At a party not long ago, I met Nick Stockton, a journalist who had just relocated to San Francisco. A reporter for Wired, Nick said he had come from New York but that he was originally from California.
“Northern California?” I asked. He said no.
“Oh, where in SoCal?” I followed.
“Actually, I’m from the part of the state no one thinks about,” he replied. He was from Shafter, a small agricultural town in the Central Valley.
It was an embarrassing moment. It hadn’t crossed my mind that a professional journalist from California might have come from anywhere other the greater San Francisco or Los Angeles areas. Maybe San Diego. But while that was a prejudiced and dumb assumption on my part, unfortunately it wasn’t entirely unfounded. “Nobody leaves, ever,” Stockton says of his hometown. Heading to New York for journalism school and then taking a job with Condé Nast in San Francisco was not a standard trajectory.
Stockton was talking about leaving town in a literal sense, but lack of mobility is an increasing problem in the United States in more ways than just that. By many measures, socioeconomic mobility—a key component of the American dream—is becoming in America even more of a dream and less a reality.
It’s not just access to magazine jobs that vary by where you live. Numerous things that shape your future are determined by where you were born. Whether a kid has access to a good school and a safe neighborhood where children play outside—these things vary from region to region, even across city blocks. Researchers call these kinds of differences “social determinants of health.”
It’s easy to look at an adult’s life—whether they go to college or stock shelves or spend time in prison—as the result of personal decisions. And that’s not entirely wrong. But our decisions are shaped, and too frequently limited, by where we live. One way to visualize this is by looking at how life outcomes cluster geographically.
In 2012, researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University dug into health statistics for Alameda County, where I live. Alameda is home to the University of California, Berkeley and is just across the bay from San Francisco. Not surprisingly, there are neighborhoods where people are doing quite well. But that’s only part of the story. In their report, part of a series called Place Matters, the researchers found differences in life expectancy of more than twenty years between neighborhoods in the same county. Poverty, education, and income levels all showed huge variations.
You can predict a lot about a person by where he or she lives. Start with life expectancy. If you want to reduce health and quality of life to a single number, it’s hard to do much better. Exercise, diet, income, stress—they all affect how long a person lives. And average life expectancy incorporates the effects of violence, as well; if a high proportion of young men are dying, that can bring down an overall average.
Data sources: per capita income by census tract and race by county from the United States Census 2013 American Community Survey. 2010 life expectancy by census tract from Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) Center on Human Needs (CHN). Count incarceration rates created from the California Department of Corrections “Year at a Glance” 2010 report, which gave the county of commitment, with thanks to the Prison Policy Initiative. I used 2013 American Community Survey population data to generate the rates.
Tomatoes can be sunny and delightful sources of gustatory joy. Unfortunately, they can also be utterly detestable wads of wet cardboard. The difference is that the tasty ones were bred to be tasty. The tasteless ones were selected for so-called “shippability,” which means that they are tough. They are so tough that in my genetics course we play catch with them across a large lecture hall. The tomatoes survive multiple throws from students keen to show off their good arms and maybe score a splat on their instructor’s shirt. I am pleased to report that no such splat has occurred in ten years of testing.
This interactive class experiment is always popular, and it’s a testament to the power of evolution by selective breeding. The tomatoes work well for this experiment because being projectiles is in their DNA. They are the descendants of tomatoes that survived lobbing by their originator, Jack Hanna of the University of California, Davis. Hanna wandered through tomato fields, picked some fruits, and chucked them onto nearby paths. Those that didn’t splatter but survived unbruised, he kept—and bred. Thanks to such stern evolutionary tests, our grocery stores were soon blessed with tomatoes that can withstand machine harvesting, tight packing, and strong-armed students, but utterly lack flavor. Indeed, those commercial tomatoes are better suited for summer sports than for dinner plates. In contrast, the tasty tomatoes I grow in my garden will spontaneously split open from an overabundance of flavor if I leave them on the vine too long.
The tomatoes are just one example among millions of species being manipulated by evolutionary events, right before our eyes. To many people, “evolution” means a slow and majestic process that unfolds over millions of years: we see fossils as witnesses of past lives, and we imagine the rise and fall of dinosaurs, mastodons, Neanderthals. These are certainly elements of the sagas that evolution tells. But they’re not the only story. Biological evolution is happening all around us, all the time. It’s caused by shifting environmental conditions that provoke changes in genetic features. Evolution is straightforward and easy to observe, in the present moment—and those tough tomatoes offer a fun, if tasteless, window onto it.
California is an especially good place to witness evolution. The state’s insular features give it island-like characteristics, and islands are known to be special settings to witness evolution in action. California is isolated from other landmasses by the ocean on its western side, and distinctive landscape features limit many species’ movement in other directions as well. High mountains and deserts are barriers preventing easy movement to the east. Deserts also reduce movement to the south. To the north, passage into and out of California is limited by mountains and colder climates.
A vernal pool on the Carrizo Plain. Photograph by Flickr user Mikaku.
Within California, we also have multiple kinds of archipelagoes. These aren’t the kind that poke up out of oceans, but rather chains of “habitat islands” that can occur in all sorts of environments. Within California, animals and plants confront landscapes that range in elevation from over 13,800 feet to below sea level, and within these landscapes are archipelagoes of habitat islands defined by shifting geology and soils that govern who can live where and how.
Take salamanders. Salamanders are moisture-loving Californians, and one group of these secretive amphibians has provided UC Berkeley’s David Wake and his collaborators an opportunity to study the origin of new species. These salamanders, of the genus Ensatina, live in habitats that are cool and permanently moist. Their ancestors came from regions to the north. As they moved south, they encountered the Central Valley, where hot and dry ecological conditions were not to their liking. So some populations moved south along the Coast Ranges, while others migrated south along the Sierra Nevada. Over time, as the salamanders faced the different sets of conditions prevalent in those areas, their DNA began to change. Eventually, when, after many millennia, individuals of Sierra salamanders met members of the Coast Range gangs in Southern California, the two groups had become so different that they rarely interbred. They had become different species.
Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt of JoAnne Northrup’s essay on “Bloom” from our Summer 2015 issue.
Most Californians aged thirty or older can tell you where they were and what they were doing when the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake hit. I had just started graduate school at the University of Southern California, and I remember calling a friend in San Francisco while the quake was still underway. She described her immediate experience of undulating streets and sidewalks, surfing the seismic waves, and struggling to stay upright. The catastrophic results of the quake included loss of human life and the collapse of the Nimitz Freeway in Oakland. How on earth can a seismic event like this be translated into an experience that, instead of being traumatic and frightening, is life affirming? The artist, roboticist, and University of California, Berkeley, engineering professor Ken Goldberg has been thinking about this for almost twenty years.
In 1997, Goldberg conceived of using a live seismic-data feed to activate an artwork he called mementomori. He met with colleagues at the UC Berkeley Seismological Lab to request access to the seismometer that continuously measures the Earth’s motion on the Hayward Fault. After a series of conversations in which he assured them he would respect the data, they agreed. With an economy of means and in monochrome, Goldberg transformed the seismic data into a live display that resembles the readings of an electrocardiogram—in essence, the data represents the beating and dynamic shifts of the Earth’s heart. There are emotional memories connected to such an interface—sitting with a loved one at the hospital, watching the trace go up and down measuring the heart’s electrical activity. These are not necessarily happy memories. The title of the work is derived from the Latin phrase meaning, “Remember that you will die.” In art history, a memento mori is an artwork designed to remind the viewer of their mortality and of the shortness and fragility of human life.
One year later Goldberg collaborated with Randall Packer, Gregory Kuhn, and Wojciech Matusik to create Mori, a live acoustic installation based on the seismic data source. Commissioned by the InterCommunications Center in Tokyo, Mori appeared in that institution’s 1999 Biennale. The seismometer captured the movements of the Hayward Fault and converted these readings into digital signals transmitted continuously via the Internet to an acoustic installation. That installation was then included in an Independent Curators International exhibit that traveled to six galleries and museums across the United States.
