Here to Piss You Off
Photo by Jack GouldPerhaps the alien mind-control satellite that beams instructions to the editors of major local dailies and all city council members was on the fritz, allowing an individual rational thought or two to finally poke through. Perhaps public opinion in Orange County is at last willing to concede that art can be something more than "an object that looks nice next to the sofa." Perhaps the apocalypse is nigh. But whatever the reason, the result is the same: on June 19, AAA Electra 99, the art gallery and misfit haven proudly on the fringe of the fringe of the fringe, became stone-cold legal. And the four horsemen should be swooping in to pay their respects any day now.
"We had common sense on our side," says AAA overlord Richard Johnson, who has shepherded his art gallery through three different locations in two cities in four years. "It wasn't like we went in and beat them overnight—I just refused to give up. And we're not done fighting."
See, AAA isn't the kind of art gallery that cities are exactly fighting to host—more like fighting against—unless those cities have a soft spot for unfettered creative expression and exhibits like the Spinning Head of Big Prizes (based on something called the Spinning Head of Death, Johnson offers helpfully) and the Chicken Baby ("Behold! The Chicken Baby!" they'll say to you when you visit. "Bask in its glory!").
Since 1997, Johnson has rented wall space for less than $1 per day to artists who can't or won't show elsewhere. He has thrown shows for bands that don't work well with the local club scene, hosted meetings for everyone from the Latino Poets to the Hemp Council to the Frank Zappa Fan Club (they haven't met for a while, Johnson told the Anaheim City Council) and basically provided a space where you don't have to prove anything to anyone. It's not always pretty, but it's important, Johnson says.
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"We're needed here," he explains. "There is nothing here. We're trying to bring a feeling of non-stupidness."
So how did they get a permit, when OC clubs are closing left and right and terminal stupidness is civic government's stock in trade? Well, says, Johnson, they fought—and fought hard.
The issue was simple: the industrial park in northwest Anaheim that AAA currently occupies (conveniently near the scenic city dump!) isn't technically zoned for an art gallery. It's zoned for, er, industrial things, though there is a Mexican restaurant next door. But to operate legally, AAA needed a conditional-use permit, which the city planning commission denied at a heated meeting. "People were yelling and shit," Johnson reports. So AAA took it to the next level, appealing to the Anaheim City Council to "interpret" the corresponding civic code and grant them special exception. It took eight months, about $1,400 in fees and a long but ultimately triumphant ("[Councilman] Tom Tait is a god,"says Johnson.) City Council meeting to demonstrate that AAA wasn't dangerous or illegal—it's just weird.
"And they don't like weird in OC," he says.
Support came from an unlikely corner: an editorial in the June 19 Orange County Register warned the City Council against "Stalinist" tactics and explained that Johnson, "in his own way and with no apparent harm to his neighbors, is contributing to fulfilling the city's stated cultural goals." They meant the Chicken Baby, presumably. He's a big proponent of lobbying the mainstream media, says Johnson, because "the mayor reads the Register."
And it looks like he was right. Mayor Tom Daly and the rest of the council voted 5-0 to approve the conditional-use permit—after some grumbling by Councilwoman Shirley McCracken over the "Stalinist" remark. "We're a representative government!" she had protested. "Elected by our peers!"
And now Johnson is taking a brief breather, bracing for the next crisis. Sure, he's got big dreams—"Maybe we could sell Electra to the Disney corporation," he muses—but they're matched by the big battles lurking over the horizon.
"We've been fighting since we opened," he says. "Fighting about every little thing. Cops used to come down, pound on the door and be like, 'Are you reading poetry in there?' Because we didn't have a poetry permit."
But by now, he almost thrives on it.
"We're here to piss you off," he says. "In a way, that's our art."
AAA Electra 99, 2821 White Star Ave., Ste. D, Anaheim, (714) 666-1805; www.aaaelectra99.com. Call for hours. $1 admission for nonmembers.
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