A Lap Around The USA – Day 2 – Los Angeles - Sandpit

A Lap Around The USA – Day 2 – Los Angeles

Inspiration / 5 May 2017

by Dan Koerner

A note on walking

I’m a walker. I make no apologies for that. I really enjoy powering on from one location to another at breakneck speed. It’s efficient, cheap and lets you see your location in a much more detailed way than from the window of a car,  or worse – the interior of a subway. Los Angeles is much too sprawling to actually walk between the locations I’m visiting, with vast suburbs separating them. However, in the spirit of curiosity and keeping Uber costs down I am marching as far as my legs and timetable will let me. And so it was that I started today high above the city at the Griffith Observatory from where I stumbled down the hill, marched for another couple of miles and acquiesced to an Uber which took me to my first location…

The Getty

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The Getty feels like it is lost in the rambling hills and tangled expressways behind Beverly Hills. The car spent a good 45 minutes ducking and weaving through traffic until we arrived in the lower car park. From here there is the option of taking the free funicular (and who doesn’t love a funicular?) or walking. Opting to be a sweaty mess for my first meeting, I took the 15 minute mountain path that snakes through a lovely row of pine trees to the top of the hill. Smug tourists in the funicular whizz past on your way up. The journey is worth it though. The $1.3 billion Richard Meier designed Getty Center was opened in 1997 and feels like a sprawling, utopian vision of the future. Built to accomodate the collection that was previously bursting at the seems in the Getty Center’s sister venue, the nearby Getty Villa, the complex includes the Museum, the Getty Research Institute, the Getty Conservation Institute and an events auditorium. And it’s spectacular. It’s also extremely popular with tourists who on this day at least seemed to be largely French and Japanese.

I had an initial meeting with senior project specialist, Rani Singh who talked me through current programs underway under the auspices of the Getty Institute whose remit covers scholarly use of the collection but, in a way that seems slightly in competition with the Museum, has its own public programs. Most interestingly the upcoming Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, a hugely ambitious program exploring largely contemporary Latin American art in dialogue with the greater Los Angeles area – spanning Santa Barbara in the north right down to Sand Diego right out to Palm Springs and across multiple venues. Using LA’s ethnogeographic lens on the program it reminds me a lot of Melbourne’s Asia TOPA festival and its dialogue with Melbourne and contemporary art of the Asian region it finds itself in.

Next I met with Head of GRI Web & New Media, Liz McDermott and Senior Content producer Alicia Houtrouw who stepped me through the Institute and the Museum’s digital programs. Interestingly, and which I’m finding a lot everywhere I go, there is a broad focus on sound and music. The Getty houses its own recording studio which helps to produce a huge amount of digital content including the Art + Ideas Podcast, voiced by Getty President Jim Cuno. Content is also created to augment exhibitions with URLs accompanying presented artworks or printed in publications. Each exhibition has its own web content housed under the Getty’s main website. The Getty has steered away from creating individual apps for particular exhibitions or events and, although they bemoan the complexity of such a task, aspire to “one day” create an app that accommodates the whole complex. They took me through the current exhibitions in the Institute building which included a genuinely beautiful collection of Concrete Poetry, largely from Brazil and a comparative study of LA’s Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Berliner Philharmonie. They’re big fans of audio spotlights which were used throughout.

Really interestingly, they have just created a digital-only exhibition of photographs and illustrations documenting early western explorations of Palmyra, Syria. This feels really exciting as a concept with its ghostly late 19th century photographs from explorer Louis Vignes and illustrator Louis-François Cassas. It is particularly poignant and heartbreaking given the recent destruction of large swathes of the ancient complex by ISIS.

The Getty’s gardens are admittedly the most impressive part of the complex. Overlooking smog choked LA below, the gardens are constantly changing and evolving and are manicured to within an inch of their lives. There has been a drought-breaking amount of rain over the past winter and the gardens feel particularly lush as a result.

Getty Gardens (click to explore)

Next I wandered through the Museum itself which houses a confoundingly huge collection including decorative arts, sculpture, manuscripts, drawings and paintings, all pre-20th-century European. The collection also includes 19th and 20th century European, Asian and American photographs. Phew! Spread amongst several wings on multiple floors, the Museum is huge but feels spaced out with scenic breaks in glass hallways that remind you of your lofty location.

