The sound is not the first thing you notice when you enter the Lili Lakich Studio, but it is the most surprising. You are surrounded by neon artwork created in Lakich's studio, but after a few moments you hear the most calming sound, a slight hum coming from the lights. White noise, maybe a few bursts of static, and immensely calming, meditative. The last thing you might expect from a room filled with so much light is to find such a soothing sound there.
Trap Street is a cartographers term for something inserted in a map – a street that didn't exist or an elevation for a mountain off by a few or several hundred feet – to catch copycats. If the non-existent street turned up in someone else's map, then they had stumbled into the trap, and their duplicity was obvious.
It is also the name of a group of writers and performers who want to tell stories about Los Angeles, especially spaces and streets that might have been left off the map, not necessarily to catch copycats, but because our eyes have forgotten to look. Trap Street has created a piece called Darkness Comes Alive that marries fiction with reality in an audio-tour of the Lakich studio.
Darkness Comes Alive is not exactly immersive theater – as Trap Street Creative Director Chad Eschman says, "There's no backstory before you arrive and no one pulls you into a room to give you a password – but we do want you to feel like you're in a slightly different version of the world you know."
It's the combination of light and sound that creates Darkness Comes Alive. A typical audio-tour of a museum for instance, is all about facts--so and so was born in 1871, they painted everyday at noon, etc.--but these are stories--told from three different perspectives, each exploring the idea that our souls can be captured within those neon tubes that are illuminated by some eternal presence.
It's still more than a hundred degrees when I arrive at nearly eight o'clock at the Lakich gallery (it's hot bitch! a young girl yells at her friend as I take a few pictures outside.) The Lakich gallery is on what is now a very well trod street, around the corner from the New American Hotel (Al's Bar R.I.P.) and across the street from the always bustling Wurstkuche.
It wasn't so in the early 80's when Lakich first opened her studio – the area was off the radar, far less commercialized and home to a still underground art scene. Gentrification isn't the right word maybe – it's not exactly conformist Middle Class suburbia, but the Arts District has gotten far more expensive, and if we shouldn't mourn the passing of the rougher edges, we'll still feel a loss if the artists who created this neighborhood can no longer afford to live here.
Inside the studio there are less than a dozen people, attendance a victim of this high heat since the opening weekend had crowds closer to sixty. We have already downloaded tracks from our favorite podcast app. They are called the Vigilante, the True Believer and the Undertaker, each the name of a character telling us stories about the neon light installations we are seeing. We are free to follow the stories as we see fit, in whatever order. We wander the room in headphones, and the others having arrived in small groups of 3 to 4 compare their reactions to the piece.
What was your first memory of light? asks one character. The studio's bright white walls are awash in it, different hues mixing together, and the result isn't garish, but like the sound of the lights, comforting. We all look a little better under neon lights I suspect. Julianne Jigour, Director of Development for Trap Street, says she had never before this project considered neon in the realm of high art.
Jigour tells me that Lakich's fascination with neon began when she went on family road trips, and they would choose the motel to stay in for the night based on the neon sign out front. So much for the distinction between high and low art--Lakich's work bridges that gap, and the sensuous quality of all the light makes me believe the show's conceit that souls are preserved inside those glass tubes.
One of the first things Eschman saw when he moved to Los Angeles three years ago was the Lili Lakich studio, but only from the outside. He was very interested by what might be going on there, but with no studio hours posted, there didn't seem to him to be any way to get inside.
Years later, when Amy Thorstenson, Director of Events for Trap Street, wanted to do a piece involving neon light, the group initially approached the Museum of Neon Art (MONA) in Glendale, but they weren't responsive. Eschman remembered his first impressions of Lakich studio and made the connection--and suggested the Lakich gallery. Thorstenson called Lakich and found she was willing to talk about their project.
Lakich co-founded MONA in 1981 with Richard Jenkins, but ended her association with them nearly 20 years ago. Her studio is the former home of MONA. Trap Street wasn't aware of this history when they reached out to Lakich.
Lakich gave them a copy of her book Lakich: For Light. For Love. For Life, and Trap Street took some of her personal history, also adding in fictional elements within the narration. The idea of electricity and neon as a source of life, or that souls are held within light, was inspired by the pieces they saw at the Lakich Studio.
Trap Street, originally an off-shoot from a Chicago company that did similar work, has been around for about two years. They start with a location and then build the show around it; they don't build sets or costumes to create another imaginary world within a space. They like to take the space exactly as it is.
"We always start with a space that has a story to it already, and the story inspires everything we write, everything we create," says Eschman. "That's why each show is different." Darkness Comes Alive is an audio tour because it somehow felt more appropriate to use that form to explore an art studio and gallery. They used the Iron Triangle Brewery for their first production (Nautapocalypse), and that became a live show, a party where it turned out some of the partygoers were actors playing roles.
"It's really interesting because, unlike (Darkness Comes Alive) where the space is ours, Iron Triangle was still open to the public, so it created this interesting dynamic," says Jigour. The show went on while people drank beers or played bar games. Performing in that environment became a funny challenge, part of the beauty of performing in a public space.
Whatever the exact form of the piece, Eschman wants an audience to come to Trap Street shows to explore an interesting space, knowing they're getting something extra unique to their productions.
"We did a show in Chicago where there were two groups of people who went on an audio tour thinking they were taking the same tour, but they were actually listening to different narrators," says Eschman. "So what happened is that when they went through the space, they encountered live scenes. They all saw the same scenes, but in reverse order. They came together at the end and realized they'd seen the same scenes, but heard a different person explain it."
Having each been in Los Angeles for about three years, Eschman and Jigour both feel like they are discovering a city that is changing so rapidly. "One thing about not being...from L.A. is the way it directs your attention in different ways," says Jigour. "I have no really ingrained roadmap of where to look in L.A. so it's kind of like a wildcard."
Inspiration for their projects is intuitive, like driving down the freeway and seeing some sign or building that triggers your imagination. Serendipity. It's how Nautapocalypse came together--Atlas Obscura, publishers of a guidebook celebrating "700 of the strangest and most curious places in the world"--did a tour of Los Angeles buildings that formerly housed brothels. Matthew Johns, Director of Design and Technology for Trap Street, went on the tour. It sold out before Eschman could get a ticket--but they met where the tour ended, the Iron Triangle brewery.
"We just sat there for a few hours and said this place is amazing," Eschman says, and little by little the idea for Nautapocalypse began to take shape.
Trap Street, along with completing a short film based on the writings of William S. Burroughs and hosting a podcast about cocktails called Rogue Bottle, are looking for more spaces that they and their audience can explore. Lakich has already suggested to them that they might return to her studio in the Fall for a remount of Darkness Comes Alive; they may revise or expand the piece if that happens.
They want to create more audio tours across the city, perhaps releasing them for people to download and experience anytime they want. Whatever the project, they want to give the same experience of asking the audience to question what is real and what is fiction.
"We're interested in creating a partnership with different spaces, where it's not just about us and our work and our creative stuff, but it's about inviting the community to these cool spaces that should be seen," Jigour says. They want spaces they can collaborate with and not just be viewed as another rental.
And even though they are newcomers here, Eschman and Jigour say Trap Street is encouraged by how welcoming the artistic community has been. "I just love that everyone in this town seems up for trying something weird and new – it's a little like the Wild West out here," Eschman says.