Floating Library drifts into Echo Park Lake

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Author: Gregory Feiner

Renting a paddleboat at the Echo Park Boathouse seems to be something that everyone always means to do, but never quite gets around to. But with a library popping up in the middle of the lake next weekend, it may finally get checked off some lists.

The Floating Library — brainchild of Minneapolis-based artist Sarah Peters — will provide unique literary offerings to anyone who pays the standard $10 to rent a paddle boat at Echo Park Lake from Feb. 11–14, 11 a.m.–4 p.m. each day. The Echo Park-based Machine Project collaborated with Peters to bring the project to Los Angeles. The event also coincides with the LA Art Book Fair, though no formal partnership exists between the two.

Peters came up with the idea after boating and reading on the lakes of Minneapolis, which she said are central to urban life in that area.

“Something that the project as a whole plays with is the idea that the urban lake can be used for something other than recreation,” she said. “That they could be cultural spaces or creative spaces for artists to stage projects and engage people in different ways.”

The Floating Library first set sail on Cedar Lake in Minneapolis in 2013 and had subsequent Minnesotan voyages in 2014 and 2015. All three were popular with locals.

“It’s lovely to be on a raft in the middle of a lake and have all of these people boat up and be so friendly and full of gratitude for this weird thing that’s happening, that’s unexpected,” Peters said. “There’s a different kind of attentiveness that we give to our environment when something weird pops up in it.”

Peters and Mark Allen, founder and executive director of Machine Project, met at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis four years ago. She told Allen about the project when it was in its conceptual stages. Even then she envisioned bringing the project to Echo Park Lake after trying it out in Minnesota.

Since Minnesota’s weather limits the Floating Library’s season to the summer months, Peters saw an opportunity to realize her vision of bringing it somewhere else. While in Los Angeles this past Thanksgiving, she reached out to Allen about potentially bringing the Library to Echo Park Lake sometime in the future. He suggested February.

“You could say it’s been in the works for five years or you could say it’s been in the works for five weeks,” Peters said. “Both answers are sort of true.”

The Machine Project is, according to its website, “a place for artists to do fun experiments together with the public, in ways that influence culture.” That’s as narrow a definition as anyone’s been able to come up with.

“A large part of Machine is providing artists a space to do things they wouldn’t get to do anywhere else,” Katherine Torrey (junior) said. “It always has stuff going on.”

Torrey interned with Machine Project last year.

Some of their past events include burying people alive (after they sign a waiver), butter aerobics (literally doing aerobics while holding a stick of butter) and hundreds of other wouldn’t-it-be-cool-if happenings, events and installations.

“Often I think of art as an excuse to do things,” Allen said. “Things that you might not normally do.”

He admits that, despite living in Echo Park since 2003, he has never tried out the paddle boats.

In addition to exploring the idea of the urban lake, both Allen and Peters hope that, through its unusual literary offerings, the Floating Library will introduce Angelenos to a lesser-known art form sneaking its way into the mainstream: Artist books, explorations of the aesthetic possibilities of the book beyond the traditional novel, whose artistry is primarily literary.

“Sometimes these books don’t have words,” Peters said. “Sometimes they’re not even shaped like books. One of the books is actually a set of 3-D slides that you look at through a viewfinder. One is a floating duck decoy.”

One of Allen’s highest priorities with Machine Project is curating site-responsive work, like The Floating Library, that won’t move from place to place and will leave its meaning completely intact.

“I really like that lake and that park, but I don’t know if I even fully use it,” he said. “I think it’s a gateway to experiencing the park a little bit more.”

The Floating Library will come and go next weekend, but the Machine Project will continue to produce its signature events both in its Echo Park space and, in increasing capacity, in public spaces across Los Angeles.

The Echo Park Lake is located at 751 Echo Park Avenue in Los Angeles. The Machine Project can be found at 1200 N Alvarado Street, and its upcoming events can be found at http://machineproject.com/.

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