Sound, Space, and the City
Civic Performance in Downtown Los Angeles
2010 | 200 pages | Cloth $39.95 | Paper $22.50
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Table of Contents
Introduction: Sounding the City
Chapter 1. A Center for a Centrifugal City
Chapter 2. Mapping a Metropolis in Motion
Chapter 3. Performing L.A.
Chapter 4. Sonic Civilities
Chapter 5. "Los Angeles at Its Best"
Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]
I went to Los Angeles to see what happened in a city that did not take its centrality for granted. As my knowledge of Los Angeles at that time was acquired through the literature on the postmodern city and its features of sprawl and decentralization (Davis 1992; Dear 1986, 2000; Jencks 1993; Soja 1989, 1996), I had not expected to find a public concert presenter downtown. I was aware of Grand Performances and was in contact with its staff through the music programmer at the Chicago Cultural Center, where I had conducted research and performed (Peterson 2002). Inscribing a process of center-making, Chicago stands as a model for Angelenos invested in making downtown a center for the city in order to make L.A. a "real" city. With a park on the downtown lakefront and a radial organization of streets and neighborhoods, Chicago exemplifies "city" as defined by an urban form of centrality reified by the Chicago School of sociology (Park and Burgess 1925). Though naturalized as "urban," Chicago's centrality is continually made, from the initial implementation of the Burnham plan to the recent creation of Millennium Park.
Similarities between Grand Performances and the Chicago Cultural Center were apparent immediately. On the same world music circuit, they also share the primary intention of drawing audiences of diverse residents of their respective cities. Moreover, their respective downtown locations allow them to conceive of their own position as neutral. The differences between the two lie in their conceptions of the surrounding city, of the imagined "cityness" of their respective homes, and their institutional status as public concert presenters. In Chicago, supported by the city, free concerts are unquestioned by the presenters, described simply as "what we do." In Los Angeles, a nonprofit organization in a corporate plaza must consistently assert the significance of its work. Thus, though the existence of a downtown public concert presenter surprised me, its position in a neoliberal economy of privatization resulted in an institution that did not take itself for granted. Rather, the ways in which its centrality was continually being made were more apparent. Yet while this dynamic indicated the ways in which civic institutions and ideologies are produced, following the logic of the center, it occluded another center, that of the neoliberal state.
An anthropology of the center puts pressure on anthropological knowledge. Though the center is always constituted as such, it is defined by the fact that it masks its own making. As an anthropological subject, this poses problems for research and analysis. A center-periphery binary that has historically imbued anthropological inquiry tends to equate the center with emptiness and the periphery with sociality. While turning this structure inside out enables examination of certain social and political aspects of the center, it tends to disallow an assessment of the making of neutrality and a consideration of how that neutrality is part of the social meaning of a given case. Studying how the center is made as such requires paying attention to the construction and deployment of categories of centrality in practice, considering both the logics and ends of centrality as well as how those ends are recognized as having been achieved. (Though the contributions to this discussion are by now vast, some that have particularly informed my thinking are Appadurai 1996; Clifford and Marcus 1986; Fabian 1983; Gupta and Ferguson 1997; Marcus 2008; Rabinow 1995; Rabinow and Marcus 2008; and Trouillot 1991.)
In researching public concerts my informants were professionals, adept at framing their work through discourse that asserted its value. While our conceptual approaches and motivations may have differed, the material from which our conclusions were drawn was often the same. When ethnographic informants express what is also an analytic framework of anthropology, it reveals the situatedness of disciplinary knowledge and challenges the locations in which anthropological theory has been developed and applied. As such, it raises questions about what analytic frames are possible for these kinds of cases and, by extension, any cases. For instance, the articulation of a Durkheimian theory of ritual by public concert audience members, discussed in Chapter 5, suggests that ideas of social science seep into everyday life. Moreover, it indicates that those ideas come out of sociohistorical contexts, which, in this case, are also those of Los Angeles public concert audience members.
Conversely, insofar as multiculturalism is a project of Grand Performances, in my analysis I aim to refrain from inhabiting the logic of multiculturalism. Without taking a stand for or against multiculturalism, as much as possible I avoid using its categories of evaluation in describing or accounting for the organization, the performances, and the city, showing instead how the terms are used as part of a multicultural project. Hence I use information from census figures, Grand Performances' internal documents, and mailing list sign-ups in order to present demographics within their mode of construction. At the same time, labeling identity is sometimes unavoidable; my use of terms and capitalization reflects these shifts.
Finally, many of the photographs that might show a reader what the performance space looks like are those used by Grand Performances and its artists for their own publicity. I frame these as such, while acknowledging the slippage between our respective uses of the images. In the end, this slippage becomes a space of productive tension; the challenge is in taking it seriously while also locating an analytic position that is not the same as that of the subject of research. As these and other examples suggest, in the end there is no single outside framework or set of information. Instead, one moves within the warp and woof of a dynamic exchange between ethnographic material and theoretical framing.
With this project I aspire toward an anthropology of the city rather than in the city. Often necessarily multisited, urban anthropology relies on experience of everyday life in the city, of being in the city at large while one's specific field site might be traveled to rather than resided in. Though an ethnographer's perspective is always partial, I am interested in how these downtown public performances are located in, connected to, and evoke the city of Los Angeles. In focusing on how meaning is made in and around public performances, I aim to engage with performance both in its own right and as integrated into the urban fabric. To this end I observed and participated in practices that constituted the imagining and making of a multicultural L.A., situating Grand Performances' work in contexts of historical and contemporary urban planning, artistic programming, and the city of Los Angeles as lived and imagined. Living downtown, I experienced urban dynamics of gentrification as the area was being transformed through loft development and an accompanying demographic shift. While events and openings brought a local artist community together, artists and homeless were at odds as new residents moved into rapidly developing loft spaces.
