Last June, an anonymous collective of artists captured Angelenos’ imaginations with the Griffith Park Teahouse, a wooden structure in a remote corner of Griffith Park that served for a few delightful weeks as a place of contemplation.
One of the alluring elements of the teahouse was its illegality; it appeared seemingly overnight, built without approvals from city officials.
Now the group is back, with an installation that will last even less time than the teahouse — one day, this Saturday, February 6 — and that is situated in a very different location: in the heart of downtown Los Angeles, in a sliver of space between two 1910 theaters on Broadway between 5th and 6th.
In that narrow alley, whose shabby brick walls lit from a slit of sky above exude Dickensian urban squalor, the group has created Petal Drop LA (01), a shower of rose petals (falling mysteriously from above, a little like the “rain” in LACMA’s Rain Room), coupled with elements of performance.
As with the teahouse, visitors are invited to inscribe their feelings, this time on squares of paper that are transformed by uniformed characters into decorative elements — origami butterflies and a stenographed scroll. These are intended to play with ideas of bureaucracy, since the team did get permission for Petal Drop LA.
Meanwhile, their transgressive action in Griffith Park has found a happy ending for all who loved it. In the coming months, the teahouse will appear as a pop-up in park spaces around Los Angeles (watch this space for more information.)
While at the preview of Petal Drop, DnA got to chat with two of its creators, who still insist on anonymity. So without revealing their names or faces, here are some of their thoughts about this latest project.
DnA: One of the things that was so intriguing about the teahouse was the fact that you had done an end run around bureaucracy to create it. This piece was a little bit of a different process, is that right?
Collective Spokesperson 1: Yes, we still hope to surprise people. But here we are setting up a bit more of a contrast between the every day bustle of what’s happening on Broadway and this secret world in the middle of the city.
Collective Spokesperson 2: There’s definitely a contrast between the guerrilla installation of a tea house in Griffith Park and what we’re doing here. We even have insurance now, which I am embarrassed to admit. It’s not in keeping with our integrity. But it is interesting negotiating public art in those two different prototypes.
When we did the teahouse, we were definitely a little bit concerned about getting arrested and I think that part of the intrigue of that installation was the fact that we managed to do something that was at least marginally legal, but that it came off.
CS1: In fact we may never do something above board again. It really it can be much more cumbersome going through official channels.
DnA: Tell us about the physical space here.
CS1: It’s an alley. If you stretch your arms out wide you can touch both sides of the walls. The [entranceway] space we are in right now was added on and when you walk through, it opens up into this beautiful, narrow, surprising well with this lovely view of the sky. The sound and the light are held in there in a way that’s so beautiful that we were really struck by the space and after months searching for spaces in the city we decided that this was something to work with.
DnA: How did you find the space?
CS1: I spent a lot of time driving around the city and walking the city. We ultimately found this through a friend who lives in the neighborhood. He used to live in one of the buildings nearby.
DnA: Give us a a verbal picture of the of the sensory experience.
CS2: It’s a certain quiet that descends in the alley that is a stark contrast to the sound that’s out on Broadway. You can actually hear the sound of the flower petals hitting the fire escapes and hitting the ground. It’s kind of like walking into a heavy, wet snowfall, with large snowflakes where the sound is kind of dampened. The petals are backlit against the aperture at the top of the alley where you see the sky, so they’re a little bit mysterious as they fall.
The alley doesn’t smell like it did when we found it. It smelled more like decaying pigeon carcasses and urine and now it’s like dried flowers which is I think an improvement.
DnA: It’s such a different character from the location of the Griffith Park teahouse. Was that one of your goals — to play with a completely different environment?
CS2: We’re interested in all aspects of Los Angeles. We’ve been going on tours of sewage treatment facilities and landfills and parks. We went out to the Bridge to Nowhere, which is this amazing 1930s public works project built over the San Gabriel River way up in the mountains. You have to hike five miles to get there (because) they never built the road. But there’s all of these magical little things in Los Angeles that I don’t think fit for us any one particular type.
