Culture Crash: Radical Mod at SMoCA

Liz Cohen stands next to her project of the past 5 years; a Trabant that transforms into an El Camino low rider
Jonathan McNamara

It’a a relic. There’s one headlight missing and there’s no seat. But if you got shipped as far as this car did you wouldn’t be in peak condition either. It’s a Trabant (at first glance anyway), an East German car that runs on a mixture of gas and oil, and it happens to be on display as part of the Car Culture Exhibit at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, thanks to five years of work by local artist Liz Cohen.

What gives this Euro-scrap vehicle license to be part of the exhibit? Cohen is ever eager to demonstrate. She opens the driver side door and flips a couple of switches. In moments the car extends a full six feet from the cab to the rear as hydraulic shafts spring to life. When it has finished transforming, Cohen is standing next to a low-riding El Camino — at least until she changes it back to a Trabant.

Dubbed the “Trabantimino,” Cohen’s car is not only the center piece in the exhibit, it is the embodiment of a question of cultural acceptance that Cohen will be posing to the public during her live event “Radical Mod.”

To see a slide show of photos from Radical Mod take a look at our slide show: Culture Crash

“Even if I’m a little off, can I find a space for myself here or not? That’s kind of the challenge to everyone,” she said.

In attendance will be several low-rider owners, B-boys from the Outsiderz Crew, and Latin fusion band Los Super Elegantes. With the exception of Elegantes, most of the guests would be more at home outside of a club or surrounded by bikini-clad beauties at a car show. Cohen admits that there is curiosity on both sides.

“Radical Mod is a test for me and a test for Scottsdale and a test for the low-rider guys that are coming here in a sense that we’re all a freakish components in the element that we’re in,” Cohen said. “My car is a kind of a weird low-rider and the question is ‘will it be accepted as a low-rider?’”

The question (and the car transcends) itself by applying to all of us. Will we be accepted? How will we change in order to be accepted by a new job? A new school? A new country?

To find the answer, Cohen waits for her experiment called “Radical Mod” to begin.

Same vintage

It’s just after dark at the Scottsdale Civic Center and the sidewalks are covered in glowing, rotating displays. There’s no mistaking that it’s a car show and yet there’s much more here.

A gold-plated bicycle inspired by the video game Mortal Kombat: Armageddon, finished with a swirling dragon logo on the seat, glows like movie-set treasure illuminating people as they stop to look at its intricacies. Riding it is unthinkable. One wrong bump and the delicate paint could be scratched. This is a showpiece meant to be on display — one that Victor and Isaiah Viallalpando are very proud of. The father and son team transformed a twelve-inch bike to a testament to a boyhood love for a fighting game.

Viallalpando got the chance to see the Tranbantimino earlier in the night and doesn’t hesitate to classify it as a low-rider. “It has the hydraulics. It has the wire rims. It has the custom work done to it. That’s all you need to be a low-rider,” he said.

Mortal Kombat is but one of the many bikes and trikes surrounding the Scottsdale Civic Center. Other participants include “Man of Steel” sporting a Superman motif and “Lots of Love” named after the pink Care Bear.

On stage, Liz Cohen takes a moment to thank the people who helped her throw Radical Mod before ducking back out of the action to watch her experiment unfold. Taking her place on stage is Los Super Elegantes, a musical experience that is the very definition of juxtaposing cultures. The band morphs with every song, shifting from a jazz trumpet-led somber English-language band to a raucous, Spanish-voiced, disco-pop group in the time it takes co-lead singer Martiniano Lopez-crozet to take a swig of bottled water.

As the music plays, Helen Brown and Helen Carson are busying themselves with studying each of the low-riders on display with nostalgic fondness. The pair of mature ladies look like typical museum visitors. It is only their subject matter for the night that appears out of place. The two ladies stop to marvel at the incredible detail on even the most rudimentary parts in the inside of the trunk before moving on to “oh” and “ah” over the next car.

“I love them,” Brown said. “They’re my vintage.”

Freakish components

Liz Cohen walks a group of curious attendees into the Car Culture exhibit to show off what she and a few dozen hex wrenches have been doing for the past five years.

In a room next door local models are preparing to slink down a run way in bikinis inspired by low rider art. Several have the type of pin-striping you’d expect on a hydraulic heavy bling machine. There are also a few featuring the virgin Mary in interesting places.

Just outside SMoCA’s front doors a group of local rappers spit rhymes as listeners nosh on a juxtaposed menu of Mexican fajitas and Italian meatballs.

Radical Mod the event has ended, but the experiment continues inside the halls of SMoCA.

Cohen removes the bar propping the Trabantimino’s hood open to show off its V8 engine and makes sure everyone is standing far enough back before going to the driver’s side door to work her magic. It’s plain for anyone to see that the car is unfinished, though it’s primary purpose of transforming has been completed. Cohen says she has a few finishing touches in mind, including sending parts off to get chromed and having a mural painted in a narrative style tying the history of low-riding to the history of East Germany. There are some interesting parallels, Cohen said, like the fact that Lowriding became illegal in L.A. the same year that East Germany became sovereign from the Soviet Union.

Unfinished though it may be, that car has now contracted into a squat, little vehicle. Another switch is flipped and the car props itself up on it’s back wheels with a worrisome thud. Another switch and the car outdoes itself, stretching to it’s full span to the awe of all witnesses. Some shake their heads in disbelief. Others stand with mouths agape. No one seems to know what to think.

But they all clap.

For more on Liz Cohen and her "Body Work" project check out "Hard Body" by Megan Irwin, published on October 5, 2006.

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