On February 28, 2024, NOW Art Founder Carmen Zella sat down with Joel Ferree, Program Director at LACMA’s Art and Technology Lab for a live conversation about public art on Instagram (@nowart_la). We’ve been having a blast chatting with our favorite arts leaders and artists in Los Angeles, and we hope you’ll join us for future talks. RSVP here.

Below is a transcript of the video:

Carmen Zella (CZ): Hi, everyone. Welcome! This is NOW Art. We’re about to do our live IG chat with Joel Ferree – he’s LACMA Art and Technology. He’s right behind my hair right now, so I’m about to sit down. I was just going to see if I can grab a moderator here. Give me one second.

Okay, I’m going to come back and grab the moderator. But let me have a seat over here. This is Joel! 

Joel Ferree (JF): Hello!

CZ: So we are being hosted in the South Park area of downtown Los Angeles. We are privileged and lucky enough that Stephane Lacroix, who’s the GM of the Proper Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, is allowing us to use this beautiful suite. It’s designed by Kelly Wearstler, and it has some incredible tile work. I can’t remember the name of the artist, but it’s a local Los Angeles artist, and this is what they call the pool room. So there’s this incredible pool that, if you wanted to rent this room, it’s quite lovely, in the downtown Proper Hotel.

And I thought that it was an appropriate location for us to do this live IG talk because LACMA Art and Tech, and Joel, are going to be working with NOW Art and NXTART on this year’s iteration of Luminex, which is going to happen at the beginning of October this year. We have a really exciting lineup of artists that we’ve been discussing this project with. And the South Park Business Improvement District, we had a meeting with them. Everybody is really excited that we’re going to be bringing Luminex back to this area for 2024 in the fall.

So, yeah, it’s going to be really cool. I’m super excited. The South Park district is such an amazing location to host this type of an event. If you haven’t marked your calendars, do it now. You can go to luminexla.com, so it’s L-U-M-I-N-E-X-L-A-dot-com and just keep updated with that as we start to announce the artists that we’re going to be bringing forward.

But, without any further ado, the way this is going to roll is I’m going to have a discussion with Joel for 15 minutes, and then we’d love to be able to support your questions. I’m sure that there’s a lot of artists that are going to be joining as well. And it would be really awesome to be able to give an opportunity for you to do a Q&A with Joel, because the LACMA Art Tech Lab is a pretty important organization for a lot of you artists that are working in digital media. They’ve been doing phenomenal work and their lab is extraordinary and has a strong reputation. So, I’m going to stop talking because I want you to talk. Joel, do you want to just like talk a little bit about yourself and introduce yourself?

JF: Sure, well thank you for the invitation, for having me. And yes, I’m Joel Ferree. I run LACMA’s Art and Technology Lab and we’re in our 10th year. And in short, what we are is a grant-giving arm of LACMA, you could say. And we provide financial and in-kind support to artist projects that engage emerging technologies. We also work with artists that are experimenting or researching older historical technologies or interested in critiquing different technologies. 

So, I could also maybe share a little bit about the history of the program?

CZ: Yeah, for sure. 

JF: So, our program, this iteration, the Art and Tech Lab has been going for 10 years, but it is inspired by LACMA’s original art and technology program, which went from 1967 to 1971, and was purely…the whole intent behind it was to be a sort of art and technology matchmaker.

We would take one artist and one technology corporation and kind of just pair them off, send them on their way, and okay. So some of the pairings that we did were Andy Warhol and Cowles Communications, Claus Oldenburg and Walt Disney Imagineering. Uh, let’s see. Robert Irwin and James Turrell were paired up with Garrett Corporation, which is an aerospace company, which is actually no longer around, but at the time it was one of the leading aerospace companies. Back in the late sixties, actually, aerospace had a much larger footprint out here in Los Angeles, and of course, there still is a significant footprint, but not what it was then. And it was this presence of the aerospace industry as well as other important, sort of budding technology organizations here in Southern California – Jet Propulsion Laboratories is another one of them – that really inspired LACMA to start this program back in the 60s.

