Interview: Louis Hock

Faculty artist's latest includes major public art at LAX

Artist Louis Hock came to UC San Diego’s Department of Visual Arts in 1977, when the campus still had vast undeveloped acreage, there were only four colleges (versus six today), and the Stuart Collection of public art was six years in the future. Hock arrived as a16 mm filmmaker needing a steady job at a place where film equipment was readily available. Over the ensuing decades, he has become one of the best-known multimedia artists in Southern California, often focusing on the cross-cultural dynamics of our region. His video installation Homeland opened last year at Los Angeles International Airport, and he spent the past several months in Argentina editing the second installment of his immigration documentary project, The American Tapes, examining the lives of families who fled Mexico and re-invented themselves amid the wealth of Solana Beach, in northern San Diego County. Hock has mentored dozens of emerging artists at UCSD, and many have become prominent artists in their own right. Years ago, feeling restless, Hock looked at other university teaching gigs, but between his love of students, the value of UCSD as a foundation for his work, and, he confesses, the gorgeous setting, he decided to stick around. Dirk Sutro interviewed Louis Hock in his UC San Diego studio on January 16, 2013.

Tell us about your recent work. You were out of the country for a year.

In the course of the last year I finished a permanent video installation at LAX called Homeland for the new Tom Bradley International Terminal. The renovation of LAX is the biggest construction project in the history of Los Angeles [$1.55 billion, including the $737 million Tom Bradley International Terminal, where Hock’s video art is installed]. They commissioned 17 artists and the idea is that the art is permanent. The title for the project is “See Change,” and it had two sites, one of which was a video wall, and the other a snake or river of monitors—29 monitors along one side and 29 on the other. It afforded some unique possibilities because every monitor had a computer. I think the people commissioning the art had some idea that the people arriving would watch the video, but actually the people who watch the video are the people who are waiting for passengers to arrive, because they’re the ones with time to kill. Also chauffeurs and the people in airport offices, they watch because they spend a lot of time there.

In the airport, everybody’s homeless. Also in airports, you see a lot of images of hotels and businesses and the like but you don’t really see homes, you don’t really see where people live. So I took a video camera and mounted it on a car, not unlike Google did, except much higher resolution, and I went down various streets in the Los Angeles. And with the 29 monitors I could put them together in a way that all 29 monitors became one continuous film strip appearing as one long city block flowing along. I could shoot areas of town that were not wealthy and contrast them to some of the wealthier parts of town, or old architecture against new architecture, vertical versus horizontal. I was able to create a quilt, sort of, of the city.

I was also interested, since it’s an international arrival area, in populating the houses. So I looked over the languages that people speak who arrive at the airport and I got rid of all the English speakers except for the Australians, who speak so peculiarly it’s almost like a foreign language. And I asked hundreds of people, “What makes a house a home”? So I have everything from Icelandic to Spanish to Brazilian to indigenous Peruvian to Norwegian to French. Everybody describes what for them makes a house a home.

I saw an article once in an architectural journal where they asked people what they think of when they think of “home” and many of them said a gabled roof…

They said everything from a bed to a glass of wine to a cappuccino, a place for my guns, a place I can fart in peace, a place I can smoke, where my mother is, where my family is, where it’s warm, where there’s the touch of skin, a rooster and a mortgage. All sorts of very different kinds of reactions in different languages.

“Homeland” makes me think a number of things, partly the program Homeland as well the United States Department of Homeland Security, politics, conflict, power struggles, violence. What kinds of connotations does “homeland” have for you?

People you are waiting for in an airport are going to have to pass through homeland security, bringing the words into the literal. The government’s name “homeland security” optimistcally misses the whole notion of homeland and the Germans and what “heimatland” meant to Nazi Germany.