DnA: Talk about the role of nature in Los Angeles.
CS2: Los Angeles, where we are standing right now, at one point was orange groves. Los Angeles is a place of immense natural beauty in all of its surroundings. And yet it’s also a place where we find things like this — urban decay.
These old theaters that we are nestled between right now have piles of pigeon s**t in them; I mean, they’re just falling apart. And yet at the same time this is one of the most beautiful areas in the world. We have the incredible Angeles National Forest and the beaches.
CS1: We’re also interested in the contrasts and these things running up against each other.
I’m suspicious of these kind of urban versus nature narratives — how certain spaces are really valued over others — and I think there’s something about merging them and seeing what happens. And there are a lot of spaces in L.A. where that’s already happening. There are these incredible juxtapositions and so by bringing these things together, I think, things emerge.
I never appreciated the kind of incredible beauty of freeway overpasses until I lived in Los Angeles. The different forms that beauty can take are really interesting.
DnA: As with the teahouse, you’ve brought in the audience. Why do you incorporate that piece?
CS1: I have a background in in museum exhibition, the exhibition world. And through those experiences, both creating exhibitions and visiting them, I really enjoy participating, and these projects are these love letters to the city. We just want to invite other people to share their thoughts, wishes, memories of the city. There’s just something really amazing that emerges out of that.
About the teahouse and asking for wishes of Los Angeles, I think that particular piece of it — reading other people’s wishes, writing a wish, going up and sitting and thinking about L.A. — brought both an energy and a kind of connection between people and the city, which led to this idea of collecting memories of the city, and just thinking about the city.
There’s a lot of art where people are passive observers of art or spectators so there’s also something about breaking down that boundary between people creating and people experiencing (the art.)
DnA: This is an ambitious project that going to be up for one day. Is that right?
CS1: I know, what were we thinking?! We have this other big project a few months down the road that we’re planning and we were like, let’s just do this little petal thing. This will be really simple, we will shoot for late January/early February, we will just find a space and drop some petals, it’ll just be this quick, easy thing. And somehow as we started to think about it, we just built this world and it became something that just developed organically. And I think it was it’s a bit surprising even to us what it became.
DnA: Because it involved actors essentially performing, people who are dressed up and performing rituals as part of the experience.
CS1: We were talking to some folks about another project down in the City Hall area and we started to think about bureaucracies and cities and processing of different ideas and so I think some of this is about different projects that we’re working on and testing out ideas about things.
But, yes, this did become a bit more more involved than we expected.
DnA: When you say “we,” who exactly is we?
CS1: Our collective is a small group of people. We like to be anonymous. It’s a core team of about three, and sometimes up to five people, and we just pull in other artists, performers, whatever we need on the project to collaborate, to experiment.
DnA: Does your collective have a name?
CS2: No, it is as yet unnamed. We are just trying to keep everyone’s word count as high as possible when trying to describe us so we are the “anonymous group of people that did the tea house before.”
DnA: Lastly, a completely practical question: how are the petals distributed from above?
CS1: That’s a trade secret.
While at Petal Drop LA’s preview, DnA also met one of the collective’s supporters. In the spirit of the anonymous nature of the group, he goes unnamed as well. But he had this point to make about the locations chosen by the collective for their public art installations:
“Think of it as a discovery. There are these magical spaces in between the Los Angeles that we know — these liminal structures between buildings — and Los Angeles is really about discovering this magic, discovering the surrealism. So we can take credit for a new land that we found just because we stuck a flag, a note, or we can just share the waterfall with the rest of the world.”
All photos of Petal Drop LA by Gideon Brower. The installation is located at 530 South Broadway. It will be open and free to visitors Saturday, February 6, in small groups at time intervals of around 15 minutes, from dawn to dusk, starting at sunrise at 6:47 AM. Note that the 101 Freeway will be closed this weekend for demolition of the 6th Street Bridge. Petal Drop LA (01) is numbered “01” because it is the first of several projects to come.