The Sublime Is Then and Now | Arcy Douglass

Posted on by admin1963 Posted in Fall 2015, Perspectives | Comments Off on The Sublime Is Then and Now | Arcy Douglass
Michael Heizer's Double Negative. Photo: Arcy Douglass.

Michael Heizer’s Double Negative. Photo: Arcy Douglass.

The first time I went to Double Negative was almost 20 years ago. I remember driving along Mormon Mesa looking for signs that might point me in the right direction. After 45 minutes and more than a few wrong turns, I finally arrived, and what do I see? Nothing. There is no sign or plaque, no admissions desk or bookstore, and certainly no café. There was nothing to tell me that I was in the right place. It was just me and the work, and the work was exactly the experience that I made of it.

I remember walking down into the piece, inside the cut and across the mesa to the edge. Looking across the chasm to the next cut in the neighboring mesa, it was impossible to tell where the work ended. Immersed in the space of the piece, everything was important: the light, the shadows, the layered patterns of sedimentation, the silence alternating with the crunch of gravel underfoot. Double Negative seemed to fold in the entire space of the mesa, the mountains to the north and the river to the south into itself. An already very large work seemed to take up half of southern Nevada. It felt like the entire purpose of the work was to get the viewer to do one thing: Pay attention.

My first visit to Double Negative was one of the most profound art experiences that I have ever had, and I have spent the better part of 20 years trying to understand what happened to me that day.

This is not a history of Double Negative or any other work that is discussed here. There are better and more complete histories available online, in books and among museum archives. My intention is to view these works as archetypes and to determine if there are patterns and opportunities that might be embraced by others who, like me, are looking to process their experiences of land art. This is not so much a look back, but a look ahead. And it may be that the original artists’ intentions are challenged, or even creatively misread, in the hope that a discussion of these works is generative, rather than tied to a specific set of conditions that existed in the late ’60s and ’70s.

This journey includes three main stops: Michael Heizer’s Double Negative from 1968, and Walter De Maria’s Las Vegas Piece from 1969 and The Lightning Field from 1977. Our road trip ends with Donald Judd’s 100 Untitled Works in Mill Aluminum from 1982-86.

Man vs. Nature

First, let’s get the elephant out of the room. When Heizer took a bulldozer and a box of dynamite to cut up two sides of Mormon Mesa, he was trying to make a work so large and so grand it would be impossible to show in any New York art gallery. After a lifetime of digging in pits with his archaeologist father, he wanted to make the biggest hole of all. Big enough to swallow the New York art world in one enormous gulp.

Fine. He made his statement. We ended up with a great work of art. We look at the environment differently now than Heizer did at the time Double Negative was created. He might have seen Mormon Mesa as a blank canvas. We might see it as a fragile desert ecosystem trying to survive until the next rain. Wilderness he may have viewed as commonplace, we now see as exceedingly rare. What Heizer may have seen as empty, we see as full. When something is full, it is difficult to destroy what is already there to put something else in its place.

Double Negative is also surprisingly context-sensitive. I had a conversation with a friend who said that if Double Negative was next to Half Dome in Yosemite, it just wouldn’t work. It is also easy to imagine that Double Negative next to the Grand Canyon wouldn’t work either. Half Dome and the Grand Canyon are already too interesting and would render Heizer’s cuts too subtle and probably invisible. Double Negative needs an environment that is interesting, but not too interesting.

Double Negative was also meant to last forever. With the help of Count Guido Deiro, Heizer was able to buy property so that his work would be permanent. There also seems to have been two versions of Double Negative. The first one was thinner and shallower and was later recut to be more dramatic. This work brings together very specific conditions, including the opportunity to buy available land at a reasonable cost, the realities of finding a patron and financial backing, a different view of desert ecosystems, and the danger of literally driving a bulldozer off the edge of a cliff.

Where does that leave us now? The lesson of Double Negative is not for artists to go buy plots of land and have at it with bulldozers and dynamite. First, I would be hard-pressed to name an artist who even tried to do that. Second, Heizer has moved away from this kind of work, even if there are still echoes of this language in his dramatic slot at LACMA.

Looking back on my experience, it is clear that Double Negative was meant to last forever, yet it could not. At its heart, the work is an impossible and inherently irresolvable contradiction. How do you build something to last forever when you ignore the fundamental process and characteristics of the site? After the piece was made, a younger Heizer accepted the natural erosion of the mesa that would sooner or later render the clean lines of the cuts nothing more than a shallow dip. I wonder if later he wasn’t quite as comfortable with the idea of erosion because one would hear rumors that he wanted to install concrete retaining walls to clean up the geometry. If retaining walls were built, that would change the work in a profound way.

I think these ideas of control and intention at odds with nature are what makes Double Negative so interesting and relevant for artists today. Heizer begins the project with a clear idea about negative space superimposed on the land. The geometry relates to his intentions, is influenced by his own experiences, and not really related to the conditions of the site, other than the mesa allowed the sides to be visible across the scalloped edges of the landscape. It was an idea imposed upon the land.

Whether he wants it to be or not, the work has become collaboration between his original intention and the natural erosion of the site. The site is not natural because of the cuts, but the site is also not unnatural because the sediment reveals how the mesa changes over time. When you look at photographs of Double Negative, you can readily see the walls crumbling into small avalanches of sediment. The work began moving subtly yet steadily away from the artist’s intention at the very minute, the very second, Heizer drove the bulldozer out of the slot. A work that was intended as a statement of permanence has become a monument to change. When you go against nature, nature always wins.

Time and Space

Fifty miles north and one year after Heizer lit the fuse on Double Negative, Walter De Maria built a piece that encoded precise distances in a vast, sloping desert plane. The surrounding landscape at De Maria’s Las Vegas Piece stands in stark contrast to Heizer’s site. On Mormon Mesa, you get a more or less flat plane populated by small shrubs. In the Las Vegas Piece, you encounter large Joshua trees, and the whole site is traversed with sizable streambeds that flood during storms.

If Double Negative is all about depth, then the Las Vegas Piece is all about surface. After several years of experiments with chalk in dry lakebeds, De Maria, like Heizer, wanted to build something permanent and make a drawing with a bulldozer. The Las Vegas Piece comprises two mile-long lines connected at a right angle. One line is oriented north-south and the other east-west. Each mile-long line is subdivided at the half-mile mark. The two half-mile lines also connect at a right angle. When viewed in aerial photos, the Las Vegas Piece resembles a very large baseball diamond without the curve of the outfield.

Distance in the desert is misleading. It is impossible to gauge the distance of mountains. One’s perception of space in the desert is very fluid. Vast distances are compressed to seem impossibly close. You walk through the desert, but your senses are amplified. Into this environment De Maria inserted fixed limits marked off by the shallow cut of a bulldozer blade. He encountered a void and imposed a grid; the work is inseparable from the space that surrounds it. As with Heizer’s work, every detail becomes important.

De Maria’s lines cross streams, move rocks aside, and leave shallow indentions that are visible some 45 years later. Along the east-west line, the half-mile marker falls just after a large Joshua tree. It makes you wonder if he got lucky and that half-mile length is, in fact, just after the tree, or if he subtly changed the distance so that the tree itself becomes a kind of marker within the space of the piece. The end of the east-west line also terminates near a Joshua tree. Did the artist get lucky again, or is the distance slightly longer or shorter than one mile to accommodate the tree? If the tree were in the middle of the path would it have been bulldozed as well? Those trees are hundreds of years old, and I believe they raise the issue of an inherent contradiction within the work.

The current site is flat, but not especially so. There are probably dozens or maybe a hundred sites that would have suited De Maria. He could have built the Las Vegas Piece nearly anywhere. In fact years later, there were rumors of him building another one in New Zealand. For years, he built all kinds of ephemeral chalk pieces on the sunbaked surfaces of dry lakebeds throughout Nevada. He knew that if he built the bulldozed piece then maybe he could get people to come out to the site and see the desert as he saw it. This was the place he wanted to share with people through his work. And that is the contradiction. The desert that he wanted to share with people was scraped away and destroyed to make the work. In the process of making the work, he literally took away part of what brought him to the site in the first place.

Except he didn’t. After more than 45 years, the lines fade, and the desert comes back. Rather than being compromised by natural processes like erosion, the work collaborated with nature. The geometry has softened and is often only revealed by subtle indentations or small rocks in lines that remain in place after rolling off the edge of the bulldozer blade all of those years ago. What was once a wide-open clear path is now clogged with bushes, so the line has become fragmented and complex. Floods have washed out parts of the lines so that a search is required to find the line after it crosses a streambed. So the piece that was once so clearly linear has now become complex and provisional. Sometimes you know you are walking line, and sometimes you just have to take it on faith.

Here, our land art road trip takes a short detour to the East, the Far East. There is a story about the Zen garden Saiho-ji in Kyoto. Three hundred years ago, it was designed like any beautiful temple garden with every rock, tree and subtle ornament in its proper place. One day there was a rainstorm and a flood that destroyed the original design, upending earth and stone and causing so much disorder that the garden was abandoned for 200 years. Nature and numerous species of green mosses took their course, and now the garden is believed to be a masterpiece because it is a work that transcends human hands.

There is always potential for beauty when a design that is built one way is forced to change because of the environment. Time has changed the Las Vegas Piece just as defiantly as De Maria changed the desert with a bulldozer. The trick is to understand that time and change are part of the work, and that in this environment the artist’s intention was only one piece of the pattern we should now observe. In both Double Negative and the Las Vegas Piece, time and change have become essential parts of the work. For better or worse, the current conditions were only barely acknowledged, or all together ignored, by the artists. Are these pieces only about the intention of the artist? How much change can these works absorb and still be considered the authentic work? What does authenticity even mean when we are talking about these works? Should we applaud the artist’s willful ignorance of the conditions of the site? Should we cling to photos from the past to interpret the work today? Or should we confront what is right in front of us in its current state?

I sometimes wonder when an artist makes a work in these situations if he or she surrenders a bit of the original intention to nature. By definition, these works are collaborative. De Maria of all people should have understood this. A dry lakebed is often a very windy place. His chalk lines were probably being blown away almost as fast as he could put them down. It is literally the nature of the work. To ignore the natural processes of the desert environments is like crossing a street without looking both ways. You do so at your own risk.

Michael Heizer's Double Negative. Photo: Arcy Douglas

Michael Heizer’s Double Negative. Photo: Arcy Douglas

First Light

I wonder if De Maria did not find the Las Vegas Piece entirely satisfying. The site was, and still is, difficult to get to and can become dangerous in summer if visitors aren’t prepared. I assure you that visitors can count on at least one flat tire when making the journey. Drawing with a bulldozer in the desert was fine and daring in the ’60s, but environmental attitudes changed in the ’70s. De Maria must have known that the desert was quickly recovering the vacant channels of his lines, so any mark he made was at best provisional.

I know a lot of people think that The Lightning Field was based on De Maria’s bed of nails pieces, but I think that after the Las Vegas Piece he wanted to discover a way to get people to see and pay attention to the desert without cutting it up. For this follow up act, the landscape had to remain intact. If the desert plants are not disturbed in the first place, then they don’t grow back, so the lifetime of the piece stretches from a few decades to several centuries simply with basic maintenance of the site.

Like Double Negative, The Lightning Field was intended to be a permanent installation, which meant that the appropriate piece of land would have to be found and purchased. Again, like Double Negative, Count Guido Deiro helped De Maria track down a site outside of Quemado, New Mexico, that was purchased by the Dia Art Foundation for this purpose. The plot had to be large enough to support an array of 400 stainlesssteel poles arranged in a 20-by-20 grid measuring one mile by one kilometer. The top of each pole would touch an invisible flat plane, so depending on the topography of the land, each pole could be either longer or shorter to suit. The land would also have to be open enough so that any of the property around the field would not be distracting to the viewer. That means few, if any, houses and no roads or businesses could be visible from the site. The work would also have the requirement that any visitor to the installation would have to stay at least 24 hours. We know time changes the site conditions, and these works also take a long time to see. It takes a while to slow yourself down, so the longer you look at the work the more you experience.

Like all of these pieces, I find the best way to experience the work is by walking, but then I pace back and forth in front of Barnett Newman’s paintings too. Sometimes I walk around the edge of the piece, sometimes through the middle, alone with my thoughts and the sound of my footsteps. Over time, each of the poles looks a little different, and sometimes you come across one that is surprisingly tall or short. There is this beautiful ritual of walking the piece and then retreating to the porch of the Dia guest house, looking at the poles in the ever-changing desert light, and then eventually getting restless and going for a walk again. I have always thought it strange that if there is a thunderstorm with lightning everyone huddles on the porch to watch, both because of the mud and nobody wants to be hit by lightning. What is normally a very active experience becomes curiously static during a storm. This makes me wonder if The Lightning Field is better when it isn’t raining, or maybe that the experience of the piece does not have anything to do with lightning at all.

All art exists in time but when walking around a work like The Lightning Field, the sensation of time becomes acute. There is the time it takes to observe the work as you pan your head from one side of the field to the other. There is the time it takes to walk the grid of poles in the field. There is still another time that exists as you realize the metal of the poles is slowly and almost imperceptibly changing as it is exposed to the air. In the space of the piece, time is fluid and tangible, it is almost something that you can reach out and touch. Each pole is important, separate and unique, but it is the unfiltered experience of the field as a whole that is the work. The 400 poles are the bridge between the earth and the sky. Each pole is tapered to a point at the top so that it literally dissolves as it reaches upward. There is a geometric center to the work, but it is hard to shake the feeling that as you walk around, you are the moving center of the work. The oscillation between the individual parts and the undivided field creates the sense of time around the work. More than most works of art, these concepts exist in time and are experienced in time as well as space.

The irony is that so many land art projects find another mode of existence in photographs. These photographs create a kind of double life for the work. How many people have seen the iconic photos of The Lightning Field versus actually traveling there to spend 24 hours looking at it? Freezing these works in a single moment of time is dangerous and demonstrates that photographs are a double-edged sword. Recall the early photographs of Double Negative, in which the cuts are still geometrically perfect. Maybe the photographs make the work consumable to a larger audience, but there is a danger that the art community’s discussion of the work may become as frozen and static as the long-past moment in time captured in the photograph.

I think that Robert Smithson understood this better than most when he built two versions of Spiral Jetty. One is the earthwork that exists in the Great Salt Lake that is exposed to the wind, sun and varying water levels. The other is the film he made about his experiences making and traveling to the Spiral Jetty site, as well as his thoughts on the finished work. Both the land art and the film remain connected through a shared visual language, but they are inherently different in terms of presentation, portability and audience reach.

All of this is great for De Maria and the Dia, but where does that leave us today? The Lightning Field does not provide much traction for an artist today in terms of finding new ways of creating these experiences. The site is extremely large and seems to be growing all the time to maintain the integrity of the work. The work and the land were both expensive in the ’70s and are even more expensive now. The site will also require constant vigilance to prevent the slow deterioration of the viewer’s experience. Are there patterns that can be extrapolated from this experience that might be generative and applicable in a wider variety of environments? I believe there are.

If we look at The Lightning Field as an archetype, a set of patterns that might be applicable in a wider variety of contexts, it is useful to conduct a series of thought experiments to come to a deeper understanding of why the work has such a powerful effect. Here are a few patterns that come to mind: The field is made of a series of 400 poles that are similar, but not identical. The tops of the poles all meet in a single flat horizontal plane. Each pole is well designed, but not so much that it draws attention to itself because the emphasis is always on the field as a whole. There is a high degree of entropy to the work, meaning that the one set of poles from one side of the site could be moved to the other side and the basic experience would not change as long as the rules of the grid and the relationship to the top plane were maintained.

As stated before, the entire field is important, or more directly, the entire field requires all our attention at the same moment. Everything is designed so as to not distract the viewer in any way. For example, there isn’t a single gold pole at the center that becomes the focus of one’s attention. In the same way, with reasonable maintenance, there are no distractions with either an overemphasis or a neglect of craft in the design and construction of the poles. With the stainless steel we don’t get caught up in oxidation patterns or patina. When we are looking at the work, we are often moving our attention between the individual parts and the field as a whole. In this case, the field is organized as a grid, which allows the entire space of the desert to be rapidly perceived, assimilated into ourselves, so to speak. Unlike Double Negative and the Las Vegas Piece, the desert is allowed to retain its integrity, but like most land art pieces the space in which the work is installed is inseparable from the experience of the work itself. The work and the space are so tightly coupled that one could not exist without the other.

