these contradictions is that these collaborations have appeared to affirm, rather than challenge, the bureaucratic and top-down cultural institutions in which they are held.

For years Machine Project, located in Los Angeles’s Echo Park neighborhood, has been serving as a scrappy anti-institution. Their workshops, events and programming are wildly popular, staged from the context of Los Angeles’ creative milieu. Though low-fi in style, an artist collaborating with Machine on an event, workshop, or exhibition can expect help from the organizations staff as well as a modest, yet rewarding, honorarium for their creative labor. What’s more, Machine is a supportive environment for artist – helping them conceive and execute crazy spectacular shit – everything from hacking workshops to offbeat installations like the full-scale shipwreck of Josh Beckman currently constructed inside their storefront. Way back in 2008, two years before almost anyone gave a real thought to BP, Machine Project organized the The Machine Project Field Guide to LACMA – pioneering this form of cross institutional collaboration that’s taken hold of late in Los Angeles. It was billed as a day-long “takeover” of LACMA, involving more than 50 artists and groups, amongst them Fallen Fruit. Currently Machine is participating in another yearlong institutional collaboration – this one with the Hammer Museum, five miles west down Wilshire Boulevard.

Machine Project director, Mark Allen, advises that with these exchanges he’s had to make creative compromises. He suggests that doing something like social-curation with a large institution is akin to being in an intimate relationship – saying, “You can’t just tell your girl-friend that you’ll be up to 3 am and expect that she’ll be ok with it.” Allen considers that collaborating with an institution is similar to the way you work with any person. He suggests, “The constraints allow us to work better… figuring out ways to be with other human beings.” [3]

Allen says that with the Hammer partnership the museum has fiscal and legal concerns that define the relationship. He says that coming to terms with something as large as the Hammer you have to realize, “producing consensus is a difficult process,” According to Allen the advantages of working with the Hammer have been access to resources and talented people, as well as the expanded audience. [4]

In turn the Hammer sees that working with artist/social-curators like Mark Allen and Machine Project allows for the museum to expand its audience as well as the public’s imagination of what the museum can be. Commenting in the Summer, 2010 issue of Artforum, the Hammer’s director Anne Philbin says that what Machine Project can do is make the museum “fun.” Philbin was specifically referring to Dream-In, a public sleepover at the Hammer organized by Machine Project with ArtSpa. Dream-In involved “artist-led experimental dreaming workshops” that involved music, drawing, and something like theater games. All of this, done to the theme of Carl Jung’s Red Book, which was then on exhibition at the Hammer.

Hammer and Artspa “Dream-in” at the Hammer Museum.

Allen doesn’t take issue with having his very serious practice characterized as “fun” within the pages of Artforum. He notes, “One of Machine’s tactics is fun. But you shouldn’t confuse strategy and content. The museum has its goals, I have mine, and it’s not a zero sum game. People are complicated. Some of the work we present can have a critical position and the work is always expansive- it moves.” [5]

This “fun” and its ability to move people gets at the heart of why the Hammer, LACMA, and MOCA all are currently featuring social-artists in their calendars. These scrappy, fun, and collaborative museum projects in the form of takeovers or engagement parties provide a moment of re-branding for audience 2.0.As an institution the Hammer has its own oil issues. Armand Hammer was both the founder of Occidental Petroleum and the benefactor of the Hammer museum. Since his passing, the relationship with the museum and the oil company has not always been positive. It is said that University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) administers the Hammer today partly as a solution to this rocky sponsorship. The museum sits in the Occidental Building and it host a lively series of public forums, including a recent event titled Addicted to Oil: Can the Earth Recover? With the Machine/Hammer project, the sensitive relationship of the art institution and its oil benefactors was a brief topic of discussion at the onset of the collaboration, but has not been a lasting concern.On working with an institution implicated by oil money, Mark Allen says, “It’s easy and emotional to lash out against oil companies; but we are all implicated in it”, suggesting that as a commodity oil defines our culture and lives. On collaborating with complex institutions Allen returns to the idea of the partnership being an intimate relationship. He makes it clear that he wouldn’t partner with anybody; “Any partnership involves negotiation, and there are practical limits to the way institutional interests can productively overlap. We wouldn’t collaborate with institutions that were too different from Machine.” For example Allen suggests that working with the military doesn’t make sense, “We differ too much to be in a relationship.”[6]

