Category: Photography/Art


Tree Lines

Text by Michael P. Cohen, drawings by Valerie Cohen

From Boom Summer 2015, Vol 5, No 2

A Map of Time

Cut across the body of an old bristlecone pine, as someone has done here above the Patriarch Grove at timberline. What you are faced with looks remarkably like a contour map, a map whose scale is time. Can you read this hieroglyph?

The record is before you: a manuscript of life here for a few thousand years. These ridges of wood were once living flesh: What is left is something else. For this map, for what was this tree, time seems fragmented.

Why should this introspection frighten? All around other maps expose bright stone, below a dividing and indifferent blue, and dark wind everywhere.

What were you expecting when you began this journey? Wonder or Horror? Both.

Maps with Trees: Trees Made of Maps

We live in a heroic age of mapping. Yet maps proliferate inside living beings in ways not like the maps humans make. Human maps sometimes aspire to impossible exactitude. Maps inside life might reveal a grasping for opportunity and a letting go.

Consider the well-known fable by Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986) “On Exactitude in Science”:

. . .the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that. . .those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations. . .saw that that vast Map was Useless, and. . .delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars. . . .

Of what was such a vast map made? One might wonder. Words and maps were once prepared with implements and media drawn from trees. People speak of tree rings, as if they were maps. Trees do not choose to scribe their own rings.

Mean Solar Time by Valerie Cohen. India ink, 13in x 10in.

Local Knowledge

Why draw an individual tree on an individual ridge unmarked on any map, unless what matters most is local knowledge? Why draw at all? This living entity, living in this place right here in the White Mountains, seventy miles southwest of Tuolumne Meadows, as Clark’s Nutcrackers fly, across the Owens Valley. Yes, we are told these days about the construction of nature, by which affluent people understand themselves. How indeed? If not in the broad-leafed trees and river paths of parks, then one goes to the tough and weathered pines, where no water flows.

People admire and count the rings, the wood, its texture, that they call grain. The grain of a map is made by using contours. These contours tell walkers where to go and how they will ascend or descend in a landscape. Landscapes are also constructed by words like mountain, gully, canyon, river, spring.

Maps dwell inside of things, in trees for instance, rocks, mountains, and at the bottoms of lakes. These maps are without names or symbols: it is an open country inside living objects, open in the ways of a bleached ribcage, the vertebrae of large beasts in the desert sun.

On a walk here, the trees are landmarks (to geologists. too) where one follows a path like a child whose attention is caught and lost and caught again. It is hard to believe there is a hurry among old trees.

The wind is always with you, always in the trees, from predictable directions. One sees a lenticular tree or cloud. Wind uncovers maps inside the trees. Wind tears the topographical map from your hands, turns it inside out, and reveals some hidden desire in the watcher who “nothing himself, beholds / Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”

The Abstract Truth by Valerie Cohen. 13in x 10in.


Tree Lines

Up high, you can see lines of trees on limestone ridges—call them tree lines—and might consult a paper map. There are so many trees, and they have so many different things to say. So too with the maps. It has occurred to us that maps are, and always have been, stories. Trees do not tell stories. We tell stories: we draw maps. Story lines: Line drawings: Tree lines.

Tree lines have been segregated by scientists into various categories, Alpine, Desert, Arctic, and Antarctic—this last category being purely theoretical, since no trees presently grow in Antarctica. They grow here, but individual trees are not marked on most maps as, for instance, a favorite, Geology of the Mount Barcroft-Blanco Mountain Area, Eastern California by W.G. Ernst and C.A. Hall (1987).

Maps are made objects: they were once drawn with ink on paper and consisted of hand-drawn lines. Words are made, too—painstakingly—and were once drawn as lines with pens.

We use the maps lovingly; our walks guided by their lines; we use the words, we speak of trees that grow here.

As with the Earth itself, “The system’s not in the parts. It’s in the pattern.” So too, the writing must be of sentences. Good writing requires interesting sentences: good drawings require arresting lines: good maps require engaging patterns.

