Christopher Anthony Velasco’s “Let It Sparkle”

Photo: Lester Lawenko

“Let it Sparkle” is a public art installation by Christopher Anthony Velasco that occupied much of a vacated car garage at the corner of Tyler Ave and Ramona in El Monte as part of SEMAP’s Activate Vacant series. The unoccupied building, painted over entirely in white, including the glass windows, shines under the blazing sun like a skull on a scorched landscape. On a Saturday morning in August, Velasco and a crew of SEMAP posse reoccupied the dead space with an intricate web of multi-colored yarn, neon colored tape and glitter.  Lots and lots of glitter.

Beautiful or obnoxious? Well, that depends.

Photo: Lester Lawenko

Once a certain Italian arts magazine editor I knew snidely described L.A. art as mostly glitter. Yes, glitter, the prepubescent girls’ medium of choice. Her derisive remark revealed her disdain for west coast art. This was of course, well before Pacific Standard Time, greater L.A.’s recent major comprehensive showcase of L.A. art, and the current, Made in L.A. Not to mention a nice March 2012 issue of Artforum dedicated almost entirely to art in L.A., featuring (best of all) ASCO’s  “Gang Victim Decoy” on the cover.

GLITTER. My god. I wondered what janky art shows this Italian editor had been attending. I certainly did not know any artists that were using anything as frivolous as glitter in their work…

Photo: Lester Lawenko

Yet years later, I have found myself sprinkling a tube of gold glitter across the asphalt of an abandoned car garage. Now more than then, I see how little she understood about L.A. art, and probably less about L.A. I also realize, as I have learned more about L.A., how little I understood, or appreciated…. well, glitter.

For one thing: It’s not just the medium itself that matters, but also how it’s used and how it’s applied. The glitter in Christopher Velasco’s project was applied like a blessing to this barren ground, like something beautiful, almost sacred, at least very special, that was being offered to this place, scorching with asphalt and parched of color. Afterall, SEMAP artists care about making art, and sharing beauty and of course, about South El Monte and El Monte.

Photo: Lester Lawenko

Unexpectedly, the yarn, tape and glitter highlight the lovely particularities of the place, the way I believe a good make up job does on a face. Not distract or detract or hide. But rather point out the accents.  For instance, a horizontal strip of red tape draws your eye to the grainy texture of a cinderblock wall, contrasts it with the peeling paint on a plywood boarded window.

As we strung yarn across distances, knotted and wrapped it over the surfaces of pipes and door handles, the possibilities seem to reveal themselves and multiply infinitely with every found piece of debris, crack or corner. It started with the permanent stable structures, walls, hooks, window frames, iron grates, and then extended rhizomatically onto impermanent objects and surfaces –styrofoam cups, strewn pipes, weeds grown out of crack, equalizing building architecture with happenstance litter.

Photo: Lester Lawenko

The nature of the project was exploratory and entirely improvised, dependent on the whim of Velasco and each posse. The yarn was strung from one arbitrary spot to another, cutting across the space. To call it a web, as in a spider’s, would suggest some order.

More accurately, it was a kind of anarchic net that seemed to entrap, or hold, or even embrace everything and anything, including the trespassing bodies of artists. Instead of ensuring a quick getaway should the cops start patrolling too frequently, we seemed to be weaving ourselves into the fabric of the installation. Even the litter on the property was lovingly embraced by the yarn.

Photo: Lester Lawenko

Of course, “Let It Sparkle’s” use of yarn certainly evokes one of the more recent street art trend known as yarn bombing or guerrilla knitting. According to Malia Wollan’s article in the New York Times, yarn bombing is a more “feminine” approach to graffiti by employing a “most matronly craft”.  However, despite its harmlessness, it is still considered vandalism and littering.

So is this vandalism or art? Street art or public art?

Again the answer is not in WHAT, but in the HOW something is done. As is, intrinsic to much installation art, where the viewing audience is as implied as the art object, “Let it Sparkle” also happens to be almost excruciatingly self-aware, pushing the project into the realm of performance. And if you know the corner of Tyler and Ramona, you know that the audience is the constant body of bus riders patiently waiting for their forever irregular buses. On this particular day, the audience consisted of plenty of middle aged señoras y señores, mostly Latino and Asian. In addition to a built-in bus stop audience, there were car passengers waiting at red lights. Many wide-eyed and open-mouthed viewers pressing their faces against their windows to see this odd, if not absurd performance.

Very quickly, it became clear that part of the project was the actual movement through the space of the vacant lot and through the project as we negotiated with our own occupation, and with the project itself. The thing we were making was making demands of us, it required that we use our bodies, carefully and sometimes strenuously, requiring all sorts of body contortions over delicate yarn configurations. The maneuvers became more complex as the web itself became more extended and involved.

It’s street art if you don’t ask for permission. It’s a public art installation if you do. As far as I’m concerned we had the permission of our audience who were often very curious and unhesitant to ask “que estan haciendo?” We’re putting some color in this space. Repeatedly, the response was “Esta muy bien.”

With that said, as SEMAP moves forward in this series of Activate Vacant projects we have also had to wrap our minds around their ephemeral nature. Yarn, loose glitter, tape and litter don’t hold well under the elements or the watchful eye of city and police authorities. Their life span potentially and likely, is brief. The performance or the impression of the performance will probably outlast the installation object itself, as taut yarn configurations loosen, wilt and unravel.  Or as someone impatiently machetes or bewildered, scissor snips their way through.

Beautiful or obnoxious?

Hey, why not both. But never disrespectful or harmful. Maybe it takes some bratty sassiness to make art that is both transgressive and lovely. Maybe it’s not entirely about WHAT you do, but HOW you do it.

Short Video of “Let It Sparkle” edt. Henry Pacheco