Editor’s Note: Michel Foucault (born Paul-Michel Foucault in 1926) was one of the central thinkers of the latter half of the twentieth century. Neither a traditional philosopher nor a trained historian, Foucault examined the intersection of truth and history through the specific historical dynamics of power.
In France, Foucault was a major figure in structuralist thinking of the 1960s and in the years that followed. However, in the United States, especially in popular culture, Foucault is often thought of as an inciter of the “French theory” movement that swept through American universities in the 1970s and 1980s. Often controversial, Foucault’s analyses of the uses of power in society, as well as his concerns with sexuality, bodies, and norms have been pivotal in the development of contemporary feminist and queer theory.
One early follower of Foucault’s thinking was Simeon Wade, assistant professor of history at Claremont Graduate School. A native of Texas, Wade moved to California in 1972 after earning his Ph.D. in the intellectual history of Western civilization from Harvard in 1970. In 1975, Foucault was invited to California to teach a seminar at the University of California, Berkeley. Following a lecture, Wade and his partner, musician Michael Stoneman, invited Foucault to accompany them on a road trip to Death Valley. After some persuasion, Foucault agreed. The memorable trip occurred two weeks later. This interview was conducted by Heather Dundas on 27 May 2017, and has been edited for length, clarity, and historical accuracy.
Foucault and Michael Stoneman in Death Valley.
Boom: What can you tell us about the above photo?
Simeon Wade: I snapped the above photo with my Leica camera, June 1975. The photograph features the Panamint Mountains, the salt flats of Death Valley, and the frozen dunes at Zabriskie Point. In the foreground, two figures: Michel Foucault, in the white turtleneck, his priestly attire, and Michael Stoneman, who was my life partner.
Boom: How did you end up in Death Valley with Michel Foucault?
Simeon Wade: I was performing an experiment. I wanted to see [how] one of the greatest minds in history would be affected by an experience he had never had before: imbibing a suitable dose of clinical LSD in a desert setting of great magnificence, and then adding to that various kinds of entertainment. We were in Death Valley for two days and one night. And this is one of the spots we visited during this trip.
Boom: What can you say about this photograph? Were Foucault and Stoneman already tripping when it was taken? And wasn’t it incredibly hot, Death Valley in June?
Wade: Yes. We rose to the occasion, as it were, in an area called Artist’s Palette. And yes, it was very hot. But in the evening, it cooled off, and you can see Foucault in his turtleneck in the cool air. We went to Zabriskie Point to see Venus appear. Michael placed speakers all around us, as no one else was there, and we listened to Elisabeth Schwarzkopf sing Richard Strauss’s, Four Last Songs. I saw tears in Foucault’s eyes. We went into one of the hollows and laid on our backs, like James Turrell’s volcano, and watched Venus come forth and the stars come out later. We stayed at Zabriskie Point for about ten hours. Michael also played Charles Ives’s, Three Places in New England, and Stockhausen’s Kontakte, along with some Chopin…. Foucault had a deep appreciation of music; one of his friends from college was Pierre Boulez.
Boom: That’s quite a playlist. But why LSD?
Wade: The revelation of St. John on the Isle of Patmos is said by some to have been inspired by the Amanita muscaria mushroom. LSD is a chemical equivalent to the hallucinogenic potency of these mushrooms. So many great inventions that made civilization possible took place in societies that used magic mushrooms in their religious rituals. So I thought, if this is true, if the chemical compound has such power, then what is this going to do to the great mind of Foucault?
Foucault and Michael Stoneman, Death Valley.
Boom: But why go so far for this experience? Why drive five hours from Claremont to Death Valley?
Wade: The major reason was that Michael and I had had so many wonderful trips in the desert. Death Valley, many times, and also Mojave, Joshua Tree. If you take clinical LSD and you’re in a place like Death Valley, you can hear harmonic progressions just like in Chopin; it is the most glorious music you’ve ever heard, and it teaches you that there’s more.
Boom: Until recently the very 1970s idea of, as you put it in your manuscript, a “magic elixir” to expand consciousness, was so out of fashion as to be ludicrous. But current research has called this quick dismissal of the psychedelic experience into question.
Wade: And about time! [During these trips] I saw the firmament as it truly is, in all of its glorious colors and forms, and I also heard the echoes from the big bang, which sounds like a chorus of angels, which is what the ancients thought it was.
Boom: So you wanted to give Foucault LSD so he could access this “glorious music”?
Wade: Not only that. It was 1975, of course, and The Order of Things had been published for nearly a decade (published in 1966 in French). The Order of Things treats man’s finitude, his inevitable death, as well as the death of humanity, arguing that the whole humanism of the renaissance is no longer viable. To the point of saying that the face of man has been effaced.
Boom: There’s the famous passage at the end of The Order of Things, postulating a world without the power structures of the Enlightenment: “If those arrangements were to disappear… then one can certainly wager that man would be erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea.”
Wade: I thought, if I give Foucault clinical LSD, I’m sure he will realize that he is premature in obliterating our humanity and the mind as we know it now, because he’ll see that there are forms of knowledge other than science, and because of the theme of death in his thinking up to that point. The tremendous emphasis of finitude, finitude, finitude reduces our hope.
Boom: So you took Foucault to Death Valley for a kind of rebirth, in a sense?
Wade: Exactly. It was a transcendental experience for Foucault. He wrote us a few months later that it was the greatest experience of his life, and that it profoundly changed his life and his work.
Foucault and Stoneman, Death Valley.
Boom: At the time of this trip, Foucault had just published the first volume of his projected six-volume work, History of Sexuality. He’d also published an outline of the rest of the work, and apparently already had finished writing several volumes of it. So when did this post-Death Valley change become evident in his work?
Wade: Immediately. He wrote us that he had thrown volumes two and three of his History of Sexuality into the fire and that he had to start all over again. Whether that was just a way of speaking, I don’t know, but he did destroy at least some version of them and then wrote them again before his premature death in 1984. The titles of these last two books are emblematic of the impact this experience had on him: The Uses of Pleasure and The Care of the Self, with no mention of finitude. Everything after this experience in 1975 is the new Foucault, neo-Foucault. Suddenly he was making statements that shocked the French intelligentsia.
Boom: Such as?
Wade: Statements more confidently out in the open, like that he finally realized who the real Columbus of politics was: Jeremy Bentham. Jeremy Bentham had been up to around this time a very respected figure, and Foucault had begun to find him an intellectual villain. And Foucault denies Marx and Engels, and says we should just look at Marx as an excellent journalist, not a theorist. And all of the things Foucault had been inching toward were bolstered after the Death Valley trip. Foucault from 1975 to 1984 was a new being.
Boom: You’ve mentioned that some people disagreed with your experiment and thought you were reckless with Foucault’s welfare.
Wade: Many academicians were very negative on this point, saying that this was tampering with a great person’s mind. I shouldn’t tamper with his mind. But Foucault was well aware of what was involved, and we were with him the entire time.
Boom: Did you think about the repercussions this experience would have on your career?
Boom: Was this a one-off experience? Did you ever see Foucault again?
Wade: Yes, Foucault visited us again. Shortly after his second visit, which was two weeks after this, where we stayed up in the mountains—it was a mountain experience.
Boom: Also with music and LSD?
Wade: No LSD, but everything else. After he left the second time, I sat down and wrote an account of the experience, called Death Valley Trip. It’s never been published. Foucault read it. We had a robust correspondence. And then we spent a fantastic time with him again in 1981, when he was at a conference at the University of Southern California.
Boom: Did you save Foucault’s letters?
Wade: Yes, about twenty of them. The last one was written in 1984. He asked if he could come live with us in Silverlake, as he was suffering from a terminal illness. I think he wanted to die like Huxley. I said yes, of course. Unfortunately, before he was ready to travel, the trap door of history caught him by surprise.
Simeon Wade and Foucault, Claremont, after the Death Valley experience.
The Editor wishes to thank Stuart Elden, Professor of Political Theory and Geography, Politics and International Studies, University of Warwick, and author of Foucault’s Last Decade and Foucault: The Birth of Power (Polity Press) for clarifying a number of factual matters in this interview. Thanks also to Jonathan Simon.
 Editor’s note: According to Stuart Elden, “Foucault was much closer to Jean Barraqué, with whom he had a friendship and for a while a relationship. Barraqué was another significant modernist composer and this may be who is meant [here]” (email correspondence, 29 August 2017).
 “…such as the Sumerians, who invented everything, including writing, and the Essenes, who invented Christianity.” Wade’s thinking aligns with John Allegro’s theories presented in The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross (London: Hodder & Stoughton, Ltd., 1970). Most scholars rejected Allegro’s book immediately. However, the book was reissued in 2008 with an addendum by Professor Carl Ruck of Boston University outlining the continuing mushroom controversy.
 Simeon Wade, Michel Foucault in Death Valley, unpublished manuscript.
 The recent explosion of research into LSD and its effects is too vast for this article to document, yet some notable publications include Robin L. Carhart-Harris et al., “Neural correlates of the LSD experience revealed by multimodal neuroimaging,” PNAS 113 (2016): 4853-4858; Stephen Ross et al., “Rapid and sustained symptom reduction following psilocybin treatment for anxiety and depression in patients with life-threatening cancer: a randomized controlled trial,” Journal of Psychopharmacology 30 (2016): 1165–1180; Felix Mueller et al., “Acute effects of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) on amygdala activity during processing of fearful stimuli in healthy subjects,” Translational Psychiatry (April 2017), http://www.nature.com/tp/journal/v7/n4/full/tp201754a.html?foxtrotcallback=true.
 Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (New York: Vintage Books, 1994), 387.
 Editor’s note: The actual published vols. 2 and 3 were written to an entirely different plan than the original one, and several years later with completely different material content. So the claim that he destroyed and then rewrote is contestable. Furthermore, the original plan for vol. 2 was a discussion of Christianity, which was rewritten and yet was also reconfigured later down the publishing pipeline to be vol. 4 of the project. According to Stuart Elden, this volume is projected for publication in French in 2018 by Gallimard.
 Foucault discusses the change in his thinking and writing in interviews conducted in 1984, at the very end of his life. See “The Ethics of the Concern for Self,” “An Aesthetics of Existence,” “The Concern for Truth,” and “The Return of Morality,” all reprinted in Foucault Live: Collected Interviews, 1961-1984 (Sylvère Lotringer, ed. Semiotext(e), 1989, 1996). Editor’s note: Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la prison was published February 1975 in French, and therefore with the Death Valley trip being June 1975 it is impossible for this later event to have influenced Foucault’s reading of Bentham, &c., as the critiques are laid out in Surveiller et punir, the English translation of which, under the title, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, was not published until 1977. The Editor wishes to thank Stuart Elden for clarification on this point.
 Simeon Wade left Claremont Graduate School in 1977. After adjunct teaching as an instructor of history and art history at several universities, he obtained a nursing license and spent the balance of his working life as a psychiatric R.N. at Los Angeles County Psychiatric Hospital and Psychiatric R.N. Supervisor at Ventura County Hospital.
 Michel Foucault died in Paris, 25 June 1984 at the age of 57. Simeon Wade and Michael Stoneman remained close until Stoneman’s death in 1998. Wade for many years lived in Oxnard, California, where he wrote and played the piano. Wade died 3 October 2017.
Heather Dundas is a candidate for the Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Southern California. Her website is www.heatherdundas.com.
Editor’s note: Having served as chair of the National Endowment for the Arts from 2003 to 2009, Dana Gioia has long been known for his provocative essays, for his work in literary criticism, and especially for his poetry and advocacy of the craft. A native Californian born to Sicilian and Mexican immigrant parents in 1950 and raised in the southwest Los Angeles County industrial town of Hawthorne, as a first-generation college student, Gioia earned his BA from Stanford, MA in comparative literature from Harvard, and MBA back at Stanford, leading him into the business world decades before becoming a full-time writer.
With a seemingly ever-growing emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education in contemporary K-12 learning and in universities, a natural tendency has been to dismiss the arts and humanities as less important. This is as true in California as anywhere. And yet, as big questions remain and loom ever larger for California and its people, so does the importance of the arts and humanities for learning, for critical thinking, and for engagement with wider societal concerns. Consistent with California’s rich literary tradition, Gioia has contributed in many ways, with California Poetry: From the Gold Rush to the Present (Heyday), The Misread City (Red Hen), his essay “Fallen Western Star,” and in poems from his many collections including Pity the Beautiful (Graywolf) and 99 Poems (Graywolf). Together with his essays, Gioia takes up the task of the poet, for whom California reserves a special place.
While the title of State Poet Laureate has been held by California poets for over a century, the position became official in 2001 and is overseen by the California Arts Council, which conducts an intense nomination process, after which the governor chooses the poet laureate from three top candidates; then the appointee must be confirmed by the California State Senate. On 4 December 2015, Governor Edmund G. Brown, Jr. appointed Dana Gioia to this role. What follows is Gioia’s accounting of his work as California Poet Laureate, originally delivered to the California Senate Rules Committee and here revised with new questions for our Boom readers.
You are California’s tenth poet laureate, serving a two-year governor-appointment. California has changed a lot over the years, as has the dynamic makeup of our state. What do you hope to accomplish in this role?
My goal as state poet laureate is to bring the power of poetry and literature to as many people and communities as possible across California. I especially want to reach people and places outside the major metropolitan areas. The state poet laureate should serve the whole state. For that reason, I have set the goal of visiting every county in California. Reaching all fifty-eight counties in two years perhaps may be too ambitious, but it seems the right target. With proper planning and the active partnership of county libraries and art councils, that goal should be achievable. I will give it my best effort.
What are your plans to reach diverse regions and people in the state?
I want to reach all California. Our state is so large and varied that one needs to be systematic in covering the vast territory and meeting the diverse populations. That is why I have chosen the approach of trying to visit as many counties as possible. Of course, it will also be necessary to do multiple events in the metropolitan areas to reach different audiences. This second goal is easier since so many invitations come from urban areas. The key is to focus on invitations that reach different communities.
Why is poetry significant, and why does it matter in today’s society?
Poetry is our most concise, expressive, and memorable way of using words to describe our existence. Poems awaken the imagination and memory to make us more alert to life. On both an individual and communal level, poems provide the language, ideas, and images to help us understand ourselves, our society, and the world. That is why poems are so often used to great effect at public occasions. They give people the words to articulate what they experience and feel. That is also why poetry has always been used in education. It not only develops a student’s mastery of language; it also enhances creativity, empathy, and emotional self-awareness.
One of the functions of the California Poet Laureate, as with the United States Poet Laureate, is to create a cultural project during the appointment. Could you briefly describe your cultural project? How has it come to and involved artistically underserved communities?
My project has been to participate in at least one cultural event in every county in California—with a focus on creating a free event at each county’s public library. This approach is necessarily simple and flexible, then, and the events are either primarily literary or combine several arts, including poetry. In both cases, I have and will continue to involve local students, writers, musicians, and artists in each visit. I have already had local Poetry Out Loud high school champions participate in my public presentations and will continue to do so. By trying to visit every county, my public service, by definition, focuses on underserved communities.
You teach in the university, but how does poetry become accessible rather than a mere academic pursuit for cultural elites?
I have spent most of my working life outside the university—in business, government, and journalism. I believe the pleasures and enlightenment of poetry are open to most people, not simply to an academic elite. Although I take myself seriously as an artist, I don’t see much point writing in ways that exclude the average intelligent person. Art without an audience is a diminished thing. This is one reason why I have been and plan to continue working with local civic institutions, especially libraries and art centers—local venues that are open to everyone. They are the best avenues to reach a broad and diverse audience. Mixing poetry with music and the other arts also makes events more accessible to the average person.
How do you see poetry connecting to the minds of individuals in leadership and innovation throughout California, in both public and private sectors?
I have been and will continue to be open to invitations to meet and speak with leaders in both the public and private sectors. I have both held and have scheduled several talks at statewide or regional gatherings for librarians and high school teachers, with one for county officials. I also believe that our state finals for Poetry Out Loud in the Capitol building allows our elected representatives a chance to see the transformative power of poetry programs in the lives of students in their districts.
Do you plan to collaborate with your predecessor, Juan Felipe Herrera, now the US Poet Laureate, or the State Librarian of California Greg Lucas, or any other government group
It is impossible for me to be an effective state poet laureate unless I collaborate with arts councils, libraries, schools, parks, museums, and city book festivals. As chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, I learned how much could be accomplished through partnerships. I consider myself a member of the State Arts Council team, and I involve them in everything I do. I am currently working with Greg Lucas to find an effective way of partnering with county libraries to help reach my goals. His support is essential to my success. As for the US Poet Laureate, I have also already done two public events—in Sacramento and Los Angeles—with Juan Felipe Herrera and have an invitation out to him for a third event in partnership with State Parks.
Who among our California poets do you believe have had the greatest influence in California?
California has an extraordinary poetic tradition. When I led an editorial team to create the anthology California Poetry: From the Gold Rush to the Present, I found it challenging to limit our selections to only 100 poets. If I had to pick a central poet for the state, I would choose Robinson Jeffers. His vision of California’s landscape and wilderness has inspired three generations of writers, artists, and environmentalists. There has also been a great bohemian tradition with writers such as Kenneth Rexroth, William Everson, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Charles Bukowski. I also admire the great Theodor Geisel of San Diego, better known as Dr. Seuss. Among my favorite living California poets are Al Young, Shirley Geok-lin Lim, Ron Koertge, Juan Felipe Herrera, and Kay Ryan. Pulitzer Prize and MacArthur Award winner Ryan, who also served as US Poet Laureate, is probably my favorite living American poet. A master of ingenious, short poems that mix wisdom and surprise, she is California’s answer to Emily Dickinson.
Dana Gioia is the ex-chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts and Poet Laureate of California. He received an MA in comparative literature from Harvard University and has published five full-length collections of poetry between 1986 and 2016.
University of California, Berkeley campus, viewed from the east circa 1874. Photograph courtesy of the Bancroft Library.
Editor’s note: In 1873 when California’s flagship public university moved to its present location, then part of Oakland Township, the edges of its campus were open to the ranchland surrounding it. The university profoundly shaped the city that incorporated as the Town of Berkeley five years after the campus arrived.
By contrast, the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA) was established in a dense urban neighborhood at a time of political turmoil and violence in 1969. The windowless facades of the museum complex appear designed for defensibility, facing downtown Oakland streets and Lake Merritt with walls of raw concrete.
It would be too simple to describe one campus as open and the other as closed. While urban form influences dynamics among institutions and their cities, it does not determine them, and both the university and the museum have a complex history of interactions with their settings. Now, both institutions are examining their connections to their publics and the relationships among their internal and external constituencies.
The Oakland Museum of California, known for its innovative programming in art, history, and natural history, has asked the university to help find ways to better integrate both physically and culturally with its city. As the process begins, the university is discovering that engaging in this conversation is helping highlight important questions about its own function in the urban East Bay and beyond.
In a course sponsored by the Global Urban Humanities Initiative, Landscape Architecture Professor Walter Hood will ask students to examine the museum and its neighborhoods in order to come up with proposals for change. Hood works on projects ranging from city-scale master plans to site plans to art installations and is known for his focus on the human element in design.
OMCA Executive Director Lori Fogarty says that addressing questions of art, economics, identity, gentrification, and environmental change requires approaches from multiple disciplines. “We hope that the Museum can serve as a new kind of town square or public plaza for Oakland, connecting our campus with Lake Merritt, the adjacent civic buildings, the BART station and the surrounding neighborhoods. Our work with Walter, with UC Berkeley, and with other partners involved with social practice and creative place-making inspires us to consider the Museum in a different way—and to, as Walter says, ‘dream big.’ Our city and our community need and deserve big dreams—and that requires that we all work together with boldness, courage, and imagination.”
University of California, Berkeley, Associate Vice Chancellor for the Arts and Design Shannon Jackson recently spoke with Walter Hood at his Oakland studio about how the arts and humanities and design can work together to illuminate urban experience.
Shannon Jackson: As an artist and designer, you have created award-winning landscape designs for many museums and cultural organizations (notably the de Young here in the Bay Area). How does this project compare to other museum projects? How does it compare to other landscape projects in the public realm?
Walter Hood: Looking back, I realize this never began as a “professional project.” There was never a call that specified a particular problem that wanted a particular solution. Mark Cavagnero’s [architecture] firm had just finished renovation of the galleries, so there was a sense that I might be on call to clean up the exterior spaces. But really, even if I was tasked with the “gardens,” it never began as [a contract to design a space].
Jackson: It seems like your conversations with OMCA also coincided with a moment when they had started to think more expansively about the identity and function of “the Museum.”
Hood: Exactly. And I really think that it was in that spirit that OMCA brought me on board. It wasn’t simply that I was the “landscape architect”; I was being brought in to explore the future of the museum. That was also a time when Rene de Guzman [senior curator of art] had just moved onto the staff. They were commissioning artists—local artists—to create text pieces and sound pieces that had this exploratory function for the museum as an institution.
Jackson: And you were there as a partner artist, but in a context where the “artist” has a different function. The artist isn’t brought in to make work to hang in a gallery or install in a garden, but you were brought in to help trigger new thoughts and behaviors about what a museum gallery or a museum garden might be.
Hood: Right, and the thing is, with bringing me in as an “artist,” I was also allowed to have a different kind of relationship to my own design practice. I wasn’t ever presented with a practical document that asked me to “fix something.” Instead, I could allow my own practice to be more speculative, to allow speculation to be part of my practice. This project is one where I was able to say: my firm is not “a landscape design” firm; we are an “art and design” firm that makes things in landscape.
Jackson: A big conceptual shift.
Hood: Huge. It wasn’t that we were presented with a problem to solve. Instead, we could use the Oakland Museum to propose a set of questions that we wanted to ask. It all unfolded from there. At each part of the process, we learned things; each step forced us to see things in a different way, which in turn produced new questions. For example, what happens when we go from thinking about “the gardens in the museum” to “the museum in the city?”
Jackson: The museum as an institution sited in a particular location.
Hood: Yes, and once we did that, we had to ask, why here? And why would the city’s residents come? Which in turn made us realize that in order to locate the museum in the city, we also had to find the city in the museum.
Jackson: You had to think about how this museum operates, presents itself, behaves internally and externally as a civic entity.
Hood: Yep, and if you’re going to get it to behave differently, what do you have to work with? So we looked at this hermetic box, the Brutalist energy of the museum’s architecture, and then we had to get to a point where we were breaking out of the box. We were never thinking, this is a bad museum, or this is a good museum. It was more like—what do we have? What can we work with?
Photograph of Shannon Jackson and Walter Hood by Lan Ly.
