Slanguage has been around since 2002. Here is our account of the first year:
Who? What? Where? When? Why?
On August 15th, 2002, Mario Ybarra Jr., his partner, Karla Diaz, and friend Juan Capistran rented a small 1,200 square foot storefront in Wilmington, CA. This former bakery called the Guadalupaña is located at 640 N. Avalon Blvd. at the cross street G St.
The space consisted of two sections – a small shop area with a street entrance and a workshop area in the back portion of the space. The original rental agreement between Ybarra and childhood friend and landlord, Angel Montes, Jr., was $650.00 US per month. Before renting this space, several locations were looked at. “My handprints and nose prints were left behind on a lot of store windows looking for this place,” Ybarra said.
The initial monies used to start the studio came from sales of artworks by Ybarra and Capistran to two major art collections in the US. Ybarra sold two photographs from his series Go Tell It, 2001 to the esteemed West Coast collection of Peter Norton of Norton Utilities, a widely used computer anti-virus program. Capistran sold works from his What We Do Is Secret, 2002 series to the corporate collection of Altoids, the manufacturer of the breath mint.
Ybarra and Capistran were collaborators in college and worked together on several performative and site-specific interventions in Los Angeles. They both attended Otis College of Art and Design as undergraduates (Class of ’99) and attended University California, Irvine for their Master of Fine Arts degrees — Ybarra (’01) and Capistran (’02). Karla Diaz attended Cal State Los Angeles where she received a Bachelor of Arts in English literature and went on to study at the esteemed art college Cal Arts. There, Diaz received a Masters of Fine Arts in the field of Critical Studies (’04).
Ybarra and Capistran developed the name and plan for the studio while working together at Fine Art Stretcher Bars in 2001. The name Slanguage came from the idea of a new street language being developed by their collaborative street interventions and noise/music performances. (See below.)
• ALL MODCONS
• WORKING CLASSICS
• LOOTERS, HOOTERS, & SIX SHOOTERS, ETC., ETC.
The floor and goal plans were drawn on small scrap pieces of cardboard on the workshop floor. Per their plans, the space would consist of all major areas of production and exhibition — a workshop “dirty zone” was an unobstructed area for painting and cutting wood whereas the “clean zone” was an area one could put up works for critiques and studio visits. The goals consisted of developing a social, artistic network nationally and internationally that consisted of intergenerational artists, curators, gallery owners working with each other on projects in museums, art spaces, and commercial galleries. “These goals were all ambitions for us at the time,” said Ybarra. A fellow Otis and UCI alum Peter Towera, a fine painter and thinker, also helped contribute to this initial plan.
“When we first moved into the studio, we had very little money,” Ybarra describes. Capistran, Diaz, and Ybarra worked hard painting, demoing, and organizing. Several people, mostly family, helped with donations like old chairs, tables, etc. Capistran built a large, wood worktable that was for the most part the center, or hub, of activity in the studio. Many of the young neighborhood artists came over to have drawing and DJ sessions on Capistran’s technic 1200 turntables. Many of the artists were introduced to Slanguage while Diaz and Ybarra taught workshops at the Washington Youth Center in Long Beach through the Homeland Cultural Center. One of their mentors, Dixie Swift facilitated this program. Homeland is a cultural arts center in the Anaheim corridor of Long Beach founded in the early 1990s by Dixie Swift and Manazar Gamboa, a Chicano poet/playwright. Gamboa gave Saturday writing workshops at the center. Ybarra and Diaz met there as young artists.
The list of these young artists who became Slanguage’s Artist in Residence is vast. I will attempt to name as many as I can:
• Adrian de la Peña
• Alex “Opia” Ramos
• Alonso Garzon
• Amber “Tret”
• Angel Montes III
• Anna “Suny”
• Arnoldo Vargas
• Carla Danes
• Carlos “Ghetto” Mendoza
• Carlos “Tuels”
• Cindy Vargas
• David “Bells” Salas
• Eric Marquez
• George “Latin” Rivas
• Hazel Manadanju
• Hernan Nieves
• Mario “Autoe” Cuen and brother
• Mario “Dred” Lopez
• Oralia “Perl”
• Rachel “Gems” Ayala
• Raul “Reas/Spew” Vasquez
• Raul “Toomer TKO
• Rick “Duem” Espinoza
• Ricky “Taker” Saenz
• Sonya de la Peña
• Steve “Eris” Delatorre
All of these people contributed to the early development of Slanguage studio as artists. Countless hours drawing and talking about each other’s dreams, aspirations, and fears about being an artist.
