Category: Photography/Art

Photography/Art

Images of California Summer 2018

Natalie Nuesca

What is summer in California without adventures under the sunny skies? Incomplete.

This year, with the support of our amazing publisher UC Press, we hosted the Boom California Summer Photo Contest on Instagram so we could venture around the state through the eyes of our readers. We wanted insight from the views of your weekend trips and staycations.

Our readers didn’t disappoint. Breathtaking photographs perfectly captured the calm lakes, rough waves and towering trees that make California our home. Before the autumnal equinox arrives next month, take a moment to appreciate our beautiful state.

 

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4th Lake, Bishop | Photo by Tim Wiecek

“Some views are intoxicating, this is one of them. The Eastern Sierra is home to uninterrupted scenes like this everywhere you look.” – Tim Wiecek

 

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Seacliff State Beach, Monterey Bay, Aptos | Photo by Jane Hammons

“A local favorite, this California beach has an interesting past: and present. The decaying concrete freighter at the end of the pier once boasted a popular dance hall and now provides an artificial reef for sea life.” – Jane Hammons

 

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Sequoia National Park | Photo by Anthony Bevilacqua

“I was lucky to have worked as a park ranger in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park in 2010 and 2011. Every year since then I try and return to the park. I always have to make a stop in the Giant Forest in order to wander through the massive and ancient groves of Sequoia trees. The area is dotted with many meadows where it’s not uncommon to find bears grazing. When some friends saw this image they said that it looked like a small bear, but then I had to point out and say, no it’s just that the massive sequoia log behind the bear skews the perspective. In regards to the Sierra black bears,  this one is actually quite large.” – Anthony Bevilacqua

 

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Luffenholtz Beach, Humboldt County | Photo by Kim Nguyen

“Arcata and the surrounding areas of Humboldt County are my absolute favorite places in California to visit, and it’s always the most magical experience any time I can make it up there.  After spending the day hiking around the redwoods, finishing the day at the beach and catching the sunset is the icing on the cake.” – Kim Nguyen

 

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Hoover Wilderness, Eastern High Sierras | Photo by Kristin Miller

“Looking towards Mt. Conness [I think?] from the Twenty Lakes Loop in the Hoover Wilderness of the Eastern High Sierras.” – Kristin Miller

 

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Tenaya Lake, Yosemite National Park | Photo by Laura Watt

“The light is hazy due to smoke from the Ferguson fire.” – Laura Watt


If you’re searching for your next California summer destination, you may find it right here. Search #BoomCaliforniaSummer on Instagram to view more photo submissions from our contest.

 

Natalie Nuesca is a recent graduate of California State University, Fullerton where she earned her double major B.A. in English and Communications, Journalism. She has previously written for the Daily Titan and served as the editor-in-chief of Tusk Magazine.

Copyright: © 2018 Natalie Nuesca and the photographers. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

ArticlesPhotography/Art

RE-Present

Contemporary tile fixes intermingle with original adobe construction to maintain the romanticized notions of the Spanish Missions at Mission San Miguel Arcángel.

Matthew Gush

Years spent exploring the Americas and documenting Pre-Columbian civilizations’ remains eventually brought my work back to Southern California. Through my travels I saw how advanced these societies had become, only to be confronted with the complications that few knew about or understood. Growing up in Whittier as a product of California’s public school system, I inherited the notion that American History started with a blank slate at 1492 and in fourth grade received the romanticized indoctrination of the Alta California mission system. It wasn’t until I started grappling with the colonial underpinnings of this continent that I realized my work with the past segued from the historical to the contemporary—colonization significantly accounting for why these societies were destroyed and why their legacies continued to be suppressed.

My subsequent exploration of the Alta California missions system exposed layers of complexity and irony. How could Mission San Antonio de Padua, sitting so rustically idyllic in the rolling green hills of central California, be the home of a mass grave of Natives? How could these architecturally simple yet striking places be the vehicles of cultural destruction and, ironically, salvation? How does Junípero Serra propagate such a sprawling system, yet harm the people he was trying to save? How do we understand the pain and suffering inflicted in and around these missions, yet still celebrate modern Quinceñeras or weddings in them?

It is easy to be seduced by the romanticized façades of these places, but even more important to understand their complexities and relevance for understanding contemporary California, the land where we dwell. Native history and the missions matter: from the role the missions played in the destruction of Native lives and culture during the Spanish conquest and colonization of Alta California, to the mission revival, and their function as expressions of faith today. We must look at these places and understand their complexities and contradictions, in hopes of more critical conversations that might serve as vehicles of understanding California.

Mission Soledad, with its simple yet poignant architectural lines, was a nexus for the subjugation of indigenous coastal peoples.

Visitors to Mission San Juan Capistrano explore the ruins of the mission church that was destroyed in an 1812 earthquake.

Native inspired flower and nature motifs decorate the mission walls at Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa.

Shining midday sun illuminates the gardens planted around Mission Santa Clara de Asís.

Votive candle offerings burn in Mission Santa Cruz’s church.

Modern traffic streams by Mission San Luis Rey de Francía.

The first of the Alta California missions, Mission San Diego de Alcalá opens for an evening mass.



Note

This photographic essay is part two of a diptych on the Alta California missions. For part one, see Matthew Gush and Robert M. Senkewicz, “Seeing California’s Missions Today.”

 

Matthew Gush is the university photographer at California State University, Fullerton, and is the Boom California 2017-2018 Photographer in Residence. His work focuses on Pre-Columbian Native America and chronicles interjections of Colonial Empires. For more of his work see https://www.humanexp.co/.

Copyright: © 2018 Matthew Gush. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

 

ArticlesPhotography/Art

Seeing California’s Missions Today

Indigenous Oaxacan Folklorico dancers perform outside of the San Gabriel Mission during a community festival.

Matthew Gush
Robert M. Senkewicz*

When I left my native New York City to begin graduate school in California almost five decades ago, many things about my new home region struck me as strange. It seemed odd, for instance, that a local Safeway supermarket had the same kind of tiled roof as I could see on Mission Santa Clara, a scant three blocks away. And it seemed unbearably grandiose to call a local street, whose defining characteristics appeared to be used car lots, gas stations, and strip malls, El Camino Real, which I soon discovered meant the Royal Road. But I eventually realized that missions and Spain were apparently crucial parts of California’s popular identity. Combined with another never-far-from-the-surface part of that identity, the Gold Rush, my new home seemed to be constantly trumpeting a kind of California exceptionalism. Things happened here, everything seemed to say, that never happened anywhere else in the U.S. California is different—and by “different,” what’s clearly meant is “better.”

A visitor to the northern most outpost Spanish Mission San Francisco Solano observes the reed and adobe construction of the awning.

I began to wonder about that exceptionalism, but the doubts really came into focus when I was writing my dissertation on gold rush San Francisco. It seemed that the social processes alive in that 1850s instant city were quite similar to developments and tensions that were simultaneously occurring in places like New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. The vigilantism that wracked the city twice (in 1851 and 1856) during this era seemed to have more in common with Eastern violence than with “we’re going to have to take the law into our own hands” vigilantism in places like Montana or other frontier venues.

After I finished with gold rush San Francisco, like a good historian, I went back in time. I ended up focusing on California and the Southwest before the U.S. takeover. And here I saw California exceptionalism strongly at work. Even some scholarly work seemed to be written with scant regard to the origins and foundations of Spanish California. Those origins stretched back over three centuries, but you would never know it by learning that San Diego had been founded in 1769 by a party led by two individuals who seemed to materialized out of nowhere, Gaspar de Portolá and Junípero Serra. And the fact that California had once been part of Mexico was apparently quite embarrassing. This embarrassment was solved in textbooks by focusing almost exclusively on Anglo-Americans who began to arrive in California in the 1820s and began to bring culture and civilization to this benighted region.

Popular understanding of California’s pre-U.S. past still suffers from two crucial absences: the absence of context and the absence of people.

First, context. The U.S. state of California was one of the last regions to experience settler colonialism in a Spanish Imperial context. That colonialism had a long and varied history. The Spanish presence worked itself out differently in the Valley of Mexico, the highlands of Peru, the sugar islands of the Caribbean, the Southern Cone, and the arid regions of what is now northern Mexico and the southwestern United States. The indigenous cultures the Spanish invaded and disrupted were radically different and the combination of resistance and strategic accommodation varied region to region. Survival often depended on flexible and creative strategic alliances with other groups and, at times, with dissident elements of the invading group. As was the case with British colonialism along the eastern coast of North America, not all colonial officials saw eye to eye, and indigenous leaders attempted to exploit those differences. European maps showed huge regions as controlled by “ Spain,” but this was hardly the case, as large and powerful indigenous peoples from many regions persisted well into the nineteenth century.

California was heir to all of these developments and the Spanish colonialism that took root there was diverse, messy, and at times contradictory. It was anything but a story of Spanish control and indigenous acceptance. The extensive writings of the Franciscan missionaries in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries bear eloquent testimony to the fact that, even in long-established mission compounds, missionaries knew that they could never assume that external conformity implied indigenous acceptance of subservient status. This part of the story was completely ignored during the “Spanish revival” era, when self-sacrificing, heroic missionaries and happy, contented Indians dominated the narrative. The assumption that California was exceptional meant that California identity could exist in blissful isolation from the issues and tensions that dominated the rest of the Spanish Empire.

Second, people. One of the most striking things about the photographs and paintings that were created concerning the California missions during the latter part of the nineteenth century by artists like Carlton Watkins and Edwin Deakin, is that they were generally bereft of people. The focus is on the structures, generally in various states of disrepair, but hearkening back to their days of glory and prosperity. In this, these later artists were quite different from artists who portrayed the missions who had had actual experience with them. People like Louis Choris, Ferdinand Deppe, and Edward Vischer always foregrounded indigenous, Spanish, and Mexican people in their portrayal of the missions. They knew what contemporary pastoral ministers will be happy to tell you: The “church” is not the building, but the people.

The logical, and sad, outcome of all of this was the fourth grade project that Matthew Gush describes in his introductory essay that follows this one. The focus of that project for elementary school children was on getting the buildings right, the angles precise, the bell towers in the correct place, that sort of thing. When I first learned of this project many years ago, I was as puzzled as I originally had been when I saw that supermarkets looked like churches. After all, we had never made sugar cube models of the Empire State building or the George Washington Bridge when I was in grammar school in New York. When the nuns at St. Columba on West 25th Street showed us New York pictures, they were always pictures of people—of immigrants crowding onto the deck of a boat and weeping for joy when they first saw the Statue of Liberty, of crowds in Times Square celebrating the end of World War II, or of Lou Gehrig saying goodbye at Yankee Stadium. The message was that New York was its people. That was a quite different message from the one that was contained in the fourth grade exercise, that California was its buildings.

Fortunately, this fourth grade project has been discontinued in California schools. I myself hope that its abandonment will lead to the abandonment of another California cottage industry: Picture books, travel guides, and brochures that are filled with “honey shots” of mission façades set against a pure blue sky, bell towers dominating the landscape, and incredibly lush gardens. These productions, in other words, are filled with images of California’s missions that bear absolutely no resemblance to the actual missions that existed from 1769 into the 1840s. These pictures, just like the fourth grade project, do not offer any indication that the California missions were overwhelmingly indigenous locations. Two priests, a handful of soldiers, and hundreds or thousands of native peoples populated the spaces. These venues were places that were as varied, diverse, and contradictory as the three centuries of Spanish colonialism that gave birth to them had been. They were places of pain and joy, of suffering and hope, of violence and survival, of death and birth. Matthew Gush’s photos, which deliberately focus on these places from unusual angles, invite us to enter these locations from different places of our minds. He includes the people who currently worship in these churches, and whose presence demonstrates that the California missions continue to be re-created anew in each generation. Matthew does not tell us in his essay why he decided to begin photographing these missions, but I for one am very glad that he did.



Notes

  • Photography and image descriptions by Matthew Gush; essay by Robert M. Senkewicz.

This is part one of a diptych on the California missions. For part two, see Matthew Gush, “RE-Present: Seeing California Missions Through A Contemporary Lens.”


Matthew Gush
is the university photographer at California State University, Fullerton, and is the Boom California 2017-2018 Photographer in Residence. For more of his work see https://www.humanexp.co/.

Robert M. Senkewicz is professor of History at Santa Clara University. With Rose Marie Beebe he has written a number of books on pre-U.S. California, including most recently, Junípero Serra: California, Indians, and the Transformation of a Missionary, and a contribution to Steven W. Hackel, ed., The Worlds of Junipero Serra Historical Contexts and Cultural Representations (UC Press, 2018).

Copyright: © 2018 Matthew Gush and Robert M. Senkewicz. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

Photography/ArtReviews

Lynell George Sings Los Angeles

Mike Sonksen

In the last few years, dozens of articles and think-pieces composed by cultural critics and urban pundits have discussed rising rents across Los Angeles accompanied by the transforming local landscape and built environment. Many of these pieces approach the city from a distant, more theoretical standpoint. The native Angeleno journalist Lynell George provides a much more personal and an even deeper perspective on shifts across Los Angeles because she’s been covering the terrain longer than just about anybody. Her new book of essays and photographs from Angel City Press, After/Image: Los Angeles Outside the Frame,[1] examines and explicates Los Angeles in search of place and belonging with an uncanny verisimilitude.

Rooted in personal experience, George catalogs the changing landscape, delving deeply into the city’s shifting districts and ever-evolving zeitgeist coming to rise because of these shifts. A lifetime of covering her hometown is distilled into eleven meticulous essays complemented perfectly by her own poignant, original photography. One of the key themes of this collection, as she states in the text, is that there are “‘many’ Los Angeleses swarming, each with stories that [tend to]) remain in the margins, territories that could only be accessed by someone familiar with its history and layout.” Another key idea she hammers home is that the Los Angeles depicted “on television or in the movies didn’t jibe with what [she] encountered daily, no matter where [she] lived.”

Quite simply, George knows Los Angeles better than almost anyone. City of Quartz author Mike Davis stated to me in an email late April that “L.A.’s written image has always been a predictable mixture of hyperbole, cliché and outsider ignorance, with boosterism and fear as two sides of the same coin. Lynell George comes from a different place entirely. With subtle love she explores the everyday to discover the extraordinary: the creative and rebellious spirits of the neighborhoods, the schools, and the true (not fake) bohemias. She truly sings Los Angeles.”

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The Many Los Angeleses

As Davis notes, George’s forte is revealing the many Los Angeleses and she’s been doing this for over three decades. A former staff writer at both the Los Angeles Times and LA Weekly, her writing has won many awards over the years, even a 2018 Grammy Award for Best Album Notes for writing the liner notes, “The Stomp Comes to the Strip,” for the six-CD set, Otis Redding Live at the Whisky A Go Go. In 2017, George also won the Alan Jutzi Fellowship from the Huntington Library for her work with the Octavia E. Butler archive.