To which you might reply, “What’s wrong with a map that shows me the way back home?” Nobody high in the White Mountains is likely thinking about that use for maps. Nobody is at home here.

Why would one want a map? Is the impulse natural? What if we map change, of the trees, or of ourselves?

Campeto Mountain, Loud Wind by Valerie Cohen. India ink, 13in x 10in.

Concerning Milford Zornes

The artist asks, “Why do I like to draw the dead and very aged forms?” as she looks through her sketchbook, seeing that she likes them—and now she is speaking of her drawings—because they are so simple. These forms attest to the fact that all drawings are based on only four types of lines—the horizontal, vertical, diagonal, and curve—and these lines are all you need to convey an emotion. Hook them together right, said her teacher Milford Zornes, and you get something that looks like Arabic writing; you get moving lines. Milford said: Horizontal is your foundation. Vertical is your support that conveys power. The diagonal supports, but not so well. Diagonals are subordinate to horizontals and verticals, and “can do mischief if you don’t keep them under control.” Curves are connectors.

These lines are inspirational, not only for what they show, but what they do not show. “When,” one writer asks, “is drawing a line a means of escape?”

Their spaces are openings where desire enters: “Now, when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps. I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration.”

Strip Growth by Valerie Cohen. India ink, 13in x 10in.

Some of us agreed with Aldo Leopold when he wrote, “I am glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in. Of what avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?”

Maps, we are told, are also supposed to be accurate, informative, and useful to think with, especially about time and space and changes occurring through time and space.


Whatever is happening in the woodlands of the White Mountains is real, though perhaps frightening. One of the things happening now: An artist is drawing trees. Not too long ago a friend (Kay Ryan) wrote to her:

“Thank you so much for showing me these arresting drawings/paintings. What powerful lines the trees offer, a kind of writing itself. You can’t possibly exhaust this wealth.

Lucky you.”

It takes a long time to be able to draw well, write well, or map well. Like living trees (to compare great things to small), people must grow incrementally, and you can see it in the way their bodies, eyes, faces, correspond, but also in the congruence of thoughts, crafts, arts, writing, painting.

Yet we are also told that maps are for strangers.


Limber #1 by Valerie Cohen. India ink, 13in x 10in.


It has been said that humans “can be in ecstatic contact with the cosmos only communally. It is the dangerous error of modern men to regard this experience as unimportant and avoidable, and to consign it to the individual as the poetic rapture of starry nights.”

These are not private affairs, according to Walter Benjamin’s One Way Street—just as “food must be divided and distributed if it is to be well received,” so too this other sustenance.

To be in the presence of so many old living beings is puzzling and strange, and must be shared. Why? If not to keep the darkness at bay?

Anyone looking at these trees sometimes might think that those who live should be dead, but I have continued to think that those who die would be better off alive, if only for the sake of their companions.

But trees have no companions. They suffer alone: only a human observer may think, with Emily Dickenson, “I like a look of Agony, / Because I know it’s true—.”

Sharing and strangers: you might say that these trees with their spaces are strangers, unless we choose not to make them so. They may seem estranged by the spaces they inhabit and by the spaces between them. Pascal, we are told, said that “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies” or, alternately, filled him “with dread.”

How large or small must a space be to be terrifying? How close must one be to agony for it to seem “true”? One may stand next to a perfect stranger, or watch him die, or get into bed with him. But he may well remain a stranger.

Trees do not open their hearts out of choice. Perhaps people do.

Mary Austin claimed that “The Shoshones live like their trees, with great spaces between. . .,” as if the choosing of estrangement were a dignity or virtue in the environment of the Great Basin. Maybe it is.


Tree Rings by Valerie Cohen. India ink, 13in x 10in.

Trees as Maps

You might think of maps as trees or trees as maps, and you might ask what is revealed and what is concealed.

