It was only recently that I learned of the term “artivism.” It came to me through a friend by way of an amazing project and a book. The project emerged from the mind of Mark Chamberlain a California artist who used his formidable photography talents to mobilize a community. With the efforts of hundreds of citizens and through the lens of a mural, the beauty and history of their landscape was forever preserved.
In the newly released book, The Laguna Canyon Project: Refining Artivism we are immersed in an inspiring story of how the power of photography combined with activism can prevail.
Mark Chamberlain drove west in the winter of 1969 from Iowa to the sunshine promise of California. Eventually he was stopped by the Pacific Ocean at the end of Laguna Canyon. He found his new home. At that time that area of California was populated by a small art colony that began in the early 20th century. There he stayed, making the project certain.
In the 1920’s, Hollywood studios were accelerating their output and found Laguna Beach a convenient and beautiful shooting location. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) and the 1954 version of A Star is Born are just two of the dozens of films and tv episodes shot there. Several actors used it as a respite from the stress of the industry with many of them eventually settling in. The canyon also hosted music festivals and counter-culture gatherings that grew larger and larger crowds each year. They made the city leaders uneasy and moved to shut down these events, but an awakening had already begun.
As commerce expanded to the south of Los Angeles, developers created a master plan to eradicate orange groves, build housing, business centers and of course strip malls. The locals wanted to preserve the natural beauty and protect the environment, but began to feel their power waning. The Laguna Canyon project gave them a focal point to band together, increasing their power.
Mr. Chamberlain put into motion a multi-phased plan to photograph the entire nine mile canyon stretch as well as collect garbage (dubbed a “garbological” study) to create an immense visual archive. In the book we are taken from phase to phase, complete with images of the time, as the community comes together to make their cause known.
All the work and effort culminated in a 636-foot long sculptural mural consisting of thousands of photographs of ordinary California life. The mural is essentially a wall with a wooden supporting skeleton where these photos would be placed. When viewed from a distance it took the shape of a reclining female figure. The mural was named “The Tell,” taken from the archeological term referring to a mound of earth that has buried civilizations over time.
The timbers for The Tell superstructure cost over ten thousand dollars, January 1990
An overview of The Tell under construction
The result was astounding. As most of the images were small snapshots, the mural resembled a neo-impressionist painting of tiny dots. The genius was how the images were sorted and assembled. Content, color, character and many other criteria were taken into account and helped determine where the images would be pasted on the surface. Needless to say, hundreds of people volunteered their talent and resources to achieve the visual language goal of the mural.
Diving Figure in the early stages
Over time the natural elements worked their own magic, slowly shaping the experience by washing out or enlivening the colors of the photos themselves. The mural became integrated into the beauty of the canyon – claimed by the land – thereby increasing the power of the work, which in turn broadened interest and attention.
The project was so effective that in 1990, ninety-eight percent of Laguna Beach residents approved a vote to increase taxes enough to purchase the land outright. It is now a key part of a 7,000 acre wilderness park.
Although it is a slim volume, it packs a cultural punch and a reminder of the power of collective art. It combines Mr Chamberlain’s personal thoughts integrated with supporting contributions by Mark’s long-time partner, Jerry Burchfield, along with academics, advocates, writers and artists. The images chronicle the journey from beginning to end and provide a genuine sense for the scope of the project.
Mr. Chamberlain on June 21, 2010. He passed away April 23, 2018 at the age of 75. Photo by Diana Drake
This post has been updated: Since writing about this film. I purchased two typewriters. A 1954 Smith Corona Silent and a 1958 Olympia SM-3. The Olympia is a work of art.
Despite the abundance of digital software applications available to web designers, many prefer to sketch out their initial ideas with pen and paper. It’s faster than using digital tools and forces your brain to think in a different way. Even if you know the designing program well, a significant part of your brain’s energy is used up remembering commands, menus and locations of the software interface. With a pencil in hand your brain sends creative signals directly to it without interference. The result is you get more bang for your creative synapse.
The same approach can be applied to writing on a typewriter vs. computer keyboard. But none of us do that because pencils and paper are plentiful in every home or corporate office while typewriters are completely absent. It is highly likely that anyone reading this post has never used a typewriter. Or if they have it was decades ago. And that’s a darn shame.
