Pomona College Magazine
Volume 41, No. 1
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The Curator of Cool
Professor Mark Allen’s Machine Project just may be L.A.’s quirkiest communal art space.

Story by Agustin Gurza / Photos by Jeanine Hill

The midnight gathering at Mark Allen’s little storefront gallery has the air of a clandestine ritual. Billed simply as a “farewell to analog tv,” the event is meant to ceremonially mark this night of June 12, when broadcast television stations switch to digital signals. Yes, the public is invited and the proceedings are visible to passersby on busy Alvarado Street in L.A.’s Echo Park neighborhood. But only those present seem to grasp the portent of the impending switch.

Three dozen true believers stand before a glowing totem of television sets piled high on the floor in front of them, tuned to different channels, mostly in black and white. It is a monument to the doomed medium, a tower of tubes that has survived the junkyard of time, and includes a white model from JC Penney, a beat-up Samsung and a spaceage JVC Videosphere emitting a hazy image inside a red plastic globe, not unlike the picture inside the Wicked Witch’s crystal ball from The Wizard of Oz.

After a fittingly quirky lecture on television and its 19th century mechanical predecessor, the moment of The Big Switch approaches. People huddle closer to the mound of monitors, staring at the hypnotic collage of basketball highlights, Mexican soccer, celebrity gossip, an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond and a spot by the ubiquitous, bearded pitchman Billy Mays, who was to die two weeks later. Shortly before midnight, the screens flicker and turn to snow, like the old days when tubes went inexplicably on the blink. But instead of banging on the sets to get an image back, the audience erupts in cheer. “Unbelievable, man,” mutters one viewer, hippie-like.

“It’s over,” announces Allen, a big smile on his face.

And so ends a quintessential Machine Project event, featuring elements near and dear to the gallery’s founder and visionary-in-chief who, in his professor role, teaches digital arts at Pomona College. There is the atmosphere of a happening. The pop-culture enthusiasm for science and experience. The immediacy of a live performance. The obsession with a moment in time, thrilling if you were there, gone forever if you missed it.

Plus, it’s a great excuse for a party.

Allen’s Machine Project is a showcase for the unexpected, impractical, seemingly pointless, patently absurd and wildly experimental. It is part gallery, part workshop, part laboratory, part theatre, part game room and part community classroom. It also has the potential of being part bookstore, with tall, columnlike book shelves installed in the basement ready to be lifted on pulleys through portals in the floor to ground level (as soon as Allen is satisfied with the lifting mechanism).

Founded in 2003 and funded on a shoestring, the nonprofit gallery has emerged as one of the leading alternative art spaces in Southern California. And with it, Allen has risen to prominence in the local art scene.

Shortly after the TV event, L.A.’s Hammer Museum announced that Allen had been commissioned as guest artist for a one-year term as part of an ongoing drive to create a more engaging, artist-driven experience for visitors to the Westwood facility. And last November, Allen drew national attention when he and his merry crew, now a collective of some three dozen artists, invaded LACMA for a one-day event called “A Machine Project’s Field Guide to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.” The crazy quilt of installations, performances and workshops, including an hourly death metal guitar performance, ruffled some stuffy curatorial feathers but ultimately won the day by more than tripling the museum’s normal daily attendance to about 6,000.

“It was magical,” says Charlotte Cotton, the county museum’s photography curator who commissioned the Machine Project event. “And it changed those 6,000 people’s relationship with LACMA on really profound levels…. That’s what it could feel like if your traditional city museum was your town square.”

SMACK DAB AT THE CENTER of that square is Allen, still boyishly handsome at 39, with a slight frame, narrow shoulders and fine features. His habit of raising his voice at the end of phrases with an interrogatory tone, adds to his youthful aura. But when he’s in his element, mingling with his audience after an event, Allen exudes a confidence that makes him seem larger and taller than he is. Hands in his pockets, he greets his guests and smiles, always listening for the next new idea.

Allen is more cheerleader than curator, more trend illuminator than trend-setter. He sees himself as a medium for a movement that has bubbled up from the culture on its own. It’s an arts movement that values relationships over objects to be collected and catalogued, social interaction over solitary contemplation, audience participation over curatorial dictates, and the trial-anderror of artistic experimentation over the dogma of experts.

If Allen is getting more attention from museums and the media, he says it’s simply because he’s shining a spotlight on what’s already happening, a sort of Ed Sullivan of the alternative art world, to borrow an analogy from the era of analog TV.