Dendrochronologists also speak of tree lines in these mountains. They inventory tree rings of one particular species, the Great Basin Bristlecone Pine. Very few trees of interest to scientists grow round in shape or ring themselves with living tissue. Scientists speak of “frost rings,” where the flesh of the living tree, the cambium, has shattered in sudden cold during the growing season. You might imagine that these tree rings map trails of change as climate varies, year after year, and variations have their own patterns, no doubt.

There are built trails here, too—one is called “the Discovery Trail,” where most of the photographers set up their tripods. Maps are texts. Texts of empire.

Trees are named—so many trees, so few names! Such an arrogance in naming (or even numbering) even these few trees that catch someone’s fancy, trees that have lived for thousands of years. An arrogance or a weakness that requires mnemonic aid.

How many of these trees live in the Great Basin? How many of these trees grow as old as we imagine them to be? They are not our children or our pets. Their locations are determined not by our maps but by the conditions under which they have grown. There are so many of them. and they are so artfully or craftily dispersed among the limestone ridges.

To see them or even to walk among them seems to create them. But this is not true. The trees say where to go.


Water Works

by Scott Kildall

Visualizing San Francisco’s water infrastructure

San Francisco has an urban circulatory system that lives underneath our feet. It provides water to our homes, delivers a reliable supply to fire hydrants, removes waste from our toilets, and ultimately purifies it and directs it into the bay and ocean. Most of us don’t think about this amazing system because we don’t have to—it simply works.

But I like to think about how water works in San Francisco. I am fascinated by urban infrastructure, from fire hydrants to electrical access panels to phone cable boxes—the stuff you see when you are walking through the physical space of a city. Whenever city employees are working in a manhole, I stop and peer inside to see what is down there. They may not appreciate this, but I can’t help myself. I’ve even done my share of urban spelunking, adventuring through storm drains and other places I don’t belong. I’m just curious. So last summer I started work on Water Works, an art project and 3D data visualization through which I explored how water moves through the bowels of the city.


The project was part of a Creative Code Fellowship, supported by Stamen Design, Autodesk, and Gray Area—a design studio, a 3D software corporation, and a nonprofit arts organization, respectively. At these three organizations, I had desk space, state-of-the-art fabrication tools, and mentoring to help me create large-scale 3D-printed sculptures, each paired with an interactive web map at

As an artist, I’ve worked with sculpture and software code for many years, but I’m only now learning to fully integrate the two media, using digital fabrication tools such as laser cutters, 3D printers, and other computer-controlled machines. These machines can use 3D renderings or 2D image files to create objects such as plastic 3D models, perfectly cut wood stencils, and finely milled aluminum parts. Since they remove traditional shop-craft techniques such as table sawing and routing from making sculpture, the artistry is in the concept, the ferreting out and assembling the data, and the ways that data can be manipulated and transformed into something tangible. That programming is an art is a fact often overlooked, and it’s never truer than when it is in service of a project like Water Works.

It’s a new frontier of artistic possibility. As far as I know, I’m the first person to mine city data and write software algorithms to generate 3D-printed maps. My directive for the project was to somehow make visible what is invisible; to turn virtual data into physical reality.

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The first step was to get permission from San Francisco to access its sewer data. The dataset was both incredible and incredibly complex. I discovered that the city had about 30,000 nodes (underground chambers with manholes) with 30,000 connections (pipes). But it quickly became clear that the information I needed, like all data, was messy and needed a lot of pruning, trimming and reworking. From previous data projects, I knew you have to work with the data you can get, though, not the data you think someone should have and wish you could get. So I spent many hours writing custom software algorithms to clean up the data. It was tedious, but oddly satisfying.

