by Gillian Robin
“So where are you from?”
A simple, justifiable question to ask someone when you first meet them. It’s a way to tap into to a person, a way to figure them out immediately and allow (hopefully) for follow-up questions, usually along the lines of, “Oh yeah! I heard [insert local band] is from there!” or “Woah, my grandma lives there!”
But when someone asks me where I’m from, I retract, the butterflies in my stomach flutter, and any persona I fronted is dropped. Because I’m from Lancaster, in the Antelope Valley, in the Mojave Desert, about halfway between Bakersfield and Los Angeles. No, not the picturesque, we-should-start-a-commune-here Joshua Tree Desert that everyone in my co-op flocks to each three-day weekend, but the cheap, commuter desert that’s home to a ridiculous mixture of rocket scientists (thanks to the Air Force base), future professional athletes, scary, NIMBY, Tr*mp-supporting desert people, a large prison, and one single shopping mall that still happens to have a Sears in it. Streets don’t have names in the AV, they’re simply letters (which run east-west) and numbers (which run north-south). On your birthday, you go to the Olive Garden. You get the vibe.
Sometimes, admittedly, my long-winded explanations of the desert town where I grew up are premature, and I get the occasional “Oh yeah, I use to have soccer tournaments out there.” or the “I stopped to pee there once.” Though without fail, those are followed by the classic “There’s not much out there, huh?,” to which I always reply, “Yup,” with the ashamed, defeated expression that only people from places deemed “insignificant” know how to pull.
Usually, though, I’m prompted to explain myself to people from places that I know all too well. People from The Valley™, which is less than an hour away from me, look at me with a vacant expression on their face and reply with the unimpressed, “Oh, wait, how far is that from LA?” as if your proximity to Los Angeles determines your value as a person. When I don’t feel like explaining the exact coordinates of my town, I just say “around LA,” because *technically* my town lies on the correct side of the Los Angeles/Kern County border. But even then, my friends who are (very proudly) from approved LA sub-towns shoot me a look, as if I’m not worthy of wearing the Los Angeles title and the social prestige that goes with it.
The only reason I’m explaining the nuances of my relationship with Lancaster is because, although it’s a desert that regularly reaches 105 degrees in the summer months, deserts get pretty fucking cold.
“But, Gill, c’mon, it’s a desert!” I know, but no one tells you about the chill that deserts welcome every October. That’s why half of y’all try camping in Joshua Tree and end up at an Airbnb because you forgot the down-feather Patagonia jacket that you got for your study-abroad in Berlin last semester. What my LA friends underestimate, and what I take deep, self-validating pleasure in, is their ability to dress in cold weather. You see, the privilege of being from Lancaster, where it’s boiling in the summer and below freezing in the winter, has taught me and my body how to function properly in any climate. So here, to all my Studio City, Agoura Hills, and Sherman Oaks pals out there, is the Desert Rat’s Guide to Winter, because, well, y’all need it:
Step 1: Ditch the puffy jacket.
It’s Berkeley, it will NEVER drop below 55 degrees. I know, “I’m cold when the temperatures dip below 70, blah blah blah,” but your vintage North Face looks ridiculous in a heated lecture hall. Sure, we all heard the crazy, quintessentially Los Angeles story of how you got it, which is usually something like “I fought a Youtuber for it at Jet Rag’s Dollar Sundays!” or “I went to this estate sale of this old movie producer in Bel Air and is was tucked in the back of the closet!” But I promise, you’d be much less obnoxiously Southern Californian if you opted for layers, perhaps a nice long-sleeve tee under a jacket, or something else that doesn’t scream “Help, I’m frozen.”
Step 2: Your Golf Le Fleur high-tops aren’t waterproof.
No one wants to comfort you after you ruin your coolness-approved shoes on the rainy walk to Dwinelle. Yes, they match everything, and yeah, Camp Flog Gnaw had a great lineup, etc., but rain doesn’t discriminate based off of social media clout, and you will be wildly uncomfortable taking that 2-part American Studies midterm in wet socks. Perhaps throw on “your mom’s old Docs from the ‘80s!” instead of $100 “vintage canvas and burlap” sneakers.
Step 3: Finally, it’s time to swap the “Yeehaw, I’m a cowgirl” aesthetic for the “Call your Babushka” look.
Your pink cowboy hat won’t shield your wet, post-shower hair from the Bay Area breeze, but you know what will? The headscarf that your mom wore on her first date (a drive through Mulholland!) with your dad. Besides, if you’re going to look LA, go for the classy, intellectual Joan Didion-esque Los Angeles, the kind of LA where sunglasses are bigger than your face and you always have a copy of The New Yorker (how bicoastal!) in your tote bag. The “I listen to The Garden” LA vibe is strictly reserved for warmer weather, and UNIF never quite transitions well to NorCal anyway.
