White Noise

May 9th, 2005 · 14 Comments · Los Angeles, Writing


The other day, over thrift shopping at St. Vincent’s, my good friend, an artist and recent MFA grad, summed up the problem with L.A. in a perfect punchline: “I think I’m in a dysfunctional relationship with this city — I hate it; it treats me badly; but I just can’t let it go.”

It’s a sentiment I hear echoed a lot, especially among artists, and it’s a sentiment that rings with crystalline clarity in my own experience. While I could make a laundry list of complaints against this country-western song of a city, I’ll just focus on the one that causes the most problems for the creative types I know: it’s too stimulating.

There’s this great bookstore in Little Persia, over near UCLA, and Murray and I were waiting to meet up with some friends for dinner, flipping through magazines. I stumbled onto an article by Nam June Paik’s nephew in one of those multi-everything pomo culture rags, and in it, the nephew quotes one of Paik’s most repeated phrases: “Never underestimate the importance of boredom.”

I would have paid more attention to the source of the quote, but I had a stack of mags to zip through before we headed out for our evening plans.

It’s hard to get bored in Los Angeles. There’s always something to do, something worth doing, something you’d better not miss lest it come up in conversation with someone who asks you if you saw it and chides you relentlessly if you didn’t. We were having this same conversation later with some friends who have sworn off seeing art until they finished something they were working on, and while we commended them on their good boundaries, we strongly recommended that they make an exception for the Tara Donovan show at Ace. Guilty as charged.

This is city is a visual feast. Plasma-screen billboards, jacaranda trees in full lavender bloom, high-end sports cars, birds ‘o paradise, ocean waves crashing against the glass of your restaurant window, dusty mustard-flowered mountains, bums with towering, pungent shopping carts, outdoor farmers markets with piles of produce in perfect rainbow symmetry, museum flags flapping on light poles with David’s Bonaparte rearing up on a battle steed against the smoggy sky, film crews, drag queens, Dan Ackroyd at the corner vegan bakery, a basin of lights, of apartment buildings, of cars, of fancy strollers and yoga mats tucked under elbows.

Los Angeles hogs all the space on the limited hard drive of your brain and slows down the whole operating system. It makes boredom an impossibility.

That same friend told me that the closer she moves to the center of things, the harder it is to work. Partly, it’s because living in Los Angeles is like being on permanent vacation. The weather’s almost always lovely and beckoning. The outdoor parks, lush and in bloom. There’s usually a good show you haven’t seen. There’s always an undiscovered corner you’ve been meaning to investigate — dim sum in Little Saigon? Coffee in Little Ethiopia? Kimono shopping in Little Tokyo?

How do you make work amid all the possibilities? How do you clear away enough mental space to begin to think of something new?

When Jerry Saltz was in town a while back, someone asked him what he thought of the Los Angeles art scene. His answer has really stuck with me. He said that Los Angeles has an enormous number of mediocre artists, and that means that things are in good shape. It indicates a thriving art scene, with a healthy triangle base of mediocrity that supports the few excellent artists at the top.

It made me wonder, though, if that system is a healthy one for the artists involved. Is there better system out there, where boredom — coupled with a steam-engine of a work ethic — might be fertile ground for making work that rises above mediocrity?

Category: Los Angeles · Writing

14 Comments so far ↓

  • Outer Life

    How many cities are bisected by a mountain range? If you leave the floor and head up to the hills, LA can be a very peaceful place, one where you can even get bored if you like. Between the brush fires and mud slides, that is.
    By contrast, I’ve always found NYC to be much more distracting, offering no easy escape.

  • Outer Life

    P.S. What a great post! Thanks.

  • Meg

    Thanks, O.L. You make a good point about there being outposts and relative safe havens in the area that don’t traffic in the usual L.A. overload. We are lucky to have hills above our home studio where it gets quiet and still enough for hawks, coyote, deer, possums and rattlesnakes to do their work in peace.
    A real problem for artists in L.A. is that often sanctuary comes with too steep a price. Few artists can barely afford space to live and work in this inflated bubble of a real estate market anyway, and will take whatever works. The price of peace is often too high (and comes with a hefty commute to boot).
    Artists left NYC for the similar reasons years ago, and many ended up in Brooklyn — some relocated to the West Coast. One of the reasons L.A. has such an active passel of emerging artists is because studio space has been relatively accessible and affordable here. Not so much, anymore.
    Some of the really great artists working right now, in my opinion, have left the big city art scene behind (after paying their dues, of course), and work in more ordinary corners of the world. Ann Hamilton, for example, lives near her family home in Ohio.

  • David

    Meg, I think the cost of housing is my biggest complaint about LA. In addition to my studio work I have a day gig, and my running joke (not funny, though) is that on what I make here I could live really well somewhere else.
    As far as the distractions, I don’t know, I find that I tune them out when I need to, but at other times they make me glad I’m here. I went to hear Brian Eno and Danny Hillis talk a couple of weeks ago, and I thought what a wonderful and inspiring thing to be able to experience. It’s having access to things like that (along w/ concerts, exhibitions, etc.) that make me occasionally love this city.

