An Interview with Aaron Rose

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XLR8R chats with Beautiful Losers curator Aaron Rose.

What's your other big project right now besides just getting Beautiful Losers the movie out?

Aaron Rose: Well I co-edit a magazine with Ed Templeton and Brandon Fowler called A&P Quarterly. It’s a free quarterly art magazine and I'm on deadline today for that and I'm totally not done with all my stuff.

And then I've been playing music for the last year. We formed a band called The Sads and that has sort of been growing in commitment and you know we've put two records out so far and we're working on a third.

Oh, two records in a year is kind of a lot...

Yea, well one's a seven-inch. One's an EP and one's a seven-inch. So it's not like we haven't done a full-length album yet. I curate a billboard for UNDFTD which is a shoe store out here in L.A. There's always, like, tons of little projects going on.

You seem like you move pretty fluidly between the independent world and some more corporate things. Have you ever had a situation where you questioned what you were involved in because it was a corporate thing that involved artists?

Um... every morning when I wake up! Yeah, I mean, I've been doing it long enough. When I first started working with bigger companies it was much more of a struggle for me because whenever somebody else is paying for what you are doing, regardless if it's a company or an art collector, you have to kind of bend over to make 'em happy. And I wasn't used to that. When what you're doing is underground, there is no one to answer to. You have total freedom because nobody cares… or the only people that care are other underground people. And then when you start getting into situations where you have patrons, there is always a compromise. And those compromises have been difficult over the years, you know–different companies I've worked with have sort of said one thing and then when you get into it, it's a different story and then your projects kind of die, or lose their soul. Over the years you learn to ask all the right questions up front; once you know all those answers, you can decide whether or not you want to do it. But it took a while to learn those questions and there's really no, like, handbook for it.

Maybe you should write on.

I know, it would actually probably help a lot of people. It's about finding out the scope of what they expect and you know everyone always has their message, so what's their message? How much of their message needs to be in it? And that's usually the deciding factor whether or not to take a project. Like, if the thing is gonna be like branded with logos all over it, usually you'll just say no.

Is there a logo on your UNDFTD billboard?

There is, but it's very small and it's not attached to the artwork–it hangs off of the scaffold that holds the billboard up. It has a very small sign and it's just the UNDFTD logo and the Nike logo. So if you're really looking at the billboard, you see it, but if you're just driving by, it's almost invisible. That was part of that question to Nike: does the art have to have a Swoosh on it?

Is there any project that you would like to do but you can't because of monetary reasons, or one you’ve abandoned because it was too complicated?

Never abandoned. Dream of opening a school and that’s probably, hopefully, the way I'll spend the second half of my life, assuming I have a second half of my life. That is a huge undertaking and I don't have the money for it. So that's something that I've been working on for years and years and years, just in terms of concept, but it’s something that requires an enormous amount of capital to pull off the way I'd want to pull it off.

There was this idea that was floating around for a couple of years that I pitched to different companies to do basically a pop-up art museum. We would rent a vacant lot in a different city and erect a pre-fabricated building that's open 24 hours, and has a bookshop and a cafe, and a museum inside. It's there for three months and it's gone and then it moves to another city. Bands play and there are different curators doing different shows; you can go there at four o'clock in the morning and hang out. That was something that I really wanted to do for a long time, but it's financially I don't have access to that kind of money. Maybe one day it will happen. People really loved the idea but when I sent the budget, people were like "Eh, no."

The idea of not selling out was pretty crucial to the underground in the ’80s and ’90s and it feels like that concern is not really there for people between 16 and 25 now. It’s like, they actually want to sell out.

Blame hip-jop. (laughs)

Do you think that's true?

I think hip-hop ruined our culture, yes. It turned all the girls into hoes and all the boys into babies. Um, sorry.

No, I like that. That’s a great quote.

I mean, in all seriousness I think that has a lot to do with it. I think when punk rock and DIY and all that started to merge with hip-hop, you can really see that. Skate fashion and hip-hop fashion are almost merged now. I think the original values of skating and punk and DIY culture got diluted within the younger generation. Because hip-hop is all about money and cars–it's like selling out is the goal. It's one of the things that we talk about in the Beautiful Losers movie, because the generation of people that I came up with were the first generation of street culture that had to wrestle with that kind of stuff. The original punk rock scene never really had that kind of success. Corporations weren't coming to Black Flag to make a shoe or to brand their products. There was maybe some record label stuff, but we were the first generation who had to deal with a corporation trying to corrupt our underground culture. Actually, the hippies probably dealt with it. I remember all the VW adds were, like, hippie ads and stuff back in the ’60s.