Allen stresses the value of remaining open versus developing an oppositional mindset. He believes that ambiguity itself “is an annoyance to the world” and this for him is what makes art interesting. When he’s working with a place like LACMA or the Hammer, a big concern is the safety of the institutions; his and the one he’s working with. A criteria for art Machine will sponsor in such a space, is whether it will damage the institution, in material or cultural terms.  “If someone wanted to drill a hole in an artwork” or similar, he wouldn’t “condone it.”[7]

One Los Angeles artist who might not be afraid to drill a hole in the artwork is Mark Vallen. Vallen is a printmaker and painter who write the Art For A Change blog and newsletter. He has come out strongly against LACMA and it’s involvement with British Petroleum. When the Los Angeles based media-arts organization Freewaves recently held its 20th year anniversary party at BP Plaza, Vallen chided the event as an “ostrich-with-head-in-the-sand affair.” He suggested that the only video worth presenting in the plaza during the party was the live feed of the well at the bottom of the gulf, spouting oil into the murky salt water. Vallen later clarified his position, explaining his opposition to artists and video makers showing at LAMCA:
My objection is not that BP has “done a terrible thing,” but that LACMA’s director Michael Govan has turned the museum into a marketing arm of BP. In 2007 Mr. Govan accepted $25 million from the oil company and in return the museum built the so-called “BP Grand Entrance” on the LACMA campus. Every time an artist or arts group presents works beneath the BP Grand Entrance, it lends authority, respectability, and quiet approval to the machinations of one of the world’s biggest polluters; even if that presentation is of a “challenging” nature – it nonetheless enables BP to present itself as a generous and “socially responsible” supporter of the arts. As one must pass through the BP Grand Entrance in order to enter the LACMA museum complex, BP has succeeded in placing its imprimatur upon every LACMA exhibit, not to mention its entire collection.
Like the artists involved with Liberate Tate, Mark Vallen constructs a wide frame around the BP/LACMA issue. While the instance may be an oil spill, the larger picture is fossil fuels themselves. Feeling the imminence of global warming, Vallen and Liberate Tate aim to implicate oil companies. For these artists the question is not just the spill itself, but the public acceptance of oil and its central role in global warming. Vallen states, “Around twenty years ago some of the largest corporate sponsors of the arts were tobacco companies, yet who would collaborate with, or take money from, tobacco companies today? If the idea of a ‘Philip Morris Tobacco Company Grand Entrance’ at LACMA sounds like an outrage, then why is the ‘BP Grand Entrance’ acceptable – especially in light of today’s ongoing cataclysm in the Gulf of Mexico?”
Of the LACMA Freewaves relationship Mark Vallen has said:

My post was meant to provoke, since there is far too much complacency in the arts community regarding BP’s sponsorship of LACMA. Your comment that “no one questions the catastrophic nature of the spill’ can be taken another way – that there are no protests or complaints coming from arts professionals. That indeed seems to be the case, does it not? Can you name a single solitary instance of an artist or arts group in L.A. denouncing BP and its relationship to LACMA? If now is not the moment for artists and arts groups to issue such condemnations, then when exactly would be the proper time?[8]

The following is an excerpt from an interview with the art group Fallen Fruit, about their EATLACMA project, conducted by Robby Herbst in Summer, 2010:
Robby Herbst: At LACMA Fallen Fruit has done curatorial work. Their projects have involved inviting other artists, art groups, and citizens into the museum to develop projects under Fallen Fruit auspices. In the process invited artists are asked to make new works for the museum. The remuneration by LACMA for these “commissions” has not been great.  The trade off is the illusory value of “cultural capital” that is received by being involved with an exhibition at LACMA. In this relationship, in which FF is involved, it can be said that LACMA gets more art and greater outreach, expanding its publics, for less dollars spent.  How would you respond to this?