Her first book, No Crystal Stair, published by Verso in 1992 peeled back the false facades of South Central Los Angeles to reveal the faces of the city: the mothers, fathers, extended families, the churches, the schools, and legions of teachers and social workers in the district that walked the walk. Her behind the scenes portraits of community pillars like community organizer and youth advocate Levi Kingston, jazz musician John Carter, filmmaker Charles Burnett, the Marcus Garvey School, and the Ward AME Church showed the real South Central Los Angeles, not the exaggerated misrepresentation that mass media promoted in the late 1980s and early ’90s. Her early essays are meticulously reported and stand the test of time. This new collection carries this spirit even further, matching her poetic prose with her equally skilled photography. There’s an organic unity in After/Image that radiates from every page.

Lynell George was born in Hollywood, raised in the Crenshaw District, and then moved to Culver City just before adolescence. Her parents were both teachers around inner-city Los Angeles and her father eventually became a principal. Both of her parents migrated to Los Angeles for opportunity during the early 1950s, the last wave of the Great Migration. Her father was from Pennsylvania and her mother, Louisiana.

After/Image revisits her formative years to paint an in-depth portrait of not only Black L.A.’s transformation, but the city at large. “The black L.A. where I grew up in the ’70s,” she writes, “was a territory built of dreams and defeats. A work-in-progress that was still being shaped by the unrest of the ’60s and the outsized dreams of our forebears.” After/Image maps these territories, “both physical and of the mind.”

After graduating from Culver City High School, she attended Loyola Marymount University (LMU) and studied with the great Los Angeles novelist Carolyn See. See praised her work right from the beginning. “Carolyn was a Mentor,” George tells me. “She was the first to suggest in college that I send one of the pieces I wrote for her class to either the Weekly or the L.A. Reader. Ten years later, that piece (or part of that piece), ended up being part of an essay in the Pantheon collection, Sex, Death and God in L.A.,[2] and entirely by chance, Carolyn had an essay in the same volume as well.”

After graduating from LMU, George went to graduate school for Creative Writing at San Francisco State. While in San Francisco, she met the novelist, essayist and professor Leonard Michaels. Michaels helped her sort out if she should continue in the Masters’ Creative Writing Program or take the leap of leaving grad school. “He gave me advice about what a writer should do: ‘Read. Write. Find someone who you trust to read and critique your work,’” she recalled. “He encouraged me to stay open to the world.” George ended up staying in San Francisco for only a year when a summer internship back home at the LA Weekly became a job opportunity. She listened to Michaels’ advice and sooner than later, she was doing cover stories for the Weekly.

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A Pioneer of Los Angeles Journalism

For about seven years George was a staff writer at the Weekly and eventually went on to become a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times for fifteen years. George was one of the first writers in the city to cover the rise of Leimert Park as an artistic enclave in the late 1980s and the first writer to spotlight the district in the LA Weekly. She also pioneered coverage for important topics like the Black and Korean Alliances before the 1992 uprisings happened and dozens of other issues that are now more widely discussed like public versus private schools, Black filmmakers, and gentrification.

These were the glory days of the LA Weekly and George was printed along with important L.A. voices like Wanda Coleman, Ruben Martinez, and Mike Davis, all of whom she became close confidantes with. She met Coleman sometime in the late 1980s and they remained in touch all the way until 2013 when the legendary poet and writer passed. Coleman even introduced Lynell to her brother George Evans and the artist Michael Massenberg, both of whom George has had fruitful collaborations with in recent years. “Wanda was a special force in my life,” George confides. “She was a solid sounding board and sat down with me to make sure that I paid attention to whom and what was around me. She always alerted me to good stories, good people I needed to know or have around me.”

Though Coleman was nearly two decades older than George, they shared many commonalities like both being African American women writers from South Los Angeles with parents who came to Los Angeles during the Great Migration, though Coleman’s parents were in the first wave and George’s at the end. “[Wanda] was a letter writer,” George remembers, “and I still have those notes, postcards and double-spaced typewritten letters she’d drop in the mail.” Their last meeting, shortly before Coleman passed “was a ‘lunch’ that went for seven hours. It was more than a lunch, it was a seminar—in research, history, writing, life, and of course Los Angeles. I’ll never forget it.”

Like Wanda Coleman, George has lived almost her entire life in Los Angeles County. In her adulthood, George lived in Echo Park and Pasadena. Though some of After/Image is autobiographical, it is a larger meditation on the rapid changes sweeping Southern California in the last few decades.

Throughout the text, George converses with a variety of local experts like Lila Higgins from the Natural History Museum who muses on the once-ample green space across the city now developed. The chapter with Higgins, “Urban Wild,” explains how Southern California is “a hotspot of biodiversity,” and what we need to do to preserve local ecosystems and restore the Los Angeles River.

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Recording A Vanishing Place

In the book’s opening essay, she writes: “I seem to have ‘lost’ Los Angeles. It’s as if the city were a set of keys I’ve somehow misplaced. I keep frantically retracing my steps hoping to locate it—something’s lost and must be found.” George embarked on this journey as a writer, and a photographer. She rose early every Sunday morning and began wandering all over the city to record “that vanishing sense of place.”

Another mission of the book is to not only locate Los Angeles, but also “to find and catalog what and who is still here. What is Los Angeles when you pull the image of the city away? What are you left with? What is the Los Angeles that lives inside of us? The one—the afterimage—that lingers in the mind’s eye.” The resulting essays, interviews and photographs presented in After/Image are a captivating panorama of 2018 Los Angeles. Among the many subjects covered, she highlights the shrinking size of Little Tokyo and rising rents in the Arts District and Boyle Heights. George shares her conversations with native Angelenos and neighborhood experts like James Rojas, Nancy Uyemura, and Evelyn Yoshimura for sharper insight.

The second chapter of the book, “Lost Angelena,” is a short section that gives insight into the collection’s genesis. For three years, George taught a journalism course at Loyola Marymount University called, “Telling Los Angeles’s Story.” In this class, she encouraged students to look deeper at the city and to analyze beyond the standard tropes and stereotypes that have characterized Los Angeles to outsiders and to followers of film and mass media. “As I encouraged students to look beyond facile definitions I found that I had to as well,” she writes. “My challenge was slightly different than theirs since I was teaching the class in the shadow of what home and place had once meant—and consequently means now.” She ended up diving back into “the city’s grid, drifting past old intersections and addresses.”

The third chapter is appropriately titled, “Arteries of Memory.” Revisiting her childhood home near 61st and West, George recounts her rite of passage growing up in the Crenshaw District. In between breaking down the backstory of streets like Slauson, she explains how the area transformed and the reverence so many residents then and some still feel for city streets. “My father used to recite the names of major surface streets like liturgy: Main, First, Washington, Western, Sepulveda, Exposition, Adams… and, closer to home, Slauson.” She even shares the old Johnny Carson joke: “Take the Slauson cut off, get out of your car and cut off your Slauson.”

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The inside story is one of a truer Los Angeles. Her family had been the first black family on their stretch of the street. For a time, she states, “That little stretch of 61st, in that moment, could have been a filmmaker’s backdrop for conveying the mirage of Los Angeles that existed in our collective imagination: white-stucco homes, built in the teens and twenties, with terracotta roofs and wrap-around porches, long driveways and yards that were a vivid sketchpad of shaggy palms and fruit trees and flower beds where the snapdragons fought for space among the succulents. Paradise—until we found that it wasn’t.”

George discusses her family moving from the Crenshaw District to Culver City in the early 1970s and the changing cityscape. Her observations on race are nuanced and from firsthand experience: “I started school with almost all black classmates. For a time, predominantly white. Then black, and by the end, tipping toward mixed again.”

As much as George covers the city’s history within the narrative, there’s a deeper insight embedded in every page. Well-documented topics like the 1965 Watts Uprisings, white flight, and neighborhood redevelopment are shown by George in a new light with greater context. Her conversations on the changing cityscape with longtime Angelenos like Frances E. Williams and Skira Martinez concretizes the topic and makes it more personal. George shows how “Gentrification begins with words. Language of erasure. There used to be nothing here…. That place is a ghost town after dark…. No one goes there anymore…. It’s a no man’s land.” The very language used to describe evolving neighborhoods, she points out, begins the process of erasure with words like “discovered” and “unearthed.” These terms are how the word “Columbusing” has recently emerged.

In the penultimate chapter, “Flow,” she explores what race means in Los Angeles by celebrating the “in-between spaces where new identities formed.” Beginning with her own high school experience she grew up with a “black kid that surfed,” “the white kid that pop-locked,” and the “Japanese-American kid who played basketball with a J.J. Walker comic back-bend.” To further illustrate these stereotype-defying individuals, she remembers an old high school confidante, an Irish-Catholic girl. In the late 1970s and early ’80s, the city was still very segregated, and yet her friend “was part of an emerging new crop: those who were bold enough not to run from, but to step out and embrace what was new; what we would be in conversation with each day.”

Furthermore, George writes, “Before we used words like ally or accomplice, [the Irish-Catholic girl] found a way to stand shoulder to shoulder in ways that mattered most—being quiet, listening, defending, reaching out. She spoke a passable schoolyard Spanish, well enough to be understood, and perhaps most critically, to understand. What was most important to me was she had your back.” The second half of “Flow” spends time with another genre-bending native Angeleno, the bass player Wil-Dog Abers from the iconic L.A. musical group, Ozomatli. Wil-Dog was a white kid within the racially tense 1980s who used music to find an identity, “his portal into enclaves, neighborhood, hidden outposts, and intimate friendships.” People like Wil-Dog and her old friend represent how Angelenos embraced the world around them and flowed along with the changes in the city.

A final word also needs to be said about After/Image’s photography. The last section of the book, “The Spirit of Place,” is almost exclusively photos for sixteen pages. There’s a three-paragraph introduction to the chapter and then five quotes from Angelenos like recent poet laureate Luis J. Rodriguez and the Japanese-American writer and activist, Traci Kato-Kiriyama, interspersed through the images.

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The spirit of Los Angeles

George’s opening sentence of the final passage says it all: “The most evocative features of Los Angeles can’t always be put into words. Sense of place is a connection that takes root. It flourishes deep inside. That spirit of place may come in a quick glimpse or along a periphery. Maybe it’s a mood. A hidden vista. The scale of a street. The bend of a skyscraping fan palm.” The book’s cover image of Union Station with the glowing purple sky in the background is a perfect example of a picture beyond words.

George’s photos throughout After/Image capture the evocative moods and hidden vistas nested within the fabric of the city. Influenced by Roy DeCarava, the iconic Harlem-born photographer who used his photography to celebrate everyday life in Black America, her photos of everyday Los Angeles extend the moment with the same kind of authenticity. George has been taking photos as long as she’s been writing, but in her recent explorations walking across the city over the last five years, she “began to take along a camera to record specific details—front steps, attic windows, a tangle of succulents, the remnants of backyard incinerators, hand-drawn signs, lost lists, long shadows, the play of light, details or moments that forced [her] to look twice or ask questions.”

The overall work provides a powerful portrait of Los Angeles in 2018 and over the last half century. She admits, “I can’t quite say if this narrative—the photographs, the testimonials—is a love letter or a Dear John note.” Ultimately, the book is a remarkable ode to Los Angeles and the sweeping arc of her narrative is compelling to natives and nonnatives alike. Her final sentence before the extended photo essay summarizes both the book and her intentions: “I walk to remember to tell and honor these stories—what still lies outside the frame and the images of Los Angeles that live inside of me. And us.”

In March and April of 2018, George has been appearing across Southern California supporting After/Image in venues like Vroman’s Bookstore, the Annenberg Beach House, and the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. She also has essays in two forthcoming books: L.A. Baseball: Photographs from the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection; and Radio Imagination: Artists and Writers in the Archive of Octavia E. Butler. George’s meticulously prevalent writing and research combined with her personal insight proves why she is one of today’s best voices singing Los Angeles.

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Notes 

* All photos courtesy of Lynell George, used by permission.

[1] https://www.angelcitypress.com/products/aila.

[2] David Reid, ed., Sex, God and L.A. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994).

 

Mike Sonksen is a third-generation Los Angeles native whose prose and poetry have been included in programs with the Mayor’s Office, the Los Angeles Public Library’s “Made in LA,” series and Grand Park. Most recently, one of his KCET essays was nominated for an Award with the L.A. Press Club. Sonksen teaches at Woodbury University.

Copyright: © 2018 Mike Sonksen. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

 

ArticlesPhotography/Art

Queering Desire from California

Việt Lê

During and after my father’s two-year terminal illness, and my own simultaneous cancer scare (2000-2003), I became concerned with individual illness as a metaphor for the failure of ideology and the political body, and called this series, “Still.” At the time, I was also dealing thematically with loss and the long shadow of HIV/AIDS in a continuing body of work entitled, “Pictures of You.” I was thinking of Susan Sontag,[1] Douglas Crimp, Joan Didion,[2] and Foucault. Above all else, I was thinking of two things: trauma and desire.

Lê girlhood among ghosts_L

untitled (girlhood among ghosts)

Desire denotes emptiness, a void, an impossibility, an ethical conundrum. Desire unattainably sits on the horizon. What do we desire most in this political moment? What really ails us?

I have been rethinking illness and failure after reading and teaching Anne Cvetkovich’s Depression, Anne Cheng’s The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation and Hidden Grief, Jack Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure, José Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, and Sara Ahmed’s The Promise of Happiness,[3] in conversation with other texts, artists, and thinkers.

I now understand “illness” as being culturally constructed—systemic failure. On one hand, with continued systemic oppression (along the lines of class, gender, race) minoritarian subjects would be ailing, not particularly content with the status quo. Critical voices of dissent are “killjoys,” as Sarah Ahmed[4] and Jan Bernabe[5] have observed. Postmodernity and its discontents: to be a killjoy is to be attuned to—and respondent to—a range of violence from micro-aggression to lethal force. Neither of these come with a trigger warning.

10 The Death of Marat

untitled (The Death of Marat)

According to the Washington Post’s real-time National Police Shootings Database,[6] there have been 408 fatal shootings by officers already this year (987 in 2017; daily the list grows). We are cannibalizing ourselves. These killings on our streets can be linked to longer histories of violence and empire, which is obscured under different guises. This mentality to “Make America Great Again” has viably amounted to making America hate again.

On top of all this, the U.S. Asian Exclusion Act of 1924 barred Asians and Arabs and also restricted immigration for Eastern and Southern Europeans. The Obama administration deported more than 2.7 million immigrants—a record for any presidency.[7] October 2017, President Trump proposed restricting the number of immigrants to 45,000,[8] down from 110,000 in 2016. But this isn’t limited to our gold coasts and miracle miles. Brexit and the outcry over the European refugee “crisis” suggest an unnerving political pendulum swing. Political victories and losses do not compare to and nor do they make up for the loss of rights, livelihood, and of life itself.