We could have a useful discussion about how these ideas are not necessarily unique to the work of De Maria and that similar patterns and approaches could be found in a wide variety of projects. This includes Tara Donovan’s Haze from 2003, in which a field of clear plastic drinking straws are stacked up against the wall, or Robert Irwin’s Excursus: Homage to the Square ^3 that was originally installed at the Dia Center in the early 2000s and is now recently reconstructed at Dia:Beacon.

These patterns appear again in Donald Judd’s 100 Untitled Works in Mill Aluminum, permanently installed at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, even though the materials, geometry and installation space are completely different. From 1982 to 1986, Judd installed a series of large aluminum volumes in two artillery sheds on an old army base. Each volume is unique, but there is a definite language and variation, as each volume is subdivided differently according to a narrow set of strict rules. The works are installed in an enclosed space and are lit by a series of very large windows that run down the length of both sides of the building.

The volume of each box is identical, so that as you look across the room you are instantly aware of both the number of the boxes and the subtle differences in structure of each. Although there is a logical progression of the openings from one box to the next, it is worthwhile to notice that the boxes are installed out of order, as it were. This is an important difference between the work of Judd and Sol Lewitt. Lewitt would install the works in order so that we see more of the logical progression from one piece to the next, almost like the score for a piece of music. A good example of this is Lewitt’s Incomplete Open Cubes from 1974. In Incomplete Open Cubes, we are aware of the logical progression, but not necessarily the field. Like De Maria, Judd wants us to forget the progression and concentrate on the field.

Judd saw each of the boxes as being both an individual artwork and also a part of the larger field. Judd did not want any distractions in either the boxes or the installation of the grid. Each box is very well crafted, but the way the boxes are fastened together does not draw undue attention, just as the openings in each of the boxes are very well thought out and sometimes spectacularly beautiful, yet do not stand out among their peers. Judd was working with the entire space, the entire field all at once.

Pattern Recognition

Ad Reinhardt said that the opposite of every good statement in art is often equally true. Since this is supposed to be a generative discussion, let’s play both sides while we articulate some of the patterns we have observed so far.

I don’t think it is a coincidence that most of these works have a lot of individual parts that come together to form a whole. The Lightning Field has 400 poles, Judd’s Mill Aluminum piece has 100, and Tara Donovan’s Haze has, I am not sure, perhaps tens of thousands of component straws, if not more. It does seem like there is a critical mass of both form and material to set up these kinds of art experiences. That being said, if these are the rules, can they be broken in interesting ways?

All of these works are also tightly coupled to the environments in which they are placed. Sometimes the nature of the environment provides the coupling, as in the case of Double Negative. At other times it is our perceptions of the space that join the work and the environment, as in the Las Vegas Piece. We know that these works can exist on a very large scale. Can they also exist on a small scale and create the same effect? If these works are in remote corners of the Southwest, can they also exist also closer to home or even in urban environments? Or could artists strike out in the opposite direction and place work in even more remote locations? What would those sites be?

While most of these works exist outside, we have also demonstrated that they can exist inside as well. If most of these works are installed on flat sites, either indoors or outdoors, could they also exist on sloped or vertical sites? How would that change the experience of the work?

Most of these projects were meant to be permanent and were expensive to build and maintain. What would it mean if the projects are temporary, and transient nature of these works were embraced? Could projects be built with very little or no budget? Equally, we know these projects can be made with metal and earth, but what about other materials?

What does it mean that most people experience these projects through photographs? Rather than creating a separation between those who have experienced the work in person and those who have experienced the work in photographs, can the experiences be blended or hybridized? Does an original even have to exist? Is the authentic experience universal or individual?

Every artist works with what they have in terms of resources, time and history. Can we embrace those constraints to open up new solutions?

Every day people still journey out to these sites to see the works for themselves. We still need these experiences. We are moving so quickly through time together, we long to go back to these sites to observe the change in both the works and in ourselves. Some of these projects have become like talismans, benchmarks for what the art of our time might become. I wrote this piece to share some of the ways that the experiences of these works have changed my life.


Arcy Douglass is an artist and writer based in Portland, Oregon. His archives of land art research are housed at the Center for Art + Environment at the Nevada Art Museum. In 2012, he organized a conference on the work of Donald Judd with Peter Ballantine at the University of Oregon in Portland. He was also part of a research project with the National Gallery to determine locations of Mark Rothko watercolors in the Columbia River Gorge. Special thank you to Julie Yamamoto for editing this essay.

Prayer Changes Things: Desert Faith in Trona, CA | Christopher Langley & Osceola Refetoff

Posted on by admin1963 Posted in Fall 2015, Perspectives | Comments Off on Prayer Changes Things: Desert Faith in Trona, CA | Christopher Langley & Osceola Refetoff

In Trona, California, I see a sign that says PRAYER CHANGES THINGS. I wonder about that. I walk out into the desert not too far from Searles Lake hoping to find out more about faith. It is nearly dark; I am alone except for the Milky Way that slowly appears as the sky darkens. I stop and sense a safe place. I am “running on empty.” Hope and expectation cease. I wait. It is silent except for a whisper of cooling wind through the brush. Is it a still, small voice I hear inside? It speaks beyond words and slowly I have a growing faith that I can get through one more day here in the desert at the edge of Death Valley.

Trona is a mining town nestled on the shores of Searles Salt Lake. For 100 years, the industrial plants in various incarnations, owned by several different companies, have taken brine from the lake and extracted several valuable mineral products including borax, potash, lithium, soda ash and trona. When the first churches were being established in the 1920s, the economy was going strong. This was a company town, but many things began to erode the safe feeling of being taken care of by The Company.

Everyone has an opinion about why Trona started downhill. Some people think it was when they tore down Austin Hall, the center of town since 1914. Todd Owens tells me it began with the 400-man layoff in 1981. Delores Hudson says it was when they closed the large, company-supported town pool called Valley Wells that the heart went out of the town. Lit Brush, the “Mayor” and head of the Searles Valley Historical Society, states with confidence it was when they brought in television. That’s when the town started to die. Many outside think Trona is dying today, but the stalwart residents who remain living in Trona have faith, both in God and the future. They say Trona is “a town just too tough to die.” In fact, several say the “spirit is moving in town,” and a revival has begun.

The desert has always been a sacred testing ground, a source of spiritual searching and a place where human contact with the Divine happens. Three major world religions (Christianity, Judaism and Islam) were shaped by their origins in deserts. Is there a connection between the desert and faith? A simple definition of faith, in the sense we mean it here, is “strong belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof” (New Oxford American Dictionary).

Here apprehension means the grasp or understanding of something without proof or inductive reasoning. It is more through intuition or some subtle sense of knowing. The New Bible Dictionary explains, “Faith means abandoning one’s own resources. Faith means casting oneself unreservedly on the mercy of God…Faith implies complete reliance on God and full obedience to God.” (413).

Jesus was led by the Spirit to go out into the desert and fast for 40 days. There, Satan tempted him. A long tradition of Desert Fathers also resides with the Christian religion. The sense of the desert as a real physical location, an area of contrition, fasting and soul-searching is balanced by a symbolic and archetypal meaning for the desert. Put another way, Gabriel Marcel wrote, “An individual is not distinct from his place; he is that place.”

In this essay, we are looking at faith active in the lives of people living in a place most today might not associate with a spiritual or sacred landscape. Our examination is anecdotal in nature. It uses the words and experiences of a sampling of the people of Trona.

In all fairness I must admit I am crossing my own personal desert as well, and recent times have greatly tested my faith. My wife, my friend, my partner, the mother of my children, the person whose wise counsel constantly guided me through the real Mojave Desert we lived in for more than 40 years died in January. As I write about faith and the desert, it is difficult for me to separate my autobiography from the stories of these wonderful people I met in Trona. My collaborator, Osceola Refetoff, has wondered if the desert calls to certain kinds of people to live there. The emptiness, the sense of intense quiet, the ever-present possible solitude are at the center of our experience of the desert and the testing and developing of a deep, abiding faith.

Octogenarian June Sayre has been a lifelong communicant at St. Madeleine’s Catholic Church, but now, because of a dropping population, the congregation only has one service a month. There is St. Anne’s in Ridgecrest, but she prefers the Catholic Mass held on the Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, in the chapel.

Her father died of a stroke at 49. As a girl, June had two friends, and together they took the rituals, Lent sacrifices, and religious ceremonies of the church very seriously.

June stayed in Trona when her siblings moved away. She married her husband there. She says she has never regretted her decision. She is still active, leading a Bible study. She and her husband raised four girls and a boy. Her son died at 56 of cancer. The priest and her faith helped her through this very difficult time.

She loves Trona, and she loves the desert. June takes a walk every morning to check in with God and to see what kind of day it is going to be. Her faith is linked to the desert and the aridlandscape setting of her town. Belden C. Lane writes in Landscapes of the Sacred: Geography and Narrative in American Spirituality, “Ordinary social constructions of daily life and passing moments of extraordinary mystery are, in truth, continuously intersecting realities in human experience. The one often slides into the other.”

June speaks quietly of the desert and her relationship with God after a few moments of quiet contemplation. “The desert has so much of God around us. In the area in which we live, I see God in the birds, and animals, and bushes, and the mountains…everywhere. He is always in my heart and I have never wanted to leave because I love Trona and the people in it.”

In terms of the culture and history of the settlers and now the residents of Trona, this essay is examining this phenomenon of faith as basic to understanding how and why many live in this desert, endure the psychological challenges and harsh conditions through relying on their faith.

Further, it is argued that the conditions of living in the desert create a kind of self-knowledge and bonding with the land that is both powerful and a component of having faith so strong that the landscape of Trona defines who these people are. Ortega y Gasset wrote, “Tell me the landscape in which you live and I will tell you who you are.”

For me, the condition of emptiness in the desert brings forth a spiritual self-examination, a contemplation of who I am, why I am here, and what is the meaning of it all. When this happens, a self-examination always leaves me a feeling of want. That in turns drives me to confront the existential dread that the same emptiness without also lies within. It is only through grace, the free and unmerited favor of the Divine that I can accept myself, learn to love myself, and in turn love all that is around me. Walking in the desert, in every small thing I see a Divine presence. Perhaps it is the same for June.

The Christian Fellowship is a very active church: one of the five that have fullime pastors living in Trona. Chris and Lynne Darling didn’t know they would be spending most of their lives founding an independent Christian church. When Chris was hired on at the plant, he and Lynne were definitely NOT Christian. It was due to the “witnessing” of their next-door neighbor about Jesus that brought Lynne to be born again.

They decided to seek out a church. Although she was raised a Catholic, they went to the Baptist Church. Chris says, when he put his hand on the doorknob, he definitely heard an audible voice say, “Welcome home, son,” even though he was the only one around. That ultimately led to founding their church, followed by 30-plus years of miracles and happenings that bolstered and supported his and Lynne’s faith. He had a ruptured disk problem and was on his way to surgery when he was healed. Chris and Lynne have founded an ecumenical movement in Trona, with a formal council and a monthly community dinner.

The harshness of the desert, the terrible winds, the dry desiccating sun, the intense heat, and yes, the equally intense dry cold, strip me of pretense and preciousness, and push me to get down to the basics of living. In the desert there are few, if any, man-made distractions like we find in a small peaceful town, a busy self-important city, or an intense, vibrating metropolis. Like a soporific drug, our business dulls us. We crave that resulting numbness. In the desert you are alone with yourself; ultimately you finally accept that you are there to create meaning. I like to think I share a responsibility that the desert has shown me. I am to play a small part in redeeming my home, my land, my planet and all those who I come in contact with. Walking out into the desert reminds me, teaches me, forces me to experience this truth.

Gary Cartwell of the New Hope Foursquare Church knows where he’s at now. There is certainty in his voice when he states emphatically, yet gently, “God is on the move here.”

Gary has a large presence, his beard announcing a patriarchal, almost Biblical, confidence that he knows about faith and God. He leans against the old wall of the now leveled Austin Hall in downtown Trona.

Gary is feeling gregarious. A loquacious person by nature, he doesn’t mind talking about his life these days. He is ready to testify to how he “once was lost but now is found,” to quote the old popular hymn. Back when he was a hard-working, hard-drinking, philandering man here in this company town, he was lost. During his first marriage, he lived with another woman for 23 of the 30 years. He was either working at the Westend plant or drinking and carousing at the local bars in town. Finally, he found religion.

How God crashes unbidden into peoples’ lives is a mystery. Theologians say that you cannot even create a space for God in your soul because that means the eternal and infinite Divine must fit into a small human-made “box” within a lost soul. Psychologists and sociologists offer tepid explanations of “reaching bottom” and sudden “psycho-spiritual” transformations of human personality.

Gary, along with millions of other Christians, places faith at the center of becoming saved. The mystery then involves faith or belief in something through apprehension rather than proof. That is counter to how our modern rational world is supposed to work.

He and his second wife Janice now live on the outskirts of Ridgecrest. They faithfully come back to Trona on Sundays for church. They return on Tuesdays to have lunch at the Senior Center. He now dedicates his life to one of service, helping other seniors in any way he can, including picking up their trash.

Gary’s life divides neatly between a self-centered, dissolute one and the later one of faith, service and loving his fellow man. He remains the living incarnate of God on the move here. Whatever doubts about his faith he might have, he is steadfast and sure of God’s love. He is also certain he is part of God’s simple calling to do good for others less fortunate. He knows he is a very fortunate man to have survived his first life.

I walk out into the desert, often bringing my own personal desert with me, and I am very small. I read somewhere once that I am minute, halfway between a sub-atomic particle and the universe in size. I look up and see countless stars, and know there are a hundred or more times as many that I can’t see. My heart is broken because of my loss, my grieving grinds me down. Then I think there are a million forms of life out there that are grieving at this same moment. The pain is overwhelming, yet we are not alone in it. We actually have each other. In our smallness and our solitude, in our singularity, at a time when we are totally alone, in fact we are not. I am broken-hearted with a pain I didn’t even know existed in the human heart, but actually I am not at all alone. Across this world, and even across our universe, there are so many of us who have lost someone we loved; it is the human condition. The desert teaches me I am very small, but I am not alone.

Todd Owens is a man of quiet faith. Todd came back to Jesus, he explains, during the Jesus movement of the 1970s. He candidly admits he said he would come to Jesus if the high he got was better than the one from drugs. It was. When his daughter was two weeks old, she had a heart transplant. She is now 25 and being monitored for a replacement heart. His second daughter has stage 3 cancer in Washington, D.C., where his wife is spending most of her time. Then, Todd tore two tendons. He is a month after surgery, on crutches, and cannot drive or sit comfortably.

I ask him if he doesn’t feel like Job. He pauses thoughtfully and then replies with a determined look, “I know I have God’s love on my side. He is with me and will give me the strength to get through this.” As he speaks, his faith is palpable.

Faith takes different shapes and serves different purposes in peoples’ day-to-day lives. It also wavers, strong at some points, weak or unseen in others. Even for the most faithful, it can be a struggle as faith is challenged by events, both natural and accidental. In the desert, faith grows, matures and is singled out in the emptiness, silence and solitude. The acknowledged role of God and grace depends on the human context. Fr. Brad Karelius, in his book Encounters with the World Religions: The Numinous on Highway 395, quotes the prophet Hosea, “I will draw you out to the desert and I will speak to your heart.” HOSEA 2:14. Many are still responding to that call.

Visit KCET Artbound’s High & Dry feature for more dispatches from this collaboration.


Christopher Langley, a lifelong educator, has lived in and studied the Mojave Desert for more than 40 years. Working as a film historian, founder of the Lone Pine Film History Museum, and the Inyo County Film Commission, he focuses on the desert’s complex relationship with cinema, history and culture. His collaborative project with photographer Osceola Refetoff, High & Dry: dispatches from the land of little rain, can be found at His professional writing includes three books on California’s arid landscape. His work appears on diverse platforms including KCET Artbound, The Sun Runner, Palm Springs Life and The Inyo Register. Feature stories about his work have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times and BBC Magazine. His environmental advocacy has won several awards, including a National Conservation Cooperation Award and a Sierra Business Council 20/20 Vision Award.