I was particularly interested in the idea of people thinking about home nationality in the broadest sense, meaning where they live and where they come from. When they described what “home” meant to them, they said it in various languages, and you can hear the languages at the installation, and read what they say onscreen with English subtitles. If you’re in the airport and you’re an international traveler and you’re waiting, and you hear Urdu, or French or Spanish pop-up in a whole series of languages, the phrase might be meaningful to you. My idea was to use language to form a sense of homeland in the cultural stew of the city. My intention was to make a portrait of Los Angeles, not a commercial portrait, not a business portrait, it was a domestic portrait, and that doesn’t really exist in the airport. A kind of place that they’re looking to go toward when they return from the airport or after they land when they go to someone’s home, which are actually the places in Los Angeles where they’re going to spend the most of their time.

What are the extreme ends of the range of neighborhoods you went to?

There are wonderful neighborhoods, like the old neighborhoods near downtown. When you drive down the street you see classic Spanish-style homes, yet looming above them on the skyline are the skyscrapers of downtown Los Angeles built a block behind. I chose to shoot only in the city of Los Angeles proper. Shooting was not easy, I had to shoot the side of the street that had the sun on it, and on garbage day so there would be fewer cars parked. The street had to be reasonably paved, it couldn’t be too bumpy. So I shot pretty much everywhere in L.A., from northern areas that are almost like ranches, more rural, all the way to apartment dwellings, everything from contemporary apartments to old apartments. If you plotted it on a map I think I used maybe 25 sites, and you would have a pretty even distribution over the city of Los Angeles geographically, essentially a pictorial emblem of domestic L.A.

Would that include places like Hollywood or Brentwood?

Yes. But I wasn’t going to shoot Long Beach, I wasn’t shooting Beverly Hills, because Beverly Hills is something else [an incorporated city].

In terms of the airport as a setting for your art --- the idea of public art in airports is something that has only emerged in recent years. The people who look at it aren’t necessarily the people you thought would look at it. What does having the airport ‘audience’ do to your art in terms of how you think about it?

Airports in certain ways are perfect because the people are sitting ducks, they’re bored. And often when people travel they’re receptive to things in ways you wouldn’t be in a usual state of mind, and a lot of those people are not necessarily art-goers or museum-goers, they’re not there because it’s art, they’re there because that what’s there and it engages them. So it’s great, because it offers an audience you can’t buy.

Do you have some idea of the kinds of reactions you’re getting from people who stop and look at the work?

They had an opening but I was out of the country so I missed it, so I don’t actually know in terms of the swarm of the art crowd what people actually saw, but I have gone and documented it, and it’s great to watch who’s watching and how they’re watching and how long they watch. It varies a lot. There are people who will just come out to the airport to see and airport employees on break.  My piece isn’t the only one. There are ten other videos on the strand of monitors playing and it’s great to see people eat their lunches and watch the videos, choosing to sit down and look at the video… and there’s also a rectangular 5 x 5’ wall at the other end of the arrival area with artist videos and people sit down and have a sandwich or drink a beer and look at the mural, particularly people who are alone. A lot of people who come to an airport to pick up somebody are alone and you see them sit down and spend a long time looking, which they would not do in a museum. They might see it if was on a street corner but then they might not have the time. Here you have the time and opportunity engage them.

What was the selection process? How did you get chosen to do this piece?

Particular artists were selected to submit proposals and I think nearly everybody… the people who submitted, most were chosen, and of those chosen, some completed projects and some did not. They selected 17 artists.

Who’s the curator?

Anne Bray. She curated See Change, as well as the annual L.A. Freewaves in Los Angeles. She does a lot of video curation and is great. She’s just recently curated a whole series that puts videos in buses, public buses in Los Angeles. So when you’re riding a bus...

As far as your involvement, is the Homeland project at LAX finished?

Oh, it’s finished. Or at least until it stops being “permanent.”

You’ve been out of the country…

I was in Argentina. I was editing a videotape, not about Argentina, but I was editing. It was a finishing-a-project mission rather than doing a project while I was in Argentina. I need my Spanish to get better, and I was speaking Spanish all the time, so that helped. I made a videotape in 1986 called The Mexican Tapes which was about the life and times of four Mexican families living in the apartments in Solana Beach that I lived in. It was an unintentional video. I mean, I lived there and I wanted to make a video because I’d never made one before and I started taping and it was going to be a small project. Well… it took five years and it ended up being four one-hour videos which showed on PBS, BBC, Televisa.