I experienced this installation when it was on view in 2001 at the Walter and McBean Galleries at the San Francisco Art Institute. I remember being in the gallery, walking up a curved ramp into a darkened enclosure, and looking over a railing onto a screen that broadcast a visual representation of the seismic activity. Lying on my back in the space, I felt as though I had ventured into the Earth’s womb and was able to experience tectonic shifts as they occurred in real time, translated into rumbling sound waves. Composer Packer used natural sounds like thunder, lightning, and waterfalls to covey the story, with speakers mounted right underneath the floor so that you could feel the sound in your bones. The installation provided a compelling ambient experience, but also it conveyed a hint of threat. After all, it’s very groovy to take part in an immersive art installation, but this one pointed out the real consequences of living in a state where earthquakes were an accepted part of everyday life. What if the Big One hit while you were inside Mori? The dark viewpoint at the foundation of Mori was perceived by critic Reena Jana of Artforum who wrote, “The fragility of life is one theme sounded by this disturbing, meditative work.”
In 2006, to mark the centenary of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, Goldberg collaborated with Muriel Maffre, a principal dancer in the San Francisco Ballet, to create a third variation in this series of artworks. It was performed on 4 April 2006 at the War Memorial Opera House one hundred years after the 1906 earthquake. The score was composed for Mori by Packer, triggered by real-time seismic data. Maffre improvised, as no one could predict the precise sound in advance.
All three of the works in this series: mementomori, Mori, and Ballet Mori share associations of memento mori: warning, rebuke, reminder of mortality, monochrome, the grave, death, and decay. Goldberg described the mood by quoting Shemp from the Three Stooges, “The morbid, the merrier.”
Bloom incorporates the same seismic data as the precedents. The mood of the piece was decidedly upbeat, exuberant, colorful and playful—replacing pessimism with optimism. The blooms resemble the representations of earthquake magnitude found on maps.
liminal |ˈlimənl| adjective technical. 1 of or relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process. 2 occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold. DERIVATIVES: liminality |ˌliməˈnaləte| noun. ORIGIN late 19th cent.: from Latin limen, limin- ‘threshold’ + -al.
Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt of William L. Fox’s essay “On the Edge” from our Summer 2015 issue.
To understand why the Dutch photographer Marie-José Jongerius wanted to photograph in the American Far West—in particular that part of it that runs from Los Angeles inland to Las Vegas, south to Tijuana, and north up through the Central Valley of California—it helps to know something about boundaries and contrast. To know why it’s important to behold her work, it’s critical to know about how that dividing line of sight is not a two-dimensional geometrical figure, but a four-dimensional zone we label the liminal.
Eighty percent of everything we know about the world comes through our eyes, such a vast amount of information (100 million bits per second) that the brain is forced to throw away 90 percent of what hits the surface of the eye, transmitting only 10 percent to the brain for processing. That one-tenth of the world is what we see, the light triaged into about two dozen basic shapes. Circles, ovals, rectilinear shapes such as squares, polygons such as triangles, and then more ambiguously, right angles and arcs. Everything we see in the world is assembled from those shapes, which are made by lines that create the inside and the outside, the left and right, the top and bottom. We are upright bilaterally symmetrical animals, and we organize the information received accordingly. What the lines define around vertical and horizontal axes is boundary contrast, perhaps the second oldest visual notion we own after undifferentiated light and dark. It’s a recognition of line that separates us from the cognition of plants.
Boundaries in the environment are what we tend to move along, as they are rich with information, food, and consequently danger. The edge of the forest where it becomes a meadow is where we find the small animals that are natural human prey. They hide in the safety of the forest, but when they creep and hop and run out into the meadow for food, they become visible and vulnerable. We aren’t so different from the raptors that fly overhead, seeking the same visual information and food source. It’s along the borders and boundaries of the world where photographers can often be found shooting, as well.
The human eye roves about a landscape in staccato movements called saccades. A saccade is a very quick sampling several times a second of what is in front of us; it allows us to identify where we are and what’s around us. Saccades follow general priorities in a rough order: What fits in, what’s anomalous, what displays the bilateral symmetry that can mean friend or foe, what’s in motion and in what direction. When we look at a photograph of a landscape, our eyes tend to follow that same prioritized pattern.
The landscape in which we are most secure while scoping out what’s in our environment is one where we can see and not be seen, and you can see how artists throughout history have intuited that scheme and used it. Claude Lorrain framed his landscapes in the 1600s with dark foliage in the forefront, the view of the artist and viewer alike peering out across the boundary of sanctuary and into the sunlit meadows and ponds beyond. American landscape artists three hundred years later were still using the same format, whether it was Thomas Cole along the Hudson River, Frederic Church in the Andes, or Albert Bierstadt in the Rocky Mountains. Anthropologists call this a conceal-and-reveal, or a refuge-and-prospect landscape. It’s our ancestral home, as well as the design of a contemporary living room, the drapes forming a natural screen from around which we peer onto the street.
The human gaze, whether in the landscape or looking at a picture of a landscape, follows rules shaped by our physical relation to the world, and when an artist takes us out to the edge of where our human neurophysiology is comfortable—out from behind the trees or curtains and into places where boundaries become ambiguous—both our unease and levels of alertness are heightened. When we enter the in-between place, where a line assumes three spatial and dimensions and time as a boundary zone—the liminal—we’re aware that we, too, could become prey, if not to actual threat, then to unnamed fears.
The edge of the shade cast by a tree is seldom a sharp edge, but instead a blurred line caused by the fractal arrangement of leaves overhead, the dappling of sunlight through a permeable crown of foliage, and limbs moving in the breeze. Daylight does not terminate in sudden darkness, even in the tropics where the sun seems to drop like a stone into the ocean; there is always a series of twilights—a civil twilight, a nautical twilight, an astronomical twilight. During the civil stage, the first planets and brightest stars appear. The second stage sees the horizon disappear from view to the navigator. The third is that time of the faintest reflected light high in the atmosphere when we think it’s dark, but it isn’t quite yet.
These are temporal zones of ambiguity that give us pause, and, along with the spatial ones, they have their parallels in everything from literature to architecture. Science fiction horror stories are rife with twilights when the world turns strange. Houses have anterooms, and cities have bridges and sidewalks, places where passage is made but people seldom live. Those people who inhabit such domains are referred to as the homeless. Purgatory is another shaded place of indeterminacy, a rite of passage. This is what is meant by the liminal, where the zone between states means to be both inside and outside, up and down, left and right—and yet none of those things. That is where Marie-José Jongerius searches for her images. The name of her project, Edge of the Experiment, was chosen for a reason.
When Joseph Campbell wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, he was working from the work done by the French ethnographer Arnold van Gennep, who in his book The Rites of Passage (1909) described the process of liminaire, the deliberate dislocation of your normal senses into a liminal state of confusion and openness through which pretechnological peoples would pass during initiation rituals in order to gain adulthood or sacred knowledge. The anthropologist Victor Turner (1920–1983), who expanded Gennep’s research, studied rituals and rites among the Ndembu tribe of Zambia. He noted how the experience of an ambiguous zone can lead to paradigm shifts for contemporary individuals as well as tribespeople and postulated that the theater was a liminal space too, suspension of reality during the performance enabling the audience to undergo a transformation.
To work as a writer with photographers in the field, when they are concentrating so hard they cannot talk, is to become entranced with the landscape, to participate in a shared trance.
98 to Calexico (CA)—2008
Making art is a kind of ritual and never more so than for the photographer setting up a tripod and her 4×5 large-format Crown Graphic field camera, framing the view on the ground glass and bringing it into focus, selecting the moment to trip the shutter. Repeated over and over again, especially for those photographers who also do commercial work, such as Jongerius, it becomes an automatic yet hyper-alert, almost Zen-like discipline. To work as a writer with photographers in the field, when they are concentrating so hard they cannot talk, is to become yourself entranced with the landscape, to participate in a shared trance. To couple that mental discipline with a zone of visual ambiguity, a liminal space, is to risk taking your cognition where it hasn’t been before. This is the terrain where Jongerius is happiest.