Marketing also seems to have gotten so detailed and clever, and it seems the younger generation have grown up with it so embedded in their lives. So it's almost hard for them to have a question because it's hard for them to separate it out. Also, it's like “If everything is going to be sold out anyway, why don't I just sell my shit out before someone else gets it?”

Right, or “before someone rips me off,” which is something that we dealt with. It was like, they would come to us, and if we said no, then they would just rip us off anyway. Like, a company would have some in-house artist draw your style. And then what are you gonna do? Sue them? You're a kid.

I know someone like Mike Mills really dealt with that. He had an incident with The Gap where they came to him to do some stuff, he said no, and then they just did it. And Urban Outfitters sends kids out with digital cameras to take photographs of art shows. Then they have big presentations and they rip off everything from the art shows and they use it as their in-store display.

Totally. That being said, what kind of stuff is inspiring you at the moment?

L.A. is really good right now. I'm really happy to be living here. There is a scene happening on the West Coast right now that like is almost as powerful as what happened in the ’80s here. That’s super inspiring to me. I wish I could be here more to experience it. There's an art scene and magazines and bookstores and a music scene that’s very community-oriented and also experiencing a level of success as well.

Are you referring to The Smell and...

Yea, The Smell, and Family, and Ooga Booga, and a string of sort of smaller galleries that are going on. And Arthur Magazine and our magazine. There is just a very interesting, really vibrant self sustaining culture made by people from within it. It won't last. It never does. But right now it's really awesome. It's just like there's an amazing feeling going on. You know, where everyone is helping people with other things.

Did you move to L.A. from New York?

Yeah, in 2001. I grew up in L.A. and I had been in New York for 12 years and it had gotten to a point where I running Alleged Gallery at that point in New York and the business had gotten to a point where I would have been way over my head financially. New York was changing dramatically. You can see how New York is now, the rents and everything are out of control. And I was trying to compete, but I was still showing underground stuff. I just couldn't do it. It got to a point where it was just killing me. It was causing all kinds of problems with my relationships with the artists. It was too much of a struggle, so that was a big part of it. The city got too expensive and unless you were selling really commercial stuff it wasn't possible to survive. And I'm not independently wealthy so I didn't have, like, a float fund to get through that kind of stuff.

I also moved to New York when I was 19. It was the most amazing place in the world, but time had passed and I had changed and the city had changed. I stayed in New York for a long time based on that 19-year-old fantasy of what my life was. When I was in my 30s, I took a really harsh look at it and realized that that fantasy had left quite some time ago and it was keeping me there. And my family is in L.A. and I wanted to get close to them. I was offered a space in Chinatown, which was an up-and-coming arts district at that point, and the rent was $400 a month. I was paying $10,000 dollars a month in New York.

Right, so then did you do the gallery in L.A.?

We did it for a year. But it wasn't the same. Once you've been in New York and done that in New York, it just was the same. The art world is so small here. It's an industry in New York; here it's just a leech off the entertainment world. It just wasn't exciting. I mean, I'm glad people do it… but coming out of New York you're used to having a busy gallery all day long and in L.A. you are sitting there for a week and nobody comes in.

Do you think that's the same for the gallery owners right now?

Yeah, for sure. That's just the way it works here. The art business in L.A. is all done on the phone. It's not really a public service. People don't say, “Oh, let's go look at galleries today;” it doesn't really figure in people’s radar. All the galleries that I know in L.A. do all their business on the phone, usually with people who don't live in L.A.

L.A. is a very strange place.

L.A. is weird, yeah, and I can find many reasons to not like it. But the scene that I'm talking about right now is just amazing. It’s just great to be around people who are able to go out on a limb creatively and survive. That makes me want to do that. You know, that was something that I couldn't do where I was before.

What is your favorite weird place in L.A.?

I hang out this place called Choke Motorcycle Shop all the time. It's a moped and scooter repair place; they also make coffee and the baristas that work there are some of the most talented in the world. They are really crazy artists about their coffee. But you walk in and it's just a dirty moped shop with guys covered in grease and tools laying all over the place, and the smell of gas and oil, and a ratty old couch, and then you can get the best coffee in L.A. I go there pretty much everyday and it's definitely weird.

What kind of people are in there?

