Utopia: “Think different”

On November 5th, 2006, the A Shenere Velt Gallery of West Los Angeles will present its latest exhibition – Utopia: Dreams of Paradise & Possibility. Reading from the gallery’s press release regarding the exhibit:

“Our call for submissions went out this year asking artists to think about the theme of Utopia. ‘In a world climate of pessimism and fear, dreams of earthly paradise and possibility are vital,’ we said. ‘Pieces selected for this show will reflect on the myriad imaginings of perfect worlds and the shapes they might take.’ Over 60 artists responded, from all over the country, and our jurors selected 21 artists (some with multiple works). Mark Greenfield, Director of the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery, and Mark Vallen, artist and essayist, both jurors, were also asked to participate with art works of their own. Our third juror was Alice Wexler, biographer of the anarchist activist Emma Goldman. Art accepted into the show ranges in style from fairly abstract to fanciful to propagandistic to realistic to comic, and in media from photography to light sculpture to prints and painting. Each work is accompanied by an explanatory Artist Statement which clarifies the artist’s intention.”

It was a pleasure to work with Mark Greenfield and Alice Wexler in juroring what is sure to be an intriguing exhibit for the art-going public. Much of today’s so-called “protest art” is filled with the gloominess we all feel when regarding the terrible problems plaguing humanity. But Utopia reaches well beyond all of the misery and desolation to offer possible glimpses of the world as it could be. Avoiding new age sappiness, the exhibit manages to deliver visions that are transcendental, and in steering clear of postmodern cynicism, we are encouraged to consider what a better world might actually look like. My own submission to Utopia takes advantage of the “anything is possible” feeling of the show. For the first time anywhere, rather than displaying one of my paintings – I’ve decided to exhibit one of my photographic prints.

Photograph by Mark Vallen. ©

[ DNC 2000 – Think different. Photograph by Mark Vallen. © All rights reserved ]

I took the photograph to be exhibited, DNC 2000 – Think different, at the Democratic National Convention held in Los Angeles at the Staples Center during the week of August 14th., 2000. After the civil disturbances that took place a year earlier at the anti-globalization protests in Seattle, Washington, the authorities and the press in LA began disseminating stories about the threat of “violent anarchists” rioting in the streets during the DNC. In the weeks building up to the convention, daily television newscasts and newspaper front-pages presented scenes of the LAPD preparing for massive street battles. Sensationalist news stories warned that L.A. hospitals were stocking up on vaccines in the event demonstrators used biological weapons. Hundreds of downtown businesses near the Staples Center reacted to the fear mongering by boarding up their windows, locking their doors, and vacating – as if expecting a hurricane. To say L.A. had been seized by fear prior to the opening of the DNC would be an understatement.

As it turned out, thousands of peaceful demonstrators from all over the country ignored the negative press coverage and gathered in LA to protest against globalization, militarism, and the rightward drift of the democrats. As the Democratic Party nominated Vice President Al Gore for President, and rightwing Senator Joe Lieberman as his Vice President, Green Party members in the streets carried a giant puppet of their candidate, Ralph Nader, emblazoned with a simple message, “Debate Me.” Protestors were met by huge numbers of armed riot police, who at times seemed to outnumber the demonstrators. The authorities had constructed a “free speech zone” just outside of the convention center, a caged area where activists would be “allowed” to exercise their constitutional rights of free speech and assembly. With one small entry point easily blocked by the police, and surrounded by intimidating concrete barriers and towering chain link fences – many protestors simply refused to enter the pen.

I took my photograph on the first scorching hot summer day of protests at the DNC, when thousands had assembled outside of the “free speech zone.” Excitement mixed with a sense of foreboding filled the closely packed crowd, encircled as it was by an army of riot police. Suddenly the multitudes rippled with shock as an unseen event unfolded within the throng. I rushed through the tide of humanity towards the commotion and witnessed a remarkable sight, someone had opened up a fire hydrant and I could see people dancing in the street under a cascade of falling water – I tripped the shutter at just the right moment.

The photograph’s focal point reveals two anarchists kissing beneath the cool rain of the fire hydrant, the backdrop to their defiant gesture being a twelve-story “Think different” advertising billboard mounted by Apple Computer. The corporate advertisement depicting César Chávez, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert F. Kennedy, and Eleanor Roosevelt, was given new meaning in my unstaged photograph – a slick ad campaign detourned by reality itself. Taken spontaneously, and printed without benefit of cropping or any other type of editing, my photograph summed up the spirit of joyful optimism displayed by many of the protesters, it’s a historic image rooted in a certain time and place. But the photo also has a timeless quality to it, encapsulating a sentiment held by people all over the world, while echoing earlier images that chronicled previous rebellions. It is somewhat reminiscent of Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty leading the People, or the peasant revolt etchings created by Käthe Kollwitz; not for the gravity of what’s being depicted in the photo, but for its being an alternative iconic symbol of the spirit of freedom.

Utopia: Dreams of Paradise and Possibility, opens on Sunday, November. 5th, and runs until December. 29th, 2006. The Artist’s Reception will be held Nov. 5th, from 3 to 6 pm. The A Shenere Velt Gallery is located at: 1525 S Robertson Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90035. Phone: 310-552-2007. Regular Gallery hours are Monday-Thursday, 10-5; Friday, 10-3; and by special appointment. Web: www.circlesocal.org. You can acquire a signed and framed print of Think different, by sending a request for information on placing an order: vallen@art-for-a-change.com

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