Fallen Fruit: Yes, a critical interpretation is that the museum is getting a lot of art and outreach for very little money.  The other side is that a great many artists are getting access to the museum and its audience than ever happens with conventional, better-funded museum programming.

It’s important to mention that these are not commissions in that LACMA does not own the piece after it is made: it still belongs to the artist/s. Remuneration is a problem for all young and even mid-career artists. We wanted to create opportunities for a large and diverse group of artists, many of who had never shown in a major museum before.

This was the opportunity that Fallen Fruit had been given – and to share it with artists we love is an exciting part for us.

LACMA is an accepted milestone of mainstream success and a lot of the artists we’re engaging are doing radical work that would not be curated in any museum at this time. We also are not asking them to accept terms that are different from our own: Fallen Fruit is being compensated for all of EATLACMA in about the same ratio that the Let Them Eat LACMA (Nov 7th) artists are. Mostly, artists want a platform for their work and have become ‘complicit’ in this same system; they could say no.  For us, the compromise is worth it.

Our current presence at LACMA is a direct result of the piece we made for Machine’s Field Guide To LACMA in 2008. Machine faced the same conditions as we did and similarly chose to give a large group of artists an opportunity (with similar remuneration).

RH: The artist/environmental group Liberate Tate in the UK has taken a very active stance against the presence of the oil company British Petroleum in the Tate Museum. What is Fallen Fruit’s position on BP and LACMA? As a group with a commitment to a progressive agenda, how do you relate to these difficult questions of institutional funding and corporate money?

FF: This is a big question. Corporate money underwrites not just a majority of arts funding but also higher education funding in this country, and even the funding from wealthy individual donors originates from corporate wealth. American politics is directed by corporate interests. It is important for artists to critique this relationship and the way it manifests everywhere in our lives, but the issues are so much larger than BP and LACMA. It involves nothing less than the collapse of democracy through global corporate capitalism. We’re always interested in artists with a progressive agenda but especially those who work in unexpected and surprising practices and actualizations.

Both Machine Project and Fallen Fruit ascribe to their collaborations a kind of institutional rewriting. Both groups describe their interventions as acts of museological democratization. At LACMA, Fallen Fruit opens the doors for other artists to come in. It interprets the encyclopedic collection through the queer history of fruit. Machine dresses down the Hammer with anti-heroic closets as theaters, shabby signage, and a grand sense of pleasure whimsy and wonder. Writing in the September 2010 issue of Art Review, writer Holly Meyers stated, “Bringing speed metal recitals, free haircuts and slumber parties to their city’s art museums, Los Angeles collective Machine Project are developing a new affirmative approach to institutional critique.” These interventions are both celebrated and embraced by the Hammer and LACMA. While Machine Project and Fallen Fruit have been able to successfully use the institutional logic of compromise in order to achieve their interventions, the question of the broader value of these interventions remain unanswered.The writers who’ve come to define the art fields that may define Machine Project and Fallen Fruit deify public encounters with art. In Relational Aesthetics, Nicholas Bourriard envisions the museum as a democratic ideal for the public square to constitute itself beyond the stale old politics. He writes as if the museum itself could be the only institution capable of reworking the social contract. Similarly in Energy Plan for the Western Man Joseph Bueys sees the pedagogical space of creative encounter in “social sculpture” as a place to shape an engaged and creative population. He sees creative participation as a unique possibility able to transcend the stale ideological divides of the old political economy.