This week I caught up with a wonderful little documentary called California Typewriter, directed, photographed and edited by Grammy winner Doug Nichol. Mr. Nichol centers his story around a small typewriter repair shop in Berkley, California owned by Herbert L. Permillion, III, a former IBM employee who serviced the brand’s Selectric typewriters for over twenty years. He bought the store – called California Typewriter – about the time computers were starting their rise in offices and homes, but has always remained steadfast that the typewriter will always be an important cultural tool.
We get to know Herb, his daughter Carmen and Ken Alexander, a master typewriter repairman over the course of the film. They have lots of ups and downs economically, but their love of this machine always wins the day, and somehow they mange to keep the business going.
The film’s other story is how the typewriter has sunk very deep roots in American society and are cared for not only by this team, but by thousands of other enthusiasts across the country.
The film opens with a dramatization of the American artist Ed Ruscha’s photo book Royal Road Test from 1967. In this spiral bound publication Mr. Ruscha carefully documented in black and white photographs and short prose the roadside remains of a Royal typewriter tossed from a speeding 1963 Buick LeSabre, California plate FUP 744. At the time the car was hurtling west on U.S. Highway 91 outside of Las Vegas when the deed was done. They turned the car around and went back to photograph the wreckage as well as the three men who committed the act. This and other books he created at the time paid tribute to the romantic vision of being on the road in the American West.
Mr. Nichol includes four accomplished artists in the telling of this story. Each incorporates the typewriter into their daily lives. These profiles are critical to helping us understand that for over a hundred years, analog was how work got done in the U.S. It gave meaning to traditions and even how happiness was experienced in the pre-digital age.
Tom Hanks has 250+ typewriters in his personal collection. He is passionate about the typewriter and when asked which of his machines he would take if stranded on a desert island he chose the Smith Corona Silent (circa 1950’s).
The rise on the keys is almost perfect. Going from an “n” to a “y” requires almost nothing. The size of the type is not too big and not too small. But listen to the solidity of the action. This is a solid piece of machinery. It’s got beautiful highlights… With a good case this would be thee one typewriter I would take if stranded on an island.
— Tom Hanks
David McCullough is the brilliant writer of The Wright Brothers, 1776, Truman and other critically acclaimed works. Every morning after breakfast he enters a small stand alone structure behind his home and goes to work on his second hand Royal Standard typewriter he paid $25 for in White Plains, NY. He has written his entire body of work on this machine.
People tell me that I could do much better. I could go faster and have less to contend with if I were to use a computer. A word processor. But I don’t want to go faster. If anything I prefer to go slower. To me it’s understandable. I press a key and another key comes up and prints a letter on a piece of paper… It’s tangible. It’s real.
— David McCullough
American singer-songwriter John Mayer has opted out of digital tools for writing his songs, doing it now on a typewriter.
I’m not picking the typewriter because I think it’s hip. It’s the best version of the idea that’s ever come around. For me I think the best way to live is to incorporate the best of the last 100 years into a hybrid that works. Write a book on a typewriter and promote it on Twitter. Use the spectrum.
— John Mayer
Pulitzer winning playwright and author Mr. Sam Shepherd would prefer to ride horses than drive a car. He describes in great detail why he prefers a typewriter. Here’s a snippet.
You have to feed a typewriter paper. There’s a percussion about it. You can see the ink flying onto the surface of the paper. So a letter will go bam, but along with it the ink flies into the paper.
— Sam Shepherd (1943 – 2017)
More elements of the story begin to emerge. Devoted typewriter collector Martin Howard, whose license plate is QWERTY 1, has studied the invention of the typewriter and its impact on our society for twenty-two years. He loves the beginning of things which explains why he collects typewriters from the 1880’s and 1890’s. He specializes in typewriters of non-standard design.
We’ve now seen typewriter repairmen, collectors, and writers that use them to create their work. But still more protagonists tell their stories. Although we have seen a healthy dose of passion about the typewriter up to this time, these two artists have an almost mystical relationship with the typewriter. Jeremy Mayer is a sculptor who uses parts and materials from typewriters in his work. He studies nature and human anatomy along with typewriter anatomy and combines them to create amazing objects.
