Catering to “overambitious amateur enthusiasts,” Machine Project conjures up an idiosyncratic fusion of classes and workshops that masterfully craft pedagogy out of the infinite realm of possibility. Hosting a range of workshops from psychic communion with plants to the typography of ransom notes, Machine Project is a non-profit arts organization that operates as an “informal educational institution” from its unassuming storefront in the Echo Park district of Los Angeles. Founder Mark Allen explains the cult appeal of the classes, stating, “We found that an engineer and a poet talking about noise music was even more interesting than a group of poets talking about poetry or a group of scientists discussing science.”
Born in Vermont, Allen received his MFA at the California Institute of the Arts and began honing his curatorial leanings towards the obscure through a series of trial and error. In Houston, Allen ran a gallery called Revolution Summer that adopted the Marxist theme of time as currency for the purchase of art works. Shortly after moving to LA, Allen became involved with the subversive art collective, C-Level (currently reincarnated as Betalevel), a group that was known for such sardonic situationist commentary as virtual cockfighting—contestants donned rooster suits with sensors—and the shock-inducing video game, Tekken Torture Tournament.
While at C-Level Allen started to combine his love for technology with a flourishing aptitude for teaching, which laid the groundwork for his philosophical approach to Machine Project. “My interest in teaching unexpected, creative and unsanctioned uses of technology in the production of art is in direct support to the idea that technology is a tool which can be used by any motivated individual,” he says. As a freelance programmer and a faculty member of the Digital Art Related Program Activities (DARPA) initiative at Pomona College, Allen relies heavily on the gestalt of technology factors in creating new courses at Machine Project, but at the same time invites a naturalistic study of the world around us.
In 2008, Machine Project took over the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for a day, and turned it inside out as a metaphorical nature center of activity, comprised of more than 60 projects that included “ambient haircuts,” musical elevators and a murder mystery entitled “A Machine Project Field Guide to the LA County Museum of Art.” Inspired by the artistry of set designers Christy McCaffrey and Sara Newey who designed the ornate gate created for the event, Allen asked the team to imagine a transformative environment for Machine Project’s own storefront. The result was an immersive forest installation that housed woodland-themed events involving banjo plucking, elf lore and “a presentation by some very dedicated Bigfoot enthusiasts.”
The inquisitive wit and spirited atmosphere at Machine Project is reflected in both the class subjects—a selection based on chance meetings with talented individuals—and the “hide-and-seek” mechanisms throughout the space. Whether it’s teaching a parent-child course on How to Steal Cars—”Our belief is that children who learn to steal cars with their parents are more likely to steal cars responsibly when they grow up,” Allen quips—or the storefront’s tree stump dumb waiter that delivers beer, Machine Project transforms the everyday into something simultaneously extraordinary and achievable.
Allen explains, “If you look around wherever you’re sitting there’s a large percentage of things whose workings are totally mysterious: cellphone, tape dispenser, refrigerator, computer. We are surrounded by a material culture where most people remain unaware of how everything that surrounds them is made. Machine Project exists to provide an opportunity for people to understand their built environment, to create a space in which accessibility to knowledge and hands-on, DIY learning experiences can happen right in our own neighborhood.”