Simon Birch and Eric Hu during the filming of The Inevitable. Cred: Scott Sporleder
Where did the idea for The 14th Factory come from?
It is the latest result of themes I have been exploring for 15 years. There have been many similar multiple media projects by myself in that time, but The 14th Factory is the biggest and most ambitious both physically and conceptually.
How did the 14th Factory come into being? And why L.A.?
The development of The 14th Factory has been an ongoing, evolutionary process. The concept has always been a kind of guerilla action that would go in and transform and activate an underutilized or static urban space. In its initial stages four years ago, the idea was to go in and create an intervention in an abandoned building in Hong Kong, but as the project grew we were open to bringing it out into the world, wherever might seem like a good fit. As an international project it could really go anywhere that made sense. We were offered an amazing empty heritage building in New York but the environment and the situation just didn’t work, so we pulled out to look elsewhere. I had spent a lot of time in LA and have some really good mates here, a couple of them searched locations for me and when I saw this warehouse site in this ambiguous, transitional area of Lincoln Heights, it just felt right. Los Angeles also has a kind of open-mindedness and energy that makes sense for the project right now.
We met with community leaders and educators far in advance of announcing the project to understand the neighbourhood and its history better, which in turn helped fine tune elements of the project. This wasn’t done for any agenda other than making friends with new neighbours. We see many residents and large groups of school kids on organised tours regularly and having our project in Lincoln Heights has garnered an extremely positive and enjoyable outcome.
The project involves a collaboration with 20 other artists, how did this unfold?
The entire project was designed from the ground up by myself five years ago. It was done on the back of previous projects from as far back as ten years earlier. Each project has been an incremental progression in my process to refine an underlying narrative that has its latest incarnation in The 14th Factory.
That fourteen part procession is an amalgamation of my own mythology, the universal mythologies that connect us and the greater narrative of life and civilisation on this planet. The decisions on content for each element were a considered and well researched plan of mine. Once this ‘script’ was in place I leaned heavily on my friends, who are all far more talented than myself, to help bring the elements to realization. The level of autonomy varies from pieces to piece; Tannhauser being very strictly managed and specific with two filmmaker friends helping with the practical side of shooting on a drone, with the audio landscape designed by Gary Gunn. There is always trust and belief in the collaboration process, with the level of control rising and falling leading to some brilliant results beyond my expectations.
A good deal of work has only my own stamp on it, a few don’t. Li Wei’s ‘village series’ for example were not produced for the show but accidentally became an important and necessary part, filling a gap that had yet to be resolved at that time.
All artists and creative collaborators involved have worked with me many times on previous projects. The dialogue has sometimes been in the other direction, with myself appearing in the work of Cang Xin for example in his identity exchange series of performances.In some ways it feels like getting the band back together again for the sequel.
Simon Birch scouting for airplane tails for Clear Air Turbulence in the Mojave Desert. Cred: Scott Sporleder
Who paid for it?
I did by using all of my savings but I also leaned heavily on trusting friends who loaned me money. The funding process has been a major hindrance and compromise. With no formal body representing the project, no sponsor or institutional support, I’ve had to innovate and be extremely resourceful to realize the project to the extent of liquidating any material assets and using barter and favour over and above what might be comfortable. The funding process is not a critical element of the vision, it is a necessary hurdle that only hinders the final quality and outcome of the content. But if you are not one of the chosen ones to have resources and support from the greater art world and haven’t had the luck, opportunity or negotiation skills to navigate the structure, one has little choice but to patiently wait discovery, or find a way to build your own platform. I did the latter.
Did you consciously want to challenge the notion of the traditional gallery space or was this the result of a more organic process?
Value in the art-world is often produced by imposing borders. The white cube is the ideal of a sequestered space – perhaps the ultimate enclave. It’s a space cut off from the world, but a space that paradoxically generates value in the world precisely by being removed from it. The 14th Factory asks: is it possible to re-imagine what art is and what art can do? Is it possible to free art from the constraints of the white cube; to free it from the ‘art world’?
But to answer the above question – no, there was no attempt at ‘disruption’ in relation to established art world paradigms, the show is more of a positive action. I designed the art I wanted to make and simply needed a home and resources. With very little relationships in the institutional art world, one has to create one’s own platform.
Creating a project on this scale with no institutional support, sponsorship or art world representation, one expects it to be somewhat of a fight and a test of the limits of one’s persistence. I found mine to be quite limited but by the time the show was in progress, three years ago, when we were working onsite in NYC, it was too late to back out. I refused to let anyone down that had been so supportive and encouraging along the way, especially the artists who had committed time to help me. A sense of responsibility propelled me on and of course, a central belief in the work and the vision of The 14th Factory.
So to be honest, if the offer of support had come for space and resources, it would have been hard to resist – but it didn’t, so here we are – a temporary, museum scale, non-profit, independent, collaborative art installation. And perhaps without the struggle, the show wouldn’t have the impact it has had.
Why is there no wall text inside the show?
There is a narrative flow in the exhibition that parallels the idea of the hero’s journey, or the monomyth as Joseph Campbell calls it. The layout of the space guides you to a certain degree, but of course you also have the freedom to move in a different way through it, to backtrack, to linger. Each installation is a discrete work, or world in itself; but when taken as a total environment, particularly in this amazing space in LA, it is exponentially more powerful.
To instruct the audience on how to navigate or how to decipher would dis-empower the viewer from their role as central player in the artwork. It would also create borders between the works, it was important for the project to be viewed ‘en masse’ rather than as individual parts. Wall text might disrupt that process.
There is however an explanation at the end of the project and our staff do a pretty good job of answering enquiries.
How long has it taken to build?
Five years since its initial design, a number of re-designs as the project moved to different spaces, none of which were realized until finally finding the 100-year-old, 150,000 square foot, warehouses in Lincoln Heights one year ago.
How long to install the work?
It took six months just to get the space useable, it was in bad shape when we first found it. Another six months to get the work in.
Do you own the space?
No, we lease it from our landlord, a property developer who bought the building just over a year ago.
What’s with the form signing for a documentary?
LA would not grant us a permit to be an exhibition. We happened to be filming a documentary as we were building the show. For that we needed a filming license that we did get. Under the terms of that permit, audience are allowed in but only within certain parameters and they must sign a waiver.
Is the work for sale?
Yes. To enquire about purchases, email Sales@the14thfactory.com. All income goes to the foundation for future projects.