Lake Mead (NV)—2007
Joshua Tree (CA)—2002
This essay is adapted from Marie-José Jongerius, Edges of the Experiment (Fw: Books, 2015).
Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt of Wendy Cheng’s essay “East of East” from our Spring 2015 issue.
Welcome to the San Gabriel Valley—America’s first “suburban Chinatown.”1 A typical-looking twentieth-century suburbia a few miles east of downtown Los Angeles, the San Gabriel Valley—or SGV, as residents call it—has been transformed in recent decades by ethnic Chinese investment and settlement from both sides of the Pacific.2 In some parts of the valley—places such as Monterey Park and Rowland Heights—more than half of the population is Asian, and English is often a secondary—or tertiary—language in the plentiful strip malls that line the main thoroughfares. It’s a regional and global hub for Asians from all over Southern California and the world. Then there’s the restaurant scene, which is how many Angelenos have come to know the valley. You will find some of the best Chinese food in the world in the San Gabriel Valley.
But while true in many respects, the well-known image of the SGV as a global Asian suburb obscures a vital fact: the valley is a vibrant, sprawling, mixed-up multiethnic community with a complex, layered past.3 In those majority-Asian cities, almost one-third of the population is Latino, making the valley as a whole more than 80 percent Asian and Latino now. In other SGV cities, such as El Monte and South El Monte, the balance flips: Latinos constituting the majority and Asians the next largest group. It is that mix that makes the San Gabriel Valley a revealing place for seeing the Pacific world as an Asian-Pacific-Latino world.
Consider this: A comedy hip-hop group called the Fung Brothers sings about the SGV, “Let me tell you about a place out east / Just fifteen minutes from the LA streets / Hollywood doesn’t even know we exist / Like it’s a mystical land, filled with immigrants.”
And this: A small, local, street-wear brand based in Monterey Park called SGV has produced a T-shirt with a design that blended the elements of the flags of the People’s Republic of China, Mexico, and the United States. The brand’s website states: “The SGV is a region of America where a lot of Chinese and Mexicans have learned to live together, most of the time in harmony. Welcome to Chimexica.”4
Or this: Other SGV brand designs have featured repurposed logos for Sriracha, a well-known hot sauce created in Rosemead by an ethnically Chinese-Vietnamese immigrant, as well as Tres Flores, a hair cream popular with working-class Chicano youth, and woven sandals popular with older Asian immigrant men.
And this: Another T-shirt features curse words in Chinese, Vietnamese, Spanish, and Tagalog.5
This diversity is not always harmonious. As the SGV brand creator Paul Chan, a child of immigrants from Hong Kong who moved to Alhambra as a young child in the 1980s, told a reporter, “I…learned quickly that in the SGV you play your position and don’t over step your boundaries. I’ve always had a huge appreciation for that. The way those unwritten rules work….It was part of survival to know about all the different cultures so I don’t end up disrespecting people and getting my ass kicked.”6
Yes, you’ve got to have a clue, but for the most part these playful pop culture expressions of cosmopolitanism embrace living together, coexisting, with mutual respect for difference, without denial or exclusion. The SGV is a great place to experience the emergence of this new global cosmopolitanism.
Paul Gilroy, a cultural studies scholar who has studied the multiethnic dynamism that came out of the reach and subsequent collapse of the British empire around the world, has publicly wondered about how such an everyday cosmopolitanism “from below” could be magnified and given greater purpose: “The challenge of being in the same present, of synchronizing difference and articulating cosmopolitan hope upward from below rather that imposing it downward from on high provides some help in seeing how we might invent conceptions of humanity that allow for the presumption of equal value and go beyond the issue of tolerance into a more active engagement with the irreducible value of diversity within sameness.”7
This is a cosmopolitanism that does not look to states or nations for the realization of its hopes, but “glories in the ordinary virtues and ironies—listening, looking, discretion, friendship—that can be cultivated when mundane encounters with difference become rewarding,” Gilroy writes,8 It is a “radical openness,”9 a “planetary consciousness”10 made even more real and important by its awareness of the harms done by racism and inequality. Ideally, it does not stop at awareness but rejects xenophobia and violence, and “culminates in a new way of being at home in the world through an active hostility toward national solidarity, national culture, and their privileging over other, more open affiliations.”11
Gilroy, whose work has largely focused on cosmopolitanism and diaspora across the Atlantic,12 could come to the SGV to see similar patterns playing out around the Pacific Rim. In the SGV today, I found a similar sense of cosmopolitanism among many residents while working on my book The Changs Next Door to the Díazes. It is also increasingly apparent among artists, writers, poets, scholars, and activists who are beginning to express their own visions of the valley and in the process creating a collective, imaginative vision and language that may well have the power to alter what it means to be American. Their vision is of a suburban, cosmopolitan ethos that will be increasingly relevant to broader swaths of the United States, and it challenges long-held associations of whiteness, middle-class, and suburban as normative ideals that were tightly bound together. At its best, this is an explicitly antiracist cosmopolitanism that does not gloss over differences between cultures or violent histories to create a false universalism, but instead reckons with formative histories and still-present realities of racism and colonialism.13
The South El Monte Arts Posse, an arts collective led by historian Romeo Guzmán and artist Caribbean Fragoza, is one organization playing with the possibilities of an emergent SGV identity, one that they refer to as “east of east.” The “east” to which the collective known as SEMAP identifies itself as “east of” is East Los Angeles, long the symbolic and political core of Chicano Los Angeles. Reflecting on this geographical adjacency, iconic Chicana writer Cherríe Moraga, who grew up in the SGV, has written of that state of being near, but separated from, the Chicano Movement in East LA, “just ten minutes from my tree-lined working class neighborhood in San Gabriel.”14
Similarly, SEMAP sees itself as adjacent to, but distinct from, the urban core sensibilities of East LA. “East of east” is “everything that exists outside the reach of the city of Los Angeles,” Fragoza told me when I spent the afternoon recently with her and her partner Guzmán to explore the role of artists, writers, and activists in this emerging SGV cosmopolitanism.15
“East of east” sounds as if it could be a description of this new cosmopolitanism emerging on the West Coast, on the eastern edge of the Pacific Ocean, east of East Asia. But the phrase also has a defiant local edge. This interpolation of the global and the local is a characteristic of these new cosmopolitans. Guzmán grew up visiting relatives in South El Monte from his home in Pomona, even further east. He and Fragoza remember starting to use the phrase when they were both undergraduates taking Chicano Studies classes at University of California, Los Angeles, in the early 2000s. As Fragoza told me, in “Chicano rhetoric, everything would happen in East LA.” There were “a lot of people that I met there who were from East LA and that were very proud of it,” she added. “And then they were like, ‘Well, where are you from?'” When Fragoza responded that she was from El Monte, she would be met with derision. She would then respond emphatically, “‘Dude, we’re so down, we’re east of East LA!’…So I think that’s at least how I started using it.”16
Guzmán added that they would “sort of get annoyed….It’s like, to make culture you have to go to East LA. But why? Why do we all have to go there? Why can’t we do stuff where we’re from?”17
SEMAP’s home terrain, the cities of El Monte and South El Monte, have emerged as key nodes in the burgeoning SGV arts and culture scene. “People from El Monte are really into El Monte,” Guzmán told me.
“Yeah, we are,” Fragoza laughed. “But I still feel like we’re SGV, we’re part of the SGV.”
In the past fifteen years, street wear brands, literary novels and short stories, a mystery set in the world of Asian American parachute kids, and comedic rap songs have all emerged from the SGV.18 This past fall, a play about Toypurina, the Gabrielino woman who led a failed revolt against the Spanish at the San Gabriel Mission, was mounted at the Mission Playhouse, and a feature film set in El Monte is in the works.19 These developments signify the coming of age of a multiracial, majority-nonwhite, place-specific culture, on its own terms. As a region apart from central Los Angeles, large portions of the SGV have been able to retain their class heterogeneity and multiracial, majority-nonwhite populations for multiple generations now, without suffering the degree of gentrification and displacement to which central city neighborhoods are vulnerable.