The original intent of the studio was to have a place for individual artists to continue to have a space to work on art after graduate school. “It became much more than we could have imagined,” said Ybarra. “It became a working studio and space for all of the artists in residence.” A community artist run space was far from the original intent of being their personal studios. But the artists didn’t stop showing up to work. It was great fun and a magical time – everything was new for them all. It was a place DJs could practice loud sets without protesting screams of mothers or fathers and where paint could be spilled on the floor with no real repercussions. It was theirs and everyone took ownership.
Even though there were no financial rewards at first, all artists were there everyday. They worked on a barter system. They traded electricians’ work of installing light for drawing logos for the karate team of the electricians’ kids “The Mongooses.” Capistran and Ybarra also restored a mural in the International Longshoreman and Warehouseman Union Local 13 dispatch hall. That was their first paid gig that allowed the studio to pay their light bill.
THE LIGHT BILL
It was overdue by six months, but our switch was inside the studio so DWP couldn’t switch it off without one of us letting someone in. One day, that person slipped by us while we were outside on a cigarette break and turned off the main breaker. We all had to work by our front window, as it was the only source of light for a while. A week later, we put together the money to pay the bill.
THE MOST HIGH BLESSING
The first public event Slanguage held in the studio was just a few weeks after they moved in. It was a big barbeque. Ybarra’s close friend Anthony Del Rosario, a Filipino-American friend who grew up down the street from him was there. He was a great supporter of Ybarra. Ybarra explains, “His mother, Betty, was a kind woman who fed a lot of us kids dinner when our own moms were working too late to make us food.”
“Ant Dog” made his famous ribs in the back alleyway with help from his neighbor, Jason “Big Jay” Legaspe. They made their own BBQ sauce and ate all day long. Sandra de la Loza, an artist and photographer, brought along a few friends. Everyone was having a great time listening to the DJs playing, drinking, and eating. The DJs were playing music and all the MCs were rhyming and singing on the microphone. Juan, Spew, Taker, Jedi, Cash, and Ghetto were all providing the entertainment. Ybarra served people plates of BBQ and talking to the guests.
One guest stood out to Ybarra. He was a middle-aged guy de la Loza bought. He was very unassuming, quiet, and wore a blue sweatshirt and gray sweat pants. He had shoulder length dreadlocks and sat in the corner as Ybarra gave him a plate of food. He asked if he could sing on the microphone. Ybarra replied, “Of course,” and brought him to the DJ equipment. DJ Cosh of Turbosound playing an instrumental track and the “Rasta Man” began to sing beautiful, roots reggae music, blessing the studio. Everyone that was there stood quiet in awe while he sang.
After he sang, Ybarra thanked him and asked him his name. He replied “H.R.” Ybarra went over to de la Loza and asked her who her friend was and she told him he was H.R., the lead singer of DC’s hardcore punk band, BAD BRAINS. Ybarra shocked and though, “ Wow, the first performance was a blessing of the space by one of the most innovative voices of the US punk rock movement.”
Ybarra went over to the DJ Cosh after his set and thanked him. Cosh said he really liked the “Rasta Man.” Ybarra told him the “Rasta” was H.R. from BAD BRAINS and Cosh went bananas. He took of his t-shirt under which he wore a BAD BRAINS tank top. “BAD BRAINS in my favorite group. I can’t believe it!” Cosh exclaimed. For the rest of the afternoon, DJ Cosh hung out with H.R., having him big up Turbosound on his camcorder. DJ Cosh and H.R. performed a few more times in a nightclub around LB.
That BBQ was not only the foundation of Slanguage, but also the beginning of many relationships.
The format, or programming, for Slanguage happened organically. It was different from many organizations because there wasn’t a set directive for the art production that went on there. It took them about a year to get the studio layout in order. We would demo areas without having the money to build it out, so certain areas stayed skeletal for a while. It was like they were building a motorcycle chopper and all they could really afford was the frame — no engine, chrome, paint, rims, or tires. Driving down the road was a long way, or at least a few years, off for them.