What do we do as a (social) body with threatening growth? We isolate, excise: through incarceration, corporal punishment, banishment (think about deportation, travel bans, and Muslim bans). Although, we can combat this mindset of threatening isolation through the Enlightenment discourse of rational helpfulness; racial uplift; liberté, egalité, fraternité; and the disguise of love. As Marguerite Duras writes of colonial desires: “love unto death.” Death is the end-logic of disease, of dis-ease, of being ill at ease.

The real illness lies in our fear of others—of terrorists, immigrants, refugees. Vietnamese refugees. Californians are not exempt from this, and have historically exhibited some of the more extreme versions in racist policies that get exported throughout the nation, and tend to fester here, hidden under the blinding sun. But refusing these, wherever they come from, is an option—an opting out of the ideological and real violence of empire, patriarchy, hetero- and homo-normativity. We do not want to be #winning (#whining?), if success means capitulating to capitalism’s misogynist, racist, ageist demands. We don’t have to give in, give up, cede to others, secede from ourselves (or the nation) to succeed. If to “succeed” under heteronormative patriarchy means to follow an ideal weight, age, skin color, (re-)productive timelines, ad nauseam, we would rather choose to fail, to un-follow, be fallow. The embrace of failure, indeed, opens up critical and creative possibilities. Muñoz admits, “Within straight time the queer can only fail; thus an aesthetic of failure can productively be occupied by the artist for delineating straight time’s measure.”[9] Artist Sowon Kwon notes that being perfect and perfectly average—exceptional yet unthreatening (model citizen, model minority)—strands us intersectional feminists in no man’s land.[10]

As our American idols fall (Weinstein, Rose, Spacey, Cosby, et al)—the fathers falter—their embodied pinnacles of success and predation display a pestering symptom. “A festering pustule in a diseased industry,” director/actress Sarah Polley called Weinstein in a New York Times op-ed.[11] Beyond op-eds, there’s no option: up end, opt out.

We want to fail. We want to fail if corporate excess (cum execs, sex) and captains of industry are quietly complicit in perpetuating decades and centuries of trauma.

How do we question, query, and queer our inherited timelines, cultural mythologies, and individual myths? To use Halberstam’s term, this is the queer art of failure. Muñoz observes that utopia is even predicated on failure. It comes to be this impossible horizon. This is the paradox of desire—love, beauty, community. Yet, they are implausible ideals that we as a people continually strive for. This desire to fare better, then, is to fail better.

Illness and its metaphors. We cannot “be illin’” (Netflix-and-chillin’) when our bodies, our political bodies, and our earth is in a state of emergency. In critical condition, we need critical mass, creative intervention—an ethics of refusal—in our despair and desires. And here, in this ascesis, we may eventually find better ways to truly hope.

4 kitchen window

untitled (kitchen window)

5 garage

untitled (garage)

6 yellow

untitled (yellow)

9 temple drum

untitled (temple drum)

11 waking alone

untitled (waking alone)

7 laundry, after Vermeer

 untitled (laundry, after Vermeer)

12 ants

(untitled) ants

13 flowers

untitled (flowers)

 

Notes

  • All photographs taken by Việt Lê, 2001-05, Lambda print face-mounted on Plex, Edition of 5 + 1 AP 36″ L x 36″ W x 1″ D framed (91.4 x 91.4 x 2.5 cm). Used by Permission.

** This short essay is excerpted and expanded from Madalyn K. Le and Việt Lê “CA+T (Center for Art + Thought) Interview with Việt Lê,” 28 December 2017,  http://centerforartandthought.org/cat-interview-vi%E1%BB%87t-l%C3%AA.

[1] Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and its Metaphors (New York: Picador, 2001).

[2] Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking (New York: Vintage, 2007).

[3] Anne Cvetkovich, Depression (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012), Anne Cheng, The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation and Hidden Grief (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), Jack Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), José Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: NYU Press, 2009), and Sara Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010).

[4] https://feministkilljoys.com/.

[5] https://news.artnet.com/art-world/queering-contemporary-asian-american-art-986825.

[6] https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/national/police-shootings-2017/.

[7] https://www.democracynow.org/2017/2/22/advocate_trumps_deportations_are_possible_because.

[8] Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Miriam Jordan, “Trump Plans 45,000 Limit on Refugees Admitted to U.S.,” New York Times, 27 September 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/26/us/politics/trump-plans-45000-limit-on-refugees-admitted-to-us.html.

[9] Cruising Utopia, 174.

[10] http://archive.bampfa.berkeley.edu/exhibition/196.

[11] Sarah Polley, “Sarah Polley: The Men You Meet Making Movies,” New York Times, 14 October 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/14/opinion/sunday/harvey-weinstein-sarah-polley.html?smid=tw-share&_r=0.

Việt Lê is a Vietnamese artist, writer, and curator whose work focuses on trauma, modernity and popular cultures in Southeast Asian diasporas. He is Assistant Professor (Visual Studies) at the California College of the Arts. His art and research has been featured at H Gallery Bangkok, the Shanghai Biennial and the Smithsonian. Recent publications include “White Gaze” with Dr. Michelle Dizon and “Myriad Modernities,” a Visual Anthropology special double issue coedited with Dr. Lan Duong. For more of his work, see vietle.net.

Copyright: © 2018 Việt Lê. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

 

ArticlesPhotography/Art

Tattoo

NHM Tattoo-Pano 1

Sydney Santana
Jason S. Sexton

Californians need to find ways to mark their identity. This stands true for newcomers and longtime residents, in spite of the amnesia that often befalls ordinary California life. When lines traced from the past prove insufficient for cultivating this, Californians sketch the way forward with the tools available. Very few of these tools are from here, and yet they readily find their way in the regular use of Californians who aim to be themselves, charting new courses, transmogrifying into new narratives they start to see.

This is the story of tattoos in California, and the roles they’ve played in the lives of many. They didn’t start here, but originated with Oceanic and Asianic cultures, especially the Japanese, gamely reaching the California shores from the Pacific world. Various world cultures have long marked bodies with scarring, piercings, and other features meant to enhance the skin’s rich historical and cultural context.[1] From the ancient world to today, tattoos canvassed the body with information: denoting rank, status, meaning, replacing the natural with new data, displaying and communicating an ongoing openness to fresh, transformative possibilities. Artists ink this information onto bodies, like painting on a canvas, or a mural.

The mid-twentieth century saw a cultural development in California during and after World War II and the Korean War, where the relaxed “California lifestyle” provided a fitting environment for what would soon emerge. It was carried by figures like Sailor Jerry, Ed Hardy, Cliff Raven, and Freddy Negrete.[2] Perhaps the only place capable of integrating, nurturing, and disseminating the phenomena so quickly, California was “the global center of the Tattoo Renaissance.”[3]

It makes sense, then, for our reflections to finally be grounded in Los Angeles, where cultural objects and modalities are “rife with contradiction, conflating artificiality and authenticity.”[4] We leave to our readers and those who interact with and experience the Natural History Museum’s exhibition, “Tattoo,” to determine which bits of this new tattoo culture—especially in California but also beyond—reflect the artificial projection or the genuine reality, the stories of the past and future to live into, both of the artists and those inked. Marking identity in California has never been a simple task, but with the power to make bodies into new texts in a moment, tattoo culture remains one of the truest California things happening.

NHM-Tattoo-3

NHM-Tattoo-5

“Early in the 20th century Chinese tattoos imitated American, European, and Japanese designs. More recently, Chinese and Taiwanese tattoos are integrating traditional Chinese imagery—the Buddha, lion, and dragon, which are all important cultural symbols.”

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Left: Charlie Wagner, from the series “Homage to Tattooing Icons,” Switzerland, 1990, Acrylic paint on canvas, Artist: Titine K-Leu (b. 1968). Right: Anna “Artoria Gibbons, from the series, “Homage to Tattooing Icons,” Switzerland, 1990, Acrylic paint on canvas, Artist: Titine K-Leu (b. 1968).

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NHM-Tattoo-11

“Before there were shops offering black-and-gray tattoos, many tattooers in East L.A. worked out of their kitchens and garages. A homemade tattoo machine, some batteries wrapped in white paper, stencils, black Higgins ink, cigarettes, artistic ability, and a willing friend was often all it took to get started.”

NHM-Tattoo-14NHM-Tattoo-15

NHM-Tattoo-16

Left: Clay Jar, Casas Grandes, Chihuahua, Mexico, 1200-1450 CE, Ceramic. Right: Clay Figurine (possibly Mayan), Mexico, Date unknown, Terracotta.

NHM-Tattoo-17

NHM-Tattoo-18

Left: Flash sheet (eagle and serpent), Long Beach, California, USA, Circa 1950, Reproduction of color drawing, Artist: Lee Roy Minugh (b. unknown). Right: Flash sheet (roses), Long Beach, California, USA, Circa 1950, Reproduction of color drawing, Artist: Lee Roy Minugh (b. unknown).

NHM-Tattoo-19

Smile now, Cry later, Los Angeles, California, USA, Late 20th c., Drawing on paper, Artist: Freddy Negrete (b. 1956).

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Shamrock Social Club, Sunset Blvd, West Hollywood.

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Freddy Negrete, Shamrock Social Club.

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Isaiah Negrete, Shamrock Social Club.

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Freddy Negrete, Shamrock Social Club.

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Isaiah Negrete, Shamrock Social Club.

 

Notes

[1] See Nina G. Jablonski, Skin: A Natural History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013).

[2] See Jason S. Sexton, “Black-and-Gray Realism,” Los Angeles Review of Books, 20 July, 2017, https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/black-and-gray-realism/.

[3] Arnold Rubin, “The Tattoo Renaissance, in Marks of Civilization: Artistic Transformations of the Human Body, ed.  Arnold Rubin (Los Angeles: Museum of Cultural History, UCLA), 236-41. See also,

[4] David L. Ulin, Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles (Oakland: University of California Press, 2015), 83.

Tattoo is an exhibition on display at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County until 15 April 2018. With ongoing special events related to the exhibit, the exhibit may be seen daily from 9:30 a.m. – 5 p.m.

 

Sydney Santana is Photographer in Residence (2018-2019) at Boom California. Follow her on Instagram @sydney_santana or on her website, http://www.sydney-santana.com/.

Jason S. Sexton is the Editor of Boom.

Copyright: © 2018 Sydney Santana and Jason S. Sexton. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

ArticlesPhotography/Art

Water is Life

Alessandra Bergamin
Briana Flin


It is a Saturday evening in April and Celerina Chavez is making albondigas—Mexican meatball soup. In a heavy pot, the soup simmers gently, sending the smell of carrot and cilantro throughout the house. With an oven mitt, Celerina lifts the hot lid. “The soup needs more water,” she says.

On the tiled bench beside the sink sits a large container of purified water, the five-gallon kind found in office buildings. Smaller bottles of water sit on the table, ready to drink with dinner. Celerina fills a pitcher from the five-gallon jug and pours a dash into the soup. She stirs it, then tastes it. Dinner will be ready soon.

Earlier that afternoon Celerina and her husband Bartolo made the trip from their home in Arvin to the Costco in Bakersfield. Every week they drive more than twenty miles to buy bottled water in four heavy pallets. Tomorrow, Bartolo will go to Arvin’s water district to use his two tokens, provided by the city, and refill that five-gallon jug at a purified water station.

They cannot drink the water that runs from the faucet.

Arvin is one of more than ninety public water systems across California having water contaminated with 123-Trichloropropane, or 123-TCP. The chemical originated as a by-product of two soil fumigants, D-D made by Shell Oil and Telone from Dow Chemical. These products were used heavily in agriculture from the 1940s until they were discontinued in their original formulation in the mid 1980s. During that time, however, they leached into the groundwater, contaminating the wells that most of the Central Valley relies upon.

Kern County is the most affected in the state. While Bartolo and Celerina have lived in Arvin, a town in Kern, for more than twenty years, they only discovered their water was contaminated three years ago. Before that, they and their three children unknowingly drank the contaminated tap water.

“We’re in the United States, it isn’t just any country, so why is the water bad, why is the water so contaminated?

“We’re in the United States, it isn’t just any country, so why is the water bad, why is the water so contaminated?” Celerina says in Spanish, her and Bartolo’s native tongue.

Bartolo Chavez leads the way through his three bedroom home to the bathroom. There, he turns on the shower and lets the water run. It is warm but not hot enough to be steamy. The overhead fan whirrs. They are cautious about bathing too—short and cold showers are routine in their household, although not in others.

“The warmer the water, the more dangerous,” he says. “In the community, the people do not know that.”

For more than twenty-five years the State of California has classified 123-TCP as a known carcinogen. Yet the chemical was only regulated earlier this year. July 2017, following a public and stakeholder comment period, the State Water Board set the maximum contaminant level for 123-TCP in drinking water at five parts per trillion. With the contaminant at this concentration, communities still have an increased risk of developing cancer compared to those with uncontaminated water, but that risk is less than one case per 100,000 people.[1] It comes as good news for communities across the Central Valley, many of which have 123-TCP concentrations of more than seven parts per trillion, meaning higher cancer risks.[2]

“This new health-protective regulation for 1,2,3-TCP is a victory for all the Californians… seeking to secure for themselves and their families what most of us have the luxury of taking for granted—the basic human right to safe drinking water,” said Jonathan Nelson, Policy Director for Community Water Center in a press release shortly after the announcement.[3]

But treating water is also an expensive undertaking and the burden of cost may be placed upon consumers who live in smaller water markets and already pay higher rates. Because of this, many public water utilities, including Arvin’s, have filed lawsuits against Shell Oil and Dow Chemical for damages.[4] Most complaints claim the products’ problems outweighed the benefits and that the companies failed to disclose 123-TCP as an ingredient.

“We have internal documents that show they [Shell and Dow] knew from a very early point in time that 1,2,3-TCP was in the products and not doing anything to help the farmers but yet, it remained,” said Jed Borghei, an attorney representing Arvin’s public water utility.[5]

Some, such as Clovis, have already received some recompense, settling a lawsuit against Shell Oil in 2016 for $22 million.

Treating the water also takes time—anywhere from a few months to a few years. Meanwhile, residents of affected communities, like Bartolo and Celerina, still shoulder the burden of procuring clean water.

“It is something good they are going to do,” Bartolo said of the regulation prior to its adoption. “But they need to act fast because if they wait more time, that is more harm to humanity.”

123TCP_BOOM_3


Notes

[1] California State Water Resources Control Board, “Frequently Asked Questions: 1,2,3-Trichloropropane (TCP) in Drinking Water,” 18 July 2016, https://www.waterboards.ca.gov/drinking_water/certlic/drinkingwater/documents/123-tcp/123tcp_factsheet.pdf.

