By 2001, the persistence of an identity rooted in the ’80s drug wars, gang violence, and the police beating of Rodney King in 1992—as well as in the Latino diaspora, immigration, and other cultural shifts—formed a perfect stage in Los Angeles for the imagining of an alternative contemporary art dialogue, one that framed the field’s potential in terms of an unofficial language of the streets: Slanguage. The name was inspired by classic sci-fi movie Blade Runner, in particular by the scene in which Edward James Olmos, a Chicano actor, is eating Chinese food from a street vendor and begins to speak in a hybrid language pieced together from several existing tongues. We wondered whether this concept could be further embraced by artistic practice. What if contemporary art could be defined in the terms of street language? What if art was not object-based but space/concept-based? What if it was disruptive, posed questions, and shifted the paradigms of art institutions?
In 2001, my partner Mario Ybarra Jr., friend Juan Capistran (who left after a short time), and I decided to rent a studio space in which we could explore some of these ideas—a storefront in the city of Wilmington, a suburb of Los Angeles. As young Latino artists, our experience was a mixture of community art practice and institutional education (many artists, we felt, chose just one or the other of these things) and we had all just received graduate degrees. Often, we observed, artists who worked with communities were seen as not being “real” artists. Community artists have thus often been underrepresented in museums and galleries. There had to be an alternative, a space in between these artistic worlds. What could be a better street intervention than a space?
The Politics of Public Space: I’d Rather Ask for Forgiveness than Permission
Slanguage opened to the public in 2002 and became a public space organically, after young adults started knocking on our door asking to make use of it. These individuals represented a huge need, as there were no art spaces for them in the city at the time. Even more problematic was the area’s social context, which was characterized by a high rate of high school drop-outs and a very low number of young women pursuing an art education; a prevalent industrial working class with no access to the arts as a career; environmental pollution by oil companies in the city, which was causing high rates of cancer; and the minimal availability of resources and services.
When we opened the studio, our first students were street artists, graffiti writers, self-taught community artists, emcees, and deejays. For the first year, we operated on our own, funding the studio with our own money and often bartering with community members for maintenance and services. For example, we would paint a mural in exchange for plumbing or electrical services. The storefront window became our first exhibition space; artists painted, performed, and exhibited there. We called the regular students our artists-in-residence, and by the end of the first year, we had accumulated a series of their works.
It was then that the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs asked if we could put together a proposal for Saturday art workshops. The teachers who had been with us during our first year became the staff, and the money we got from the city funded more than Saturday workshops. We held exhibitions, concerts, performances, discussions, and film screenings, and began to develop our artist-in-residence program to include not only local street artists, but also national and international contemporary artists and cultural workers. The curatorial strategy was simple: show work concerned with alternative or marginalized histories and narratives, contemporary social and political issues, and street culture. We asked the community and artists what they wanted to do or see in the space, then did it.
This was a very hard concept for some people to grasp because they had been accustomed to being institutionalized and asking permission for everything. But there’s a saying in our families: “I’d rather ask for forgiveness than permission,” and we have lived by this motto at Slanguage. One of my favorite examples is the bus stop sign in front of the studio, which was taken away by the city. All that was left was a metal pole, and we began asking artists to interface with it. The pole served as a Christmas tree one year, one artist made it into a fake-tree antenna, and another planted a vertical garden on it. Then one day the city demolished the garden and planted a palm tree on the pole. We were excited about this, but the next day a drunk driver smashed into it and killed the tree. Instead of replacing it, the city left it untouched, so we conducted a healing ceremony for the tree, singing rap songs and burning sage. One of the last performances we did was to pour orchata water on it to commemorate the oil spill in the ocean of Mexico that year.
This is just one example of the way we operated by interfacing between the streets, the official, and unofficial. As artists, we felt this was an important aspect of art making. We liked to call it train crashing, denoting a bringing-together of the official and unofficial, the clashing of different worlds in terms of age, artistic skills, and economic, educational, and social backgrounds. In terms of language, this is called paradox. For example, on a typical day at Slanguage, a curator or museum director would visit us and there would be a series of artists making art. At the same time, there would be a class for high school students in the back of the space. Then, a graffiti artist would stop by to visit us unannounced. This was typical of a working day, and of our exhibition receptions—diverse people coming together, train crashing, to create interesting dialogues and intersections. This fueled our creativity as artists.
Slanguage was many things at once: our studio, a de facto art school, a lab space, a community meeting place, a social sculpture, and a place to test, question, and fail. It was a place where people from institutions and the artistic community would visit at the same time as we were hosting workshops, model and music-video shoots, barbeques, poetry readings, and performances. We made a parade float and hosted a breakdancing group. Bad Brains singer H.R. (Human Rights) performed at the studio, and the mother of actress Claire Danes did a window project. We broadcast a radio show, presented architectural projects, and gave many young bands and artists their first shows. We facilitated, more than curated. Our teen program (Slanguage Teen Art Council) revitalized an abandoned community park by planting trees, painting benches, and producing a memorial mural for victims of cancer. The young adults working with us have helped institutionalize other progressive changes by demanding pollution regulations for city companies and petitioning the city to build a bike lane and support community artists. They have organized art workshops and discussions, and led protests against violence. This year will mark the third time that they have promoted a women’s month to pay tribute to the many contributions of the women. I am very proud of their accomplishments as young artists interested not only in educating themselves, but also in facilitating social justice. Slanguage’s legacy is to have empowered the community and help young artists make a positive impact on their neighborhoods by taking ownership of their role in the context of a collective social consciousness.