“Any time something [like Machine] gets more attention, it’s because it’s reflecting what the culture is doing,” Allen explains. “The needs of the culture kind of drive the creation of these things as much as these things drive the culture. So if I didn’t show up and start doing these things, somebody else would have in response to the kinds of needs or interests people have.” On some days, his guests are making communal jam with their own fruit or sampling homemade corn whiskey from a still made out of household plumbing supplies. On others, they are volunteering to be buried alive just to see what it feels like.

They’ve heard lectures on the mating habits of sea slugs, participated in a speech-recognition sing-along and watched a psychedelic light show at midnight on the Fourth of July. This spring, they spent a month romping through a forest created inside the gallery, with a moonlight poetry reading, a Bigfoot lecture and a double feature of vampire movies.

Allen is likely to find a few of his former Pomona students in the audience these days. Their presence is a sign that he’s fulfilling an unofficial mission as a professor. On campus, he sees himself as a bridge between his students and the L.A. scene, which “sometimes I think feels very far away for them.”

Taking her first digital arts class with Allen this fall, Nicola Parisi ’12 enjoyed it when he showed the students a presentation of Machine Project exhibitions. His work in L.A. “makes him seem more like a person and not just a professor,” Parisi says. Allen brings spark to the classroom. “He definitely knows how to communicate and captivate an audience,’’ she says. “He has the energy of a 5-year-old and not in a bad way, a good way—he’s very expressive.”

ALLEN, THE SON OF SCIENTISTS, can talk for hours, explaining his work with a pedagogic patience. On a recent morning, he sat for an interview at the cozy coffeehouse next door to Machine, though he brought his own juice and avoided the java. He seems taken aback by one comment: Considering the wacky and wild goings-on at his gallery, he must have been a mischievous kid, the kind with that dangerous mix of imagination, resourcefulness and guts.

“Oh, I wouldn’t say I was particularly mischievous,” he says. “I was a pretty quiet kid. Read a lot of books.”

But Dad begs to differ.

“Oh, what a crock,” huffs retired chemistry professor Christopher W. Allen when informed of his son’s self assessment, an affectionate rebuke sounding like two old army buddies disputing recollections.

Yes, he was shy as a young child growing up in Essex, Vt., a small and sheltered college town near the University of Vermont, where his parents worked. But it wasn’t long before he was the ringleader of a troop of friends who played Dungeons and Dragons in the Allen family basement. He always had an interest in nature and pestered his father to preserve creatures he caught—fish, frogs, salamanders—in formaldehyde. “The things from childhood that have carried over and that you see in the gallery is that he’s just interested in a huge variety of things,” says the elder Allen. “He was curious about everything, and he was not afraid to try new things and go into totally new enterprises.”

Almost to prove the point, Allen twice has invited his father to give talks at Machine, one on how molecules move electrons and another on the nature of polymer materials, titled Polyester: You Wear It, You Love It, But Do You Know It? Without any other reference to kinship, he called the lecture: “The first in our Machine Project visiting parent/scholar series.”

His mother’s interest in homemade crafts (she recently learned how to dye yarn) has also carried over to Machine, which has offered workshops on sewing and soldering. Elizabeth Allen, a retired geneticist, recalls that her son’s artistic streak emerged in high school. The teen took to painting his skateboards and sneakers, then took the initiative to mount his first art show at a local youth center. He’d make things out of cardboard and Masonite, using bones, sticks, blocks and old parts of cameras. He melted wax on a hot plate in the cellar and turned old dresser drawers into “little constructs with fish and moons and things,” painting the sides of the drawers and mounting wooden cut-out figures on the bottom. Mrs. Allen still keeps one of these drawer dioramas to store her knitting paraphernalia, noting that “for some strange reason, it has part of a telephone.” “Oh, that’s in case the fish need to make a phone call,” her son explains, dryly.

AS MUCH AS ALLEN’S home environment nurtured his creativity and curiosity, it would take time and several changes of scenery to inspire his artistic vision. Allen earned his undergraduate arts degree from Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, another small town in upstate New York. The training in painting, drawing, print-making was traditional—a skill-set that would become superfluous to his practice. Machine has exhibited paintings only once, and they weren’t his.

Allen began to find his artistic path in 1993 with his move to Houston, an urban, multi-cultural Texas town about as close to the Mexican border as his hometown was to Canada. In terms of social ecology, it was as far from snowy Vermont as gritty Echo Park is from, well, Claremont.

With his freshly minted magna cum laude degree, he arrived for a fellowship with Core, the influential arts program of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. He soon met other artists who helped him bust out of his conventional college framework and set him on the unpredictable, experimental track that would define his career.

