Chapter 12. Express Yourself: Al’s Café in Context
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211 Chapter 12 Express Yourself Al’s Café in Context Rachel Federman During the late 1960s and early 1970s,artists across the country raised their voices against the Vietnam War, as well as the art world’s entanglements with it. In New York, the Art Workers’ Coalition and its offshoots challenged museums on several fronts. Organizations such as the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition and Women Artists in Revolution demanded equal representation for women and minorities .1 Without funding or institutional support, artist activists in Los Angeles reconsidered“ideas of ‘space,’ the‘theatre,’ the disposable and transitory life of the streets.”2 They staged interventions on La Cienega Boulevard, Los Angeles’s gallery row, covering artworks with antiwar posters and holding protests during the popular Monday Night Art Walk, when galleries stayed open late. In 1966, the Artists’ Protest Committee, a group that formed in 1965 during a meeting at LA’s Dwan Gallery, erected the Artists’Tower of Protest at the intersection of La Cienega and Sunset Boulevards. Designed by Mark di Suvero, the sixty-foot tower, which stood for three months, was surrounded by small panel paintings created by hundreds of artists.3 The street was not only the site of antiwar and civil rights protests ; for some it also signified opposition to the mass media. In his 1972 essay “Requiem for the Media,” Jean Baudrillard writes that the street is “the alternative and subversive form of all the mass media, because it is not, like them, an objectified support for messages without response, a distant transit network”; rather, it is“the cleared space 212 Eating Out of the symbolic exchange of ephemeral and mortal speech, speech that is not reflected on the Platonic screen of the media.”4 Baudrillard considered the graffiti that was painted on walls during the protests of May 1968 to be emblematic of détournement, writing: “It’s transgressive not because it substitutes another content, another discourse, but because it responds there, in place, and breaks the fundamental rule of all media, non-response.”5 In 1969, Allen Ruppersberg took his work to the street with his seminal environment Al’s Café, renting a storefront space in the PicoUnion area of Los Angeles. Al’s Café’s independence from traditional spheres of art presentation—museums and commercial galleries— typified efforts by artists at that time to distance themselves from institutions and to seek out more democratic modes of presentation. Al’s Café provided Ruppersberg with a steady stream of income, thus liberating him to some extent from the demands of the commercial art market. Moreover, the low prices of his“meals” made them accessible to a broad range of“consumers.”Contrary to the characterization of the street outlined above, however, Al’s Café emphasized performance over spontaneity, and offered a poetics of popular culture that challenges Baudrillard’s model of nonresponsiveness. Fellow artist and Al’s Café patron Allan McCollum has written:“In my memory, it was Al who reminded our troubled generation that simple, normal, everyday rituals of human commerce (horrors!) contained a significant complement of decency and joy that needed to be recognized and appreciated—not in spite of, but along with whatever else might have been wrong with the world in those especially uneasy years.”6 By creating publics around the quotidian rituals of eating out and, with Al’s Grand Hotel (1971), overnight travel, Ruppersberg seemed to confirm sociologist Richard Sennett’s observation, that “Convention is itself the single most expressive tool of public life.”7 Although Al’s Café and Al’s Grand Hotel were not, strictly speaking, conventional, the behaviors that they inscribed were: reading a menu and ordering a meal from a waitress; checking into a hotel and receiving a key. By breaking down these familiar environments into a series of performative gestures, Ruppersberg realized the aim of many who took to the streets during the Vietnam era, merging a theatrical sensibility (art) with the public sphere (life).8 Express Yourself 213 Gonna California Allen Ruppersberg’s desire to move to Los Angeles was sparked by a family vacation in 1956.The visit included all of the usual sights,most notably Hollywood and Disneyland. Both of these places had particular resonance for Ruppersberg, who had decided by age eleven that he would become a Disney animator:“After that trip there was never a question in my mind that I was going to California as soon as I was able.”9 In 1962,he moved from Ohio to...


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