Osceola Refetoff’s interest is in documenting humanity’s impact on the world—both the intersection of nature and industry, and the narratives of the people living at those crossroads. He holds an MFA from NYU’s Graduate Film Program, where he earned the Paulette Goddard and Warner Brothers Fellowships. Refetoff’s photography is featured in The Los Angeles Times, Hemispheres and WhiteHot, amongst other publications. He earned the 2015 OWAC Award for “Best Outdoor Feature Photograph,” and has exhibited at numerous solo and group exhibitions including Photo LA and the San Diego Art Institute. Refetoff’s parallel careers as an editorial and fine art photographer are characterized by an evocative, cinematic understanding of how scale, point of view, architecture and motion can be expressed as both information about and experience of a given place. His current focus is an expansive set of portfolios surveying the human presence in the deserts of the American West at

Interview with Theresa Cardenas | Andrea Polli

Posted on by admin1963 Posted in Fall 2015, Perspectives | Comments Off on Interview with Theresa Cardenas | Andrea Polli

Arid Co-Editor Andrea Polli interviews Theresa Cardenas, founder of Nobel Renewables Group LLC and New Mexico Climate Change & Energy Outreach Consultant for the Union of Concerned Scientists at the UNM Invisibility, Uncertainty, Art and Landscape Symposium, part of HABITAT: Exploring Climate Change through the Arts, a New Mexico statewide collaboration led by 516 ARTS.

TC: Today I’m making a presentation on New Mexico and climate change, how we are feeling climate change impacts and how it will change our landscape. I started learning about the environment as a home builder. At the time, 20 years ago, there was a building boom and sustainable building was not an industry priority. For my small company it was and became a personal choice to use sustainable building materials and techniques. Instead of continuing with business as usual, in 2013 I decided to leave the building industry because I didn’t feel the industry was moving fast enough to mitigate climate change. Transitioning my work into the policy arena of climate change, water and energy made perfect sense. I wanted to be a part of the solution and not part of the problem.

AP: What was different about sustainability at that time compared to today?

TC: Sustainability practices was experimental in the mainstream building world and conducted out in the field without much awareness of climate change. It was driven one house at a time by the consumer. The demand for sustainable buildings 20 years ago was something that the average person couldn’t even afford, so it had to be a gradual transition.

Today, consumerism continues to dictate how people make choices. Consumers have more power now than ever before to make environmentally sound choices. Advocating for responsible policies that can allow the consumer to make better decisions would make economic and environmentally sound sense. Its common sense policies that will help lower green house gases. One example is the link between energy use and water use.

In 2014 I became the New Mexico climate and energy outreach consultant with the Union for Concerned Scientists, a nationally recognized non profit that combines science and technical analysis with effective advocacy to create innovative, practical solutions for a healthy, safe, and sustainable future. They have a very clear idea about where we are headed if we don’t take action to lesson our dependence on fossil fuels.

AP: What policies need to be changed in New Mexico?

TC: New Mexico is well-positioned to increase the role for clean energy use in the state as a key driver to lesson the impacts of climate change. For example, New Mexico currently ranks second in the nation for solar energy potential, according to the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department but we rank 7th in the US for renewable energy production. We can do much better than that. For one, what needs to change is the way our large energy producers prioritize clean energy choices. The consumer needs to drive the demand. And, that will happen as renewable energy like solar becomes affordable. We can also count on technologically advances to help drive the policy changes necessary to transform our energy grid. Transitioning to clean energy has astounding economic and health benefits for all of us. We also need to advocate for more building efficiency policies and incentives, we are not pushing that hard enough. New Mexico needs to emphasize both clean energy technology and energy efficiency in the state energy plan to the EPA to comply with the nation’s first-ever limits on carbon emission from power plants..the single largest source of heat-trapping emissions that exacerbate climate change. New Mexico policies need to meet the current climate change reality.

AP: How and why did you get involved with The HABITAT art and climate change project?

TC: wanted to help the project connect the climate change dots and if you can connect the dots then you can curate a impactful climate change project. There is a human perspective to the climate change dialogue that can at times be polarizing with the debate surrounding climate policy. You might say it’s complicated. I shared several UCS reports with 516 Arts Executive Director Suzanne Sbarge which gave her the sound science information on prolonged droughts, growing water scarcity, more frequent and severe wildfires, and other impacts. So Suzanne started collaborating with groups of people that had something to offer to the exhibition in an artful way. The climate change dialogue begins with the facts and then advances to a personal level. Climate change impacts needs to reach the person at a personal level. The arts can serve that purpose. Art becomes a conduit to engage the person to help make meaningful connections so they can make a conscious choice to take action. This might mean changing their lifestyle to meet the current climate reality.

AP: In what other ways is climate change affecting culture?

TC: We have to recognize that cultural heritage is a human right and that the changing climate will put some aspects of cultural heritage at addition risk. Cultural heritage is an asset that makes ongoing contributions to the present and the future. Take for example; what would we do without our New Mexico red and green chile? Our chile is a cultural icon that connects us to our homeland. UCS is reporting that sea level rise, worsening wildfires and floods are putting many of the places and treasures we hold dear at risk. Including landmark historic sites around the US.

AP: Can the arts help?

TC: Absolutely, because they help educate by us by helping connect the climate impact dots and move us to action. The arts can give us different perspectives through the lens of the artist. It can bring an impact like flooding or drought to a personal level.

AP: Tell me about the report that will be released soon.

TC: The Union of Concerned Scientists will be releasing a report in November that addresses New Mexico’s response to climate change impacts. New Mexico’s climate is changing and more resources are needed to prepare and respond. It will be a comprehensive report about how climate change is fundamentally altering temperatures, water availability, and extreme weather. Our landscape is changing and the resources and infrastructure systems that New Mexicans depend upon are becoming strained, and the changes may challenge and threaten New Mexico lifestyles.

AP: What else is in the works?

TC: We are hosting two workshops for scientists, researchers, and scholars to learn about how to communicate their science to the public. Very few scientists have had good training in how to communicate their findings with the public. We also want them to have a clear understanding of the public’s perspective on climate change. The second workshop is bringing together water stakeholders and scientists to dialogue about water supply and availability trends and solutions for managing increasing climate variability.

Then we are hosting a talk called Cultural Perspectives on the Global Quest for Water in November as a part of the HABITAT exhibition. The guests speakers will be filmmaker Ruben Arvizu who will address how climate change is affecting Hispanics, connecting his work in Latin America with the Southwestern United States. Arvizu says, “We take the gifts of Nature, of which we are an integral part, without thinking about how we will repay her. It is as if we have a bank account to which we only withdraw funds but never make deposits. There will come a time when that account runs out of resources. We extract the riches of the Earth and do almost nothing to give back some of what she gives us. We just take and squander.”

AP: What are some of the impacts and threats that relate to Latin America?

TC: Like the US there are many significant impacts. But one that comes to mind that a connects globally is the availability of a fresh water supply. There is newly published NASA satellite data on all of the very important aquifer depletions in certain parts of the world and they are showing that about one third of Earth’s largest groundwater basins are being rapidly depleted by human consumption, despite having little accurate data about how much water remains in them. That means we don’t know how much is left. That’s true for New Mexico’s water resources. This means that significant segments of Earth’s population are consuming groundwater quickly without knowing when it might run out, the researchers conclude. The findings are published in Water Resources Research. Latin America has three large basins that have exceeded sustainability tipping points and are being depleted. What is so worrisome is highly stressed aquifers located in a region that have socioeconomic or political tensions like Latin America can’t supplement declining water supplies fast enough.

AP: How will New Mexico experience climate change?

TC: We are already feeling it. Some of our landscapes in our forests have suffered the bark beetle and devastated by large catastrophic forest fires. I’m seeing a confusion between what’s normal and what’s an abnormal weather patterns. The report will help clarify the visual impacts and the weather pattern. The report says that New Mexico’s climate has become hotter and drier in recent years, consistent with regional and global warming trends. Average annual temperatures in the Southwest have increased by 1.8°F since the mid-1970s. In New Mexico, this warming has resulted in earlier springs, hotter summers, and milder winters. Precipitation patterns have also changed, with more intense droughts and storms and a greater percentage of overall precipitation falling as rain rather than snow. These changes have led to lighter snowpack and earlier snowmelt, which contribute to lower stream flows and reduced water availability during the summer.

AP: What will the report say we will experience in terms of storms and forest fires?

TC: Forests in New Mexico will increasingly be affected by large and intense fires that occur more frequently, in spite of efforts to manage forests in ways that reduce the risk of fire. The warming climate will also bring increasing pest problems, diseases, and droughts. And this will change our landscape for a very long time. If these climate trends continue, as scientists expect, policymakers in New Mexico will need to increase efforts to protect residents from the economic consequences of less water, the health impacts of more excessive heat, and possible losses of lives and property from wildfire, while safeguarding the state’s natural resources and historical sites.

The artist’s vision can help a person who is experiencing their art understand climate change in the context of his or her environment in a more human way.  This makes it easier to understand and act appropriately.

Interview with Nina Dubois | Claude Smith

Posted on by admin1963 Posted in Fall 2014, Perspectives | Comments Off on Interview with Nina Dubois | Claude Smith

Drawing on the legacy of modular and unconventional architecture, design and Do-It-Yourself (DIY) culture, Nina Dubois’ trans-disciplinary approach to art making seeks to question our perceptions of the built environment and the ways in which it influences and shapes our understanding of place. Through her investigations of the phenomenological, Dubois offers prototypes or experimental models for a variety of forms and structures that, through their reconfiguration and deployability, offer a variety of opportunities for itinerant place making. On the occasion of her MFA thesis exhibition PROTOPIA: almost a place at SCA Contemporary in Albuquerque, New Mexico, I interviewed her regarding this latest body of work. Conducted via e-mail in January and February 2014.

Claude Smith: Looking at several of your pieces in PROTOPIA, I’m immediately reminded of the counterculture movement of the 1960s. But while the counterculturists explored the notion of place-making through DIY experimentation and communal living, you seem to offer somewhat of a divergent path and perhaps much more of an individualist approach.

Nina Dubois: I am definitely looking back at the counterculture movement and DIY experimentation, especially with the structures that are low-tech appropriations of Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome design. The counterculture movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and the current DIY culture, are rich territory for looking at how the adoption of certain forms and unconventional building methods can embody and maybe even engender alternative possibilities. One of the things that is so fascinating about the Southwest is its long history of alternative settlements. On the one hand, the beauty and openness of the landscape are awe-inspiring and represent kind of a tabula rasa that has enticed many generations of utopians to attempt to build their version of an ideal world out here—from the Mormons in Utah and the counterculture communes of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, to the high-tech and space-bound Biosphere II in southern Arizona

That being said, I wouldn’t necessarily frame my interest as individualism versus communal living. What these pieces are really about for me is taking this iconic reference to visionary architecture as a departure point for exploring the possibility or impossibility of translating utopian and transformative ideals into built form. The smaller, single-person structures point to individual desires for freedom and autonomy, while the bigger forms, such as Hive and Colony/Bench, point to shared desires for community and connection.

CS: Hive and Deployment Exploration Units I and II seem to suggest a more ephemeral, itinerant exploration of the intersection of the built environment and nature. What was your impetus for their construction?

ND: Before I returned to the University of New Mexico for graduate school, I had been making these delicate, gossamer structures out of tracing and tissue paper. I made versions of these, for indoor and outdoor spaces. The goal was to amplify some of the more discrete and subtle forces at play in a given environment. My choice of working with paper and creating ephemeral installations was in part a reaction to the monumental scale and permanence of the works I visited with the Land Arts of the American West program. It was also a way for me to think about architecture and built forms as mediating spaces between human needs and desires, and the larger environment. And with that, I became very interested in understanding what and how built forms communicate and give shape to certain ideals.

My interest in modular and itinerant forms of architecture was a direct extension of that exploration and an attempt to frame my work within both a personal and shared historical context. The geodesic dome was a natural place to start, having grown up in Montreal, in proximity to one of the largest geodesic domes ever designed and constructed by Fuller and which served as the U.S. Pavilion at the [World’s Fair] Expo in 1967. For my parents’ generation, the futuristic and visionary architecture that was showcased at Expo 67, and the geodesic dome in particular, represented a much-needed break with the past and carried the promise of the bright future that would follow as a result of modernization and new technological developments. The pavilions housed a series of exhibitions under the theme of “Man and His World,” and together with the radically modern forms of the pavilions themselves, painted a picture of a near-future in which cultural and national boundaries would be broken down and give way to a technologically enhanced global community. By the time I was born, most of the pavilions had been dismantled or fallen into disrepair—Fuller’s dome is one of the few remaining structures, minus the original acrylic sheathing, which was consumed in a fire in 1976—but as I was growing up, through the mementos and printed material that my parents had collected from that period, I got a sense of the idealism of the period and what a turning point it represented for the city and for the country as a whole.

For me, the geodesic dome and its subsequent appropriation into counterculture experiments came to embody a sense of lost optimism and naiveté that today is viewed both critically and with longing by people of our generation, concerned as some of us are with how to live in the world in light of the ever-looming environmental crisis and failures of modernism, of capitalism, and technocratic systems. And because my starting point was lightweight, gossamer and phenomenologically based structures, I have tried to maintain that relatively light-handed and even provisional approach. In contrast to the idealism of the 1960s and early 1970s, I think it speaks to the uncertainty and precariousness that a lot of us feel when thinking about the present and the near future.

CS: How do you see these structures occupied or experienced over time?

ND: It is important that they be tested and experienced in different contexts, but none are designed to stand up to the elements or to be occupied for an extended period of time. This is partly why the documentation comes into play. I can display the structures in a gallery setting, and this shows you how they are made, their scale, and that they are more like emergency shelters than permanent dwellings. And then staging them in different settings and creating these different kinds of sci-fi inspired, dystopian scenes through photos and video shows perhaps a more open-ended and ambiguous sense of their deployment and potential occupancy in different contexts

CS: At some point, your materials were more than likely used in the packaging, shipping, and protection of goods and objects during transport. How does the lifecycle of the media inform your work?

ND: Decisions about what kinds of materials make it into the work are based more on ubiquity and familiarity than on any kind of virtuous aspirations. I choose these materials—cardboard, shipping pallets, etc.—because they are familiar to me, they are banal, the stuff-of-the-world as I know it and that I have access to. I enjoy the challenge of taking something so unimpressive as a shipping pallet or a stack of cardboard and seeing how I can incorporate it into something that has to do with a more visionary and utopian, non-vernacular sensibility. There is already a quality of standardization and a certain kind of order and modularity that comes with these materials. I am just reworking it a little bit so that something maybe a little more unexpected emerges. And, yes, there is this transient, always-in-flux quality that is inherent in the fact that these materials are typically used for shipping and packaging, and I like that about them.

CS: Are there instances where material boundaries limited what you were able to accomplish?

ND: What I am attempting to accomplish is intrinsically linked to materials and their possibilities, and usually I am pretty good at being able to anticipate the result somewhat and to explore the edges and push the material beyond what it is supposed to do. But in some cases, I fall short. For example, when I came back from participating in the Land Arts of the American West program, I made a portable, two-part, press mold, a toolkit designed for producing individual clay bricks. The idea was to allow myself and other users to fashion interlocking, standardized building blocks out of locally sourced clay. The stylized geometric form of the brick module was an abstracted representation of the various forms we encountered in the field—from mountain ranges to the fantastical architecture of Biosphere II to Arcosanti, the experimental settlement envisioned by Paolo Soleri. So while the brick form ended up being pretty satisfying visually, the whole kit and getting the clay to release from the mold proved to be quite difficult and not ideal for public participation. I made only about a half-dozen bricks with the kit before I gave up. It operated in a different way than I had intended. But in a way, the failure of the kit resonates with some of the problems and failures that have plagued a lot of utopian projects like Arcosanti. The commitment to a radically different aesthetic and to alternative, idiosyncratic building processes can be the biggest impediment to realizing the vision of an alternative settlement. When you visit Arcosanti, you get the sense that they are kind of trapped in a Sisyphusian loop, trying to get new buildings and systems off the ground while scrambling to patch up and repair the original structures that now are starting to lose the battle against entropy. It’s an interesting predicament, reminding us of the imaginative struggle to make what we want of the world, no matter what limitations and boundaries seem to press down on us.

CS: Lucy Lippard once described Land Art by saying, “At best it can be simultaneously a spectacle and a very intimate experience.” I think in many ways, this characterizes several of the pieces (or their potential) in PROTOPIA, despite the fact they are functioning in the context of the gallery. How important is it for the viewer to understand the original context or intent behind the artwork? Does it matter that they were created to function within—or for—a particular landscape, or does the variety of possibilities enhance the meaning?

ND: None of the works in PROTOPIA were designed explicitly for or directly informed by any particular place or context. Some of the pieces, such as Algaeic Infrastructure and Hive, have been shown in specific outdoor contexts, but the original impetus behind all of the work and what ties everything together is more the exploration of modular architecture as a means of working with a particular set of functional and conceptual problems related to how our habits of dwelling shape us and how this, in turn, shapes the world we inhabit. So what is important, I think, is more that these structures can and have been set up in different kinds of contexts, that they have this instrumental quality that is defined more by their deployability and less by the particularities of place.

