November 21, 2018

Culture Lab project sends artists in search of truth

For the past several years, the Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center (SIJCC) has been bringing together artists across disciplines for what might be called extreme collaboration — the piecing together of original multimedia exhibitions and performances that challenge and explore central concepts in Judaism.

This year’s theme is as broad as it is timely: truth. Four artists — dancers Andrea Hodos and Alexx Shilling, designer Betsy Medvedovsky and composer Brendan Eder — were tapped to spend about four months digging into Scripture and daily news to try answering the question: How can you discern what the truth is?

The work inspired by this journey will be installed at SIJCC’s performance space, The Box, on June 28-30, with an artists talk on the evening of June 29.

The SIJCC launched the project, known as Culture Lab, in 2013. Other groups of Los Angeles-based artists have addressed the disparate themes like oil, disguise and sacrifice through interactive mixed-media art installations and performance pieces. The artists are selected through a peer nomination process.

The SIJCC gives the artists structure, financial support and a studio space during the program, which had been on hiatus for two years while more funding was secured. This cycle of the lab was funded by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors through the Los Angeles County Arts Commission’s Community Impact Arts Grant.

A major challenge for the artists is that none of them is in charge of the project, creating a deeper level of collaboration and conversation to bridge the divides between disciplines and artworks.

“What’s different about this project is there’s no head, there’s no leader,” Medvedovsky said. “I’ve worked with a lot of different people from different disciplines before. There was always one person in charge. It’s been a really good experience, even across our different disciplines, of creating a different language to work in.”

Entering the space, visitors to the project will experience a state of confusion, meant to reflect the current post-truth paradigm of fake news and unreliable leaders. Visitors will read headlines showing conflicting takes on the same stories. This experience will be contrasted with the revelations Moses received at Mount Sinai and handed down to the Hebrews, according to the Torah.

“The Sinai imagery became a really important part of the project,” Hodos said. “This moment of revelation, when all of the Israelites are seeing and experiencing God or truth at a pinnacle, and they still don’t get to see it all the way.”

The story of Moses and the Ten Commandments is a recurring motif in the installation that represents a defining moment for the Jewish people when “truth,” in the most profound sense of the word, is handed down from God to the people.

“There’s this clarity, there’s this belief that truth came from a higher source,” Medvedovsky said. “There’s this craving for that clarity now and wanting to have a sense of clarity in things we’re reading about or engaging with.”

The group worked with facilitators as well as religious consultants who could direct them to biblical narratives related to the search for truth. Hodos, a dancer and spoken-word artist who mainly makes work through a Jewish lens, brought her deep knowledge of Torah into the group’s conversations.

One story Hodos introduced is that of the golem, a mythical figure from Jewish folklore that is animated from clay. In some versions of the golem story, the word emet (“truth” in Hebrew) is written on its forehead. The golem could be stopped by removing the first letter of the Hebrew spelling, aleph, thus changing the inscription from “truth” to “death” (met meaning “dead” in Hebrew).

The Box at the SIJCC also is a gymnasium, and the large cavernous space was another challenge for the artists. They initially thought to cover the floor but decided to incorporate its markings into their performance.

One of the two dance performances features soundscapes written and performed live by Eder, a film composer. The audience will watch the dance through a large veil.

“We were really interested in this idea of veiling, of things being veiled — even in this moment of what was going to be as close to a complete revelation as you can get, there’s still boundaries,” Hodos said. “God keeps the Israelites away. Even Moses and God don’t fully connect.” The use of the veil, she added, “creates a space for Mount Sinai in the middle of the exhibit.”

Shilling said working with Hodos has been “illuminating” because the two have different dance processes, but both learned a great deal.

“We’re making two different dances. One will have more relationship to sacred texts and Torah. The other dance comes out of my own process of tightly scored improvisations,” Shilling said.

The artists agreed that their work isn’t meant to provide answers to the meaning of truth, but rather to invite visitors to examine their own relationship with the concept and find answers of their own.

The fifth Culture Lab will premiere at The Box @ SIJCC, located at 1110 Bates Ave., Los Angeles, at 7 p.m. June 29. Admission is free, donations are encouraged and everyone is welcome. There will be a preview from 6-8 p.m. on June 28. The work also will be on view June 30 for morning children and family activities, and from 7-10 pm. For more information, visit