Running Commentary (A Farewell to Los Angeles)

This editorial was published in High Performance magazine #61, Spring 1993, as Steven Durland and I were leaving L.A. for North Carolina.

When we published the last issue of High Performance, we were so busy at our headquarters, the 18th Street Arts Complex in Santa Monica, that we didn’t even notice it was Issue #60, representing 15 years of continuous production of an international art magazine, and 15 years of radical change both for us and for the arts. Since more changes are just around the corner, this is an auspicious time to give readers a (very short) history of the magazine and the activities around it, plus a glimpse into its future.

I have always made career decisions based on needs I perceived in the field. In 1977 I found myself immersed in the deeply interesting field of performance art, but I could find very little information in print. I tried for a while to contribute to existing publications, but discovered small interest among editors of  the day. Without broad knowledge of what was going on in this ephemeral art activity, it was difficult for publications to establish a critical or theoretical ground from which to view the work.

I decided somebody had to begin documenting the field on as large a scale as possible. I founded High Performance on a $2000 loan from the State Employees Federal Credit Union at UC Irvine and published Issue #1 in February 1978. (The logo on that issue is an imprint of my first piece of equipment, a rubber stamp reading “HIGH PERFORMANCE.”)

The first few years featured photos and reports of performance activities by the artists themselves, plus interviews and performance texts. Once we had gathered a body of documentation, the magazine evolved to criticism and theory and gradually a nationwide group of contributing writers developed. I ran the magazine on a shoestring for three years, working full time in a public information office elsewhere. In 1980, just as my credit was topping out, artist Susanna Dakin asked me to join her fledgling publishing company Astro Artz in order to keep the magazine afloat. This finally made it possible to quit my job, concentrate on the magazine and hire some staff. We also published a number of books by and about artists.

We garnered a few grants from the NEA and the California Arts Council, using nonprofit fiscal receivers, and by 1984 it became obvious we needed to form our own nonprofit arts organization in order to attract donors and supporters.

The magazine was based in my studio on South Broadway in Los Angeles, two floors above the original LACE Gallery. It was part of the brief but virulent downtown scene that blazed in New York’s East Village and downtown L.A. 1976-85.

More important, from the beginning, High Performance was involved with the national group of alternative artist-run artspaces that are now the mainstay of the experimental artworld—spaces like LACE, Franklin Furnace, New Langton Arts, Sushi, Randolph Street Gallery, Real Art Ways, Dance Theater Workshop, P.S. 122, Hallwalls and The Kitchen. We were instrumental in creating a stable (if bare-bones) support system and critical framework for artists and new work. It’s impossible to imagine where art would be now without that massive national effort.

Together we watched the rise and decline of conceptual performance, radical feminist art, punk, the art club scene, postmodern dance, interdisciplinary spectacle, multiculturalism, autobiographical standup and other trends. We watched as the museums, theaters, granting agencies, universities, major newspapers, magazines and electronic media caught on to performance art, until gradually it reached the New York Times, prime-time TV broadcast, Ph.d. programs and major Hollywood films, and even became a Presidential campaign issue. Performance art was mainstream, a household word. In terms of filling a void, the field no longer needed High Performance. Running a small magazine is a strain, and it’s only worth the effort if there is a real need.

The need we see today, as editor Steven Durland has explained in the past few issues, is to document and research the resurgence of activity in a rich field that is larger by far in implications than performance art. That is the important experimental work being initiated by artists in community, activist and educational directions. It is, if you will, the next trend, but one we feel is vastly important and basic to the future of art making. It is our opinion that artists are challenging their roles in society and we’re fascinated.

The magazine has been served by a wonderful staff of hardworking people, some of whom stayed on longer than others. The list included here shows everyone who has ever appeared on our mast as staff of High Performance. Not only have these people given of their time, skill and knowledge, they have also, in many cases, sacrificed precious hours when they would rather be making art.

I served as editor from 1978 through 1985, when Steven Durland, who had been managing editor since 1983, took over. I went on to found Highways Performance Space in 1988 with Tim Miller, as well as the 18th Street Arts Complex with Susanna Dakin. The five-building Santa Monica complex houses High Performance, Highways and 22 other tenants with similar missions, ranging from individual artists living and working in their studios to public spaces like the Electronic Cafe.

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From 1988 to 1991 we were all neighbors paying rent to Dakin, the owner. In 1991 Astro Artz decided to try to secure the property for the future, which meant a very large capital campaign some 15 times the size of our annual budget. We decided to build credibility for that effort by master leasing the property from Dakin and becoming the landlord to our neighbors. We further strengthened ourselves by officially consolidating Astro Artz with Highways, which allowed us to share certain expenses, administrative functions and fundraising responsibilities. Astro Artz changed its name to 18th Street Arts Complex and Steve now carried both the titles of Editor-in-Chief of High Performance and Executive Director of the Complex, while I served as Artistic Co-Director of Highways and Artistic Programs Director of the Complex. Some titles for a poet and a sculptor.