But, I suppose there also is something of the spectacle in terms of how I have chosen to stage and document some of the works in the landscape. The photographs of Deployment Exploration Units I and II, for example, show the structures in relation to these kinds of surreal and even post-apocalyptic environments. This has perhaps less to do with the sublime—which is where the spectacle quality of some of the Land Arts works lies—and more to do with the speculative and future-looking world of science fiction and dystopian fantasies.

Frederic Jameson talks about dystopianism in the work of classic sci-fi writers—such as H.G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Ursula K. Le Guin and Phillip K. Dick – as a powerful way to think about the possible shape of the future by considering the consequences of changes that could be made in the present, for better or for worse. He talks about the power of sci-fi as being in the way it constructs an almost banal parallel present that results from a merely mild realignment of current conditions. This is definitely something that is on my mind when I am thinking of placing my structures in relationship to the landscape around me.

CS: With respect to Land Art, I typically think of monumental gestures meant to last for long periods of time, yet you seem to advocate for a more delicate or even mindful way of incorporating into your practice some of the same tenets. Did you have to wrestle with the ideas of temporality and itinerancy, given that the predominately male-centric genre tends to measure success in grandiosity and permanence?

ND: We have come a long way from the monumental and grandiose gestures of the 1960s and 1970s Land Arts movement. There was definitely something valuable that these artists developed in terms of bringing the experience of the environment and of embodied space into the realm of art. But there also was something decidedly esoteric and apolitical about their conception of the environment as a blank canvas of open space.

In terms of art-historical precedent and inspiration, I think that what Gordon Matta-Clark was doing at the same time contributed to generating a much more complex and layered sense of art in relationship to the complexities of place. His exploration of urban conditions, of the absurdities of real estate development and the leftover/liminal spaces that it generates, carved a path that moved away from binary, nature/culture, people/environment thinking toward an effort to expand the definitions of the environment to include constructed urban spaces and social spaces, as well as wilderness. Yes, his Building Cuts displayed a certain machismo also present in the work of the predominately male-centric Land Artists, but works such as the Fake Estates and Food paved the road for other artists, such as Fritz Haeg, Nils Norman, Amy Franceschini and Futurefarmers, the N55 collective, and many others to further investigate and challenge the arbitrary distinctions between art/life, artist/viewer, and artist/architect/agent of the real world.

So even though much of my early references for thinking about art in relationship to the environment came from looking at the American Land Art movement of the 1960s and 1970s, I have come to really appreciate and identify with this other branch of art in relationship to place. Temporality, itinerancy and scale become less about taking a position vis-à-vis Land Art and more about having more fluidity and a more direct and responsive way of considering notions of space and place.

CS: Where do you see your practice headed?

ND: I enjoyed putting together the work for PROTOPIA and got a lot out of the experience of seeing all of these itinerant structures together and reframed within the context of the gallery. Part of me enjoys working within the boundaries of that kind of contained experience. Part of me is also really interested in working in a more open-ended way, introducing temporary and modular structures within the infrastructures of everyday life—in spaces that intersect more directly with different kinds of cultural, social and political activities, and where it might be possible to experiment with new models of “social space.” I’m not sure what that might look like exactly. I’ll let you know!

Interview with Libby Lumpkin | Andrea Polli

Posted on by admin1963 Posted in Fall 2014, Perspectives | Comments Off on Interview with Libby Lumpkin | Andrea Polli



The following conversation between ARID Coeditor Andrea Polli and Libby Lumpkin, Professor of Art History at the University of New Mexico and Curatorial Consultant of High Desert Test Sites, was conducted in 2013. Transcribed by Kevin Bott.

Andrea Polli: What got you initially involved in the High Desert Test Sites (HDTS)?

Libby Lumpkin: Andrea [Zittel] called and asked me if I would be involved. This was some two or three years ahead of the time it took place, which is, of course, how that goes—and I would say anything [she asks] I would want to be a part of, so I was very happy to make whatever small contribution I made to the overall massive effort that went into this project.

[It was] the first time that the locations were spread out beyond Joshua Tree—and I thought that was a really great idea. It ended in Albuquerque because this is where I am, so… Here’s what I like about Andrea: first of all, she seems to get the special character of the West—the vast spaces, the different kind of culture—and I consider Andrea a great artist, but also a visionary. A lot of the projects she supports really have nothing to do with her aesthetic particularly, but what she does seem to get—and I think the reason she got herself to Joshua Tree—is that this special character of the landscape in the West is different from other landscapes, and that means culturally as well as visually.

Now, the land artists certainly recognized the value of going into the Western states to create these broad works, works like nothing that had ever been seen before. History that utilized the vast landscapes as part of the art works. I’m talking, of course, about Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, Michael Heizer’s Double Negative and City, and James Turrell’s Roden Crater, and I would even stretch it over to Marfa, Texas. I think that Don Judd was one of the first to really recognize the special character of the landscape and how that interacted with his minimalist art. Oh, and also Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field of course!

The other part about the fact that I like her recognition—I mean, I see her whole project in Joshua Tree as recognition that the different culture and different landscape should and can generate different kinds of art. Certainly that’s true of the land arts. But it’s more than that—it’s more how you live as an artist and I think that’s keenly reflected in Andrea’s own art, in the kind of off-the-grid, compact-living, mobile aspects of her own works. They come right out of that isolation, but at the same time, there’s no desert, there’s no cacti [chuckles] depicted in her work. It’s the character of the weird, desert-rat feel, in this great crazy, Western world, that you can see in her work without actually seeing it. I’ve always appreciated that about her work, and the fact that she wants to generate that as a kind of community.

At the same time, this project is also to collect all these people along the way, and create a community as best as any community is going to be, out in the West. When I lived for a little bit of my childhood in Santa Angelo, Texas, it was like, well, you want to go see Sally on her ranch, you drove an hour across absolutely nothing, and thought nothing of it! It’s the question of being isolated and then trying to create a community of isolated people. Very different. Will something important come out of it? Well, maybe Andrea’s work is part of something important that’s come out of it. I’d say that it’s already happening. There has to be something more than land art.

When you think of the New York art scene, it is a very social scene. And by that I mean all the good and the bad, the collectors and the museums, and all of those things tightly wound into a very small square-foot area, and that kind of culture has produced amazing, amazing things. So whatever gets produced out West—let’s say you do have a community—and I say that community exists largely in the imagination. It’s not like we’re down at Max’s arguing about art theory all day, because it just can’t happen in the West—and indeed, even in Albuquerque.

I live, for example, in Santa Fe; sometimes that kind of communication is just a matter of understanding and knowing you live there, and what kind of person you are. I felt like it was not like the kind of group show that emerges out of a group of young artists, or the something that would happen out in New York, but a collection of individuals down the road. That’s really different! It’s a different way of thinking about art, and I think that whatever ultimately develops out West, it will be different from what develops in busy, urban populations. Something good is coming out of it—something great comes out of it—and Andrea’s goal is, as I understand it, to respect all of the crazy things that people do out in the desert [laughter].

I don’t think you could find an aesthetic connection between the works—maybe a few of them, but not all of them. The locations, like the telescope near Madrid, or the radio telescope outside of Socorro, I think they’re so great. I went up to do part of the project at the Titan Missile Site and Museum, which is south of Tucson—it was too far off the track to make it happen. It’s just what the desert does to you: The desert itself is an honest thing. I’ve always loved the desert Southwest because I feel like I’m connected to outer space [chuckle]. You’re so close to the stars, the moon, and the air is so thin, you feel like it’s a very special place. I can’t imagine that, over time, the desert won’t invoke visions that no one has imagined, or could have ever imagined, in Cologne, or Berlin, or New York.

AP: So what kinds of things did you hope would come out of this project, and what surprised you about it? How important to you is that drive, where there’s just nothing for miles? And how does that affect, as an art audience member, the reception of the work?

LL: What surprised me is that a lot of the work seemed more urban than different. A lot of the places we gravitated to were urban places, where art could develop. Of course, there were works that were thematically related to the desert, like Debbie Vaughan’s Trailer. But here, in Albuquerque, we had a big performance piece. I never associated performance art with the desert personality, but people loved it, and I loved it. I thought it was great.

AP: Sure, well Burning Man, I always associate performance art with the desert [laughter].

LL: Well, that’s my bad, because I haven’t been to Burning Man. It just sounds like such physical misery! Like, the dirt in your teeth and “Where’s the bathroom?” I’ll let the kids do that! Somehow, that’s not really my crowd. I appreciate that—that is a huge performance piece of itself, like a ritual. That’s also something I don’t really associate with the desert personality—and let me subtract Native American art from that—is the idea of ritual. It seems like ritual is a communal action, as the performance was here in Albuquerque very much so, I think. The performance piece here did seem ritualistic. I’m not sure it was about ritual per se, but in the way Jackson Pollock appropriated ritual, Native American sand painting into his drip paintings. He didn’t think of that until he was in New York [chuckles]. Somehow, I just see loners as not directed towards communal events, and I do think of loners out in the West.

AP: Were there a lot of pieces that expressed that loner identity?

LL: Actually, not so many. I anticipated more eccentricity. I think most of the pieces did have a sense of the urban aesthetic—really current trends. I think that’s fine, bringing those people together is a great idea, and honestly, outsider or true loner art tends to be burdened with conventions of its own kind. This was a beginning, and a very interesting one—you sort of collected people who knew about art and drove them out there, off the grid, to adobe huts or wherever to show their conceptual pieces. So that’s good in itself; it brings those people together. Will an aesthetic grow out of the Western states?

AP: Certainly we’re becoming more urbanized.

LL: You do have that element, but I still feel that there is an aesthetic that will grow out of the West. More like a cactus. I don’t know what it will look like, but I do like the fact that Andrea really is open to all kinds of different things.

AP: Is bringing that community together, as spread out as we are, a way to help make an aesthetic grow, just the way that it does elsewhere?

LL: I think any kind of communication does that, and also it’s really helpful for students, for them to see things that work out in very peculiar ways that they work out in the West. The resources are different. There’s no money, but there’s a lot of land. What can come out of that? Different things. Performance comes out of that, pretty easily, because you can have this attitude of “Knock yourself out, kids!” Money is problematic out West, [as is] making art in a collectors’ vacuum. Cultivating collectors out West is really hard. Galleries are few and far between. The desert develops a kind of toughness in you, certainly reflected in Andrea and her willful imposition of her vision in Joshua Tree, which is sort of a small miracle, frankly.

AP: Like Donald Judd in Marfa.

LL: Don Judd, yes. He had the benefit of the foundation [laughter]. Miss Moneybags. We need one of those in every little town. What a difference that would make! In the interim, who knows what grows out in the desert. I just feel like we’re a different culture out here. We shouldn’t try to be like the big, dense, urban communities. It’s really easy for artists—and in particular, with students—to fall into Southwestern clichés. That’s the tough one! That’s why you have to have these visionaries out there, to lead the way.

AP: Did you find that High Desert Test Site attracted collectors and museums?

LL: I think it certainly did, and I know there were quite a few applicants who are very deserving young artists who didn’t make the cut because they didn’t quite fit the vision for the project that Andrea had. I was really surprised at the eagerness of many, very reputable artists in L.A. and other places to be included. I’m sure they understand that what they’re doing just didn’t fit—in other words, they were “take it, plop it” kind of things. Andrea wanted more things that grew out of the desert culture. I think she achieved that, to a great deal. I don’t think I saw a unified aesthetic, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. If the Western states as a collective produces something we could all participate in, then I think that her method of “living it” and “cultivating it” and “supporting it” is a great start.

AP: Did you see certain trends emerge? You mentioned mobility and a couple of mobile projects. We talked a little bit about performance projects. What other types of trends did you notice?

LL: I hesitate to speculate on trends, but there were things that were impermanent—and that’s not unexpected. Lots of things focused on mobility, things that responded to the landscape, using materials, typically ephemeral ones. But that’s not unusual in an urban setting either. Some of them did use a dilapidated building, and we have lots of those to use in the West. It was more like artists were using very sophisticated, urban-derived forms, but responding to the Western landscape, in ways.

Andrea’s more willing to test various unusual proposals and other support systems in the West—primarily museums and things like that—absolutely. I’m just in awe of her and HDTS. She’s done most of this without a 503(c)(3)! She has this drive and this vision, and she just seems to say, “Come on, come with me, let’s go do something. Let’s go recognize where we are, who we are, and let’s make something of this.” She takes a look; she makes the space.

AP: Cool, so we can look for High Desert Test Sites in two years? Every couple years?

LL: That’s the plan. It’s a big project. I think they’ve learned a lot about just the amount of workload—so whether it’d be two years or three years, I do think they want to repeat it. Something like that could really grow; certainly give hope to a lot of artists who are longing for it.

AP: Do you think you’ll be involved again?

LL: If she asks me, I’ll be happy to. They’re having a kind of ramen-moon dinner, out at Joshua Tree. Everything in it involves food. Maybe they just want to look at the moon. That’s one thing you can count on in the West: you can see the moon.

AP: Do you think you’ll be writing about some of these pieces?

LL: I’d really like to. I’d like to write more about local things. There’s not a lot of editors calling me asking to write for them. But I feel like something’s about to break. You know how that is—in Idaho there’s “this” thing happening, and in Montana there’s “that” thing happening, and all of a sudden, everybody looks up like prairie dogs and realizes, Oh, you’re doing something too! We’re at that point where it will all coalesce into something. Certainly, all the works won’t look the same, but we’ll start to feel a culture, a contemporary culture.

AP: Sure, everybody has some urban sophistication, even if they’ve lived here all their lives. There’s so much travel and information moving around.

LL: Sure, maybe we’ll all just live out in our adobe huts and never talk to anyone again, but maybe we’ll find that next great artist living in their adobe hut. But there are a lot of pitfalls. It’s easy to fall into cliché and romantic traditions out here, so I guess the question is: Can you go howl at the moon and not make it a religious experience? And then you’d look around and notice, Oh, you howl at the moon too!

I don’t even know what to expect, but I know that Andrea’s done more than a lot to even imagine this culture of finding cohorts; to cross the miles and the distances. It’s like the Voyager leaving the solar system—“Hello from earth!”—and it’s like sending up some smoke signals and waiting to see who answers. I think there’s something beautiful about that, and something really unique about that. What I’ve seen—I haven’t seen all of the art out there—but what’s interesting is the urban art. They came out here because it’s pleasant to live out here and to do it. I’d like to see something that has a visceral connection to the landscape, that’s not land art. I think they’ve found some really interesting things, from people living in places like Magdalena [New Mexico]—like, “Okay, you want to make a pot of gumbo in Magdalena! Okay! Give me a bowl!” I’m very emotionally attached to the desert Southwest, in particular, so all that support is great. I’m here, who else is here?

AP: That’s fantastic. Is there anything else you want to add?

LL: You know, I feel really bad. There were some things that I didn’t get to see, and I really wanted to go do and see.

AP: And that’s what’s amazing, there were things that I wanted to go do and see too, that were all happening at the same time.

LL: I just thought it was great that it all ended next to the Octopus Car Wash in Albuquerque! That’s a fitting end to it, don’t you think?

See also: Trade Winds Sign Rally

Review: Aridtopia: Essays on Art & Culture from Deserts in the Southwest United States | William Fox

Posted on by admin1963 Posted in Fall 2014, Perspectives | Comments Off on Review: Aridtopia: Essays on Art & Culture from Deserts in the Southwest United States | William Fox


Aridtopia: Essays on Art & Culture from Deserts in the Southwest United States. Tyler Stallings, Blue West Books, 2014. 262 pages.

Aridtopia is Tyler Stallings’ first book, a collection of “essays on art and culture from deserts in the Southwest United States” that is so diverse as almost to qualify as a miscellany. What provides a measure of cohesion is a metafiction the author initiates to create a loose framework for the book. The result is a book that promises more than it delivers, but nonetheless contains valuable intelligence about a desert cultural ecology that has received only sporadic attention over the years from theorists and art writers.

The title of the book refers to a “speculative, secessionist community” imagined in a region that stretches north from Riverside and the Inland Empire of Southern California to the Owens Valley, and east across the greater Mojave and Sonoran deserts. The literary conceit, as well as geographical spread, allows Stallings to bind together columns, reviews and essays into a near-future narrative of dystopian drought. The entries range from reviews of fake Middle Eastern villages constructed by the U.S. Marines as analog warfare environments, to traffic islands in Southern California that he envisions as possible sites of occupation. Stallings transforms the Los Angeles Aqueduct into a Paiute dreaming path, and the train whistles piercing his hometown of Riverside at night into a Zen meme more like a worm than a koan.