Then I began a deep survey of San Francisco’s water infrastructure. In the first month of the Water Works project, this involved endless research and culling, chasing leads and running into dead ends. I called myself a “water detective,” much like Jake Gittes in Chinatown. I soon learned that the city has three separate sets of pipes that comprise the water infrastructure: a potable water system, supplied by Hetch Hetchy; a combined stormwater and wastewater sewer system; and the Auxiliary Water Supply System (AWSS), which is a separate infrastructure used only for emergency fire fighting and which is fed from the Twin Peaks Reservoir. The AWSS was built in the years immediately following the 1906 earthquake, when many of the water mains collapsed and most of the city proper was destroyed by fires.

My nights were consumed with the search for water data, and I eventually found a great lead: the brick circles I’d long been puzzled over in the middle of intersections throughout the city. It turns out these markings are used to indicate the locations of underground cisterns, tanks of water used exclusively for emergency fire fighting. According to various blogs, there are about 170 of them, though the estimates vary.

The history of the cisterns mirrors San Francisco’s history. In the 1850s, after a series of great fires tore through the city, the small but rapidly growing municipal government built twenty-three underground reservoirs that could be drawn on for fire fighting. These cisterns were planted beneath streets in the central part of the city, between Telegraph Hill and Rincon Hill. They weren’t connected to any other pipes, because the fire department intended to use them as a backup water supply, in case the water mains broke in another earthquake.

They languished for decades. Many people thought they should be defunded since they had long gone unused. However, after the 1906 earthquake, fires once again leveled much of the city. Many water mains broke, and the neglected cisterns helped save portions of San Francisco.


Two years after the 1906 earthquake and fires, the city passed a $5.2 million bond to begin building the AWSS, both restoring the first generation of cisterns and constructing many new ones. The largest one is underneath the Civic Center and has a capacity of 243,000 gallons, though most of the twentieth-century cisterns hold about 75,000 gallons of water each. The original ones hold much less water, anywhere from 15,000 to 50,000 gallons.

While working with the cistern data, I kept returning to the formidable task of building a large-scale sewer map. With approximately 30,000 manholes and 30,000 pipes that connect them, I kept asking myself: how do I even begin mapping this? Even the Department of Public Works hadn’t mapped this out in 3D space. I don’t know if any city ever has.


Conventional software modeling packages can’t handle datasets this large, and they don’t enable the kind of artistic expression that I wanted to enable. So, I built my own 3D modeling software using a popular open source toolkit called OpenFrameworks, which supports the ancient C++ programming language. With it, I was able to map out the nodes and pipes in 3D space. While working on my laptop, on a plane ride from Seattle, my code finally rendered a manhole map of San Francisco, and it looked just like the city’s terrain. I let out a yelp of joy at 30,000 feet. The algorithms I created were quick, efficient, and could generate complex 3D models that could directly interface with the 3D printers at Autodesk.

For the sewer portion of Water Works, I chose to 3D print just a portion of San Francisco including the waterfront by San Francisco Bay, the historic Ferry Building, and a section of Market Street. I made the pipes a light gray and the manhole chambers represented by a darker gray. The sewer dataset included the diameters of the pipes and the volume of the manhole chambers, so I scaled the nodes and pipes accordingly, and I found that increasing the Z-axis (elevation) by a factor of three would perfectly accentuate the hills of San Francisco. The results surprised me: a huge sewer line runs down Kearny Street. The Pier 9 Autodesk office, where I was working sits right next to one of the largest underground chambers in the city.

The visualizations of the sewer and cistern data have overlapping, chaotic geometries. They are not to scale—the pieces would be impossibly small. The final prints have a 20-inch by 16-inch footprint and each is about 6-inches high. They took forty to fifty hours to print. They sit on a map made with the help of Stamen Design. I worked with their custom map tiles, and their developers provided me with a high-resolution black-and-white map that I used for laser-etching onto a cherry wood. The final 3D prints rested on pins, attached to the wood. They feel architectural and synthetic, yet organic as they follow the terrain of San Francisco.