Greasy motorcycle people! And then the few people who know about it who are there for the coffee. But yeah, there's like sort of a really trendy coffee place around the corner from it that there's always a line out the door and then there's never anyone getting coffee at Choke. People are intimidated by the dirt wizards.

What was the initial first seed of the Beautiful Losers thing? Do you remember when you thought it up and what inspired you?

It was right around the time that the gallery closed in L.A. in 2002. I went through this, "OK what now?" You have a business for 10 years that sort of defines you; when you don't have that business anymore, you have to start thinking about what you can do. At that time, art was the only thing I really knew, plus a lot of the artists that I had been working with over the last 10 years had become pretty famous in their own right and so going around and putting together proposals for museum shows seemed like the most logical thing to do. All that time I had met enough people that I could at least get in the door at some places in terms of like "Look at my zine I made." Which is basically what we did, we made a zine. I got together with a guy named Christian Strike who had a skateboard magazine called Strength back in the ’90s, and he got rid of his magazine right at the same time I got rid of the gallery. He was much more of a business guy, so he worked on the business side of it and I worked on the creative side of it and just went around pitching and eventually someone said yes. That was like 2001-2003.

Were you making the movie at the same time that you were doing the art show?

We started shooting the movie before actually the art show. But it wasn't really going to be a movie. It was just running around with video cameras to document stuff and not really knowing like where it was gonna to end up. I was kind of hoping that it would end up becoming something, but we weren't actively looking to make a movie. But when the exhibition happened, and the book, and the book did really well, it made sense to kind of brand it all together and that gave us the opportunity to walk up to film financing people and say "Look we did this, and this was really successful and now we want to make into a movie.” So that all happened later like around 2005-2006. But in the early part, it just seemed like there was a lot going on in that scene that was worth shooting it even if we didn't use it for 20 years or something.

What is your favorite moment in the film?

Wow. That's a really hard question. Okay, there's a scene where Ed Templeton is in the middle of this sort of wasteland in the middle of his suburban neighborhood swinging on a rope swing. It doesn't seem like it would be much, but to me it defines what the whole movie is about, which is staying a kid no matter what; no matter how big you get, still being able to fly around on this rope swing. It's like total freedom. Every time that scene comes on I'm riveted.

What is the best advice you've ever been given? I’m pulling out all the hard questions now.

The best advice I've ever bee given... oh, man. Never go back.

Which means what to you?

It means just keep going forward, just keep plugging forward; don't go backwards in your life. You know what I mean? I guess it's like a no regrets kind of thing. But the guy who told it to me didn't say “Never have regrets.” It was never go back; whether you succeed or you fail, just go.

You seem to have a very keen sense of what is going to be important later or what's going to be important while it's happening. Have you always been like that?

Pretty much since I was a teenager, I had a radar for that stuff. I can sniff stuff that's real. What I realized is the real stuff always sticks around at the end. And a lot of stuff can get big for a couple of years and be based on a superficial premise and it can blow up–especially in the world we live in today, so much shit blows up and then it's gone. The real stuff ends up sticking around, it just doesn't ever really blow up. Or it blows up slowly. And for some reason I can just sense authenticity; I have a great bullshit radar.

Let's move on to these style questions. What's an item of clothing or accessory that you once owned that you wish you still had?

Is it okay if it wouldn't fit me now? When I was 14 or 15, I was really, really into the mod scene. I dressed like a mod everyday and I would order all of my suits from England. We would get on the phone, me and my friend, and call England and use my mom's credit card to order three-button ’60’s-style suits from Carneby Street in London. I wish I had those suits now because I searched high and low. All those stores that made them back then are out of business.

Did your mom get mad?

No, she was just happy I was wearing suits. I wore a suit to school. She loved it.

I feel like you have kind of a signature look, when did that evolve?

Kind of right around that time. I mean, I've gone through different phases. But the hat and the plaid shirt and the Dickies, like that started at 16, and 18 was sort of when that look set in. Then I moved to New York I got really involved in skating in New York for quite some years, so my style changed a little bit more to a skater thing, 'cause it was hard to skate in a porkpie hat, so I wore baseball caps and baggy pants and t-shirts. That was a brief moment there I don't like to look at. But yeah, it pretty much developed it when I was a teenager. It grows out of a fusion between my mod stuff and a kind of cholo-punk thing that was going on in L.A. And it just kind of stuck.

Okay, final question. What would be your message to somebody younger who wants to do what you do?

Oh man. I don't know the answer to that question. Ignore everything I just said. Put me out of business.