Category Archives: Vacant Lots

Blurring Boundaries: A Conversation About Urban Nature with Jennifer Renteria

For Activate Vacant, SEMAP invited artists to transgress space by creating installations in abandoned, un-used, and, often, fenced of lots. Jennifer Renteria, a recent graduate of USC’ School of Architecture, is our third artist. In anticipating her project, we thought we’d let you know a little more about her.

Renteria grew up in the city of Commerce, studied history and fine arts Bowdoin College and recently received her a Master’s in Landspace Architecture. Her research, writing, and projects, which often utilize photography and multimedia, center around informal/alternative economies and the relationship between the urban environment and nature.

Credit: Jennifer Renteria

This past year, she visited and wrote about informal urban economics in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Santiago Chile, and Rio Matanza, Buenos Aires. Yet, Renteria’s most extensive research and writing has focused on El Monte’s very own Starlite Swap Meet. This seems fitting, since her family has had a stand at the Starlight for the last twenty-some years:

Our bicycle business, purchased from another dedicated bicycle vendor, began as a hobby and eventually became the base of my family’s income as my parents’ employment status changed. The entire family, as well as the day laborers, teens, and occasional uncle we have employed over the years, have worked the stand, engaging in the swap meet’s demands alongside the other approximately 200 vendors.

Her essay “The Ephemeral Anatomy of the Swap Meet” combines a deep and personal connection to the Starlite with serious academic research. By being able to navigate and converse with its denizens she found that the Starlite can best be characterized as “paranormal.” This means that “Formal activities – fees and regulations – and informal activities – transient vending and secret sales – are both at play, on top of each other and with each other.” This includes a paying customer who secretly brings in goods to sell, vendors selling goods outside the swap meet, that dude selling raspados from his shoping cart, and a vendor who regularly pays for their space.

Credit: Jennifer Renteria

Renteria suggests that it is exactly this mix of informality/formality, ephemeral/permanence that provides such rich opportunities. She applies James Rojas’ notion of  “enacted environment”—the ability of Mexicans and Mexican Americans in East Los Angeles to adopt the built environment, such as parks, streets, sidewalks, to fit their social and entrepreneurial interest and needs—to the Starlite:

This consistency within a seeming transient existence – as marked by the immediateness of the transactions, the exchanges, the relationships, the potential for growth, the ability to mobilize and move ahead into new spaces, relatively easily reshaping one’s business as one goes – is perhaps part of the reason why spaces like the swap meet thrive as they do and have long appealed to folks like my family and the many others who shape them.

Her other body of work has focused on the relationship between the urban environment and nature. Renteria’s Master Thesis (2012) examines the urban environment and nature, with a pedagogical angle. Her study explores the “value of utilizing digital media and transmedia strategies for enriching the urban interpretive user experience of both cultural and natural landscapes and, therefore, increase the scope of environmental educational outlets and tools.”

Below, is a brief interview with Renteria.

What exactly does a Landspace Architect do?

Landscape architects themselves seem to struggle to answer that questions these days. Given how rapidly the profession has evolved in recent years, the profession’s description and limitations have become increasingly blurred. This is especially so because its related training in design, ecology, and the social sciences have become increasingly recognized as a way to approach and address an array of urban development projects and issues. Simply, though, a landscape architect researches, designs, plans, and manages land while largely asking, What is here? What was here? Why is it no longer here? What should be kept? and What can and should be here?

The materials and methods a landscape architect deals with are well influenced by change and/or are developed to respond to change.  To quote Heraclitus, “nothing endures but change” and landscape architects are well aware of this and always, whether they deliberately do so or not, apply this understanding to their work.

You describe the Starlite Swap Meet as a place full of potential. What can artists and art organizations learn from how the Starlite Swap Meet functions?

Perhaps the most relevant things one can learn from how the swap meet works are both the importance of showing up and of remaining persistent despite sometimes adverse conditions (which, in the case of the swap meet, the most obvious obstacles are the sometimes unforgiving weather conditions – yes, even in Los Angeles), specifically when trying to create a community or network around a certain issue or cause. Very little makes it known to outsiders that the swap meet exists, even as one is passing by it at the height of its active days. Yet, those who regularly attend, know that the swap meet’s regular vendors will show up and, when they don’t, something is not in its place. A great big announcement is unnecessary to stake one’s claim of or importance to a community. What seems to be more important is to remain active (however big or small the gesture may be), to remain visible to those who care, and to remain flexible, yet dedicated to whatever cause motivates and drives you, always knowing that things change and that they can change quickly and drastically. “Prepare for the worst, assume the best.”