Jackson: And in answering that question, it seems like you expanded the “what,” expanded the circumference of what you decided you were “working with.” At one point, I remember you did a charrette with some of us on the concept of “a sculpture garden” for the exterior spaces, and you realized that this project wasn’t just a sculpture garden.
Hood: No, it couldn’t be. In fact, the circumference of the “garden” needs to change. I’ve had to start thinking about wider exteriors, larger parts of the city. And now we’re thinking about this whole area, this neighborhood, or district, around the museum, around Lake Merritt. What if we could think about this whole area as “a park?”
Jackson: As if this museum is actually inside a larger park within the city of Oakland. It’s as if it’s inside a park that we don’t quite see yet. In trying to find the city in the museum, you end up asking for the city to rethink itself as well.
Hood: And that’s what I mean about a speculative process. Every step of the way, there has been a new revelation. It’s about learning from each step and then redirecting the process as you learn. It happened with everything. We started to think about the accessibility of the ramps, which then made us think about how we could open up the museum bunker to the neighborhood, which then led us to think about our neighbors—Where is Laney College? Where is the BART? At another point, we opened a conversation with OMCA staff, each of whom brought their own idiosyncratic goals. For instance, some staff told me they wanted a “children’s garden.” OK, wow, what does that idea do? Let’s go down that road for a bit.
Jackson: Once your practice starts to have this propositional character, this “speculative” character, is it hard to return to the land of execution? Or is it easier once you have found a new way to reframe the project?
Hood: This is a thing I struggle with in my studio. How can you be efficient and still be speculative? It’s hard to find people who can work with this ambiguity and still be “practical” within the practice. I mean, there is still something you need to deliver at the end of the day. But right now, this double quality is what interests me most. Whether you call it social practice, or something else, I want to work with people who can tolerate ambiguity, who welcome ambiguity, but who can also be disciplined about the practice. It’s hard to create the context for that, but that is what I hope we can create with the studio and with the university.
Jackson: To some degree, you’re talking about a mix of practices and sensibilities that we are trying to create within the “urban humanities” at Berkeley, joining the humanities, arts, and environmental design. Some people think that certain humanities and conceptual art disciplines are better at the speculative, while others in design are better at execution and practice. But you seem to be trying to blow apart those stereotypes.
Hood: I need it all. This is why I did an MFA and what my work with [public art curator and critic] Mary Jane Jacobs was about. There was something I learned being in an art context that helped me thinking differently about the ideas, about how to communicate ideas in my work. You think about Kant, on the known and the unknown; how do you allow the known and the unknown to engage one another in your art practice?
Jackson: Kant was always one for asking, not what we know, but how we know. Or how we know what we think we know.
Hood: And that’s speculation. That’s what you have to be open to in a creative practice. You might think that you “know” the problem, that you know the limits of “reality” and what’s practical.
Jackson: But oddly enough, being open to the unknown might actually allow you to find a new conception of what’s practical.
Hood: Right. In fact, I’m working on a new book right now that draws from my old MFA thesis where I’m trying to describe this. [Walter begins drawing a horizontal line with points of demarcation.] So in a traditional design process, you think you’re supposed to go from here to there. Along this linear process, there are points in the road. You get the money; you deliver the concept; you do the fabrication; you do the installation. But the fact is that between any of these points, there are opportunistic moments where you can move away [Walter draws vertical lines], where you can allow for a speculative moment to take the project somewhere else. And you need to allow yourself to go there, while also knowing how you’re going to get back. But before you cross immediately into the next phase, you need to do that exploration; that’s a crucial point of bifurcation. You can take the project somewhere else as long as you know how to get back.
Jackson: So speculation isn’t the opposite of discipline.
Hood: You can only be speculative because you’re disciplined. I’m finding that a lot of people today—professionals, even some students—they have never actually done anything. Everything exists too much in an abstract context. I remember learning to sew when I was a kid. I remember being fascinated by the double stitch. And once I learned how to sew, I never asked my mother to mend my clothes again. Once you learn something, a skill, a practice, that kind of learning is applicable to lots of other things. I think another thing you learn is the time it takes to get something done. I remember learning the time it would take to hem something. I remember learning the time it would take to draw something. And even having that sense of time helps me feel comfortable taking time to speculate; it freed me to keep imagining.
Jackson: It frees you to imagine when you also know how to get something done. Walter, I just want to note that you have been articulating some of the core principles of creative pedagogy. You’re talking about how a creative practice taught you discipline, how it taught you self-reliance, and how it allowed you to join the act of thinking with the act of doing, joining ambiguity and practicality. And how it taught you time management. Just saying.
Hood: I’m blown away by that temporal investment. It happens in everything I do. I can imagine something new because I have confidence that I know how much time it takes to get stuff done.
Exterior of Oakland Museum of California, with yellow peace symbol and other art just over the wall. Photograph courtesy of OMCA.
Jackson: As someone who teaches and writes about artists who work in this larger field of “social practice” and socially engaged art, your impulse to expand the parameters of the art work are incredibly resonant. Some of the most interesting social practice projects are those that ask big questions about where the artwork ends and the social context begins. You’re pushing at those boundaries and scales at every step—moving from the garden to the museum to the district to the city to the park. It’s as if the local geography and the city space are functioning as a kind of artistic material.
Hood: And that’s the kind of practice we want to teach this fall. In the studio course that I’m creating for Berkeley, the OMCA project will be at the center. And the idea is to marry the arts and environmental design, through a strong social art and design framework. So again, what do we have to work with? [Walter starts to draw the district. He draws Lake Merritt, shaped as a heart in the center.] I always draw the lake as a heart. And so then you’ve got these regions all around it. I draw them like petals. You’ve got the business district; you’ve got the Lake Merritt district; the East Oakland Brooklyn Basin, and then you have the Waterfront and Estuary. As far as the arts and environmental design, then, we have four petals. I want to use the course to have the students decide what principles define the edge of the petals. What is in and out, and why?
Jackson: What’s an example of a possible principle?
Hood: Well, one really might have to do with climate, with sea level rise, and what it does to the ecologies within the petals. Depending upon whether you are lower or higher relative to the Bay, the whole ecology around you is changing. Where I live now, animals and birds wake me up every morning who never used to be around. Here at the office (in West Oakland) we’re starting to notice seagulls and crows, big black scavenger birds, coming here for the garbage and because the climate is changing. They’re part of a new food chain.
Jackson: So the studio course with Berkeley students will give them a concrete project that builds pragmatic skills and conceptual skills. It occurs to me that the OMCA project could have an effect on UC Berkeley that is similar to the one it has with the city of Oakland; it’s a chance for all these regional partners to ask ourselves “what do we have?” and “what can we work with?”
Hood: Yes, if I bring a Berkeley student to this district in Oakland, what does that mean? If I want students to see themselves as part of that community, what does that mean? For instance, if we spend one day of the class at the university, and one day physically in Oakland, how does that change the nature of the practice? How does that change our collective sense of space and of the region?
Jackson: And what might it be to create a “binding aesthetic” amongst the university and this district, or a “binding aesthetic” amongst the higher education sector, the museum sector, and the civic community?
Hood: So let’s figure out how we get that to happen philosophically and politically, as well as practically. I think we need to teach them ethnographic skills, both to reflect on themselves as well as the people they are meeting. To have them read Tally’s Corner [Elliot Liebow’s classic 1967 study of “Negro streetcorner men”] along with some of the newer urban ethnographies. I’m thinking of asking if we can have a studio space inside OMCA, or somewhere in this district. The students are used to collecting data and bringing it back to campus to model something in studio. What if we had a pedagogical space on site?
Jackson: Site-specific pedagogy. What are some of the other things that you’ll have the students do?
Hood: Well, my firm has already done some basic studies that we will give to them, about the metrics, size, and capacities of different places in the petals. We want to get the students to look around and ask, why do people want to be here? What is the lynchpin that is getting them to want to be there? If you take the time, really spend a full amount of time in a space, you’ll start to realize what’s happening. There’s this ledge in the Business District of Oakland around Seventeenth Street that attracts the most amazingly diverse group of people. It’s this ledge that people lean on because of what they get to see there—from this certain spot, you can see into other businesses, you can see into a second floor of another building where people can see you. It’s this beautiful little section of the city where the architecture and the sociology are intersecting, and you see all of these beautiful relationships.
Jackson: So the social is getting explored as much as the spatial.
Hood: And there are other spaces. Like this housing tower that surrounds a courtyard, and that courtyard has this fountain where you see such an amazing multigenerational assembly and different ethnicities. We have to think about how people are defining their spaces, and building relationships within those spaces.
Jackson: There are some clear points of connection to the humanities in those ideas. First, there is a “discursive” connection, how do we consciously or unconsciously name and define our world. And then there is “relational” element, about how design reflects or transforms the social relationships amongst humans and other living beings.
Hood: On the first one, I’ve been thinking about a difference between conscious hybrids and unconscious hybrids. We have conscious ways of defining a hybrid experience. The “street” is a conscious hybrid. The “park” is a conscious hybrid.
Jackson: Just to rephrase to be sure I understand. These are conscious—socially acceptable, normalized ways of defining spaces where we have “hybrid” experiences of difference, of diversity. The street, the park.
Hood: Right, so where might be the “unconscious” hybrids? First of all, is the idea of “The Park” still valid? And then, might there be different ways of naming other spaces where we experience hybridity? Unconscious hybrids are more fertile, because they are attempting to create new meanings, new words. How do you feel? How do you react to something? Can we understand nascent or latent ecologies?
Aerial view of Oakland Museum of California. Photograph provided by OMCA.
Jackson: So-called natural and so-called social systems have their own way of assembling, so are we arriving at new experiences of that hybridity unconsciously?
Hood: Exactly. So how do we name that? And what are the principles for defining it? What was your second humanities connection?
Jackson: The relational element, the social element. Which frankly is also an art element.
Hood: Got it. In my practice at Hood Design, I always want to think about the social element, the humanist element—of the neighborhood, the museum, of the university. I’m interested in people, and Berkeley is a place that should be designing for people.
Jackson: That theme appears in so many conversations I have about Berkeley’s role in the future of arts and design education. Everyone is reminding me that Berkeley’s focus on people and publics distinguishes it from other places where creativity is more privatized, a less socially responsive endeavor.
Hood: It’s absolutely the case. I see it all the time in every thing we do, everything our students do. It’s how we are wired. It’s in the DNA of Berkeley. And I have to say it annoys me when people introduce me at other universities or design events, and they will usually say something like: “Walter is interested in people.” Why is it unusual for Walter to be interested in people? Shouldn’t all designers be interested in people? It’s a kind of marginalization. As if, because I’m dealing with people, I must not be doing design. That’s the beauty of moving into an artistic context, because I find more people are empowered there to make a humanist discovery. You know, in an art context and in a humanities context, difference is a good thing. Difference generates new thinking.
Jackson: That’s hybridity.
Hood: Of course, but in a design context, people often think difference is a problem, something you have to get past or get over. If you bring in different people, we all start to see things that we hadn’t seen before. To me, that is the exciting thing; that’s what design should be about. Difference reveals a new unknown. If you know what it is going to be before you start, why do it?
Jackson: And that gives you a new sense of what might be possible. You know, throughout this conversation, you have been challenging assumptions that many hold, the notion that the designers are the practical and functional people and that artists are the impractical people.
Hood: It’s the opposite to a certain degree.
Jackson: I wonder too about the humanities, about the impulse to think historically and philosophically about design, about the practicality of that exercise.
Hood: You know, being an African American male, I had to find a way to find myself in art. I needed a tangible way to be part of the conversation. And I feel that I really got that at Berkeley; when I was a student, I heard Spiro Kostov talking about history and architecture. He talked about Mussolini, and the “Third Rome,” and about Mussolini creating his own narrative through buildings, that there were ideas in buildings. OK, it’s not that I agreed with Mussolini, but I just had never heard anyone talk like that, this notion that ideas could be reinforced in space. I learned about Modernism, about what people thought could be done, politically and socially, through architecture. I thought, wow, these people were optimistic! So weirdly enough, I felt that the tenets of Modernism actually included me. And I read Dell Upton on the shotgun houses and the diaspora from Haiti. I learned that you are in conversation with a context, whether you like it or not.
Jackson: “You are in conversation with a context whether you like it or not.” Let’s remind ourselves that that happens to be a fundamental lesson of the humanities.
Hood: Yeah, so for me, the humanities element is welcome, because a different kind of agency becomes available to you. It’s a different kind of information that comes to you. It allows for a bifurcation in the process actually. The ideas aren’t accessories. They can change the process, and you have to be ready for that conversation.
Jackson: Maybe we can close by returning to this partnership between UC Berkeley and OMCA, between a museum and public higher education. It is a really interesting moment right now, because we see the education sector thinking about how to cultivate creativity, while we simultaneously see the museum sector influenced by the so-called “educational turn.” Institutions like Berkeley are rethinking pedagogy just as museums are trying to be pedagogical. It seems like we have an opportunity here for mutual, reciprocal transformation.
Hood: Museums have had to redefine themselves; they have had to become new transformative institutions. They realize that they have to serve this civic function out of need, because we have lost so many other public institutions. I think about the loss of the community organizations that were part of my life. I spent my summers in the arts clubs of the Scudder Public Housing project in New Jersey. It might not have been great housing, but every morning, we got up and went to the community center, and I made a bunch of bad clay bowls, painted, and did ceramics.
I can’t imagine where I’d be if it weren’t for publicly funded summer art programs. And let’s face it, all those programs are gone. We had them in Oakland, and so many of them are gone. So museums have opened themselves up to artists and the community to help the museum learn to be more collaborative, to be partners, to be neighbors, to pick up the slack where our public institutions have been dismantled. And they bring an artistic practice into what used to be a static context. Most museums would rather be part of an active process; they need to be dynamic—and pedagogical—in order to stay relevant.
Aerial view of attendees gathered for an event at the entrance to the Oakland Museum of California. Photograph provided by OMCA.
Walter Hood is professor of landscape architecture and environmental planning, and urban design at University of California, Berkeley. He is principal of Hood Design, a cultural practice based in Oakland.
Shannon Jackson is professor of rhetoric and theater, dance, and performance studies at University of California, where she is also associate vice chancellor for the Arts and Design and director of the Arts Research Center.
Editor’s note: Narrator of the desires that gave California rise and the experiences of countless Californians, Kevin Starr has written the most comprehensive account of the place. A native son and fourth-generation San Franciscan, he chronicled the dream while living it. His California Dream series tells the story of the American state’s rapid, monstrous growth, along with its struggles, dips, and dodges from moments that could have snuffed out the dream and utterly snubbed the dreamers. Reckoned by some as tending more to tales of optimism and swashbuckling heroism amidst the troubles—in true glass-half-full California style—both Starr’s personal and literary approach to California are actually much more variegated and complex. Between writing the first and second volumes of a new series some call his magnum opus—the first volume titled Continental Ambitions: Roman Catholics in North America: The Colonial Experience—Boom editor Jason Sexton recently managed to catch up with Starr. In this interview, we see the personal side of this historian—addressing religion, values, and matters of public concern—including his wide-reaching polymathic abilities that enable his unique kind of magisterial interpretation of the golden state. With ongoing reflections on the place—its past, present, and future—here we see Starr chronicling his own place in California’s ongoing saga, living even more meaningfully into the reality of the dream. This interview was conducted by Jason S. Sexton.
If you had to choose, what are three values that matter most to earlier shapers of California?
I frequently use the phrase “a better life for ordinary people.” That, I think, sums up the top three values motivating migration to California: life, the improvement of life, the ability of ordinary people to achieve such improvement for themselves. That is the theme of most of my volumes, or at the least, the background to those volumes, since I frequently concentrate on extraordinary people coming to California as well.
What do you think are the biggest threats to those values today?
The growing divide between the very wealthy and the very poor, as well as the waning of the middle class, as expressed geographically in California by the global wealth of the coast from San Diego County to Marin County and the rapid socioeconomic falloff evident in certain interior regions.
How have your views of California changed over the years?
As I grew older and a little wiser, I became more connected to what the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno describes as “the tragic sense of life.” My first volume is only tangentially connected to this tragic sense of life, while the volume dealing with recent California, Coast of Dreams, seems almost obsessed with it. That is because the present is exactly that: present to us in all of its complexity.
What is the main goal of the historian? And how do you see your work fitting together with the other guild of California historians?
It is the task of the narrative historian such as myself to assemble a narrative of what Ralph Waldo Emerson calls Representative Men and Women, and to place such figures in the context of their times, and thereby create a pointillist-realist probe into the past.
You never went through the tenure track route in academia, opting for an entirely different track altogether. Was this a good move? Do you have any regrets about it?
I am very proud of my diverse services as an Army officer, a senior tutor at Harvard, a librarian/civil servant, a newspaper columnist, a magazine contributor, a communications consultant, and the writer of a number of histories. As Paul Anka wrote for Frank Sinatra, “I did it my way,” thanks to the support of my wife Sheila and my commitment to the education of my children and grandchildren.
People have called you a booster and an optimist, classically juxtaposed to Mike Davis,1 but my first intro was reading how you accounted for my own story. So I checked for your handling of Tracy, I checked for the homeboys and the matter of mass incarceration—and you had it! And it was troubling. You told things as if you were there, but you managed to not completely fall into the noir California. You kept things sunny. What would really make you despair for California?
As far as I’m concerned, despair is one of the Seven Deadly Sins. Given the ordeal of the world in general, Californians would be grossly self-indulgent to afford themselves the dubious pleasures of noir instead of committing themselves to what Josiah Royce and Carey McWilliams describe as the struggle for corrective action.
Californians have serious amnesia. What do you hope to accomplish with drawing from the deepest visions of this place, even back to the conquest?
As a graduate student at Harvard supported by a Danforth Fellowship, I had the opportunity to read somewhat extensively in the history and literature of the United States and, thereby, to come to the conclusion that a fusion of forgetting and remembering, amnesia and obsession with the past, is characteristic of our entire American civilization and not just California.
On the Boom board, we have a number of figures committed to efforts to revive nativism, what about the Native Indians here is critical to sketching California’s future?
One of the pleasures of my decade of service as State Librarian for California was the opportunity to get to know the various components of Native American California and to respect the complex cultural consciousness of these First Californians, from whom we continue to learn to this day. If you want to find an example of Unamuno’s tragic sense of life, just look at the way we treated those Native Americans in the nineteenth century: which is the theme of Helen Hunt Jackson’s great book, Century of Dishonor.
What is a Californian, and can you describe the character traits of a good Californian?
I have always approached the history of California as part of the history of these United States. I, therefore, resonate with the remark of my friend the late Wallace Stegner that California is like the rest of America, only more so. I grew up in California, a fourth-generation Californian; but I discovered California as the theme for history as a graduate student at Harvard, which meant that I perceived this history from a national and comparative perspective. Lately, my thinking has taken a comparable Asia/Pacific and Latin American direction.
You used to sign your books saying that the best Californians are those who choose to come here. Is this still true?
I still adhere to that belief. After all, I was born in 1940, when California had slightly less than seven million people. Today, that figure has become something like forty million and counting. I was born into one of the states of the American Union. By the time I was in my sixties, I was living in a nation-state of global significance. Today we are all living in a nation-state that is the sixth largest economy on the planet. Talented and hard-working people from around the globe have come to California to make this happen.
I recall asking you in 2013 why you didn’t write historical theology. This book—Continental Ambitions—where did it come from?
In Continental Ambitions: Roman Catholics in North America, the Colonial Experience, I employ the same narrative technique that I use in my Americans and the California Dream series: a blend, that is, of the nineteenth-century American historians, Vernon Parrington, Van Wyck Brooks, Perry Miller, and Alan Heimert, under whom I did my doctorate at Harvard. I would describe this technique as pointillist-realist narrative, animated by an underlying and continuing dialectic that only rarely surfaces in an explicit manner.
Does the conquest sweep in the same way that California’s modern history does? Has California been a microcosm of the US even in the earliest images?
The long history of California—Native American, Hispanic, American, global—simultaneously shows discontinuities of growth and development and continuities of continuing aspiration. Certain basic paradigms continue: land and water, for example, continuing through the mining era, the agricultural era, the era of urbanization through dams, aqueducts and reservoirs; or the interaction of nature and technology; or a pursuit of pure science anchored in nineteenth-century astronomy. I am not suggesting cause and effect here but, rather, paradigms that repeat themselves.
What role do churches play in the California drama, in the past and today?
As is the case with the rest of America, religion—as a matter of imaginative and moral formation, language and metaphor, and guide to the good life—has played a most important part in the development of American California. Until very recently, we must remember, Unitarian minister Thomas Starr King and Catholic Franciscan missionary Junipero Serra represented California in the National Statuary Hall in our nation’s capital.
And how did the reformation, coming on its five-hundredth anniversary, help shape any of this vision?
Protestantism dominated the colonial era, the early republic, the nineteenth century, and the first two-thirds of the twentieth century. Whatever one’s religious traditions may or may not be, this Protestant matrix goes a long way in helping us to understand our national culture—hence, the importance of the Reformation and Protestantism in the formation and emergence of our national character.
You’ve written that California grew up innovatively as both a religious and secular state, which my students are always surprised to hear. And your work famously revised Hubert Howe Bancroft. But do you think the religious and secular can continue to work together? Or does the runaway tendency of secularism prove nonconducive for the flourishing of all groups here?
I do not accept this disjunction between religion and the world, or the world and religion, in the American experience. The first 150 years of American California showed a strong presence of organized religion as a social and cultural catalyst. Thanks to our separation of church and state, we Americans remain capable of rendering to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s. These days, the great religions of the world have brought to America and to California their transformative insights. As a force, religion remains in the private sector, but as Mark Twain said of the mistaken newspaper reference to his passing, the reports of the demise of religion as a force in American life have been highly exaggerated.
What role does faith play in your work and writing, both earlier and now? And how would you describe your relationship to the Church?
As far as my relationship to the Roman Catholic Church is concerned, I am proud to be a member in reasonably good standing of this 2,000-year-old faith community. I share this distinction with 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide. As James Joyce said of the Catholic Church: here comes everybody!
Will you ever write your own memoir? Especially your own “becoming Kevin Starr” years from your early professional life, along with the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s? Some have identified the novel Land’s End as filling this role. Is this true?
I don’t think I would ever write a memoir. In a very real way, my books constitute a kind of memoir or at the least some form of documentation of my inner landscape. I’m not one for much introspection. I prefer to define myself through family, friends, community, and the act of writing. I do, however, plan to augment Land’s End, expanding it to a full narrative of the life and death of Sebastian Collins, who constitutes the closest I’ve ever come to an alter ego.
