Lauren Halsey | To Be Funky Forever and Remembered As Such
“I wanted to do something big, and I did it.” —Simon Rodia, creator of the Watts Towers
Somebody say, “Is there funk after death?” I say, “Is seven up?” — Parliament, on “P. Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up)” from Mothership Connection
The Watts Towers are under renovation, their spindly, eclectically-decorated forms partly shrouded by scaffolding. It’s a hot, quiet day in Watts. A kite shaped like a seagull, hung from the tallest of the towers, floats in the breeze.
Artist Lauren Halsey, dressed fantastically in a colorful self-decorated ensemble, rocking shades and her ever-present black “LA” ball cap, is a bit disappointed, but she gets it. It takes near-constant maintenance to keep them intact, nearly 100 years after Simon Rodia, an Italian immigrant, began building them. Really, it’s astounding that they still survive at all, considering they are the product of one man’s imagination and ambition, an individual making a mark on his community, built by hand over the course of 33 years using mostly found materials, without permits or architects or seismic consultants. And it is important that they continue to stand. They have become a symbol of the community, its vibrancy, resilience, and determination against the odds. Most people don’t know what Rodia himself called his masterpiece, though the name is brightly spelled in broken glass and colored tile, the words spanning an archway. Nuestra Pueblo, or “Our Town.”
I meet Halsey here on her suggestion. A few weeks prior I stood in front of another monument, of similar ambition and similar community-mindedness, at the Hammer Museum in Westwood—not too far from Watts, really, though the communities can seem worlds apart. On an outdoor terrace stood what looked like an Egyptian temple in miniature, though still large enough to walk through. When you enter you’re surrounded by it, walls about ten feet high, and you realize that the designs that cover the temple’s entire surface and which fill your entire visual field are not traditional hieroglyphs as you first may have expected, but funky, exuberant depictions of the visual landscape that make up Our Town, as Angelenos, and in particular, visual signifiers from the South Central community in which Halsey grew up and continues to live—cars, tags, families, ’40s, palm trees; Black heroes and icons, Black martyrs and victims.
It’s all interspersed with fragments of both Egyptian and Extraterrestrial iconography, in the vein of one of Halsey’s greatest influences—Parliament, and their radical unstuck-from- time-and-space funky, Afro-futurist utopia, an elaborate universe they built in their albums. “What made them such gorgeous portals is, as a kid, I was able to just wear headphones and escape into their infinity spaces that included me, without me having to do anything, or having to go anywhere,” Halsey tells me when I ask her about Parliament’s impact on her creative formation, beaming the passion of a lifelong fan. “It just gave me the conceit to dream up my own worlds. And the deeper you get in the mythos, the deeper it gets. It’s never-ending. It compels you to dream and to consider what George Clinton says, your ‘funkentelechy,’ and what that can mean when you try to funkify the world, to save the world from all its funklessness.”
As huge and impressive as this piece is, it’s only a mock-up for the real thing. Halsey hopes to execute two such monuments, twenty feet tall, on an as-yet unspecified site on city land. Central to Halsey’s practice is that her work functions as a sort of platform, or skeleton, which is then fleshed-out and animated by community involvement. “I’m not interested in building anything alone. There’s no reason. And so my interest with this project, so that I’m not the only narrator and the only voice, is that I’ll have a phase in production where the doors are just open and I invite people to carve into the panels,” she says. “If they don’t wanna carve, they can share stories, share drawings on paper, texts, whatever, so that they can be incorporated into a collective narrative from all demographics, by South Central, for South Central, so that we can be the authors of our own narratives.”
This preservation and commemoration of the South LA Black community’s rich history and culture is what drives her, with increasing urgency, to archive their presence permanently, the way the pyramids testify to the culture of the Egyptians thousands of years on. Facing the forces of gentrification and redevelopment, these communities and cultures are under sustained threat of erasure.
Halsey, mental time traveller that she is, at home on The Mothership, sees the beauty of her community’s culture from a vantage outside of time and space, “a thousand years, fifteen million years from now,” she says, clearly enjoying the thought. She intends for the project to serve as a permanent monument that will show future generations who and what was here. “I thought it would be really cool to think about the function of the project as these document keepers of the time, and I had confidence that if I could pull it off and do it the right way, with people in the neighborhood and on a permanent scale, then in the same way, the people who are going to The Met or to the pyramids, including myself, to obsess over the hieroglyphs, to see their beauty, to learn about them, that a gazillion years from now people will do the same thing for South Central,” she says. “And engage who, you know, who has actually been here. I see it as a resilient architecture.”
The Crenshaw District Hieroglyphs Project follows another major installation from Halsey this year—we still here, there, which opened at MOCA this summer. The installation took the form of a massive cave, sprawling through a series of rooms and filled with objects that portray a kaleidoscopic archive of Black culture in South Central, added to and inhabited over the course of the exhibition to become a collaborative, lived-in space for the community, smack in the middle of the halls of art power. All those CDs? Cut by Halsey’s grandmother and her little cousin, spending time together, adding to the art.
The project saw Halsey continuing her lifelong practice of collection, archiving, collaboration, and space-making, which has been an impulse since childhood and through high-school. “My parents let me do whatever I wanted to do with my bedroom, and so it was an ever-evolving installation,” Halsey recalls. “There were a lot of kids on my street, there was like twenty of us, and my room was the social space. It was always changing to fit the new group of friends. Sometimes it was the freestyle studio, and then it was WWF pay-per-views. So I was always reorganizing my room and just thinking about space and how space makes people feel.” For an early project she gathered incense and perfume oils from local vendors, over 400 total, interviewing the creators about the scents and the packaging and the stories behind them. This continued into college (where her dorm room was The Place to Be) and into her art, with her Kingdom Splurge series at Yale, which laid the groundwork for we still here, there and The Crenshaw District Hieroglyphs Project.
Halsey’s momentum only continues to build. Acclaim and awards have rained down, she’s had the opportunity to see her friends and family and people from the community engage with her work at some of the biggest art institutions in the city, and now the city itself has green-lit the permanent installation for the Hieroglyphs Project. Next up is Art Basel in Miami Beach, where she’ll be presenting a piece with David Kordansky Gallery. “I call them funk rocks or funk mounds. They sort of mimic the forms that were in the MOCA show, but condensed into one moment, with the funky carpeted pedestals, really cool cutouts and vignettes. Different style of CD patterns, different iridescence,” she tells me. “It’s been really cool, but it’s been a challenge because I’m used to working with a huge room. And now it’s about obsessing over one kind of small thing.”
Halsey is continuing her epic mission, carving out spaces in a churning, messy world for her community, making sure that 15 million years from now, future people, whoever they are, will wonder in awe at the funky, beautiful, singular thing that went down in what was LA, while saving us all from the wretched fate of funklessness in the process.