A Sublime Moment on the Sixth Street Bridge

A Sublime Moment on the Sixth Street Bridge

A Sublime Madness in the Soul, a performative work by Susan Silton, composed by Juliana Snapper - August 22, 2015, Sixth Street Bridge, downtown Los Angeles

I’ve been trying to discourage art, cultural, political, fashion and retail organizations of every size from exhibiting, performing, organizing, opening, demonstrating or launching anything during the summer before Labor Day, and especially August. But I suppose it’s a losing battle. People seem determined to go out (certainly at night anyway); summer music festivals have been entrenched for at least a century (and probably much longer); the major fashion/couture houses are still showing the fall haute couture in July (an unbearably hot month in Paris); and people can only languish in imperfect and imperfectly air-conditioned spaces so long before going stark raving mad. Let’s face it – there’s a reason why the major urban riots of the 1960s took place during summers; and if people couldn’t go to their favoriate air-conditioned bars and cineplexes, there would be major civil unrest.

I hadn’t even read the press release far enough through to find out just where Susan Silton had gotten the title of the performance piece she debuted this past Saturday night. But I’d never been to her studio, the particular siting of which (on Anderson Street) held more than a few intriguing possibilities (possibilities already exploited by a television production unit for Episode 4 of the 2015 season of True Detective); the prospect of taking in whatever mysterious or explosive opera/oratorio/performance/event from the elevated prospect of the dangerously decaying Sixth Street Bridge at what is effectively a geographic and cultural east-west crossroads over the heart of industrial L.A., was in itself irresistible – assuming I could get there; and the temperature had dropped sufficiently over the preceding three days so that I could leave my apartment without risking heatstroke. In other words, if you weren’t already going to your Garden or Pool Box at the Hollywood Bowl, or going to see Straight Outta Compton, there was probably no better place to be in Los Angeles on the evening of August 22, 2015, than on the Sixth Street Bridge in downtown L.A. watching Susan Silton’s and Juliana Snapper’s, A Sublime Madness In the Soul.

As with so much performance art, there was nothing that was not part of it – including just getting there. It was significant that the directions there noted the principal alternate approaches – from both east and west, across that industrial drainage ditch some of us know as the Los Angeles River. No less significant was that, no matter how we got to the neighborhood, whether by mass transit or single-passenger automobile, we would be walking at least 15 minutes before we made our way to the site on the bridge where the audience was intended to gather. (At least: it’s a long bridge.) Even as transportation modes evolve here, we deal with L.A.’s anti-pedestrian legacy; and the bridge sidewalk was only wide enough to accommodate two people walking side by side. In other words, it became a procession to a certain place – a fulcrum, a tipping point, if you will – and on a bridge like this one, that thought may have sat a bit nervously on more than one person’s mind.

There were lights visible from one or two of the windows long before the performance, so the studio ‘stage/screen’ was readily identified. Exterior lights from surrounding traffic and activity occasionally altered the atmospheric light around the building. Periodically, a pale green light, possibly attached to a motion sensor on the ground level, seemed to glow and dim. At a certain point (ten past the appointed hour?), all four windows on the south side were illuminated. (The frames appeared to be lit all around from the interior to give the effect of a frame of light.) The singer-performers – and at least two moved forward in the windows – appeared lit from below, casting figures and faces in a footlight glow. The first clangorous notes issued in tonalities and cadences pitched somewhere between Henry Purcell and Hildegarde von Bingen. The acoustics of an open-air space of, say, between 5,000 and 10,000 cubic meters, with variable environmental and traffic noise, were unpredictable at best and, given sound and noise factors on the other side of the bridge, made it difficult to judge the music. It seemed to move between tonal and atonal passages, with various parlando or dialectic sections that moved the underlying moral narrative and arguments forward, but overall it seemed to cohere pretty successfully.

Iconic locations demand iconic themes and Silton did not hold back. If California’s official State motto is “Eureka,” the corresponding motto for Los Angeles is probably, “I took it,” or “I’m taking it,” (whatever the Greek for that is). Greed underpins L.A.’s entire history from the late 19th century through the birth of Hollywood’s film industry, to the crimes against nature that metastasized an already unsustainable city west to the ocean and deep into the San Fernando Valley. But try telling that to Eli Broad or any other financier, speculator or developer. (And there are ever new variations: popular in Greece right now – ‘I borrowed it’; or again, here in L.A. – ‘I’m flipping it.’) Subordinate to that is the resurgent (and specious) Gilded Age ‘gospel’ of social and economic Darwinism – distorted from its original intentions and effects in the post-industrial casino of the global financial economy.

