The Venice Beach Boardwalk, or Ocean Front Walk, is a famous, if sometimes shirtless, right of passage for sightseers in Los Angeles. Locals might say they're turned off by the smell of incense and the adrenalized sweat of pickpockets, but even so, they acknowledge this stretch of Venice as inseparable from Los Angeles's DNA. At its best, the Boardwalk functions as one of very few pedestrian spaces in this city, where street performers, craftsmen, and artists actually have a large, attentive and international audience on a daily basis.
Historically, the Boardwalk has served as a symbol of free speech and self-expression. To fully understand this place, summon images of Beat Poets and, for better or worse, drum circles. The spirit remains an eclectic and exceptional one; one apparently worth fighting for, as evidenced by the various court disputes in recent decades over what can and can't be done on this narrow strip between hot sand and big city. Most recently, the Venice Boardwalk made national news after an ordinance went into effect in January of this year. Ostensibly designed to cut down on the "flea market" feel of the area and stop certain vendors from hiring young transients to hold their spots every morning (the Boardwalk is first come, first serve), the ordinance also prohibits commercial vending along the Walk of items with a "non-expressive purpose." These include clothing, sunglasses, incense, candy, toys, crystals, jewelry, and auto parts. Vendors can still sell books, paintings, recordings, sculptures or other works they have created. In other words, if the "Legalize it" oversized beanie was hand-crocheted by an artisan, it's fair game, but otherwise, the Boardwalk's 200 spots are reserved for original items only. Art, of course, being chief among them — serving as expressive a purpose as they come. All this to say that the first and only Venice Beach Biennial (VBB), a three day art event in conjunction with the Hammer Museum's Made In L.A. 2012 exhibition, could not have struck a more relevant note on the weekend of 13 July.
Organized by Hammer curator Ali Subotnick, the VBB interspersed the Boardwalk "regulars" — veteran vendors who have sold and in some cases created their art under the Venice sun for years — with local artists and performers more used to the gallery or museum setting. As a result, VBB totaled nearly 90 participants. Those "gallery" artists new to the Boardwalk were not given preferential treatment, and had to show up at 5:00 a.m. to secure a spot just like everybody else. Though VBB balloons marked participants, and there was a notable amount of people wearing VBB shirts, the Boardwalk was not drastically transformed into something it isn't already. In this way, VBB succeeded in underscoring that the Boardwalk, among its many other utilities, is already a row of open-air galleries. Often, it was not immediately apparent which vendors were the "gallery" type, and which considered this street their main studio. The event certainly chiseled at the implicit hierarchies of the art world, even if the asking prices for the artworks of newcomers were sometimes much higher than those of the Boardwalk's old hands.
The crowd, if anything, was bigger that weekend than others. But to me, it seemed that most of the people walking the Walk (some barefoot and hot-dogged, as usual) came unaware of any special event taking place. There were no telltale signs to distinguish those who'd come for the Biennial and those who'd come for the Venice Beach, of course. A matter compounded by the wonderful fact that in L.A., flip-flops are thought of as a day to night attire. In other words, the weekend was no more or less celebratory, weird, relaxed, or buttoned-up than any other — although those who paid attention were certainly rewarded for their curiosity with some unusual sights.
The artist Cara Faye Earl's stand, for example, had a particularly large crowd around it. Her project, called Los Santos de Terrorismo [The Saints of Terrorism], was the scene of many double-takes and rubberneckings. On her website, the artist describes the project as "a series of mass produced devotional statues representing the '45 Most Threatening Terrorist Organizations' in the world, according to the US Homeland Security Department." Earl writes that she was influenced by the traditional statues of Catholic Saints that she saw in the markets of Mexico City. There, the artist also encountered newly invented saints like Malverde, the patron saint of drug dealers. From far away, the project looks like a bizarre Nativity scene compiled of characters from BBC news clips. Perhaps it isn't surprising that in the subsequent reviews I've read of VBB, Earl's piece is often singled out. This might have something to do with the both the subject matter and the medium of her work. Of all the different art forms, sculpture does seem among the most likely to wear a sign saying "you break it, you buy it." Earl's project wore no such sign, but perhaps on a subconscious level it did intimidate to a degree reserved for galleries, which is also what made it stand out. Of course, its reference and relevance goes far beyond gallery walls.
On the other hand, you have a project by Barbara Kruger, among the most recognized "museum" artists to participate in VBB, and her piece consists of bumper stickers asking answerless questions like "Can money buy you love?" stuck to the ground. This is artwork deliberately camouflaged to fit in with a dirty, cement street, and not necessarily with white walls. Without an explanatory pamphlet, this project might well go unrecognized as art, and then, well, that's precisely what makes it art.
Nearby, Arthure Moore, who has rocked a spot on Venice for going on three decades now, produced artwork that went anything but unrecognized during VBB. Surrounded by finished canvases and staring eyes, Moore created paintings of his signature Funky Pussy, among others, for the crowd. Moore's trademark kitty, who gives the viewer (or is it the world?) the finger, was selected as VBB's logo, and presumably made him a VBB celebrity, maybe even upping his sales. There you go: the art-world's three-headed monster of Competition, Collaboration and Commerce is not confined to the walls of a gallery or auction house. In fact, it thrives in this "glass house" (well, forget the house altogether) of an exhibition. The Venice Beach Biennial does not act as a symbol for the workings of the art-world — it is the art world on display, right there in the open, under the bright blue California sky. VBB is as much about art with an exclamation point, as it is about art with a question mark… right down to asking what its "expressive purpose" really is. Katya Tylevich