Like the members of SEMAP, writer Michael Jaime-Becerra, who grew up in El Monte and still lives there now, balances multiple sensibilities at once. His outlook is deeply local and connected to a specific place, but he also has an expansive openness to the complexities of the SGV in the world. His world is El Monte, but it isn’t only El Monte. In his two books set in and around the city—Every Night is Ladies’ Night (2004) and This Time Tomorrow (2010)—Jaime-Becerra renders the mundane landscapes of the SGV with tremendous love, name-checking places and streets without commentary throughout his narratives, as though to assert to readers that they should know these places. While his characters are primarily working-class Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans—truck drivers, mechanics, forklift operators, fast food workers—they are always also Goth teens, former prisoners, brothers, sisters, uncles, lovers, and dreamers.
While earlier generations of Chicano writers were writing with justifiable urgency about “field labor, immigration, our parents’ struggles to feed the family,”20 growing up in El Monte as the son of a union meat-cutter and an elementary school clerk, Jaime-Becerra realized that he could “hang with low riders and skateboarders, groove to Juan Gabriel and Siouxsie and the Banshees.”21 Like so many Latinos and Asian Americans in the SGV, he was able to carve out an ethnic identity apart from dominant ideas about race: “Everybody around me, they were either Mexican or Mexican American or Vietnamese,” he has said. “I didn’t really identify in terms of race in LA.”22
There is freedom in the ambiguity that comes with loosened cultural boundaries, where old stereotypes aren’t used to keep people in place, and where people are comfortable crossing cultural lines to find their place in a community. The place where they feel they belong, not where they are told that they do. This is the “east of east” ideal, in which working- and lower-middle-class people of color are able to simply be—and be seen by the wider community—in their full and complex personhood.23 This is what Jaime-Becerra described as his coming-of-age experience and is apparent in the world he creates for his readers.
El Monte writer Salvador Plascencia also riffed on this theme in his 2005 novel The People of Paper, set in the author’s hometown. His “meta-fiction” was intended “partly as a parody of traditional immigration narratives”—or as one reviewer put it, is “part memoir, part lies.”24 This is how Plascencia introduces the locale: “The town was called El Monte, after the hills it did not have.”25 A page later, he elaborates: “El Monte was one thousand four hundred forty-eight miles north of Las Tortugas and an even fifteen hundred miles from the city of Guadalajara, and while there were no cockfights or wrestling arenas, the curanderos’ botanica shops, the menudo stands, and the bell towers of the Catholic churches had also pushed north, settling among the flower and sprinkler systems.”26
The transnational migrants settled among the suburban “flower and sprinkler systems,” but they made the landscape their own. Throughout the book—which also playfully busts genre conventions with scribbled-out words, blocked text, blank pages, and graffiti—an assortment of vivid characters including migrant lettuce pickers and gang members battle against the godlike Saturn, who is gradually revealed to be the author, Salvador Plascencia. Saturn/Plascencia loses control of his characters and the narrative because he is languishing over a break-up with his girlfriend, who has left him for a white guy. Plascencia’s El Monte is both grounded and surreal, his portrayal of its denizens heartfelt and absurd. “In a way,” Plascencia has said, both he and Jaime-Becerra “are trying to talk about an El Monte that’s not the news copter, watching a cop kick a gangster in the head.”27 That is El Monte as a place grounded in its true range of subjectivities, experiences, and imaginative possibilities, not constrained by externally imposed stereotypes and power hierarchies.
Details from El Monte Legion Stadium Nocturne and In the Meadow courtesy of Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
1. See Timothy Fong, The First Suburban Chinatown: The Remaking of Monterey Park, California (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994), and Wei Li, Ethnoburb: The New Ethnic Community in Urban America (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2009).
2. See Min Zhou, Yen-Fen Tseng, and Rebecca Kim, “Rethinking Residential Assimilation: The Case of a Chinese Ethnoburb in the San Gabriel Valley, California,” Amerasia Journal 34: no. 3 (1 January 2008): 53–83); among others.
3. This dates back hundreds of years to indigenous Gabrielino/Tongva settlement in the area and travels through Spanish colonization, the Mexican period, and US conquest, each of these with its concomitant, racialized regimes of land dispossession, and labor exploitation.
4. Former SGV brand website, http://www.sgvforlife.com, accessed July 2012. To see the SGV brand’s current website, go to http://sgvforlife.bigcartel.com/ (accessed 24 November 2014).
6. Daniela Gerson, “SGV for Life?” Alhambra Source, 30 November 2011; http://www.alhambrasource.org/stories/sgv-life.
7. Paul Gilroy, Postcolonial Melancholia (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), 67.
9. Ibid., xv.
10. Ibid., 75.
11. Ibid., 68.
12. See Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993).
13. Gilroy, Postcolonial Melancholia. Also see Michelle A. McKinley, “Conviviality, Cosmopolitan Citizenship, and Hospitality,” Harvard Unbound 5: no. 1 (1 March 2009): 55–87.
14. Cherríe Moraga, “Queer Aztlán: the Re-formation of Chicano Tribe,” The Last Generation (Boston: South End Press, 1993), 146.
15. Interview with Carribean Fragoza and Romeo Guzmán, El Monte, California, 12 October 2014.
18. These include: Alex Espinoza, Still Water Saints (New York: Random House, 2007); Michael Jaime-Becerra, Every Night Is Ladies’ Night (New York, NY: Rayo/HarperCollins Publishers, 2004); Michael Jaime-Becerra, This Time Tomorrow (New York: Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 2010); Salvador Plascencia, The People of Paper (Orlando: Harcourt, 2006); Denise Hamilton, The Jasmine Trade (New York: Scribner, 2001). Also see Daniela Gerson, “SGV for Life?” Alhambra Source, 30 November 2011; http://www.alhambrasource.org/stories/sgv-life, accessed 15 October 2014; and the Fung Brothers website, http://fungbrothers.com, accessed 15 October 2014.
19. Mission Playhouse website, http://www.missionplayhouse.org/event/toypurina, accessed 15 October 2014; and “Varsity Punks” website, http://varsitypunks.com/, accessed 15 October 2014.
20. Vickie Vértiz, “El Monte Forever: A Brief History of Michael Jaime-Becerra,” 6 December 2014, Tropics of Meta, http://tropicsofmeta.wordpress.com/2013/12/16/el-monte-forever-a-brief-history-of-michael-jaime-becerra/, accessed 10 October 2014.
21. Reed Johnson, “Writers Salvador Plascencia and Michael Jaime-Becerra share a city and common inspiration: El Monte,” 25 April 2010, http://articles.latimes.com/2010/apr/25/entertainment/la-ca-el-monte-20100425, accessed October 10, 2014.
23. On complex personhood, see Avery Gordon, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997).
24. Johnson, “Writers Salvador Plascencia and Michael Jaime-Becerra.”
25. Plascencia, The People of Paper, 33.
26. Ibid., 34.
27. Johnson, “Writers Salvador Plascencia and Michael Jaime-Becerra.”
Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt of Phoebe S.K. Young’s essay “To Show What Will Be By What Has Been” from our Spring 2015 issue.
Most visitors to San Diego’s Panama-California Exposition—the southern counterpoint to San Francisco’s world’s fair in 1915—entered by crossing the Puente de Cabrillo. The high, arcaded bridge carried fairgoers over a small canyon toward the edge of a mesa on which the exposition’s miniature city seemed to float. At the end stood the California Building, its striking blue-domed roof and tower an echo of the Giralda in Seville. The richly ornamented entranceway featured a mash-up of monarchs, sailors, and missionaries made in plaster to look like marble: a youthful Padre Junípero Serra with the shield of the United States above his head; Charles III of Spain; Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, the first Spaniard to see San Diego harbor; Gaspar de Portola, first Spanish governor of California; and English navigator George Vancouver, among others.