Catholic social teaching informs a lot of Jerry Brown’s rationale for big decisions he’s making in Sacramento; how does it inform your own work?
As you suggest, Governor Brown has successfully internalized Catholic social thinking. Like Governor Brown and thousands of others coming of age in Catholic San Francisco, I absorbed this tradition as well. In later life, I had the pleasure of discovering Monsignor John Ryan’s classic The Living Wage, which further solidified my thinking in this area. I have also been influenced by John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, emphasizing fairness. As a graduate student, I had the honor of being a member of the Leverett House Senior Common Room at Harvard when Professor Rawls was writing this magisterial book. Other influences on my social thinking—especially relevant to public service—have been the Analects of Confucius, Cicero’s De Officiis, Machiavelli’s The Prince, and Lord Peter Hennessy’s recent Whitehall.
What do you make of Pope Francis?
During my lifetime, Pius XII, John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis have served as popes. Each of these men was remarkable in differing and shared ways. Two of these popes—John XXIII and John Paul II—have been raised to the altar as saints. John Paul II was an eminent philosopher, with an ability to project himself as an ecclesiastical rock star. Pope Benedict XVI continues his work as one of the leading Catholic theologians of our recent era. Pope Francis shares many traits with his predecessors, to include a capacity for off-the-cuff commentary in common with John Paul I. Like John XXIII, Francis projects warmth, accessibility, love and friendship. Like John Paul II, he is a tireless traveler. The images that come to mind when I think of Pope Francis are the photographs of him embracing the truly afflicted. As pope, Francis has de-imperialized the papacy.
What are the movements in California that you find most hopeful, either for the future of California or else for the future of the US and the world?
I ride DASH to the USC campus on the days I teach. The movement I love the most is the movement of the DASH bus filled with human beings of every age and occupation from every corner of the earth riding to their day’s work.
Kevin Starr (1940-2017) was for many years a California historian and a professor at the University of Southern California. He received a Ph.D. in English and American literature at Harvard University and published such works as the multivolume series Americans and the California Dream.
Editor’s Note: Chronicler of the California dark side and LA’s underbelly, proclaiming a troubling, menacing reality beneath the bright and sunny facade, Mike Davis is one of California’s most significant contemporary writers. His most controversial books led critics to label him anything from a left-wing lunatic to a prophet of gloom and peddler of the pornography of despair. Yet much of his personal story and evolution are intimately touched by his experience and close reading of deeply California realities: life as part of the working class, the struggle for better working conditions, and a genuine connection to the difficulties here. His most well-known books, City of Quartz and Ecology of Fear are unsparing in their assessments of those difficulties.
Remaining a central figure of a discipline at the intersection of geography, sociology, and architecture known as the Los Angeles School of Urbanism, Davis is now in retirement from the Department of Creative Writing at UC Riverside. Earlier this summer, he invited architectural educator and director of UCLA’s cityLAB Dana Cuff and dean of UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design Jennifer Wolch into his San Diego home to discuss his career, his writings, and his erstwhile and ongoing efforts to understand Los Angeles.
Dana Cuff: You told us that you get asked about City of Quartz too often, so let’s take a different tack. As one of California’s great urban storytellers, what is missing from our understanding of Los Angeles?
Mike Davis: The economic logic of real estate and land development. This has always been the master key to understanding spatial and racial politics in Southern California. As the late-nineteenth century’s most influential radical thinker—I’m thinking of San Francisco’s Henry George not Karl Marx—explained rather magnificently, you cannot reform urban space without controlling land values. Zoning and city planning—the Progressive tools for creating the City Beautiful—either have been totally co-opted to serve the market or died the death of a thousand cuts, that is to say by variances. I was briefly an urban design commissioner in Pasadena in the mid-1990s and saw how easily state-of-the-art design standards and community plans were pushed aside by campaign contributors and big developers.
If you don’t intervene in the operation of land markets, you’ll usually end up producing the opposite result from what you intended. Over time, for instance, improvements in urban public space raise home values and tend to become amenity subsidies for wealthier people. In dynamic land markets and central locations, nonprofits can’t afford to buy land for low-income housing. Struggling artists and hipsters inadvertently become the shock troops of gentrification and soon can’t afford to live in the neighborhoods and warehouse districts they invigorated. Affordable housing and jobs move inexorably further apart and the inner-city crisis ends up in places like San Bernardino.
If you concede that the stabilization of land values is the precondition for long-term democratic planning, there are two major nonrevolutionary solutions. George’s was the most straightforward: execute land monopolists and profiteers with a single tax of 100 percent on increases in unimproved land values. The other alternative is not as radical but has been successfully implemented in other advanced capitalist countries: municipalize strategic parts of the land inventory for affordable housing, parks and form-giving greenbelts.
The use of eminent domain for redevelopment, we should recall, was originally intended to transform privately owned slums into publicly owned housing. At the end of the Second World War, when progressives were a majority in city government, Los Angeles adopted truly visionary plans for both public housing and rational suburban growth. What then happened is well known: a municipal counter-revolution engineered by the LA Times. As a result, local governments continued to use eminent domain but mainly to transfer land from small owners to corporations and banks.
Fast-forward to the 1980s. A new opportunity emerged. Downtown redevelopment was devouring hundreds of millions of dollars of diverted taxes, but its future was bleak. A few years before, Reyner Banham had proclaimed that Downtown was dead or at least irrelevant. If the Bradley administration had had the will, it could have municipalized the Spring-Main Street corridor at rock-bottom market prices. Perhaps ten million square feet would have become available for family apartments, immigrant small businesses, public markets, and the like, at permanently controlled affordable rents.
I once asked Kurt Meyer, a corporate architect who had been chairman of the Community Redevelopment Agency, about this. He lived up Beachwood Canyon below the Hollywood Sign. We used to meet for breakfast because he enjoyed yarning about power and property in LA, and this made him a unique source for my research at the time. He told me that downtown elites were horrified by the unexpected revitalization of the Broadway corridor by Mexican businesses and shoppers, and the last thing they wanted was a populist downtown.
He also answered a question that long vexed me. “Kurt, why this desperate, all-consuming priority to have the middle class live downtown?” “Mike, do you know anything about leasing space in high-rise buildings?” “Not really.” “Well, the hardest part to rent is the ground floor: to extract the highest value, you need a resident population. You can’t just have office workers going for breakfast and lunch; you need night time, twenty-four hour traffic.” I don’t know whether this was really an adequate explanation but it certainly convinced me that planners and activists need a much deeper understanding of the game.
In the event, the middle class has finally come downtown but only to bring suburbia with them. The hipsters think they’re living in the real thing, but this is purely faux urbanism, a residential mall. Downtown is not the heart of the city, it’s a luxury lifestyle pod for the same people who claim Silverlake is the “Eastside” or that Venice is still bohemian.
Cuff: Why do you call it suburbia?
Davis: Because the return to the center expresses the desire for urban space and crowds without allowing democratic variety or equal access. It’s fool’s gold, and gentrification has taken the place of urban renewal in displacing the poor. Take Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris’s pioneering study of the privatization of space on the top of Bunker Hill. Of course, your museum patron or condo resident feels at home, but if you’re a Salvadorian skateboarder, man, you’re probably headed to Juvenile Hall.
Dingbat in rear next to fenced-in modern complex.
Cuff: Would you include architecture in your thinking about real estate? Weren’t you teaching a course about this at SCI-Arc [Southern California Institute of Architecture] some years back?
Davis: When I was first hired at SCI-Arc in 1988, I confessed to Michael Rotondi [then Director] that I knew nothing about architecture. He replied: “Don’t worry, we do. Your job is to teach LA. Get the students out into the city.” It was a wonderful assignment and over the course of a decade, I participated in a number of remarkable studios and site studies, working with the likes of Michael Sorkin, Joe Day, Anthony Fontenot, and other radical architects.
My own vanity project was demonstrating the feasibility of a community design studio that addressed the problems of older neighborhoods and suburbs. With the support of a leading activist in the Central American community, Roberto Lovato, now a well-known journalist, we focused on the Westlake [MacArthur Park] district just west of Downtown.
I knew the area fairly well, since in the late 1960s I had lived there while briefly managing the Communist Party’s bookstore on Seventh Street, oddly near the FBI’s old office building on Wilshire. This was right after the final evictions from Bunker Hill and most of its residents had been dumped in tenements near MacArthur Park. Walking to the bookstore I several times encountered the bodies of these elderly poor people on the sidewalk—who knew what dreams had brought them to LA in the 1910s and 1920s?
We finally settled on studying Witmer Street, between Third and Wilshire, because it had an almost complete declension of multifamily building types: a single-family home from the 1890s, a bungalow court from the 1920s, dingbats from 1960, even an old masonry apartment building that was used as a set for Hill Street Blues.
Students divided up into teams, training themselves as building and fire inspectors, and we took the neighborhood apart molecule-by-molecule over two semesters. One group studied fire safety issues and other hazards such as unprotected roofs where small children played. We looked at the needs of home workers, seamstresses and auto mechanics; studied problems of garbage collection; looked at issues involving gang rivalries and elderly winos. With Lovato’s support, we got inside apartments—typically studios for three to five people—and analyzed how families organized their tiny spaces. We researched who owned the buildings, calculated their rental profitability, even visited and photographed the homes of the Downtown slumlords who were living in Beverly Hills and Newport Beach.
The only form of housing that was generally popular, where the tenants had been there for a long time—everybody else was in and out—was the one courtyard apartment complex, with its little gardens and a fountain. The most despised were not the older 1920s tenement fire traps but the dingbats—low-rise six- to twelve-unit apartment buildings with tuck-under parking, built in the fifties and sixties on single family lots. They were designed to become blight in a few decades and constitute a major problem everywhere in Southern California. The other multi-unit types were still durable but it was hard to imagine any alternative for the stucco rubble other than to tear it down—which in fact developers have done, only to replace the dingbats with four- and five-story “super-cubes” that are just larger versions of the same problems.
Our goal was to bring all our findings together in a kind of Whole Earth Catalog set up as a website, and then invite everybody in the world to write and contribute ideas around generic issues of working-class neighborhoods like trash, play, working, graffiti, gangs, social space, parking, and so on. Our point was not to create a miniature master plan but to build up an arsenal of practical design solutions based on careful, realistic analysis that could help residents frame demands of landlords and the city. We imagined collaborations of architects, artists and artisans, acting as toolmakers for community self-design and activism. I still believe in the idea but my own tenure at SCI-Arc ended when our merry prankster and guiding light, Michael Rotondi, left.
Cuff: The idea of toolmaking instead of master planning is useful. A group of urban humanities students at UCLA focused on Boyle Heights, which, like Westlake, is experiencing development pressure. The tools that the community partners asked for were pretty straightforward, like a manual about how to turn abandoned spaces into parks. It was an interesting conversation with the humanities, architecture, and planning students about their own agency. Could you not deliver what they wanted and still be a socially responsible partner with community groups? The discussion was interesting because the agency of the students came into play, from architecture students who are ready to do something even if they don’t have much information, to the humanities students who are reluctant to act since they feel like they don’t know enough or have the right to intervene.
Davis: That kind of conscience might be good for some of the senior architects in LA who regard the city as a free-fire zone for whatever vanity they happen to come up with, regardless of urban context or history. In City of Quartz, I criticized Frank Gehry for his stealth designs and over-concern with security. It really pissed him off, because he comes from a social-democratic background and hated my tongue-in-cheek depiction of him as architecture’s “Dirty Harry.”
One day, a few years later, he called me in to see him. “Okay, big shot, look at this.” And he showed me the latest iteration of his Disney Concert Hall design, which had park space wrapped around its non-Euclidean perimeter. “You criticized me for antidemocratic designs, but what is this?” And of course, it was clever integration of the elitist concert hall with space for local kids to play and homeless people to relax. It invited rather than excluded residents from the poor Latino neighborhoods like Witmer Street that surround Downtown. This was more or less unprecedented, and he had to wage a long battle with the county who wanted the Disney fenced and off-limits. In this instance at least, celebrity architecture fought the good fight.
Jennifer Wolch: Absolutely. However it’s an important question particularly for the humanities students, the issue of subjectivity makes them reticent to make proposals.
Davis: But, they have skills. Narrative is an important part of creating communities. People’s stories are key, especially about their routines. It seems to me that there are important social science skills, but the humanities are important particularly because of stories. I also think a choreographer would be a great analyst of space and kind of an imagineer for using space.
I had a long talk with Richard Louv one day about his Last Child in the Woods, one of the most profound books of our time, a meditation on what it means for kids to lose contact with nature, with free nomadic unorganized play and adventure. A generation of mothers consigned to be fulltime chauffeurs, ferrying kids from one commercial distraction or over-organized play date to another. I grew up in eastern San Diego County, on the very edge of the back country, and once you did your chores (a serious business in those days), you could hop on your bike and set off like Huck Finn. There was a nudist colony in Harbison Canyon about twelve miles away, and we’d take our bikes, push them uphill for hours and hours in the hope of peeking through the fence. Like all my friends, I got a .22 (rifle) when I turned twelve. We did bad things to animals, I must confess, but we were free spirits, hated school, didn’t worry about grades, kept our parents off our backs with part-time jobs and yard work, and relished each crazy adventure and misdemeanor. Since I moved back to San Diego in 2002, I have annual reunions with the five or six guys I’ve known since second grade in 1953. Despite huge differences in political beliefs and religion, we’re still the same old gang.
And gangs were what kept you safe and why mothers didn’t have to worry about play dates or child molesters. I remember even in kindergarten—we lived in the City Heights area of San Diego at that time—we had a gang that walked to school together and played every afternoon. Just this wild group of little boys and girls, seven or eight of us, roaming around, begging pennies to buy gum at the corner store. Today the idea of unsupervised gangs of children or teenagers sounds like a law-and-order problem. But it’s how communities used to work and might still work. Aside from Louv, I warmly recommend The Child in the City by the English anarchist Colin Ward. A chief purpose of architecture, he argues, should be to design environments for unprogrammed fun and discovery.
Wolch: We have a completely different question, Mike. One of your books that we like the most is Late Victorian Holocausts. It’s not about cities or about the West. How did you decide to link up global climate-change history to famine and political ecology? It seems like something of a departure.
Davis: After the 1992 riots, I got a huge advance from Knopf to write a book about the city’s apocalypse. Through my political activities I had gotten to know the mothers of a number of key players in these events, including Theresa Allison, whose son, Dewayne Holmes was a prime mover in the Watts gang truce. I also knew Damian Williams’s mom—he was the chief villain, the guy who almost beat the truck driver to death at the corner of Florence and Normandie. Through their eyes I had acquired a very different perspective on cause and effect, right and wrong, during the course of the explosion. But at the end of the day, I could not find any real justification for the kind of journalism that makes authoritative claims through selective quotations and portraits of people who generally have no control over ultimate manuscript. In the 1930s, this kind of social documentation or second-hand existential narrative—Dorothea Lange’s photographs or James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, for example—could claim that it was an integral part of a crusade, the New Deal or the CIO, that was fighting to improve the lives of the victimized people who were its often unknowing subjects. But now, in our post-liberal era, such work runs the danger of simply being sensational and exploitative. Frankly, as much as I wanted to write the book, I couldn’t find any real moral license for looting folks’ stories and their personal miseries for my greater glory as LA’s voice of doom. So I gave the advance back and moved my base of operations to the Cal Tech earth science library and immersed myself in the research on environmental history and disaster that became Ecology of Fear.
I also discovered another topic where there was no ethical ambiguity—indeed, a project that perfectly aligned conscience and my zeal for research. Tom Hayden contacted me in 1995 or 1996 and asked me to contribute to a volume he was editing on the one-hundred-fiftieth anniversary of the Irish holocaust. At first I demurred. Brilliant young Irish historians were reinterpreting the Famine, and I had no expertise in this area. But he persisted. “Well, maybe there’s something else that happened at the time that you could write about.” Then I discovered the famines in China and India during the 1870s and 1890s that killed some twenty million people but had long gone unmentioned in conventional histories of the Victorian era. The result was Late Victorian Holocausts, a kind of “black book” of capitalism, about the millions of unnecessary deaths that occurred as European powers—above all, England—force-marched the great subsistence peasantries of India and China into the world market with disastrous results.
Wolch: We have one last question, about your young adult novels. Whenever we assign something from City of Quartz or another of your disheartening pieces about LA, it’s hard not to worry that the students will leave the class and jump off of a cliff! But your young adult novels seem to capture some amount of an alternative hopeful future.
Davis: Gee, you shouldn’t be disheartened by my books on LA. They’re just impassioned polemics on the necessity of the urban left. And my third LA book, Magical Urbanism, literally glows with optimism about the grassroots renaissance going on in our immigrant neighborhoods. But to return to the two adolescent “science adventure” novels I wrote for Viggo Mortensen’s wonderful Perceval Press. Above all they’re expressions of longing for my oldest son after his mother moved him back to her native Ireland. The heroes are three real kids: my son, his step-brother, and the daughter of our best friends when I taught at Stony Brook on Long Island. Her name is Julia Monk, and she’s now a wildlife biologist doing a Ph.D. at Yale on pumas in the Andes. I’m very proud that I made her the warrior-scientist heroine of the novels, because it was an intuition about her character that she’s made real in every way—just a remarkable young person.
Writing these tales was pure fun. The original inspiration was a trip that my son and I took to East Greenland when he was seven. This became The Land of the Lost Mammoths. Stories like this write themselves, especially because they’re real kids and you’re projecting their moral characters in situations of fantastic adventure and danger (although some of the most outlandish parts of the books are true and based on my life-long obsession with mysterious islands). In a way, it was like the four of us really went on expeditions to Greenland and the strange, bewitched island of Socotra.
But let the kids continue the adventure. I’ve become a homebody in retirement, focused on learning everything I can about nature and geology in Southern California. My only organizational membership in recent years (of nonsubversive groups, that is) is in the American Geophysical Union. My wife enjoys a good novel at bedtime. I read strange tomes on igneous petrology and paleoclimatology. I even have a Stephen King–like text somewhere [about the street I live on] called 33rd Street Ecology because there is nothing natural in this neighborhood, from the Arundo to the Sicilian snails, which if they ever hit the Central Valley could do a few billion dollars’ damage to crops. Crows didn’t exist here, nor did the sinister brown widow spiders who now live in my patio furniture. To me this is great noir stuff—the neighborhood taken over by the aliens and the inhabitants don’t know it.
Photographs of the neighborhood in and around Witmer Street by Matthew Gush.
Mike Davis is the author of more than twenty books, including City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. He is professor emeritus at University of California, Riverside, in the department of creative writing.
A Boom Interview In conversation with Jonathan Crisman and Jason S. Sexton
Karen Tei Yamashita
Editor’s note: Karen Tei Yamashita is an American author and professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she is affiliated with the Literature Department, the Creative Writing Program, and Critical Race and Ethnic Studies. Her novels and plays are difficult to define by genre: they have been called science fiction, speculative fiction, postmodern, postcolonial, magic realist, and most certainly experimental.
Between her transnational history, her role as a maker, and the strong spatiality of her writing, Yamashita’s insights have shaped the way urban humanities are practiced. Her landmark 1997 novel, Tropic of Orange, has become a key text and model for creative practice for urban humanists based in Los Angeles.
This interview was conducted by Boom editor Jason Sexton and Jonathan Crisman, one of this issue’s guest editors, over email amid summer travel in Yellowstone National Park, London, Paris, and California.
Jonathan Crisman: Your early book Tropic of Orange was the book that sparked our thinking on an alternative form of urban engagement—partly because it was set in Los Angeles, but also because its structure allowed for a “thickness.” Time and space get interwoven in a new way, various voices—sometimes conflicting—coexist in a single narrative, and it created a kind of fissure in what we knew about LA—it opened our imagination to an LA, or multiple LAs, that could unfold in the future, or in the present, or maybe these already coexist. The book was published in 1997—almost twenty years ago. Could you characterize the LA you knew up to that time, sharing what led to Tropic of Orange, and what the book would look like if written today.
Karen Tei Yamashita: My parents were San Francisco Bay Area nisei who came to LA in the 1950s. My father was a pastor assigned to the Centenary Methodist Church near Jefferson Blvd. and Normandie Ave. in the middle of an old Japanese American neighborhood. That church I understood to be the largest Japanese American congregation on the US mainland. I point this out because, in the postwar, Japanese American institutions such as temples and churches became centers of community and hostels to receive Japanese Americans returning from wartime incarceration. My father ran such a hostel/church in Oakland, then came to continue his work in LA, largely to minister to a community of young nisei families trying to get a jumpstart on new lives. With the wartime evacuation of Japanese Americans out of LA arrived the influx of African Americans who came to work in wartime industries and occupied our abandoned neighborhoods. In the postwar 1950s and 1960s when I grew up in LA, our neighborhood around the church and along Jefferson reflected a cultural mix of working class folks of color, confined to circumscribed areas of the city through housing covenants. I didn’t really know any of this as a kid, but my family moved from the Jefferson neighborhood to the Crenshaw and then to Gardena, and the differences in the houses, gardens, streets, and schools, and the idea of upward mobility were apparent to me. I lost friends who moved to go to “better” schools. Growing up in LA, you couldn’t/can’t not know the color lines that divide and spread through the city’s geography.
Photograph of Karen Tei Yamashita by Mary Uyematsu Kao.
In 1975, I began research in Brazil and was mostly away from the US for the next nine years. In 1984, I immigrated back to LA with my Brazilian family, and it was evident that LA had become what theorists had predicted: a majority “hispanic” city. It was that city, created by migrating populations of people, their cultures and history, that fascinated me. However, this city seemed nowhere really written about in canonized LA literature, which featured white detectives noired by their undercover presence on colored streets. Tropic was perhaps a question and an experiment. What if the colored characters/caricatures spoke?
I don’t think much about how the book would be different if written today. The technology would be updated, cellphones ubiquitous, and terrorism and religious fundamentalism intrinsic to the plot. Someone else needs to write the update. It surprises me that the book continues to have reach and readership, but it is satisfying to know that, even with all the pop culture references stuck in time and the changes in LA’s landscape, new readers get it and find it possible to navigate. For example, your conversation about “thickness” and time and space help me to see why and how constructing the book works. Writing it was an organic process, the meaning of which I could not at the time articulate outside of the creative work itself. And believe me, twenty years ago no one wanted or understood that book. Prospective editors and agents turned it upside down to try to shake out meaning. One editor asked me to turn it into a love story; another said she could not represent a book with an agenda. I’m indebted to Coffee House Press who took the risk.