Spatially, South El Monte is a made up of industrial, residential, and nature (both nature constructed or curated by people and “nature”) zones, often blurring into each other. What possibilities do you see for this type of space?

Greater interconnectedness between these various zones. While one stands in any one of these zones, it is often hard to recognize that any one of the other zones exists and, much less, is accessible. Certainly, these zones at times butt right against each other, as can be easily witnessed at the swap meet, with its surrounding residential and light industrial zones engulfing it. However, there is very little permeability between these zones, so getting from one to the other is difficult. In some ways, they are turning their backs on each other when it seems that they can function better, more holistically, perhaps, by opening up to each other and making better use of each other’s different appeal to their respective users and their consequent impact on the character of South El Monte.

How does your project for Activate Vacant relate to your previous work?

At the core of all my projects – from my work on street vending to my work on urban nature – is an ongoing investigation of how people interpret and shape place, how time influences the way people interact with place, and how place and time shape people. More so, all of these explorations are hyper aware of change, and the blurred line that marks where culture and nature end and begin. Be it in a dense, urban setting or in a more remote, “wild” condition – these questions always remain relevant.

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Christopher Anthony Velasco’s “Let It Sparkle”

“Let it Sparkle” is a public art installation by Christopher Anthony Velasco that occupied much of a vacated car garage at the corner of Tyler Ave and Ramona in El Monte as part of SEMAP’s Activate Vacant series. The unoccupied building, painted over entirely in white, including the glass windows, shines under the blazing sun like a skull on a scorched landscape. On a Saturday morning in August, Velasco and a crew of SEMAP posse reoccupied the dead space with an intricate web of multi-colored yarn, neon colored tape and glitter.  Lots and lots of glitter.

Beautiful or obnoxious? Well, that depends.

Once a certain Italian arts magazine editor I knew snidely described L.A. art as mostly glitter. Yes, glitter, the prepubescent girls’ medium of choice. Her derisive remark revealed her disdain for west coast art. This was of course, well before Pacific Standard Time, greater L.A.’s recent major comprehensive showcase of L.A. art, and the current, Made in L.A. Not to mention a nice March 2012 issue of Artforum dedicated almost entirely to art in L.A., featuring (best of all) ASCO’s  “Gang Victim Decoy” on the cover.

GLITTER. My god. I wondered what janky art shows this Italian editor had been attending. I certainly did not know any artists that were using anything as frivolous as glitter in their work…

Yet years later, I have found myself sprinkling a tube of gold glitter across the asphalt of an abandoned car garage. Now more than then, I see how little she understood about L.A. art, and probably less about L.A. I also realize, as I have learned more about L.A., how little I understood, or appreciated…. well, glitter.

For one thing: It’s not just the medium itself that matters, but also how it’s used and how it’s applied. The glitter in Christopher Velasco’s project was applied like a blessing to this barren ground, like something beautiful, almost sacred, at least very special, that was being offered to this place, scorching with asphalt and parched of color. Afterall, SEMAP artists care about making art, and sharing beauty and of course, about South El Monte and El Monte.

Unexpectedly, the yarn, tape and glitter highlight the lovely particularities of the place, the way I believe a good make up job does on a face. Not distract or detract or hide. But rather point out the accents.  For instance, a horizontal strip of red tape draws your eye to the grainy texture of a cinderblock wall, contrasts it with the peeling paint on a plywood boarded window.

As we strung yarn across distances, knotted and wrapped it over the surfaces of pipes and door handles, the possibilities seem to reveal themselves and multiply infinitely with every found piece of debris, crack or corner. It started with the permanent stable structures, walls, hooks, window frames, iron grates, and then extended rhizomatically onto impermanent objects and surfaces –styrofoam cups, strewn pipes, weeds grown out of crack, equalizing building architecture with happenstance litter.

The nature of the project was exploratory and entirely improvised, dependent on the whim of Velasco and each posse. The yarn was strung from one arbitrary spot to another, cutting across the space. To call it a web, as in a spider’s, would suggest some order.

More accurately, it was a kind of anarchic net that seemed to entrap, or hold, or even embrace everything and anything, including the trespassing bodies of artists. Instead of ensuring a quick getaway should the cops start patrolling too frequently, we seemed to be weaving ourselves into the fabric of the installation. Even the litter on the property was lovingly embraced by the yarn.

