“more a laboratory than a museum” — a postscript

UCR ARTSblock executive director Jonathan Green shared this thought with me when I chatted with him during my final week as an artist in residence at the Culver Center.  We sat in his book-filled office on the top floor of the California Museum of Photography.  This building, he informed me, had also been a store.

I’ve been thinking about this idea ever since.  And about other ideas too.

Everywhere I go now, I see retrofits, spaces turned into other spaces, buildings with histories. In Baltimore a former barn holds, among other things, a giant statue of Divine, the John Waters diva. While I was standing in the entryway of that very different museum, a man addressed me, said he was an artist, and pointed outside to a tree made entirely of mirrors.

Those reflecting shards, ringing in the March wind, reflect me back to this place, in Riverside California.

Perhaps the cultural spaces that work for us now are indeed — less places where we “muse” (although they occasion thought and a certain repose) — but rather spaces of experimentation, trial and error, attempts where failure and success coalesce as necessary parts of a process of understanding, of moving forward, of progressing towards new knowledge.

Such spaces should and do face in two directions: they gather in, and push out.  Can the university — which ARTSblock “represents” and provides the gateway to — push out towards the public, becoming an open laboratory, rather than a privileged repository for learning?

I hope so.


b4 the culver was the culver — part 3

The past arrives for us in snippets: voices, objects, sentences, scenarios. Even the shortest are successful at capturing something gem-like — the miniscule facets that make a moment meaningful and resonant.

Stacy Davies who is off-camera shares remembrances of a very different Riverside downtown, while Christine Leapman gesticulates vividly on the screen as she recalls a phone call she received concerning Rouse’s closing sale.

Stacy Davies from Stephanie Barbe Hammer on Vimeo.

Christine Leapman from Stephanie Barbe Hammer on Vimeo.

b4 the culver was the culver- part 2- Nancy Hart

A warm and highly articulate lady sat down at my card table at the Culver Center and offered her remembrances of the Rouse department store, and other retail shops in downtown Riverside.  Only after the conversation, did she mention that she was Councilperson Nancy Hart.  That’s one groovy government gal.


b4 the Culver was the Culver- a conversation with Councilperson Nancy Hart from Stephanie Barbe Hammer on Vimeo.

b4 the culver was the culver part 1

On March 3rd, 2011, I collected memories at the Culver Center for a couple of hours with the help of Dana Rondinelli.

My discovery: Even in a place as “new” as SoCal, we’ve got layers of history going on. Downtown Riverside boasted some punk rock, apparently. Jo Scott Coe remembers an unfortunate lunch and Joseph Manally remembers some good gigs.



b4 the culver-an interview with Jo Scott Coe’s bag from Stephanie Barbe Hammer on Vimeo.

b4 the Culver was the Culver — an interview with Joseph Manally from Stephanie Barbe Hammer on Vimeo.

Talk to me #2 — a conversation with Ben Vasquez

A remembered poetic riff on Ben Vasquez’s wonderful words.  Listen  and look below for a snippet of the real thing.

Oh my God, he said. We used to go to Juarez for haircuts and for meat and for everything, and there was this beer garden. beautiful, and now these lost women. no one cares. no one is doing anything.  my sister died a few months ago.  my mother died too. these women.  I don’t ever want to go back there. it’s a war zone. what they’ve done. it’s so disappointing — I know that’s the wrong word.  But it is disappointing. I remember Juarez was so beautiful.

I just came here on a whim. I’m retired.  I drove a truck and did deliveries all around here.  But I don’t know the area really. I am not a big museum person. I didn’t have the time.

Those pictures. I don’t know what to think. My brother said we got to go back to El Paso we got to go check it out. but I don’t want to go back there now. Juarez.  Tijuana was a mess. but Juarez. Of course there were problems  but we were kids.  You know? We were kids.

But those women. Who looks for them? Who?


talk to me #2 –glimpses audial and visual of Ben Vasquez reacting to Las Olvidadas from Stephanie Barbe Hammer on Vimeo.

3 shy students/February 15th 2011

Three shy students navigate the art at Pulse and Hammer (no relation).  I follow them. Please talk to me please talk to me, I think at them with my camera. But I am white and older. They are Latino and Asian.  Finally I head them off at the copper plates on Jacob’s tables.

How do you like the art? I say. One young girl smiles lovely slow smiles. I think it’s neat.  Did you see them pound the copper? Yes she says I mean, no I mean not really I mean I aw them on the — she points to the video. Are you students?  They all nod. The boy is from UCR — the two girls are from Cal State SB. how did you meet. At church they say, shyly. Church is good I say. What are your majors? — Economics. Marketing and Psychology. Well, have a nice day says the young lady the first one I talked to. I will I do I have.

talk to me/3 shy students at Pulse and Hammer/Culver Center 02/15/11 from Stephanie Barbe Hammer on Vimeo.

Culver Visit #3, January 25th/ I watch Jacob build a table

Jacob sawing from Stephanie Barbe Hammer on Vimeo.