Was the neighborhood Eden Gardens?

No it wasn’t, it was actually along the coast in Solana Beach. Then about 25 years later, about 2007 or so, the kids started asking for copies of the tape so they could show their childhood to their kids, who were asking where they had lived and where they came from. I made copies for them and we started talking so… I began a second series. And I’ve just finished the second part. The first was called The Mexican Tapes: A Chronicle of Life Outside the Law and covered 1978 - 1984. And the second one is titled The American Tapes: Tales of Immigration. It ended up being another four-hour tape, four pieces, a four-hour series, the video follows the same four families again from 2007 to 2012 

Who were the people that you interviewed? Was it the original subjects plus…

The original families and the kids. Three of the families live in North County and one family went back to Mexico, and one of the daughters is working in L.A.

So what kinds of things did the children say when they saw the original video and then you talked with them?

One of the daughters said, “It’s the best home movie anybody could have” (laughs). And for them it’s a record of a particular time and moment. Still today almost everybody in the video that I interview, when I mention the word Analos, they are wistful and many of the women tear up.


The apartments were called the Analos Apartments. Solana Beach—Solana backwards, it’s not a Mexican word. It was a very hidden place that was generally safe from Immigration raids… all Mexican people and a lot like Mexican town, I mean socially. People congregated outdoors, Spanish conversations, kids playing together,  a big patio in the middle. So the kids now, they’re all, nearly all, people who benefited from 1986 “Amnesty” laws which means that they are now citizens. The quick passage from being “illegal” to potentially being citizens was seen by many as reprehensible. It’s the description by the law that distinguishes the two, “legal” from the ‘Illegal”, not their actual behavior or character. The parents mowed lawns or cleaned houses or did construction or jobs like that and their kids now manage a Ralphs, manage a Carl’s Jr., have their own restaurant, have their own accounting business. They’re very accomplished people and they all of course speak good English. The grandkids sometimes don’t even speak Spanish and may be our students. Immigration is something that is not a moment, it takes generations and these two videotapes address this act of immigration taking place over a couple generations in four families.

Earlier in our conversation, you mentioned Germany in passing. Do you have a personal connection to the immigrant experience?

Well, in some ways – and I didn’t quite realize it until later --- but my curiosity about the Analos Apartments, where I loved living, was this very Mexican community but then you stepped out on Highway 101, or you stepped out on the beach street adjacent to it, you were back in the U.S.A. I spent many years as a youth in Nogales on the border and I had family on the American side where I spent most of the time but I also had an extension of that family on the Mexican side. So in some ways I was replicating my early childhood by living in this neighborhood, you know, I had a door to the United States, a door to Mexico. That’s probably why it was so appealing, felt so comfortable.

You were in Argentina the past several months working on the project, is it done now?

As we speak someone is working on the sound edit and I have a few more pieces of music to get rights to, other than that it’s finished. I’m right now trying to find distribution. It’s being entered in film festivals and I’m soliciting some broadcasters. My idea of the ideal would be to have it broadcast during the time that immigration has a presence in the Congress and is being debated. Which I imagine would be in the spring.

So… what now? What’s the next project?

I probably have too many things. I’d like to make another videotape, I’d like to make a 4K video but I also have some ideas for sculptural installations and also some public art work. So I have to establish some priorities. I always have ideas, it’s just figuring the time to do it. I always start out with an idea that seems so simple and stupid that I could do it in a week and it always takes years (laughs). So I have to choose my projects pretty carefully otherwise I run out of time.

Is there going to be a connection between your work and the Structural and Materials Engineering building at UC San Diego, and the collaborations going on there between artists, and engineers and scientists?

If I do 4K video, I’ll be using that facility, but not immediately.

What would the 4K project be, what would you use that ultra-high resolution format for?

Well I’ve always thought that one of the problems with video is that the image always looks so poor you could never really deal with the landscape. But 4K has enough resolution that you can actually make a video that addresses the notion of landscape in a way that doesn’t look like a cartoon.