[2] California State Water Resources Control Board, “1,2,3-TCP Concentrations Above 5 ppt,” last accessed 11 October 2017, https://www.waterboards.ca.gov/drinking_water/certlic/drinkingwater/documents/123-tcp/123tcp_map_5ppt.pdf.

[3] Community Water Center, “Press Release: State Votes to Protect Californians From Carcinogen, TCP,” 18 July 2017, http://www.communitywatercenter.org/tags/tcp/.

[4] Robins Borghei LLP, “Robins Borghei LLP: The Leader in 1,2,3-TCP Groundwater Contimination Litigation,” last accessed 11 October 2017, http://rbwaterlaw.com/tcp-litigation/.

[5] From video interview with Jed Borghei of Robins Borghei LLP, conducted by Alessandra Bergamin and Briana Flin, 26 April 2017.

 

Alessandra Bergamin is a freelance journalist who reports on agricultural communities, environmental justice and inequality. Her work has been published in Bay Nature, Misadventures and Flint Mag. She is a former Harper’s Magazine intern and current student at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her on twitter @AllyBergamin.

Briana Flin is a Bay Area-based multimedia journalist interested in culture, immigration and social justice. She’s produced stories for Rewire.org and Oakland North and her work has been shared by PBS. She’s currently a new media student at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her on twitter @BrianaFlin.

Copyright: © 2017 Alessandra Bergamin and Briana Flin. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

ArticlesPhotography/Art

What is a River in California?

Calf_2015_4x5_4_2 001

Highway Bridge, 2016, archival pigment print, 56 x 60 inches, Sayler/Morris. I-5 Bridge near the confluence of the American and Sacramento Rivers.*


Susannah Sayler
Edward Morris

What is a river? This is not a question we ask every day because it seems superfluous. Certainly, a river must be a flowing body of water of a certain size. Call it a river or a creek, but one way or another, flowing is the essential thing. Yet, what if a given river does not flow per se but is pushed and pulled mechanically? Or what if the flowing that defines a river is arrested and controlled through dams, canals and machine technology? What if the river no longer moves with inextricable desire towards a specific place like an ocean or a lake, but rather is widely dispersed into various uses? What if a river is wholly owned and apportioned the moment it comes out of the ground? Does all this change the essence of a river? Is it even still a river?

These speculative questions, for which the arts are particularly well suited, assume real significance in a state like present-day California that depends entirely on technological control of rivers for its prosperity and very survival. Seeing a river in California for what it is now—namely water-put-to-work—can abet a number of other vital inquiries, such as: if water in the state is essentially a resource or even a commodity, who owns it and how are these owners positioning themselves for the water shortages of the future due to climate change and population growth? How is the current regard for water connected to California’s murderous, colonial past,[1] and what can we gain from such an understanding? And/or how can California avoid its seemingly inevitable fate of privatized water markets, unreliable access to clean water for the poor and profound income inequality? Such questioning “prepares a free relationship” towards the issue, to quote Martin Heidegger. It reveals and opens. It renders something that appears universal, absolute and given—in this case our extractive attitude toward water and farming—as contingent and therefore mutable through political activism and civic engagement.

We make this particular connection to Heidegger despite all his baggage because he provides a number of indispensable analytic tools for perceiving what is really at stake with environmental issues, not to mention his inventive and evocative vocabulary. Further, an encounter with Heidegger’s investigation into the nature of rivers proved transformative to our own art-activist project Water Gold Soil. As artists working with the medium of landscape photography, we first looked towards what is visible in the land in order to represent the drought issue in California. A reading of Heidegger and other research then provoked us to consider what lies behind what can be seen. A key thought sits in Heidegger’s before-and-after comparison of the Rhine River found in “The Question Concerning Technology”:

The hydroelectric plant is set into the current of the Rhine. It sets the Rhine to supplying its hydraulic pressure, which then sets the turbines turning. This turning sets those machines in motion whose thrust sets going the electric current for which the long-distance power station and its network of cables are set up to dispatch electricity. In the context of the interlocking processes pertaining to the orderly disposition of electrical energy, even the Rhine itself appears to be something at our command. The hydroelectric plant is not built into the Rhine River as was the old wooden bridge that joined bank with bank for hundreds of years. Rather the river is dammed up into the power plant…. What the river is now, namely, a water-power supplier, derives from the essence of the power station…. But, it will be replied, the Rhine is still a river in the landscape, is it not? Perhaps. But how? In no other way than as an object on call for inspection by a tour group ordered there by the vacation industry.[2]

Seeing the way “a river in the landscape” can actually be more fundamentally defined by its economic uses (power supplier, tourism and recreation site, irrigator) became the presiding impulse of our own project. Accordingly, we photographed the transition from the wilderness incarnation of this water flow in the Sierra Nevada to its first damming, and then on to its increasing subjection to rationalization and canalization, and finally to its dispersal in various end-uses, primarily agricultural. The most basic goal of the photography and the video we took was simply to reveal the “river” as economic rather than scenic—and by “river” here, we mean both our particular water flow and by extension all such “rivers” in California.

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Water Gold Soil: Report, Draft 2, Sayler/Morris, 2015, 2-channel video installation, 17 min, TULCA Art Festival, Galway, Ireland. Voiceover text: “From this point on the water does that flow. They pushed it along with pumps. They extracted it from the Delta, and moved it into two canals. One headed for the big cities and one headed to the desert farms. The water commodity.”

This may seem obvious, but the productiveness of this enterprise became evident when an environmental organization giving us an award requested that we put more images of “beauty” and “wildness” into an exhibition of our work. Indeed, the typical maneuver of photographers working on environmental issues is to show a particular landscape as pure and beautiful and therefore worthy of protecting, or else to show “damage” to the land caused by the impurities of pollution and industrialization. However, such obsession with purity, which has historically motivated the environmental movement in the United States, deadens an adequate response to issues like climate change or water rights in California. In both cases, sufficiently powerful animus and solidarity must derive from a heightened sense of both the dangers and opportunities. Urgency comes from care for and protection of life, social justice, empathy, economic opportunity and restoration of the sacred. Each  of these themes came together in Standing Rock.

The purity paradigm continues to grip the environmental community, but so long as it does it will jeopardize its efficacy. For such an interest in conservation, preservation, and beauty, tremendously understates the danger of our current ecological crisis and renders the ecological crisis the sole province of a privileged class. Here too Heidegger can be of some assistance, albeit with significant caveats. Heidegger’s description of the hydro-electric plant in the Rhine comes amid a larger discussion of what he identified as “the supreme danger” to mankind. This supreme danger presents itself to Heidegger first in the guise of “modern technology.” Modern technology for Heidegger differs from what precedes it in that “it puts to nature the unreasonable demand that it supply energy which can be extracted and stored.” Heidegger terms this essential aspect of modern technology a “challenging forth,” which he contrasts with the gentler “bringing forth” (poiesis) of older technology. Poeisis, of course, is also the mode of the arts (i.e., poetry), the significance of which we explore below. In this connection, Heidegger contrasts the impact of a wooden bridge over the Rhine to that of the hydro-electric dam per the above quotation. The wooden bridge brings forth place, dwelling, cultivation of the land; whereas the dam challenges forth the river to yield energy that might in turn be used for industrial processes.[3]

To understand how this is not merely a nostalgic, wistful call for a return to a past primitivism, we must understand exactly what is so unreasonable about the demand Heidegger identifies that modern technology puts to nature. The danger here is not the loss of an attribute of the river we might call beautiful or the imposition of a stain on its purity that can ultimately be restored through effective advocacy; rather, the danger lies in the complete transformation in the nature of the river within a means-ends order. It has become, in Heidegger’s terminology, a “standing reserve.” The river is not alone. In a world dominated by modern technology, Heidegger writes:

Everywhere everything is ordered to stand by, to be immediately on hand, indeed to stand there just so that it may be on call for a furthering ordering. Whatever is ordered about in this way has its own standing. We call it the standing reserve.[4]

Another way of saying this is that within the challenging forth of modern technology everything becomes a resource, or as Heidegger writes elsewhere “something is only through what it performs.”[5] Heidegger gives a couple of other examples besides the transformation of the river. He contrasts a windmill with coal power. Whereas with the windmill things “are left entirely to the wind’s blowing,” with coal “a tract of land is challenged in the hauling out” with the result that the “earth now reveals itself as a coal mining district, the soil as mineral deposit.”[6] He also contrasts older farming techniques with industrial agriculture, emphasizing the lost values of care and maintenance, words which together we might call by a different name—sustainability.[7]

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Water Gold Soil: Report, Draft 2, Sayler/Morris, 2015, 2-channel video (still), 17 min. The pipes depicted here in the right channel of the video are part of infrastructure originally built to support gold mining by regulating flow in the South Fork of the American River. The same infrastructure was later re-purposed for irrigation agriculture and suburban development. Voiceover text: “Pipes followed as if demanded by logic itself…. But the pipes were kept hidden, tucked away. So that a faucet could appear like a stream.”

By this logic, in order to answer the question, “What is a river in California?,” we must first answer the question of specifically what that river is used for, what it performs. It is not enough simply to observe that it is technological in some generic sense. Of course, a given river in California might have various uses. (It is illuminating in this regard to examine Bureau of Reclamation spreadsheets showing just who owns each acre foot of water in each river.) Notice, however, how Heidegger articulates the usage of the river in terms of a system: the water moves the turbines, which moves machines that create the electrical current, which in turn moves along cables to be stored and distributed. The underlying logic of the challenging forth is that it is extracting and storing energy with the purpose to further something else, namely some industry.

We chose to follow a water flow toward its end use specifically in the industry of large-scale agriculture because this is the dominant industry governing much of California’s water infrastructure. Jay Lund, one of the leading experts on water in California and editor of the California Water Blog, describes the system of water management in California, as follows:

By 1980, a vast network of reservoirs, canals and exploited aquifers transformed California. This system was largely designed to support an agricultural economy envisioned in the latter 1800s, which greatly exceeded the gold mining economy it replaced.[8]

In this single concise quotation, you have all the elements of our project: Water, Gold, Soil. The “agricultural economy” (i.e. soil) is the descendant of the gold mining economy, and both were entirely dependent on water—agriculture for obvious reasons, and gold because not only was gold first found in the rivers, but water in the form of sluices and later water cannons was essential to mining operations.  As Norris Hundley writes of the gold mining industry in California: “they built hydraulic empires of dams, reservoirs, flumes, ditches, pipes and hoses. All this in turn required knowledge of advanced engineering principles, now introduced for the first time on a large scale in the West and later used to build other great public and private projects.”[9] In addition to the technological confidence and infrastructure, perhaps a more important legacy of the gold mining industry on the agriculture industry that supplanted it was the legal framework for how to regard ownership of a river in the first place. [10] In particular, the notion that one could claim a right to some water simply being the first to put it to some vaguely defined “beneficial use” originated in California with the Gold Rush. The havoc wrecked by the mixing of this “prior appropriation” right with other sorts of rights (namely riparian) has been well documented.

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Water Gold Soil: Report, Draft 2, Sayler/Morris, 2015, 2-channel video (still), 17 min. Voiceover text: “They first discovered Gold near this place on the American River, setting off a worldwide hysteria that has been treated comprehensively by Brandt and others.”

However, Lund leaves out half of the equation. The other major driver of water infrastructure development in California was, and continues to be, real estate development and speculation. This story has been comprehensively told in Norris Hundley’s The Great Thirst and elsewhere. In fact, a strong argument can be made that agriculture in California is itself simply real estate investment in disguise. With a Heideggerian flourish we might say (as we do in a video piece that is part of our project): “Water spread over land by wind and rain transforms ground to nutrient. Water spread over land by pipes transforms ground to real estate.” Many in addition to Hundley have recited this history,[11] which in broad brush strokes looks like this: the government wrests away land populated by Native Americans and grants it outright to large corporations, including railroads and oil companies; the companies market the land to settlers who begin to farm it and increase its value under lease agreements; the same large landowners then successfully lobby the government for massive, multi-billion-dollar water infrastructure projects, cynically invoking the Jeffersonian image of the small farmer (this includes the San Luis reservoir, which is the hub of the water flow in our Water Gold Soil project); the construction of these projects is granted under the agreement that the large landowners will sell off their land into smaller parcels to support small business and families; this sell-off is never done and the military-scale federal investment in infrastructure is thereby translated into direct real estate gains by the large owners. Studies have shown the deleterious effects of corporate farming on communities, as the owners of these lands get rich while the people working on them are mired in some of the country’s most dire poverty.[12] In the ultimate irony, many communities within these farming districts (known perversely as water districts) completely lack access to any water at all, or else are subjected to poisonous levels of pollution.[13]

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Water Gold Soil: Report, Draft 2, Sayler/Morris, 2015, 2-channel video (still), 17 min. Irrigation in Westlands Water District. Voiceover text: “Water spread over land by wind and clouds transforms ground to nutrient. Water spread over land by pipes transforms ground to real estate.”

Here we approach the crux of the argument and an identification both of what is valuable and vexing about Heidegger. For Heidegger, if the reduction of the natural world to a standing reserve is the danger, then the “supreme danger” is the reduction of humans themselves to the status of this standing reserve, as with the laborers of the Central Valley most obviously, but, in fact, as with all of us living within a world defined by modern technology. This reduction of nature, labor and all people to a standing reserve is a function not of technology itself but what Heidegger calls the essence of modern technology: enframing (Gestell). What sort of thing is enframing? One is tempted to call it a worldview, an orientation, a theory, a way of representing the world, or even an ideology, but Heidegger scrupulously avoids these sorts of epistemological terms—a fact that accounts for much of the difficulty of his text. For him, enframing is not simply a way of seeing things. It is itself generative as a mode of revealing the world, a mode of existence. Enframing reveals by ordering, framing, putting things into boxes.  Enframing alters what is actual, not just how we see the actual. Under the sway of enframing, objects, and ultimately human beings themselves, turn into a mere function of their instrumentality.

