“The street is more important than the museum…”
- Otto Aicher, Graphic Designer for the 1972 Munich Olympics
Tony Cokes So to speak at Beyond Baroque presents three works by Tony Cokes throughout the historic literary and performance center Beyond Baroque. The musicality and rhythm of Cokes’s work, its connection to vernacular forms of music and spoken word mirror Beyond Baroque’s historical context and thematic values.
Following the opening of Stuart Perkoff’s Venice West Café in 1958 and the Gas House in 1959, Venice became a nexus for Beat artists and writers such as Wallace Berman, Jack Kerouac and Philomene Long. A number of visual artists began to settle in the neighborhood: Billy Al Bengston, Larry Bell, Cameron, Vija Celmins, John McCracken, Ed Moses, Lee Mullican, Ken Price, and John Altoon. In 1968, George Dury Smith began publishing the experimental literary magazine Beyond Baroque from a storefront in Venice, eventually taking over the old Venice City Hall building at 681 Venice Boulevard. Beyond Baroque would soon begin hosting workshops, readings and performances by a number of artists including Amiri Baraka, Wanda Coleman, Dennis Cooper, Simone Forti, Allen Ginsberg, Mike Kelley and Patti Smith over the next few decades.
“So we have to really rethink all these concepts” reads a portion of the piece, Evil. 13.5 (4 OE), part of his post-9/11 series, Evil, which greets visitors at Beyond Baroque’s entrance. The text for the work is drawn from an interview with Okwui Enwezor about African design, serving as an homage to the late Nigerian educator, curator, and former Director of the Munich Haus der Kunst. It was first exhibited as part of his exhibition On Clubbing, Mourning, and Critique at Greene Naftali in 2022. On view in Beyond Baroque’s library, Testament A: mf aka k-p x ke rip (2019), is a study of mourning as labor and production. The text for this work comes from Kodwo Eshun’s Mark Fisher Memorial Lecture, at Goldsmiths University in 2018, after the death of Mark Fisher, a beloved writer and academic whose work exposed the logic of capitalism as inflected through culture, including music, literature, film, television, and visual art. One slide that passes quickly by, backed by a cacophonous score, reads: “Required to work on the time crisis that works on us”.
In Beyond Baroque’s theater, Cokes’s B4 & After the Studio Pt. 1 draws an uncanny connection between Manhattan’s East Village and Los Angeles’s Venice Beach. In 2019, Tony Cokes produced B4 & After the Studio Pt. 1 for an exhibition at The Shed in Hudson Yards, famously a malappropriation of public housing funds that were then used to build former New York mayor Bloomberg’s pet redevelopment project. B4 & After examines the intertwined relationship between art and real estate development, repurposing a text on the 1988 Tompkins Square Park Riot and an excerpt from Sharon Zukin’s 1989 book Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change. Zukin used the concept of revalorization to describe the effect the artists’ lofts of SoHo had on converting industrial space into cultural capital, and in turn converting downtown space into space fit for “high-class use,'' giving name to the process of culturally-aided gentrification that had come to pervade American cities. Paired with accounts of the city’s aggressive crackdown on homeless encampments in the East Village that led to the police-incited Tompkins Square Park Riot, B4 is a self-reflexive consideration of gentrification, “artwashing,” and the pernicious underside of what is generally termed “urban renewal”.
Tony Cokes’s work traverses social and cultural mourning, the effects of racism and displacement, of mass terror, and the cultural output that seeks to rectify or resolve the traumas we inflict on one another. His visual and sonic essays don’t show images other than text, and yet they reference the images that live in our everyday. These essays, in their paired-back nature, become immediately applicable to our own experiences and provide contemplative opportunities to develop a language of critique that can move past the distraction of the spectacle and begin to resolve the traumas of contemporary experience.
There couldn’t be a work more fitting to reflect on the current situation of the “Venice of America” than Cokes’s removed but incisive visual essays that works through the traumas of displacement within the multiplicitous histories of a post-terror America.
Venice Beach was founded as an entertainment and development district in the early 20th century, with artificial canals dug to drain the brackish lagoon fed by the meandering Ballona Creek, once the site of the Tongva settlement, Guashna. This labor was largely performed by Black migrants who were relocated to the neighboring township of Oakwood. The “Venice of the West”, which used segregated gondolas to navigate the cement lined canals, was soon annexed by the City of Los Angeles but was consistently underserved by city services and marked for disinvestment by the federal government in 1939.
Until recently, there had been a sprawling encampment of unhoused people down Venice Boulevard from Beyond Baroque to Erewhon, the most expensive grocery store in America where you can by a 2 liter bottle of “hyperoxygenated” water for $25.99. Agelinos are often inured to the class extremes that pervade the city, preferring the “museum” of the car, the gated community, the arcade-style mall, or curated grocery experience. The museum in this sense is the curated environment, the controlled space, the inoffensive, aesthetic space. The street is chaos, sadness, destitution: an uncaring bricolage. A quality generally referred to, and minimized as, “grittiness”.
Since its heyday in the 70’s and 80’s, Beyond Baroque has continued to advance the public awareness of and involvement in the literary arts, providing a challenging program of performances, readings and publications that promotes new work by artists and writers, the latest alumna of which is Amanda Gorman. Furthermore, it has played a leading role in advocating for the historical protection of the Westminster Baptist Church, the first Baptist Church in Venice, and a symbol of place that resonates greatly with the community of Oakwood. In 2017, the pastor sold the church for $6.3 million, without the knowledge or approval of the broader community, to media giant Jay Penske, who wanted to convert the church into his private home. Penske Media, you might have heard recently, just dissolved literary digest Bookforum weeks after acquiring the publication’s parent company Artforum International Magazine.
The Oakwood community is one of the few remaining Black communities in Los Angeles within a mile of the beach, dating back five generations. To the North, the Belmar Neighborhood is the oldest of all seaside Black communities in the SoCal region, dating from the immigration of African Americans to California after the Civil War. In 1950, the City of Santa Monica literally set the neighborhood (homes, stores, community centers, etc.) on fire to make way for the current Civic Center, Courthouse, and freeway access as part of a federal funding program that disproportionately affected Black communities across the country (80% of people displaced by this program were Black). Today, there is a significant effort to educate the public about this injustice known as the Belmar History + Art initiative and calls for reparations for descendants of the displaced have grown louder but the only real offer so far has been the insulting chance for descendants to be included on an affordable housing waiting list.
To read the complete Against the Edge text and learn about other sites and artists included in Frieze Projects curated by Jay Ezra Nayssan and Del Vaz Projects, click here.