A few days after Trump’s election, I felt art’s political potential in the unlikeliest of places: Red Bull Studios in Chelsea. Walking under a mosaic archway entrance, I found an elaborate, crackling installation of activist works from the Clinton era.
Demonstrating a viral approach that predated Web 2.0, the works had been created as props to be covertly inserted into the popular primetime soap opera “Melrose Place,” between 1995 and 1997. They were generated in secret, with the collaboration of some sympathetic “Melrose Place” producers, by a nationwide network of artists and students who sardonically called themselves the “GALA Committee.” The byzantine exhibition, which unfolded over two floors, presented the artworks in two ways: as props displayed in situ in reinterpretations of recurring “Melrose Place” sets, and as items affixed to lumber frameworks that suggested the off-camera portions of such sets.
The GALA Committee had conceived the works as a single collective piece titled In the Name of the Place. Wall didactics in the exhibition situated individual pieces in the narrative arc of “Melrose Place,” with ephemera—schematic drawings, group communiqués, and handwritten notes—adding a glimpse into the hive mind’s calculated frenzy. The props comment on topics including reproductive rights, domestic terrorism, HIV/AIDS, the Gulf War, and marriage equality, many of which the FCC had deemed unfit for television. A handmade quilt that shrouded a character with an unexpected pregnancy depicts the chemical structure of RU-486, the then-illegal “abortion pill.” A poster spoofing an Absolut Vodka ad collages imagery of the wreckage of a federal building in Oklahoma City after it was bombed by white nationalist Timothy McVeigh.
So who was the GALA Committee? In 1995, curators from the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art approached artist Mel Chin about participating in “Uncommon Sense,” a group exhibition scheduled for spring 1997. Chin, eager to work collaboratively in nontraditional contexts, tapped groups of students at the University of Georgia, CalArts, and Grand Arts (a nonprofit gallery and sculpture studio in Kansas City, Missouri) to form a sprawling secret society. (“GALA” combines the abbreviations for the names of Georgia and Los Angeles, where most of the members were based.) Working at this geographic scale required complex maneuvering through faxes, letters, telephone calls, and in-person sessions.
In the project’s first year, colluding producers let the writers and other producers in on the secret, and they began leaking scripts to the artists so they could respond more precisely to the plotlines. An artist character was written into the show. The GALA Committee produced her paintings—Hockney-esque images of Los Angeles locations with violent pasts. In season five, Amanda and Kyle, two regular characters, visit “Uncommon Sense” at MOCA and look at artworks, many of which had previously appeared elsewhere on the show. The most surreal moment is when Kyle, a Gulf War veteran, discusses the political ramifications of a large canvas titled Fireflies that abstractly depicts US military bombing patterns in Baghdad.
The exhibition also included two new works by Chin: the arch outside Red Bull Studios—a replica of the entrance to the TV show’s titular apartment complex—and a soft sculpture of a sunken pool modeled on Melrose Place’s central meeting (and hookup) spot. Both times I visited the show, Chin was engaged in impromptu poolside chats with handfuls of young artists, who listened attentively and comfortably posed candid questions. Although now over sixty, Chin’s youthful eagerness to talk shop made me understand why dozens of art students across the country jumped at the chance to join him in the GALA Committee’s covert operation. In the weeks after the election, it was frustrating to hear white baby-boomer artists and critics tell millennials to take solace in the history of great art born of political strife. These comments seemed to come from a nostalgia for the self-involved counterculture that boomers created and then monetized to pay the mortgage. Many young artists now find themselves in direct corporeal danger. What artists really need to do to in the face of adversity is band together and develop workable, aspirant models of collective artistic action.