The Artists in Residence (AIR) program was coming, but there weren’t a lot of materials to give out. So the first “workshop” was a stencil-cutting workshop as a lot of the AIR group had a graffiti art background and wanted to start to put some stencils up. This was a pretty cheap workshop to do in that all you really need is some chipboard and an X-acto knife. Everyone brought in images they wanted to make stencils of and went to work. That was in the fall of 2002. The only rule Ybarra gave the group was to please not spray the stencils on the Slanguage block. Of course, the rule was broken and eight years later, Perl’s stencil of a Powder Puff character is still on the botanica’s brick wall a few doors down from the studio.
We also had Capistran’s DJ equipment, some large bass speakers, in the space that allowed the DJs to have DJ workshops and seminars. The DJs would give each other tips and challenge one another to come up with better or thematic sets. All of them were interested in different musical genres, but that didn’t seem to take away from their commitment to the workshops. DJ TUELZ would spin jungle, DJ Ghetto did hip-hop, and Capistran, who took on the DJ name “Tabernacle” playing Italo and disco music. These sets would be recorded onto one of our iMacs. Ybarra wanted to package the CDs as Slanguage Sessions like the famous British Peel Sessions.
THE HARDER THEY COME
Performance for Capistran and Ybarra was very important in their undergraduate work. They both have degrees in what is called new genres. In a nutshell, this area of practice does not consist of most traditional forms, such as painting, drawing, or traditional sculpture. Things like installation, video, performance, and sound fall under this new genres umbrella.
Anyways, Ybarra wanted to figure out a way to engage the AIRs with the ideas about performance art that he had learned in school. The studio had a video camera, a tripod, and music turntables. So he thought it might be fun and interesting to have a dance-off as an introduction to performance. The DJs would play a song and the performer would have to dance or perform for the duration of the song.
After explaining the rules, they set up the video camera and tripod. DJ Ghetto played hits from the 1980s and 1990s. Ybarra danced to Morrissey’s “Sing for Your Life.” He tried to move around and shake his lion’s mane of hair, but it really wasn’t that interesting. Rick “Duem” Espinoza danced to “The Safety Dance” song and started to use props from around the studio, such as an old skateboard and mop. He ended his dance with a funny bellybutton dance. Raul “Spew” Vasquez performed to the song “Sex Dwarf,” in which he did many Tin Tan, a Mexican comedian, type references combined with some very odd break-dance moves. Vasquez also made use of things around the studio, including a mannequin torso, which he gave CPR. “Suny” ended the video with a tribute dance to “My Sherona.” The resulting video was called, “The harder they come…the harder they fall…”, (15 min.), 2002. It was shown to visiting students and it was eventually screened it at the Moscow Biennial in 2006.
So the “use what we had at hand” attitude towards art making at Slanguage was put into play. It turns out it is true; you can only start with half and worry about the rest later.
They had an empty space at the beginning. They took down the acoustics drop ceiling and its support system first thing. They also tore out the carpet and knocked down a small partition wall that divided the front room. This left the front room pretty barebones and ugly…and they didn’t have money to fix it. So they kind of stayed out of that room at first. The condition of the back room wasn’t that much better. It was painted a doo-doo brown color and was missing areas of dry wall so that the builiding’s frame was exposed. There was no toilets, no sink. It was a tabula rasa – a blank slate for them to work with.
This is when Ybarra learned how to use his hands like a spokes model on a TV game show to help people imagine how the studio was going to look. Also, he learned how to be specific in asking people for help with the things the studio was lacking. For example: “the track lights will go here,” “this is where our computer stations will be,” etc. All the while, making a square shape in the air where track lighting system was needed.
They made a list of all things needed:
• Dry wall
• Track lights
Eventually, if people knew what Slanguage needed and had it, but weren’t using it, they would give it/donate/bless the studio with it. Daniel J. Martinez, who was Ybarra’s graduate advisor at UCI, gave a set of track lights when Martinez and his partner closed down their art gallery, Deep River, in downtown LA. Sam Durant gave them a PA system he was no longer using. Eungie Joo, who was the first director of REDCAT’s art gallery, gave us a photocopier. The art community was very supportive of the needs of the space, but Slanguage had to let them know what was needed.
UP & RUNNING
In the beginning of 2003, Slanguage was continuing to fix up the studio. They had muddled and repainted the front and back room, installed the track lighting, and double glass doors that separated the front and back space. The space was beginning to take shape…