However, while enframing is not itself a way of seeing, it is, paradoxically, both the by-product of and the necessary condition of a way of seeing, which Heidegger calls out as “modern mathematical science.”[14] Perhaps a helpful way of understanding the enframing concept is to see it as that force within “modern mathematical science’s” way of seeing that is productive of being—the binding force between epistemology and ontology. “Modern science’s way of representing pursues and entraps nature as a calculable coherence of forces,” Heidegger writes, and this “theory of nature prepares the way not just for modern technology but for the essence of modern technology [i.e., enframing].” Heidegger emphasizes that this occurs at a particular time in history—that is to say, something else came before. With an ecological dynamic, culture, in all its myriad modes of representation (scientific, artistic, conversational, etc.) is produced by, and in turn, propagates this ontological enframing force. Heidegger lays down the marker between the Renaissance and the Middle Ages: “What actuality is in Durer’s picture ‘The Columbine’ is determined differently from what is actual in a medieval fresco.”[15] Indeed, there is something crucial about this transition. The creeping ooze of enframing spread over the entire world as we moved through the epochs labeled the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, Modernity and indeed Post-Modernity (which, we understand as neo-liberalism by another name). The story of enframing’s creep is the story of colonialism, and it is also the story of our project in which documentation of a given “river” is both real and allegorical. Our assembly of images and words is representational of an actual water flow at a given point in time, but also of the broader historical trajectory of the Age of Extraction. California is an interesting case study in the epistemo-ontological creep of enframing because it is so compressed and so stark.

Hand with Gold smaller

Enframing II, Sayler/Morris, 2016, Archival pigment print with gold leaf, 20 x 24 inches. Appropriated image from United States Geological Society with permission.

Yet, in the final analysis we make quite different hay than Heidegger out of this recognition of enframing’s historicity. Heidegger’s primary concern throughout his work is Being, by which he means the essence of human existence. We will not follow him into these considerations, which are dense with thorns, except to say this overarching concern of Heidegger’s leads him to consider the “supreme danger” of enframing as bearing most importantly on man’s ability to continue to live as he essentially is—in all his aloneness and glory. This preoccupation of Heidegger’s, seeped in a brew of human exceptionalism and a pursuit of pure origins along with some other rather dubious notions, creates what seems to us like two blindingly obvious aporia in his questioning concerning technology, namely a consideration of agency in the development of enframing’s challenging forth, and relatedly a consideration of class and regional distinctions among the humans of this world. Who pushed forward the challenging forth of nature and labor that fell out of enframing like destiny? And who can stop it? In several places, Heidegger’s questioning brushes tantalizing close to Marx—for example in his observation that the challenging forth of technology is invested in “driving on to the maximum yield and the minimum expense”; or in his description of humans becoming a standing reserve, which seems to harken to Marx’s analysis of alienation. However, Heidegger does not pursue a material, economic understanding of what is threatening about the enframing phenomenon. This leads to a very nebulous conception of its origins and import, as well as to a misunderstanding of the ways in which we can engage in overcoming it.

Heidegger never forged an explicit political philosophy but expressed that a revolution in thinking was needed to avoid the tragic subjection of humans themselves to the status of a standing reserve. We do not normally think of Heidegger as an activist, but in the Introduction to Metaphysics he states: “we dare to take up the great and lengthy task of tearing down a world that has grown old and of building it truly anew.”[16] He had an exalted view of both philosophy and art in this process. In fact, it was to these activities alone that he ascribed any real power. The world had to be re-created through a heroic exertion of complicated thought, embodied best in poetry. Heidegger was silent about how this deep thought might be conveyed to the citizenry and how in turn it might lead to concrete changes in policy or political systems. Not surprisingly, this giant lacuna in Heidegger’s thought resulted in personal exhaustion and disillusionment, such that he ultimately declared in an interview with Das Spiegel: “philosophy will be unable to effect any immediate change in the current state of the world. This is true not only of philosophy but of all purely human reflection and endeavor” because “the greatness of what is to be thought is [all] too great.” Heidegger broodingly concluded that only “God can save us.”[17]

Taken as disillusionment on Heidegger’s part, this spirit all too commonly results from detaching the abstract work of world creating (via worldview changing) from the concrete work of political activism aimed specifically at agents of the danger. For there are indeed agents. Could not the mysterious ecological relation that Heidegger describes between the scientific mode of representation, enframing, the challenging forth of nature (and labor), and finally the transformation of the world into a standing reserve be more reductively described as the application of modern science towards making money? Does he not overlook the crucial ingredient of greed as the dominant driver of certain (though not all) humans and the force that adds the unreasonable challenging forth of nature (and labor) to enframing? The development of exploitative economic systems arose out of an ability to systematically demarcate and make predictions (about how to build a ship and navigate, about how to build a dam, about how much water is needed to get a certain size crop, about where gold might be, about how to make an equivalent exchange, etc.). Heidegger shows how the self-perpetuating logic of this system alters our worldview, cuts off pathways to the sacred and defeats humility. Yet, by failing to ascribe agency in the process, he concludes that “Human activity can never directly counter the danger.” This flies in the face of actual gains that social movements can and do make all the time, even as this more fundamental work of culture changing happens in the background. Shout out to: Cesar Chavez, to 350.org, to anti-fracking movements in New York, to dam-removal movements and their successes on the Yakima and other rivers, etc.

To state it simply, there are two fronts to changing the world: changing ideology (i.e., ways of seeing and representing); and changing material conditions. As such, the work of poets, artists and thinkers is symbiotic with the work of activists, not isolated a la Heidegger; it is on this level that we think of our work as art-activist. A poetic way of seeing the world—defined here as an investment in non-rational consciousness and empathic understanding—is absolutely required for an effective activism, not only because it opens up a new relation to the world, but also because it restores enchantment and inherently combats the challenging forth of enframing with the alternative form of revealing articulated by Heidegger as the bringing forth of poiesis. However, poetry/art do not happen in a vacuum and no real change can be achieved there without changes in material conditions, which is what Heidegger fundamentally missed. Once again, the phenomenon is an ecological cycle, a dialectic.

We believe in the role of the artist as historian, specifically in this sense of the art-activist who contributes to a transformation of worldview. To represent a river in California, our job is to show not only what it is now, but to represent its now-ness as a form of (avoidable) destiny—here again Heidegger is instructive, for he speaks of enframing and also poiesis not just as modes of revealing, but as modes of destining. History arrives, and it is always arriving. It is not unearthed intact. The image is the tool by which we convey this. As Benjamin said, “It is not that what is past casts its light on what is present, or what is present its light on what is past; rather, image is that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation.”[18] This is the mode of the artist as historian.

With respect to California, we have found it illuminating to stare at a blank outline of the now-iconic shape that forms the boundaries of the state. That shape, which owes its Eastern contour to the desire to capture as much gold-harboring land as possible, has become one of the primary images of our project. It reflects all the capriciousness and violence, even absurdity, of political borders. These lines were drawn in 1849, the year after gold was discovered in the state. How was this same land understood before the lines were drawn? What was a river then? Is there a clue there to what it could be now?

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11 October 1849, Sayler/Morris, 2016, Archival pigment print, 18 x 22 inches. Title refers to the date that the state legislature formally adopted the boundary lines of the State of California.

The creation of that shape we now know as the borders of California was an arrival, not an inception. The destining started with the Spanish lust for gold, which animated their colonial adventures. Some believe the very word California was invented by a Spanish fiction writer named Montalvo in the early 16th Century. Montalvo gave the name “California” to a fantastic land of desire and gold in his novel Las Sergas de Esplandián (published in 1510).[19] In this book, the inhabitants of California were all-powerful women who ate men after laying with them in order to bear children. There was gold everywhere. The women wore gold harnesses and hunted with gold weapons. Montalvo called it California because it was a caliphate, a land of infidels. Yet, he also placed the territory “very near to a side of Earthly paradise.”[20]

This was fantasy, but fantasy transforms fact. Ten years after Montalvo’s book was published, the colonist Hernan Cortes wrote a letter to the King of Spain from present-day Baja California, in which he purported to confirm the nearby existence of just such a place as Montalvo described (earthly paradise, lots of gold, only women who ate men, etc.).[21] Cortes was likely angling for continued investment in his colonizing enterprise, but it is telling that he thought his report would be both enticing and sufficiently credible to his benefactor. Not long after Cortes’ letter, maps begin appearing with Montalvo’s word “California” labeling some of the lands Cortes colonized[22] and after a while this became the accepted name of the region. Montalvo’s fantasy reified.

However, when the first Spanish mission entered into the territory of California more than two hundred years later in 1769, it was not the word “oro” (gold) that appeared obsessively in the diaries of its leaders, but the word “aqua.” Nearly every day that was their primary concern. They hunted down rivers.[23] They had to hold water before they could hold gold. On 24 January 1848, everything came together when some other colonists found gold laying around in the American River. The mass hysteria that followed produced the near extermination of the Native people and rapid industrialization.

Of course, this gold had been sitting in the rivers all along but the Native Americans did not value it. Seeing value in gold is a purely imaginative exercise and dependent on a given worldview (enframing). John Sutter, the owner of the land on which gold was found on California, remarked without apparent irony that:

It is very singular that the Indians never found a piece of gold and brought it to me, as they very often did other specimens found in the ravines. I requested them continually to bring me some curiosities from the mountains, for which I always recompensed them. I have received animals, birds, plants, young trees, wild fruits, pipe clay, stones, red ochre, etc., etc., but never a piece of gold.[24]

One is reminded of Marx’s paradigmatic, if racially tinged, account of the commodity fetish and the absurdity of a materialist theory of value: “The savages of Cuba regarded gold as a fetish of the Spaniards. They celebrated a feast in its honour, sang in a circle around it, and then threw it into the sea.”[25]

There is a paradox at the core of history: how do we see the present as a destining, as the seemingly inevitable outcome of past events with all the gravity that implies, and at the same time see that very destining as contingent and therefore as mutable? This sort of maneuver requires a negative capability that is not the province of science, including history performed as science, but is the province of art and myth. When we ask, “What is a river?,” we would do well to attend the poet, as Heidegger recommends. Paraphrasing Holderlein, Heidegger gave this answer to the question before us:

“As a vanishing, the river is underway into what has been. As full of intimation, it proceeds into what is coming.”[26]

Maidu_Boom

Maidu Headmen with Treaty Commissioners, unknown photographer, c. 1851. Image courtesy of George Eastman House.


Notes

  • The Nisenan Maidu name for the American River was Kum Sayo, meaning Roundhouse River, referring to a structure that the Nisenan Maidu used for dances and other ceremonies. This building was the center of a Maidu community. A particularly large and important roundhouse was located at the mouth of the American River near its confluence with the Sacramento River, in the vicinity of this highway bridge. Other roundhouses could be found all along the American River. The domesticity implied in the Maidu name for the river contrasts with later names applied by European colonists: The River of Sorrows; Wild River (so named because of the ostensibly “wild” nature of the Maidu living there); the River Ojotska (a phonetic rendering of the Russian word for hunter); Rio de los Americanos (named for the American trappers that had begun to use the river).

[1] See Benjamin Madley, American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe 1846-1873 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017) and Brendan C. Lindsay, Murder State: California’s Native American Genocide 1846-1873 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015).

[2] Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology,” in Martin Heidegger: Basic Writings, trans. David Farrell Krell (San Francisco: Harper SanFrancisco, 1977), 297.

[3] These ideas are developed more fully in other Heidegger writing on rivers, most notably in Hölderlin’s Hymn ‘The Ister’, trans. William McNeil and Julia Davis (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1996) and “Build Dwelling Thinking” in Martin Heidegger: Basic Writings, trans. David Farrell Krell (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1977), esp. 330-339.

[4] Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology,” 296.

[5] Heidegger, Hölderlin’s Hymn ‘The Ister’, 40 [emphasis in original].

[6] Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology,” 296.

[7] Ibid, 297.

[8] Jay Lund, “What’s Next for California Water?,” https://californiawaterblog.com/2011/02/23/whats-next-for-california-water/, (23 February 2011). This history is obviously told in far greater detail in many other places, notably Norris Hundley Jr.’s definitive The Great Thirst: Californians and Water—A History, rev. ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).

[9] Hundley, The Great Thirst, 77.

[10] See Hundley, The Great Thirst, 86, but there is also an extensive literature on this crucial question. To cite just two important examples: Donald J. Pisani, Water, Land, and Law in the West: The Limits of Public Policy, 1850-1920 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1996), and more recently, Mark Kanazawa, Golden Rules: The Origins of California Water Law in the Gold Rush (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).

[11] General accounts can be found in Hundley; see also Stephanie S. Pincetl, Transforming California: A Political History of Land Use and Development (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003); Walter Goldschmidt, As You Sow: Three Studies in the Social Consequences of Agribusiness (Monclair: Allanheld, Osmun & Co., 1978); Mark Arax and Rick Wartzman, The King of California: J.G. Boswell and the Making of a Secret American Empire (New York: PublicAffairs, 2005). In our project we focused particularly on Westlands, an understanding of which we owe to in part to: Lloyd G. Carter, “Reaping Riches in a Wretched Region: Subsidized Industrial Farming and Its Link to Perpetual Poverty,” Golden Gate University Environmental Law Journal 3 (2009): 5-42, http://digitalcommons.law.ggu.edu/gguelj/vol3/iss1/3; and Ed Simmons, Westlands Water District: The First 25 Years, published by Westland Water District itself in 1983.

[12] See Goldschmidt, As You Sow (referenced above) and see also the work of Dean McCannell, which updated the legendary Goldschimdt study, and also the work of Paul Taylor (Dorothea Lange’s collaborator). An unpublished but excellent dissertation by Daniel J. O’Connell brings much of this work together: In the Struggle: Pedagogies of Politically Engaged Scholarship in the San Joaquin Valley of California, unpublished doctoral dissertation (Cornell University, 2011).

[13] For example, see http://pacinst.org/publication/human-costs-of-nitrate-contaminated-drinking-water-in-the-san-joaquin-valley/.

[14] It is hard to overcome thinking about causality in linear terms (which is itself a by-product of enframing). However, as ecological thinking is a thinking of relationships, it is also a thinking that dissolves linear causality in favor of cycles and dialectical relationships. Heidegger was perhaps more ecological than even he realized as his style of writing is cyclical.

[15] Heidegger, Hölderlin’s Hymn ‘The Ister, 25.

[16] Martin Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics, trans. Gregory Fried and Richard Polt (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 133.

[17] Martin Heidegger, “Nur noch ein Gott kann uns retten,” Der Spiegel 30 (Mai 1976): 193-219, trans. W. Richardson as “Only a God Can Save Us,” in Heidegger: The Man and the Thinker (n.p.: Precedent, 1981), ed. Thomas Sheehan, 45-67.

[18] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 462.

[19] Kevin Starr, California: A History (New York: Modern Library, 2007), 5; and Charles E. Chapman, A History of California: The Spanish Period (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1921), 59-65.

[20] “Sabed que a la diestra mano de las Indias existe una isla llamada California muy cerca de un costado del Paraíso Terrenal” from García Ordóñez de Montalvo, Las Sergas de Esplandián, Seville, 1510, as found http://www.aaregistry.org/historic_events/view/california-its-naming-heritage, 7 July 2016. See also the argument for the Persian origin of the term from Kari-i-farn (“the mountain of Paradise”), suggested earlier by Carey McWilliams, in Josef Chytry, Mountain of Paradise: Reflections of the Emergence of Greater California as a World Civilization (New York: Peter Lang, 2013), 13-15.

