Can art still affect real political change?

Two of LA's coolest galleries team up for a group show celebrating artistic talent with a social agenda

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anne barlinckhoff (1)
Anne BarlinckhoffCourtesy of Sunday Los Angeles

The influence of the internet on the art world is undeniable. Offering up a democratic space for young artists to showcase their work through social media platforms such as tumblr and newhive, the art industry no longer feels like an impenetrable force if you aren’t armed with a black book of contacts or a wad of cash. However, one thing that couldn’t be expected when providing young people with these platforms is the rise of physical spaces that would emerge as a byproduct. Traditionally a more expensive way to platform your work, young curators are now opening pop up galleries and permanent fixtures, two of which being Los Angeles based Sunday and Slow Culture.

Another shift within the art scene over the last couple of years has been a move away from cut-throat competitiveness. The next generation of creatives are far less concerned with booking solo shows at prestigious venues than their predecessors, instead using their online presence as their main platform and viewing exhibition opportunities as collaborative ventures. A prime example of this is Sunday’s and Slow Culture’s latest co-curated venture, What a Time to be Alive. Curated by Fred Guerrero and Ada Rakjovic on behalf of Sunday and Slow Culture respectively. Pooling some of the scenes most current talents, including photographer Maisie Cousins, reality artist Signe Pierce, and Molly Soda, to comment on some of society's most pressing social issues, the show serves as both critique and celebration of the modern world.

It’s not often that you see two gallery spaces combining efforts and putting on a show together. How did this collaboration come about?

Ada Rakjovic: I was getting involved with the group Stop Mass Incarceration with my friend Kate Nash and I was telling Fred about a really moving lecture we went to where Carl Dix spoke and I saw a woman tell a story about seeing her father get killed by the police after she called them because he was having a panic attack. I felt outraged and sad but also hopeful that all these people were coming together to support each other and find out how to help. It was a really emotional experience and I wanted to try to see how I could relate this to the art world in which Sunday exists, and then in talking to Fred it became a collaborative effort. We both run art galleries in los angeles and have a pretty young but expansive audience.

Fred Guerrero: After Adi told me about how she was getting involved with the Stop Mass Incarceration group, she shared some of the materials they were making to help promote their cause. I thought that maybe if they had a great graphic designer to help them out it could help them get more people involved.  I then started thinking about all the people we work with and all the artists that would possibly be willing to help, and from there things just kind of snowballed.  It had never really clicked before that we had this amazing network of talented creatives we could pool together to form an exhibition.  We both realised that our galleries had a captive audience and we should use our platforms to say something important.

So, how did you go about selecting the artists for this show?

Fred Guerrero: Having the gallery for nearly three years now, we’re extremely fortunate to have been able to amass a sizable network of artists we work with.  The three of us involved in Slow Culture will usually make individual lists of artists we think fit and then come together to discuss. We try our best to balance it out between different mediums and styles to help make the show a bit more interesting yet still cohesive.

In terms of this exhibition in particular, is there a link between all the artists involved?

Fred Guerrero: This show is really different for us.  Given the subject matter of the show, and having curated with Sunday, connections between the artists can be infinite.  Having all the work now I can really see two distinct visions of the shows one mission statement. I think the thing really links everyone is that they care about what is going on in the world today and want to use their talent to say something about it.   

I think that art can support change in inspiring people to think differently. The least successful art for me is art that I see and feel nothing, and the most successful is art that I think about forever”– Ada Rakjovic

The exhibition's name, What a Time to Be Alive, seems to have multiple meanings.  How would you both individually interpret the phrase?

Ada Rakjovic: For me, What A Time To Be Alive is a paradox that perfectly describes the world in which we live in. You can get famous off the back of a Youtube video when you are twelve and become Justin Bieber or you can fail to put your turn signal on and end up dead in jail like Sandra Bland. The two are drastically different from one another but will come one after the other on your newsfeed. There is such an extreme disparity between the good and the bad and so much information is able to surface now because of the internet. People are speaking out more than ever. It’s a powerful feeling to be alive right now.

Fred Guerrero: Totally. In a way though it can be like our generation's version of the quote It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…’ I’m sure throughout history there has been plenty of people who’ve exclaimed ‘what a time to be alive!’ But as it stands today, the root is either Drake or The Simpsons.  And to me these pop culture ‘icons’ are the people that are influencing our culture as a whole.

But with the internet making art so accessible to everyone, why are gallery spaces still important?

Ada Rakjovic: We were just talking about this. I was wondering how Sunday is relevant and how it can make actual change in the world, and although the internet is an important platform, we need IRL conversations and movements to make a concrete difference. I want to utilise the space I have created to give opportunities for unique and important collaborations between activists, artists and the community. There is something special about being in a room full of people that you can’t experience online.

Fred Guerrero:: Art’s accessibility online provides even more reason to create physical spaces for people to experience work in real life.  And not only for the sake of the work, but also for the sake of building communities.  It’s still a bit mind boggling to me how powerful Instagram is for business. Not only for ourselves but for artists as well, who now have the power to promote themselves and sell to consumers direct.  They really don't need us anymore. I’m proud of what we have been able to build here.  We’re extremely fortunate to have such an amazing roster of artists who are willing to show with us.

Do you believe that art has the power to incite real political change?

Ada Rakjovic: This is such an important question and one that I literally ask myself everyday. I think that art can support change in inspiring people to think differently. The least successful art for me is art that I see and feel nothing, and the most successful is art that I think about forever. I always reference James Turrell in the way that he can bring anyone into a room no matter what race, age or social status and make them feel something. Art that thinks about space and time and the things that make us human and whole, and not about what separates us: that’s the post powerful art to me.

However I know though that all art cannot be like this and other kind of art can be successful to, if it challenges the viewer, but especially in this show there needed to be somewhat of a political agenda. There is a piece in the show by Coco Howard in which she hand sequined the names of over a thousand people killed by law enforcement on a 12 foot flag. This piece is massive and really makes you question America, what we know versus what we are told and patriotism of a nation founded on racism. There are also a few pieces in the show from the Art Hoe Collective– I admire them so much and think they are so important because they are so young and thinking so critically of the world around them. I never was able to think like that when I was in high school because there was no real outlet for it. With the internet you can find like minded people in an instant! It’s incredible really.

What a Time to be Alive runs from January 15th-31st at Slow Culture, with the opening on the 15th from 7pm-10pm – more info can be found here

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