A large electronic screen on the roof displayed supertitles that were a bit hard to read without field- or opera-glasses, but could be made out intermittently. “Greed is right…. Greed captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.” “It’s the free market and you’re part of it.” It opened in the spirit of a black mass, more than an opera, and moved through passages that just kept getting more familiar, digressing into those parlando passages that sounded alternately like government bulletins and philosophical dialogues. “The greedy consume 90 percent of the wealth.” But then – “How much is enough?” “It’s not a question of enough.” (It never is.) There was a Brecht-ian distancing to certain passages that probably meshed with Silton’s intentions for the performers – say, where the inexorability of Arturo Ui intersected with the implacable juggernaut of Gordon Gecko. Then there were moments when the savage Darwinian messianic rants gave way to a more Magic Christian flippancy. “Money doesn’t just buy a better life; it makes you a better person.” “Money can buy love – Fuck the Beatles!”

It didn’t take long to realize that Silton had stitched her black mass from choice sampled scraps (the ‘iconic’ scraps definitely) from one of L.A.’s iconic industrial products – the commercial motion picture – with a thematic and emotional range that might seem a bit ‘all-over-the-map’, until one considered that it mirrored the extremities and absurdities of L.A.’s physical and cultural map with uncanny fidelity: its contrasting extremes of idealism and cynicism, violence and laissez-vivre, sentimentality and ruthlessness; rapacity, corruption, venality and criminal subterfuge, El Dorado dreams and red asphalt endings. We’re not nice people here, but hopefully we make it look pretty – unless you want it seedy and ugly, and we can do that, too. ‘Make us an offer we can’t refuse’: There’s no one and nothing here without an easily negotiated price.

I don’t know how Silton arrived at Network (Lumet/Chayefsky, M-G-M, 1976) – which strictly speaking is more about ambition than greed – but the motive of the window was obviously crucial to the overall concept and it made for a smashing coda. “I want you to get mad…. Go to your windows, open them and stick your head out and yell, ‘I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!’ … ” It’s no small irony that, even as the power of the television networks at the center of the film have waned, the conditions and despair Howard Beale (the role brought Peter Finch a posthumous Oscar) articulates in this climactic scene have only deepened.

Silton’s window was both physical and metaphorical. There were no physical windows to be opened from the overlook of the bridge, but beyond the four lit windows of the studio building, the evolving, simultaneously decaying and developing, landscape of studios, housing (or homelessness), light manufacturing and warehouse spaces represented a kind of window of uncertain opportunity for its users, inhabitants, and developers and speculators clawing over the rediscovered turf. We’re all implicated in the greed game. Historically, bridges have been places of horrific confrontational violence. But the crowd was small and civilized enough to foreclose the possibility of a Day of the Locust-style denouement.

In the meantime, as the Silton/Snapper opera moved toward its climax, the traffic on the bridge slowed as an endless stream of customized ‘lowrider’ cars began parading up and down the bridge, tricked out with every kind of dragster-mechanical/hydraulic special effect imaginable – popping up and down on their rear tires, springing up over their shocks and collapsing inches off the pavement, tilting to one side or another at 70 degree angles, scraping rear bumpers over the pavement setting off showers of sparks in their wake (a bit alarming with L.A. as dry as gunpowder). We were witnessing a historical crossing in microcosm: the descendants (literally or in spirit) of some of the people who had probably worked in this neighborhood and lived on the east side of the River. Also a visible – and certainly the showiest – legacy of the petroleum culture that gave birth to industrial L.A., the car culture that succeeded it, and ultimately the unrelenting predation and pollution that threatens the planetary biosphere.

Silton’s studio building is slated for demolition, with the site to be redeveloped – probably into more housing for the increasingly gentrified area. The structurally challenged Sixth Street Bridge will be going down, too; (to be replaced by an airier, but slightly more dramatic 3,500 foot double-row sequence of slightly tilted (a nod to the lowriders?) and spoked sine-wave arches), the joint project of Michael Maltzan, AC Martin and the HNTB engineering concern). Extensive landscaping is planned and who knows what vestiges of the industrial city will remain? The greed will churn on; but so will the art-making and those moments artists can safeguard from the purely acquisitive gaze. Saturday night on the Sixth Street Bridge was one such sublimely illuminated moment. Standing at the center of the Sixth Street Bridge, surrounded by the city, with the lights of downtown L.A. and its millions of windows and reflections as the backdrop for this austere spectacle, the viewer felt simultaneously implicated and exalted; shackled to basest instincts and always grasping – but sometimes at stars.