One writer I’ve felt close to these many years and whose work for me defines LA is Sesshu Foster. I first read his poetry in the journal High Performance, edited I think by Wanda Coleman, as a response to the LA riots in 1992. I have long admired Sesshu’s work, especially Atomik Aztex. While I grew up in African American/Japanese American neighborhoods in Central LA and the Westside, Sesshu grew up on the Eastside with the Mexican and Latino folks pressing up against the tracks and the LA River.
Jason Sexton: Do you think of yourself as a California writer?
Yamashita: I’m California-born, in Oakland, and raised in LA, and the history of my family begins in San Francisco turn of the century 1900. I’ve also lived and studied in Minnesota, Japan, and Brazil, but we raised our family here. My dad was a romantic idealist, liked to talk about “world citizenship” long before the transnational was a trend. While I may have set my sights beyond California, when I came back to LA and the San Francisco Bay Area, I thought that in order to really belong, I needed to study these geographies, not just to claim a birthplace but to understand a history during my own growing up. You can be born and grow up in a place and have no idea of the meaning of being there. I wanted to see and sense the arrival and labor of my folks and my generation, to know why and who we’ve become. I hope I’ve done the work to claim a place in California, but like so many of us come to hang our hats at home, I think it’s best to think I’m just passing through.
Crisman: You mentioned Sesshu’s work, which is fantastic—definitely in the spirit of Tropic, it seems. When you mention your book as an experiment in which people of color speak, I am reminded of the young artist, Ramiro Gomez, who has repurposed canonized (white) visions of LA, like Hockney’s A Bigger Splash, painting in the maids and gardeners that actually make such an LA possible. It seems that while race, nationality, and politics play an important role in your earlier work, these issues are presented in even more direct ways in your recent work. I’m thinking of the political struggles narrated through the fictional nonfiction of I Hotel, but also through the embodied performances in AnimeWong. Are there political realities today that drive you toward these more unequivocal narratives? Or is it part of your creative development as you grow older? Or perhaps something else?
Yamashita: Ramiro Gomez, yes. I heard a story on NPR about Lawrence Weschler, who’s written about Hockney, taking Gomez up into the Hollywood Hills to meet Hockney. My memory of the report is that the visit was cordial and generous, but I wondered what that would be like to encounter another artist whose work you satirize. Weschler, whose writing and thinking I so admire, must have known what he was doing. The erasure that Gomez’s work points to in Hockney’s paintings has always irked me, too.
By “unequivocal narratives,” perhaps you mean narratives tied to history or real events? I don’t think anything I write is not researched as history or cultural anthropology. I’m rather picky about getting this right even though it’s employed for fiction. But I do understand your query if it is about why the projects seem over the years to move from what’s been defined as transnational to more personal subjects of local community and home. Maybe I’ve been circling these issues and honing in. My next book is based on a family archive of correspondence between seven siblings, the core of which dates from 1938 to 1948, those war years when my family was incarcerated in the Utah desert at Topaz and dispersed across the country. You ask about growing older, and it must be that too, because I couldn’t really read or think about this project until everyone was dead. I didn’t want the sadness of this loss, but maybe it was necessary, having all those ghosts in the room.
John and Asako Yamashita (and Karen), Santa Monica pier. Photograph provided by Karen Tei Yamashita.
You asked about politics, and yes, writing about the Japanese American wartime internment and about the Asian American movement has been a political gesture, to make evident an injustice related to current issues of undocumented immigration, anti-Muslim policies, race-based policing and incarceration, to ask how movements succeed and fail from the grassroots, and to tell a longer history of the ongoing struggle for fair housing and employment. With Anime Wong, I’ve been curious about the relationship between technology and race, how the imagination of the future retains the same old representations of gender and race.
Crisman: I wonder if you could elaborate a bit about your view on fiction, its nature, its role in the world. I always liked the anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s description of his work as a fiction, where he goes on to describe that it isn’t fiction as in “false,” but rather like the Latin, fictio, something fashioned, something made. I would like to think that the same is true for your work: though you write fiction, your work involves “getting it right.” The importance of the reality held inside any one of your books is clear because of the care with which you construct it. When the current issues you list are at stake, what is the importance of writing fiction?
Yamashita: I teeter between thinking with urgency that fiction is the most critically significant creative work we do and, then, totter back to its utter uselessness, a foolish waste of time. Your reference to Geertz’s idea of fictio, especially coming from an anthropologist, makes me hopeful. Long ago, I thought I would go into anthropology, but then while in Brazil researching the Japanese Brazilian community, I felt I could not properly attend to the research required as I can’t read Japanese. So I opted to tell the story (in English) in what I thought was historic fiction, like fiction was some kind of protective vapor and came with a license to kill. What did I know? Writing fiction is harder than telling the facts because really you have to tell the truth. Sounds like nonsense I guess, but getting it wrong means you lose your reader. Italo Calvino in one of his essays talks about meaning that hovers above the narrative text, idea and thought captured by the reader in a manner that fiction and poetry can achieve. Maybe the reader gets zapped with understanding and change happens, and maybe that’s a reason for doing it.
Sexton: On this notion of helping readers reckon with truth, getting zapped, etc., I’m reminded at one point in Tropic where Buzzworm refers to metaphor as straight-talk, which seems to be what you believed about fiction in the sense mentioned above. Elsewhere in the book Arcangel tells Rafaela that some things, again what I reckon as truth, “cannot be translated.” But if with your other work you’re connecting the past to present issues, aiming to provoke and move readers to action, you’re addressing enormous themes: homelessness, temporality, contingency, justice, love, victimization, and humanness. Your writing style leaves readers on edge with little place to stand—like the shifting world in Tropic—but so do the themes you explore. What is the process for how you lay out these themes in your writing? And are there any themes you have not yet explored but hope to later, like say the next book based on the 1938–1948 family archive? Do you plan to bring back characters from your early writing to do this?
Yamashita: I know this is an “interview,” so I’m doing my best to answer questions, but with my work, I’m usually the one asking to know. That said, I so appreciate your thoughtful reading and the feeling of reading together—ha!—rereading that old book. I can’t speak for other writers, but I don’t think writers necessarily choose themes; themes seem to choose the writer. I think about writers like Salman Rushdie or Claudia Rankine, whose work became or has become so involved with and tuned to the political current, and I imagine the exhaustion and stress that comes with having to become a public personage, even though the writing may have begun with an image, a sentence, a story, or a scene and a question about why. So speaking about “enormous themes” makes me nervous. I didn’t set out to write about homelessness or temporality, but in writing about LA, I suppose I couldn’t not write about these issues. Okay, that sounds naive since I also think that experimental and speculative writing is more often about ideas, rather than real full-dimensional characters. So maybe it’s about characters inhabiting ideas. A few of the characters in Tropic (Manzanar and Emi) were taken from characters in the performances produced previously in LA (published much later in Anime Wong), but I haven’t thought about regenerating them again in another project. As for new work and what’s yet unexplored, the family archive project seems to be an epistolary meditation. On the big side, it’s about war and race and the philosophical trajectory of civil rights and reconciliation, but that sounds boring and pompous. I hope the letters read personally, intimately.
Sexton: Reading Tropic for the first time recently, I found myself ebbing and flowing with personal interest and connection to the writers one moment, after which I’d be deeply troubled in another, experiencing something of the effect of what’s happening with your characters. Do you generally want your readers to be hopeful about our world, or troubled by it? To deal with it as real, or as utter foolishness, or something else?
Yamashita: I think you realize from that spreadsheet at the beginning of Tropic, that the structure of the book was laid out over seven days and seven characters who performed seven narrative genres in seven timeframes and moving geographies. I chose that structure and stuck with it, and it produced a kind of literary kaleidoscope that described, for me, LA and troubled, as you suggest, all our narratives by placing them side-by-side. I feel I’m a hopeful and positive person, but I’ve also been very blessed and untested. I’m not sure how much pain I’m capable of living through. I want to think that when I fail, I take responsibility and get up and try again, and that going to where it hurts is real, is necessary to know. Writing is probably an easy way of learning by imagining. What readers do with all this is their business, though one hopes that the integrity of the writing is passed along.
Karen, John, and Jane Tomi (sister) at the 5th Avenue parsonage, Los Angeles. Photograph provided by Karen Tei Yamashita.
Crisman: I wonder if we can shift the focus of the conversation a little bit. As you know, the theme of this issue of Boom is the urban humanities—a set of academic programs, scholarly approaches, and research agendas emerging at UCLA and UC Berkeley. You gave a very compelling talk at the Knowledge Design: Making Urban Humanities symposium at UCLA a couple of years ago, providing insight into your writing methods as a kind of speculative scholarly practice. I would be interested in revisiting this conversation a little bit, in part because the methods that gave rise to your novels (particularly, Tropic and I Hotel) were so delightful and unexpected. But before rehashing anything, I would also be interested in hearing your thoughts about the teaching side of things: pedagogical approaches, means for allowing that speculative possibility found in your books to manifest in the classroom, and so on. I think reflecting on your role as a professor of creative writing within the contemporary university is part of this, but also, of course, might the relatively unique structure of the Literature Department at UC Santa Cruz, I imagine, also play a role?
Yamashita: I want to answer in the spirit of being useful, but teaching creative writing is tricky, and I really have no tricks up my sleeve. There are books by writers about writing, and they are revealing, but nothing seems to really provoke writing except reading. So in the beginning, I match student writers to each other, usually by what they read and the genres in which they write, to create conversations and community, to connect intellectual colleagues. After that, I spend a great deal of time listening to and reading the work, starting with what is there, what is interesting, then mostly asking questions that may be rhetorical or formed out of honest curiosity, but hoping to challenge the thinking embedded in the writing. There is a process of working through things with each individual writer; with one writer, it might be at the level of the sentence, with another, the question of audience. More than talent, writing requires a kind of creative, playful, and stubborn resilience. Not sure how one teaches this except to facilitate the doing and the matching of minds.
But I think you want me to say something more specific. Okay. What I have experimented with for many years is working with Italo Calvino’s novel, If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler, which is a novel explored by “you” the reader who must navigate the beginnings of ten different novels in which Calvino imitates and reveals the narrative conceits of each novel genre. I use Calvino’s novel as a text, parsing out each section into ten weeks, partnering students in panels to present and decipher the work for their fellows, and creating writing prompts to write it yourself. This has been more or less successful over the years, and I’ve had to add a reader with the beginnings of ten women-authored novels to balance out Calvino’s first-person male protagonists, all in pursuit of the female character. Even when students protest, I stubbornly continue to teach this text. This is the closest I get to my own speculative writing experiments, but I’m not interested in whether students know this. What I want to convey is the rich possibility of genre and narrative voice, that no matter what story you tell, you create a character who speaks and imagines for you.
I’m a fiction writer in a literature department. Maybe my creative writing colleagues and I are the oddballs, but we are perhaps the necessary right brain of the place. I figure creative writing is another door to the meaning of literature; you can critique the writing, but having to try your hand at it yourself makes you humble. The most fascinating scholarship of my colleagues is creative and formulated with the same imaginative processes of any new ideas. As you suggest about its unique structure, the Literature department at UCSC encompasses a diverse program of languages, geographies, theoretical discourses, and interdisciplinary thinking, and I have benefited from and grown in this way.
Karen Tei Yamashita is professor of literature at University of California, Santa Cruz. Her novels include I Hotel, Circle K Cycles, and Tropic of Orange.
Editor’s Note: As the architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times, Christopher Hawthorne has an enviable beat. Not only is he charged with covering new developments in architecture and urban design in the second largest city in the United States, he gets to travel around the state, the country, and the world, thinking and writing about new buildings and how they might—or might not—change the way we live. But Hawthorne has also used his beat for something more. His subject is not just buildings, but the city itself, and how we understand it and ourselves. So he has written about boulevards and freeways, books and art, immigration and homelessness. Thinking about the built environment is never just thinking about the built environment.
Hawthorne calls his big project “The Third Los Angeles.” It’s what the changing city is becoming. And it’s what comes next—if we can make it so. Like no other critic in the land, Hawthorne has grasped the challenge of telling the story of a great city—its past, present, and future—while playing a prominent role in shaping the city’s vision of itself, intellectually, creatively, and pragmatically.
This interview was conducted by Boom editor Jon Christensen and Dana Cuff, a professor of architecture, urban design, and urban planning, and director of cityLAB at UCLA.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti snaps a photo of musician Gabriel Kahane while Christopher Hawthorne looks on at an Occidental College event in 2014. Photograph by Marc Campos, Occidental College.
Jon Christensen: What is the Third LA?
Christopher Hawthorne: For a number of years, I’ve been writing about a significant transition that Los Angeles is going through. In a range of ways, a city that was deeply privatized in the postwar years, that was organized largely around the single-family house and the car and the freeway, is trying to rediscover and reanimate its public realm. That’s been, in many ways, my main subject, that transition and the various factors that make that transition difficult—not simply politically, but in terms of urban design and planning.
Mayor Garcetti recently talked about this as being a “hinge moment” in the city’s development. That idea that the city is navigating this transition has become part of the popular, broader discussion about the city. But the more that I wrote and thought about the history of Los Angeles, it occurred to me that a lot of the elements that we’re struggling to add—whether it’s mass transit, places to walk, more ambitious public architecture, innovative multifamily housing, or more forward-looking city and regional planning—we actually produced in really remarkable quantities in the prewar decades. In the DNA of the city’s history is something before the car and the freeway.
Christensen: And that’s in the “First LA”?
Hawthorne: Right. And so it struck me that rather than just going from A to B, in this binary progression, it might make more sense to think about three phases of the city’s modern civic development. For the purposes of this framework, the First Los Angeles starts in the 1880s. The city was founded a whole century before that, but I think it’s fair to say that modern Los Angeles begins in the 1880s. That’s the decade of the first population boom, the first real estate boom, right after the transcontinental railroad got here. It is the decade that the telephone system was established. The population of LA in 1880 is something like 10,000. It’s a very small place. But the population more than quadruples in that decade. And then every decade after that until pretty recently, there’s significant growth happening.
So I’m thinking of the First LA as running from the 1880s through World War II. And then the Second Los Angeles as running from World War II through, let’s say, 2000. That’s the period in which the city produced the tropes and stereotypes that most of us are familiar with: this privatized city that’s organized around the car and the freeway, but also an immigrant city, a city that continues the growth of the First Los Angeles, and really remakes its own infrastructure, with lots of subsidy and encouragement from the federal government. So think about private homeownership, the growth of the single-family house, the subdivision, and the freeway, all of that as being heavily encouraged and subsidized from Washington, too. It’s not just that we love cars and houses and lawns more than anybody else. We were growing and expanding in a time when the federal government was making it very easy to expand in precisely that way—and making it difficult to expand, in fact, in any other way. So that’s the Second LA.
And it seems to me that this phase that we’re moving into now is the Third Los Angeles. It was emerging even as I arrived in 2004, and I think its emergence has accelerated. But it’s also important to say we’re in the early stages of that transition.
In some ways, there are lessons that we can draw in this new LA from the First LA. In terms of transit, in terms of landscape, in terms of attitude toward the natural world, in a whole bunch of ways, there is this earlier history that we can draw on.
I mentioned multifamily housing. It’s interesting. LA is known as a city of houses. But think about the twenties and thirties. We produced incredible experiments in multifamily and modernist housing in those decades. Irving Gill, beginning in San Diego, but then moving up to LA, is doing work in the 1920s that is as innovative and experimental as what anybody in the Bauhaus is doing. And a lot of it is collective, cooperative, or multifamily housing, all over the region. Neutra and Schindler are not just doing single-family houses. They’re doing a lot of multifamily work. And then there’s an even bigger scale, what we think of as public housing in the thirties and into the forties, with incredible rosters of architects and landscape architects working on those projects. That history can be useful for architects trying to work on new multifamily architecture.
But there are other ways that this emerging city is completely different. First LA and Second LA are both driven by huge growth. And the Third LA is really a kind of post-growth city. Population and immigration have both slowed really dramatically in Los Angeles. Manufacturing is a shell of what it once was. So, in some ways, we have the first chance since the 1880s to really catch our breath and think about how to consolidate our gains—and about what kind of place we want to be. So that’s the basic framework. Another way to talk about what’s happening in LA is that all of the LA clichés—all the things somebody from outside of LA might think of as being the prototypical building blocks of Los Angeles urbanism and civic identity—they all have a prehistory as well as a future. They have a before and they have an after. So, if you take the long view of LA history, a lot of those things are not permanent, as we’ve been led to believe, but transitory. Think about the lawn. People think of the lawn as being so intrinsically connected with an idea of Los Angeles. But if you look at pictures of residential architecture in the late nineteenth century, those landscapes look a lot like what people are tearing out their lawns to plant now, what we would call a drought-tolerant landscape. You can say something similar about the single-family house and you can say that about the car. You can say that about the freeway and you can say that about mobility. In the First LA, we had this incredibly far-reaching streetcar system that was the envy of most cities in the country, if not the world. The river is another classic example. We had a first river, a seasonal river that sometimes flooded dramatically. Then we had a channelized river. Now we’re trying to imagine what a third river looks like. So it’s too easy and simplistic just to say, “We have lawns, and we’re taking them out,” or “We’re imagining the city after the car.” We also had a city before the lawn, before the car.
LA River/Grid Series by Victor Hugo Zayas.
Dana Cuff: Do you think that there is always a return? A number of the things that you’ve mentioned have basically been about coming back to something that was there before.
Hawthorne: It’s important to say that in certain ways, it’s very much not a return. There are certain ways in which it’s really different. We’re facing climate change, and our attitude about the natural world, natural resources has changed. What’s really come to an end is this kind of frontier mentality about the city—this idea of infinite growth and infinite expansion, and that the way to study the city is to look at the edges, where it’s gobbling up new territory. This is a city that is very aware of its limits now.
Mike Davis starts City of Quartz out on the edges, and he talks about a city that dreamt of becoming infinite. He talks about Los Angeles as the city that ate the desert. As I think about how to structure a new book, the last thing I want to do is start at the edges. I want to start in the middle of things. That’s where the city is being reinvented. It’s a city that’s folding back on itself. That’s one thing that’s really changed. This idea that we can grow our way out of any problem and that we’re always a city that’s expanding and finding or even colonizing new territory—that has ended. And water, too. This idea that we could always just find new sources of water versus thinking, as we’re starting to do now, about how we treat the water that falls here and the water we have—that strikes me as a big change in mindset.
Cuff: Well, that’s an interesting segue to talk about the LA River, because I believe there’s a kind of nostalgia for a metropolitan nature. You can understand why, because parts of the river are surprisingly beautiful as natural spaces. But the people who see it as a flyaway or as a place to kayak, or only in those ways, forget that there are all these neighborhoods of every different economic and ethnic background that front onto the river. It’s also this incredible seam through the center of the city that actually could be something unifying and maybe not just as a piece of wilderness in the city, but as something that is designed to stitch together our urban fabric.
Hawthorne: I agree. And I’ve been surprised, in the discussion about what should happen with the river, by how much power that nostalgia holds. First, restoration is not practical or feasible in terms of taking out all or even most of the concrete. But even if it were, I think we should be asking the question: What vision of the river are we trying to get back to? And did the river ever operate that way?
Frank Gehry told me that not only does he not think it is possible, maybe it isn’t desirable to take out the concrete in certain parts of the river. The reaction that I got when I included that comment in one of my pieces was surprising. People still have this idea that the river can be “restored” to some past that never really existed, a green landscape full of water, with tree-lined banks. I think that particularly when the river gets really wide as it goes south, you have this almost sublime scale of concrete. The idea that that is not an LA landscape or that we should be in a hurry to tear that out to plant some representation of a natural world that maybe didn’t ever exist, that strikes me as a misreading of our own history. What history are we talking about? It’s like Ed Ruscha and Bob Irwin never existed. If you say it’s an insult to LA to keep that concrete, that whole idea of reading the landscape here and understanding a particular kind of beauty here is out the window. Fifty years of new ways of reading the city by architects and artists alike—that’s just out the window. Or, the idea that the postwar infrastructure of the city is both beautiful and in certain political, social, or ecological ways was deeply misguided. It’s not one or the other. It’s both.
Cuff: One of the things that’s cool to me is that Gehry—and I take him at his word—says he’s starting with hydrology, which everyone agrees about. We have to reclaim the water and not let it go back out to the ocean without capturing it. But just what that would mean, and the possibility of designing around the water in a variety of ways, rather than only as a restoration project, is hard for most people in the city to imagine. We have only seen the river as a movie set for drag racing or as a myth of what it might have been as a beautiful natural setting, which I don’t think it ever was.
Hawthorne: I am really ambivalent about Gehry’s involvement. I do think there’s reason for cynicism. But I think some of the cynicism forgets the history of the river. Take this idea that what Gehry’s involvement will mean is to allow the river to become a vehicle for gentrification. I mean, we channelized the river in the first place to allow real estate development, to protect real estate interests. The whole project of the channelization was basically a real estate project driven by people who had a lot of interest in developing the city more densely, or protecting what they already owned.
Grid Series #18 by Victor Hugo Zayas.
Cuff: People may not trust Frank Gehry to have that broad-minded nature. But to me, it seems like he’s a perfect character.
Hawthorne: And we need somebody to do it. Absolutely.
Christensen: On the other hand, it seems to me, that we haven’t seen such a starkly framed battle royale over two different visions of the city since Jane Jacobs took on Robert Moses in New York.
Hawthorne: The problem is that we lack the vocabulary to talk about it. Jane Jacobs versus Robert Moses? That’s a New York sort of dichotomy, and a dated one at that. I think the challenge in any city, particularly in LA right now, is to think about the local and the regional scale together, simultaneously. We do need to have a vision for the whole river because it’s a huge piece of infrastructure. It has been since the Army Corps wrapped the whole thing in concrete. So the Jane Jacobs approach isn’t enough to solve this problem. We have to be thinking about it at a regional level.
That’s one of the reasons I did a series for the Times a few years ago on the boulevards, because the boulevard is really the only part of the built environment that operates at both scales. Sunset Boulevard, Wilshire Boulevard are huge regional pieces, but also have connections at an intensely local scale. You can talk about the meanings of a half block of the boulevard.
Cuff: Besides the river, the only two pieces of LA landscape with which the whole of the city identifies are the boulevards, especially Wilshire Boulevard, and the beach.
