Magical Thinking and the Los Angeles Aqueduct | Nicole Antebi

Loan Library at the “Water, CA Creative Commons at the Armory Center for the Arts” 2012-2013

I’m not going to tell you about the length of the Los Angeles Aqueduct and the magnitude of such an engineering project, or that Robert Towne’s Chinatown is in no way a precise history of the Los Angeles water wars, or about the events leading up to the tragedy of the St. Francis Dam, because those facts/histories have been well-fleshed. What I will tell you is that there is a map of Owens Valley housed in the Los Angeles Central Library which is labeled “Los Angeles County.” I will also tell you that the first expedition led by William Mulholland and Fred Eaton to Owens Lake was dubbed the “Whiskey Trail” for all the whiskey they drank en route. And lastly, I will tell you that in the late ‘80s, the EPA along with The Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District forced the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to return some of the water to Owens Dry Lake. Resembling something remarkably like a ‘60s-era earthwork, an installation of small sprinklers spaced in a grid-like formation across the chalky salt flat dribbles a minimal amount of water to dampen alkaline dust and seed the salt grasses. [1] The aqueduct acts like a two-way hose between estranged gardens. This is what we are left with: the magical thinking of a continuous garden.  Despite the parched odds, this is California; but this is also Los Angeles.

Nine years after William Mulholland completed his fabled Whiskey Trail, the aqueduct was completed. What followed, even after the violent collapse of the St. Francis Dam, were other rainmakers, men with the power to conjure water from afar and under any conditions—politically, ecologically, or otherwise. My project for the past six years has been reporting on these “rainmakers” and the mythologies that surround them. I use animated drawings in tandem with archival audio, a type of video I call an animated essay. I found that animation is particularly well-suited to tell these stories because the medium speaks to boundary transgressions (human/non-human, fiction/non-fiction) or, as laid out by David Shields: the novelty of “straddling between verifiable and imaginary facts” that bring to life histories for which there is no original documentation. [2]

In 2009, I produced my first animation titled Uisce Beatha for the exhibit, “Through the Looking Glass: The Los Angeles Aqueduct” at the former Sea and Space Explorations art space founded by Lara Bank. After many conversations and several trips to Owens Valley, May Jong and I co-organized the exhibit with the desire to illuminate the distance between Owens Valley and Los Angeles, and the aqueduct that connects them.

In Uisce Beatha, which translates from Gaelic to mean “water of life,” I animated the phantasmagorical biography of William Mulholland—conflating the chief water poacher of the LADWP until 1928 with “Uisce,” the half-man, half-horse, bird trickster of Irish mythology. Uisce sometimes appears as a handsome Highland water-horse, perpetually searching for unsuspecting riders to drown in inland bodies of still water. When Uisce finally does find a rider, s/he will find her/himself affixed to Uisce’s adhesive skin as the monster runs headlong into the nearest body of water, until the rider is completely submerged, leaving only a liver washing up on the shore. This project led to other biographies of the grandiose and destructive ways in which water has been summoned in the West.

Bumper stickers for the Mulholland Dérive edition of the Los Angeles Road Concerts, 2012

In 2012 Stephen Van Dyck organized the “Mulholland Dérive” edition of Los Angeles Road Concerts, a massive one-day event bringing together 110 site-specific artist projects, programs, and performances along the 21 miles of Mulholland Drive. In keeping with the automobile-centric nature of the event, I reformulated some of my ideas about the person William Mulholland and designed a bumper sticker for participating cars. The sticker asks participants to “Take Mulholland and Remember the Uisce Trail.”

In 2007, after discovering that we had a mutual interest in the history and mythology of the Salton Sea, Enid Baxter Blader and I began to co-edit a creative anthology and media book about water projects in California titled Water, CA. The title Water, CA, is derived from John Wesley Powell’s 1890 map of “the Arid Region of the United States, showing Drainage Districts”[3] proposing that lands be divided by water districts or watersheds. Water, CA revisits Powell’s vision of a water-state by erasing the traditional map, tied together by counties and towns, with a state that can be drawn by waterways, watersheds, reclamations, and deprivations, connecting seemingly disparate bodies.