The middle of the book settles into a series of reviews that include photographs by Laurie Brown, documenting the conversion of Orange County into a hegemonic housing development; Kim Stringfellow’s survey of 20th-century homesteader cabins in the Mojave Desert; and exhibitions about the citizen exploration of space and the Sonoran Desert as experienced by a fictional alien intelligence. Philip K. Dick meets Michael Heizer, the Hells Angels do battle with Chinese terra cotta warriors, and all of it is pervaded with a miasma of the strange that seems to arise not so much from Stallings’ mind as out of his adopted territory. If Los Angeles was perceived to have been the center of the nation’s weirdness pre-World War II, one can only conclude that its manic schizophrenia has successfully invaded the entire American Southwest.

Among the several pleasures of the collection are fine writing about the polymath artist, writer, surfer and Juxtapoz cofounder Craig Stecyk, photographer Laurie Brown, and research-based multimedia artist Kim Stringfellow. Aridtopia doesn’t offer a sustained thesis, but Stallings’ informed, lucid writing and his informal reframing of the region with its various cultures is strong enough that the collection over time may come to be considered an essential item on library shelves devoted to Southwest cultural criticism.


See also: Becoming Wordless for a Moment, or Repurposing Backyard Swimming Pools in Aridtopia as Meditation Shrines, Permaculture Gardens and Survivalist Shelters

A Paiute Perspective on the LA-Owens Valley Water Story: Jenna Cavelle in conversation with Alan Bacock and Harry Williams

Posted on by admin1963 Posted in Fall 2013, Perspectives | Comments Off on A Paiute Perspective on the LA-Owens Valley Water Story: Jenna Cavelle in conversation with Alan Bacock and Harry Williams

Alan Bacock (left), Jenna Cavelle (middle), Harry Williams (right). © Chris Morrow 2013.

There is a widely held belief that Los Angeles went out and “stole” its water from Owens Valley. This viewpoint has produced an entire body of literature and film on the Owens Valley-Los Angeles water war. In nearly every case these works focus solely on how Los Angeles took water from the white settlers at the time the aqueduct was completed in 1913. From academic journals to best sellers, to documentaries and film noir, for the past 100 years the Owens Valley-Los Angeles water story always begins and ends with the Los Angeles Aqueduct. But there is a greater story, an untold story that is rich in history and human achievement—a story that is as much a part of American memory as the creation of our great cities. This story is the history of the Paiute Indians who populated and irrigated Owens Valley for millennia, long before the aqueduct was built.

Paya, a documentary film project currently in production, sheds light on the pre-history of America’s longest-lived water war through the untold story of Paiute Native Americans and the vast irrigation systems they engineered. These complex networks of ditches, canals, and dams were erected using communal labor and managed under the direction of a head irrigator who was elected by the tribe.  Over sixty miles of indigenous waterworks irrigated desert valley into an agricultural system that sustained the Paiute for thousands of years.

For the ancient Paiute—from Pai meaning water—water was central to both their cultural practices and sociopolitical hierarchies. Colonization during the nineteenth century and the takeover of their waterworks without regard to first-user water rights led to the displacement of the Paiute, erasure of their irrigation practices, and suppression of their customs and history. Over time, tribal members have lost touch with their cultural traditions or simply don’t remember historic livelihood practices their people engaged in for thousands of years. Perhaps what is most miraculous about this untold story is that living tribal elders have identified what they believe are remnant waterworks in the current Owens Valley landscape.

Paya documents Paiute irrigation history and remnant waterworks using web media, photography, videography, archival materials, cartography, and oral histories. The media resulting from this project will be featured in museum exhibits in the Paiute-Shoshone Cultural Center in Owens Valley and in UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, in a documentary film, and on the project website.

The following are excerpts from an interview  conducted in Owens Valley, June 23, 2013, by Paya producer/director Jenna Cavelle with two of the film’s main protagonists, Harry Williams, Bishop Paiute tribal elder and activist, and Alan Bacock, Big Pine Paiute tribal member and the current president of the Owens Valley Committee, a non-profit citizen action group dedicated to protecting the natural resources of the Owens Valley.

Jenna Cavelle: I am Jenna Cavelle. I am a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley and a recent graduate of UC Berkeley. I am here in the Owens Valley doing a community service project that recovers the cultural memory of the Paiute irrigation and water history in the context of the aqueduct centenary and a 150-year water war between the indigenous Paiute and various outside entities, LADWP among them.

Alan Bacock: My name’s Alan Bacock, I am a tribal member of the Big Pine Paiute tribe of the Owens Valley. I also work for the tribe; I am employed by them to look at water issues. The story here is continuing and is unfortunately one that stresses a viewpoint that water is something to be owned by people for people only—that’s not a viewpoint that tribal people typically take because we see water as important for all life and life encompasses more than just humans.

Harry Williams: My name is Harry Williams. I am a lifelong resident of Owens Valley. I am a member of the Bishop Paiute tribe but I have relations in the Big Pine area, Tinemaha, and the Round Valley areas that were traded off during historic land exchanges. Since 1996, I’ve been pretty involved in water rights and I’ve argued for them as a member of the Owens Valley community.

JC: I think I will start out by piggybacking something that you said, Alan. You mentioned that for the Paiute people and you personally, resources including water and land are not just for people. I think that’s a good starting point; to talk about what the Paiute perspective on the resources in question are. What is the Paiute view on land and water or on resources? Do the Paiute think about natural resources in terms of ownership or not?

AB: That’s a great question especially because our thought is very different from current, modern thought about life and ownership of land or ownership of water—those concepts are new to our culture. In contemporary mainstream society, we feel that we need to own things. And not only do we need to own them, we need to change them for our benefit—regardless of if it’s beneficial [overall] to do so or not.

For instance, Phoenix is a huge metropolis and within that metropolis people don’t want to suffer in the heat of summer, and so they go into buildings and those buildings are climate controlled so people don’t recognize where they’re living because they’ve completely controlled their environment. Within Paiute thought we don’t control our environment—we work within it.

JC: Harry, how about you? As a Paiute, what do you think the Paiute perspective is? Surely it’s changed over time because culture is not a stagnant thing. Before the settlers entered the valley, what do you believe was the viewpoint of the Paiute people on resources such as water and land in terms of ownership?

HW: The tribes really lived within a balance of life, but then they also learned how to spread the water because water turned into life and the more life or diverse life you had, the more opportunities for food and resources that you could also use. They were utilizing all the water by spreading it and creating life, creating a habitat for the plants that they gathered seeds off. When you got habitat for plants, you got habitat for animals and the animals you could then collect. But you never really killed everything because then you would have nothing. They learned: never take everything, always give a little bit of water back, always offer a little bit of food back. If you took everything then in the long run you’d have nothing. That’s what modern society needs to learn today: if you exploit all resources you will end up with nothing.

JC: So it sounds like they were practicing a very sustainable way of interacting with their resources but not necessarily calling it that. It was just sort of their way of being; it was just like breathing for them.

AB: Yes, when you rely on the environment for all that you have, you’re going look for ways to make it sustainable. Of course “sustainability” is a buzzword now, it was just a way of life for our people back then.

JC: Okay so let’s go back to the 1800s, the mid-1800s. There was a significant war that happened in 1863. It spanned about a five to seven year period depending on what academic book you reference. And 2013 marks a hundred and fifty years since that massacre. This is a period when Paiute territory and resources were formally taken over by the U.S. government. And so, what exactly happened during that time period, during the mid-1800s, to the Paiute

AB: Well, I would say that at that time period, people began moving into the valley and settling. Prior to that, you had explorers coming in, looking at things, but then leaving. Once settlement started to occur and people began to then take ownership of things like water and land, fences were put up. These new people began using the area’s water for their own purposes and they didn’t necessarily leave water for people downstream. And so a lot of the areas, the seed lands, the places where people still gathered, began to dry up. Also, cattle and sheep were brought in by the settlers and they were confined in different areas so either those animals were eating the vegetation that our people utilized or they were taking over areas that animals native to the place would typically go and they were no longer able to [use]. So when you don’t have the ability to collect and gather as you did, which was a major source of food for us, and when you don’t have the ability to utilize the native species of wildlife that’s there because you’ve been forced into new areas, that means that our people, then, weren’t able to find the needed food resources. That’s what really began the conflict here.

Harry Williams (left), Jenna Cavelle (middle), Alan Bacock (right). © Chris Morrow 2013.

JC: So the period from 1863 to 1913, before Los Angeles enters the valley, there’s a lot of changes happening; settlers start changing the name of places; you get Big Pine Creek, you get Bishop, you get Wind Valley. You get sort of the renaming of places that were once called something completely differently by the Paiute. So as this is happening, the irrigation systems are taken over; Indians are being essentially forced into labor at ranches because there are no other options. This happens over a fifty-year period and you get to a point where the settlers have, by 1900, essentially taken over the valley. Shortly thereafter you have a new stakeholder that enters the picture: the City of Los Angeles. Would it be fair to say that after LA’s entrance into the valley—whose primary goal is water resource acquisition—that during those initial years, the Paiute were not really considered a stakeholder until later in the twentieth century when LA wanted their water and their land in particular?

HW: Well, up until the 1960s let’s just say they called us the “Indian problem.” Capitalistic attitude; we were a problem because ‘we can’t make money with you in our way.’ We’re lucky that they didn’t just try to kill us all off. They tried to remove us but then nobody agreed to that, especially the ranchers because we were good workers for them.

JC: How did their presence in the valley change the Paiute way of life? What was the impact on Paiute livelihood, especially with the construction of the aqueduct in 1913? What was the effect on Paiute native plants? On irrigation? On their way of life in particular?

AB: Well, we had to adjust to settlers coming in and being able to work on the operations that they had going. When LA came in, then we had to do another shift. Because LA’s needs weren’t the same as the ranchers’ needs. In fact, they were very different, but again we looked to see ‘how are we going to survive with…?’ Was it easy? No, but to survive in this new environment with this new entity coming in—I would just say there was hardship. There was definite hardship. And how did they impact our culture? Oh, it devastated our culture: from having our children taken to schools outside of the valley to folks not being able to share our language with each other because that’s not the language you’re supposed to speak anymore. Our native plants—they were non-existent; we had to look for new sources of being able to feed ourselves or we had to go to the extremes to find new places where we could gather and then [when] we did do so, we had to be careful about going about it because usually it was somebody else’s property at this point.

AB: We had a very forced, sudden amnesia that happened to our people because of settlers and then, because of Los Angeles. And that impacts us to this day. Fortunately, now we have a resurgence of wanting to recover our memory—something denied to our people in earlier times. That is important for our people and for our environment because we’re all connected together. We can see that this amnesia has impacted everything around us; we deal with the highest air pollution levels in the nation for [airborne] particulate matter, we look at springs that are dried up, we look at animals that are either extinct or now endangered because a group of select people in power throughout the last 100 years—in their desire to manage this place for themselves—have only managed to destroy this area.

JC: Wow, that’s powerful.

HW: Yeah, that’s good

JC: It’s like the Paiute people really went through two separate colonizations—in the beginning when the settlers entered the valley and then again when LA arrived. I asked you guys this question in the beginning: when the settlers entered the valley did they consider Paiute ownership of resources? Did they consider the Paiute as a stakeholder? Did it change when LA entered the picture? You know, it’s fifty years later—we should have progressed as a society, so did they consider the Paiute as a stakeholder at that point or was it still sort of the same song and dance?

HW: I would say so because they tried to make us work under their rules and their rules were made for their benefit. Like when they told the tribes, if you didn’t apply for your water rights in 1851, well, you don’t have them now. And if you didn’t do this, well, you didn’t own that land. We didn’t understand these rules, didn’t even speak their language. They came in and started using all their big words—lawyer words. Indian agents [representing the tribes] worked for the federal government and their whole thought was ‘they weren’t using it so we’re going to use it, so it’s not theirs, and they just took it away from them.’ So who can you fight? They’d send in an army and kill you if you disagree with them. And today they’ll name you a terrorist just by arguing with them. They’ll label you. Like I said, ‘til 1924, we couldn’t own land. What kind of government does that? That’s a colonial attitude; first you come in and change everything, change the religion, change the rules, say that you’re less than me and since you’re less than me, I have a right to kill you if you disagree with me, and that’s kind of like what we’re just getting over today.

AB: In 1937 there’s an act of Congress enabling land and water exchanges on the res for Indian allocations with the City of Los Angeles. Now, as things progressed, what Congress had intended was that land and water would be exchanged with any [future] agreement including those with the City of Los Angeles. What happened was land was exchanged but water [rights] were not.

JC: I want to talk a little bit more about the relocation of the Paiute from one place to another by way of the land exchange. When I was a student at UC Berkley and I was studying the land exchange, one of the things that was so confusing about it for me was that land and water seemed to be inextricably linked. This land exchange was presenting a whole new concept for me by separating and exchanging them independent of one another. It was really difficult for me to wrap my head around that. When talking to the public over the past couple of years as I’ve been here working on my project, this seems to be a common point of confusion. One of the points of confusion is in the literature—sometimes you see the land exchange talked about as a 1937 document and sometimes you see it talked about as a 1939 document. And I’m wondering is that—

HW: They’re two separate documents.

JC: Does that represent a process? Or…?

HW: The ’37 one was after Congress gave the water rights for [surface] runoff to the City of Los Angeles. Then after that act was passed they went after the [actual] tribal land. That’s when they did the land exchange. They offered every Indian from Fish Lake Valley all the way to Yerington to come join this process. It wasn’t just in Owens Valley—they just wanted to consolidate all the problems and get rid of everybody. But a lot of people back in Yerington—they didn’t agree with that. Fish Lake Valley they didn’t agree with that either—they just said ‘no.’ In the Bishop area, my grandfather Billy Williams was a chief negotiator. They wanted to put us down by the airport and my grandfather said ‘we can’t grow anything down there.’ So he forced them to move [us] up to the present site where Bishop is right now. We were never given a good option.

AB: Going off of what Harry said, there were actually two acts of Congress in 1937. One act gave LA the ability to have that watershed protection, the second act disabled federal government from negotiating with the City of Los Angeles to trade lands. The result of those acts was a new agreement in 1939, and then that agreement was finalized in 1940/1941 with both the City of Los Angeles and the federal government. So yeah, it’s a process that went on.

HW: Here let me answer part of it. The act of ’39 was kind of illegal. What they did was they said if you want to become part of the Bishop, Big Pine or the Lone Pine tribes you had to sell all your land—all your allotted land. Some of the people ended up selling—which is evil to force someone to sell their land. They said, well, you can’t have land out there if you want to become part of the tribe. Some people still did it and they couldn’t go after them to make them sell their land so today, they still own their allotted land.

JC: So would you say then that this piece of legislation, or these pieces of legislation were really thrown into motion as a result of LA being here?

HW: LA had so much political power. They were able to push that 1939 act in one day. One day it went through Congress. One day. It just got pushed through. Voted on, not talked about, just… it was done.

JC: So are there current unresolved issues around water rights today that come out of that land exchange?

HW: Our water rights have never been settled.

AB: I want to say in 1937, the act and then with the 1939 agreement—which created the Big Pine, Bishop and Lone Pine reservations—are the water rights in question. The Fort Independence tribe, which is also in the Owens Valley, has their water rights established. But it’s the Big Pine, Bishop and Lone Pine reservations, which were a part of that agreement, that have not had those water rights settled. And that continues today. It is something that has always been on the hearts of our people to settle but we’ve always had opposition, be it externally or internally, that have not allowed us to fully settle out those rights. And again, the question is how do we then plan for the future if we don’t know what we have today?

JC:  So considering the potential for a positive future that considers all of these stakeholders that are here now with the Paiute at the forefront, how do you sort of imagine people coming together at the same table to create some sort of social exchange or change that is different and works for everyone; or can you even imagine something like that?

AB: That’s difficult to imagine. However, I would say that in the beginning of this interview we spoke about sustainability and that was how our people used to live before we knew what that really meant and we’re coming back to that. What is it to be sustainable? Because currently we look at our people and we see a lot of health impacts because of our [contemporary] diet, the lack of exercise—which a lot of folks aren’t able to do. The Big Pine tribe is looking at ways for our people to be healthier so we are looking at our diet. We’ve developed a project to create a community garden to demonstrate how to grow plants that will help our bodies be healthier. And in the process of doing that we’re utilizing the land in a beneficial way. We’re utilizing the water in a beneficial way so that we show that we still have an interest in protecting the land, protecting the water and, in turn, also being a healthy people. And I believe as we continue to do this demonstration, it will help to build the soil within our reservations. In Big Pine, because of the de-watering that’s gone on with the groundwater pumping and because of a flood that came over that deposited a lot of sandy soil, it is difficult to grow [food] and a lot of dust is produced on our reservation. We want to change that and it’ll take little bits here and there to strengthen our soil by utilizing the water and hopefully strengthening the health of our people in the process.