Hawthorne: Exactly. The problem with the boulevards is we tried to make them like freeways. And we sort of made our river like a freeway, too. We made it operate only at the regional scale. We made it a monoculture, a piece of infrastructure that achieved flood control and nothing else. The difference between the boulevard and the freeway is that the freeway does not operate at a local level, except in a destructive way, right? It doesn’t have any connection to the neighborhood. It looms over the neighborhood or under the neighborhood or destroys the neighborhood to make room for itself. And the way the river was channelized made it operate that way, too. That channelization was accompanied by cutting it off from the public, fencing it, again, like the freeway, essentially turning it into private property. It was inaccessible on a neighborhood scale.
I think the reason that there is some frustration about Gehry’s involvement among the advocates who have been working on the river for so long, Lewis MacAdams and others, is that they were attempting to make some connections at a neighborhood scale and say, “This thing is in your backyard, and it belongs to you.” And that was an incredibly difficult and important political battle. So I think seeing somebody coming in, as if from above, Robert Moses style, saying, “I’m going to produce this solution for the whole fifty-one miles”—it seems to suggest their work is being undone. And I can understand that.
At the same time, the most effective way to think about the river is as a platform for building new kinds of urbanism in the city—not getting back to something that we had and lost, but producing something we need. What are we missing in the city? We’re missing public space, green space, collective space—space where we can come together. We’re missing connections in terms of mobility across the region. And we don’t have enough housing. So rather than a rendering that shows a green riverbank—and I’m sure this is not going to please some river advocates to hear me say this—we should be thinking about using the airspace over the river. We should be thinking about building housing on the river—as long as it’s high enough not to flood—and over the river.
Maybe the best thing you can say about the river politically, as complicated as it is, is that it’s not on the West Side, which seems entirely closed off to big ideas at the moment. It runs through places that are desperate for development, that want investment. It also runs through places that are wary of development, and for good reason. So it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. But we need to think about LA as a city that’s run out of open space to build. We have this landscape, fifty-one miles, that should be a platform to address the most basic problems that we’re facing—inequality and lack of open space and mobility. If you think about it as a spine that could produce housing, that could connect us in terms of getting around, that could be open space, the kind of shared collective space of the city, that’s an incredible opportunity.
Cuff: We have not had good large-scale infrastructure interventions in LA. Think of the freeways displacing neighborhoods—or Chavez Ravine and Dodger Stadium. People are right to be wary. But the river’s fifty-one miles are on a scale that is beyond imagination. You could talk about it being a place where you could have housing and park benches and cycling and bird sanctuaries and concrete. We don’t have any way of picturing a locally based, large-scale piece of infrastructure. We just don’t have that. That’s what the reimagined river could demonstrate: the next generation of our city, with neighborhoods linked along the way that are all part of something bigger. This would change our mindset about Los Angeles, from the “fragmented metropolis” and “suburbs in search of a city” to considering the city as a whole. This is not the way we have thought about Los Angeles.
Hawthorne: That’s a really good point because it’s also running counter to other forces in the city which are promoting a kind of balkanization, with a new focus on the neighborhood. One of the characteristics of the Third LA, as I see it, is the idea, the concept, of the greater city has broken down, largely because of freeway immobility, and because we haven’t built out a comprehensive transit system yet. People who live on one side of town once thought about the other side of town as being part of the same city in a very intimate way. That idea has been broken for a number of years, and there’s been a more of a focus on the neighborhood as a result. And there are good things and bad things about that. The good thing is that there is new attention to the neighborhoods. There’s a constituency for how neighborhoods are designed, what our sidewalks look like, whether there’s a park on the corner, what the public and collective space in the neighborhood looks like. There’s a renewed interest and focus on that, which is a very good thing.
But what makes the river tricky is that, at this moment where things are turning inward and more local, there’s this breakdown of regional connection. The river is this piece that requires a huge, wide regional vision to think about successfully. And so it’s even more challenging at the moment because our attention is fixed on a different level. We’re not thinking at the William Mulholland, Robert Moses, freeway-building scale, for better and worse. But now we have to think about that, at least in part, to make the river work.
There is a diversity of communities on the river. Some are desperate for investment and change. They can’t wait for things to happen. Others feel that their neighborhood already has a strong sense of community, and they want to protect it, and they’re worried about that for good reason.
Grid Series #25 by Victor Hugo Zayas.
Cuff: How do you think about the housing affordability problem?
Hawthorne: In general, I try to be careful not to say that things are generational. It’s too easy sometimes. But I think in the case of housing production, it’s very much the case. It goes back to state policies like Proposition 13, like CEQA, and a generation of homeowners that, in my opinion, has been extraordinarily fortunate and…
Cuff: …basically pulled up the ladder after itself.
Hawthorne: Yes. And is very active in doing whatever it can to protect what is at stake in whatever city they’re in, whether that’s Berkeley, Oakland, San Francisco, Los Angeles. If you bought your house in the 1970s, it’s not just that its value has doubled or tripled. I would be thrilled if the house that I bought a couple of years ago were to someday triple in value. But the houses people bought in the 1970s? They might be worth 30 or 40 times what those homeowners paid. And these are the same people, thanks to Prop 13, who are paying a tiny fraction of the property taxes of their neighbors. So there are larger questions about what kind of reform we can talk about with Prop 13 and CEQA.
There has also been an attitude among the political left that sees development—even smart growth—as suspect, always, that sees the larger environmental project as including opposition to development, even in cities, even near transit. And this is perhaps most extreme in places like San Francisco and Santa Monica, where people see opposing development—and even mass transit—as consistent with the left, progressive environmental and political agenda. I think that is, in many ways, directly responsible for the housing situation that we’re in now. People in very good conscience who live in Santa Monica or San Francisco think of a moratorium on development as a progressive thing to support rather than reactionary or conservative or just in their own political self-interest. I don’t have a problem with somebody who bought a house at a certain point saying, “I bought into a certain place, you know, I want it to stay this way, and I’m going to use whatever resources I can to keep it that way.” They have every right to say that, even if I disagree. I have a problem with people saying that’s consistent with a progressive agenda about cities or a forward-looking attitude about the environment or about resources. It’s not.
Christensen: Do you think the discourse around climate and urbanism is going to change that?
Hawthorne: Yes. I think the conversation is changing. The conversation around climate change sees densification, urbanization as part of the solution. And think about water. The New York Times did a piece about whether the water crisis and climate change and all of these shifts meant the end of the California dream, the end of growth, when in fact, as that piece itself acknowledged, growth is the only thing that has saved us in terms of our water. Our water use in Los Angeles has gone down since the 1980s—and not just per capita. Our total water use has gone down. Now, that has to do with efficient appliances, in part, but in the city, it’s also gone down because we’re living closer together and we’re not building subdivisions in the same way.
So it doesn’t make sense to say that the water crisis is a challenge to the idea of growth. Growth and densification is the one thing that is going to help us solve the water problem. But there’s this idea that those things are at odds. That to me is a direct product of exactly what we were just talking about, this idea that opposing growth or being wary of it, being wary of densification, is consistent with a progressive or environmental agenda. I think climate change is going to expose the contradiction in that. It already has in many ways.
Cuff: We seem to be arguing that the LA River could give Los Angeles an identity, but the key is also how you recognize the differences along the river and still make that a single thing. I wonder if there’s a way to do that with the high-speed rail, so that it stitches the state together, but every time it stops, there’s a station identity that’s related to Fresno versus LA versus San Francisco.
LA River 11 by Victor Hugo Zayas.
Hawthorne: I have some doubts about that approach because I’ve seen it play out locally, in LA, with the design of the Metro stations in a way that I don’t think was successful. When transit was controversial and Metro needed to get community buy-in to get different lines approved, one of the ways that they did that was to have stations whose architecture reflected the neighborhood. From an architectural and a practical point of view, it was a disaster. Just think about maintenance. You can’t clean the stations in the same way. You can’t replace the lightbulbs in the same way, because each one had a different design.
On top of that, I think it was important to say that the city as a whole—and the region as a whole—was putting in a new generation of transit and that those stations would relate to each other as a system rather than to each different neighborhood. And Metro has finally, I think, seen the light on that issue.
That colors how I think about high-speed rail. It’s a little different because those cities do have really distinct identities in the way that parts of LA might not. I would be interested to think about it. But I’m still baffled that high-speed rail is even controversial. I mean, it’s been horribly mismanaged. Putting aside the question of how it’s been rolled out, which has been a disaster, this is proven technology, in use for decades all over the world. As someone who drives and flies this corridor all the time, I guarantee you the high-speed train will be wildly popular from day one.
Cuff: What’s your explanation of the opposition, then?
Hawthorne: I think there is an incredible amount of distrust of public projects. I think the opposition is different in Northern and Southern California.
I think here, it was such a privatized landscape that there is a lot of doubt about what the public bodies can accomplish in terms of infrastructure. They see both the transit system and the freeways as failures for different reasons. That breeds a lot of anxiety—and a lot of cynicism.
In Northern California, unfortunately, I think a lot of the opposition comes from Silicon Valley. It’s connected to the libertarian distrust of government that is really rampant in Silicon Valley. And that is connected to this idea of Silicon Valley wanting to secede and form its own state, and to its enthusiasm for projects like Hyperloop, for example.
Christensen: Well, let me ask you a visionary question to conclude. What do you think the city of Los Angeles is going to look like in a generation or so? Say, around 2050? It’s a time far off, but close enough that anyone under forty is very likely to still be alive. Is LA going to be more like the movie Her or Elysium?
Hawthorne: I don’t think it’s going to be either of those things. I think we’re going to do what we always do, which is muddle through. Despite these big changes, I don’t think that’s suddenly going to either allow us to magically solve the political obstacles or produce a dystopia. I think we will continue to build transit. I think the obstacles to new housing, though they are substantial now, will begin to fall away over time. So we’ll be smarter, hopefully, about how much housing we can produce and where it goes.
We’re going to have a new transit measure on the ballot in the fall, the new Measure R. And if it passes, it will probably raise at least $100 billion. Now, not all of that will go to mass transit. There’s always some road money in those things, but the lion’s share of it will. And that’s enough money to reshape the landscape of the city around transit, in much the same way that we reshaped it around freeways. That’s enough money to put a train tunnel under the Sepulveda Pass. That’s enough money to think in a really ambitious way.
That said, I’m still pretty pessimistic about the leadership of the various agencies and how much they see themselves as being in a position even to think in this visionary way, let alone their ability to execute visionary plans. So I don’t think we’re magically going to get good at doing that. But we are in the midst of reshaping the whole landscape of the city. That’s just going to accelerate. We’ll do some things well. We’ll do some things not so well. But we’re already further into this transition than people realize.
The Vatican’s Man in Paris Is a California Scientist
Editor’s note: Veerabhadran Ramanathan—everyone calls him “Ram”—was home for a few days over Thanksgiving. He was between a trip to the Vatican and the Paris climate summit when we caught up with him at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego. His office is high up on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. A long, curving swell broke gently on the beach far below. A sea breeze blew in through an open window. Ram spoke softly, deliberately, as if in the eye of a hurricane, a storm of historic proportions that has blown him around the world with an increasing sense of urgency. A climate scientist—he discovered that chloroflourcarbons (CFCs) used in refrigeration were greenhouse gases—Ram recently led an interdisciplinary group of fifty researchers and scholars from around the University of California who produced a report for the Paris climate summit entitled “Bending the Curve: Ten Scalable Solutions for Carbon Neutrality and Climate Stability.” The report was embraced by Governor Jerry Brown and UC President Janet Napolitano, who has pledged that the University of California will become carbon neutral by 2025. Ram is taking the report, which draws on lessons learned in California, to the Paris summit, as a member of Pope Francis’s delegation from the Holy See. Between preparations, emails, and phone calls with the governor’s office and the Vatican, Ram sat down to talk with Boom editor Jon Christensen, who was also senior editor on “Bending the Curve,” about climate change, science, and religion; the road to Paris; and what comes next.
Boom: How did an engineer end up on the Holy See’s delegation to the Paris climate summit?
Ramanathan: That’s a long story. And nobody has asked me that particular question, so let me reconstruct it.
I got my undergraduate degree in engineering in India. Then I worked a few years in the refrigeration industry. I didn’t know that six years from the time I left India, that work experience was going to have a huge impact on what I did and would be what eventually took me to the Vatican.
My job was to figure out why these refrigerants—later we came to know them as freons—were escaping so quickly from refrigeration units. In India, these units would come back within six months, and they had lost all their refrigerants.
At the time, I didn’t see the wisdom of what was happening there, so I hated my job and I hated engineering. I also didn’t have too much confidence that I was good for anything. I mainly went to small-town schools because my father was a traveling salesman, selling Goodyear tires. So my education to high school was primarily in the local regional language, Tamil. And then, in high school I moved to Bangalore. That was the city the British used for their military, so school was in English. And I quickly dropped from the top of the class to the bottom of the class. I didn’t know what they were talking about. But that had a profound impact on me, which still carries with me to this day. I stopped learning from others. I stopped listening to my teachers because I didn’t understand what they were saying, so I had to figure out things on my own.
I struggled through high school, and my grades weren’t good enough. So I couldn’t get into good engineering schools, and I went to a second-tier engineering school. I already knew engineering was not my calling. The two years in the refrigeration industry made it clear to me that I was not going to be an engineer. And it turned out I had a good break. The Indian Institute of Science admitted me to do a master’s degree. The primary reason I applied for the master’s degree is that I thought it would be a ticket to come to the U.S.
Because my father was a tire salesman, he used to bring home these beautiful brochures of Impala cars. They were selling Goodyear tires, and, of course, there were beautiful people, beautiful women in the cars. I was too young to notice the women, but I noticed the cars. So I got hooked. I thought, “I need to go to the U.S. and own one of these cars, and enjoy the good American life.” I think the story in my head was that milk and honey would be dropping out of the trees.
But, at the Indian Institute of Science, which was, for me, a ticket to the U.S., my grades were not good enough. So they didn’t put me through a degree program where you have to attend courses, because I was very bad at listening to others and spitting out information. That was what education in India was—just memorizing. So they asked me to go into the research track and build an interferometer, a high-precision optical instrument to study turbulence. The interferometer measures very accurate fluctuations in temperature. In retrospect, that’s an impossible project to do, but I took it. It took me three years, but we did build an interferometer, for the first time in India. And I learned what I am good at, which is research, and doing things which others give up as not possible. So, I finally had this confidence back in me.
So then I came to the U.S. to study engineering and get a job in a tire company. Goodyear was my ambition because my father worked there. But my adviser, the day I walked into his office, said he was tired of engineering. I liked him for that. I could relate to that. He switched to studying the atmospheres of Mars and Venus. So that’s where my work was—reconstructing the greenhouse effects on Mars and Venus, where they have pure carbon dioxide atmospheres
Boom: Did this mode of learning on your own, and having to do things yourself, continue through your graduate degrees and into your research on climate change?
Ramanathan: Yes, right through, because I still never believe anything I read or what others tell me unless I can try it out myself, either through a thought experiment or designing an experiment to do that.
When I finished my Ph.D., I couldn’t get a job studying planetary atmospheres, but NASA took me in their reentry physics section. They wanted me to build a model of the atmosphere. And since I’d worked on the carbon dioxide greenhouse effect, I started reading papers on that. There was a famous report from Swedish Academy of Science that said, in terms of man’s impact, carbon dioxide is the only thing you need to worry about—and, of course, I didn’t believe that. And this was 1974, and I saw this paper by Mario Molina and Sherman Rowland talking about CFCs causing damage to the ozone layer. And it was the CFCs that I was trying to prevent from escaping in my job in India.
Boom: From the refrigerators?
Ramanathan: Yes. I could immediately relate to that. I said, this must have a strong greenhouse effect. And, in fact, my former adviser, Bob Cess, said, “Oh, you are wasting your time. Carbon dioxide is obviously the greenhouse gas.” So I did that work, and, of course, it showed CFCs were 10,000 times more potent. The CFC work was a breakthrough. That paper got me into the climate field. Paul Crutzen read it—he’s a Nobel Laureate—Ralph Cicerone, who is the President of the National Academy of Sciences, read it. He was the one who reviewed it. So it got me from being an obscure guy from India into the mainstream of climate and atmospheric science.
Boom: Now you’re very much in the mainstream. You’re going to the Paris climate summit as part of the Holy See’s delegation. How did you begin to work with the Vatican and the Pope?
Ramanathan: In the 1990s, one thing led to another. I did a major field study in the Indian Ocean with six aircraft and two ships. There were over two hundred scientists from around the world—the U.S., Europe, and India. And we discovered this vast pollution cloud. I remember the last day. We used to fly mainly in the Arabian Sea because of the pollution coming from India over the Arabian Sea. But on the last flight, I wanted to go to the other side and fly over the Bay of Bengal. That’s where my hometown is on the east coast. And I saw it buried under this massive, thick pollution cloud. I think that did something to me. I said, “Now I cannot leave these billion people to deal with this. I have to do something.”
So this was on my mind when I turned sixty in 2004. I looked at my life’s work. There was a big celebration. Three Nobel laureates were here, and they were talking about my work. And I felt in my gut that all I’ve done is bring one piece of bad news after another about what’s happening to the planet. That celebration made me happy, but it really made me sad and depressed about how my life’s work was such a huge, you know, waste. I thought I should work on solutions.
About that time, I got an invitation from the new U.N. Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, to come to the General Assembly and address a bunch of high school kids. That was the first meeting he organized—not world leaders but high school kids from around the world. He asked us to talk to them about the environment and climate change, so I talked about this brown cloud from India. And at that meeting a girl from Ethiopia came up to me and said, “Look, you made us cry, but tell me what you are doing?” I couldn’t tell her anything. I was just still carrying on my life. Not being able to answer her was a major thing for me.
And then within six months, I get this email from the Vatican, inviting me to join the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, which was, of course, a huge honor. Paul Crutzen, whom I had met after the CFC work, was a member and he promoted me as a member. Four or five years into the academy, I proposed to organize a meeting myself. Our meetings were mainly on science, but this was about what we are doing to the environment and how do we become better stewards of the planet. We talked about larger issues. So it was at that meeting in 2011 that I realized, my goodness, this church could be used as an agent of change.
I teamed up with the social scientists—the Vatican has two academies, an Academy of Sciences and an Academy of Social Sciences—so that we could organize a meeting on sustainability. I came up with a title, “Sustainability of Nature.” And an economist from the Academy of Social Sciences added “Sustainability of Humanity.” We submitted this. And the church had somebody co-organize these conferences with us. They had Archbishop Roland Minnerath from France, and he added a third third title, “Our Responsibility.” So that’s how the church was slowly working with religion and was slowly changing me. I never thought about this before. But you cannot find a single scientific paper that says “our responsibility.” They all talk about sustainability, global warming, this and that, but not our responsibility.
We proposed that meeting in 2012, and the church reviewed it in 2013, after which the Pope has to agree to it. I briefed Pope Benedict. He was very supportive, but by the time we got to organizing it, he had stepped down, and then Pope Francis got really very supportive. He wrote the cover letter for the invitation, so we could get anybody we wanted. And we assembled the top thirty leaders from various disciplines in May 2014.
And I said, “I need to find out who’s responsible for this.” Looking at available data showed most of the pollution was coming from the top one billion. I then realized this is not a problem of population. It’s a problem of overconsumption. Population is a huge issue—I don’t want to discount it—for climate change. But the bottom three billion, their contribution is less than 5 percent. We have left behind 40 percent of the population. They don’t get enough energy. So I talked about that. That meeting, for me, was really a defining meeting. Our conclusion was that the solution to the problem of sustainability requires a fundamental change in our attitude towards each other and towards nature.
Normally at these meetings, we have a chance to talk to the Pope. But this pope had become a superhero. He was on the front pages. Time magazine was considering him for the “man of the year.” There was a huge demand on his time. So just three hours before we were to close the meeting a note was passed to me that Pope Francis would see you. We quickly closed the meeting and rushed to see him.
Veerabhadran Ramanathan and Pope Francis in 2014. Photograph by Gabriella Marino/Vatican.
Normally, we have an audience with the Pope in the most breathtaking hall in the Basilica. So we were waiting just outside the Basilica, and suddenly I see someone getting out of a small Fiat. It was Pope Francis, right in the parking lot in front of us. And I was told, “The Pope is very busy. You have three sentences to summarize this meeting to him.”
So I think the first one I told him was something like, “We are members of your Academy, we are here on your behalf, and we are all worried about climate change.”
Then the second sentence I told him was that most of the pollution comes from the wealthy one billion on the planet, whereas the poorest three billion are going to suffer the worst consequences. Of course, that would have come like music to his ears. That’s what the Pope was primarily thinking: the poor are going to suffer the worst. So then he asked me, in that picture where he’s looking at me, he asked what he can do about it. But I’m looking at Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, the Chancellor of the Academy, because he translated what the Pope said.
Marcelo said, “The Holy Father wants to know what he can do about it.” So I told him, “You are so well-known. In your speeches, if you say people should be better stewards of the planet, that will be enough.” And that was it.
Ten days later he was with the Patriarch Bartholomew, the leader of the Orthodox Church, and they made a decision to work on climate change. So I thought, after meeting with him, “My God, we now have science and religion working together.” Now it has become accepted that climate change is a moral issue.
Boom: And that came out in the Pope’s encyclical, Laudato Si’, which I remember you saying, when we first met, had done more to communicate the importance of climate change and the importance of solving this problem for people and for the planet than scientists had done in decades.
Ramanathan: It’s not to put down what the scientists have done.
Boom: No, no.
Ramanathan: You need the science, but I would go beyond that. I think this Pope, in less than a year, has done more for climate change and more to stop this disastrous experiment we are doing than all the leaders I know. In my view, he has certainly had more impact than Al Gore on our thinking. Gore had a huge impact, but nothing like this Pope’s influence.
Boom: What is that core connection between religion and climate change?
Ramanathan: There’s a core connection, and there is a symbiotic relationship between the two. The core connection is, first of all, what are scientists trying to tell us? That nature has limited capacity to deal with our pollution. We are past that capacity. That we have to take care of nature. But that’s what all religions say: protect nature. We call it Mother Earth. So there is a convergence with what religion says—all the religions. I think that’s the beauty of it. This issue can unite all the religions, unlike any other issue, right? We are divided by our skin color, we are divided by our language, and we are divided by our religion. But environment unites all of that. And there is also this tussle between science and religions, when you talk about evolution, when you talk about genomes, but not environment. So that’s the part I feel we can exploit or capture, to stop this disastrous experiment on climate.