[21] Chapman, A History of California, 64.

[22] Ibid. 65-66.

[23] Hundley, The Great Thirst, 32; anyd https://pacificahistory.wikispaces.com/Portola+Expedition+1769+Diaries

[24] John A. Sutter, “The Discovery of Gold in California,” Hutchings’ California Magazine, November 1857, accessed 24 May 2017, http://www.sfmuseum.org/hist2/gold.html.

[25] Karl Marx, ‘Debates on the Law on Thefts of Wood’ [1842], in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 1 (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1975), 262-263.

[26] Heidegger, Hölderlin’s Hymn ‘The Ister,” 29.

 

Susannah Sayler and Edward Morris use photography, video, writing, and installation to investigate and to contribute to the development of ecological consciousness. Their work has been exhibited in diverse venues internationally. They are also co-founders of The Canary Project, a collective that produces art and media about climate change and other ecological issues. They teach in the Transmedia Department and are part of The Canary Lab at Syracuse University.

This essay is part of the artists’ larger Water Gold Soil project, which brought them to California late 2014 to document drought conditions as part of the ongoing A History of the Future project. Water Gold Soil: American River represents a river in present-day California. Yet, the river represented by Sayler/Morris hovers between the real and the allegorical and their time perspective shifts between the past, present and future. The project consists of an ongoing assembly of original photographic and video works, archival images, writing, maps and other media.

 

Copyright: © 2017 Susannah Sayler and Edward Morris. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

ArticlesPhotography/Art

Southern California Science Fictional Thinking in Mundos Alternos

UCR Arts Block-28

Tyler Stallings

History is written in retrospect. Patterns are sought among seemingly unrelated events at the time of their occurrence. There is never just one historical narrative. Historians make choices about what events to represent and from which perspective, often to the disadvantage of people on the losing end—for example, the colonized or enslaved. Mundos Alternos: Art and Science Fiction in the Americas provides a space-time continuum for reimagining the past from the perspective of the “alienated” and the “other,” from the peoples marginalized by the powerful. The exhibition includes over thirty contemporary artists who explore interactions of science fiction and the visual arts in Latin America, the U.S., and the intergalactic beyond; collectively laying out a provocative view of arts in the Americas told in the present but with an eye toward future, alternate Americas.

Mundos Alternos is an 11,000-square-foot exhibition, with an accompanying book of the same title, presented at University of California, Riverside’s downtown UCR ARTSblock, which includes two adjacent venues: the California Museum of Photography; and the Barbara and Art Culver Center of the Arts. Myself and the two other co-curators, Robb Hernández and Joanna Szupinska-Myers,[1] have brought together works from across the Americas that use science fiction to imagine new realities and alternate worlds, utopian and dystopian. The exhibition is part of The Getty’s Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA initiative, which is an exploration of the global intersections of Latin American and Latino art in dialogue with Southern California, with many of its seventy-plus exhibitions opening Fall 2017.

ARTSblock’s project was inspired by two facts: UCR Library’s Special Collections and Archives possesses the Eaton Science Fiction and Fantasy Collection, one of the world’s largest archive of its kind; and UCR is designated as a Hispanic-serving institution (HSI), defined by 25% or more of its student body falling within that demographic.[2] The power of nomenclature is an important aspect of the Mundos Alternos title. The use of the word “Americas” in its subtitle was significant in order to point to a hemispheric approach in which the exhibition’s original location, the United States, is realized in a broader milieu of cross cultural connections including Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and South America.

In the exhibition, artists employ science fiction tropes in their works, most created in the last two decades, such as alternate history and time travel, organized under themes such as “Post-Industrial Americas” and “Indigenous Futurism,” suggesting diverse modes of existence and representing “alienating” ways of being in other worlds. Latin American, Latina/o, and Chicana/o science fiction is a burgeoning area of study that has gained momentum within the past ten years, with an emphasis mostly in literature and film. In light of this, our curatorial team selected artists from across the Americas (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Cuba, El Salvador, Mexico and Puerto Rico, as well as California, Florida, New Mexico, New York, Virginia, and Texas) who have created artworks that point to mundos alternos (“alternate worlds”), where self-determination and autonomy can occur in a present that is quickly becoming a past pointing to a future.

Considering that dystopia and utopia are often two polarities of a single, metaphorical world, the artists in Mundos Alternos explore equally multi-faceted issues around immigration, queer futurism, indigenous futurism, information control, the border, and so on. An underlying concept is the “alienated alien,” or the “other,” and how they reimagine themselves in a world in which they are not marginalized anymore.

UCR Arts Block-2

Simón Vega (La Libertad, El Salvador), Tropical Mercury Capsula, 2010/ 2014, Sculptural installation (wood, aluminum, tin roofing sheets, cardboard, plastic, TV, fan, icebox, boombox, found materials; 67 x 129 inches (capsule), 118 x 236 inches (total floor installation area). Collection of the Pérez Art Museum Miama, Gift of Mario Cader-Frech and Robert Wennett.


The Eaton Collection of Science Fiction & Fantasy, UC Riverside

Before I rewrite the history of my own writing, I would like to loop back around to a major source of inspiration for Mundos Alternos and a significant resource in California for science fiction studies scholars: The Eaton Collection of Science Fiction & Fantasy.

It is one of the largest publicly accessible collections of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and utopian literature in the world, and is housed in the UC Riverside Library’s Special Collections & University Archives in the Tomás Rivera Library on the main campus. It features more than 300,000 holdings that include over 100,000 hardback and paperback books; full runs of pulp magazines; nearly 100,000 fanzines; film and visual material, including 500 shooting scripts from science fiction films; comic books, anime, and manga; and collectible ephemera and regalia, including cards, posters, pins and action figures.[3] The Collection contains several manuscript collections of essential Southern California-based speculative fiction writers, including papers of UC Irvine physicist and science fiction writer Gregory Benford’s, and those of David Brin who wrote Uplift War and Sundiver.

Another major science fiction collection is held at the University Archives & Special Collections of California State University, Fullerton’s Pollak Library,[4] which includes original science fiction manuscripts, books and related materials of several U.S. authors including Philip K. Dick, Frank Herbert, and Ray Bradbury. As a side note, Dick died in nearby Santa Ana, and I once made a trek to his last known address. It is the site where he supposedly received the pink beam of light from God that revealed that the Roman Empire had never ended.[5] Additionally, The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino holds the papers of Octavia E. Butler,[6] author of Kindred (1979), and arguably the most prominent African-American woman in the field of science fiction.

Over the years there have been periodic academic conferences of science fiction studies held in Riverside, sometimes connected directly to the Eaton Collection and other times organized by faculty like Sherryl Vint, a professor in UCR’s Media and Cultural Studies Department, who specializes in technoculture and science fiction film history.

These conferences are usually less for the fan and more for the scholar of science fiction and fantasy. Without the exuberance of Comic-Con[7] or the World Science Fiction Convention[8] that has been going strong for seven decades, no one dresses as their favorite Star Wars or anime character; rather, unkempt clothes and mussed hair are the scholarly fashion. Additionally, it is not a gathering spot for Hollywood’s film industry, which is one aspect of Comic-Con’s metamorphosis. Instead, it is the serious underbelly to the glitz, and a place for the absorption of true cutting-edge ideas and writing in the field of science fiction, or speculative fiction, studies.

The most recent conference at UC Riverside in 2016 was sponsored by the Science Fiction Research Association (SFRA).[9] Its overarching theme, “Unknown Pasts/Unseen Futures,” was meant to stimulate reflection on the future of scholarship of marginalized authors and subjects. It also reflected upon how science fiction studies at UCR are challenging the genre’s canons. This is exemplified with panel papers that included titles[10] like Cole Jack Pittman’s “Crip (Community) Futurism: Science Fiction as a Method for Analyzing Disabled Community Building, Networking, and Resource Sharing”; Joshua Odam’s “Fear of a Black Universe: Afrofuturism, Speculative Fiction, and the Black Liberatory Imagination”; Joan Haran’s “California Dreaming: Dystopian and Utopian Calls to Action in Parable of the Sower and The Fifth Sacred Thing”; and Kathryn Page-Lippsmeyer’s “Excessive Cyborging: Using Techno-Orientalism to consider Oshii Mamoru’s Ghost in the Shell: Innocence.” Additionally, the conference’s keynote speaker was author Nnedi Okorafor, writer of fantasy, science fiction, and speculative fiction, who is perhaps best known for her Binti series that entwines African culture into a future imaginary. Okorafor’s work can also be couched historically under Afrofuturism, which underpins Mundos Alternos.

UCR Arts Block-40


Sun Ra in California and Afrofuturism

Afrofuturism uses science fiction and cyberculture in a speculative manner, just as cyber-feminism does. It is an escape from the externally imposed definition of what it means to be black (or exotically African) in Western culture, and it is a cultural rebellion drawing on techno-culture, turntables and remixes as technological and instrumental forms. By placing black man in space, out of the reach of racist stereotypes, Afrofuturism allows for a critique of both the history of the West and its techno-cultures.

The tenets of Afrofuturism became a foundation on which notions of Mundos Alternos have been built. Coined in 1994 by Mark Dery in his essay, “Black to the Future,”[11] Afrofuturism refers to a creative and intellectual genre that emerged as a strategy to explore science fiction, fantasy, magical realism, and Pan-Africanism, perhaps best exemplified by African-American musicians such as Sun Ra and George Clinton, and writers like Ishmael Reed, Amiri Baraka, Steven Barnes, Octavia Butler, and Samuel Delany.[12]

Space Is the Place, organized in 2016 by New York City-based Independent Curator’s International, traveled the U.S. as a group exhibition with artists’ work inspired by nostalgia and speculation about outer space. The title was taken from a 1974 science fiction film of the same name that featured Sun Ra and his Arkestra.

During the late 1960s and early ’70s, Sun Ra traveled to California and taught a course titled, “The Black Man in the Cosmos,” at UC Berkeley. The film is based, in part, on the lectures he gave there in which he articulated many nuanced views like “I’d rather a black man go to Mars… than to Africa… because it’s easier,”[13] referring to the difficulty of a westernized African-American seeking roots back in Africa. The basic plot is that Sun Ra lands on a new planet in outer space and decides to settle African-Americans there. Seven years later, in 2013, the Studio Museum in Harlem presented The Shadows Took Shape, an interdisciplinary exhibition exploring contemporary art through the lens of Afrofuturist aesthetics.[14] Since then, one of the exhibition’s curators, Naima J. Keith, has become the deputy director for exhibitions and programs at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles. In one of the exhibition catalogue essays, nearly twenty years after Dery, Tegan Bristow updates a definition of Afrofuturism:

Afrofuturism uses science fiction and cyberculture in a speculative manner, just as cyber-feminism does. It is an escape from the externally imposed definition of what it means to be black (or exotically African) in Western culture, and it is a cultural rebellion drawing on techno-culture, turntables and remixes as technological and instrumental forms. By placing black man in space, out of the reach of racist stereotypes, Afrofuturism allows for a critique of both the history of the West and its techno-cultures.

Afrofuturism uses science fiction and cyberculture in a speculative manner, just as cyber-feminism does. It is an escape from the externally imposed definition of what it means to be black (or exotically African) in Western culture, and it is a cultural rebellion drawing on techno-culture, turntables and remixes as technological and instrumental forms. By placing black man in space, out of the reach of racist stereotypes, Afrofuturism allows for a critique of both the history of the West and its techno-cultures.[15]

These examples stretching between 2001 and 2015 indicate how the visual arts have historically looked at race and social difference through a lens of science fiction cultural production. Mundos Alternos proceeds from here.

As one reads the book and peruses the exhibition, we hope viewers feel like their thoughts and experience become part of proto science fiction Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges’ unbounded library, or that inklings of the Aztec empire existing on the Moon are experienced. Or perhaps participants may walk the streets of Los Angeles anew and feel moments of being part of the first Xicano science fiction novel by East L.A. born Ernest Hogan, where in Cortez on Jupiter (1990)[16] Pablo Cortez sprays graffiti across L.A. and paints in zero gravity, all in an effort to make a masterpiece for the universe and his barrio.

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Erica Bohm (Buenos Aires, Argentina), 21 works from the “Planet Stories” series, 2013, Instax Fujifilm, 12 x 11 inches each (framed). Courtesy of the artist and THE MISSION, Chicago.


How A Meteorite Inspired Twenty Years of Curating from the Cosmos

I came to the recent realization that a particular news story affected many exhibitions that I organized over the past twenty years, which touched upon outer space themes: it was the possible discovery of fossilized Martian bacterial life in 1996, based on the observation of carbonate globules in a small section of a meteorite called the Allan Hills 84001 (usually abbreviated as ALH 84001). It was found several years earlier in Allan Hills, Antarctica in 1984 by U.S. meteorite hunters, but it was not until much later that careful analysis was applied to it.[17] In September 2017, with the opening of Mundos Alternos: Art and Science Fiction in the America, I now realize the impact that the meteorite has had on my curatorial endeavors.

My first curatorial venture inspired by the Martian meteorite was Are We Touched, Identities from Outer Space (1997). It coincided with NASA’s first lander on Mars and the 50th anniversary of the reported U.F.O. crash in Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947. The exhibition featured a range of artists, including those fascinated by the cultural phenomenon of U.F.O.’s but would not label themselves as believers, such as Southern California artists Deborah Aschheim and Connie Samaras, to artists who felt they may have had an unexplained experience that provided inspiration for their work, but would not admit to it openly for fear of rejection. And there were also people who would not call their work “art” but rather a visual representation of an experience that they felt they did occur, like with alien abductee and artist David Huggins.

The pop cultural highlight for me was when Huggins was invited as a guest on a daytime talk show based in Los Angeles, Leeza, which is no longer in production. The artist claimed to have interbred with an extraterrestrial that he named Crescent, as she came to him only when there was a crescent moon, producing upwards of 200-plus hybrid human/extraterrestrial offspring. In 2014, a documentary was released about his alien sexual encounters, Love and Saucers: The Far Out World of David Huggins. Huggins states, “The reason why extra-terrestrials are interested in me is not because of my physical body but what’s inside—my soul.”[18]

Are We Touched was followed by Cyborg Manifesto, or The Joy of Artifice (2001), which featured twenty-six artists who explored changes in a tech-driven age. Theorist Donna Haraway coined the first part of the title, “Cyborg Manifesto.” I found kinship with her viewpoint of the cyborg as a metaphor for discussing hybridity, whether in terms of gender issues, genetics, or cross-cultural encounters. In other words, I was less concerned with thinking of the cyborg as a humanoid robot in which human and machine merged. Rather, I was interested in the impossibility of the notion of purity.