Since its inception, Water, CA has led to the formation of many unexpected and fruitful partnerships, seeking to make visible, accessible water systems and infrastructure that have fallen out of sight over the last century. The project has been the focus of a 2011 interpretive exhibition and festival at the Crocker Art Museum, and the basis of “Facing the Sublime in Water, CA,” at the Armory Center for the Arts in 2012. Curated by Irene Tsatsos, “Facing the Sublime in Water, CA” featured an elliptical relationship between platforms. The website, the exhibition, and the exhibition catalogue reflected the fluid constraints of palpable desperation, and persistent optimism related to water and water use at the center of these projects. “Water, CA Creative Commons at the Armory Center for the Arts,” organized by Enid Baxter Blader and myself was nested within the larger exhibition, and served as an outgrowth of the common areas of the website. Based on the original bibliography on the website, I designed a water-focused Loan Library, borrowing the “water bookshelves” from the following influential institutions:

  • • The Center for Land Use Interpretation: whose mission is concerned with reading landscape as a cultural inscription.
  • • Arid Lands Institute: a self-sustaining education, research, and outreach center of Woodbury University, whose purpose is to train designers and leaders who will be resourceful and inventive in addressing water scarcity in the West.
  • • Loyola Marymount University’s J.D. Black Papers, which consists mainly of Black’s documentation and collection of materials, related to the Owens Valley/Los Angeles water wars with striking images of the Bishop Farmers occupation of the L.A. Aqueduct.
  • • The Reanimation Library: Based in Gowanus, Brooklyn, it consists of a collection of books that have fallen out of routine circulation and been acquired for their visual and textual content.
  • • Water, CA, which runs the gamut from historical to technical, to magical ways of looking at water. A number of titles have been authored by the original group of contributors to the website, which offered a basis for the conception, and in recent years, expansion of the project.

The books and media from each institution reveal a multi-pronged interest in art, design, land use, and literature, some more weighted in one discipline or the other. In thinking about the nodes at which certain institutions intersect, I designed 26 bookmarks, or “Landmarks,” for a select set of books which evoke memories of people and interactions with land and water features I’ve visited over the past few years while researching my animations. The Landmarks, like a palimpsest, added another, personal stratum to the history of these places and events, and asked readers to actively perform aspects of the text before them.

Landmarks part of Loan Library at “Water, CA Creative Commons at the Armory Center for the Arts” 2012-2013

One hundred years after its construction, the Los Angeles Aqueduct remains magical thinking made real. The garden [of the San Fernando Valley] is an exercise in forced cultivation and persistent optimism; and here, a fiction told on a grand scale. To say, this place is a garden, this place will be a garden, this place will remain a garden is to say “there it is, take it,” without asking what it means to take.[4] The partners I’ve worked with over the years in researching water in California remind me that this question can be asked and answered in eloquent and nuanced ways, and can offer a different kind of optimism about how and where we take things from here.


[1] Karen Piper, “Dreams, Dust and Birds: The Trashing of Owens Lake” http://places.designobserver.com/feature/dreams-dust-and-birds-the-trashing-of-owens-lake/23328/.
[2] From #35 in David Shields’ Reality Hunger.
[3] John Wesley Powell’s 1890 map of “the Arid Region of the United States, showing Drainage
Districts” published in the Eleventh Annual Report of the U.S. Geological Survey.
[4] “There it is, take it!” were the words of William Mulholland as Owens Valley water began flowing into the San Fernando Valley.


Nicole Antebi is a video, installation, and animation artist. With Enid Baxter, she leads the ongoing collective artists’ inquiry, Water, CA: Creative Visualizations for a New Millennium.


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