It’s never really quiet here, I’ve noticed. There’s a hum. If there aren’t footsteps going up and down the stairs, there are people coming through the door, curious. I sit with Kathy at the reception desk near the front door and a young guy comes in. “What’s going on here?” he says. I used to be a student at UCR, and I just wanted to well — wow!” he interrupts himself. “This place looks amazing.”

Kathy is writing an art history paper, but she knows I’m looking for things and people.

“I think they’re building a table outside, she says. I go see. There’s one guy out by the loading dock.

“Hi” I say. He looks at me. “I’m a writer,” I explain quasi- lamely looking at all the tools — tools I don’t know the names of. There’s a big bright yellow professional-looking measuring tape. There’s a hammer and a screwdriver. But the other stuff is a mystery. (I find out later that one thing is a t-square [my daughter uses it for writing comics]).

There are also big planks of wood or long strips of wood or however you say that.

“It’s like building a log cabin,” the guy says. I say “yeah,” but I have no idea what he’s talking about.

“Don’t mind me,” I say and he doesn’t. His name is Jacob. He gets down to it. As I stand there. Jacob blows on the inside of this protective goggles, and then he gets out the power saw. I back up. I’m an intellectual. How far can those splinters fly? He saws, and the thing is so complicated it’s like a blow dryer and he keeps on adjusting the settings. The smell of burning wood, and a dust that comes up. It smells kind of good, actually. I come a bit closer. He saws some more, and I realize that he’s making little cuts so that he can extract the wood more delicately rather than just chopping out a big chunk. He forgets me — or maybe he doesn’t — but I forget myself, watching him extract the little pieces of wood with a hammer, planing with something that looks a little like a tool that a manicurist would use for really big cuticles.

I say “that’s way cool,” and he says “yeah.” “It’s fun,” he said at the beginning — I forgot that. I still don’t understand what these grooves in the wood are and he says patiently – “do you know Lincoln logs?”

“Oh!”, I say. “You are really are making something like a log cabin! “

He nods.

“Just laying one thing on top of another.” Finally, I get what he’s doing. He’s building a table like Lincoln Logs.

I run and get my camera.

We live in a time where we forget about hands and people making things. I forget, because I can’t do it, but he can.

Jacob hammering from Stephanie Barbe Hammer on Vimeo.

Culver visit, January 17th 2011

They sweep, they paint, they unpack.  They haul boxes on top of carts up and down stairs. Behind the seemingly effortlessly clean gallery – a white space eternally pristine and untouched-looking —  and before art works go on walls or onto the waiting white pedestals there are the people who actually make the art happen –

Not in the sense of making artifacts.

No, they don’t create art in that sense right now (although some of them are artists when they aren’t working here).  Yet, without them, art could not be experienced by me and you as perfect, beautiful, shocking, and/or arresting.

The people I’m talking about are those who uncrate the art objects, carry them, put them into preliminary position, who  — in general – work with the artist and the curator to make the exhibition look good.

But the work doesn’t end there.  Someone crafts the little plaques or cards that go next to each art piece. Then someone has to walk around periodically making sure the plaques are hanging straight, that the lights aren’t dusty, that everything is working and looking as it should.

To me, this is extremely cool and important (and intensive) work.

Jeff, who is an accomplished artist himself, is the artsblock exhibition designer for the Culver.  Meticulous, patient, and knowledgeable with a persistent smile, he lets me shadow him as he walked the vast basement underneath the gallery.  Along the way he points out the odd 2 doors and big concrete step that mark the changeover from one connected retrofitted building to another.  He shows me the big retaining wall that had to be worked around when the 2 buildings were meshed. It forms a blocky arch at the bottom of the building.  We go back upstairs.   The 3 work-study students are carrying big cloth cacti on carts.  Sarah has been at the Culver for 4 years, and she shows me the glass cleaner they are using to clean the terra cotta pots for an upcoming exhibition.  Two other students smile. They are shyer but are working hard.

A lot goes into making a gallery space look good.  The emptiness is hard to achieve.  And the white walls are a constant source of effort and concern.

Sarah explains that you have to repaint the walls really carefully – white each time – because if the paint isn’t spread on as thinly as possible, it builds up, makes bumps and lumps and doesn’t look pretty.

“There’s an inevitable decline to gallery walls,” Jeff says.

The 4 combat this decline.

I observe the combat.

I wonder about the following:

If we could see what went on in the arranging of an art exhibition, would we be more appreciative?

If we saw the work, time, and talent involved in running a cultural center, would we give more to it?  Would we get more involved with helping?

I learn a new term:  skim coating = replastering the wall so you can paint it over completely fresh.  So it looks smooth for the art.

culver empty and full/videopoem #1

culver empty and full juxtaposes images from 2 different visits to the UCR Culver Center in downtown Riverside, California:  one set from the opening-night in October 2010, and another from a private visit to the Center in late December of that year.

Although I set out to make a video about the empty space of the Center before opening hours, I kept on returning to the visual noise and audial commotion of the opening evening.  The piece vacillates between the 2 experiences, quickly, but not exhaustively, exploring what is valuable about each one.

culver empty and full from Stephanie Barbe Hammer on Vimeo.