The symbiotic relationship, now that I’ve gone on this path it is very clear to me, is that climate change is a moral issue, on many dimensions. You know, nature was given to us to protect. Okay, we can enjoy it, but not abuse it. The abusing part is only justifiable if nature has infinite capacity. Then we can cut all the trees we want. There will be more trees. We know that’s not the case. We know that’s not the case with air pollution. When you see that we are changing the color of the sky, it’s clear. We have a limit, so that’s a moral issue. The second moral issue is intra-generational morality—one billion people finishing up the carbon in the planet, not worrying about what it does to the others. And the third moral issue is that climate change lasts tens of thousands of years, so we are condemning generations unborn to our unsustainable ways.
As a scientist, I can’t talk about that. I wonder even if our political leaders can. But faith leaders can. That’s what we go to the church, our temples, for—morality and moral behavior. So that’s symbiotic. Science provides the evidence, and religion can pick it up.
The Dalai Lama accepts a framed image of a Sirsoe dalailamai, a deep-sea worm named after him in honor of his 80th birthday. He is photographed with Scripps geophysicist Walter Munk and climate and atmospheric scientist Veerabhadran Ramanathan. Courtesy Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego.
Boom: And the Dalai Lama is involved as well?
Ramanathan: Yes. I was lucky to be involved with the Dalai Lama when he came here four years ago for a major public event. And then his eightieth birthday celebration was held in July 2015, and I was in the event with him. He talked about climate change. And he, of course, translated beautifully that the way to solve the problem is to have compassion without borders. If what we are doing is affecting somebody else or is affecting Greenland glaciers, we have to have compassion for that. So we have the Pope and we have the Dalai Lama.
Boom: That’s pretty good.
Ramanathan: It’s a great start.
Boom: Do you consider yourself a religious man?
Ramanathan: I would say I’m not an atheist. I’m like most people—I don’t know how to define myself. I’m certainly spiritual. And I honestly don’t know. The reason I hesitate to say I’m religious is that I find religions are dividing us. It’s supposed to unite us, right? Because if there is a God, there has to be only one God. We can’t have competition up there!
So, I’m thinking, why are we all fighting about this? It doesn’t matter what name we call that God, if you agree that God is monotheism. So that’s why I hesitate. I don’t know any more what religion means. Religion looks like it’s a source for killing each other or separating ourselves. It’s one more thing which divides us, whereas spirituality…. See, that’s the thing I think of Pope Francis as—as a moral leader for the world. I have to go back to Gandhi in India. He led a moral fight against the British and won that battle. No big armies could beat the British, but this guy, a topless Indian. I think of Pope Francis like that.
Boom: But a single man can’t solve climate change, right? Everybody has to do something. And how do you communicate that? So far, for many of us, climate change has seemed like this big, huge problem that’s out there. It’s a global problem. Governments need to deal with it. I can’t do anything about it. I’ve got other stuff to worry about.
Ramanathan: I agree with you. I’m not an expert in this field, but something like 45 percent of Americans don’t believe in climate change, or at least they don’t believe you have to do anything about it. That is a catastrophic failure of communication. It’s not a failure of those 45 percent. So then you ask, where have we failed? I don’t know, but listening to the Pope, and listening to what they did to the title of my meeting, “Our Responsibility,” I think we have not brought it to a personal level. We pointed to Exxon and Chevron as the villains.
I was looking for a villain for forty years. Then I found there are two worlds—my world and this bottom three billion world. When I lived in India, I used to go back and forth every five or six days. It was then that I found I was the villain I was looking for. I can’t blame Exxon. I made that choice, right?
So I’m wondering, if people realize they are responsible, whether they will be more amenable to change, because if you are responsible, you can change. And the other thing I’m thinking is that my driving an SUV here could make some villagers in Africa or India homeless, because global warming causes drought. And we know Americans, as a nation, are generous, right? You have earthquakes. You have disasters. American kids are sent there to help, and we send our money, and our clothes. So I’m wondering whether we can tap into that generosity of Americans, if we make it, “Hey, be careful. If you do something, your great-grandchildren, who we have not seen, are going to suffer for it, or somebody sitting in a small village in Kenya, or Rajasthan in India, they’re going to lose their homes because of us.”
I don’t know if that will work or not. I certainly like Pope Francis’s approach, making it our responsibility.
Boom: That’s interesting. It reminds me of the recent poll that showed that the great majority of Americans believe climate change is real, that it’s caused by people, and that they can’t do anything about it. So it’s the third part that we need to change.
Ramanathan: That we can do something about it. But the key first step is we feel responsible for it. I think that’s what the Pope did. See, he made you responsible for it, you and I.
Boom: What do we need to do to succeed in what you have called bending the curve of climate change?
Ramanathan: It’s a technology problem. But my feeling is, having worked with researchers from across the UC system on our report on the top ten solutions, that the technology is there, by and large, to get us halfway there. But I think the first thing it requires, is changing our attitude towards nature. We discussed this last week at the Vatican during a meeting on education for sustainability. We have to start teaching this, from kindergarten on.
We need to educate our kids right now. And the reason is, no matter what we do, we’re still going to face a two-degree warming that many of us think in itself would be quite disastrous. They have to face it, so we have to prepare. We have to prepare them with how to cope with it and how not to repeat our stupid mistakes. And everyone has to know that nature is limited. It has boundaries. That work has to be done immediately in our educational institutions.
I am sad to say, even outstanding universities like UC have not caught on. We don’t see the urgency. I admire what our president did, in pledging carbon neutrality by 2025, but I don’t see that in our education. If I was the chancellor, no undergraduate could graduate without taking one or two courses on the environment. It has to be like literature, part of a broad education. So that has to change.
And I think the second thing is we’ve got to work with the religions. Each one of us, we all go to our church, and I said I’m not religious, but I’m willing to go to church and temple for this. And the third is we have to educate our neighbors, our relatives. Those of us who know it’s a problem, it’s on us. We have to do that. It’s not enough to write our papers anymore. We have to write our papers. But I think people working on environment and climate change have a responsibility beyond writing papers.
This societal transformation, to me, would be the top of my agenda. The rest will follow.
Boom: What do you hope to accomplish in Paris?
Ramanathan: Well, you see, until about three or four days ago my role was more peripheral. I was going to be participating in side events. But I was told that I’m one of the official member delegates of the Holy See now, so I’ve been going back and forth on what exactly is my role. They send a science advisor to help them with their proposals and negotiations, so what I’m hoping, I don’t know if I have that authority, what I’d like to see happen is the Vatican, as a nation, push for a big part of climate financing to go to the bottom three billion, to give them clean energy access, for a number of reasons. They can bypass us and go to renewable energy because they don’t have the infrastructure. They don’t have huge coal-fired power plants to dismantle. They have nothing. So it’s easy to construct distributed power plants. I am going there with a mission, to raise consciousness of the three billion, to help them, and so they can become climate warriors for us.
Boom: And is that what you hope for the summit to accomplish as well?
Ramanathan: The summit first has to persuade the top one billion to de-carbonize. That has to come first, and then comes giving energy access to the more than three billion. It will be demoralizing without having some agreement, but I’m pretty hopeful it’s going to happen. If we have a piece of paper that everyone signed, that states that it is an important problem, we are causing it, and we are going to reduce it by so much, even if it is 10 percent, I’ll be happy. Because my own work suggests that in ten years the changes are going to be so large that the dissenters will go into the minority. There will be a huge cry for doing something about it. Then we have this piece of paper. If you said in the piece of paper 10 percent, just changing the 1 to 4 will be a lot easier than starting with a blank piece of papers. Let’s not get stuck on 10 percent or 80 percent. First, we need that paper, that protocol, saying that we are going to cut emissions.
Boom: That’s interesting because that’s what California has done, isn’t it? Starting with a number—10, 20, 30 percent—and then ratcheting it up every few years to ratchet down on carbon emissions. What do you see as the role of California in all of this?
Ramanathan: Huge. I think we show them how to do it, from technology, from policy, and governance. Those are the three key things. And hopefully, we can do that on education, too. On the education front, that’s what I’m trying to push. Let’s take our report and turn it into a textbook and then teach that course jointly on a minimum of five campuses. If we just enrolled, say, sixty students, about twelve from each campus, but use the best technology, to seamlessly go from one campus to another, each lecture taught by three lecturers from three different campuses. Hopefully, after a couple of years it will become a major online course, reaching tens of thousands, and the message is very simple. It’s a solvable problem. The technology is there. We now have religion working with us. So, let’s talk about that multidimensional aspect of the climate change.
Honestly, if you think a little bit, this climate change problem could impact our evolution, how, as a society, we work together to keep going forward. It will set the stage—if we can do it.
Governor Jerry Brown with Scripps Oceanography climate scientist Veerabhadran Ramanathan and UC San Diego Vice Chancellor of Research Sandra Brown at the UC Carbon Neutrality Summit.
Boom: I hear some echoes in what you are saying of the kinds of things that Jerry Brown is saying—that this is an existential crisis. How has he done in communicating and leading on this issue?
Ramanathan: He personally has had a huge impact on me.
Boom: How so?
Ramanathan: Well, he opened my eyes that we need to see the worst possible consequences, that you can’t be completely constrained by your science because your science is not complete. You don’t understand the system. Each of us understands one part. I understand the atmosphere. I don’t understand how it’s going to impact the oceans. He said, given the limitations of science, without compromising your scientific vigor, you need to think about the worst possible consequences, which is what is going to guide policy. That was number one, coming from him.
The second is, I saw him putting that into policy. He said, “I know there’s still some scientific debate going on, but I want to do everything I can to reduce that probability of worst disasters.” So, yeah, he’s now the right person for California. He’s going to put us on a path. I think Schwarzenegger started us on that—we should thank him for that—but this governor, I don’t think anyone I have met realizes the urgency of the situation as much as he does, with the possible exception of Pope Francis. I don’t think any world leaders do, because I’ve not heard them say as much. This man does. And that fact that he is in California, where people are willing to support it—if you have Jerry Brown sitting in the middle of Oklahoma, I don’t think it’s going to happen. But here we can use his support from the top to do a tremendous amount of bottom-up things and then propagate it to the rest of the planet.
Boom: What’s interesting to me about Jerry Brown, and the way that he’s talked about all of this, is that he has put the worst possible scenario in front of the people and said you have to face this. He’s called it an apocalypse. And I’ve always thought that an apocalyptic vision is disempowering. It’s demoralizing. You think if it’s going to be apocalypse, there’s nothing I can do about it. Let me go home and spend time with my family or whatever. He has changed my mind about that, with the caveat that if you talk about the apocalypse you’ve got to talk, at the same time, about what we can do to avoid it. So you put in front of people the worst case scenario, and then you say what we can do to make that not come true. And he’s done that by connecting it to the drought, which some people think is controversial, by connecting it to forest fires, which some people think is premature, because the scientific connections are not super robust. And then he’s said: And here’s what you can do about it. You can conserve water. You can reduce your emissions. We can all work together. So that, I think, is the genius of it, putting those two things together.
Ramanathan: Exactly. It doesn’t make it look hopeless because he has a solution at hand, how we can avoid that. And the environment has pushed him to this road, because he was left fighting the worst drought we have seen. I know some scientists who say, “Oh, we are not clear if this drought is due to climate change.” I look at them and say they have such a limited understanding of science because they think they are going to be able to take an event and say convincingly it’s due to this. We know they will never do that because nature is highly complex. What we can work with is probability and basic physics. Thermodynamics says if you have warming in a region like this, that will promote drought because you are evaporating water crazily from your lakes, from your rivers.
Boom: From the earth itself.
Ramanathan: Yeah. And you’re melting your snowpack. And then water is evaporating from the trees. They dry out. They become fuel. But they are looking for something else. I think what they are looking for is an unscientific rigor. It’s never going to happen. But climate change does cause droughts. I can’t say this particular drought was caused by climate change. What I will argue is that climate change made this drought worse. It would not have been as bad without warming. So Jerry Brown is able to sift through scientific advice. That’s his genius.
Boom: Here in California I understand we’ve cut particulates that cause smog by something like 90 percent.
Ramanathan: The black carbon.
Boom: Yes. And I know we still have air quality problems in the Central Valley and in Los Angeles. But I remember when I was a kid and would come out to visit my grandparents in Pasadena and you couldn’t see the San Gabriel Mountains from their house. Now that’s very rare here. But you can look at air quality monitors worldwide online now and see that there are many, many places in Asia and South Asia where the smog and the black carbon problem is horrendous. Is California’s experience relevant to the rest of the world?
Ramanathan: The air pollution issue is also multidimensional. It has public health consequences—four million deaths a year are related to air pollution. Some air pollutants cause global warming—black carbon, ozone, methane—and they destroy crops, too. So for many, many reasons, you need to get rid of them. And I think this is where the California experience is relevant to India and China. We are starting a program, with Governor Jerry Brown’s help, between India and California.
The general prejudice is, oh, you clean up air pollution and you’re going to destroy your economy. California is saying, no, not necessarily. We have the largest GDP in the U.S. That generates a huge number of jobs. Our population is growing. Our economy is growing. So what California did is a myth buster. For sure, cleaning air pollution costs. It’s not free. But the benefit you get is ten to thirty times more than the money you put into clean up. We have to get that message across. We are trying, but not succeeding so far. When I see that China’s actual coal consumption was 30 percent more than they admitted, I feel sad.
Boom: You researched air pollution in India, but growing up you also experienced it intimately with your grandmother cooking with firewood in the house and suffering some of the consequences. How has that shaped your work?
Ramanathan: At the time it was happening, when I was at my grandmother’s house and she used to cook, it didn’t have any impact on me. It didn’t register. What I did recall later was that after every cooking session, she would be coughing, a really nerve-wracking cough, for an hour or so. It’s not something I watched my watch to see how long it lasted, but it would go on forever. I never related that to the cooking smoke in the kitchen.
When I talked about the Indian Ocean experiment—that was where this brown cloud was discovered—it took one or two years of research to link that to cooking as the major source of pollution. Then I thought, this is a problem I can solve because we all figured out how to cook without producing smog, right? So this is an easy problem I can solve. And I can go back to that Ethiopian girl and tell her, “Yeah, I did something.”
So we started this project, but as a scientist I had to collect data. Remember, I don’t believe anything anybody said. I had to collect the data in the village to convince myself the smoke I am seeing outside is coming from the cooking. That took several years to really pin down. Now there’s no doubt that it’s coming from the firewood. And we are now distributing better stoves. But it’s a very complex problem. It was not as simple of a problem as I thought.
But anyway, I was last there early this year. Every time I go into the kitchen I would always see my grandmother there, so that memory got really implanted. But at the time she was doing it, I didn’t link her cough to this cooking.
Boom: How would you answer that Ethiopian girl today?
Ramanathan: Well, I have a long list of things. I would tell her first about what I did to my house. My house is completely solar. My car is an electric car.
That girl—for four years after—I mean, she had such a horrible impact on me. I started taking the bus. But I live on top of a hill, and the bus doesn’t go to the top of the hill. So I had to walk up. Then I had my second heart attack and I had stents, so I couldn’t walk up the hill. I begged my wife to drop me at the bus stop so I could get the bus.
Then I bought an electric car—it’s charged with solar—so at least I travel guilt-free. But it’s not the Impala. It’s a smart car.
I think of all the things I would say if somebody gave me one minute to talk about the things I’m really proud of. I would say it’s the work in the village to change the cooking fuels, and then my affiliation with the church, and seeing the power of science, religion, and policy working together to solve this problem. So I would now have a message of hope for that girl.
Editor’s Note: As chief scientist of The Nature Conservancy, the world’s largest environmental organization, Peter Kareiva has spent much of the past decade in the air, touching down to work with other scientists, conservationists, community organizations, and political and business leaders on projects to protect nature—for nature’s sake and for people’s—on every continent except Antarctica. Now he’s coming to roost in what might seem an unlikely perch: Los Angeles, a city not known as a paragon of preservation.
This summer, Kareiva became director of the University of California, Los Angeles’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. Los Angeles is changing, Kareiva told us. And cities are a crucial site for conservation science and solutions to the grand challenges of the twenty-first century: population growth and urbanization, threats to ecosystems and biodiversity, climate change, and sustainability in a world of inequality. What better place could there be for a scientist who has been called “one of the most innovative and provocative thinkers in conservation today”? We sat down for a long conversation with him on a sunny day with a light ocean breeze blowing across the City of Angels. This interview was conducted by Jon Christensen and Hillary Rosner.
Boom: Welcome to Los Angeles.
Kareiva: It’s nice to be here.
Boom: With The Nature Conservancy, you’ve been all over the world. What attracts you to L.A.?
Kareiva: Well, you know, I lived in L.A. twenty years ago. At that stage, I was surfing and enjoying the weather. This time around, it’s that I like cities! I know that’s kind of unusual for a conservation biologist. But I’ve always liked cities. And L.A. is a great city.
I like cities because of the creativity and the people in them. And now I like cities as a conservationist because I think they’re essential to get right in order to solve the big environmental problems: food, water, climate, transportation, all the supply chains that drive what happens in the world. Getting that right depends on cities because that’s where most of the activity is, the energy is, the people are.
L.A. is a pretty neat city because I like to run against the grain a little bit. And when I told my buddies I was going to L.A., they all said, “Why L.A.?” Most conservation biologists would go to Montana or go to Wyoming. But L.A. is doing a lot of interesting things with conservation. The whole notion of restoring the Los Angeles River is just wild. L.A. was a leader in dealing with coastal pollution decades ago. And now L.A. is facing a big water shortage, and how it is dealing with that, in everything from residential to industrial use, is fascinating.
The energetics of the city—just in terms of carbon emissions—are daunting. You have a sprawling city, notorious for not having mass transit, that could actually turn out to be carbon neutral. That would be remarkable. And that would tell you that other cities could do it too, that you wouldn’t have to start with a perfectly designed city. So all of that is pretty appealing. And then there is the diversity. Why do biologists do conservation? They like biological diversity. I like people diversity. I like food diversity. And L.A. has all that.
Boom: So you’re making a move from where you’ve been for ten years now—The Nature Conservancy, the world’s largest conservation organization—and doing all these great, exciting projects on the ground, around the world. Why make the transition to academia, to UCLA?
Kareiva: Well, I’m still going to stay connected to The Nature Conservancy in some ways, precisely because of what you just said: they’re always doing stuff. But there is a problem with organizations that are always doing stuff, whether they’re NGOs or the federal government. They’re called action institutions. And action institutions do not pause to think about what they’re doing. They do not pause to ask, really, how well is this working? Is there a better way or is there a different way to do things? Rarely do they even pause to analyze the data they’ve collected. And so, after ten years of doing stuff, I think there now needs to be some research and deep analysis of what’s working and not working and all the things everybody is doing in the environment.
And the other thing is that, you know, universities are places where, ideally, it’s fine to have arguments. It’s not always so fine to have arguments in the NGO world or even the federal agency world because there’s a tremendous cultural push to reach consensus, sometimes somewhat artificially, even when that doesn’t mean resolving the issues. It’s understandable that federal agencies have to achieve consensus. It’s understandable that NGOs have to reach consensus. But I think we’re at a time now in the environment where we don’t know what the consensus should be, and we should be having these arguments.
Boom: You’ve also taught at universities around the United States, public and private. What attracts you to a big public university?
Kareiva: Well, my very first job after I did my PhD was at Brown University, which is about as elite as you can get. My dad was first a coal miner and then a construction worker and finally a groundskeeper at a college, so I had a little bit of a working-class chip on my shoulder. Then when I moved from Brown to the University of Washington, just looking out at the students and seeing lumberjacks and a tremendous diversity of students, I really liked it. There’s something about the big public university that’s special. They really are the American dream. Somebody told me the statistic that one out of three UCLA undergraduates is a first-generation college student, and I can see it, just from the little time I’ve been on campus. Just looking around and talking to people, you see that diversity. They’re much less entitled. They’re much less cynical.
So I think there’s something special about public universities. But also, many who have been at a university realize that public universities are in trouble in the United States. The state and the public are cutting back support for them. They’re asking the faculty to do more with less. Students are being asked to pay higher tuitions. And it’s really kind of cramped from every side. Private philanthropy gives to the big famous private schools. They really should be giving to UCLA and other public schools, in my opinion. I just love big public schools. They’re exciting.
Boom: So you like a challenge.
Kareiva: I always like a challenge. I’m competitive too. I think that major public universities like UCLA, UC Berkeley, the University of Washington, and the University of Minnesota, those big schools actually can do better research and do things better in general than—I won’t name the schools, but you can name them—all the elite private schools, partly because they are more diverse. There’s more hunger.
UCLA Ecology and Evolutionary Biology student Sarah Ratay describes how the Western Scrub-Jay makes use of chaparral habitat in the Santa Monica Mountains. Courtesy the La Kretz Center for California Conservation Science.
Boom: And energy.
Kareiva: Yes, and energy.
Boom: You said after ten years, now seems like a time to step back and assess what’s being done and perhaps argue with the consensus. So do you have a specific research agenda based on that, that either you want to see carried out or you plan to carry out yourself?
Kareiva: Yeah, I do, and it’s been evolving pretty rapidly, even within the last year. If you had asked me a year ago, it would be different than what it is now, partly because of analyzing data and thinking about things.
Probably the trendiest thing in conservation and the environment right now is urban conservation, green infrastructure, resilient cities. All of those are connected, but they’re connected pretty uncritically right now. And I think the way people are dealing with it, because they’re natural scientists like me, they’re coming in with a too mechanistic, biophysical point of view. Like, let’s put, you know, this much permeable surface, this much of this building type, this much green roof, this much of that, and then let’s write out a model that tells you what the city is like environmentally.
And that’s all valid. I would do that myself. But because I travel so much and I’m a walker, whenever I go to a new city, I’ll spend a whole day walking around the city. And you get different views. You see how people are different. But I don’t think that type of research captures that. It doesn’t capture what makes people really enjoy the city and the nature of the city, what makes people really connect with nature and feel different about the city. I don’t think it’s well captured by the way we’ve traditionally been doing this research on cities.
This research is also tied to the notion of resilience. There are a number of major philanthropists funding what they call the resilient cities network. And we all have an intuitive idea what resilience means. It means bouncing back when something like Hurricane Sandy happens, or not getting hammered when something bad happens to you. When I see conservationists and environmentalists take up the term “resilience,” often their interpretation of it is about keeping nature the same, and they think that maintenance of the same nature produces resilience for resilient cities. The hypothesis is often that if we maintain the biodiversity we have, if we maintain the vegetation we have without any nonnative species, and if we maintain nature as it has been, then we will get resilience. Well, that might be resilient for nature, but I am not sure it is resilience for cities and people.
