Where Convention Jumps the Tracks
At a Bergamot Station gallery, a weekly gathering of artists,
poets, popsters and politicians creates a hub of activity . . .
By ANNE-MARIE O'CONNOR, Times Staff Writer
It's Friday night in a city where creativity
spins in a Hollywood whirlpool. But in a cavernous dark room at
the Track 16 Gallery, the spotlight shines on a writer. And
everybody is relishing his tale of troubled sleep.
"The refrigerator goes off like a
space shuttle launch! There's no point in trying to sleep
anymore. It's too much work," Joe Donnelly reads. "It
won't take but a second to think of all you've lost and how
you've lost it."
Laughter ripples through the room. Who hasn't
Maybe even Track 16 owner Tom Patchett,
who is standing in the back of the room looking like a hip, more
distinguished Smothers Brother, wearing a camel-colored blazer
and an enigmatic smile.
Patchett is presiding over one of his
Track 16 Nights, a Friday cultural feast where art, music,
poetry and conversation collide. On a really hot night, the mood
here is electric.
And if you have something to say, Patchett--a
passionate modern art collector who started Track 16 as a sort
of cultural mini-foundation with the money he made as co-creator
of the TV show "Alf"--might ask you to curate an
"People come to us with brilliant
ideas," Patchett said, now relaxing in a Modernist chair at
the gallery, part of the Bergamot Station arts complex in Santa
Monica. "We don't like to be bored. We believe art should
be a part of everybody's life."
Art appears in many guises on Track 16 Nights.
This night, it's a literary free-fire zone.
"Your cigarette is your ally,"
Donnelly reads, trying not to laugh, from his over-the-top
insomniac ode. "It almost talks, but it does better. It
A Track 16 Night on St. Patrick's Day last year
was pure theater, with Brian Dennehy and other actors reading
from a play about the Troubles in Northern Ireland, "The
Rat and the Skull." Track 16 set up cafe tables, and the
actors moved among the audience.
"We want a place for people to take
chances," Patchett said. "Art is the catalyst, but it
doesn't mean we have to be limited to pictures on the
When Track 16 opened, it was just another
gallery in the matrix of Bergamot Station. But Patchett was
restless with the placid pace of showing art. He and his
collaborators envisioned a dialectic, an exchange between the
gallery and other creative people.
Their first big event coincided with a March
1996 exhibition of political posters protesting the war in
Vietnam. Called "Decade of Protest," the show featured
graphics from Vietnam, Cuba and the United States, lent by the
Center for the Study of Political Graphics.
Pilar Perez, then a freelance curator who was
coordinating a Track 16 Man Ray exhibition, pulled together
"Song of Napalm," which explored the human toll behind
the images. She invited Vietnam vets to read their poetry
alongside Vietnamese poets. John Densmore, the former drummer
for the Doors, accompanied his own spoken prose. The place was
"All the performers were amazing,"
Perez said. "The art was a great launching point."
Serendipity fueled the encounters, which Perez,
who was named director of exhibitions, began to orchestrate.
When legendary beat poet William Burroughs came
through town in 1996, Track 16 invited him and Allen Ginsberg to
hold court. Frank Gehry discussed urban planning with once and
future California politician Jerry Brown on another night. Later
on, the gallery staged a raucous and enormously popular revival
concert of L.A.'s seminal punk bands and threw a sit-in-style
birthday party for Tom Hayden's 60th, complete with testimonials
from everyone, from former gang members to writer Susan Faludi
and Warren Beatty.
By then, Patchett and Perez were beginning to
talk seriously about making the evenings into a regular series.
In February 2000, they formally launched Track 16 Nights. The
events now run every Friday from February until the end of June.
Artists typically perform free, so most costs are covered by a
As the series has evolved, Track 16 has
developed a community of collaborators.
Take guerrilla artist Robbie Conal, who is
perhaps best known for his political satire posters that
mysteriously turn up overnight all over Los Angeles.
He has shown at Track 16 such work as a
photomontage on the LAPD Rampart scandal called
"Disbelief," and an oil painting about the '50s,
"Ghost in the Machine," that features then-FBI
Director J. Edgar Hoover in a leopard-skin pillbox hat and
Conal also turns up on panels. He has spoken on
art from Belfast, Northern Ireland, alongside Los Angeles author
Mike Davis. He was part of a recent Track 16 Night forum called
"Aesthetics and the Specter of Revolution."
"One guy was quoting Mao, another was
quoting Nietzsche, and I was quoting Marx--but Groucho
Marx," Conal deadpanned, adding: "They do some of the
most interesting and provocative stuff around."
Other notable regulars and irregulars simply add
to the ambience. Leonardo DiCaprio has been known to wander in.
Mariana Botey has shown artwork at Track 16, co-curated various
Track 16 Nights (including the panel discussion with Conal), and
presented her rock-umentary "Descontento Total" on
another evening program. Densmore has made returnappearances as
well. "I love the gallery," he said. "The vibe
and the people they draw are kindred spirits."
The other night, that draw included actress Anne
Heche joining ranks with the Los Angeles authors, reading her
own work and schmoozing afterward.
("That was amazing. I can't wait to read
your book," Heche told Rachel Resnick, who had just read a
short story about a not-so-eroticencounter--"This is taking
forever!"--between two women.)
"Sleep is the opiate of the masses,"
read Bernard Cooper, an award-winning fiction writer and a
contributing editor to Los Angeles magazine. "Surrender
yourself to churning worry, to indecision . . . time better
spent regretting the past."
Then came Jerry Stahl, author of "Permanent
Doesn't anybody sleep in this town?
"I don't know anywhere else they're doing
this kind of thing," said Victoria Ruskin, a movie set
designer in black leather, as she put on her motorcycle helmet
afterward. "It's a pretty interesting group of
The waning nights of the 2001 series feature
Emily Levine tonight, with her one-woman performance of
"How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Free
Market" (which will be introduced by Conal). The June 29
season finale will be a kind of artistic decathlon of videos,
performances, installations and music.
Perez is talking about hosting Track 16 Nights
on a monthly basis until the next season begins in February. And
next year's Track 16 Nights, she said, will sharpen the focus on
writers, poets and spoken word. She would like to invite
"some of the leading thinkers of the city to talk, not only
about art, but about what's going on politically, which for us,
ties in. The community has to expand at Bergamot Station and the
art world, go beyond borders."
The mixture of politics, pop and art is exactly
what Patchett had in mind. "We like to open the
dialogue," he said.