In the past 18 months we established a quarterly calendar for the Complex and Highways, a membership program that now boasts 375 members and a member newsletter, an educational program that includes workshops in various media and an annual neighborhood arts festival. Highways continues to present more than 200 nights of performance a year and 12 gallery shows, including a major three-month gay and lesbian festival and a 10-week Asian-American and African-American series of events. High Performance, still published quarterly for a readership of 30,000, answered a request from the arts community last summer and published, voluntarily, “The Verdict and the Violence,” a special issue of HP by artists and others responding to the spring 1992 crisis in our city.

In one year we grew from a performance space and a magazine to a full-blown arts institution, and without any growth in staff. Our lives have been consumed with work. I knew things had gone too far when Steve and I, who live together at the Complex, passed each other at our front door at 2:00 a.m.; I was on the way to work next door and he was just getting home. We finally had to sit down and ask ourselves whether we had any energy left to continue running a program of this magnitude. We looked at what we had established and we were proud, but tired, and realized that we could no longer carry the weight of so many different responsibilities.

In November we met with the Board of Directors and, assured that we could move on with our lives without damaging the organization, announced in January that we were resigning our administrative positions as Executive Director and Artistic Programs Director. (As I write this a national search is  underway for a new Director. By the time you read this it will probably be filled.) We are going without leaving behind a deficit, and we feel we have built something that has every capability of going on without us.

We are laying plans to leave Southern California, though we will carry the editorial functions of High Performance with us. For us, the magazine is a privilege, a labor of love, and a pleasure we have sacrificed too long to larger ambitions.

For High Performance there will be no real change: the magazine, which will still have its publisher, managing editor and business manager in L.A., has been produced electronically for many years thanks to Steve’s expertise. It is printed in Michigan and distributed out of Colorado, but written and edited by writers throughout the United States and contributing editors in key regions. We will stay in contact with our information sources, in fact even better than before. In addition, we will have time to travel and, since our equipment is portable, gather information first-hand in a variety of locations. High Performance will become more “regional” than ever.

I have always lived like a pioneer, and I don’t know what lies ahead for me. I only know I recognize the signposts of change, and thank heaven so does Steve. My deep regret is leaving behind my staff and my partner at Highways, Tim Miller, who has been such an important teacher and dear confidante. Most of all I will miss my daughter Jill, who has been with us from the first at Highways and the Complex, has worked harder than any of us, and is among the finest of the new generation of administrators. I thank my lucky stars for the chance we had to work closely and become best friends. Not many mothers and daughters ever get such a chance.

In addition, perhaps this is the place I finally get to thank Susanna Dakin for her inexhaustible support of our ideas and projects. She has long wanted to remain anonymous as a philanthropist because she is herself an artist and would rather be known as such, but recently she has been willing to peek out of the closet. Sue is the heart and soul of anything Steve and I have had the privilege to create. High Performance and 18th Street Arts Complex simply would not have existed without her selfless support for so many years. Her belief in art’s essential place in human life has been the banner under which we took this fruitful journey.

And what a long, strange trip it’s been to this point—full of risk, thrills and heartache. High Performance, Highways and our artworld barely survived the Reagan-Bush years. I thank all those who struggled alongside us: the writers, artists, members, board and volunteers who made it happen. It was sometimes a terrible battle, but we all felt we had to fight it for the sake of our culture. But maybe in our fervor for activism and public service, we forgot to protect our own humanity from the slings and arrows of outrageous ambition. I have thought and written a lot about addiction and codependence in arts administration, and I got an overwhelming response from people everywhere who were sacrificing themselves to opportunity, duty and responsibility in the arts. I tried to get people to set boundaries and let the chips fall where they may. Yet even as I sounded the gong for sanity and moderation, I continued to start things, multiply programs, generate activity and feed my own grandiose vision. I can hardly say I deserve any sympathy. And everybody I knew was just like me.

But now, as we talk with friends all over America, we see more and more artists and administrators of Baby Boom age making similar personal decisions to cut themselves some slack, find lives that work better on a human scale, and go deep inside to look for peace. So many people that, in fact, it’s starting to look like a trend.

Hey, maybe it’s the cutting edge. Let me just take down a few notes…

– Linda Frye Burnham

Editor’s note: The staff of 18th Street Arts Complex and High Performance would like to congratulate our neighbor at the Complex, the Empowerment Project, for winning an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for “The Panama Deception” (see High Performance #56, Winter 1991). Having watched filmmakers Barbara Trent and David Kasper and their tiny staff develop this project over the past three years despite extremely limited resources, Panamanian and U.S. government attempts to derail the project, and media efforts to keep the film from being broadcast, it is a noteworthy achievement to have even completed the project. We salute their efforts and hope this well-deserved recognition will help bring an important film to the attention of a broader public. —Steven Durland, Ed.

 

 

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