There’s good reason to argue that what would make a city socially and economically resilient is to fundamentally transform nature, not keep it the same. In fact, spending energy trying to keep it the same could just waste energy, and it could be the worst thing in the world you could do. So I’m interested in exploring that idea of resilience, not just with cities, but in a variety of systems that are taking up this word “resilience.” I’m interested in trying to collect data and write mathematical models, frankly, and conceptual models, that ask the question: what type of nature would make socioeconomic systems resilient? The default answer of ecologists has been that nature has to stay the same to be resilient. But that might not be the case at all.
And then one other big thing that I’ve really become interested in is working with corporations to create environmental benefits. Related to that, what’s the role of consumer and investor behavior in prompting changes in corporate practices? There’s no question that corporations will not just automatically decide to become environmentally wonderful for the sake of “goodness.” But there have been cases where corporate practices have changed dramatically. Look at dolphin-safe tuna. We used to kill millions of dolphins a year. Now we kill less than a thousand a year. That involved totally revamping an industry. And it was an industry that resisted for a while because it made it more expensive and harder to catch tuna. They had to change their gear and everything. They totally changed.
And technology has a role in this. A lot of corporations, when you come to them, say, “Well, we can’t give you the information you want.” I think in this big-data era, they can. Also, most corporations, when they do “sustainability,” all they’re really doing is energy efficiency—and now maybe water efficiency. Sustainability is about a lot more than energy efficiency and water efficiency. But those are easy to report and tend to be as far as corporations go in their sustainability efforts.
The best case is from food safety and tracking E. coli outbreaks. There was an outbreak that originated here in California from lettuce grown in Salinas. There are ways of tracking supply chains that allow you to know where your food is coming from and how it was grown. Well, that same technology allows you to do that for any product, much better than corporations are actually using.
Nike is the best at it. Nike got very serious. You can go on Nike’s website and look at their MSI, or Materials Sustainability Index, and find out what material is in your running shoe and where it came from and how sustainable it is. And if you put that information together for all of a corporation’s products, you can actually really get what I would call the sustainability footprint and impact of that corporation.
So, I’m interested in thinking through the whole business enterprise from a supply-chain point of view and seeing what could be done with it. I think you have a lot of leverage there. And a lot could be done. We make it too easy by being satisfied with emissions reporting as though that captures all of sustainability.
Boom: Both of these things—focusing on what nature can do for people or for cities and your interest in working with corporations—have gotten you into some trouble with the traditional conservation community. And some of the debates you’ve been involved in have become very heated and personal at times. I wonder if there are things you’ve learned that have changed your approach.
Kareiva: Well, the two immediate, short-term, personal things that I’ve learned are, one, to be a lot better at listening and paying attention to other people’s values. The other is to open every paper and every talk with some sort of statement that says, “Hey, look, I love nature too. I go out. I like species. I don’t want to see them extinct.” And then move on from there. It’s sort of like announcing, “I believe in God too,” or, “I’m a patriot as well. I believe in the United States.”
Emily Ann Parker, a student in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability senior capstone practicum research course, conducts a survey on water use at UCLA’s Unicamp near Big Bear. Photograph by John Vande Wege.
Boom: “I believe in nature.”
Boom: But wait, you’ve been the chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy. What made some people think you don’t care enough about nature?
Kareiva: By paying so much attention to what nature can do for cities and people or corporate behavior, there’s sometimes the assumption that that means I don’t love nature as a value. And that by not loving nature just as a pure value, as an ethical value, I’ve surrendered too much and made it too easy to compromise and not produce the outcomes that conservationists want.
Where I come back on that is, well, you have to realize that nature is one of many values. And there certainly is an ethics to extinction. But there’s also an ethics to freedom from violence. There’s also an ethics to freedom from hunger. There are all these values and ethics. And so love of nature is one of many values that shape our decisions. And you can’t just make it automatically the trump card, because if you do that it means you’re not going to listen to anybody else or even have a conversation with anybody else. It ends all conversations to tell someone that nature is the highest value that trumps all other values. I am not willing to say that nature should trump all other values. And that unwillingness makes some conservationists squirm and think I am uncommitted.
The other thing—and this is what I think I did wrong and scientists often do wrong—is that there are a lot of debates about conservation and the environment that really are all about values, and we couch them in science. And I should have known better. Now that I reflect on a whole bunch of debates that I’ve been involved in, they were consistently about values. What does one part of society value versus another part of society? Science was used to create an answer to support a preference that had already been arrived at by values. And I should have been smarter about that.
Now, the way I like to reframe it is this. I know it sounds like it’s, you know, kind of a smiley-face answer. But I say everybody is an environmentalist. And to a certain extent, everybody is an environmentalist. You’ll find very few people who would say, “I don’t like the environment. I don’t like nature.” So everybody is an environmentalist. And the right way to ask the questions we face—in L.A., in national parks, with endangered species, the whole environmental movement and conservation movement—is “What do we want the world to look like in 2030 and 2050?” If we actually frame the question that way, “What do we want the world to look like in 2030 and 2050?” I think we’ll find a lot more common ground, because it’s looking forward. Almost everybody loves running streams and rivers with fish in them that their kids can play along, and everybody loves the coastline, and everybody would love the opportunity to go to a place like Yellowstone.
So let’s ask, “What do you want the world to look like in 2030 and 2050?” Start with that and then ask, “Okay. How might that happen?” Instead, if you look at environmental debates, it’s all about, “What do we do tomorrow?” What do we do tomorrow about building this road, or this corporate activity, or this housing development, or this invasive species, or this threatened and endangered species? By making it so proximate, you lose sight of the common ground that people have. People might differ about what they do tomorrow because they’re worried about jobs lost or not lost. But in fact, looking to 2030 and 2050, they have a lot more common ground. Let’s paint a picture. To make it real, you have to pick real dates. And it would either be 2030 or 2050 because that’s where all the models and projections go when you’re starting with science. So you pick one of those two dates. I’m inclined to go with 2030 because that’s not too far off. And then just start from there.
I think it would be an interesting exercise—something we could do at UCLA—to do some of that visioning. But it has to be based on science. It can’t be fantasy. You have to do some hard calculations and say, “Would there still be enough land to feed people, and where are you getting your energy from? And how much?” You know, it’s not just science fiction. It’s got to be grounded, with real constraints.
A team of students in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability senior capstone practicum course work on their research projects at UCLA’s Young Research Library. Photograph by John Vande Wege.
Boom: OK, so everybody wants to go to Yosemite at some point in their lives. And everybody wants clean air and clean water. And everybody wants a world without runaway global warming. But there are still going to be big debates about what we need to do to get there. So how do we go from debating about what we’ll do or not do today or tomorrow to debating about how to get to a better 2030 or 2050?
Kareiva: People don’t see a path to getting there. There has to be path laid out to getting to that future world. And that path has to go all the way there, not just be about what you don’t do tomorrow. Do you know what I’m saying?
I’m trained as a mathematician. There’s a classical form of mathematical problem solving called dynamic programming, where you work backward. You end up at the final solution, but you step backward to get it, so you know how you get there. It’s a very deep mathematical insight. And it’s used all the time to solve complicated problems.
It’s actually not such a bad idea when you think about applying it to environmental things. Start with where you want to be and work backward. Because what we learn from dynamic programming is that you can’t do it the other way around. You actually can’t come up with a solution going from the starting point and getting to that desired outcome. You’ve got to start with the endpoint and work backwards. And I think that’s really true. If you don’t see a path there, why would you say, for instance, “I’m going to bear this burden of an increased property tax? All it’s going to do is protect a few hills in San Diego for a few species.” You’ve got to see a path the whole way, to conserving an ecosystem that’s crucial for the future of the place you live.
When you do this future visioning, where you’d see the real difference is in what type of nature people imagine in those futures. Are nonnative species okay? Nonnative species are out there. Are they okay as far as your joyous nature? Eucalyptus is a nonnative species. Are we going to try to eliminate eucalyptus from California, or are we just going to accept that eucalyptus is actually part of what most people think is California because we smell it everywhere? And it will be that way with a number of nonnative species.
Is it okay to have some engineering mixed in? Look at Kruger National Park, where in various places you see wells that were drilled to provide water for wildlife. Is that okay? Clearly it is for those people who go to Africa to see wildlife.
Boom: So when you’re teaching environmental science students in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at UCLA, what else do you teach them that scientists need to know and need to be able to do to make their work really effective and have an impact in the world?
Kareiva: We need to think about how we might use social media to change behavior. We need social scientists, cognitive psychologists, economists—that’s obvious. There’s no question that environmentalists need all that, and, I would say, we also need the humanities. The humanities are a way to learn how to tell a story that inspires and makes people thoughtful, or that enables your story about GMOs or your story about climate change to relate to their family history and their work. Humanities can also teach you empathy, which can so often be lacking in heated environmental debates.
Boom: These are questions about values as well as the stories that we tell. And science can clearly tell us what the problems are. But then there’s this huge arena of values and people making judgments about those problems. If science can tell us what the problems are, should scientists then step aside and let the social sciences, humanities, and politics deal with the rest? Or is there some role for science beyond just illuminating the problems and pointing to potential solutions?
Kareiva: Well, science can tell you the problems. It also can tell you the constraints and tradeoffs, which allows you to play out your scenarios in the future. For example, if you’re considering whether we should ranch or farm tuna offshore in California, as opposed to relying on catching wild tuna, science can tell us what’s the maximum energy efficiency by which you can convert food into tuna and what the yield will be, so that we’ll be able to make better decisions. Science doesn’t just tell you what the problems are. It tells you what constraints limit your solutions. It can also tell you rates. Rates are really important. And it can also tell you what variability and potential surprises to expect. It never gives you prescriptive answers. Scientists sometimes will make mistakes, of course, in thinking that it can.
Boom: But is there a role for—maybe not for science, but for scientists to be active in public and advocating for solutions? Or do you step back and say, “Here is what the science shows. Here are your options. Now you decide.”
Kareiva: I think there’s a public role for the scientist, although in my profession, opinion is divided on that. So many scientists would say that once you become engaged in that public debate, you have reduced your credibility as a scientist. I would say maybe even half of scientists today still think that—maybe even more. I think otherwise. And I think the way you have to guard against that is what you publish. It is kind of arcane, but what you publish in peer-reviewed literature has to maintain high quality and not be biased and be pretty, pretty clear. That’s not always the case for scientists who become activists. Some clearly fish for data and try to get results a certain way.
But you can have a public persona where you mix the two. You can say, “Based on my expertise, my values, and all this, this is what I think,” or, “This is the conversation we should be having.” We have to step up, because if we don’t, who is going to do it? Who else is going to take the science and bring it into the realm of values, other than scientists?
Boom: Writers? Artists?
Kareiva: Well, they can. You’re right. I agree. But they’ll be better off if they have scientists to talk to, as friends and colleagues and collaborators.
Boom: For sure.
Kareiva: Just like when I started out in biology and I went into mathematical biology, I had mathematicians to talk to, and they didn’t talk to me in just math. They talked to me in other ways.
I think we have to step up. But there are a lot of people on campuses around the United States who would sit there and say, “Oh, that’s not really science.”
Boom: Why do you think that is?
Kareiva: You know, people basically say, “Be like me. And if you’re different than me, you’re not good. That’s all there is.” I don’t think everybody has to be engaged publicly. Just like not everybody should teach. Not all scientists should be out in the public. They’ll only do more damage. They might be so obnoxious that they turn the public off of science. But a significant number of scientists have to be out in the public, and they shouldn’t be shunned or scorned because they are. And people who are out in public shouldn’t shun or scorn the ones who don’t go out in public.
Boom: Is there anything special about California in terms of the world of conservation and conservation science?
Kareiva: You know, there is, in a way. All biologists recognize it because of the many different habitats in California, from the deserts to the mountains and ocean. It’s a really special place biologically and in terms of biodiversity. Then you have the fact that California is also a huge economic engine—this state alone has the eighth largest economy in the world. It’s a huge source of economic growth and wealth. And it has a culture of innovation. Even if that’s just a made-up story or fairy tale, it doesn’t matter. It creates a mindset that we can innovate our way out of things. That whole Silicon Valley thing extends through the state.
So you have a biodiversity conservation hotspot. You have wealth and innovation coupled together; and it’s not wealth based on, for instance, selling oil, which would not have innovation associated with it. And then you have population diversity, in a diverse state where soon Hispanics will be the majority.
What makes that special is that the cultural diversity and the wealth here offer the means to try experiments in conservation and the environment, to do things differently, to be bold. The traditional John Muir–type conservation is not necessarily part of the cultural heritage of the Hispanic family.
So I think these things all come together so that California can try some pretty bold things. Look at Jerry Brown’s push for carbon emissions limits and renewable energy. Look at The Nature Conservancy’s efforts to buy back and refit trawlers. By doing that, they have created a private market solution so that fishermen ended up making more money. The Nature Conservancy in California has also created auctions around agricultural lands that can be flooded for bird habitat, so that instead of regulating who gets flooded, you have the farmers saying, “We think we’ve got land here that would be a stopover for a thousand birds, and we’ll flood our lands longer. So we’ll plan. And if we get those thousand birds, then you pay us this much money.” That’s pretty clever.
So I think the mixture of the enormous biological diversity and the wealth—it’s a lot harder to have environmental solutions when there are no resources, no affluence—enables California to come up with these things. And then just the diverse population.
We could talk about so many things. I’ll bet if you just went down the list of environmental problems—water. There’s a lot going on in California with desalination experiments. The only other place that’s doing as much is Israel. Energy. There’s a lot going on in California with respect to energy. Just go down the list, and you will find a lot more experimentation in California than in other places. They’ll do some stupid stuff, and they’ll get it wrong. But it’s that experimentation that’s pretty cool.
With a toast and a drink of reclaimed water, visitors from the California legislature, governor’s office, and state water board celebrate UCLA engineering professor Yoram Cohen’s demonstration project using reverse-osmosis to clean contaminated water in California’s Central Valley. Photograph by John Vande Wege.
Boom: One thing you haven’t mentioned, of course, is our great creative industry that gives us so many dystopias. You do realize you’re moving to the capital of dystopia?
Kareiva: Oh, yes. The film industry. I’ve seen Blade Runner many a time. A lot of people have said that if you really wanted to get people to pay attention to climate change and water and all these other things, wouldn’t the film industry be a big help? But look at gay marriage. It wasn’t the film industry, it was television. There’s no question, most people think that television shows had a lot to do with how rapid the transition was to supporting gay marriage. So you would think that the film industry could do more with for the environment. It’s made efforts.
I’d like to look at films as experiments and try different types of films and get a sense of how they resonated with the culture, whether or not they changed things. Maybe we can’t do it as an experiment. But maybe we could think of them as natural experiments and try to take advantage of it, because the media makes a difference.
Boom: What are you most looking forward to about living and working here in L.A.?
Kareiva: You know what I’m most looking forward to is this: I’ve always collaborated with people. I don’t think I’ve done anything by myself since my PhD thesis. And there’s a whole set of people here that I want to do joint research projects with—in a deep way, not a superficial way. I can hardly wait to get started. There are so many cool research projects I can do, collaboratively, with people.
And then a second thing is I like the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. I like the vision of it. I always just feel like it doesn’t tell its story that well. People don’t realize how good it is. And people don’t realize some of the neat stories that are going on at the Institute. At The Nature Conservancy, we learned the power of storytelling for raising money and effecting policy change. So those are the two things I’m most looking forward to: making what’s really good better known by telling our story better, and (at a sort of selfish personal level) collaborating with great people.
Editor’s Note: Lauren Bon is a transformative figure—her canvas is huge: Los Angeles, the American West, the way we think about landscapes, our water and where it comes from, and what we owe the land and communities, our moral, economic, and political relationships. “ARTISTS NEED TO CREATE AT THE SAME SCALE THAT SOCIETY HAS THE CAPACITY TO DESTROY” proclaims a red neon sign on one wall of the Metabolic Studio in a warehouse on the edge of Chinatown in downtown Los Angeles. It’s a very high standard, and one that Bon takes very seriously in every aspect of her work from her first major work, Not A Cornfield, which transformed an old contaminated railroad yard, a literal brownfield across the street from the studio, into a verdant color field in view of downtown’s skyscrapers, to her latest work, Bending the River Back Into the City—a waterwheel that will draw water from the Los Angeles River and distribute into the City. For its monumental images of the Intermountain west, the Optics Division of the Metabolic Studio uses landscape material rather than traditional chemistry to document the landscapes that the Metabolic Studio is working to transform. Bon sat down to talk with editor Jon Christensen about her work reconnecting Los Angeles with the source of it’s water and about how silver and water mined out of the Eastern Sierra has catalyzed photography and film making for this special issue of Boom on photography, art, and landscape.
Boom: I wonder if we could just start by you describing where we are sitting right now.
Lauren Bon: Well, right now, we’re sitting inside of a frame that was built to house the Salon De Fleurus, which is a re-creation of Gertrude and Leo Stein’s art collection in Paris at the turn of the last century. That salon space has now been moved. This frame we are sitting in next to the Amtrak lines that run adjacent to the LA River corridor—[pauses for a train passing by]—this is a new vista for us. This concrete block wall didn’t have any doors or windows that opened to the east. Between 2006 and 2013, the front of the studio was looking at the Los Angeles State Historic Park, and the back of the studio opened to the underside of the Spring Street Bridge. We were actively cultivating these places, and both closed at the same time. The park went into construction and so did the bridge. So now we are looking at the industrial corridor of the city of Los Angeles when we come out here. Your back is to the Spring Street Bridge, and my back is to the Broadway Bridge. And those two bridges cross the LA River from the west side of the river to the east side of the river.
Where we are sitting will be very different by next year at this time. Everything you see around here is transforming. The Spring Street Bridge is being rebuilt now. Across the river Albion Park is being put together. The state historic park is under construction. And if all goes well, a year from now where we’re sitting right now will be a massive hole in the ground.
Lauren Bon in a cottonwood grove. Saplings were grafted from a mature cottonwood grove in Owens Valley and transported to Los Angeles via One Hundred Mules Walking the Los Angeles Aqueduct in 2013.
Boom: Just because our readers won’t all have been here, we’re sitting right outside your studio, Metabolic Studio in this warehouse, a former warehouse.
Bon: Current warehouse.
Boom: Your studio, where many of the things that we’re going to talk about have happened. But pretty soon, there’s going to be a giant water wheel bisecting this building.
Bon: Yeah. Cutting it in half.
Boom: And that’s La Noria. Can you describe that?
Bon: So historically, where we’re sitting right now would have been a floodplain of the unbridled LA River. And Spring Street was a very active spring that pooled quite a bit of water from the LA River all the way to a giant sycamore that was located behind what’s now Union Station. If you look at old photos of LA from up until 1890 when it was cut down, it was the largest visual object in this area. So all of the early photos of LA have this giant sycamore called “El Aliso” or “the sycamore.” It was rumored to be 400 years old and have a 200-foot canopy, and all the tribal people would come from miles and miles around to sit under that tree for problem solving.
So we’re sitting in a place that has lots of history, both told and untold, and lots of mythology, both told and untold, and La Noria taps into some of that. La Noria is a kind of avant-garde nostalgia. In looking forward to what can be, we’re looking back at what was. Because when the river was here, it supported trees. When the river was here, it supported industry. And it supported industry in that age-old way by creating power for things to happen. And one of the means by which power was created was waterwheels. The state park was a place that supported about six different power waterwheels. And we’re alluding to that typology in the waterwheel that we’re about to build.
We are about to build a waterwheel that will bisect this building and pick up water that will be redirected from the LA River channel via a pipe under that railway track where the trains are going by. So the trains will still be going by, and all the sounds you hear will be pretty much, more or less, like they are. And all that you see around you—the riverbank, built of concrete and covered with graffiti—will still look the same. The LA River’s reintroduction to its own flood plain will happen through a single hole that will puncture that jacket. Water will be pooled up from the river by a dam that will be right out there. Water will enter the pipe, run under the railway track, be picked up by La Noria and deposited on the roof of this building before it begins its journey through a new network of pipes, and channels, an infrastructure artwork that aims to form a distribution network that we call the “Delta of Mount Whitney.”
Boom: What does that mean, the “Delta of Mount Whitney”?
Bon: Every river has a delta, the place where it deposits its load before it dissipates. The delta of this new river, the parallel river that will form from moving our wastewater that would normally go out to sea back into the city will be known as the “Delta of Mount Whitney.” We have chosen that name to allude to a source of our water, 240 miles away. It’s only one source of that water, but we think it’s an important one to name in that delta, which is the snow peaks, or what once was the snow peaks of the Eastern Sierra.
Boom: You’ve talked about La Noria as a device of wonder. What do you mean by that?
Bon: I know it when I see it, that thing that raises you up out of the daily discussion of a thing into a kind of transcendent appreciation of it. The motivation of the work that I do with the Metabolic Studio is to utilize devices of wonder to catalyze a paradigm shift. So one can talk for a long time about master plans for the LA River, but in proposing a device of wonder, like a waterwheel and a dam and a new distribution system, I’ve been able to catalyze a change that needs to happen. It’s happening because it needs to happen, not because I’m a great artist. But maybe I am a good enough artist to get that ball rolling. And I’m happy with that, you know?
So the work that I’m doing with the studio is about creating an opportunity for a paradigm shift through utilizing devices of wonder. These devices and the engagement the studio has around them can help reframe the discussion from master planning alone to intervention that can perhaps catalyze the master plan because then there’s one that’s done. This piercing needs to be one of many piercings. It alone will only provide 100 acre-feet of water per year to me. And then I can choose how to redistribute it. But through that paradigm, I hope that the California Water Board sees potential for other kinds of interventions in the stormwater management system.
One Hundred Mules Walking the Los Angeles Aqueduct, October 18 to November 11, 2013, an artist action to commemorate the centenary of the opening of the Los Angeles Aqueduct.
Boom: What is the paradigm shift that this is part of?
Bon: Well, we need to reuse our wastewater. Right now, all of the water that’s going out to sea does not reenter the city for any beneficial use, and that’s a paradigm that needs to shift. That’s the primary goal of La Noria.
Then it will be up to the contracts that we develop with other delta users to see if we can also galvanize other paradigms to shift. For example, we’re in negotiation with the state historic park across the street. They wish to receive water from us. We have agreed in principle to supply water, but there are conditions. One of the conditions that they have agreed to is to change the pesticides and herbicides that they use on what they grow, so that the watershed does not become compromised. That’s become policy in the whole state park system, not just this state park, as a result of that contract from the Delta of Mount Whitney. So the device of wonder utilizes language to create a connection to a snow pack, but its knife angle is in changing paradigms of behavior within entrenched bureaucratic systems.