JC: I like that—I like the idea of growing plants to grow healthy people. You know I really like the way that sounds and feels.

AB: There’s a permaculturalist—Jeff Laughton is his name and he says that I can change the world through a garden. It sounds funny because you really think of a garden as something small and not really impactful; but when you look at what a garden is—it provides food and an area for animals and it provides nourishment for all kinds of things—I think he’s correct. You can change the world through a garden. I’m hoping that our project starts to show that by creating an environment where people can be healthier through getting out, working [outside] and eating from those plants so we can show others that this is how we will become healthier. This is how we can interact again with the world around us. When we started this interview we spoke about the disconnect that modern society has with the environment and how we always want to change our environment to fit our needs instead of being able to live within the environment. And when we begin to then live within the environment, we begin to recognize the importance of having clean air, clean water and [productive] land that can support life. When we end up doing that we will be a happier, healthier people in the process. And I would venture to say that a healthier environment as a whole is best for all living things.

Alan Bacock serves as Environmental Director for the Big Pine Paiute Band of the Owens Valley Paiute-Shoshone people.

Jenna Cavelle is a conservation and resource studies researcher at UC Berkeley and founder of She is currently working with the Paiute Indian community on a documentary film, Paya: The Untold Story of the LA-Owens Valley Water War.

Harry Williams is an environmental activist and Bishop Paiute tribal member who serves as an educational guest speaker with the White Mountain Research Station.

Film Mystery as Urban History: The Case of Chinatown | John Walton

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© Neil Shigley 2013. All Rights Reserved.


Historians and students of film are familiar with movies based upon historical events and particularly with cinematic representations of those events, which are said to distort, reinterpret, or otherwise alter history in popular memory. Seldom, however, do we find instances of the effect of film and popular culture on history. The reason, perhaps, is that the latter side of this dialectic is rare or inconsequential in the unfolding course of history. This chapter will argue, on the contrary, that sometimes life imitates art, that renditions of the past in popular culture can have a forceful impact on the making of history. This proposition is examined in the context of Los Angeles’s historical, and often controversial, efforts to acquire water for development the political movement to restrain the city’s appropriation of natural resources mounted by citizens of the Owens Valley in the 1920s, the selective reinterpretation of these events in Roman Polanski’s classic film Chinatown (1974), and the influence of the film on the subsequent and ongoing controversy over water rights and land development in the region since the mid-1970s.

These events began when the City of Los Angeles reached out 230 miles to the northeast along California’s eastern Sierra Nevada Mountain chain and appropriated water from the Owens Valley in an aqueduct constructed from 1905 to 1913. Subsequently, drought and growing groundwater exploitation by the city in the 1920s resulted in the valley’s steady desiccation.

Urged on by growing desperation and traditions of popular action, the valley rose in revolt in 1924, protesting politically and, when that failed, bombing the aqueduct. Although the community struggle of the 1920s ended in defeat, it left a growing residue of memory in accounts of the David-and-Goliath struggle produced in fiction, local history, and early films. Many of these distorted the facts of the conflict by attributing a conspiratorial design to the city’s original effort to build the aqueduct and heroic motives to local resistance. In California parlance, these events came to be known histrionically as “the rape of the Owens Valley.” Chinatown built on this myth and it too altered the facts of the case. The site of the conflict was moved 200 miles closer to the city, the events were advanced by thirty years to the depression-era LA of Raymond Chandler and the story was reconstructed as a murder mystery revolving around conspiratorial land speculation.

Meanwhile, the original controversy had evolved into a complicated legal struggle involving new environmental legislation, a strategic lawsuit mounted by Owens Valley officials, and a revitalized popular movement. By contrast to failed attempts in the 1920s, the local cause was now publicized widely, state political actors drawn into the process, and state courts persuaded that rural communities were entitled to some defense of their resources. In this new struggle of the 1980s and early 1990s, public opinion assumed that Chinatown represented the true history of the conflict—much to the advantage of a burgeoning environmental movement.[1]

In some respects, popular culture became political history and collective action proceeded from a new set of assumptions. Contemporary history unfolded with redressing results, some of which could be traced to the influence of film and popular culture.

The Story

Early on the Sunday morning of November 16, 1924, seventy men from Bishop, California, drove south in a caravan of Model T Fords through the eastern Sierra’s Owens Valley and took possession of the Los Angeles Aqueduct at the Alabama Gates spillway. Technicians in the insurgent crowd soon accomplished their mission by opening the spill-gates that held back the man-made river. By mid-morning an assembly of several hundred valley residents had gathered at the site five miles north of Lone Pine to watch most of the Los Angeles water supply flow out of its concrete channel on to the daybed of the Owens River. Within a day, a makeshift camp was created, neighbors brought picnic baskets, and Tom Mix’s western movie crew joined the festivities, bringing their own Mariachi band. A rebellion was under way, a rebellion that would figure prominently in the unfolding history of California’s political struggles, popular culture, and their reflexive connection.

The picnic at the Alabama Gates typified the struggle between rural communities and expanding cities. The 1924 aqueduct occupation came as the culmination of a local movement begun in 1905 as an effort to defend the small communities in the Owens Valley against the growing depredations of urbanization in Los Angeles. The city had extended its water-supply network to the eastern Sierra over local protest which flared and then cooled until the early 1920s, when a combination of drought and urbanization led to redoubled exploitation of the city’s hinterland. On one front, the city exported increasing quantities of the valley’s ground water, drying up local farms and communities, while on another front it bought up farms, town lots, and water rights in a master plan to depopulate the region and convert it into the city’s own reservoir. Farmers and townspeople in four valley settlements (including, from north to south, Bishop, Big Pine, Independence, and Lone Pine) mobilized in the hope of ensuring that local development would rise on the tide of urban growth. Led by local business interests, the valley alliance attempted to negotiate with the city, guarantee local water supplies and continued irrigation, and establish the authority of a valley association to enter into agreements with the city. All this was denied by the city’s highhanded methods of colonizing and exploiting its rustic neighbors. The rebellion in 1924 was a desperate move, a last resort by the valley to save its communities and way of life.

Although the aqueduct occupation succeeded as a cause célèbre, enjoying publicity around the country and even in Europe, it failed as a political action and brought about the end of the movement. The city ended the occupation by promising negotiations, but stood firm against any concessions to local interests. State authorities declined to intervene. Valley residents, still suffering the effects of drought and economic collapse, began to lose heart. Some sold out, others persevered (even selling and leasing back their own farm land from the city), and a few carried the struggle to the courts, winning small victories in the 1930s and 1940s.

With the collapse of rebellion, however, a legend began to grow, fed by depression-era sentiments centering on an underdog narrative in which the wholesome and ingenuous countryside bravely opposes the wicked and beguiling city. This narrative inevitably imposed gross simplifications on the historical record–local citizens were far from “rubes” and were never opposed to urbanization, only to their exclusion from its rewards. Yet the narrative did capture the plight of the Owens Valley in culturally accessible form, which later became and provided a symbolic resource in renewed political struggles over water and, now, the “environment.”

In the 1970s, the Owens Valley-Los Angeles controversy was revived as the result of a new local citizens’ movement, which was enabled by federal and California environmental legislation. It was in this context that Polanski’s remarkable film Chinatown appeared to an enthusiastic commercial and critical reception. For Los Angeles and national audiences who knew little of the historical background, Chinatown became the LA water story–the political intrigue that made urbanization possible. With its apt power-politics imagery, the film became urban history in the effective realm of popular culture, though its story was largely false. The ironic effect was that the critical narrative underpinning the screenplay was appropriated by environmental activists and a new citizens’ alliance in the 1970s and 1980s. That struggle ultimately succeeded in recovering an important share of Owens Valley natural resources, community control, and local dignity.

© Neil Shigley 2013. All Rights Reserved.Symbols and Politics

Chinatown’s narrative of conspiracy and intrigue did not appear in a vacuum. Critical accounts began circulating in popular culture from the earliest days of the Owens Valley-Los Angeles controversy and flourished in the 1920s rebellion. Paradoxically, as the Owens Valley economy and society revived in the 1930s, the legend of local destruction grew even faster. The publicity that rebels in the 1920s had hoped would save their communities was reinterpreted and reproduced as California folklore and commercial fiction over the next half-century—too late for some purposes, but not for others.

As the legend grew, historical fact, in the sense of consensus among contemporaries and experts, inevitably suffered. Interpretations never entertained by the rebels themselves—such as conspiratorial intrigue behind city actions—were advanced in romantic and muckraking accounts. Dispassionate observers have properly exposed these “distortions,” but few have moved on to analyze the nature and uses of the legend. Historian Abraham Hoffman speaks for many, including Los Angeles partisans, when he laments that a popular film about water and corruption based on the Owens Valley experience takes liberties with the city’s legitimate development efforts: “Chinatown, its excellent story supported by a distorted version of history, assures new misunderstandings … hopefully the cause of history may be spared yet another contrivance manipulating time and events.”[2]

Hope for some impartial factual resolution of a highly charged political conflict now in its eighth decade seems not only quixotic, but neglects the opportunity to analyze the cultural politics of the controversy—the manner in which symbols, indeed distortions, have become part of the political struggle. A distinctive aspect of this legend, moreover, is that in partisan accounts and popular culture, “the Owens Valley controversy came to be one instance in which the history of a conflict was not written by the victors.”[3]  History became symbol, and symbolism played an essential part in California water politics from the 1930s onward.

The legend, elaborated over some sixty years, appears in two stages divided by the watershed years of the late 1920s. A critical shift occurs at that time when the folkloric master theme changes from rural romance to state intrigue.

Literary interpretations of Owens Valley society began appearing in the 1910s, using the struggle over water rights as a backdrop for Western morality plays. With the valley’s future still an open question, authors could write their own resolution and make their chosen protagonists responsible for the result. Peter Kyne’s 1914 novel The Long Chance is an engaging melodrama with overtones of Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage which appeared two years earlier. Kyne’s hero, Bob McGraw, an improbable combination of desert rat, clever lawyer, and social reformer, is committed to outmaneuvering corrupt officials in the state land office for the benefit of the toiling masses.

I’ve cast my fortune in the desert of Owens river valley. I’ve cut out for myself a job that will last me all my life, and win or lose, I’ll fight to a finish. I’m going to make thirty-two thousand acres of barren waste bloom and furnish clean unsullied wealth for a few thousand poor, crushed devils that have been slaughtered and maimed under the Juggernaut of our Christian civilization. I’m going to plant them on ten-acre farms up there under the shadow of Mt. Kearsarge, and convert them into Pagans. I’m going to create Eden out of an abandoned Hell. I’m going to lay out a town site and men will build me a town, so I can light it with my own electricity. It’s a big utopian dream. A few thousand of the poor and lowly and hopeless brought out of the cities and given land and a chance for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; to know that their toil will bring them some return, that they can have a home and a hope for the future.[4]

McGraw succeeds, of course, by detecting “powerful private interests at work in the state land office … aided by corrupt minor officials” who were trying to grab land which they had “suddenly withdrawn from entry and thrown into a Forest Reserve.”[5]  Kyne’s plot uses familiar events, but substitutes, on the one hand, private speculators and dishonest bureaucrats for the City of Los Angeles and Forest Service chief Gifford Pinchot, and, on the other hand, the intrepid McGraw leading thousands of crushed devils in place of the historical citizens’ movement. The conflict is presented in nineteenth-century cultural terms which juxtapose capitalist greed, public corruption, urban exploitation, and Christian hypocrisy against rural virtue, populist utopia, the return to honest toil, and philanthropy. Whatever distortions Kyne may commit, his drama resonates the cultural wellsprings of the 1905 protest movement. Rural probity, urban imperiousness, and all they entrain were the opposing symbols of the conflict and the meanings that fueled local action.

Mary Austin’s more serious novel The Ford (1917) is similar to The Long Chance in important respects, despite a shift of moral responsibility to the settlers themselves and a more jaundiced opinion of pioneer character. The story involves divisions within the valley between the strong and scheming land baron Timothy Rickart (after Owens Valley rancher Thomas Rickey) and the doleful farmers who, like Mary’s own ineffectual husband, dream of one day “getting into something.” The geographically repositioned valley of Tierra Longa is coveted by unsavory oil interests and city agents from San Francisco who are taking options on land and water rights amidst local confusion over whether they are “government men representin’ the Irrigation Bureau.” Young Kenneth Brent uncovers Rickart’s connivance in a land-grabbing plan to export water and endeavors to unite valley farmers in “common resentment [and] tribal solidarity,” but fails. “The solitary, rural habit which admitted them to a community of beguilement could not lift them to a community of enterprise.” Austin is clearly evaluating the farmers’ failure in 1905, attributing it to “their invincible rurality … how, by as much as they had given themselves to the soil, they were made defenseless against this attack on it.” They lacked any vision of an alter-native to life on the land.

It isn’t the Old Man’s capital that the people of the valley are up against, so much as it is their idea of it, and their idea of the situation, or their lack of ideas… The greatest common factor of the Tierra Longans was their general inability to rise to the Old Man’s stature; they were inferior stuff of the same pattern.[6]

Both novels cast the legend in terms of class struggle—the rich, urban, and powerful bent upon dispossessing the humble poor. Although Austin’s moral is equally critical of rural parochialism, neither author moves beyond individual actors motivated by stereotypical vices. Institutional actors and state designs were not yet evocative cultural themes, but that would soon change.

A big step from sympathetic news coverage to legend-building occurred when the Watterson brothers, local bankers, began financing, from the reserves of their bank, the Los Angeles civic reformer and publicist Andrae Nordskog. A man of varied talents, Nordskog published the weekly newspaper Gridiron in Los Angeles. Looking for bigger stories than his usual exposés of excessive telephone rates and deficient city services, Nordskog traveled to the Owens Valley in June 1927 and immediately became an impassioned ally of the Watterson brothers. Before long the Gridiron was publishing denunciations of the city’s water commissioners. Through his business connections, Nordskog carried the fight to a weekly radio broadcast and to civic groups—all of this subsidized by cash contributions from the Wattersons’ bank, which Nordskog tried unsuccessfully to hide. When the Wattersons’ bank failed and the brothers were tried for fraud, Nordskog only intensified his efforts to expose injustice. He traveled to Washington, DC to research Bureau of Reclamation records in connection with the events of 1905 and their parallels to the new Colorado River project that would bring additional water to Southern California. The results of his study were presented in a long and, by all accounts, chaotic manuscript which Nordskog tried to publish—hounding Mary Austin and Los Angeles attorney and writer Carey McWilliams to provide a foreword that would sway New York publishing houses. On the podium or in print, Nordskog’s faults included prolixity, self-importance, histrionics, and a tendency to misrepresent his hard-won evidence by over-stating conspiratorial aspects of the case. McWilliams was impressed with the revelations in his work, but found him tedious and “as a man, rather naive. N [sic] writes like a bond salesman with a yen to be a poet.” [7] The manuscript, “Boulder Dam in Light of the Owens Valley Fraud,” was never published.

Through an odd set of circumstances, however, Nordskog’s brief had a greater effect on subsequent events than anything written up to that time. As a result of his investigations, seeming expertise, and public visibility as a champion of water-management reform, in 1930 Nordskog was elected chairman of the Southwest Water League, an organization of forty-eight Southern California cities. With this organizational base, “a new opportunity for Nordskog to alert the public to Los Angeles’s water aggressions came in early 1931 when the state senate adopted a resolution creating a special commit-tee to investigate the city’s actions in the Owens Valley. Nordskog was asked to testify before the [Senate] committee.”[8]  With the state legislature increasingly hostile towards Los Angeles, this investigation eventually led to laws protecting county water resources. In preparation for the hearings, Nordskog condensed the Boulder Dam tome into twenty-eight pages which the committee, in an unusual act of assent, ordered published in the Assembly Journal. Under the official state seal, 1,500 reprints of Nordskog’s Communication to the California Legislature Relating to the Owens Valley Water Situation were printed and mailed on request at public expense. According to Abraham Hoffman, “critics of the actions of Los Angeles had what appeared to be a state-sponsored document supporting the view that it had all been a giant conspiracy.”[9]

The following year, the popular book Los Angeles, published by journalist Morrow Mayo, converted Nordskog’s dense investigation into the stuff of popular legend. Mayo’s breezy chronicle is best remembered for its chapter on “The Rape of the Owens Valley.” Relying mainly on Nordskog and on Bishop newspaper sources, Mayo tells the story of “a rich agricultural valley” destroyed by the US government for Los Angeles developers. Mayo’s distinct contribution to the legend comes in the combination of an inflammatory narrative and a sense of institutional action—a formula unknown in earlier writing on this history but resonant in the years of the Depression and the emerging welfare state.