Getty Interior (click to explore)

Digital tools are sparse but used really well including several clever touchscreens that give you access to the interior of a 17th century chest that would otherwise tempt visitors to touch it themselves with its hidden drawers and compartments. The audio tour is a bog standard numerical interface on a modified iPod touch, however the really impressive thing is the sheer amount of audio content produced. Nearly every artwork and object in the collection has an associated number to ‘dial up’ on the device which plays back associated musical content along with a very actorly voice contextualising the object you are looking at.

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Getty audio tour

I decided to live a little and catch the funicular out of there where they can do something few other museums in the world can – a gentle, while-I’ve-got-your-attention voice reminds you of all the associated URLs, hashtags and socials to extend your experience of the museum. #inspiredbygetty

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Who doesn't love a funicular?

Admission: Gloriously free (including the funicular)

Digital engagement: Limited use of interactive displays, unsurprising audio tour with an incredible amount of high quality audio content, lots of online content augmenting existing exhibitions, digital-only exhibitions. No app.

The Museum of Jurassic Technology

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What can I say? This one of the most fascinating, mysterious, must-see museums in the United States if not the world. The unassuming venue is tucked away on a typically wide, busy and unattractive Los Angeles street. You could miss it easily if it wasn’t for the museum’s curious title emblazoned across the front of the building. Once inside you are greeted immediately by a waif-like attendant who informs you of the entrance fee and rules of no photography before admission is granted.

Inside the museum is a celebration of esoteric knowledge and what in other locations would be reduced to pseudoscience. It is dark, mysterious and feels like a 19th century wunderkammer evolved into an entire building. To the left after the entrance is an alcove you can nestle in to to hear an explanation of the museum’s remit and its history. Here, it presents itself as a “guide to the subject of the Lower Jurassic” and gives a critique of the evolution of the museum as a spectacle. I purports its own collection as being displayed with the rules of “the scientific method”. Further inside visitors are led through various rooms celebrating the philosophers, thinkers and extraordinary personalities who championed new ways of thinking in the spirit of understanding and investigation. This, however is no museum of science.

One display features the works and theories of Geoffrey Sonnabend including Obliscence: Theories of Forgetting and the Problem of Matter – a complex system where a platonic cone shape and rectangular plane are used to describe the process of forgetting as events move into our past. Sonnabend himself did not actually believe in memory and saw it as an illusion. Forgetting, he believed, not remembering, is the inevitable outcome of all experience. Large parts of this story were delivered by intricate Pepper’s Ghost installations (a technique which features heavily throughout the museum).

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Sonnabend's Obliscence in one of the few pieces of museum-merch I'll be buying this trip

A small room to the right of the entrance presents ‘The World is Tied with Secret Knots’ – displaying the life work of Athanaseus Kircher, a 17th century Jesuit author, archaeologist, astronomer, naturalist, mathematician, physicist, philosopher, adventurer, historian, Egyptologist, geologist, composer and inventor. This exhibition succinctly encompasses the mission of the museum itself combining reproductions of Kircher’s inventions and research. Each display is accompanied by a pair angled lenses which, upon peering through overlay ghostly figures of angels, humans and Kircher himself on top of lovingly made dioramas in miniature. A gentle voice and subtle music help to tell the stories. Together these tell the story of Kircher’s life and work in what collectively is part informative museum display, part transcendent artwork.

A rooftop garden allows visitors to pause to drink tea and reflect on the dizzying experience below. It was also the one location I felt it okay to take a photograph.

Museum of Jurassic Technology rooftop garden (Click to explore)

The whole museum combines gorgeous miniatures, models, taxidermy, optics, artworks and ephemera that work together to create a truly magical, and admittedly quite emotional experience. The entire building celebrates a very human endeavour of secularism and knowledge which would otherwise be dismissed a quackery. Instead of just informing you it really makes you feel something. All of these esoteric pursuits, otherwise dismissed by mainstream science may hold some deeper key to our own existence and experience of being human. It is exquisite, unassuming and is a real treasure in the world of mass produced, spectacle-museums built to cater for the masses with low attention spans.

Admission: A steal at $8

Digital engagement: Many displays are set in motion by a single button that triggers sound and light sequences, a lot of audio is delivered via telephone handsets, Pepper’s Ghost abounds, optical tricks. Sure, none of this is technically digital but it’s beautiful to see this tiny museum doing things the way they want. Rudimentary website and, of course no app.

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