As we’ve reminded you over and over by now, this month marks the Believer’s ten-year anniversary. In the spirit of the occasion, we wanted to look at some other entities that turn ten this year. The Echo Park, Los Angeles arts space Machine Project produces an inimitable series of talks and readings, classes, exhibitions, and all sorts of interdisciplinary in-between. The organization’s founder, Mark Allen, recently told Machine Project’s origin story to the writer Kate Wolf.
MARK ALLEN: I was looking for a place to live on the East Side, and while apartment searching I saw the Machine Project storefront for rent; I think it was $1,100 a month. I kind of rented it on instinct. I thought it looked like a space that something interesting could happen in. One of my things about C-Level [another space Allen was previously involved with] was that though I loved the kind of drama of this thing in the basement, it was really hard to imagine how someone who didn’t already know about it would find it. And our current storefront was just really appealing because it has this big window and you can see what’s going on [from the street]. It seemed a lot better for people discovering it. At the time, I was really interested in a transdisciplinary audience; I was thinking a lot about what you could do to have different communities of interest experience something that wasn’t their core practice—scientists at poetry readings, poets at a science talk, etc. Based on that, I started having people do stuff; I’d invite people I met who seemed interesting to speak or perform. I did that for two or three years, roughly once a week.
At that time I was adjunct teaching a little, but I didn’t have much income and most of it was going into paying the rent at Machine. I was doing work with engineering then and a lot of artists were interested in it, so I started teaching electronics and programming classes as a way of helping to pay the rent on the space. I did that for a while and by then I’d identified a couple potential grants and turned Machine into a 501c3. We got a grant from the Durfee Foundation, which we used to hire Michelle Yu, who was the first employee, and she wrote a lot more grants and helped us develop more of an organizational structure.
Since then, I think over the course of time it just continues to change in ways I don’t necessarily plan. In the beginning it was like a container for different people to share ideas in; over time, I started collaborating with some of those people more directly, like the poet Joshua Beckman. The first time he came he just did a reading but then, since I think a lot about the relationship between audience and performer, we started doing things that were more like experiments around those ideas: we did something were we had him trapped in the basement and you could hear him read through a funnel in the floor; and we did another event where him and some other poets were in a sailboat at night offshore in Santa Monica and you could signal them with a lantern from the beach and they would call this rotary dial phone and read you a poem; and we did a poetry delivery service where you’d call the gallery and Josh would walk to you and read you a poem. Those sorts of things started happening with a lot of different artists. The space evolved from a venue to kind of more like this collection of people that I had all these different collaborative relationships with.
In 2008 we got invited by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to do a giant one day show there and that was sort of the moment for me, the real shift, in that I started thinking about what I did as a certain degree of collecting and building relationships both with artists, but between them as well. That show led to a lot of museum work where we did projects at different places and that’s something we’ve done a lot for the last four years. Now we’re doing more and more projects that are national and I’m thinking of the space here as a kind of prototyping or researching place for artists to try out ideas that might then happen in a more formal settings.
For live events, I’m not super interested in professionalism per se; I’m more interested in trying to create a space the feels friendly and informal for an audience, that’s inspired in part by house galleries or punk rock shows. I guess behind the scenes we’ve become increasingly organized and professional, but in regard to what it’s like for the audience, I try to maintain a pretty informal vibe. In terms of things not working, there are all these different kinds of failures and some make more sense than others. I think our job as an organization is to make a well-structured, well-organized container for something to happen in. And part of that involves figuring out what’s the right information or setting or structure that the audience needs to be able to engage in the work. For example, one time we had Eileen Myles read and she wanted to read a whole essay from her Importance of Being Iceland book. It was a long piece that was going to take two or three hours. What I saw as our job was just to figure out how to communicate to the audience, ‘Eileen is amazing, you should see her read, but it’s going to be a really long reading, so you should feel comfortable to come late or leave early,’ kind of giving people permission to engage with the work how they need to, rather than not mentioning anything, and at 45 minutes everybody’s internal clock goes off and they wonder how much longer is this going to go on? The reading turned out to be amazing and was full of people who stayed the whole time. I see our successes or failures based on how we create the site and setting to engage with the work. If in that case an artist is trying out a new idea and it flops, or the audience hates it, or it’s uncomfortable, or something like that, I think that’s fine as long as we’ve taken care of our side things. And actually, more and more, I think about how we can explicitly communicate to the audience that we’re a space where people try stuff out.
That said, I’ve probably done over 1,000 events and part of what lets me keep doing them is I have a selective memory, which lets me forget things that are hard. There are certainly periods where there’s frustration—maybe I didn’t perform the best that I wanted to or somebody else is difficult to work with—where you start to feel like, why am I dealing with this?
But about two years ago, with the approach of the ten-year anniversary, I started thinking about this question of legacy and lifespan. Should I say, ‘okay, Machine’s been successful and we’re well respected (or I think we’re well respected), maybe I should try to wrap things up at ten years and have this kind of nice package’—that idea of wanting to go out before you’ve become obsolete. I thought quite seriously about that, and in the end what I decided was that the infrastructure of the organization is a really useful tool for doing things and I was more interested in having that tool available than having a concrete or successfully tied up legacy. We all know cultural institutions that used to be relevant and now they’re completely irrelevant. I decided that the inevitability of that is an adequate trade off for having this organization that lets me and other people explore some ideas. I’m less attracted to the sense of ending triumphantly and I’m more interested in just continuing to use it to make stuff. I’ve just become more comfortable with the utility over the grace of ending things when you’re supposed to.