Accordingly, I thought it possible that Martian meteorites landed on an ancient earth and provided an important element to the primordial soup that gave rise to life. So, when looking through a telescope at planet Mars, we actually see an abandoned home. In this way, any human sense of feeling pure dissolves. Once we consider ourselves apart from Earth, we are all aliens and immigrants.

In 2009, I co-organized with artist Rachel Mayeri, Intelligent Design: Interspecies Art. It was a group exhibition of twenty international artists exploring human interaction with animals through a collection of provocative video installations, photographs, paintings, and sculptures. I saw this exhibition having a further development of the desire to make contact with other sentient beings. In this case, ones already present on Earth.

Artists in the exhibition collaborated with cockroaches, pigeons, dogs, cats, ants, bears, baboons, rats, spiders, and trout, which may have been domesticated, imaginary, laboratory, modeled, or wild. Curious about the animal’s point of view, artists designed their projects as a form of conversation or inquiry about the nonhuman world. Their artwork challenged the anthropocentric perspective of the world, placing human perception on par with other animals. Inspired by Darwin, the environmental movement, and species collapse, Intelligent Design envisioned a paradigm shift in which human beings are no longer the center of the Universe.

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Rigo 23 (Los Angeles), Autonomous InterGalactic Space Program, 2009—resent (ongoing). Mixed media, dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist and Anglim Gilbert Gallery, San Francisco.

Another paradigm shift, this time in U.S. policy, that would allow private companies to go into outer space inspired the 2013 exhibition, Free Enterprise: The Art of Citizen Space Exploration,[19] which I co-organized with artist Marko Peljhan. Civilian space travel and space exploration represents a major political and cultural shift away from sponsorship by the federal government and toward a private enterprise model. The possibility of fulfilling the human dream to fly into space has been encouraged by a major political and cultural shift away from state-sponsored space activities, which were controlled by agencies such as NASA in the USA, JAXA in Japan and RKA in Russia, towards a private enterprise model.

Its presentation in 2013 arrived at a time when several private enterprise ventures had come to fruition. They included the successful launch in May 2012 of the Falcon 9 vehicle and the Dragon space capsule by Elon Musk’s Space X company based in Hawthorne, California, which rendezvoused with the International Space Station, the soon-to-be-completed spaceport in New Mexico that will be the launch site for Virgin Galactic’s space tourism program, and the burgeoning efforts of XCOR Aerospace, a Mojave-based company, north of Los Angeles near Edwards Air Force Base.

These developments signal that we are at a dawn of a new radical change in near-Earth space exploration. Engaging artists directly in this discussion at an early stage is extremely important: it is the technology and capital that allow for exploration, but it is the imagination and the spiritual capital that create a new state of mind open to a broader awareness of humanity and other life, both on Earth and beyond.

One of my favorite projects in Free Enterprise was by artist Richard Clar, based in northern California, which links back to my interests developed with Intelligent Design. He turned toward art-in-space in 1982 with a NASA-approved art payload for the U.S. Space Shuttle, Space Flight Dolphin (SFD). Approved by NASA, SFD was an interdisciplinary art-in-space SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) project designed to be deployed in low-Earth orbit from the cargo bay of the U.S. Space Shuttle. The dolphin sculpture/satellite would have transmitted a signal modulated by dolphin “voices” that might have been detected or sensed by extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI). As the sculpture/satellite orbited the Earth, the dolphin voices would have been monitored in various museums around the world and on the Internet, providing a link between different peoples and cultures on our own planet. The project suggested that humans might first consider trying to communicate with other very intelligent beings on Earth before considering extraterrestrial communication.

Mundos Alternos: Art and Science Fiction in the Americas represents the most recent project inspired by the 1996 Martian meteorite bacteria imaginary. Perhaps it is the meteorite’s transcendent materiality—an object likely older than humankind—that has stuck with me. Mundos Alternos focuses on the materiality of being present in artists’ studios and exploring science fiction, not through literature and film, but through the uncanny presence of an art object that seems transcendent too.


Slipstream Islands of Strange Things: Building Mundos Alternos in the Americas
[20]

World building is a major element of the science fiction genre. History, geography, economics, demographics, physics, cosmology, transportation, religion, technology, food, and the culture of an imaginary world are elements under consideration by authors, filmmakers, and game makers. The test for a reader, viewer, or participant is to suspend their present-day logic so that they can feel present in a virtual future. The challenge for the maker is to reconsider ongoing tropes, like anything called “Empire” being absolutely evil; an entire world being defined as if it had one purpose, such as the desert world of Arrakis in Frank Herbert’s novel Dune (1965); and then the altogether prevalent, homogenous alien race that may populate an entire planet or galaxy. Embracing diversity is a major underlying theme of Mundos Alternos.

It is hard to say whether there is a particular genre of science-fiction fine art, per se, at least within the context of the international, contemporary art world that the Mundos Alternos artists inhabit. Here, I separate the world of the more familiar cover art, movie posters, comic books, and illustrated stories, arguing that the contemporary art-making endeavor represents a kind of science fictional process that results in a slipstream artifact, or strange thing.

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Gyula Kosice, Maquette I, Maquette K, Maquette L, 1965-75, Exhibition prints. Courtesy of Kosice Museum, Buenos Aires.


Slipstream Immigration

“Slipstream,” a phrase coined by science fiction author Bruce Sterling and colleague Richard Dorsett in 1989, applied primarily to literature that includes elements of science fiction, also called speculative fiction, in order to create a sense of the uncanny, of weirdness in the world, of dissonance between what one thinks is real and the feeling that other layers exist beyond the senses upon which we rely. More than twenty-five years ago, Sterling wrote in the essay in which he coined the term, “It seems to me that the heart of slipstream is an attitude of peculiar aggression against ‘reality.’ These are fantasies of a kind, but not fantasies which are ‘futuristic’ or ‘beyond the fields we know.’ These books tend to sarcastically tear at the structure of ‘everyday life.’”[21]

A recent and notable Latin American slipstream example is Junot Díaz’s novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007). Its settings range from New Jersey to the Dominican Republic, featuring a science fiction-obsessed boy who eventually dies, though the reasons for the death are ambiguous. The result of a fukú curse? The lingering vestiges of a corrupt society as result of the Dominican Republic’s former dictator, Rafael Trujillo? Or perhaps an inseparable mixture of both family, political scourges, and colonialism as filtered through the allegory of the science fiction genre?

Commenting on his falling for science fiction, Díaz said in a recent interview, “I fell for [the] genre because I desperately needed it—in my personal mythology, [the] genre helped me create an operational self. I suspect I resonated with the world-building in many of these texts because that’s precisely what I was engaged in as a young immigrant.” He then added, “Alien invasions, natives, slavery, colonies, genocide, racial system, savages, technological superiority, forerunner races and the ruins they leave behind, travel between worlds, breeding programs, superpowered whites, mechanized regimes that work humans to death, human/alien hybrids, lost worlds—all have their roots in the traumas of colonialism.”[22]

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Beatriz Cortez (Los Angeles). Memory Insertion Capsule, 2017 (in progress). Mixed media, c. 144 x 144 inches, exact dims tbd. Courtesy of the artist.


Contemporary Art as Speculative Technology

For a visual artist, the magic of their own making occurs when a preconceived notion takes a different turn during the process; leading them down a road that they could not have expected without taking the first step of manipulating materials with their hand. It is a method that intertwines haptic, optic, and cognitive processes. In regard to contemporary visual art, an artist’s methodology of process and product are inseparable from one another and therefore slipstream inherently. This slipstream aspect in visual art to which I allude is where the difference lies between it, writing, and filmmaking. There is a physical manifestation of the artist’s idea into the world—that is, it does not remain an imaginary one in a reader’s mind nor an untouchable screen image. Rather, it is a physical object that rests in a world where viewers can interact with it through touch, smell, and sound, or perhaps walk back and forth from it, around it, or through it.

Los Angeles-based art critic Jan Tumlir expressed a similar notion about the relationship between contemporary art and science fiction when he wrote about the Orange County Museum of Art’s 2007 California Biennial. He said, “The young artists on the West Coast are operating in an idiom closely linked to science-fiction.”[23] He goes on to list some of the science fiction tropes with which they are engaged: future and alien civilizations, time travel, colonization, “the redefinition of the idea of the human in response to the other, either alien or handmade,” and so on. More specifically, he wrote that, due to the materiality of visual art, “Intensive concentration on these various artifacts is aimed at somehow ‘breaking through.’”

The emphasis on artist made physical objects, or slipstream, science fictional artifacts, is the major reason for the absence in the exhibition and book of classic visual memorabilia that one associates with the science fiction genre: book cover art, comic books, and movie posters, to name a few. This is as opposed to the unique object generated by visual artists that can exist in only one location; thus, it requires a pilgrimage to the site, such as a gallery, museum, collector’s home, public plaza, or artist studio.

A turn towards re-engagement with materiality, and its place within an increasingly screen-based cultural environment, is underscored by a recent exhibition at the Leopold Museum in Vienna, Austria. The Poetics of the Material (2016) was a group exhibition in which “contemporary art, which can be regarded as being aligned with ‘new materialism,’ attempts to give expression to the interpenetration of material phenomena and immaterial aspects of reality. The latter reveal themselves in the meaning of language or in the influence of cultural narratives on the perception of reality.”[24]

In a sense, I have felt often, throughout the visits with artists for Mundos Alternos, that I have engaged in a type of “retro-labeling,” as described by Rachel Haywood Ferreira in her seminal book, The Emergence of Latin American Science Fiction (2011). She outlined the process towards defining a science fiction genre in Latin American literature in light of the genre’s already prescribed nature in the United States and Europe. Haywood wrote, “Although the genealogy of science fiction has been actively traced in its countries of origin since the moment Gernsback formally baptized the genre, in Latin America this process did not get underway until the late 1960s and continues today.”[25] Initially, her process identified texts in the late 19th and 20th centuries in Latin America, primarily in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Colombia, due to the strength of publishing in those countries, where there were science fictional tendencies. The most immediate and prominent examples of retro-labeled works were the ubiquitous and highly marketed “magic realism” novels and short stories of Argentine Jorges Luis Borges’s A Universal History of Infamy (1935), Colombian Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), and Chilean Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits (1982).

In this regard, my two co-curators and I sought contemporary visual artists in Mundos Alternos who employed science fictional or slipstream thinking rather than literal science fiction elements. Driven by the theme of the show, we saw in their work, and through conversations during studio visits, that they demonstrated a commitment and influence from science fiction literature and film. The main theme that occupied them was a consideration of the future, focusing on post-colonization, labor, surveillance, environment, and hemispherical connections, viewed through the lens of art. However, what remains to be the biggest difference, and what I hope to be the contribution of this exhibition and book to the burgeoning scholarship around Latino and Latin American science fiction studies, is the effect of the material nature of visual art whose subject matter is science fictional.

Visual art exists as though a magical or a yet-to-be speculative technology has in fact manifested itself from the future into the present. They are strange objects whose message(s) are ambiguous. It requires work on the part of its viewer, who must be willing to engage with said object in order to receive meaning from it. I am not suggesting that there is a single, hidden meaning to be ascertained, but that its meaning is determined in part through a viewer’s interaction with it, as if a close encounter of the third kind, in which contact is made with alien beings, whose language we not yet know.

Meaning being determined in part by a book’s reader, for example, is a characteristically postmodern notion that accounts for paradox, unreliable narrators, and undermining the authority of the writer through metafiction techniques. However, I employ it here in order to demonstrate that this postmodern methodology can be different when dealing with strange objects versus literature and film.

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Fighting for the Future

One difference between Anglo and Latino science fiction is that making it to the future is something that can’t be ignored. The future isn’t a given, it will have to be fought for. And if you don’t fight for it, you might not get there.

The artistic inclination to pastiche disparate materials and ideas together generates uncanniness through its physical manifestation. This technique creates a slipstream or science fictional effect of “cognitive estrangement,” to borrow a phrase from science fiction theorist Darko Suvin, where the material and conceptual smashups provide a platform for viewers to look at their immediate society differently. Suvin might suggest that one’s viewpoint could be shifted to the point that there is recognition of one’s oppression and therefore, with a new view of the world, begin to resist, which is the major subtext for Mundos Alternos.[26]

To illustrate further, East L.A. born Ernest Hogan, author of the seminal Chicano science fiction novel, High Aztech (1992), wrote ten years after its publication in his blog on Latino science fiction, La Bloga, “I’ve always been more interested in science fiction as a confrontation with changing reality rather than escapism. And as a Chicano, I’m plugged into cultural influences that most science fiction writers don’t have access to.”[27] Three years later, after participating in “A Day of Latino Science Fiction” symposium at UC Riverside, he wrote in another La Bloga post: “One difference between Anglo and Latino science fiction is that making it to the future is something that can’t be ignored. The future isn’t a given, it will have to be fought for. And if you don’t fight for it, you might not get there.”[28]

I would add that Hogan’s use of the phrase “plugged into” is embodied, literally, by Mundos Alternos with Los Angeles-based artist Alex Rivera’s film, Sleep Dealer (2008), which finds nodes inserted into one’s body to allow Mexican workers to work in the U.S. virtually, and thus the United States get its labor, but doesn’t have to deal with their bodies. It was preceded by Rivera’s more experimental videos that featured what he called, the “cybracero,” which is a clever, techno inflected twist on the bracero program in the U.S. from1942 to 1965 which brought millions of Mexican guest workers to the U.S.[29]

Sherryl Vint, UC Riverside professor of English, science fiction studies scholar, and Mundos Alternos research team members and contributor to this book, invited both Hogan and Rivera to UC Riverside’s campus. As organizer of “A Day of Latino Science Fiction,” she said, “Our event will foster discussion of the specific ways Latino writers negotiate science fiction’s relationship to the colonialist imagination, and its possibilities for imagining more ethnically inclusive futures.”[30]

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Rigo 23 (Los Angeles), Autonomous InterGalactic Space Program, 2009—resent (ongoing). Mixed media, dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist and Anglim Gilbert Gallery, San Francisco.


Accessing Gateways or
Las puertas

As curators, and with the visual arts in general, it is necessary to travel in order to see the work. This is a different experience than with film or literature where one can go to the local cinema or read in the comfort of a home where, theoretically, any engaged individual would be reading or viewing the same text or image shared by others. This is not the case in the visual arts where, at least in the context of this show, the materiality of a unique, strange object requires one’s presence. This means that, as a curator, my colleagues and I had to travel to the objects’ location. Rather than being deskbound or screenbound, footwork was involved to access gateways, or las puertas, to mundos alternos.

The future is their inseparability yet, at least for the moment, the artists in this show who focus on their slipstream artworks, present islands of materiality for salvation. For those of us who have not succumbed to screen-culture completely, we may commiserate on these islands throughout the Americas and plan the next world to build where water is free and flows.