Well, Angelinos, I hope this desert rat from the middle of nowhere could help your winter-ensued identity crisis. If it makes you feel any better, we all already know you’re from LA, and we love how much pride, memory, and respect you have for your roots. Los Angeles will always be your home, and perhaps others could never understand that. But, sometimes, a little chill is good for the soul, and a little openness can definitely help warm you up.
by Gillian Robin
I don’t completely remember the first time I met Leilah. I know it had been about a year ago, but I can’t remember the specific circumstances and, when I asked her about it, she was just as stumped. “Maybe through Cai?” she said, referring to a mutual friend of ours, but the details were fuzzy. It was unusual for me not to remember things like that, especially because Leilah was not the type of person you passively meet and immediately forget their name. When you met Leilah, it felt like it was for a reason. I remember hearing wild tales from our mutual friends about her, from her olympic-level athleticism to her trips to Bangladesh to teach English. She is a sharp, curious person, the kind that isn’t afraid to question things you say immediately upon meeting her, with an expression that reveals her confusion and skepticism. Last semester, Leilah and I had a class in the Art History department together. Although she was, at this point, only an acquaintance that I was vaguely afraid of, Leilah and I spent those classes in the basement of Moffitt freezing, sleepy, and frustrated together, listening to our professor practice lectures that he was going to give to people that were way more important than us. Afterwards, we’d walk the two flights up to ground level, complaining about the unnecessary esotericism and the normativeness of the content. This semester, we have a similar ritual, only our class is infinitely more interesting and our professor is infinitely more relatable. As an Art Practice and Art History student, Leilah has a nice overlap of interests with me, but diverse enough experiences to make our conversations important and refreshing to the both of us. This interview was inspired by a conversation I had with Leilah one Friday after our class together in her apartment.
Q: You and I have spoken before about how you’ve gotten involved in art. Could you explain that again?
Leilah: Sure, I think I first got into art through my sport. I grew up as a synchronized swimmer, which, although it is pretty technical, it’s more of an expressive sport, more like dance. It’s also expensive in the same way dance is; I was expected to buy new costumes constantly. Anyway, that led me to take a string of dances classes, from ballet classes to contortionist classes to flamenco classes. All this choreography-oriented art needed garments that expressed that expression, so I started making my own costumes. That, and the fact that I constantly needed new, expensive costumes. So I think that was my introduction to art. I also took some fashion classes in high school, but I was often frustrated at the outcomes of the store-bought patterns, because I felt like the outcomes weren’t mind. So I started manipulating them and making my own pieces.
Q: So you study art, but you make fashion. Why’d you pick art as the route to the fashion industry?
L: Honestly, it came down to paying for school. I’d gotten into a couple of fashion design schools, but they were expensive and the very-rigidly defined “fashion degree.” I didn’t want to be stuck at a fashion school if I changed my mind, and Berkeley gives me freedom to explore. Plus, there’s a lot of freedom in the Art Practice degree here, I can take classes that hone in on my fashion focus.
Q: Do you find any resistance with trying to bridge the art and fashion gap?
L: There’s always somewhat of a resistance towards wanting to include fashion in the art world. I think it has to do with the blatant commodification of fashion. The economy of fashion has a marketing concern; there’s more of an explicit supply and demand factor in the fashion industry, and that’s a truism that I’m willing to acknowledge. But I don’t necessarily think those same factors aren’t at play in the art industry. There’s heavy politics around the museum and gallery space, and no one wants to admit that fine art is just as wrapped up in “the product” as other commodities. So I think it’s a lot of internal anxiety in the art world. But when you really look at it, art and fashion systematically function in a lot of the same ways. There’s differences between cat posters and museum murals, just as there’s a difference between Forever 21 and Comme des Garçons. Accepting fashion as art makes artists and gallerists accept that art is commerce and production. And us artists have to admit that before we can challenge that.
Q: As a fashion designer, how to you hope to challenge that aspect of commerce?
L: I think that there’s something about making clothes for people, something about providing them with what they need that can even invoke feelings or questions about representation and self-determination in them. But obviously, there’s a lot of seediness in the fashion industry; there’s a lot of hiding what people are doing and where things are coming from, and consumers must choose with their dollar what is worthy and what isn’t. It’s a messed up, manipulated relationship, but it’s a relationship that can be mended through exposure, decency, and respect: knowing where our clothes come from and who made them. Again, I don’t think that the art world is void of this manipulations either. We still see shady Warholian workshops through people like Jeff Koons, only we validate that through concepts of intellectual property and “art as genius” mentality. What I feel about fashion is what I feel about art; once we start paying artists appropriately and consistently, we must start to question who and how our art is made and, therefore, legitimized, and we have to stop letting the intellectual or academic concept of “art” get in the way of our ability to critique the way it practically functions in society.
Q: What kinds of things are you working on now? Anything particularly related to this relationship between art and fashion?