Two of those associates, Sean Thorton and Chris Ballou of Arena Productions, organized one show in the back of a moving van which they drove around the city’s five wards, allowing residents to trade their own art for anything on the truck. Two others, Jeff Elrod and Mark Flood of Art of This Century, founded their gallery in a faux-wood-paneled storefront that used to be a driving school, sleeping in the back and doing shows in the front. “Previous to that, I had really thought of art as something that took place in commercial art galleries,” recalls Allen. “So meeting them was kind of influential with my early thinking about the sites in which cultural practice takes place. That was interesting to me, that you could sort of transform any space into an art space by putting art in it.”

“Interesting” is one of Allen’s favorite words. He uses it liberally to describe people, places or things that pique his curiosity, or that don’t.

INTERESTING: Video games. Anybody who can explain how things work. Carnivorous plants, like those he’s cultivating in a hot house in Machine’s basement.

NOT INTERESTING: Traditional schooling. The copies of Dwell magazine he receives as a gift subscription. The duties of fundraising for his gallery.

“Really interesting” was the unexpected revelation he had after the first show he curated in Houston, in which artists were invited to decorate refrigerators, acquired at Sears. It led to an exhibition that was part art show, part swap meet.

“Half the people who came to the opening were people who came to see the show, and half were just shopping for a refrigerator,” he recalls. “It was like these two completely unrelated activities happening simultaneously in the same space. And I think about that a lot. Like, how do you involve different audiences who may have different needs and interests?”

THAT CONCERN NOW nags him more than ever at Machine, a hip hangout in working-class Echo Park. When he moved in five years ago, the largely Latino neighborhood was in the grips of gentrification, led by artists, musicians and film people. But Allen admits that the gallery has failed to attract native neighborhood residents in great numbers, especially Latinos.

“The narrative of independent art spaces is always connected to gentrification, and there’s a lot of anxieties about those things,” he says. “I don’t think that we do as good a job reaching all the different kinds of communities as we could. I try to be welcoming, but sometimes I’m not successful.”

Allen moved to this location precisely because he wanted to be part of a community, accessible to the general public. He wanted to surface, so to speak, from his days with an underground (literally) arts collective called C-level, which included fellow graduates from CalArts where he had earned an M.F.A. in 1999. The group’s subterranean Chinatown hangout was as hidden as a speakeasy, up side streets and down alleyways, so only those in-the-know could feasibly find it.

For Machine, he wanted a location that was “more permeable to the outside world, where people could just wander in and just check stuff out.” Echo Park filled the bill.

“It’s a fairly pedestrian-y, neighborhood-y part of the city, and it’s central in a certain kind of way,” says Allen, who constantly, compulsively qualifies his statements. “It’s almost an intersection, to a certain degree.”

Allen often walks the 20 minutes from his small Silver Lake apartment where he lives with his girlfriend, artist Emily Joyce. He is at the gallery by 10 a.m. one recent morning, following a recreational day at Disneyland (his first) with Machine staff. He is fighting a cold and looks tired, the faint rings under his eyes betraying the fact that “my creative energy is spread very thin.”

In the corner of the empty gallery, a forlorn platter of leftover hors d’oeuvres is still out, remnants of the prior weekend’s event. The show, created by Brody Condon, was a dramatic reenactment of people who filmed themselves freaking out on drugs and posted their hallucinatory rantings on YouTube. Lighting for the two-person play (one actor stands still and speaks while the other mimes the psychotropic action) consisted of Home Depot-style work lamps strung in a row across the gallery ceiling. During breaks, people stood in the entryway where a suspended bucket protected them from water dripping from an air conditioning unit overhead.

“Yeah, we’re not very slick,” Allen admits, rolling his eyes. “I’ve been here for 10 years and it’s still like, 10 minutes before the show nothing’s working and something’s plugged in some disastrous way. I don’t know, it never seems to go anywhere.”

Yet, there’s a method to Machine’s carefree informality, what Allen calls “showing the seams” as opposed to staging a spectacle. He wants the gallery to serve as a model for students and aspiring artists. So he makes it look easy: You just get a space, chill some beer and invite your friends to do shows.

“Being a good teacher is really about allowing people to see what’s really exciting about something in the world,” he says. “And so, when I teach my students, I’m just trying to convey to them an enthusiasm or a deeper appreciation for something.

And I think that’s very much my role at the gallery. Like, I’m just trying to convey to people who come, ‘Here’s someone I’m really excited about who I think is really important or interesting. And I think you’re really going to love it too.’”

©Copyright 2008
by Pomona College
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