Of course, “Let It Sparkle’s” use of yarn certainly evokes one of the more recent street art trend known as yarn bombing or guerrilla knitting. According to Malia Wollan’s article in the New York Times, yarn bombing is a more “feminine” approach to graffiti by employing a “most matronly craft”.  However, despite its harmlessness, it is still considered vandalism and littering.

So is this vandalism or art? Street art or public art?

Again the answer is not in WHAT, but in the HOW something is done. As is, intrinsic to much installation art, where the viewing audience is as implied as the art object, “Let it Sparkle” also happens to be almost excruciatingly self-aware, pushing the project into the realm of performance. And if you know the corner of Tyler and Ramona, you know that the audience is the constant body of bus riders patiently waiting for their forever irregular buses. On this particular day, the audience consisted of plenty of middle aged señoras y señores, mostly Latino and Asian. In addition to a built-in bus stop audience, there were car passengers waiting at red lights. Many wide-eyed and open-mouthed viewers pressing their faces against their windows to see this odd, if not absurd performance.

Very quickly, it became clear that part of the project was the actual movement through the space of the vacant lot and through the project as we negotiated with our own occupation, and with the project itself. The thing we were making was making demands of us, it required that we use our bodies, carefully and sometimes strenuously, requiring all sorts of body contortions over delicate yarn configurations. The maneuvers became more complex as the web itself became more extended and involved.

It’s street art if you don’t ask for permission. It’s a public art installation if you do. As far as I’m concerned we had the permission of our audience who were often very curious and unhesitant to ask “que estan haciendo?” We’re putting some color in this space. Repeatedly, the response was “Esta muy bien.”

With that said, as SEMAP moves forward in this series of Activate Vacant projects we have also had to wrap our minds around their ephemeral nature. Yarn, loose glitter, tape and litter don’t hold well under the elements or the watchful eye of city and police authorities. Their life span potentially and likely, is brief. The performance or the impression of the performance will probably outlast the installation object itself, as taut yarn configurations loosen, wilt and unravel.  Or as someone impatiently machetes or bewildered, scissor snips their way through.

Beautiful or obnoxious?

Hey, why not both. But never disrespectful or harmful. Maybe it takes some bratty sassiness to make art that is both transgressive and lovely. Maybe it’s not entirely about WHAT you do, but HOW you do it.

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Short Video of “Let It Sparkle” edt. Henry Pacheco

Activate Vacant: This SAT New Art Project

SEMAPosse and Friends, this SAT Christopher Anthony Velasco will install his color intervention “Let it Sparkle”. We’ll be meeting at the El Monte Bus Station (Santa Anita Avenue near the 10 freeway) between 9:45 and 10:00am. From the bus stop we’ll walk to the vacant lot. Carri and Romeo will bring colorful, unhealthy, man-made snacks and maybe some colorful, healthy ones from nature 🙂 too…Hope to see you there.

“Let it Sparkle” is part of the on-going vacant lot projects Activate Vacate. Continuing with our goal to think critically about how we use space, we  invited artists to use art to transform and activate vacant lots. Installations and performance will be going up throughout the summer and fall in vacant lots in South El Monte and El Monte.

Open Call for Artist Proposals: Activate Vacant


Vacant lots are everywhere in our community. Some of them are abandoned car lots, others were intended to be shopping malls but were never built, and some have been empty for so long that it’s hard to tell what was there or what was supposed to be there. Continuing with our goal to think critically about how we use space, we are inviting artists to participate in our vacant lot project titled “Activate Vacant.” It’s a very simple project: utilizing formerly discarded objects from one’s backyard, garage, house, and/or items purchased at yard sales or thrift stores artists will create an installation, sculpture, performance, or playground toy in vacant lots throughout South El Monte and El Monte. The aim is to activate otherwise abandoned objects and spaces. Finished projects can do this by bringing color and creativity to spaces that are considered blight or/and by inviting residents to use their finished projects.

Each vacant lot provides its own particular challenges and opportunities. Click here to check out some of the El Monte/South El Monte vacant lots.

Artists, urban planners, graphic designers, poets, and other creative folk interested in participating should email a short description of a proposed project and resumé to semartsposse@gmail.com by July 13th.

Projects will be selected based on the following criteria:

  • Creative use of discarded items
  • Mindfulness of local community
  • Carefully consideration of the relationship between vacant lot, people, and objects
  • Feasibility
  • Concept