In dedicating the California Building on the exposition’s opening night, leading local retailer George White Marston nominated this unlikely squad to serve as guardians of “the past and present of California’s life…true symbols of her glowing history and her wonderful today.”1 Promoters of San Diego’s fair had been deploying exactly this historical logic throughout the five-year process that brought the exposition to life. In the words of its head publicist, the philosophy behind it all was “to show what will be by what has been.”2
For the boosters and business leaders of San Diego, this was more than just a slogan to burnish San Diego’s Spanish legacy. They felt themselves poised atop their own historical fulcrum, recalling the century since the end of the Spanish colonial era, and projecting their city as a global leader in the century to come. The hopeful link the local elite drew between California’s past, present, and future was simple: empire.3 City leaders saw themselves as inheritors of Spain’s colonial empire and as the critical link to a new American empire at the intersection of Latin America and the Pacific. They hoped San Diego would in turn spearhead an American empire that now stretched across the Pacific to the Philippines.
To set the stage for their vision of San Diego’s role in this imperial future—one that promised enormous economic and strategic military opportunities courtesy of the newly opened Panama Canal—fairgoers had to be made to understand the history that brought them to this “wonderful today.” The exposition pulled visitors through a timeline of human progress and conquest, measuring the distance from a supposedly primitive nonwhite past and a romantic Spanish interlude to a modern Anglo empire of technological power. This embellished and distorted version of history on display at the exposition continues to have a profound effect on how Californians understand the state’s past and the place they live in today.
Entering the California Building, fairgoers found themselves at the very beginning of the timeline. They encountered a display called The Science of Man, trumpeted as a “never-before attempted ethnological and archaeological exhibit” that would unveil a major new piece of the puzzle of human evolution.4 Mounted by Aleš Hrdlička, a physical anthropologist from the Smithsonian Institution, the exhibit guided visitors to discover “proof” of a natural hierarchy within the human race—the intended conclusion being that white Americans were naturally superior to other “primitive” races. To make his case, Hrdlička meticulously arranged human and animal skulls collected from five continents according to detailed measurements of cranial capacity. Though later recognized as an erroneous signifier of intellectual ability, in 1915 craniometry asserted scientific authority to classify skulls from primitive (African to Asian and Native American) to advanced (European and American).5 By aligning race with evolutionary progress, the exposition sought to establish a benchmark for its broader historical narrative that led inexorably toward an American empire in the Pacific, which they hoped would run through San Diego.
The California Building’s architecture and decoration reinforced these notions of progress and empire. Under the dome, murals depicted the European discovery of America and the conquest of the West in glorious terms. Hrdlička’s skulls and the primitive human past they sought to portray faded away as visitors walked out onto the sunlit Prado, lined with ornate, gleaming white Spanish colonial buildings. The architecture composed a city of “tiled domes and fantastic towers, archways from which hang old mission bells,…a fountain plashing, a caballero leaning lazily against the wall…, or the troupe of Spanish dancing girls whose bright colored skirts are awhirl to the hum of guitar and the click of the castanet.”6 Played out before visitors’ eyes and ears, this romantic version of California’s past played a key role in the exposition’s storyline.
The fair’s Spanish fantasy simultaneously celebrated the arrival of European civilization in California and marked its picturesque, old-world elements as part of a bygone world. The Spanish theme went beyond a nod to local history. Local boosters and Boston architect Bertram Goodhue ignored the fact that Alta California never brought Spain the wealth or power that other Latin American colonies did and instead imagined the region as awash in New World riches. As exposition designers, they sought to outdo anything the Spanish had built in California during its days as a remote and relatively poor colony; indeed, they revised the “what has been” portion of the exposition’s concept to “what could have been” if the style of baroque Spain had been fully realized in California. In their hands, the exposition conjured “a city such as Cabrillo and his men must have dreamed of as they stood, perhaps, on that same lofty mesa, and looked down to the sea,”7 as Goodhue wrote in 1910. The exaggerated visions and the florid architecture served a purpose. The fair portrayed a quaint historical dreamland that no longer existed, surpassed by the arrival of Anglo American progress on the western side of the continent. The San Diego promoters of the Panama-California Exposition now set their sights on the future prospects of the Pacific World.
Planned in anticipation of the opening of the Panama Canal, the San Diego Exposition shared with San Francisco’s world’s fair the desire to make California a gateway to the Pacific World. San Diegans hoped to gain recognition as a city on par with its West Coast rivals. Local leaders and investors were eager to hitch their upstart city’s future growth to economic expansion in the Pacific. The canal represented new possibilities for the development of a city that in the first decade of the twentieth century was struggling to find its economic footing—a recent history they were hardly inclined to showcase. To remedy this, local boosters conceived of the fair as the centerpiece of a publicity strategy to draw attention to San Diego’s geographical suitability to be the premier West Coast transfer point between the Panama Canal and the Pacific. A map appearing in a 1910 publication promoting the exposition plotted out the “New Routes of World Commerce After Completion of the Panama Canal,” with San Diego, designated with a conspicuous arrow, as the origin for a multitude of direct lines to major port cities in Asia and the Americas. Los Angeles and San Francisco were labeled in font sizes so small they are barely legible.8
Both San Diego and San Francisco lobbied Congress for “official” exposition status and the federal recognition and money that came with it. But when San Diego lost its bid, the city had to relinquish any claim to represent the nation and was barred from inviting international exhibits to compete with San Francisco’s exposition.9 Most observers assumed San Diego would simply withdraw. The city hardly seemed positioned to mount any sort of exposition, much less one without federal support. The 1910 census had been disappointing to San Diego boosters, showing a much slower rate of population growth than Los Angeles. Moreover, turmoil from the initial stages of the Mexican Revolution threatened to spill over the border, making city and state leaders nervous, and potential tourists wary. Letting the bid drop would have been understandable. But local businessmen felt an increasingly dire need for the publicity an exposition might generate and were counting on the growth of San Diego commerce beyond local bounds. They were not going to let the idea die so easily.
Fair boosters developed several strategies to keep their nascent plans alive. First, they promoted the concept of “dual expositions,” drawing visitors with a two-for-one appeal that could appear to pull San Diego to an equal level with San Francisco. Second, they exploited a loophole in the Congressional terms and continued the exposition’s run into a second year, inviting San Francisco’s international exhibitors to travel to San Diego in 1916. Enough took them up on the idea that in March 1916, the San Diego fair became the Panama-California International Exposition and, although not as successful as either of the 1915 fairs, it provided a continuing promotional engine for the city.
Finally, far from ceding their claims on Pacific empire to San Francisco, San Diego boosters sought to reorient the map. San Diego placed itself at the center of a great empire in the American Southwest, which city leaders asserted, was poised to “become the new focusing point of the world’s immigration, the new land of opportunity next to be conquered by peaceful settlement.”10 In competing with San Francisco’s rise to the forefront of a new Pacific empire, San Diego reinvented its hinterlands as a regional empire and then proclaimed the city a natural hinge between the Southwest and the Pacific world. The grandeur of the exposition itself smoothed out the hitch in the timeline, bypassing San Diego’s uncertain state of development and portraying an unbroken history from primitive and romantic pasts to a confident future.
Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt of Yeesheen Yang’s “Saving the Quantified Self” from our Winter 2014 issue.
My grandmother recently had a pacemaker implanted. Major surgery and its aftermath are frightening at any age, but for a ninety-three-year-old and her family it is a particularly scary tightrope to walk. Had her recovery been filmed for a montage in a family drama, there would have been reassuring doctors and smiling nurses with encouraging words as the liveliness returned to her eyes and activity to her arms and legs—but this wasn’t a movie. This was the information age. As we gathered around her hospital bed in the days after the procedure, I could tell that my grandmother was worried, and I was worried, too.
