As Mike D made final tweaks a few hours before the opening of his Los Angeles art exhibition, the Beastie Boy–turned–curator sounded pleased that monster-sized whirlygigs, vertigo-inducing freeway video projections, and remote-controlled espresso delivery systems were having their intended effect. "If there’s one ambition with this show, it’s basically to achieve complete sensory annihilation," he laughs.
Running at The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA April 20 through May 6, Transmission LA: AV Club, underwritten by Mercedes-Benz, seems primed to do just that. Contributors include filmmaker and graphic designer Mike Mills, animator Benjamin Jones, nature-obsessed illustrator Sage Vaughn, animatronics sculptors Ara Peterson and Jim Drain, contraption wizard Tom Sachs and Twitter-friendly Korean street food impresario Roy "Kogi BBQ" Choi, plus a rotating assortment of deejays who will commandeer the museum’s courtyard on weekend nights.
The free, 17-day culture-mashing experiment in corporately funded spectacle fits the whippet-thin rapper (nee: Mike Diamond) as comfortably as his skinny jeans. Lacking the scholarly bona fides that traditional curators take for granted—he dropped out of Vassar College at age 19 to play drums in a punk rock band that evolved into the 40-million-record-selling Beastie Boys—Diamond made the short list of curatorial candidates when Mercedes-Benz picked car-friendly Los Angeles as the site for a spring arts event.
Diamond’s father worked as a Manhattan art dealer, which explains the musician’s breezy references to mid-century abstract expressionists like Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt. His filmmaker wife Tamra Davis, mother of their two sons, introduced Diamond to Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art director Jeffrey Deitch while filming her Radiant Child documentary about street art prodigy Jean-Michel Basquiat.
But Diamond regards the staging of Beastie Boys’ wild concerts as his most valuable training. "What I’m doing with Transmissions LA: AV Club is not completely dissimilar from what we did as a band when we mounted tours," he says. "Each time you present a tour, you’re faced with these questions of 'How do want to present visual information? How do you want to take the music that we’re making on stage and visualize that?' That’s the thing that prepared me for my task at hand here in a curatorial capacity and it’s part of what fueled my take on this show."
Diamond reshaped the original brief offered to him early this year after Mercedes-Benz’s Avant Garde Diaries braintrust powwowed with Deitch during Miami Beach’s Art Basel show about taking over the museum’s Geffen space for a visual arts exhibition. The rapper recalls "I immediately wanted to expand on that to make it inclusive of coffee, inclusive of food."
Most importantly, he says "I wanted to create this dialogue between music and visual art and vice versa. No matter what part of the spectrum they fill, whether it’s visual, music or whatever, artists are interested in other art forms. Your brain is already kind of firing in that way."
Adam Paige, manager, brand public relations for Mercedes-Benz USA, explains the company’s underlying premise. "At Mercedes-Benz we’ll give auto designers a blank canvas and say, 'Okay, what does this next car look like?' Mike D is not a traditional curator, but what happens when you give someone like him the resources and the canvas to create something innovative, the way a designer would? That’s the commonality."
Branding the event with a name-above-the-title credit, Mercedes-Benz displays a Concept Style Coupe in one of the museum’s rooms. Otherwise, the company has paid the bills and entrusted Diamond with full creative control. Diamond notes, "I threw a lot of ideas out and kept thinking they’d shoot down at least half of them, but they didn’t. I waited for that big smack-down but the bubble never burst."
Mercedes-Benz’s investment in Transmission, which began last year in Berlin and is expected to continue in a new city next year, feeds into the notion of high-end automotive design as an artform unto itself. Paige says, "This kind of social platform is more about creating an appreciation for what Mercedes-Benz does overall. By bringing like-minded people together with the coffee bar, pop-up restaurant, and deejays, Mike wants them to hang out, and that’s truly the thing that we’re after—to be a part of that conversation. We’d love to leave an imprint in people’s mind, but you can’t make that a measurable goal for this type of initiative."
Diamond wryly notes that skeptics might find it incongruous that a street-smart New York rapper who made it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on the strength of party-starting anthems has now teamed with a luxury car company more associated with high rollers than feisty punks. He says, "This show may rub some people the wrong way where they’re going to say, 'Oh, corporate sponsor,' or whatever. But the reality is, in this day and age, at least in this country, our government has made it clear: They don’t support the arts. This show is a good representation of the possibility for a new kind of partnership."