  • Meg

    David — I hear you about real estate prices. My kingdom for 2000 square feet with 12 foot ceilings. Seriously.
    When we lived in Austin, we had the option of taking a beautiful wooden-floored 7,000 square foot converted barn/studio with a full bathroom and a kitchen for $700 a month. Murray was finishing his MFA at UT and we were planning on leaving town, so we passed. We passed!! These days, what I wouldn’t give…
    I’ve got a love/hate relationship with this city, but the love part is pretty hooey-gooey, too. We saw Beck at a Bill Viola lecture at the Getty a few years ago. Slice that sentence in thirds — We saw Beck. At a Bill Viola lecture. At the Getty. — and even one of those fragments is noteworthy in other locales. Here, it’s all in a day’s work.
    For me, though, that’s part of the problem. The delicate task of making art, at least for us, requires a lot of healthy self-absorption. While appropriation from other sources is great and certainly informs our practice, there comes a time when it’s necessary to pull up the drawbridge and shut out the world.
    Not just for the philosophical nature of the work either, although it’s important for us to not be unwittingly derivative, which happens a lot when you see mass quantities of other people’s art.
    Often it’s for plain old practical reasons that we need to be sequestered. It takes discipline and hard work to produce art, and when there are so many fun and interesting things to do, it’s often easier to say, “yeah, let’s go to the Rose Bowl Flea Market this morning” than to actually spend time making art.
    And it’s even harder to resist those vacation-minded urges when you’ve also got a day-job to pay the bills because the cost of living here is so high. Sheesh, you’ve just clocked in a full work week, and the sun is out and the waves are good and it’d be so much nicer to hang out on the beach for a few hours than to crank out work in your studio.
    I heard an anecdote about some critic who was asked to sum up the difference between NYC and LA artists in one word. His reply? Struggle. New York artists do and LA artists don’t.
    While I might quibble with that assessment on several levels (um, it’s almost as hard to make it as an artist here as it is there), I think he’s right on one count: and it’s often that ineffable vacationland mentality that keeps artists from struggling with their work. It’s so much easier to _fill in the blank_ than to wrestle with your own ideas behind closed doors.
    New Yorkers have the advantage of several months of bad weather that make life beyond the moat a bit less appealing. I’ve often wondered if there is a significant rise in productivity during inclement weather.
    Not to say that it can’t be done. Good work ethics are good work ethics, temptations non-withstanding. But I’m an art and culture minded person, that’s why I started doing all this stuff in the first place, and it’s no wonder I have such a hard time saying no when there are so many cool things to do in this art and culture mecca.
    PS – how on earth did I miss a Brian Eno/ Danny Hills lecture??

  • gregg chadwick

    such a lovely take on l.a. for me los angeles generates a feeling of possibility. and dare i say the future, with its rich and strange mix of first and third world?

  • David

    Meg, any idea if that barn in Austin is still available?
    As far as the distractions, I don’t know, I grew up on the east coast with lots of bad weather, so I guess my studio habits were formed there. I tend to miss most of what goes on here in LA because I’m working and painting. Many years ago I was job-hunting, and a recruiter asked me what kind of work I was looking for. I told her I wanted a job that wouldn’t interfere with my career. She looked at me like I was out of my mind, but every artist understands exactly what I meant.
    Regarding the Eno/Hillis conversation, I’ve been wanting to hear one of Eno’s talks for years (I guess he’s probably my favorite artist), and I always seem to find out about them afterwards. This time I just happened to hear an announcement about it on KCRW, and I immediately called the Skirball and reserved a ticket. It was a really great talk. The basic theme was the creative process, and the two of them, who are good friends, had a pretty freeranging discussion that compared scientific and artistic processes; what they have in common and how they are different.

  • Michael

    Great post on Los Angeles. Like you, it’s a city I love and hate, but in the long run I probably love it more than I hate it, and for anyone interested in art and culture, the possibilities, as you say, are endless. Museums large and small, art-house cinemas, literary readings, bookstores, concerts; the list goes on. For me, it’s both the city of possibilities as well as the city of personal untapped potential — I often feel that, even as I try to do and see as much as I can, I just can’t keep up with everything and am not doing all the things I envision myself doing. This city is as much a source of joy and enrichment as it is existential angst!
    While not an artist myself, I understand how you could be torn between the need to work and the compulsion to explore. Being an artist, I suspect, also involves engaging the arts outside your studio. In that sense, there are few better places to be than L.A.

  • LA Brain Terrain

    LA is Too Stimulating?

    We’ve discovered the blog of LA artists Megan and Murray McMillan, discovered via Modern Art Notes, and Megan wrote an entry called “White Noise” on 5/9/05 that really sums up my own feelings about this city: She writes The other day, over thrift shopp…

  • David

    Michael, you’re absolutely right about needing to engage the arts (and other experiences) outside the studio. I guess what I do is tune everything out for a period of time to get work done, then dive back into the local culture for awhile. Back and forth. It’s a juggling act.


    Megan McMillan Shows L.A. Some Love

    “Los Angeles hogs all the space on the limited hard drive of your brain and slows down the whole operating system. It makes boredom an impossibility.” – Megan McMillan • Megan McMillan Shows L.A. Some Love…

  • Black Phoebe :: Ms. Jen

    Downtime and Concentrating

    I loved the winter in Boston. I got quite a lot of reading and painting done, as well as walking. I was thinner then. I love cold. I miss it now that I am back home in SoCal. The too-warm…

  • Meg

    David, KCRW is the best resource for finding out about things like that. Many times, I’ve dialed the number for tickets on my cell as soon as I hear about a show or a lecture on KCRW. Usually while sitting on the 5 in stopped traffic. Ah, you take the good with the bad.
    Michael, you’re right, it’s important to engage in the world outside the studio, but it’s a careful balance. Seeing too much art, at least for me, can crowd up my brain with other people’s ideas and aesthetic. I have to be careful to protect myself when I’m in the creative stage of making work. I tend to go in cycles, seeing lots of art when I’m in the administrative mode, and not seeing much at all when I’m working creatively. LIke David says, it’s a juggling act.

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