Then my mother slipped a small portable pulse oximeter over my grandmother’s finger to measure her blood pressure, resting heart rate, and blood oxygen saturation. We all tried it. The quick readout and the ensuing conversation about my grandmother’s thrice-daily ritual of checking her numbers were comforting. As her recovery progressed, a pedometer measured her daily walks, and this information was even more fortifying: 650 steps one day, 800 steps the next. It is satisfying to imagine her circling her tiny backyard, amid the small fruit trees and high stone walls, tracking her own progress. And it brings a smile to my face knowing that this fragile nonagenarian is so in sync with the zeitgeist.
In modern times, self-tracking like my grandmother is doing is how we’ve come to satisfy the exhortation to “know thyself.” In this conception of the self, we are not beings made in the image of our god, animals with intellect, or finely calibrated machines; we are fields of data. To know ourselves is to mine, map, and analyze that data and make adjustments where necessary. We quantify ourselves using pedometers, oximeters, stopwatches, obsessive journaling, and increasingly sophisticated technology to track every knowable piece of data that our bodies and our selves can spit out. These numbers can bring comfort, and they can bring real understanding, not just of REM cycles and caloric intake, but of what it means to be, precisely, us.
This concept—which we might call the algorithmic body, a body built from data—is gaining traction in Silicon Valley, where big names are attaching themselves to ideas, products, and services that aim to exploit all the data we are generating about our bodies for a range of goals. Some, like the wearable fitness tracker Fitbit or the genomic testing company 23andMe seek to arm users with the data they need to improve their health, vitality, and, possibly, longevity. Others, like Google cofounder Larry Page and his California Life Company (Calico), have something grander in mind: immortality. All of these ideas are rooted in the idea of a body that can be understood and even preserved through data—the Quantified Self.
Quantified Self—which is actually a company and a movement—was founded in 2007 by Kevin Kelly and Gary Wolf, two editors at Wired magazine. It promotes the idea that gathering quantifiable data about oneself and one’s life through practices of self-tracking allows us to know, rather than guess, how well we are living our lives. Am I really keeping under the caloric limits I need to meet in order to lose weight? How much time do I actually spend on Facebook in one day? How much time do I spend writing? Well-framed questions, together with the increasingly powerful self-monitoring tools, can transform the nebulous experience of life into hard data, allowing us to engage in informed and effective interventions. Self-trackers believe in “self-knowledge through numbers”—a phrase proclaimed in big type on the Quantified Self website.¹ Practitioners now meet in over one hundred cities around the globe, from New York to Milan, Mexico City, Chennai, and Helsinki, to share and reflect on the ways they are using numbers to understand and improve themselves.
Self-trackers are a well-educated, engaged, relatively affluent, and technically inclined demographic. They are deeply serious about this form of self-reflection.² Many are hobbyists, who use existing apps to capture self-data. Others are practitioners who build their own tools to share with or sell to the larger community. One presenter at a recent Quantified Self meetup in San Francisco talked about learning to reduce the duration of incidents when he felt upset during the day by logging alerts from his heart-rate monitor. The data allowed him to pinpoint his emotional triggers and assess the effectiveness of various coping strategies. He reported that he reduced the amount of time he spent upset by 23 percent over the course of his self-study.³
For over a year, Laurie Frick tracked her activities in a daily journal. To turn data into art, she looks for patterns that are at once organic and ordered. Courtesy Laurie Frick.
Commercially available wearable monitors are some of the simplest tools in the kit of the modern self-tracker, and they epitomize the emerging relationship between data, self-monitoring, and our sense of self. The rich data of tracking, real-time feedback, and the minute experiences of one’s body can blend together to generate a new, data-informed sense of one’s own body. Anthropologist Dawn Nafus suggests, in her work on self-tracking, that “one learns how to feel one’s body through the data.” Sociologists including Deborah Lupton suggest that the quantified data of self-tracking can lead to an enriched qualitative practice of self-reflection. Data becomes part of a process of telling oneself stories about one’s progress in life. Lupton argues that self-tracking is narrative and performative, a practice that produces and reflects upon who we are becoming: “I walk fourteen thousand steps each day; ergo, I am a walker.”4
I see something more here: an algorithmic body emerging from this ongoing project of building oneself up through data. The algorithmic body is established as the object of surveillance and monitoring for the purpose of intervention and it is the object of intervention as much as our physical bodies, and perhaps even more so someday. It is instructive that relating to, reflecting upon, and producing oneself today is performed through data. Data is the idiom of the biotechnological age and, increasingly, now the language of the self.
Throughout history, scientific trends have had a profound effect on perceptions of the self and body. In the second half of the nineteenth century, for instance, a mechanistic rather than an algorithmic view of the body was on the rise. This understanding of the body flourished alongside the rapid proliferation of mechanical technologies in the form of industrial machinery, transportation, and medical knowledge. Notions of the body began to focus on issues of efficiency, fatigue, and the cycles of a closed system. Historian Anson Rabinbach traces the idea of the human motor—the body as machine—in relation to the articulation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which specifies the rule of conservation of energy.
The second-to-last in a 52-week series of collages tracking the artist’s weekly walking. Courtesy Laurie Frick.
The algorithmic perspective has been influenced by increasing interest in big data and data mining, and it has been fueled by the rapid development in personal surveillance technology, which has over time built up big data about human bodies and human lives in the aggregate and individually. But at least one branch of the roots of the algorithmic body has a longer history, dating back to mid-century speculative work on longevity, transhumanism, the idea of transcending the human condition, and cryonics.
Image at top: Each colored block represents a GPS location visited by the artist over a ninety-day period in Making Tracks. Greater color saturation represents more frequent visits to that location. Courtesy Laurie Frick.
Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt of Marc Flacks’s essay “New Missionaries” from our Winter 2014 issue.
The production of olive oil in California has deep roots. Generations of Californians have been seduced by olive trees and their promise of a liquid bonanza. California is now reported to be in the midst of an olive oil boom or a “liquid gold rush,” but in fact, the state is witnessing its third or fourth effort to establish a viable olive oil industry. The Spanish missionaries began producing olive oil in California around 1803. After that, Italian immigrants in the mid-nineteenth century started producing olive oil when their Gold Rush dreams failed to pan out, and in the twentieth century, entrepreneurs tried to compete against the dominant European olive oil industry.
As this Mission olive tree on the State Capitol grounds grew over the past century, the tags bent and were embedded in its trunk.
Even though California olive oil represents only a tiny fraction of today’s world market, the state may be poised to become a major global player because of the creative efforts of family-run agribusinesses, legislation aimed at defining high quality, “extra virgin” oil, and the implementation of a relatively new high-density growing method imported from Spain. Every new attempt to cultivate this industry in the Golden State has been accompanied by new myths about olive trees and the natural suitability of California for producing the golden oil. As something of an insider to the industry and an academic researcher, and therefore something of an outsider too, I’ve been curious about the people at the forefront of this potential boom and the new myths they are creating.
My own olive oil journey began by accident in Santa Barbara, where I grew up. When I rode my bike or moped down Olive Street on my way to Santa Barbara High School, my tires would slide perilously when braking, and I would wonder why the city allowed all the fruit from the olive trees lining the road to drop and grease the street, instead of harvesting them and putting them to good use. Then, when I moved to the Sacramento area in 2007 to begin teaching sociology at Yuba College, I read in the Sacramento Bee that University of California, Davis, having settled too many suits filed by bicyclists injured in accidents caused by oil from fallen olives, decided to harvest their trees and ultimately establish the UC Davis Olive Center, transforming a liability into an asset. Yuba College, it turns out, sits on the site of an old olive grove and, when I noticed a feral grove near campus, I obtained permission to hold a volunteer community olive harvest there and began establishing 49er Olive Oil, a nonprofit olive oil venture.
