Shotgun Review

From Los Angeles: Critical Campout

By Elyse Mallouk September 19, 2011

As part of the one-night event, Critical Campout, the Los Angeles Urban Rangers and members of the Los Angeles Poverty Department (LAPD) led museum–goers along a looped trail beginning at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) and dipping into Central City East, a fifty–five–block swath of the city more commonly called Skid Row. The Rangers named the route the Downtown Ecotone Trail, employing a word usually used to describe species-rich, liminal patches of land between dissimilar environments such as forest and tundra. Initially defined as a “stress line,” an ecotone not only connects the habitats on either side but also thrusts them into dynamic interaction.1

At the museum “trail head,” Rangers informed participants about “alternative” tent making and asked them to draw their ideal forms of habitation. Campers who reserved sites set up tents in MOCA’s outdoor plaza. As the sun set, hikers set out in small groups down a groomed, grassy patch of Bunker Hill. They walked under strings of lights draped across the Historic Core, and beside yoga studios and restaurants staffed with private guards. The sky darkened and streetlamps became scarce as the group progressed over plastic bags and clogged gutters, alongside alleyways fenced with barbed wire, and around improvised bedding on Wall Street.

Along the way, guides described city ordinances that confine the homeless population to Skid Row, allowing for “downtown development” by cordoning off a portion of the city’s population. Residents responded to the group’s presence in varied ways. Two heckled the crowd from behind, whooping loudly to interrupt a note about S.R.O. hotels. After a few rattled seconds the group moved to the next block, where another man joined the tour and reopened the narrative.

Los Angeles Urban Rangers, Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles

Los Angeles Urban Rangers,. Critical Campout (2011). Courtesy of the Artists and Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Photo: Christina Edwards.

He spoke about how his neighborhood has changed: “This used to be the real downtown.” At the edge of Skid Row on a well-lit corner, another’s comment seemed acerbic: “You’re taking a tour? I’m proud of your bravery! Welcome to poverty!” Throughout the course of the trek, hikers were asked to note changes in the environment and in themselves. Upon returning to MOCA, they sat in circles to swap stories. The group I traveled with stayed quiet unless prompted. Though those in attendance had succeeded in obtaining one of the tour’s scarce reservations, many felt uncomfortable.

In this charged socioeconomic scenario, the Rangers’ operative metaphor of the tour linked the activity to more gauche, exploitative forms. While the program offset associations with high-walled resorts by offering contextualizing discussions and guest speakers, the frankness of the tourism metaphor was what made the campout critical. The uneasiness of being a tourist on Skid Row demonstrated how deep the moat marked by Main Street is and made visceral the sense that the separation fails to serve the people on either side.



Critical Campout took place at Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles on September 1, 2011.



1. Koen Hufkens, Paul Scheunders, and Reinhart Ceulemans, “Ecotones in vegetation ecology: methodologies and definitions revisited,” Ecological Research, vol. 4 issue 5 (2009), doi: 10.1007/s11284-009-0584-7 (accessed September 15, 2011).

Comments ShowHide