Bending the River Back Into the City, 2012—ongoing. First, an inflatable dam will pool wastewater headed out to sea. Then a piercing in the storm channel will move water under the railway tracks via a pipe. Finally, a waterwheel will lift the water from the river bed to the roof of the Metabolic Studio.
Boom: This might be a good moment to talk about the metabolic in Metabolic Studio. Why “metabolic”?
Bon: Metabolic means that we’re dealing with life processes. All living things are divided up into two activities, the anabolic and the catabolic. The anabolic builds up and the catabolic tears down. The Metabolic Studio looks at taking land and water that can no longer support life and aims to return it to supporting life.
In our work along the Owens Dry Lake, we’re actually playing within the catabolic dust and repurposing it to find it has some agency. We take a system that has almost ceased to support life—the Owens Dry Lake—and explore it for new potentiality. The water that has been redirected from the lake is held in trust for us as citizens of the state of California. And now the dust from the dry lake is blowing dangerous chemistry into the air. All kinds of health and safety problems have ensued around that.
But it’s still a lake in terms of how it’s politically organized. It’s held in trust for the people of the state of California as a water body, which means that as a water body, we all have access to it for recreation.
So our Metabolic Studio Optics Division uses it to recreate. We’ve found we can use the dust as photographic chemistry. We go out onto the dry lake in the middle of the night to bury exposed film, large format sheets of photographic paper in the mud. We leave them for the night and pull them out in the morning. The images we make there are not just images of the landscape but made out of the landscape itself. And the action of making them is an activist action. Taking time to work out there is an important thing to do because we participate in a civic right by occupying that space. We know other artists who are thinking similarly and have launched kayaks on the dry lakebed.
As an art practice, we don’t want to leave physical objects behind, but to use our labor as transformation—to make art work as a verb rather than a noun. Up until the waterwheel, all of my work in the last ten years has been ephemeral. Everything is about catalyzing other things to happen through these devices of wonder. The waterwheel is the first piece that is permanent.
Boom: Speaking of Owens Valley, on the hundredth anniversary of the Los Angeles Aqueduct you traveled with a hundred mules along the whole route. What was your vision for that project? And what was it like?
Bon: One of the puzzles for me is how to draw a line for people in Los Angeles between those two points. They see the river. And they see the snow. They recreate in that snow. But the 395, the massive highway that drives up there, has a whole lot of Mojave Desert in it. And people tend to listen to their music and enjoy what deserts do best, which is to get you into the bubble of your car and that kind of great space of the West that allows us all to think differently.
But I really felt that for the centenary of the aqueduct, I needed to build a device of wonder for people in both locations, in the Owens Valley and in Los Angeles, to acknowledge that the snow pack of this year is being moved to Los Angeles, and to acknowledge it by spending time with the intention of celebrating the physical object, saying that this is an amazing piece of engineering that has a physical reality, that has a fiscal reality, that has a historical reality, that has a relationship to the history of engineering. It’s not just this secret pipe.
The Los Angeles Aqueduct, the physical reality of it, is a phenomenal thing. It will be, in the distant future, the central ruin of our civilization, of our moment. It’s reasonable to assume at some point, all of this will be gone. I don’t know when. I don’t know how. But when it is gone, the aqueduct will be there. The aqueduct was built by mules as was the Panama Canal, which opened the next year. So it seemed to me that in drawing that line to connect the Eastern Sierra to Los Angeles, how wonderful to be able to use the very animals that built it to begin with, the very animals that have been so critical to the construction of the West as we have come to know it.
Walking the Los Angeles Aqueduct with one hundred mules was moving on so many levels. Quite literally. It was great to be able to move that slowly—twenty miles a day, over a one-month period. It was wonderful to be part of something that was so well organized. Days just kind of had this rhythm to them, because everything was organized around moving the mules. And I also really understand every inch of the LA Aqueduct now, probably better than most people, because I walked that slowly the entire network of open channel, pipes, siphons, and underground channels covered with concrete from the intake through the Alabama Hills, through the canyons like Jawbone Canyon where the heroic siphons are, into the Mojave Desert, through to where the California Aqueduct meets the LA Aqueduct in Neenach, into the Verdugos after the Cascades. I really know it. I know how it looks. I know how barren the Mojave really is. I understand that the aqueduct was a miraculously lucky thing to be able to build because it’s all downhill.
Walking from the Owens Valley to LA means you’re walking downhill the whole way with an occasional climb up a pass. The mules did that with not a lot of work. The mules thought this trip was super easy. Basically, they didn’t carry anything but a pad that said “100” and an occasional rider. There was only one rider per every ten mules. And it was all downhill. They were extremely well kept. They all came in plumper, happier.
Bending the River Back Into the City, 2012—ongoing. The water filtered through this three-part metabolic sculpture will become a community asset ready for redistribution via a new network, or Delta.
Boom: Your work in the Owens Valley has taken place under the rubric of what you’ve called AgH20—silver and water. Why silver?
Bon: Silver mined from places like Cerro Gordo on the top of the Inyo Mountains gave birth to the film industry—perhaps the best example of any of a devise of wonder. George Eastman, way over in Rochester, New York, figured out how to take silver from the mountains out here in California and turn it into film stock that could become a populist activity. “You press the button and we do the rest.” Film stock for motion pictures was shipped back from Rochester across the country to Hollywood and brought back up to the Owens Valley where they made Westerns.
So silver and water mining from the Owens Valley are the two elements the city of Los Angeles has been constructed from. This body of work that I’ve done with the studio since 2008 called “Silver and Water” includes a myriad of action, hundreds, in fact, of artists’ actions that have been taken around this idea of silver and water, including the photographic prints and experimentation, including the sonic work being done at the silos, including the mule march, including the metabolic soil project, including the IOU Theater project and the IOU Garden project, and all of these devices of wonder are, in effect, tending to this space, which is the kind of sacrificial twin of the city of Los Angeles. The more I understand Los Angeles, the more I realize that it kind of has a symbiotic birth, like it is born with the Owens Valley, which has ultimately been the compromised twin. One has thrived at the expense of the other. And I feel that part of AgH20 is the consciousness of acknowledgement saying, “We do owe you.”
Boom: The project that I think you are really best known for was NotACornfield. Is that where the idea of a metabolic practice really came together?
Bon: Oh yes, the “Chlorophyll Revolution.” The moment when the old train yard became emerald green with corn, things shifted. That was a big, big shift, and I could see the power of both a metaphor of corn and the reality of how life brings life, whether it’s ladybugs or hummingbirds or crickets at night. The power of living things in juxtaposition with a place like this gave birth to a notion of a practice that I would call a “metabolic sculpture” to differentiate it from other kinds of sculpture.
It’s not land art, per se. A lot of times Not A Cornfield would be construed as land art because it was on the land. It’s not that it wasn’t land art, but there is also a whole lot about it that was not normally associated with land art. One of the things that it was about was transformation. Because we weren’t going to have a cornfield there forever, it was both a cornfield and not a cornfield. It was a way of creating the potential for something else to occur there because the site had stalled in its process of becoming, and the cornfield was meant to galvanize it into that possibility again. So that seems to be an unusual way to look at sculpture, which is often about its formal end being the subject of the work, rather than it consuming even its formal end into a greater notion of transformation, which seems to be more about metabolic things than it does about sculpture in a traditional sense.
Boom: Your artistic practice, a practice that is engaged in activism, sometimes provokes some pretty strong reactions. Not ACornfield got some pretty strong reactions at the time.
Bon: I see it now as a kind of acupuncture needle. I hit a nerve when I began this work, and like the work that I had done in the Owens Valley, it’s been the fact that I have stayed put for ten years that things have changed. I think people were concerned that I came in to take something away rather than to offer a transformative potential that I would then stay and support. And I think over the ten years, I’ve shown who I am around here. And now times have changed, but at the beginning, it was very frightening and very confusing. I have come to understand where it was coming from, and so I see it differently.
I don’t think I would do anything differently, by the way. I thought about this, knowing now what I know, how would I do things differently, and I think it’s also important to acknowledge that sometimes things are -check-the-box “Other.” One of the things that NotACornfield was not was public art. I think a lot of people would have liked me to go through the way public art gets commissioned in a city, and it wasn’t that way. So would I, knowing what I know now, do it that way? No.
Boom: You have this neon sign in the studio that says, “Artists must create on the same scale that society has the capacity to destroy.” Is that your saying?
Bon: Actually, I thought it was, and it turned out not to be. I love to take notes in notebooks, mostly around drawings, and I had an old notebook from the years I lived in Belgrade where I had written that quote.
I found it during Not A Cornfield. People would question me about scale. Not A Cornfield was thirty-two acres. It’s a lot, a big, big piece.
It turned out to be Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz from Electronic Café. It was a statement that they made during the work they were doing with the early Internet about connecting people in the Soviet Union and in the United States via a café that had Internet in it in the 1980s. That was their statement, not exactly that, but pretty close to it. And we now call that the “metabolic manifesto” via the Electronic Café manifesto, which is also cool because it’s West Coast thinking.
One of the things that’s interesting about art coming from the West Coast is that there’s something about these vast expanses that causes you to think differently. You think about these big things, these big expanses. In living out here as an artist, this mandate to operate on a scale that society is destroying is where that comes from.
Lauren Bon and Richard Nielsen at Owens Dry Lake Bed.
Boom: What did you take in your experimenting and your self-education and the decade that you spent in Europe where you really said, “I’m just going to experiment for a decade”? What did you carry there from California and the West?
Bon: Liability obsession. I realized while I was there that a lot of things don’t happen in the West out of feared of being sued. That certainly, places in the Eastern Bloc, places like Russia, Mongolia, China, ex-Yugoslavia, are different. So a project like what I’m undertaking now, which is a metabolic sculpture in the form of a revisionist review of infrastructure comes straight from Belgrade in the years just before the war, the wars in Belgrade, where what it meant to be really modern was to have the best possible infrastructure. So societies were really proud of hosting conversations when the city streets would be ripped open and people would be showing these new pipes and new roads. And they would allow people to walk over these crumbling pieces of sidewalk in a way that if that happened here, people would be terrified that somebody would sue.
And I find that that’s a really big difference. Like even in phobia about—there’s a definite phobia about lawsuits that operates—even in the water dispute site, I was talking to a journalist who recently passed away, who lived up in the Owens Valley. I said to her, “If there was one thing that you would like to see changed with the Department of Water and Power and the Owens Valley situation, what would it be?” She said she’d like them to stop their litigious behavior, that it was a waste of time and money. I thought that is really important to hear. So much of the energy of transformation is being subsumed into litigious behavior. So that was one thing I really got through my self-educating period around the globe is that not all countries are equally litigious, and that was a big, big difference.
Boom: That’s interesting. The other side of that question is, what did you bring back to California and the West from those experiences?
Bon: You know, really from my days as a college student, I’ve been interested in the collapse of the avant-garde and the relationship of the last century to this idea that to be totally modern meant to be working on a collective project, and that the whole of an avant-garde was that community of creative enterprise, and this mandate to be modern, and how that came about during the World Wars—so the relationship between destruction and art production and collectivity and art movements and an avant-garde. When I was a college student in the eighties, most of the smartest people would say very definitively that the avant-garde was dead. And I’ve tried to bring the avant-garde back to the West with me because I think about the West as still an open field for creative life. In other words, it’s very different in tone and temperament from the East Coast, which is much more referential to the art market and to Europe than the West Coast needs to be.
A lot of the reason why people come to Los Angeles is that it’s really possible to reinvent one’s self here and to define the terms of one’s engagement. And I’ve really worked on collectivity since I’ve been back. I’ve worked on demystifying art practice as the bastion of genius and tried to really support and incubate talent without a host of intermediaries that usually divide us so that we are not engaged with one another. The whole notion of collective engagement is something that I have focused on that really had its beginnings in my work at the Hereford Salon in London, where I brought artists together to work on what I called “work in progress.” The only thing that we wouldn’t show at the Hereford Salon or discuss is finished work. So the rule of thumb was, it had to be something you were stuck on or wanted to address.
Our work has intersected with a lot of different galleries and art museums. So in no way are we not wanting to engage with them. But at the same time, there’s a whole world of opportunity for creative life that we’ve tried to make tangible for people, so that when people come, they see it. We definitely, ten years into it, see how much it inspires especially young people to see that there’s another way of being an artist outside the traditional system.
Boom: Another thing that you seem to have brought back was a kind of artistic and a philanthropic practice that was based around projects.
Bon: You know, one of the things that we talked about is how Not A Cornfield was not a public art project, partly because there wasn’t an intermediary that made it happen. In a similar way, I can say that a lot of the work I do is not philanthropy because there’s no nonprofits involved. There’s no nonprofits that are involved with AgH20. So Silver and Water is not a normal practice of philanthropy whereby money is passed to a nonprofit for programming or capital campaigns. This is direct project-based philanthropy, which doesn’t exist, like the term I gave metabolic sculpture. I mean, you’re not going to go look it up in a book for my definition. But what it has meant is that I’ve been able to activate potentiality toward a nonprofit in places like Owens Valley. There is today a growers’ co-op in the Owens Valley that receives funding from other organizations that came about because of my soil production project.
Similarly in the Veterans Administration site in west LA, there was no nonprofit by which I could do Strawberry Flag and activate that site for anything new. So Strawberry Flag was a means by which potential could be grown. And now there is a new nonprofit, the Veterans Print Studio, that comes from the work that we did in turning art supplies we found in the basement of an under-purposed building into an art studio for veterans.
So in many ways, I’ve been able to, through the devices of wonder, like a strawberry aquaponic farm, learn a lot about how to catalyze potentiality toward the more traditional philanthropic approach.
So ten years in, a lot of the work is not as unusual as it was when I began, because we succeeded in growing the potentiality to support more traditional approaches. But what we’ve also done as a team is the Metabolic Studio. Since 2010, we’ve called ourselves the “Metabolic Studio,” and the Metabolic Studio is different from Not A Cornfield in one important regard and that is that the eighteen full-time employees of the Metabolic Studio share my trustee-hood in the Annenberg Foundation. So they are the philanthropists in the studio. I’ve decided in order to be able to focus my time on what I do best in this life, which is to make art and to organize community and to speak to power from my experience as an outsider, I need to be able to make sure that I have a team that is backing me up with the work that people do in making philanthropic decisions.
The Metabolic Studio is different from those earlier incarnations of my work in that that relationship is formalized. All the full-time people here are my trustee-hood manifest, so we work through that collaboratively. And I no longer function as a unique philanthropist in this city. I pass that on to the community that I work with. And we call that “citizen philanthropy” because the eighteen people who work here are not trained to do that job any more than I was. They are just living their lives, and they found themselves in this position. And we have trained ourselves to process that potentiality through our direct engagement with site, not through papers or applications or any of that. The foundation does that for us. So we are like the satellite to the foundation, a satellite that is operating on the ground and in places that are challenged in the absence of sufficient nonprofits to pass the money to. The demographics of philanthropy are often in cities, so when you move into places outside of cities, there can be a real drop in the opportunity for traditional philanthropy to be practiced. We really run into that question quite a lot.
Richard Nielsen and Tristan Duke using alternative chemistry on a Metabolic Studio Optics Division photograph.
Boom: That’s true in some cases in cities, too, though, like the Veterans Administration project, no? Tell us about that project.
Bon: In the year and a half that I worked on a daily basis at the VA of West LA, I learned about the complexity of creating the opportunity for paradigm shift. In the case of the VA, that means that land should stop being just a hospital. The VA of West LA is on land that was donated to the US government in 1888 by Arcadia de Baker, who owned all of the land in one hacienda between the beach in Malibu and downtown. And she gave choice land for recuperating veterans in perpetuity as a home. In the 1960s, the asset moved from being part of the Department of War to the Department of Veterans Affairs. There was no Department of Veterans Affairs before Vietnam.
When the asset was moved from one department to the other, it just ceased to be a home anymore. They built a new hospital. They moved all the functions out of the home. It’s now the most valuable asset in the VA chain. And it’s been a big puzzle for people for forty years about what to do with all of that land that was left undeveloped, underused in the midst of the largest homeless population for veterans in the country.
So the question as an artist was how to bring awareness to that, and Strawberry Flag was the answer. What we learned in the time it took to make that artwork became a lawsuit.
I realized that there was no nonprofit out there that protects veterans’ land use. There are nonprofits that deal with veterans who are homeless. But we’re talking specifically about land use. How do you make that land operate for the people it was left in trust for?
So the thing I was able to do when Strawberry Flag ended was write a lawsuit that showed how donor intention has been upheld in the court of law over time, and say, to begin with, that we would never sue the federal government. This was simply a lawsuit in case someone else wanted to sue the federal government, because I don’t want to be litigious. But the ACLU picked up that lawsuit and sued the federal government, and the result is, five years later, everybody in charge of the VA has been fired. And the whole thing has cracked open again for a discussion.
So what I’ve been able to do through my art practice is focus more incisively because I have time where I’m actually working on something—a lot of these projects are durational—to ascertain what can be done and what can’t be done to shift the paradigm and utilize my trustee-hood at the foundation to take those actions that I can take to move the agenda toward some kind of happier return.
Bubblers of Owens Lake Rehydration Project, 2012. Indexical image of the lake made with materials from the lake itself.
Boom: I want to come back to this phrase that “Artists must create on the same scale the society has the capacity to destroy.” A lot of your work in the last ten, fifteen years has gotten you involved with very big institutions like the VA, State Parks, the LADWP, the Army Corps of Engineers on the river. It seems that part of this practice has made you need to learn about these big institutions and how they operate and how they might change in order for the practice to succeed.
Bon: I think that’s true. Every one of the signature projects of the Metabolic Studio has had to engage with the structure that the land or the water is owned by and controlled by. In the case of Not A Cornfield, we were working directly with the State of California as well as the City of Los Angeles. So my role as an artist and private citizen and trustee of the Annenberg Foundation was, in a way, to build a bridge between the people of the state of California and an asset held in trust for them. And, therefore, the work cannot be classified as public art because it’s coming from a very different place.
Similarly, with the VA of West LA, that land is held in trust for veterans by the federal government. So even though it’s in Los Angeles, it actually has very little to do with the city of Los Angeles in terms of how it’s organized or run. It has its own police force. It has its own, essentially, mayor, who is the person in charge, and it’s like the Vatican. It’s a separate city within Los Angeles.
So, it’s partly because of my unusual practice at the intersection of art and philanthropy that I’ve been able to have these direct engagements that are usually not available for the general public, and to sometimes slowly, sometimes not so slowly, see change happen. I don’t think any of us thought there would be these massive transformations at the VA of West LA in five years since Strawberry Flag.
Boom: In order to create at the same scale that society has the capacity to destroy, the art has to engage with these big institutions.
Bon: Yeah. It has to become sympathetic with those agencies. When the LADWP agrees to allow the Metabolic Studio to walk 240 miles of aqueduct, something is happening systematically. That’s a first—that they opened up all of the gates to let those mules through. I think that’s an important consideration of the project—that we didn’t break their trust. They had a good experience for a public-private partnership. And part of what we were aiming to do for the centenary is also reframe the LADWP from being the villains of the water system that we have, to being an agency that’s doing a job, and is also the largest employer in the Owens Valley. So there is no human being who is the LADWP. It’s an agency. And it doesn’t do any good for us to continue to place the LADWP in the role of villains in a narrative they didn’t create.
The project was really about let’s try and move forward into a new century of thinking by looking at rehumanizing, reconnecting with the human beings who actually work at the LADWP, who are showing up every night for dinner as the mules pass through their section of the aqueduct, who show up and tell stories or bring a violin to play by a section of the pipe. Let’s allow this agency to be a series of individuals who like the benefits that the LADWP community gives them. I think it’s a good job. I think it’s a good service. It’s certainly one that we can’t do without right now, and it could be a lot worse. It could be a private system, and that would be worse.
So these are the kinds of things that each of these projects have been able to do—make small changes within the VA and create opportunities for a different VA, create different opportunities for a different California urban state park system, create opportunities for the LADWP to rethink its public face. And that’s where those intersections of the devices of wonder, which are the artworks, dovetail with my trustee-hood.
Boom: There’s always artistic authorship in all of these projects. There’s the really authentic and reciprocal engagement with community, with these institutions, but there’s also always your artistic vision that is important there.
Bon: The art is what’s driving the agenda. The art and the urgency. This is something that needs to happen. And they know that. Somebody has to be first. Somebody has to pierce that jacket and bring that water back into the city, and this is the best way to do it.
Boom: And if it’s based on the art, the agent here is the artist.
Bon: The water right I have for one hundred acre feet of wastewater that we pull from the river via La Noria is not a water right to a philanthropic organization. It is not for the Annenberg Foundation nor the Metabolic Studio. It’s my water right. As an individual, I applied for a water right in order to create a distribution network to share the water, without exchange of capital and without commodifying the water. I ascribe to the United Nation’s dictate that water is a human right. So just like I have shared my trustee-hood with the Metabolic Studio, I will share my water right at no capital cost to the people or organizations that will form the Delta of Mount Whitney. As human beings, we speak for all living things, all the animals, all the wildcats in these hills who need water too. That’s the big challenge.
Boom: Where do you see going from here?
Bon: Me personally or the project or the water?
Boom: You as an artist.
Bon: Oh. I don’t know. There’s so much to do. Right now, I’m forming a new country, the country of Rose, so I think that’s the next project.
Boom: Can you say more about this country? Where is it?
Bon: Well, to really try and understand what the waterwheel is and is not—it’s a drop in a bucket in a systemic collapse. The LA Aqueduct gave birth to the Hoover Dam, Lake Powell, the California Aqueduct. And because of the drought, we’re getting a glimpse into a system in crisis. Because whether or not there is a drought, we’re maxed out in terms of what we can do demographically with the amount of water we can move in the Intermountain West. So the country of Rose is an opposition that we need to reorganize, not around states, but around watersheds. It’s based on the idea that there are four basic watersheds in the country of Rose: the Columbia, the Colorado, the Rio Grande, and the water table of the ancient lakes Lahontan and Bonneville that run between Lake Tahoe and Salt Lake. The basic idea is that outmoded state boundaries don’t serve us anymore. And for metabolic processes to continue in the Intermountain West, we are going to need to reorganize around the protection of our watersheds as the primary purpose of all political organization.
Los Angeles and LA Aqueduct are just a small part of a system that’s all interrelated through its water. So when I really came to understand that, I realized that’s probably the next body of work. And that’s what I’m working on with the mule team packers for them to do a survey of Rose as a relay of all the packers in the Great Basin. We’re going to get them all involved.
One Hundred Mules Walking the Los Angeles Aqueduct, 2013. Penultimate trek with view of Los Angeles Skyline.