If the typewriter had a mind as it was being invented, Silvi Alcivar is what it might have conjured up as someone who would use it. Machines were never viewed as a serious threat to humans unlike robots and artificial intelligence warnings of today. There is nothing artificial about a typewriter. But in the hands of Ms. Alcivar typewriting takes on new meaning. She is a poet and occasionally you might find here on a sidewalk or in a museum at her pop-up poetry store. Give her a couple of thoughts and she will type you a poem on the spot. She trusts that the words will always come and hugs her Royal typewriter close, but no one else can use it.
To help balance out the serious and spiritual themes, Mr. Nichol brings in the Boston Typewriter Orchestra. They write and perform songs using typewriters. No lyrics, simply percussion interpretations. They are serious in a Monty Python kind of way. Not too much so, but enough to make us pay attention. Apparently there is no end to the uses of a typewriter.
In the movie we learn that Christopher Latham Sholes invented the first commercially viable typewriter in 1868 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The first keyboard had QWERTY on the top row. Something that has never changed. How did QWERTY get on the keyboard? No one knows for sure. It has been said that it came about to aid salesmen who couldn’t type. They could easily peck out the word typewriter as all of the letters fell on the top row.
Sholes became disinterested in his machine and sold his design. It was made of wood and he sold the rights to the metal gun manufacturer, Remington Arms. They were looking for a new way to keep the factories in operation. The Civil War came to a close so orders for guns had slowed dramatically. After a year spent on developing a metal typewriter successfully, mass production began.
Thousands were made and sold, but there was a shortage of people who know how to use them. The first typing school was established in New York in 1881. Six women enrolled in the six month class at a YWCA. When they completed the course all immediately had job offers. Better paying jobs than factory workers or school teachers. The introduction of the machine helped women enter the male business. They were called “typewriters.”
I learned to type on a manual typewriter in a high school typing class. Yes, there was a class called typing. I had a choice. Take typing or home economics (HomeEc) which was code for cooking and other household chores. I chose typing. Before I finished I was up to 55 words per minute with almost no errors. A skill I have used my entire life.
Late in the film we hear from Richard Polt, author of The Typewriter Revolution: A typist’s Companion for the 21st Century. A book I just finished. In fact, because of this documentary and the book, I bought a Smith Corona Silent manual typewriter. I’m cleaning it up as I write this and hope to be up and typing very soon. Mr. Polt also wrote The Typewriter Manifesto.
I see a close relationship between the typewriter and the vinyl record resurgence. Music is written and recorded. A record is pressed. It’s a physical representation of the music that springs to life when a diamond needle rests on this sacred platter at thirty-three and a third revolutions per minute. True sound. Pure sonic. Emotive. Tribal.
The typewriter is the confluence of mechanics, art and psychology. When embraced they become a tactile paradise for the mind to enjoy. They command one to think. To slow down and not be afraid to stop. There is no stream. However, ink is necessary. Paper is required. You publish while you write. It occupies space. No need for the cloud. Digital forgives. Typewritten pages are chiseled, archival records.
In a way the typewriter acts as a mediator. Everyone in the film speaks about this machine as if it was alive. It speaks to you. Always at the ready to amplify the true nature of your being.
Highly recommended for everyone interested in typewriters, documentary fans, or if you’re looking for something interesting to watch. Official site here.
There are over 133,000,000 blogs actively indexed by Technorati. Each day 900,000 posts are published to those blogs and they are read by 346,000,000 people worldwide. Well, maybe not all of those 900 million posts are read. Those numbers stagger the mind (see source here). But serious blogging is about words, not numbers. Content, not concept. Substance, not flash. Authors, not note takers. If one closely examines the blur of daily posts one begins to realize that most of what is written is not inspired, but contrived, perhaps even forced so the owner can stay on a posting schedule driven by an obsession to increase readership. There’s no harm in that, as most of us, including me, post to keep visitor momentum.
As the December sun sets on the newspaper we find ourselves in a rare moment in time. How we handle that moment is important. Will we continue to obsess over the numbers, or will we step back and step-up to the task of replacing a storied source of information? But it’s probably not about replacing traditional writing form factors. That would be very difficult, perhaps even impossible as I discuss in an earlier post here.