Landscape in the sense of…

Particularly… the western United States…

The natural landscape?

The natural landscape, yeah. I’m thinking of doing something that makes use of landscape and I have a couple of ideas but I’ll wait and see what happens.

What about your teaching. You are back at UCSD after a year away, what’s your interaction with students?

I’m teaching two undergraduate courses this quarter and also have independent study graduate students and undergraduate honors students. In spring quarter I teach a grad class and an undergraduate class, so… I’ve jumped in.

What’s the range, from a basic undergrad class you teach to a grad project on which you’re an adviser?

The independent study projects don’t count as teaching per se, they’re just something that’s implicit to being on the faculty. It’s not very formally credited, it’s just what you do, and those are individual projects, each one is unique. Undergraduate courses, you have a curriculum which includes a description of the course. So, one mode of teaching is defined by the student and the other is part of the design of the system.

What’s one of your undergrad classes?

I’m teaching a course called Media Sketchbook, which I helped create and which I enjoy a lot. It’s the first class students take when they come out of a large introductory class where they made some video, but it always was with a wad of people. In this class they have to make individual videos, one each week, one to two minutes. So at the end of the class they’ve made nine videos.

Do you care what equipment they use?

No. Some have their own, some use the university’s. I encourage them to use professional equipment because they get a better education out of it than using the equipment that their dad bought them.

You mentioned 4K video, and the other extreme is---even news agencies now are starting to publish iPhone video online. Is that…

Actually the assignment for my class this week is to go out and shoot a video on your iPhone and then write a script and do a voiceover that accompanies the video.

Do you see iPhone video as a viable medium for art or is it a toy?

Well, it depends. I’m using iPhone video. I recorded a wedding and I I’m using music with images I shot with an iPhone in my video which will presumably be broadcast.

Jumping way back now. Give us a few highlights from grad school to early academia. That’s probably a 50-page book, but…

I got out of grad school as a 16mm filmmaker. I went to the Art Institute of Chicago, and I realized I had to couple myself with an institution to make films because as an individual I couldn’t afford all the equipment but institutions had the equipment. So I took a job at the University of Texas Arlington. And I thought I would hate Texas and like the teaching, but actually I hated the institution and I liked Texas. Then I got some grants so I left, and eventually came to UCSD a few years later. And I’ve been here longer than most of the buildings.

You came here in what year?

’77, a long time ago. I kept trying to leave, but… Well, I tried to leave San Diego but I couldn’t find a better job. I’ve got a studio here, it’s not so hard to get research done, I’ve got smart students, the weather’s nice. Beer is cheaper in Milwaukee and other places have certain advantages but not overwhelming… so I stayed here.

Is there an early project that you’re still excited about, but that subsequent generations may not be aware of?

Well… I did a lot of films using time-lapse. I was really fascinated with Mayan culture in which god was not, time was not a component of the deity, the deity was time, not unlike the Hopi who believe in the need to help make the sun go up or life will not go on.  And I was fascinated with using this element of time in film synthetically , the idea of time-lapse… so three times I set up cameras for a year, it was a big 35 mm animation camera that would take a picture every 20 minutes or an hour and record a year. And then I would take those images and make films.

What were the locations?

One was a skyscraper, Sears Tower in Chicago. One was a shopping center, a strip mall in Arlington, Texas, and another was a juniper and piñon forest in New Mexico.

I’ve also done a lot of public art. I’ve done some objects but mostly it’s been collaborative work. We would make a provocative gesture and then it would be played out in the media through improvisational acts. We took up issues that people can’t hear or see and that don’t have a presence in public media. It gives these issues a pedestal through the art activity and enters them into the public discourse becoming part of the civic narrative.