It was the vision of our curator of modern art, Maurice Tuchman, who had just come out to Los Angeles from New York, and was really sort of impressed by the cultural landscape of Los Angeles, the feeling of possibility. Also the presence of these large technology, you could say, technology corporations. He was really interested in seeing what could happen if you could get an artist in this same room with some engineers from these companies and see if they could work together not just on a common goal, but in that original program, they were focused on creating a specific artwork. I think that’s a little different from what we’re doing today.

CZ: Do you still have that really interdisciplinary approach? Where when an artist comes to you and you’re providing them with a grant, that you pair them with a technology company? Or only if it makes sense in their proposal? 

JF: We try and, what we do is, we, instead of matchmaking, what we try and do is offer every artist in our program access to every…now we have technology advisors from our technology companies, partnerships. And so, we make sure that we offer access to all of the advisors for every artist. That way I think you won’t have an artist who feels like, “Oh, I have this idea for this company,” but then if they got stuck with another company, that might not be such a good fit. And so we wanted to broaden the level of access that we could provide. We also wanted to broaden sort of the dialogue, so you have even more voices in the room. 

CZ: So what are your projects right now? Who are you working with currently? 

JF: Let’s see. One project that we’re working on a lot right now is a project with American Artist, which will be part of the Getty PST initiative. So it’s a two-part project. The first part will take place in the Mojave Desert this fall. I mean, sorry, this early, early, early summer in June. And it will be a sort of, a rocket performance, if you will, though, not a flying rocket, a static rocket engine test. Everyone thinks that we’re launching a rocket, but…

CZ: Well when you say a rocket performance…it’s like…

JF: It’s impossible not to imagine that, I know. It’s really difficult to manage expectations. It’s still a fabulous project. It’s going to be a really fantastic performance, but we’re going to be doing this in the Mojave Desert, and then in the fall, we’ll be presenting it…probably, it looks like we’ll be doing it at LACMA, actually, in the later part of the fall. Yeah, we’re trying to pinpoint where exactly right now, but it will be, not a live rocket performance – the fire marshal would shut us down, even if we had three pyrotechnic engineers and what have you, they wouldn’t allow us – but we will be presenting a finished artwork that will include a lot of the footage and material that is created in the desert performance.

CZ: So, the desert performance is open to the public, so essentially a public art performance?

JF: We will have a small audience, probably no more than 30 people though. 

CZ: Okay so it’s like an  RSVP, invite-only or something like that? 

JF: Yeah, it’s gonna be probably quasi-public. I’m not sure if we’ll have like a lottery or what.

CZ: Would it be live-streamed? 

JF: Well, we will be creating a lot of video documentation, but this will then be massaged by the artist. And so the idea is that at LACMA we will present the actual test itself, as well as material from the video documentation, other forms of documentation from the work. 

CZ: Who’s the artist? 

JF: American Artist. Based in New York, but born and raised, actually, in Altadena, California, next door to JPL. 

CZ: Oh, interesting. Oh, wow. So, Joel, let me ask you, what’s your interest in public art?

JF: So, I have a very unique relationship, I would say, to public art in that it hinges or pivots on more sort of digital, the digital side. I’ve worked on a couple of different AR projects that have been public art projects, and I think seeing, working, being in a…working in the arts at that time when you would see, like the past 10 years, when you’d see this explosion of augmented reality and, and seeing AR based artwork being placed in different environments, with or without the owners of that space. It was a really sort of interesting, transgressive time when you would see artists placing these digital objects in the landscape, maybe without permission.

But yet it was really, in many cases, it was very powerful to see these things happen. So, I think also there was just a lot of possibility that digital technology can bring to the public arts sphere, in many ways. As we know, not always, but in many ways you can do more. And you can also really leverage a broader audience, because you’re not always stuck with this very specific material object. There’s a flexibility that it gives you. And that’s really exciting. So, that’s, I think, most of my experiences. 

CZ: Well, I asked you before, what are some of your favorite public art artists and projects, and I want you to share your response, because I thought it was really interesting. And I can see the segue of, like I can see a pattern here of the type of art that you really gravitate to, because it’s very un-bureaucratic. It has a lot of elements to it. So I want you to share what some of your favorite public art artists and art pieces are.