L: In my painting class, I’m working on a dress that revolves around the same themes. On one side, there’s Bernini’s Faun sculpture, and Botticelli's The Birth of Venus, and on the other side I’ve painted Calvin Klein and Victoria’s Secret advertisements, sort of as a commentary on what I touched on earlier. I was thinking about the way we’re uncritical of pieces of art because of the context under which they’re disseminated. We’re less likely to formally question the advertisement in the same way we would for a work of art, because we recognize the commerce motivated its production. It’s a process of question that we need to shift into the fashion industry. There’s still people making those decisions, deciding whose bodies are represented and whose are expected to be manipulated before they’re represented. Obviously, there’s that relationship between the body, art, and commodification, or how the female nude is exploited for both fine art and fashion commerce. My plan is to photograph that dress on a variety of different body types in a classic studio setting, asking the model to pick which side they want to be the front. Then, the idea is to paint one of those photographs and leave another just as a photo, so the entire piece would end up as a diptych.
Q: That’s a rather elaborate process. What inspired you to think through all these mediums? More generally, is there anything about Berkeley that prompts you to ask certain questions or inspires you to make certain things?
L: I’m also a student of Art History, so I find a lot of inspiration in studying academic discourse and art theory and criticism. But I would say my biggest source of creative inspiration is from running FAST [edit: Leilah runs FAST, the fashion design and production club on campus]. It’s incredible that we can get enough funding to let 20 people from all walks of life to commit to learning a new skill and creating something for the sake of communicating an idea or feeling. It’s amazing. But also, just walking around campus inspires me. The thrift shop culture here is incredible, and people really use it to its full advantage. You’ll seeing someone in their mom’s 30 year-old dress and a blazer they got at Savers for $3, and they look amazing. See, that’s something you could never do with fine art. You can’t just hand a Baroque masterpiece next to an abstract sculpture next to a child’s scribble, it’s just not allowed. But with fashion, and thrift shops, you can sift through decades of creation and style and mix it until you’re satisfied with it. It’s democratizing in a way that art has yet to accomplish. When I see someone wearing something cool, it strikes me. Since we all have to wear clothes, and have to decide something to put on our body every day, it removes people from the hegemony of the institution, allowing us to see self-realized representations more than institutionally accepted qualifications of “Art” do. Once we can be critical of it, the way it functions in everyone’s life, then we can start to take the art of fashion more seriously. If we’re truly thoughtful about what we wear, then maybe we can open that conversation, equalizing the art world in way that postmodern discourse has been yearning for.
Fair Wages: A headscarf that doubles as a protest toolkit and protest sign. Inside it contains a water pack, bandages, pepper spray neutralizer, painkillers and more. This piece is designed for the women in Bangladesh who work in sweatshop in the garment industry.
A still form a performance piece and installation. In the piece three participants fill the clear vinyl dress worn by the artist with colored sand from the surrounding class containers. In this piece sand operates as a metaphor for the passage of time and memory.
by Gillian Robin
Detroit’s earrings in Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You (2018) Image obtained from racked.com.
“What’s all this?” I asked as I walked into my Unit 3 dorm room, exhausted after reading a 36 page journal article about gold leafing in illuminated manuscripts. I was a freshman and those were the light-hearted, pre-Trump days where my biggest problem was the budgeting of meal points.
“Beads,” my roommate, Kate, replied, “for, like, making earrings.”
I immediately dropped my backpack, forgot my fatigue, and picked up some wire and pliers. As a newly-liberated, almost-official person (I was still 17), I often looked to sparkles and hair dye as equipment for personal cultivation. Kate, my partner in self-determination, encouraged and paralleled my crafty endeavours, from going “halfsies” on an overpriced glitter face stick, to letting me borrow her purple lipstick, to buying ink and rubbing alcohol for our dorm room stick and poke parties. These fleeting and often foolish experiments resulted in nothing more than fun instagram posts and compliments at themed parties. But when I walked in on Kate’s explosion of beads, I felt a certain radicalness in crafting, in making something to embellish or express myself that didn’t rely on permanent body modifications or shelling out $30 for lipstain. I felt, for the first time, that my representation was genuine, that by removing naive impulsion or the mediation of market I was free to honestly create myself.
In Boots Riley’s chillingly-relatable, authentically “Oaklanish” Sorry to Bother You (2018), Cassius Green’s sign-spinning, performance-artist partner, Detroit, used earrings as not only a method of expression, but as a form of aesthetic protest, a means of appropriating femininity and gendered clothing and politicizing. In a world of pussy hats and vagina patches, Detroit’s earring collection represents the true potential and liberation of craft that I discovered in my dorm room. Within craftwork, there lies an ability to co-opt historically feminine skills and qualities (dangling earrings, knitting, embroidering, quilting, etc.) in order to erase binaries and expand conceptions of gender. By having control and technical aptitude with a needle and thread, we are able to use our skills and perform our gender as a way of collapsing those very notions of gender. When I see artsy, men or male-presenting people with painted nails and one dangly earring, I can’t help but feel empowered, as if the slippage of between art and craft mirrors this slippage of gendered binaries that our generation fights so ardently for.
Kate and I weren’t the only one’s picking up trash around campus to make earrings out of. I looked around, and most of my femme friends made or inherited earrings that meant something bigger and deeper that freshman year boredom. We were following our foremothers, using our boundaries of femininity to our advantage. Except instead of making essential tools, like baskets and blankets, we represent our utility to the world by actively forcing ourselves into it, one pom-pom earring at a time.