Los Angeles gets its water by reason of one of the costliest, crookedest, most unscrupulous deals ever perpetrated, plus one of the greatest pieces of engineering folly ever heard of. Owens Valley is there for anybody to see. The City of the Angels moved through this valley like a devastating plague. It was ruthless, stupid, cruel, and crooked. It deliberately ruined Owens Valley. It stole the waters of Owens River. It drove the people from Owens Valley from their home, a home which they had built from the desert. It turned a rich, reclaimed agricultural section of a thousand square miles back into primitive desert. For no sound reason, for no sane reason, it destroyed a helpless agricultural section and a dozen towns. It was an obscene enterprise from beginning to end.

Today there is a saying in California about this funeral ground which may well remain as its epitaph:

“The Federal Government of the United States held Owens Valley while Los Angeles raped it.” [10]

Mayo’s sexual symbolism had a sharp impact in the 1930s and, indeed, still carried force forty years later when a new citizens’ movement would rally to the slogan “the rape of the Owens Valley.” The countryside became remetaphorized as feminine and nurturing, and the city as masculine and brutal. The federal government was recast as sadistic and complicit, a long way from 1905, when homesteaders had turned to Uncle Sam’s paternal justice on behalf of the common folk. In the emerging modern symbolism, violated citizens and rapacious institutions supplant wholesome pioneers building the West for the nation’s benefit. Indeed, the masculine metaphor of conquering pioneer communities, their victory over nature and savages, is replaced by an agriculturally fertile land and feminine hearth. This symbolic shift transfigures the moral grammar. Mistreated pioneers deserve recognition, compensation, and fair play—the full rights of political citizenship. But violated innocents and homemakers demand vindication, restoration of their honor. Symbolically, the modern struggle has moved beyond politics to virtue.

It was a short step from Mayo’s journalistic obloquy to novelistic social realism. Los Angeles supplied the plot for a series of books and films dealing with exploitation and the wages of avarice. Will Rogers helped advertise the Owens Valley story in his nationally syndicated column:

Ten years ago this was a wonderful valley with one quarter of a million acres of fruit and alfalfa. But Los Angeles needed more water for the Chamber of Commerce to drink more toasts to its growth, more water to dilute its orange juice, more water for its geraniums to delight the tourists, while the giant cottonwoods here died. So, now, this is a valley of desolation.[11]

Citing Mayo’s inspiration, Cedric Belfarge published Promised Land in 1938, a novel about the downfall of a family divided between Hollywood demoralization and federal fraud in the Owens Valley. A John Wayne film of the following year entitled New Frontier (George Sherman, 1939) pits the homesteaders of New Hope Valley against the Irish construction engineer for Metropole City’s water project. Not long after World War Two, which had temporarily “suppressed” the controversy, Golden Valley: A Novel of California, by Frances Gragg and George Palmer Putnam, appeared in 1950. Like the stories of Austin and Kyne, this one centers on the Owens Valley and its infiltration by facsimiles of agents working for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP). When a fraudulently represented reclamation project is revealed as a screen for the Los Angeles Aqueduct, local citizens organize and threaten to dynamite the construction. Violence by land speculators matches bureaucratic speculation but, in the end, city and valley reach an accord, malefactors are purged, and settlers compensated for land lost to reservoir and canal sites. As the repetition in these fictional works suggests, by mid-century the legend was firmly entrenched in popular culture – the Owens Valley had become a symbol of urban aggrandizement and bureaucratic malice.

As adverse opinion mounted, Los Angeles followed the Wattersons’ lead and recruited its own publicists. Beginning in 1924, the city had responded to newspaper accounts sympathetic to the rebels. In July of that year, the Municipal League of Los Angeles Bulletin explained that “The Owens Valley ‘Revolt’” was prompted by “the Wattersons [and farmers] as land speculators” – an interpretation that continues in modern historical works, as we have seen.[12]  In December, Fire and Water Engineering revealed “What Really Happened … No Justification for the Mob’s Action.”[13]  Over the following years, the LADWP hired Don J. Kinsley to write a series of exculpating tracts and published some of his work under such beguiling titles as “The Romance of Water and Power: A brief narrative revealing how the magic touch of water and hydro-electric power transformed a sleepy, semi-arid Western village into the metropolis of the Pacific” and “The Water Trail: The story of Owens Valley and the controversy surrounding the efforts of a great city to secure the water required to meet the needs of an ever-growing population.” Despite these efforts, Los Angeles was losing the propaganda war, in part because it lacked the sympathy of an underdog and in part because its contradictory policy for managing the valley generated new disputes readily interpreted by critical opinion.

Unchastened by growing opposition, the city retaliated against the valley with an announcement that its policy of negotiating land sales with extant leaseholders would be superseded by sale to the highest bidder. Local protest of the action was met with a rent hike at Christmas 1944. Once again, the California legislature responded by approving a bill by Senator Charles Brown that required the city to give leaseholders first option on properties offered for sale. A new controversy erupted in the US Congress over previously approved bills that gave Los Angeles a right of way to extend the aqueduct northward into Mono County. Although the extension was built in 1940, Congress now refused to grant the city control of additional acreage for power plants as the original bills provided. The controversy ultimately centered on distrust of Los Angeles, a mood that had overtaken the interpenetrating realms of popular culture and practical politics.

Film and History

The water wars between Los Angeles and the Owens Valley have inspired novelists, muckrakers, and filmmakers since the early years of the twentieth century. History and drama have combined in a set of accounts which has created a popular culture surrounding these events, particularly a conspiratorial interpretation of the city’s deeds. Chinatown is the most celebrated in the genre. Robert Towne’s brilliant screenplay takes great liberty with historical fact, yet forcefully portrays the Los Angeles power brokers in a manner consistent with the transformed legend. The whole story is moved to 1937 and the protagonists become unscrupulous city developers bent on acquiring the land of farmers in the San Fernando Valley immediately adjacent to the city. Officials of the LADWP collude with speculators by secretly dumping city water during a drought in order to win public support for a bond issue on dam and aqueduct construction. Meanwhile, the farmers are cut off from irrigation water, forced into ruin, their land acquired by syndicate dummy buyers for a pittance. The aqueduct will serve the ill-gotten land of the speculators and make fortunes for the cabal. Incest is an important subplot, extending the sexual symbolism of rape to the vile association of money and political power. Chinatown, the tarnished hero’s police beat before he became a private eye, is a trope representing intrigue, deceptive appearances, and the futility of efforts to expose corruption. In one of the film’s final lines a policeman comments, “You can’t always tell what’s going on in Chinatown.” Attempts to reveal the scheme are discredited and one is left with the under-standing that Los Angeles was built on exploitation in the face of a guileless public.

In fact, of course, the decisive events occurred around 1905 and involved no conspiracy or contrived water shortage. City voters overwhelmingly approved repeated bond measures for aqueduct construction without the inducement of panic. A land syndicate of prominent business interests did purchase San Fernando Valley real estate for subsequent profit, but that was well known and little regarded by a public that shared in the spirit of boosterism. With the exception of covert actions to subvert the original plan for a federal reclamation project in Owens Valley, and some unsuccessful speculation by a former city mayor, officials of the LADWP pursued the aggrandizement of their own agency.

The significance of Chinatown, however, is that, despite factual inconsistencies, it captured the deeper truth of the rebellion. Metropolitan interests appropriated the Owens Valley for their own expansionist purposes through the use of blunt political power. The film refueled popular interpretation and energized protest that returned to the valley in the 1970s. Indeed, it contributed to the success of a new county–LADWP agreement limiting groundwater pumping and restoring some of the habitat. To this day, Los Angeles authorities are livid on the subject of Chinatown, knowing that the perceived “rape of the Owens Valley” is an albatross hung around continuing work to ensure the city water supply.

If, as Oscar Wilde suggested, life imitates art, one explanation is that art can become a force with which life must contend. Events surrounding the impact of Chinatown illustrate the proposition. In 1983, ABC Television and Titus Productions of New York produced a film for television based on the prizewinning screenplay Ghost Dancing by freelance writer Phillip Penningroth. Set in Paiute Valley, the teleplay begins with the elderly heroine, Sarah Bowman, dynamiting a reservoir in an effort to get arrested and call attention to the valley’s destruction by appropriation of its water. Sarah is outmaneuvered by the chief engineer of the unnamed city’s water department. By persuading friendly local authorities not to make an arrest, the city avoids a public trial and the effective defense planned by Sarah’s adopted Indian daughter who works for the district attorney’s office. Although Los Angeles was never mentioned in the script (after changes made on legal advice), the reference was so transparent and the public relations effect so worrisome in the wake of Chinatown that the LADWP refused to grant permission for filming on its Owens Valley property. As Robert Towne explained about the filming of Chinatown, “we just told them we were doing a detective story set many years ago, so they had no idea what was going on.” [14] Los Angeles did not intend to be burned again. Ghost Dancing was filmed in Utah with much of its impact neutralized by censorship.

But life had not finished its imitation. The Ghost Dancing controversy erupted in the midst of negotiations over a permanent agreement to settle disputed water rights, and it strengthened the hand of local activists. Following reports on Bishop radio and cable television, 600 residents signed a petition condemning Los Angeles for intimidating ABC. The County Board of Supervisors agreed and unsuccessfully urged the filmmakers to re-consider shooting on privately owned property in the valley. Literally, the term “ghost dancing” referred to a nineteenth-century Paiute Indian ritual which would cause the disappearance of whites and the restoration of native land. If the teleplay endeavored to adapt the symbol for modern political purposes, Los Angeles hoped to quell the legend. The LADWP acknowledged its fear of copycat aqueduct bombings that might be inspired by the film, but local observers saw more to the censorship. Inyo County Administrator John K. Smith observed, “Most of what they’re doing now has nothing to do with getting water to Los Angeles. From here on in, its all psychological damage to keep us down and make people forget what the valley used to look like.”[15]

Yet the effects of the now-celebrated legend and each new controversy that recalled it worked in the opposite direction. The 1920s protest movement and subsequent urban domination became part of a living history. An oppositional culture developed around the controversy and helped mobilize subsequent movements on behalf of community survival and environmental protection. Popular culture not only depicts nostalgically the lost world of local society, but re-creates potent symbols for modern use.

This essay was originally published in Mark Sheil and Tony Fitzmaurice’s Cinema and the City: Film and Urban Societies in a Global Context (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2001. Reprinted through permission of the publisher. © 2001-2013 John Walton. All rights reserved.

Illustrations by Neil Shigley.

[1] John Walton, Western Times and Water Wars: State, Culture, and Rebellion in California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992).
[2] Abraham Hoffman, “Fact and Fiction in the Owens Valley Water Controversy,” Los Angeles Westerner’s Corral, Brand Books (no. 15), pp. 179, 191.
[3] William L. Kahrl, Water and Power: The Conflict Over Los Angeles’s Water Supply in the Owens Valley (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), p. 319.
[4] Peter B. Kyne, The Long Chance (New York: H. K. Fly, 1914), p. 115.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Mary Austin, The Ford (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1917; Berkeley: University of California Press, California Fiction Edition, 1997), pp. 403–4.
[7] Letter from Carey McWilliams to Mary Austin, 27 January 1930; held at the Henry E. Huntington Library, San Marino, CA.
[8] Abraham Hoffman, Vision or Villainry: Origins of the Owens Valley–Los Angeles Water Controversy (College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press), p. 226.
[9] Ibid., pp. 226–8.
[10] Morrow Mayo, Los Angeles (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1932), pp. 245–6.
[11] Quoted in ibid., p. 241.
[12] “The Owens Valley Revolt,” Municipal League of Los Angeles Bulletin, July 1924.
[13] “What Really Happened … No Justification for the Mob’s Action,” Fire and Water Engineering, December 1924.
[14] Walton, Western Times and Water Wars p. 232.
[15] Ibid., p. 233

John Walton, PhD is a research professor at UC Davis. He is the author of Western Times and Water Wars: State, Culture, and Rebellion in California (1992), and Storied Land: Community and Memory in Monterey (2003).

To Become Visible: Archaic Petroglyphs in Oregon Country | Juli R. Brode

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The exhibit at the Jacobs Gallery at the Hult Center, titled, “To Become Visible: Archaic Petroglyphs in Oregon Country,” features four artists who present photographs as well as paintings of petroglyphs and pictographs of the northern Great Basin, a region that includes land in Oregon, northern Nevada, and northeastern California. The petroglyphs (incised into stone) and pictographs (applied onto stone) are valued by a diverse population and remain subjects of study that do not give up all their secrets.

The show might surprise the visitor in both its focus and the questions raised and but left unanswered.  Douglas Beauchamp, the curator, has been engaged in rock art studies and photography for some years, and he readily acknowledges that those “who carved the stones… have created and sustained a remarkable legacy of presence… within a changing landscape.” The subject matter of the photographs and paintings, the rocks and graphics, are undoubtedly beautiful and mysterious; they also provide a framework that asks the viewer to contemplate the pervasive complexity of the surroundings. Tim Ingold argues that landscape is not “land,” is not “nature,” and is not “space.”[1] Instead, it is a concept we engage, not abstractly, but physically and materially—the activities of our lives are not inscribed onto the surrounding land, so much as they form, in a bodily way, the collective landscape of which each of us is a part. In a post-modern sense, the landscape might also be considered a “text,” a condition that is socially constructed (written) and interpreted (read), though the interpretation fluctuates in relation to the interests, desires and agendas of its reader. This notion of the landscape as text coincides with the multiple and sometimes conflicting interests, claims and values that surround both artifacts and places.

Image: Fragment of the Ana boulder, north of Summer Lake and Ana Springs, eastern Oregon. © 2013 Douglas Beauchamp.

Above all else, this exhibit extends an invitation to the changing landscape, and the landscape into which one is invited is engaging and active. The exhibit includes close-up studies by Douglas Beauchamp and Gary Tepfer, where painterly surfaces reveal nicks, gouges, scores, colors, patinations, and polychromes; surfaces made some time ago but still animate. Tepfer’s interest in the “relationship of the carving to the material carved” is evident in abstract, painterly photographs that probe textured surfaces and explore colors, man-made or resulting from mineral oxidation and microplant growth. Adjacent and contrasting to these, Peter Goin places the petroglyphs in context, framing relations to the larger landscape—hard, earthen, riven and cracked forms of an older earth, subjected to weathering and geologic shifts; changes in topographies and vegetation types; or alterations made by contemporary infrastructures of highways and fencing. The selected works by Susan Applegate include assemblages and paintings, some of which are thick with built up surfaces that are, in their turn, scratched and inscribed, as if to reconnect to the stories relayed by playing the role of contemporary scribe. A Merleau-Ponty citing, paired with a Beauchamp photograph across the gallery, poses the notion that each thing exists beyond itself, each fact can be a dimension, each idea has its regions.[2]

Image: Petroglyph and Lichen at School Section. © 2012 Gary Tepfer.

As conveyed by the artists, the glyphs are decidedly human and storied, and the photographers and painter have rendered them audible (or nearly so). The markings whether pecked, carved, printed or painted, are intriguing as they make the past, present. Though the specific meanings may be elusive, the etching, writing, recording, signing that may mark routes, narrate stories, observe rites, are understandable in relation to our own daily activities. Together, the collection emphasizes a quality of landscape that we do not often think about, not daily, and that is not always visible—of time. These artists, with varying intents and tactics give visibility to space-in-time, most purposefully in the layer they themselves add. Peter Goin has captured the image of a stone, surface marked and etched, at a particular time of day, as the sun glances across the surface, as it has at this time of day, perhaps a handful of days a year, for many, many years. A person could observe this relatively few times in a lifetime, in comparison with the many times this stone has been raked in that light regardless of whether the horizon lifted or fell, whether a road or electric lines ran through the background.  Each artist here senses what may have been, what is, and what might be, and makes choices that communicate the temporal landscape to us.

Image: LandMarks, acrylic on plastered wood, triptych, each panel 11.5” x 16” to total length 36” x 16”, 1996. © 1996-2013 Susan Applegate.

To Become Visible: Archaic Petroglyphs in Oregon Country opened on Friday, January 25 and ran through March 16, 2013 at the Jacobs Gallery at the Hult Center in Eugene, Oregon. The exhibit honors and recognizes the beauty and importance of petroglyphs produced by Native Americans of many traditions and considered as archaic images and human markings within a changing landscape.

Banner image: Churchill County, 2004. © 2004-2013 Peter Goin.