JF: Sure. So one piece that I was really, really kind of inspired by or I’ve been inspired by was one that came out of the Art and Tech Lab program a few years ago, by an artist named John Gerrard, who’s originally from Ireland and now based in Vienna. John works primarily in, I think – especially at the time that he started working with LACMA and what have you – he was working primarily in creating simulations, these beautiful, gorgeous simulations of environments that were so – I would say not just realistic, because that doesn’t do them justice – but there was a sort of, not just technical sophistication, but there was a beauty in these renderings that he did, or not renderings, but in these simulations that he would create.

Each simulation would kind of have this…would be a simulation of a sort of historical setting, and he would let the settings sort of resonate and use that almost as a tool to kind of convey or communicate it’s own message, but John became very interested in neural networks at the time. And neural networks are sort of a building block of artificial intelligence. And so, very quickly he started moving more into the space of machine learning. And learning basically the idea of what a machine could be, a creative tool for an artist. And of course, artists have used technology long before this, but at the time that he was experimenting with, you would see artists starting to really have fun with these tools.

But John, I think with his practice, there’s this formal quality that is so sophisticated and seeing him apply that to machine learning – and so what he did was, he was interested in seeing if he could use a machine, a computer to…I think today we see, you use ChatGPT or an image generator, it’s pretty straightforward now, but five years ago, it was very different. But he was interested in using a machine to create choreography. And what if he just let the computer be the choreographer, and he would step back and see what happened. And so he did a number of different approaches to creating what’s called a training set, which is the data that you train the machine on. He worked with a professional dancer and built this training set of moves that the model can learn and then use as a basis to create new gestures and new moves. 

John also created this really beautiful model of a leaf. It’s what’s known as the Leaf Man, in a lot of European mythology and folklore. And it’s this sort of leaf-covered figure that you will see in sort of pre-Christian motifs all over Europe, especially where John hails from, in Ireland, and I should say in the UK and Europe. It was this beautiful motif and what John thought was so interesting is that this leaf man, this leaf, this mythical trope, looked really similar to the leaf-covered figures that you would see in these militaristic video games. It looked like what’s called a ghillie suit, where the soldier is, as a form of camouflage, is wearing the leaves. The leaves are kind of sewn onto the clothing and I think that sort of connection, because he was able to connect this thread between gaming – which was very of the moment, and still is of the moment, and very current – and his trope that has existed for centuries – and really was able to, in a sense, really start making these connections in a broader cultural context and apply it, not just to tropes of gaming and European or UK mythology, but also to using machine learning as a tool to really push that. And so it was this convergence of all this really interesting technology, but also ideas that were, in a sense, timeless. 

CZ: But then you also talk about, a very, sort of like, un-technological group, Chicano art in East L.A. Which I thought was very interesting that you brought them up as well. 

JF: Yeah, I think, again, it’s…they were Asco, which was a group of…

CZ: Willie Heron, Gronk, and…

JF: Patssi…

CZ: Patssi Valdez.

JF: Valdez! They were…my colleague, or sorry, our contemporary curator of art, Rita Gonzalez, she put together a fabulous exhibition on Asco.

CZ: Which was at LACMA, which is really interesting because that group is the one that tagged with graffiti and basically proclaimed that LACMA was the largest public art, Chicano public art work, back in the day – which I think is like really beautiful how LACMA…they ended up, the director at the time whitewashed that signature and it was just a different time, and so to see LACMA completely embrace Asco, the group, honor them back in the LACMA campus is pretty extraordinary in terms of a piece of Los Angeles history. But they were very performative and didn’t have, like, the technology aspect.

JF: They didn’t have the technology, they made it up. And they made their own tools. And that, I feel like, is that same spirit, is the spirit that you see with a lot of artists today working with digital tools. They’re like, well, if we can’t get the support or acknowledgement, then, forget it.

CZ: Or the permission, which is what AR is. It’s so refreshing in the public art space to be able to have artists have the flexibility and the prowess through digital technology to be able to envision and create in these spaces, which are very closed off, bureaucratic, and otherwise difficult to access. 

JF: Right, I should also mention…what are they called…outlaw screenings? I think in different areas they have different names. But, I know that like, in New Jersey, when I was on the East Coast, I had friends that were in New Jersey. And they would, my friends there, would tell me about how they would have – they also call them drive-by shootings – where they would play movies. They would project films out, like actual film, not video, but film. They would have a projector in the back of their car. And they would project them out the window as they would slowly drive around.

