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JOHN O'BRIEN
A CHANGE IN
THE METAPHOR
OF LOS ANGELES

To grasp the importance which the expansion of access for individuals and communities to informational infrastructures about culture, its' history and presence will have, it would do well to return to the analogy of L.A. as it is now. The sheer geographic size of the area being considered makes access to information problematic. Add to that the language barriers, the quotient of power which various groups obtain by systematically occluding information, and the general entropy of informational systems. It becomes obvious how a handier tool for accessing the entire informational bandwidth would change the conditions for empowerment.

I found myself synthesizing this in short metaphors about the "cans" and "cannots" of each. Rome is a kind of emotional touchstone where even ancient history is in plain view and the dimension of human contact never fully subsumed by technology. It is, also, a city that moves painfully slowly, and lets its' traditions slow down, if not totally inhibit, any innovations. Los Angeles is dispersive, ahistorical and, to some degree, only self aware in the shallowness of the media klieg lamps. It is, however, the home to any number of laboratories for research into just about anything that can be devised by the imagination. All one needs to do is look for the resources to get their hypotheses rolling. These thumbnail sketches roughly correspond to the two analogies which I use to structure my interactions with each reality. The Getty Center, which is what this essay is about, relates to these personal assessments because it appears that with its arrival, I will be forced to change the entire metaphor of my imagined L.A.

The Getty Center, taken as a whole, is one large entity. What strikes me the most about it are its' programs in research, education and electronic information. Even more than its' magnificent architecture and museum collections, these programs will be putting the Getty in a position to connect many of the disparate dots which make Los Angeles the remarkable city that it is. So much for my metaphor of the non-communicating blocks of isolated research forever distanced by unknown off-ramps, of the willful disconnection between the numerous centers for cultural production and comprehension. The Getty Center seems to be projecting and facilitating a model for the cooperative creation of opportunities about the understanding, experience, value and preservation of the world's artistic and cultural history. That this rather vast model is only imaginable thanks to the vast wealth of the J. Paul Getty Trust, it nonetheless remains a visionary model, which may well contain the keys to the city of the 21st century.

Overall, the two guiding concepts to operating this model come from the attempt to make cooperative thinking central to cultural endeavors, and to expand the access of individuals and communities to informational infrastructures about culture, its' history and presence.

This is very different from the image of cloistered, elite research that the Getty Institutes had in their previous incarnations. Even the Getty Center campus lends itself to looking like the kind of place where intellectual exchange will be easily accomplished. Marsha Reid of the Getty Research Institute, and Jim Bowers of the Getty Information Institute, both remarked how odd and yet comfortable it was to have the entire Getty constituency at one location. Now instead of calling to a building six miles away to request a book or publication be sent over, a researcher can just walk over and get it. Aside from the convenience, it is exactly this sort of chance for unpredictable encounters which led the Europeans to create the microcosm of the universal city or university, as it is now called.

I came to Los Angeles, California from Rome, Italy, the type of city that expanded outward concentrically from a single center that the nineteenth century had as its primary model. Its' historical origins were located at the geographical center of town and history added layer upon layer to the outer rings, while conserving architectural traces of every moment of the continuous evolution. Los Angeles, for me, was a very different type of urban development and, at first, it seemed impossible to work within it. The extreme fragmenting of time through the need to constantly mediate the distance between things and events and the inevitability of losing things (yourself, your time, your projects) seemed insurmountable. At one point; however, thanks to a constant oscillation between these two realities, I began to understand how aspects of both cities on their own terms could be engaged in a productive way.

Each year, the Scholars and Seminars program invites scholars, artists, writers, composers, poets and architects (as well as pre- and postdoctoral fel-lows) to pursue individual and collaborative projects related to a specific theme. For 1997 through 1999, the theme is "Representing the Passions." The participants' residency ranges from a few weeks to a full year, during which time they can utilize the Resource Collections and Special Collections to further their work.