Both writers seem to agree that creative exchange within institutions can have a powerful effect upon the publics whom interact with them – forging new and involved subjectivities. Where they differ however is with their approaches[9]. Bourriard writes as a curator who collaborates with institutions. Beuys is an artist and radical who spent portions of his time publicly developing, supporting, and defending counter institutions like free universities and alternative political parties. Where Bourriard seems to accept the inevitability of bureaucratic institutions, Beuys actively strived to stretch and push the frame so that it could fit the kind of world he wished to see evolve with in it.

The issue of oil and museums is relatively trivial and inconsequential. Given the balance of things, I’d much rather have museum that creatively struggle with the problems of our days, while accepting tainted money, than not have any institutions at all. Where I take issue is with artists accepting the role as ambiguous channel through which value added participatory moments are created to service powerful organizations.

Will it come to pass that the successful social artist is one who is able to mimetically perform the contradictions of the neo-liberal institution? Will the ambiguity suggested by Machine Project and the trade-offs suggested by Fallen Fruit be the approach by which independent artists operate? Will social art in Los Angeles be defined by the ability to accept and manage compromise? For some who do it tactically and well (i.e. Machine Project and Fallen Fruit), this may not be a problem. Writ large though, what does this say for other artist’s ability to operate outside the museum, as citizens, in non-heterogeneous spaces where meaningful political battles are fought? In the debate around global warming, for example, is a compromise itself a workable solution?

If artists and museums believe that they are instruments in the creation of new subjects beyond the strident dialectics of materialism, is the trade off between bureaucratic interests and public dreaming a good starting point? While the technique of social art, (describable in a large part through elementary schools golden rule) is perhaps ideologically neutral, must the context from which this technique emerges be equally neutered?

A song is more then its soft edges. Then again there is more than the song.

Authors Note: In June of 2010 a group of 172 “arts professionals” signed a letter published in UK’s Guardian newspaper. The letter asked, that on the occasion of the Tate Museums own 20th Birthday, that it divest from BP. Along with Mark Vallen, Lucy Lippard, and Hans Haacke, I signed that letter as well.
Robby Herbst is an artist writer. He is a recipient of a Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant for essays on the topic of “possibility.” Current projects include the map guides of the Llano Del Rio Collective. He is a founder and former editor of the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest.
[1] In Relational Aesthetics, Bourriard discusses Joseph Beuys, often using his interpretation of Beuys practice to draw several distinctions between his own framing of relational artwork and Beuys’ conception of social sculpture.

[2] From email correspondence June, 2010.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Personal interview with Mark Allen; conducted summer, 2010.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Personal interview of Fallen Fruit; conducted summer, 2010.

[9] Both the Hammer Museum and MOCA have received large grants (1million dollars or so apiece) from the Irvine Foundation supporting public programming. At the Hammer. this money is funding more than Machine’s year long collaboration, but varied projects over several years. For their Engagement Party series MOCA is following a more traditional curatorial model where artist collectives are invited to create  an event(s) that interacts with the museum’s publics. At LACMA, Metlife’s Community Connections Grant has funded a project specific grant for Fallen Fruit, with an amount considerably smaller than MOCA and Hammer’s million.


  1. Pingback: For people interested in the LACMA exhibition–topical debate « edible education Fall 2010
  2. Pingback: Eco-Art Exhibit Tied to BP Funding | Private Galleries Tour
  3. kevin smith

    hi there

    very interesting article.

    a couple of small points –

    1) “In June of 2010 a group of 172 “arts professionals” signed a letter published in UK’s Guardian newspaper. The letter asked, that on the occasion of the Tate Museums own 20th Birthday, that it divest from BP. Along with Mark Vallen, Lucy Lippard, and Hans Haacke, I signed that letter as well.”

    The letter (which can be seen at ) was on the day of a party celebrating 20 years of BP-sponsorship. The first Liberate Tate performance was at a party celebrating the 10th birthday of the Tate Modern.

    2) We (PLATFORM) are trying to crowdfund a participatory exhibition of the perfomance interventions that have taken place, alongside debates and discussions, in London in early 2011. see

    3) Videos of all of the Liberate Tate performances can be seen in the gallery section of the indiegogo site above

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