In my opinion, the element that produces the most emotional work is without question; passion. Arguably it can be manufactured, but only in small doses and it’s not sustainable. Even the great newspaper machines struggled to maintain quality and keep ethics on the radar. But inside that editorial meeting there was most definitely passion. Real passion is discovered, revealed, teased out after having been drawn in by some intangible force. It emerges from one’s inner core. All of us have it. Most of us don’t recognize it as easily as others. Some lucky souls see it very clearly. They tame it then shape it. One of those people is Liz Goldner.
I’ve known Liz almost 15 years. She has led a life that runs predominately on emotion and passion which has transported her from one end of the country to the other. Today she makes her home in Orange County, safely tucked inside the Golden State. She roams the art world and reports her observations on her site, Contemporary Art Dialogue. Technically it’s not a blog, but that’s not important, for good content can inhabit almost any form factor. (Full disclosure: Liz writes about me on her site, but there is no financial arrangement)
She likes to poke around in the artist’s mind and has conducted hundreds of interviews to help her understand why someone creates, which leads her to scribe about something deeper, maybe not so obvious in the finished work. This pairing of conversation with the artist and study of the work has shaped her brand of observation into something special. She writes mostly about contemporary art, and cuts across photography, painting, assemblage, even graffiti. She likes to think deeply about theory as well as style, and delve below the water line. Postmodernism is a speciality.
Of course getting a site like this off the ground takes time and care. One of the techniques she now has in the works is to offer a free eBook to her newsletter subscribers. It’s a smart idea to move beyond the inbox and onto the desktop. When I hear eBook it usually means someone has thrown together odds and ends and called it an eBook. But when I opened BC Space: Defining Artivism, it was clear that this was what an eBook should be. It’s digest in size with a wide range of topics and compelling images sprinkled throughout. Fifty-two pages of history and cause, punctuated with that special behind the curtain conversation with the artists. It’s a generous gift. I wonder if it’s too generous.
I asked her to reflect on how she came to develop this eBook, how long it took to create and in particular, why she chose BC Space as the tentpole. Here is her reply.
Steve Furman asked me to write a page for his blog describing how long it took to write my eBook, BC Space: Defining Artivism. The short answer is three weeks. But the real answer is more than seven years.
I originally wrote my eBook, offered free, as an incentive for people to subscribe to my newsletter. Yet completed, it took on a life of its own. I realized that the story of BC Space Gallery is so compelling that itcould be the genesis of a larger eBook that I will sell through the Internet in the future.
Here is my story!
On March 30, 2003 (shortly after the Iraq War began), I walked down Forest Avenue in Laguna Beach, opened a heavy steel door and climbed the stairs to BC Space Gallery. I was there to interview gallery owner Mark Chamberlain about his exhibition, “Pretty Lies, Dirty Truths,” addressing the horrors of war.
I reflect back to that day in Defining Artivism: “Open that 85-year-old door, climb a steep, narrow stairway to a large, bright entryway lined with artworks. Walk into two well-lit galleries, the second with a skylight and black ceiling. Continue into a large open area, the combined studio/entertainment/performance area. Accoutrements include a small stage from the original Masonic Hall, a first-rate sound system, a projection screen, and large glass doors facing a quiet lane.”
As Mark and I talked, I realized that the thoughtful, artistic person facing me was leading the adventurous life I had always yearned to live. I was attracted to the artworks on display, to the spare magnificence of the 30-year-old art space and to the philosophical perspectives and bohemian lifestyle of the gallery owner.
Mark and I began a friendship that included dialogues about the relationship of art to social issues, and about the intersection of art and politics. Our conversations, in person, by phone and email, were punctuated by forays to art events, films and sometimes meals.
Tales of His Life
Perhaps because Mark sees no separation between his work, art making and his life, he often weaves together tales of his childhood and adult life with those of his career as an environmental artist and of the ongoing development of BC Space Gallery.
From my eBook: “Located in a commercial area on Forest Avenue, Mark Chamberlain continues to support the [BC Space] gallery through his Photographic Art Services. Within that space, he explores his personal artwork, while mentoring (and curating) other artists in their quest for creative expression – all free of the need for commercial conformity…Today, BC remains firmly ensconced in the building in which it was launched. It has kept pace with the dramatic changes from film to digital image making, while also presenting exhibitions of painting, sculpture, installations, and video, as well as film, music, theatre, and dance events.”