[1] Ingold, Tim. 2000. The perception of the environment: essays on livelihood, dwelling & skill. London: Routledge.
[2] Merleau-Ponty, Maurice, Ted Toadvine, and Leonard Lawlor. 2007. The Merleau-Ponty reader. Evanston, Ill: Northwestern University Press.

Interview with John R. Donalds | Andrea Polli

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Arid co-editor Andrea Polli speaks with John R. Donalds, researcher in architecture at Syracuse University. December 26th, 2012, Albuquerque, New Mexico. Transcribed by Kellen Zelle.

AP: We just visited Paolo Soleri’s Arcosanti site as well as Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West and the Paolo Soleri Amphitheater at the Santa Fe Indian School. So before we get into talking about the trip, can you tell me a little bit about your research?

JD: Yes, I’m currently exploring the interaction of network culture with architecture; so the idea is that architecture as space can be informed by, or be used as, a tool in people’s communication within networks, primarily in electronic networks (a global network architecture) but then also imagining how it can inform a local, more communal, network of people.

AP: So are you talking about how physical space changes or informs the way we interact with network space?

JD: Yes, I imagine primarily that architectural space can be used as a network tool. I’m not yet attempting to alter how people interact in that space, in a network communication, but rather how architecture can be used as a tool in that communication, or how architecture can more fully express how we live in a contemporary network—how our relationships are increasingly informed through network communication, a distanced, non-local relationship.

AP: What made you decide to research that sort of connection?

JD: It stems from my previous work in photography and video and working at Oberlin College to develop networks and shared media spaces for the Art Department in terms of video editing, collaborative classrooms and distance education; and from also wanting to produce thesis work that has some provocativeness to it that, as kind of a final frontier maybe or the next frontier I imagine we need to explore—how architecture may currently have these older, more traditional, methods of operating and is not really, in a networked way, addressing what I now see in relationships between people and communities, having been very completely informed by or changed by the development of a global Internet.

AP: So that’s kind of interesting to me in the context of this trip. You created this workspace, this collaborative workspace, at Oberlin, a series of workspaces; and that is something that really struck me at both the Arcosanti site and Taliesin West was how – that was really… Arcosanti, for example, was only a small percentage complete. It has about 75 people living there and they plan to have eventually 450. They’ve been building it since 1970, and the first spaces that he builds are these workspaces; this wonderful ceramics shop, metal shop and the Lab –which basically looks like it functions like a woodshop – and then you have the same sort of thing happening at Taliesin, which of course, was built for sort of a different reason. It was built for collaborative work where you have that long 96 foot–the biggest space I think, at Taliesin, is another lab space – the workspace –

Image: The Arcosanti Amphiteater as seen from the Sky Suite. © 2013 Andrea Polli.

JD: —The drafting studio—

AP: Yeah. So how does that play into—I mean, is that just an old way of thinking about architectural and community collaboration, or do you feel there are some things to be learned, or things that contemporary architects can take from those types of structures?

JD: I haven’t yet thought upon how those large initial workspaces are something that participates in my designs, except in that, I do see them as certain workspaces, as being fundamental to what I imagine in my initial design research to be a multi-family apartment type setting.

AP: So what kind of workspaces do you see?

JD: I can see shared kitchens, and child care, and laundry or general workshops; but then maybe those are things that are more traditional and typical to architecture, and it’s how they’re informed by technology and their special relationship to other programs of the buildings that will begin to push them forward into an investigation of a more, possibly, global or local intra-network communication.

AP: I mean it’s funny that Arcosanti didn’t have any shared kitchens, you know? It seemed like every apartment had its own kitchen, it seemed like there was that communal space where people had their meals, but that was a kitchen that was run by—I suppose that they share cooking duties—is that the kind of thing you are thinking of? Or are you thinking of a shared kitchen where people just go and make their own stuff and hang out with each other?

JD: Well, I mentioned this to you before: the idea, not as an isolation of an architect’s role, but rather a very particular segregation of my role that I would like to provide for myself—that I would like to provide a sense of agency to people. So, I don’t want to totally predict how a space can be used, but rather give it a certain flexibility so that, if it turns out that a society using a group of spaces chooses to go one way or another with it, they will have some option with that. I see at the spaces at Arcosanti began to do that; there was, if you remember that one kind of smaller kitchen in the library, the shared library I suppose, seemed to take on a lot of use, if you could look at the evidence of the pans, and the RO water system, and the laundry right nearby—that it became what maybe the architect had not completely intended, as a very strong focus for the community in terms of shared use, and it didn’t seem to be designed at the scale that could allow for all 70-some people to share it, but it was getting very heavy use. And then also the café in the base of the tower, a visitor’s center, seemed to have daily activity in terms of communal meals, dinners and breakfasts; but for the number of people we saw show up to those, it seemed like maybe the architect had provided an oversized kitchen, a more commercial scale kitchen, in there. It is interesting to see the choices that people made towards using a more commercially designed space versus a more domestic space—that the domestic one was getting a lot of heavier communal use, it seemed to me. So that was an interesting piece of evidence that I came back with; that maybe in shared spaces, there is a desire for a domesticity—a kind of extended family—that architecture can provide clues for, can provide the tools for.

AP: And that’s because that space was smaller and kind of more intimate like someone’s apartment?  It literally looked like they took someone’s apartment and turned that it into a public space—that there was no real intention on the part of the architect for that to happen.

JD: Right. So maybe that is evidence there that, at least in that kind of situation—in more of an artist commune in Arizona—with a lot of interesting landscape around it—there is a certain type of person attracted to that scene, who will be attracted to the domestic space regardless of the constraints that it may provide for them; the constraints—the closeness, the coziness, the compactness of people being together—may be something that that environment or that architecture is inspiring.

AP: So do you think there is something specific about the setting of Arizona—the Southwest? Or is it the people?  I mean, we talked to that one guy who said he kind of had an island mentality, and that living there—he had lived there for seventeen years—was almost like living on an island. Is that kind of what you…

Image:  Student project on the grounds of Taliesin West. © 2013 Andrea Polli.

JD: I took away that many people who go there look for a certain isolation—look to get away from the beaten path of society, and give themselves space in isolation to investigate themselves, or how they can develop a community at a smaller scale.

AP: So as someone who has a lot of experience at a lot of different places, traveling throughout several places in Asia, Europe, and the United States, do you think there is a special sort of case – having come from California and lived on the east coast – is the southwest a special context? Also, the same related question that I think about is: did Soleri think about that when he built Arcosanti? Is Arcosanti an urban laboratory? Is there evidence that he considered the context? What is that context from your experience in other places?JD: I wonder if his bells—the original structures being workshops and the foundry casting of ceramics; and his then ceramic and metal bells—give evidence to him considering the wind and topology of that area as something that his pieces wanted to interact in; he knew, or wanted also, people to be able to interact with too, that the wind and atmosphere of that space, moving through his architecture and his bells was something that was important. And creating a sonification of that movement through bells, would also interplay with his arched spaces, his vaults, his curved amphitheater designs for—not just for an actual performance amphitheater, but how all the apartments are centered now around that space—that there is a stage for the landscape to operate on along with his bells and his open courtyards and transitional spaces between buildings and balconies that—it’s very integrated into the land, along with his sense of use of excavation to burrow into the land.

AP: Right, it was so amazing the way you were on one level of the land, and as you traveled through his architectural compound you end up on another level, and then there is, yet still another level of that canyon that goes down, so it really echoes the very specific landscape; and I was really surprised as well about the sound that, within the different spaces you weren’t really encroached upon by the sound of other people that much—lots of thick cement floors I suppose—and then the vaults that have that incredible very long echo. Do you think—because we were talking about the kind of people that want to go there—do you think that workshop structure also helps to attract or supports more artists wanting to live in that kind of experimental situation, using the slow cement casting technique. What are your thoughts about that?

JD: Yeah, I’m reminded too about your previous question that I don’t think I addressed carefully, which is the type of person who may be attracted to that type of living environment—living and work environment. I believe Paolo Soleri seems—in selections of artwork and his own works; drawings, and sculptures, and the architecture—seems to know a good bit about the artists mentality that, I feel like, he’s considered very well what it is to not only be an artist, but to be an individual and working in collaboration with or around others in a community.

AP: What makes you say that? That’s cool.

JD: When we were talking about the structure and how it dug into the landscape, and the idea of interpenetrations of landscape and architecture, I was also reminded how that provided for a lot of private space, or just in general, the idea of an island—if our resident’s statement about desiring to live on an island or finding himself living on an island isn’t also representative of how that structure is dug in, like a bunker in ways, that there are actual physical ways that the building sinks into the landscape and provides some relief or some protection from the environment, but at the same time gives kind of a cultural or psychological protection in a mode of going in and hiding; burrowing. How do you say when you are—

AP: A cocoon?

JD: Cocoon—during winter, you’re hibernating in something, there is a certain psychological phase or phases that, in my experience, artists, as sensitive people, seem to go through; that they’ll have this need for community and be very outgoing and desirous of contact, and can have a very polar shift into wanting isolation and independence as well; and that building, Soleri’s structure, seemed to work along that line of understanding personalities, or shifting sides of the same personality.

Image: Creative settlement on the outskirts of the Arcosanti site. © 2013 Andrea Polli.

AP: Yeah, I never thought about that, but it really is like every apartment—even in his master grand plan for the 480 people—are all facing in towards this amphitheater, and I thought of it more like engaging with the other people – that it was a social kind of structure—but it’s really interesting the way you talk about—it’s also keeping other people out. Like it’s a focus on our community and keep others out—which is, really, totally different, I think, than what you’re working on—which is how to integrate the global community into a local community.

JD: Yes. Well it’s not like an open tap that one can’t control in my scheme either. I imagine it to have a great deal of adjustable security to it as well, I want to give people the tools by which to become hermits and maybe just have a unidirectional view of the world that they can choose the media that is coming to them, or the communications, or to go the opposite direction and be completely exhibitionist, or community participatory and be the life of the party or the focus of a much larger conversation—

AP: Right; like having the most hits on You-tube or whatever—

JD:  Right, all coming from your living room live. I would like to see it go either way. I guess, now as we talk about it, as in an artistic mentality—that one can have different sides of their personality, to be really open in one moment, and very closed in the next.  I also think a lot about the origins of the Internet and how it’s developed into a method of communication and information sharing between people in a very positive way, but then also its origins as a defense mechanism for the United States—North America—in connecting military assets, central intelligence, corporations and universities in the US—also located in that first Arpanet.  So, the idea that I’m beginning to express, at a very basic tectonic level, reflects the ways in which network architecture—the global network—has been initiated and has developed, I want that architecture – that actual structure and technology in it—to represent those multiple sides of network.  In architecture, in what I research and look to design, it’s not to continue using the word security in terms of my money and my objects, but rather to extend that idea of “security” to my every day moment of emotions, desires, interests in learning from others, or wanting to be cloistered away from them—that security, as network culture, I think, implies the idea that social networks have that underlying structure of “yes, protect my bank account that I operate with,” but also has the next level of security in terms of who I want to be friends with and how I want to interact with them.

AP: Yeah, maybe I’m getting the wrong idea here, but it sounds like, in a certain sense, you’re talking about freedom; and just to get back to Soleri, one question I wanted to ask you was—this idea of agency.  We were critical about his choices in terms of shared cooking and eating facilities and they ended up being re-adopted, maybe, in a different way than what was intended. So from your impression of the Soleri Arcosanti site, do you think that he’s giving the occupants agency? I’m just thinking about how I felt myself there, I felt a sense of safety like I might feel at a conference, or with people that I know and am familiar with, or that we’re all sort of interested in the same thing, but I don’t think that really had anything to do with the way the architecture was structured. So that’s a really rambling question…

JD: But the key point is, “did I see him providing any sense of agency to the occupants through his structures?” Yes, in that he was providing different types of spaces. Maybe not as many different types as would be necessary for full agency, but there were—if you can remember us climbing on the cube, the isolated cube that was at the very end of the structure, it was like where I imagine the holy man or the hermit goes to be outside of the group, but yet it is in proximity enough so that whatever visions they have, as that cube looked out very interestingly onto the landscape almost as the prow of the ship that is Arcosanti.  In that one small cube the isolated individual could go to be alone in nature. There were individual spaces like that, which suggested that certain levels of participation and community were defined, and participation in the environment was defined by a differentiation of habitable spaces.

AP: Right, so you go down and you find there a chicken coop, and turkeys, and then what looked like very temporary structures using what seemed like parts of Arcosanti, lots of these circular cement walls, but put up in a very temporary way off the grid—hand painted, handmade—So is that a representation of the outsiders, or is that an expression of people needing to have their own agency and making these bells and these flower pots that are all, there is creativity in it, but it’s also very much along Soleri’s vision.  Do you think these artists are just saying, “we have to build our own structures, we have to live our own way.”  What’s going on there?

JD: I suspect that it had a bit to do with economy, the economy of certain people; that there was maybe a lack of participation in the business structure of Arcosanti, as maybe more of a—as Soleri called it a laboratory—or, as we experienced it, a visitor’s center/tourist site, that there is a business economy and staff structure that I imagine certain people may not fit into, and how some may be required to participate in the community, then giving them access to one of the formally designed apartments.

AP: A hierarchy, you got in at the ground floor in 1970, and you were working with Soleri, or you were coming in twenty years later and trying to get yourself an apartment but they were all filled.

JD: Right. Or you’re not affording it because you have a need to only be temporarily outside of Scottsdale—that you have other agendas elsewhere in the region or the world that you have to go to, so there may not be the same commitment involved in the economy of Arcosanti that then requires one to be down the hill in a more transitory or temporary living space; but then secondarily, I see people’s need maybe to just be way more messy, to not live in that formal environment that may have certain rules of control because there are visitors coming through, that there’s a need for this space to advertise or to teach people what it is that the architect’s vision may be.

JD: Yeah, so to continue on the theme I was talking about with Arcosanti, the ideas of a formal architect, may be pushing aside or creating a boundary; a business of, or a structural boundary along which people can’t express themselves to the full degree within that space, within that architecture. I think that the Wright Foundation, that Taliesin West is doing a very similar thing, that by keeping these cells out of view, because we did notice the states of disrepair and the certain relaxation of pristine craftsmanship—That the Foundation and the school, yes, will work to craft the image of these objects with the students, so the student can’t just go out and build whatever he or she wants—on that site; they are getting steered, probably very strongly through their mentorship.

AP: Yeah, but I would argue that they have more agency than the people who were building outside Arcosanti, because they’re able to make these drawings and get help and assistance—I know what you’re saying that they’re being steered, but there were some much more original structures than those outside of Arcosanti. So your agency is being informed by help from your professors and from being exposed to Taliesin.

JD: Yeah, there are designers who, in my experience with architecture school, are being provided with a language as well. So yes, but they have agency to work within a very strictly defined language though; so while there was a continuation of Paolo Soleri’s language going on with the people with their own agency to do, more or less, what they wanted. There was a lot less of the language of Paolo Soleri going on in that fringe than there was the language of Frank Lloyd Wright on the fringes of Taliesin West.

AP: Right, but I think that being able to master a language allows you more freedom, in a certain way. I mean, compare that with a spoken or written language for conversation between humans, but also to take us back to technology, the computer languages and kind of being able to master and understand those—sure they’re extremely structured, but once you know those, you have more agency, right?

JD: To operate in a field, more agency to operate in a field that’s defined by that language. So, yes, I can agree. Yes, agency versus, maybe, freedom. That freedom to discover one’s own modes of language, or different structures of community I think are constrained by the requirements of learning, or only using one language. Say, the Frank Lloyd Wright language that’s imposed to a degree—

AP: Mhmm, they all had to have that stone, poured cement—

JD: [It was] cast concrete with the stone boulder inserts or filler.  So there were some [structures] that go along with your statements, that they were working within a certain language—the language of the school, but a certain number of the student structures were not using much, if any, of the traditional Frank Lloyd Wright language. That in the formalized, individual architect designed spaces, the legacy of the architect is being played out through that structure and how it’s inhabited; so there may be a certain type of inhabitation by people who are invested in promoting that legacy of the individual designer and the marketability of those designs, and the legacy—I do see a commodification of formal public living that, unlike in the fringe areas where there is not the same insistence on the legacy of those structures, those structures and the belongings that one keeps in them is more for the facilitation of a continued public experience; rather than using public experience to further the legacy and commodification of an individual.

AP: Wow. So, that just blows me away. I don’t have any more questions. Is there something that you want to talk about that you think we didn’t cover?

JD: That was a great conversation, thank you so much for your questions, and having me remember our great visits of architecture.

All images © 2013 Andrea Polli.