Ethnographic research was primarily conducted from 2001 to 2003; I have returned nearly every summer since and observe much of the same. Though the time period of research reflects a particular moment in Grand Performances' history, it is one that articulates wider dynamics of cultural policy on municipal, state, and national levels, and of the politics of multiculturalism, international performance, and downtown development in Los Angeles that continue to shape these and other events and processes. Though the various subjects who help make public concerts possible might have had different conceptualizations of the processes by which the concert achieved certain effects, overall they expressed a shared belief in a multiculturalism that is part of wider social and political frameworks. Producers, performers, and audience each play their role in order for the concert to occur, and for it to be a site in which other meanings are generated. The concert helps produce those roles through the physical organization of space, with the audience organized as a collective in relation to but separated from the performer, and through the practices required of all involved.
Public concerts are formal performances that require months of administrative and bureaucratic preparation. This work is also a means of performing the city, though the subjects mostly sit in an office, connecting to wider networks of programming, funding, and marketing by making phone calls and writing grants. Much of the ethnographic material drawn on herein is from work with Grand Performances as an institution and includes observation of practices, statements made informally or in interviews, and various ephemera and documentation. During performances I moved between roles, sometimes participating as an audience member, at other times as a researcher of audience members; often I worked alongside staff members and volunteers, and once I was onstage as a performer. These positions facilitated an understanding of the performances from different perspectives through an embodied subject position, each partial in itself yet contributing to the whole of what made the event.
Those times that I aimed to blend in as an audience member required that in order to capture the complexity and ephemerality of performance I supplemented field notes with video of the performers and audience; adding a step of representation and reification, using video as a tool for research also allowed for a finer grain of ethnographic writing and a richer analysis. In writing about learning to play the cello to sound like a drum machine, I relied on kinesthetic memory, reconstructing the experience later in my office to better describe it in words. Performing with the daKAH Hip Hop Orchestra allowed me to also sound the city musically; playing hip-hop parts on the cello, we were in the center of the event, with the fountain shooting behind us and an audience dancing amid the skyscrapers. Though the performers are the focus of the event, the audience—figured as representation and synecdoche of the city—is the locus for the recognition of diversity.
This project would not have been possible without the staff of Grand Performances. I am especially indebted to Michael Alexander, who not only allowed me to conduct research in and of Grand Performances but also included me in a wide range of events that, while salient for research, also provided me with an introduction to Los Angeles's cultural landscape. Leigh Ann Hahn, Dean Porter, Alice Platt, Karlee Decima, Fred Stites, Mark Baker, and Zindy Landeros went above and beyond in their generosity and openness and were always patient with my outsider status while including me in their activities. Board members also offered invaluable assistance. Of those who shared their time and memories, a few merit special thanks. Dan Rosenfeld allowed me to peruse his scrapbooks that he kept while working for the winning development firm for what would become California Plaza, and Peggy Adams loaned me documents pertaining to initial legal agreements for the Plaza. Two other board members gave permission to use their drawings in Chapter 5.
Artists made the performances happen, and I have drawn from their work with and without their knowledge. Lonnie Marshall, David Rojas, and El Vez generously allowed me to print their lyrics in this book. Geoff "Double G" Gallegos gave me the opportunity to perform at California Plaza and to have a great time doing so. Audience members were gracious in responding to questions at events and agreeing to extended phone interviews. Though all granted permission for their names to be used, I do so for the most part only in the case of public statements; instead I have largely chosen to identify people by titles or to keep them anonymous. I am grateful to those who let me use their words; I apologize for any slight I may have made and to anyone I have forgotten to thank here by name: this book is for everyone whose practices are inscribed in this ethnography.
The Department of Anthropology at the University of Chicago provided an intellectual space that allowed me to first conceive of this project. With intellectual generosity, Jean Comaroff, Arjun Appadurai, Elizabeth Povinelli, Saskia Sassen, and Martin Stokes supported a project that does not fit neatly within disciplinary boundaries. I have also had the benefit of input from colleagues near and far. Much of the material was presented at conferences, including those of the American Anthropological Association, the American Studies Association, and the International Association for the Study of Popular Music. At Ohio University, faculty and students in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts have contributed to the development of the project directly and indirectly. Members of the Urban Reading Group and a faculty writing group gave insightful advice for several chapters. Mitchell Goodman prepared the images and Margaret Pearce and the Ohio University Cartography Center made maps. Others who, as readers, interlocutors, sounding boards, and supportive friends have most notably helped shape the book are Vicki Brennan, Andrea Frohne, Gary McDonogh, Daniel Monterescu, Alessandra Raengo, Sarah Schrank, Jesse Shipley, and Hamza Walker. Peter Agree, at the University of Pennsylvania Press, has been a wonderful editor, ever available and alternately patient and pushing at just the right times. The spirited suggestions of two anonymous reviewers were key in crafting the manuscript.
My family is in this book in ways more and less apparent. My parents, Joanna Redfield Vaughn and John Peterson, put me on a path that could incorporate ideas, music, and social worlds. My brother Jesse is a wonderful friend and musical collaborator. At the last hour, on an afternoon in Missouri, my father and brothers, Jesse and Asa, came up with possible titles while my sisters, Alexandria and Anastasia, perused family photos inside my grandmother's house. My grandparents and great-uncle instilled in me the excitement of intellectual engagement and a curiosity about the world and gave me an early glimpse of what anthropology might be; I am honored to carry on that lineage.