As Mark and I talked over the months and the years, I listened carefully to his words about the gallery and exhibitions and about the concurrent artworks he produced. As I questioned and absorbed his many stories, his focus, passion, courage and insights inspired me to be more focused, passionate and courageous in my own work. Mark was mentoring me to become a more confident and insightful art writer.
A year after we met, Mark invited me to a slide presentation/talk that he and former BC Space partner, Jerry Burchfield, were giving at Laguna Beach City Hall. While the hour-long talk about their ongoing Laguna Canyon Project (photographing historic Laguna Canyon Road) was fascinating and expertly delivered, I was impressed by their passion for the work and by their camaraderie. In time, I learned that their deep, symbiotic friendship was often the catalyst for individual and joint artworks.
Being a scribe, I kept many emails that Mark and I wrote to each other, turning them into documents. I also kept essays, press releases and letters that Mark sent and received. Mark and I joked about me being his personal biographer. What began as a joke became a more serious matter.
No one else was keeping track of the ongoing multifarious activities of BC Space and its proprietor – a combination Mississippi River rat (he grew up on that river), campus radical, sensitive aesthete and unbridled mustang.
Jerry Burchfield had been an excellent gallery chronicler, but he left BC in 1987 to teach full time. While Jerry continued to support the gallery’s activities, he no longer kept assiduous track of the evolving art space.
After Jerry was diagnosed with cancer in 2007, I requested an interview to discuss his love for photography and involvement with BC Space for 14 years. He and I talked for several hours, then refined our discussion via emails.
“We were a pioneering entity, showing work regardless of its salability, ignoring the tourist art tradition of Laguna art galleries.” Jerry said. “We even called ourselves ‘obscurists.’ Artist friends told us we were crazy to start a business like this in Laguna – that we needed to be where the action was in L.A. But Laguna was so nice and we had cheap rents and could walk to work on the beach. In time, we exhibited work by artists from all over the country.”
“Shortly before his passing in September 2009, Jerry said, “There wasn’t any separation between art and life. We did our work out of love, and attracted extraordinary people to share in our mission. Anyone could approach us about exhibiting here. BC Space was like living a dream. We created a playland that allowed us to explore art and life.”
BC Space History
Last year, Cal State Fullerton’s Santa Ana exhibition space was preparing to mount “BC Space: Mything in Action,” chronicling the gallery’s 37 years of exhibitions. I was asked to write BC’s history for a catalog accompanying the show. I spent four months writing, researching and refining my words, often with the help (and provocation) of Mark Chamberlain.
This year, I expanded the 3,500-word history into my 9,000-word eBook, Defining Artivism. From late June to mid July, I worked nearly 200 hours – often in the middle of the night – on this eBook. I revised my original history and added in many comments about Jerry and Mark from artists and supporters. I also added a chronology.
For three weeks, I wrote day and night, drawing from a bottomless well of creativity. During that period, I mused that art often draws from and follows life experiences. In particular, the artistry I was building in Defining Artivism was inspired by the subject matter I was writing about, including my many experiences at BC Space Gallery over the years.
Liz Goldner – Laguna Beach, California
You were forewarned about the passion thing weren’t you. This kind of commitment and care is more common than you might think among people who write vs. post. Certainly there are serious blogs out there that explore with great prose and structure. And a blog was not originally developed to be a replacement for a finely crafted magazine or newspaper article. However, a blog is a technology tool, and with all tools the final product that comes out of using a tool varies greatly. There’s room for all of it certainly. Take a moment and subscribe to the Contemporary Art Dialogue newsletter to get a free copy of the eBook and see for yourself. By the way, in case you were thinking of using the eBook technique to promote your own blog or site efforts. The bar is now officially set to high.
As the newspaper fades away and the torch of journalism (term used loosely) passes to the masses, we will need to raise our game to meet that awesome responsibility. Many people fear this moment because of the drastic change and loss of something tangible. Yet another thing we were so comfortable with has been taken away. Not so. This moment should be embraced and cherished. Celebrated even. Keep your passion burning brightly. If you don’t have it yet, find it. It’s right there in front of you. And most importantly, keep writing.