And I think this has been done in many different cities by many different groups. Maybe it is just a good film student or a rogue projectionist or what have you. But of course, it’s been adapted to video formats as well. But I think that’s always, I always thought that that was really exciting to see.

CZ: Well, and as technology is becoming more and more accessible, right, like projectors are very small, they don’t have to be these really expensive or even just sizable pieces of equipment, that we can attach to our phones and different things. There’s artists that are being able to explore these unique spaces and sites, whether it’s in nature or in an urban landscape in very unique ways, which I think the Art and Tech Lab at LACMA really embraces.

And so, there’s this synergy between the future of public art that I see and an embracing of art and technology. I think there’s a bridge in carving out this really wonderful utopian future for the creative world to be able to have playgrounds in areas that they didn’t before.

What do you think about the future of public art? If you were to sort of summarize where you see all this going yourself?

JF: That’s a good question. I mean, I think some of it is increasingly happening in the digital space. I mean, not in the digital, but in the virtual realm, which is also kind of a frontier, where you are able to have artists create…you see more and more exhibitions that will have a virtual component so that you can share it with an audience.

And I feel like, almost like these virtual components aren’t really exhibitions as much as they’re more like public art because it’s on the internet. And I feel like the internet is a form of public art in a way. 

CZ: Absolutely it is. 

JF: I mean, I don’t want you to think I’m pushing it, but…

CZ: No, it totally is.

JF: There are institutions that you have to navigate online with online communities and it would have to be the same way that you have to navigate institutions IRL. So, I mean, there are a lot of similarities. And there were a lot of different…California is a really great example of this sort of internet-based public art, you could say. I mean, there were surf clubs that developed in, what was it, like in the early 2000s? There was a surf club, an internet surf club that was called the Nasty Nets. Petra Cortright, I think, was a member. I think Guthrie Lonergan was a part of one. I think now he’s at UCLA. And then you also had, I’m trying to remember, what was it called? There was this space in Chinatown where there were artists who would congregate, where they would just work on digital work and they would…and Rafaël Rozendaal was one who was out, he was in LA at the time, and he was starting to create his websites, which was a really, I saw it as a super interesting way for it…

CZ: He’s the one that started BYOB, right? 

JF: Yeah. So BYOB was…I think there may have been some earlier sort of proto versions, but he’s the one that really kind of ran with.

CZ: Bring Your Own Beamer. Yeah. 

JF: Yeah. And, I thought, again, that’s another kind of…it’s not quite public because you are in a space with BYOB, but that’s also, I think it reflects that same kind of DIY spirit where, just give us a couple of Beamers and some, you know…

CZ: Something to plug into.. 

JF: A power source, or maybe we can steal power from, you know, and we’ll make it happen.

So, I think that’s really exciting. It’s still to this day. 

CZ: I know, it’s totally vanguard. I wanted to open it up for some questions. So I’m going to put my face closer to my – sorry, beautiful couch – put my face closer to my screen. And just look at the comments section. 

So there’s no particular questions yet, that have come in. So I wanted to just ask if anybody has any questions that they wanted to go over or ask Joel while we’re here. If you put them in the – I don’t know if there’s another location to put it in, because I’m not really great with this stuff – but if you have any more questions to put them in the comment section and let us know.

Otherwise, what we can do is you can also send your questions into…we have on our artist portal page, on nowartpublic.com, we have a section in there that you can send us and communicate with us and send us any comments. And so from this talk, we’re gonna post it. We’re gonna put the transcript up. We’re gonna put it up online, because there was a lot of information in here that some of you might want to review, and if there’s anything that you want to comment on or connect with us, please feel free. This is why we’re doing these IG live talks is really to create synergy and create a network of community with artists across Los Angeles and beyond.

So are there any final words that you want to share with the IG crowd?

JF: Thank you for watching and come to Luminex!

CZ: Yeah, and definitely come to Luminex. We have some really amazing artists that are going to be a part of it. All right. Well, thank you everybody. I’m going to sign off right now. And, I really appreciate everybody showing up.

Thank you so much.

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