Perhaps the key aspect of the program is the weekly seminar conducted by Institute Director Michael Roth. In that weekly meeting, the concrete sense of cooperative thinking is elaborated. Specialists from many fields, linked by the theme, are asked to do presentations of their research which is then discussed by all participants. The potential for such a think tank to afford conceptual connections outside the usually protected fields bound by profession, genre and institutions is impressive. Photographer Robbert Flick, who was a Getty Scholar last year in the "L.A.: Narrative, Images and History" seminar, recounted how the freedom from teaching allowed him to totally focus on his own work and, at the same time, the seminar fostered the breakdown of barriers between the disci-plines which lead to heightened communications about the ideas being explored.

Cooperative thinking is a curious luxury in a consumer economy. Since it is an individual's specific expertise which guarantees the marketability of their skills, it is usually a guarded realm that is analogous to the enforced rarity that confers value on works of art. In practical terms, it is difficult to find time for, given the need for most scholars to do both research and apply themselves to the work which allows them to continue independently. At the Getty Research Center, overcoming these difficulties and creating occasions for that luxury are an essential part of the work. Its' corollary result is to generate cross genre thinking and significant exchange between fields of research not generally in contact with one another.

Concretely, the way these changes will be wrought is to be carried out at very different levels. They range from making the museum collections user friendly, such as a space to acquaint young children and toddlers with art in one of the museum pavilions, to piloting innovative Internet programs for educating and disseminating information about culture past and present. It includes the tedious technical work of creating international standards for retrieval software that allow researchers to find information regardless of spelling or how it is cross referenced. In documenting cultural objects digitally, the Getty will be assisting law enforcement and the insurance industry in reversing the ease and the amount of traffic in the commerce of stolen works of art. Or as in the case of the recently published "Introduction to Imaging", it will set a standard for an emerging field, bringing up questions to be resolved in both technical and legal dimensions.

Jim Bowers of the Getty Information Institute took me on an online tour of the L.A. Culture Net, one of the Getty's internet pilot projects, to chart how the future of education and research about culture may look from cyberspace. Pooling the electronic resources from local museums, universities, communities and galleries, the L.A. Culture Net structures intersecting query based searches geared for all levels of engagement. This is the first tool which has really ever given me the impression that the distances (geographical and informational) that make up L.A. could ever really be bridged. The potential for a virtual database made up of the interconnected databases already existent in the greater L.A. area would add up to an incredible source of focused, available information.

Overall, these were the aspects of the Getty Center as a global project in L.A. that I found to be the most compelling. It is fascinating how a trust so wealthy as to be almost unimaginable would return to the concept of stewardship that is grounded in democracy and humanism. The nascent idealism underlying the creation of access tools like the L.A. Culture Net, which will ultimately unsettle the tendency for institutions to dictate understanding as opposed to responding to inquiry, is heartening. There is much to be done before everything is moving in the same direction regarding the ultimate goal of placing culture in the center of a technological society. I wonder for example about the conspicuous lack of "cutting edge" contemporary art institutions in the current informational projects. Is opening contemporary art up for inquiry too much to ask?

For their part, the Getty Center did open to the contemporary by asking Lisa Lyons to propose works by contemporary artists at the Center. Those works are underway and slated for completion in time for the December opening. They include mostly prominent L.A. based artists. A very large painting of a ray of light descending into a watery pool by Edward Ruscha will dominate the entry hall outside the auditorium. Alexis Smith's three wall, mixed media installation will wrap itself around a central hall in the dining facility. Robert Irwin's Central Garden, a complex array of pathways, waterways, flowers and plants will occupy the hillside between the Museum pavilions and the Research Institute building. All of which is a hopeful sign that maybe even in regard to the contemporary in art, the Getty wishes to have some say.

The opening of the Getty Center is bound to be a spectacular event. In a city of constant spectacles, that is of little interest to me. Above and beyond the physical opening of the Center, what interests me far more urgently is the formulation of a new metaphor for Los Angeles. I find myself imagining L.A. as city of vital, interconnected cultural and scientific developments; that is able to express its myriad of contents, without sacrificing its real pluralism in the usual hierarchy of power distribution.