My self-appointed olive oil mission has been not only to get 49er Olive Oil up and running, but to immerse myself in the world of California olive oil and to try to grasp its significance in sociological, historical, geographical, and mythical terms. Traversing a California divided into familiar binaries such as Northern/Southern, coastal/inland, organic/conventional, liberal/conservative, urban/rural, government/industry, profit/nonprofit, etc. I’ve talked with many of today’s olive oil missionaries to better understand the ideals, goals, and strategies they hope this time will avoid the industry busts of the past.
Santa Barbara’s Old Missions
Because my curiosity about California olive oil began in Santa Barbara, I started my exploration there.
There is an old myth that California’s first olive tree was planted by Father Junipero Serra in 1769, the year that the governor of Baja and Alta California, Gaspar de Portolá, led an expedition to San Diego to establish the first of California’s twenty-one missions. Aside from shade and food, Spanish missionaries needed olive oil for sacramental purposes. Although the actual historical record of olive propagation and Spanish conquest diverges from myth—there is no reliable evidence that Serra planted the first tree—the evidence that olive trees and their fruit were central to the lives and work of Spanish missionaries is still visible up and down the state.
In partnership with the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation, Santa Barbara’s Old Mission has planted a new olive grove called Stations of the Cross Olive Garden Path. The grove is meant to serve multiple purposes, including providing revenue to the mission and the trust through olive oil sales, providing shade, connecting visitors to biblical history, and simply providing a place for quiet contemplation.
The trust has also partnered with Mission Santa Inés to grow olive trees and involve citizen volunteers in helping to produce nonprofit olive oil. They are hoping to gain state park status for a historic grist and mill, and they are creating new opportunities for visitors to gain hands-on understanding of California history.
Olivos Del Mar
Sample products from the Makela family’s Olivos Del Mar company.
Over the coastal range from Santa Ynez, near Refugio Canyon, is the Makela family spread. The Makelas trace their heritage back to the original Spanish settlers in Santa Barbara and acknowledge that, while planting avocados would probably be more profitable, they consider olives to be their family tradition and legacy. A sign hanging above the entrance to their offices reads, “100 years and 9 generations of Santa Barbara tradition in every product.”
The Makela family’s work blends historical preservation and innovation. Craig Makela, past president of the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation, led the planting of olive trees at the Old Missions in Santa Barbara and Santa Ynez. He also has helped plant olive trees to support the nonprofit mission of the Young America Foundation, which now operates the Ronald Reagan ranch, situated in Refugio Canyon in the mountains overlooking the Makelas’ olive ranch.
Aside from the “social entrepreneurship” of planting olive trees to help nonprofit organizations, though, the Makelas are energetic businesspeople. They recently received a patent for Oleavicin, a lip balm made from olive leaves.
Shannon Casey and John Copeland operate all aspects of their olive venture, Rancho Olivos, from planting the trees to selling the oil—and with it, a promise of a Californian lifestyle.
Their mission goes beyond earning money and includes protecting the environment. In planting their orchard, they were careful to plant around existing oak trees, even dead ones. They also see their work as connecting to their community’s history. Antique items are repurposed—for example, an old carriage that was once used for house calls by the country doctor of Los Olivos and is now a sign holder at their farm stand.
Los Olivos, in the Santa Ynez Valley in North Santa Barbara County, was once heavily planted with olive groves, but today there are only a handful of small operations, hoping to capitalize on the winery “agritourism” that has thrived in that region at least since the release of the movie Sideways. As a product, olive oil promises a whiff of the Mediterranean dolce vita that blends labor with leisure. Casey and Copeland are particularly proud of their oil infused with Meyer lemons. They live, work, and play at their olive ranch, and they sell visitors an entire California lifestyle with every bottle of olive oil.
The cemetery at Mission Santa Inés is shaded by historic Mission Olive trees.
Dan Flynn and Selina Wang in the Olive Center’s lab at UC Davis.
The grove at Rancho Olivos is planted around old oak trees.
Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt of Troy Jollimore’s essay ”Some Version of the Same River” from our Fall 2014 issue.
In September 2012, photographer Byron Wolfe backpacked into Deer Creek, in northern California, carrying a heavy load of photographic gear. Accompanying him were myself, my girlfriend Heather Altfeld, Dave Nopel, a local historian and naturalist, and Dave’s dog, Mindy. We were looking for a particular spot on the creek, where Ishi, the so-called “last wild Indian in America,” had spent much time before his emergence from the woods; the spot where he had been photographed in 1914 when, after three years of living in the Bay Area, Ishi was convinced to return by the anthropologists who had become his friends.
Alfred Kroeber, Saxton Pope, and the other scientists and academics who accompanied Ishi back to this spot in 1914 wanted pictures of him in his “natural” setting, doing the things he once did as a matter of daily life: fishing with a spear, hunting with a bow, making fire—an Indian in the wild, being a wild Indian, as it were.
Byron wanted to find the exact sites where the original photographs were taken, and take new, contemporary photographs of those places. This, as it turned out, was not easy, partly because the 1914 photographs did not contain a great deal of useful geographical information: they tended to fill up as much of the frame as they could with the figure of Ishi himself, so that very little of the background was included. The person or persons behind the camera showed little interest in drawing back to take a picture that set Ishi in the context of a larger landscape. This, as Byron pointed out, is both interesting and odd, given how arduous reaching the site was and how difficult it was to convince Ishi to undertake the trip in the first place. Why bother making such a difficult trip if you weren’t going to photograph the landscape too? The 1914 pictures could have been taken almost anywhere; there were surely sites on the UC Berkeley campus, within an easy walk of Ishi’s new home, that could have served as well.
Several of the 1914 photographs were published not long after Ishi’s death, in an article about his archery techniques. The author of that article, Saxton Pope, was a San Francisco doctor and archery enthusiast who provided Ishi with medical care, became his student in the art of bow hunting, and grew to be his close friend. Some of the pictures were also included in Theodora Kroeber’s popular account of Ishi’s life, Ishi in Two Worlds, first published in 1961. Run the name “Ishi” through an Internet search engine and immediately some of these photographs will come up: snapshots of Ishi dressed in a loincloth, swimming in the creek, or crouching before a boulder. (The loincloth was worn at the insistence of the anthropologists, who wanted the pictures to look authentically primitive or, rather, wanted Ishi to look authentically primitive in the pictures. During most of the trip, when Ishi was not being photographed, he was dressed in his Bay Area street clothes.)
After some searching, Byron managed to find the spots where the 1914 photographs had been taken. Although a century had passed, the larger rocks and many of the trees were still there. The water was still there, but the creek itself had moved and its banks were considerably lower, meaning that some of the rephotographs could not be taken from precisely the same place as the originals. As Rebecca Solnit has written, “you can’t make the same photograph twice, though you can return to some version of the same river”—a claim that turned out to be more or less literally true in this case.¹
Byron, however, had no desire to “make the same photograph twice.” Although he wanted to find the exact sites and retake the photographs at the same time of day, he also wanted his photographs to include the landscape that surrounded the original scenes, thus providing considerably more information than the original photographs had. (One of the resulting images is a very wide panorama of Deer Creek itself, into which Byron has inserted several 1914 images of Ishi fishing and swimming.) Byron was interested in showing what had changed in the decades that had intervened between the two acts of photography, and also in posing questions about the original photographers’ intentions and choices, what they thought they were gaining in choosing to make their pictures at these particular sites, whether and in what sense they took the results to be “authentic” portraits of Ishi’s pre-1911 life, and what they wanted people to find in, and take away from, the pictures they took.
Watching Byron work—as he searched for the precise original vantage from which a particular shot had been made, tried to get the camera angle precisely right, and waited for the sun to reach the appropriate point in the sky—got me thinking about patience and art, and about the relation between photography and time. A certain consciousness of time is deeply programmed into his artistic process. The right time of year, the right time of day, the right light, the right tone: all these things are necessary to the creation of the work, and they all come around again if you wait long enough. Perhaps thinking of time in this way is one way of getting a little closer to Ishi’s own worldview, since the tendency to see time as linear and progressive is largely an artifact of the industrialized West. Native Americans, and indigenous people in general, have often expressed conceptions of time in terms of repeating cycles rather than as continuous forward motion.