I’ve done a lot of projects with Elizabeth Sisco and David Avalos (both UCSD alumni). Looking back at the path of my work in general, careens through various media: public art projects that deal more with media space than physical space, single channel video work which is shown on TV or in art institutions, and media installations such as film murals. Last year there was a show in L.A. called Pacific Standard Time and I made a film mural in 1979 that was included. It was originally shown on streets primarily, rear-projected in windows or on the fronts of walls or whatever, a three-screen projection that started off as a film work. I turned it into video and then made a trailer that was shown in the gallery at the Getty as part of the Pacific Standard Time exhibition.

So, public art, single-windowed video and film, and installations, those have primarily been the three areas of my work. They’re very blurry. But those are the three arenas that my work has fallen into.

After 35 years in the academic world at UCSD, what are the most trying things and what are the coolest things?

Well…I like the students…particularly the smarter students (laughs). I love to have a student produce a work that surprises me. At my age you’ve seen a lot of student projects, so when a student makes a tape that surprises you it’s a great thing, and sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t, but it’s a delight. In terms of… bad things…’s hard to see a university struggle with such financial burdens, it’s tough to see programs which should be thriving not thriving because there’s not enough money to support them either through faculty positions or funding of equipment or labs. I think that’s very problematic and sad.

Can you give a couple examples of students you’ve mentored who have graduated to interesting artistic careers of their own?

There are two students I worked with who had films on POV, the documentary program on PBS. Adele Horne’s film “The Tailenders” is about the dissemination of Christian gospel through low-tech playback mechanisms like a record that you move with your finger that plays sound on a cardboard record player. It can play Bible stories translated into various languages, then is dropped by helicopters, or carried, in to disseminate the word of God. . It was a very good film because it examined other cultural and political values carried along with the Bible, such as the idea of no longer participating in communal life because you have an alliance with God and not with your fellow tribe members or capitalism over the traditional barter system. It was smart.

And then Laura Nix just finished a film called “The Light in Her Eyes” which was also shown on POV, about a woman teaching young women in Syria who are Muslims, women who are in school, to memorize the Koran. The film is striking because as an outsider you’re amazed with the image of these very heavily clothed women memorizing a book en masse. In Western culture that idea of rote memorization and other seemingly constrictive practices on these young women’s lives imposed by the culture and religion appear rather severe. On the other hand the woman in the film who’s getting the women to memorize the Koran, within her culture, she is seen as a radical feminist Islamist leader. Laura shows male Muslim leaders who are speaking out against her as being a radical woman. So there’s this very valuable lesson about cultural norms and the idea of being able to transfer things across cultures and the idea of presuming that you might know better about other cultures. I thought it was a good video and I’m glad she was able to do it.

What do you see as future possibilities for your art as faster smaller equipment that can handle more information emerges?

The future media world will rival the natural world. Media production will become this constant companion whether it’s on a cell phone or a video wall. Instead of having a moment to watch a film or going to see a video, it will be inescapable.

I imagine people’s bodies being fitted with equipment, because in five or 10 years it will be so small…

You’ll snap your fingers and images will show on the backs of your glasses. You’ll watch a movie while you’re waiting for your bus and then snap your fingers and it’ll go away. When you get on the bus and sit down you can turn it back on continue watching your video. Your earphones will be built into the glasses. You’ll have to struggle to separate yourself from this new world because it will be all around you.

Do you see these technologies creating cool possibilities or is it scary to consider how deeply we may dive into digital worlds?

It’s only scary if you are never able to experience “the other”… the “not media” world. Like someone who knows the city with a GPS on their cell phone, but when they lose their phone they don’t know where they are. It should not be like that (laughs). That’s a scary thought.

So is it scary how much time a 9- or 10-year-old spends videogaming when he or she could be outside playing baseball or riding a bicycle?

I don’t think there’s any reason for taboos but it’s good that someone has an idea of the outside… because media isn’t the world. If you lose sight of the physical character of the world then you become like people living in the Biosphere experiment, in this little world which is self-sustaining and that doesn’t need to deal with the real world, imagining it is no longer there. No matter what you do you’ve still got to breathe the air and you’ve still got to stand and look at the sun and you’ve got to worry about global warming. The digital world is not an adequate escape from those problems, hopefully it will be an adequate tool to solve them.