Much further south of the border, a more recent revolution in Chiapas, Mexico, was explored by Portuguese-born, Los Angeles-based artist Rigo 23. For several years, he worked with indigenous groups in Chiapas, which aim for equal rights or autonomy from the Mexican government. Rigo 23 chose to extend Subcomandante Marcos and the Zapatista Army of National Liberation’s (EZLN) use of poetics through workshops with the Good Government Junta of Morelia, Chiapas.[31]

Through this art making with Rigo 23, they envisioned autonomy as having occurred already. They asked how they would then represent themselves beyond Earth, on an intergalactic level, emphasizing an indigenous, technoculture imaginary, calling their project the Autonomous InterGalactic Space Program (2012). Rigo 23 suggested that to imagine autonomy and to begin to materialize strange objects around this notion puts one on the path towards generating a new vocabulary in the present-time to be used in the future, similar to how indigenous communities in Chiapas might negotiate with the Mexican government.

In this context, Rigo 23’s cornhusk spaceship from the project, which arose from Southern Chiapas, was destined to become an interplanetary traveling vegetable that nurtured recognition of any being, whether on Earth, or elsewhere, as one who deserved freedom, justice, and equality. From an intergalactic sensibility, social justice for the indigenous in Chiapas translates to all Earthlings who become collectively indigenous in the context of encountering other beings beyond our blue dot in the solar system.

In an ART21 interview, Rigo 23 recognized the value of traveling and through his presence becoming a wormhole in which he collapsed geo-political events in order to generate kinship:

I have come to realize that, often, the further one comes from an area of intense conflict, the more likely the locals are to give you the benefit of the doubt. So, as one talks about Leonard Peltier in East Jerusalem, or about going to Palestine in Wounded Knee, links and kinships that are invisible to most manifest themselves in wonderful and affirming ways. There is a mutual recognition that one is globalized in an entirely different way.[32]

In kinship with Rigo 23, Salvadoran-born, Los Angeles-based artist and professor of Central American studies, Beatriz Cortez, created several projects in which she aimed to enunciate a positive, future imaginary for an Indigenous population.

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Guillermo Bert (Los Angeles), The Visionary, 2012; Tarn, natural dyes, wood, 82 x 52 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Cortez’s La máquina de la fortuna or The Fortune Teller Machine (2014) is an interactive sculpture, developed in collaboration with the Guatemalan Kaqchikel Maya collective Kaqjay Moloj, and prints fortune messages in Kaqchikel and in Spanish. When a viewer presses a button, a thermal printer ejects a message from their collective desires that were programmed into the fortuneteller machine. The messages are written in a future perfect verb tense, as if predicting what will become, hopefully, a reality soon. A sample list of possible, future-tense messages that a viewer may receive from this portal to the future include:

Xtik’oje’ jun raxnäq k’aslen
Habrá justicia
There will be justice

Xtiqetamaj achike ru ma xe kamisäx ri qawinaq
Sabremos la verdad
We will know the truth

Xtiqaya’ ruq’ij ri kib’anob’al ri qatit qamama’
Estaremos orgullosos de nuestro pasado
We will be proud of our past

Xti ak’axäx ri k’ayewal qa chajin
Nuestra voz será escuchada
Our voice will be heard

Chiqonojel xtiqil ru b’eyal ri qak’aslen
Tendremos oportunidades
We will have opportunities 

Xtik’oje’ jun qak’aslen ri man xkojyax ta pa k’ayewal
Seremos libres
We will be free

Brought together under the Mundos Alternos moniker, Beatriz Cortez and Rigo 23, the former from El Salvador and the latter from Portugal, demonstrate cross-cultural affinities as they engage technology closely tied to Indigenous communities. This approach is mindful of Indigenous knowledge and expertise with devices, which have often been cast as archaic and unsophisticated within Western colonization. Another Mundos Alternos artist, Guillermo Bert, born in Chile, but living in Los Angeles, has also worked closely with native communities to inform and realize their work. Bert’s Encoded Textiles tapestries were inspired by his observation that Quick Response (QR) code patterns often resemble the textile patterns woven by the Mapuche of Chile. He commissioned the woven works on view, which bear functional QR codes that link to dictums by tribal elders. He marries the encryption technologies of Indigenous woven textiles with contemporary digital ones, achieving the same goals but through different pathways.


Science Fictional Connectedness

From a curatorial perspective, the necessity of travel in cars, trains, planes, and by foot throughout the Americas became an experience in which the circulation of the kind of artwork that we sought became slipstream islands of materiality. Our radars were attuned to artists who viewed their art as platforms for investigating and questioning the immediate culture that surrounded them and the world at large, that is, embodying Suvin’s aforementioned cognitive estrangement.

In this regard, our visits became ones where citizens of alternative worlds found one another and cemented bonds through face-to-face meetings. We were surrounded by the artists’ slipstream artwork in their studios or their galleries, which became las puertas. It was by traveling through these wormholes, found throughout the Americas to islands of materiality (as opposed to “islands in the net,” to coin another phrase from Bruce Sterling’s 1988 novel with the same title), that I found an overall utopian experience of connectedness through material presence, rather than a dystopian one of disembodied connection through the telepresence of texts and screens. In other words, we were in true locations of the future, rather than just sensing, at an untouchable distance, the things to come.

In other words, we were in true locations of the future, rather than just sensing, at an untouchable distance, the things to come.

 


Notes

Mundos Alternos: Art and Science Fiction in the Americas is on view from 16 September 2017 through 4 February 2018. The opening party for Mundos Alternos is 30 September 2017 from 6:00 – 9:00 p.m. at UCR ARTSblock (http://artsblock.ucr.edu). UCR ARTSblock is open Tuesday – Thursday, 11 a.m. – 5 p.m.; Friday– Saturday, 11 a.m. – 7 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. – 4 p.m., and closed Mondays. Open late until 9 p.m. every first Thursday of the month. Admission is $5.

  • All photography taken by Sydney Santana.

[1] The Mundos Alternos curatorial team includes Robb Hernández, assistant professor of English at UCR; Tyler Stallings, artistic director of the Culver Center of the Arts at UCR ARTSblock; and Joanna Szupinska-Myers, California Museum of Photography (CMP) senior curator of exhibitions at UCR ARTSblock. Kathryn Poindexter, CMP assistant curator, is the project coordinator; and Sherryl Vint, director of the Speculative Fiction and Cultures of Science program at UCR, curated an accompanying film program and contributed an essay to the book. A heavily illustrated, 160-page book accompanies the exhibition, including original essays by the curators, contributions by Kathryn Poindexter and Rudi Kraeher, with additional essays by Kency Cornejo, Itala Schmelz, Alfredo Suppia, and Sherryl Vint, leading voices in science fiction studies and contemporary art of the Americas.

[2] The Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU), https://www.hacu.net/assnfe/cv.asp?ID=191.

[3] The Eaton Collection of Science Fiction & Fantasy, http://eaton.ucr.edu.

[4] University Archives & Special Collections, Pollak Library, California State University Fullerton, http://www.library.fullerton.edu/services/special-collections.php.

[5] See Philip K. Dick, The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick, Pamela Jackson and Jonathan Lethem, eds. (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011).

[6] The Huntington’s Octavia Butler archive, http://www.huntington.org/octaviabutler/.

[7] Comic-Con International in San Diego, http://www.comic-con.org

[8] World Science Fiction Convention, http://www.worldcon.org.

[9] Science Fiction Research Association (SFRA), http://www.sfra.org/sfra-annual-conference.

[10] Science Fiction Research Association 2016 conference program, http://www.sfra.org/Conference-Program.

[11] Mark Dery, “Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose,” in Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture, ed. Mark Dery (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994), 180.

[12] The passages in this section, “Sun Ra in California and Afrofuturism” are excerpted from Robb Hernández and Tyler Stallings, “Introduction” in Robb Hernández and Tyler Stallings, eds. Mundos Alternos: Art and Science Fiction in the Americas  (Riverside, CA: UCR ARTSblock, 2017), 13-14, 18-19.

[13] Recorded lecture from 1971 when Sun Ra served as artist-in-residence at UC Berkeley and offered the course, African-American Studies 198, “The Black Man in the Cosmos,” https://ubusound.memoryoftheworld.org/ra_sun/Ra-Sun_Berkeley-Lecture_1971.mp3.

[14] For more on “Shadows Took Shape” see, Naima J. Keith, and Zoe Whitley, eds. The Shadows Took Shape (New York: Studio Museum in Harlem, 2013).

[15] Tegan Bristow, “We Want the Funk: What is Afrofuturism to Africa?” in Naima J. Keith, and Zoe Whitley, eds., The Shadows Took Shape, (New York: Studio Museum in Harlem, 2013), 81.

[16] Ernest Hogan, Cortez on Jupiter (New York: Tor Books, 1990). Out of print. Now available for digital download at https://www.createspace.com/5026216.

[17] “Meteorite Yields Evidence of Primitive Life on Early Mars,” Jet Propulsion Laboratory, NASA, 7 August 1996, https://www2.jpl.nasa.gov/snc/nasa1.html.

[18] Sara C. Nelson, “Alien Abductee David Huggins ‘Lost His Virginity To Extra Terrestrial Woman Named Crescent’,” Huffington Post, 16 October 2014, http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2014/10/16/alien-abductee-david-huggins-lost-virginity-extra-terrestrial-woman-crescent_n_5995334.html.

[19] Online catalogue from 2013 for Free Enterprise: The Art of Citizen Space Exploration, http://sites.artsblock.ucr.edu/free-enterprise/.

[20] Excerpts from Tyler Stallings, “Slipstream Islands of Strange Things: Building Mundos Alternos in the Americas” in Robb Hernández and Tyler Stallings, eds., Mundos Alternos: Art and Science Fiction in the Americas (Riverside, CA: UCR ARTSblock, 2017), 130-143. An emphasis is placed on artists from California in these excerpts and includes additional text on artist Guillermo Bert that was not in the original published essay, along with a few additional comments that emphasize the California connection.

[21] Bruce Sterling, “Catscan 5: Slipstream,” sf Eye 5 (July 1989), online at https://w2.eff.org/Misc/Publications/Bruce_Sterling/Catscan_columns/catscan.05.

[22] Taryne Jade Taylor, “A Singular Dislocation: An Interview with Junot Diaz,” Paradoxa 26 (2015): 97-110.

[23] Jan Tumlir, “Sci-Fi Historicism, Part I: The Time Machine in Contemporary Los Angeles Art,” Flash Art 40 (March-April, 2007): 102-105.

[24] Leopold Museum, http://www.leopoldmuseum.org/en/exhibitions/78/the-poetics-of-the-material.

[25] Rachel Haywood Ferreira, The Emergence of Latin American Science Fiction (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2011), 1.

[26] Darko Suvin, “On the Poetics of the Science Fiction Genre,” College English 34 (December 1972): 372-82.

[27] Ernest Hogan, “Chicanonautica: Prophesy, High Aztech, and Nerve Jelly,” La Bloga, 5 February 2011, http://labloga.blogspot.com/2011/02/chicanonautica-prophesy-high-aztech-and.html

[28] Ernest Hogan, “Chicanonautica: Voyage to a Day of Latino Science Fiction,” La Bloga, 15 May 15, 2014, http://labloga.blogspot.com/2014/05/chicanonautica-voyage-to-day-of-latino.html.

[29] The Bracero History Archive, http://braceroarchive.org/about.

[30] “Latino Science Fiction Explored, UCR Science Fiction and Technoculture Studies Program hosts April 30 event,” UCR Today, https://ucrtoday.ucr.edu/21579.

[31] “The Good Government Juntas represent both the poetic, populist and the practical nature of the Zapatista struggle to build workable alternatives of autonomy locally, link present politics to traditional ways of organizing [sic] life in indigenous communities, and contrast with the ‘bad government’ of official representational politics in Mexico City.” See Paul Chatterton, “The Zapatista Caracoles and Good Governments: The Long Walk to Autonomy,” State of Nature (2007). http://www.stateofnature.org/?p=6119.

[32] Thom Donovan, “5 Questions (for Contemporary Practice) with Rigo 23,” ART21 Magazine, 20 January 2011, http://magazine.art21.org/2011/01/20/5-questions-for-contemporary-practice-with-rigo-23/#.Wb2PHtGX02x.

 

Tyler Stallings is artistic director at the Barbara and Art Culver Center of the Arts at UCR ARTSblock. He was chief curator at Laguna Art Museum prior to his arrival at UCR in 2006. He received his MFA from California Institute of the Arts. His curatorial projects focus on contemporary art, with a special emphasis on the exploration of identity, technology, photo-based work, and urban culture. For more information see http://tylerstallings.com.

Copyright: © 2017 Tyler Stallings. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

 

 

Photography/Art

Sonoma’s Fading Images of Hwy 12

Mike Acker

Running through the heart of Sonoma County’s unincorporated communities of Boyes Hot Springs, Fetters Hot Springs, and Agua Caliente, California Highway 12 is now a major thoroughfare between Oakland/San Francisco and Santa Rosa. Yet as recently as the 1950s, it was a narrow road for tourists enjoying the resorts. And it was a main street for locals. The resorts started to made these towns more populated and prosperous than the City of Sonoma next door. However, the prosperity reversed over the latter half of the twentieth century as wine tourism grew and Sonoma’s role in California history was revived.

The collage below incorporates photographs from 2009-2010 with those from the 1930s and the 1950s. On the left side we travel back to an era when Kramer’s Inn had wooden benches in front and a Greyhound sign overhead. The “TATTOO” sign peeks out from 2010. On the far right is the original Mary’s Pizza Shack, which became a decent-sized pizza chain of some nineteen restaurants by 2017.

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A few miles further up the road in Agua Caliente the traces and memories of the uncelebrated history of “The Springs,” can be seen. The faces and buildings of the forbearers of a fourth-generation resident, gleaned from a series of Facebook posts, are combined with his words: “The Driveway of the Valley Of The Moon Saloon, 1930…. That building to the left is still there, but now an apt. The Thugs are still there too… My Great-Grandfather is in the middle ‘Cheif [sic] Bootlegger’ and a couple of Runners.” They are superimposed onto photographs from 2009. The sad state of historic preservation in the area is alluded to by the inclusion, fading in and out, of a page of a historic resource report from 2005, which states that no significant structures remain.

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Michael Acker has lived in the Sonoma Valley for the past 20 years. A local artist and historian, Acker is past president of the Sonoma Valley Grange, and an activist in the Springs Community Alliance. He holds the MFA in sculpture from San Francisco State University, and is the author of the recent Images of America book, The Springs: Resort Towns of Sonoma Valley (Arcadia, 2017).

Copyright: © 2017 Michael Acker. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/