One of Ishi’s most precious possessions in his later years was a watch, which he wore regularly but did not keep wound. It didn’t seem to matter to Ishi, that is, that the watch told the correct time, that it was connected with temporal reality. He didn’t seem to care whether it fulfilled the function that we think of as the very reason for which a watch exists. For whatever reason—because it represented his new life in the modern world, because it was a gift from a friend, or simply because it was beautiful—he apparently liked having it on his wrist.
Returning to “some version of the same river” means one thing when the river is a river. It means something different, perhaps, when the subject of the original photographs was not a landscape but a person. It means something still different, and poignant, when that person is made to represent a supposed historical vanishing point, the narrow final tip of a long historical shadow cast by an entire people who are conceived to be disappearing.
All artwork by Byron Wolfe, digital inkjet prints, various sizes up to 120″ in length. Page 37: Traces of “Ishi drying a fire drill” in Deer Creek Canyon, May 1914 and September 2012; pages 38–39: Perched atop 15 million-year-old “Lovejoy Basalt”; Ishi, demonstrating how to hunt salmon in Deer Creek. Summer 1914 and Autumn 2012; page 41: “Ishi loved his bow as he loved nothing else in his possession.” – his friend, Saxton T. Pope, in an academic journal, 1918. September, 2012; page 43: Ishi’s storage cave, a site of conflict and hardship, isolated and unchanged for a century. September, 2011; page 45: After the shooting demonstration, only 100 meters from their camp, Autumn 2012 and Summer 1914. Inset photographs courtesy of the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology and the Regents of the University of California.
1 From Rebecca Solnit, from Klett, Solnit, and Wolfe, Yosemite in Time: Ice Ages, Tree Clocks, Ghost Rivers (San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 2005), p. 19.
“The word ‘nature’ is a notorious semantic and metaphysical trap.” —Leo Marx¹
Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt of Amy Scott’s essay”Twenty-First-Century Sublime” from our Fall 2014 issue.
On the Merced River, Albert Bierstadt. Courtesy of the California Historical Society.
Tension between the desire to experience nature in its unadulterated form and the urge to exploit it for material gain has long been at the center of landscape painting in the American West. This is especially true in California, where spectacular examples of both natural and built environments often exist in close temporal and geographic proximity. Here, you can begin your day on a remote stretch of the Pacific coast and within the hour be watching Chinese shipping containers unload in the Port of Los Angeles; you can take in the sunrise over suburban San Fernando Valley and the sunset in Yosemite National Park.
The connection between these places is as much about the conceptual as it is the geographical, however. Whereas nineteenth-century artists projected visions of the “Golden State” as a faraway place flush with natural resources, California’s landscape today is less exotic and more closely entwined with human industry. Yet far from rendering previous methods of depicting the landscape obsolete, contemporary artists are using historical practices and conventions to convey contemporary experience. The influence of the classic California landscape has not waned, but rather evolved.
Of the traditional methods for representing California’s natural environment, perhaps none has enjoyed more staying power than the sublime. This is due in part to the multivalent, flexible nature of the concept itself. The American sublime emerged in the late eighteenth century but underwent a significant transformation in response to the opening of western lands following the Civil War. What once represented a fear of the unknown became a more distinctly market-based interest in expansion. Shifting the mood of landscape art away from a solemn meditation on nature’s mystery to a more passive contemplation of its development potential, the New York–based painter Albert Bierstadt asked his audience not to fear the wilderness but to look hopefully toward a bicoastal future.²
Indeed, paintings such as On the Merced River rejected metaphysical interpretations of nature in favor of the rationalist logic of survey science (Bierstadt accompanied the Lander Survey to the Rocky Mountains in 1859) and thus encouraged a more tangible connection to the West as a place. This is reflected in Bierstadt’s work both in the easy visual access he provides to deep space as well as in his tightly painted foreground fauna, which caused critics to marvel.
As Bierstadt’s career suggests, the sublime is not a fixed concept but one that draws upon contemporary ideas of nature to respond to external changes—including developments in technology—that shape the ways in which we imagine both the natural and the built environment in relation to ourselves. An aesthetic formula designed to elicit an emotional response to an apparently natural vision, the sublime has been reconfigured in the postmodern era as a means of naturalizing the presence of technology within the contemporary landscape. Consider, for example, the aesthetic proximity between Bierstadt’s version of Yosemite and Michael Light’s large-scale photographs of San Pedro. The former is a preindustrial ideal, the latter a fully realized commercial setting dominated by the machinery of international shipping. Both evoke an ambitious sense of scale drawn from singular vantage points: Bierstadt’s oft-used magisterial view and Light’s aerial perspective; both use receding diagonals to create a sense of deep space and visual command; both are cleared of human presence, reinforcing the independent nature of the systems at work within them. Painted shortly after the close of the Civil War, Bierstadt’s On the Merced River anticipates California’s future as the gateway to Pan-Pacific commerce. Light’s San Pedro fully consummates that vision by the shipping containers stretching endlessly toward the horizon.
The technological continuum between Bierstadt’s Yosemite and Light’s San Pedro, between the Romantic era and today, is more than superficial. In Bierstadt’s painting, technology—though not visible—is implied throughout the composition. Survey science is there, in the carefully painted, highly detailed foreground topography. A sense of materialism and accumulation is there, too, in the vignette of natural wonders on display, especially the ample timber supplies represented by the forest. Although Bierstadt does not directly reference the coming industrial landscape, he nevertheless anticipates it. In its perfectly ordered scene of natural abundance, his On the MercedRiver speaks powerfully to nationalist expectations of postwar economic growth and progress.
Light’s San Pedro shares this sense of mastery over the natural world and a seemingly unshakeable faith in America as a geopolitical powerhouse. There is, however, a darker aspect to the fully realized technocratic state as depicted in Light’s work. In his San Pedro, one of several photographs of the Port of Los Angeles bound together in an oversize folio, a literal sea of commodities expands across the image, bleeding past its borders. Visually organized by its dense grid of intersecting lines, the photograph combines the realism of immense amounts of surface detail with the aerial, all-encompassing perspective of the map. Light requires not only a wide-angle lens but also a plane to produce these photographs (Light has had his pilot’s license since age sixteen)—images that elicit a sense of wonder in the face of a totalizing spectacle of technologic power, a “techno-euphoria,” as some scholars have called it.³
Rancho San Pedro 04.28.06: Evergreen Container Terminal Looking Southeast, Terminal Island; Exxon Mobil Facility At Left, Michael Light. Courtesy of the Autry National Center, Los Angeles.
Light’s visual embrace of heavy industry is intended to be both awesome and beautiful. Yet for all the dynamics of order and control that pervade his technocratic landscapes, they also resonate with an element of “terror at the power and progress of industrialization,”4 in which the scales threaten to tip from order to the chaos of industry run amok.5
Bridges, James Doolin. Courtesy of the Estate of James Doolin and Koplin Del Rio Gallery.
Mulholland Above Universal City, Los Angeles, California, Karen Halverson. Courtesy of the Autry National Center, Los Angeles.
1 Leo Marx, “The Idea of Nature in America,” Daedulus 137:2 (Spring 2008): 9.
2 The “transcendental sublime” was coined by Earl Powell in his essay “Luminism and the American Sublime,” in John Wilmerding, ed., American Light: The Luminist Movement, 1850–1875 (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1980), 69–94. See also Barbara Novak, Nature and Culture: American Landscape Painting, 1825–1875 (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1980, 1995, 2007).
3 See Rob Wilson, “Techno-Euphoria and the Discourse of the Sublime,” boundary 2 19:1 (Spring 1992): 208.
4 Ibid., 207.
5 For more on the idea of horror and the banal as related to Los Angeles, see Cécile Whiting, “The Sublime and the Banal in Postwar Photography of the American West,” American Art, 27:2 (Summer 2013): 51.