To me, the best part about integrating code and sculpture was the uncertainty of form. When I altered my software algorithm, suddenly a 3D model would have an entirely different look. If the cisterns were too large, then the form felt clunky; and if they were too small, well, the 3D print would break in my hands. It wasn’t until I mapped the data in 3D space that I truly understood what it would look like. The combination of code and sculpture is powerful, and yet it takes the control away from my own hands. Like walking through an urban environment, the Water Works project fully engaged my imagination, as I transformed virtual data into physical objects that enable a general audience to appreciate what’s under their feet.




by Ken Goldberg, Sanjay Krishnan, Fernanda Viégas, Martin Wattenberg. Text by JoAnne Northrup.

From Boom Summer 2015, Vol 5, No 2

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt of JoAnne Northrup’s essay on “Bloom” from our Summer 2015 issue. 

Most Californians aged thirty or older can tell you where they were and what they were doing when the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake hit. I had just started graduate school at the University of Southern California, and I remember calling a friend in San Francisco while the quake was still underway. She described her immediate experience of undulating streets and sidewalks, surfing the seismic waves, and struggling to stay upright. The catastrophic results of the quake included loss of human life and the collapse of the Nimitz Freeway in Oakland. How on earth can a seismic event like this be translated into an experience that, instead of being traumatic and frightening, is life affirming? The artist, roboticist, and University of California, Berkeley, engineering professor Ken Goldberg has been thinking about this for almost twenty years.

In 1997, Goldberg conceived of using a live seismic-data feed to activate an artwork he called mementomori. He met with colleagues at the UC Berkeley Seismological Lab to request access to the seismometer that continuously measures the Earth’s motion on the Hayward Fault. After a series of conversations in which he assured them he would respect the data, they agreed. With an economy of means and in monochrome, Goldberg transformed the seismic data into a live display that resembles the readings of an electrocardiogram—in essence, the data represents the beating and dynamic shifts of the Earth’s heart. There are emotional memories connected to such an interface—sitting with a loved one at the hospital, watching the trace go up and down measuring the heart’s electrical activity. These are not necessarily happy memories. The title of the work is derived from the Latin phrase meaning, “Remember that you will die.” In art history, a memento mori is an artwork designed to remind the viewer of their mortality and of the shortness and fragility of human life.

One year later Goldberg collaborated with Randall Packer, Gregory Kuhn, and Wojciech Matusik to create Mori, a live acoustic installation based on the seismic data source. Commissioned by the InterCommunications Center in Tokyo, Mori appeared in that institution’s 1999 Biennale. The seismometer captured the movements of the Hayward Fault and converted these readings into digital signals transmitted continuously via the Internet to an acoustic installation. That installation was then included in an Independent Curators International exhibit that traveled to six galleries and museums across the United States.

I experienced this installation when it was on view in 2001 at the Walter and McBean Galleries at the San Francisco Art Institute. I remember being in the gallery, walking up a curved ramp into a darkened enclosure, and looking over a railing onto a screen that broadcast a visual representation of the seismic activity. Lying on my back in the space, I felt as though I had ventured into the Earth’s womb and was able to experience tectonic shifts as they occurred in real time, translated into rumbling sound waves. Composer Packer used natural sounds like thunder, lightning, and waterfalls to covey the story, with speakers mounted right underneath the floor so that you could feel the sound in your bones. The installation provided a compelling ambient experience, but also it conveyed a hint of threat. After all, it’s very groovy to take part in an immersive art installation, but this one pointed out the real consequences of living in a state where earthquakes were an accepted part of everyday life. What if the Big One hit while you were inside Mori? The dark viewpoint at the foundation of Mori was perceived by critic Reena Jana of Artforum who wrote, “The fragility of life is one theme sounded by this disturbing, meditative work.”

In 2006, to mark the centenary of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, Goldberg collaborated with Muriel Maffre, a principal dancer in the San Francisco Ballet, to create a third variation in this series of artworks. It was performed on 4 April 2006 at the War Memorial Opera House one hundred years after the 1906 earthquake. The score was composed for Mori by Packer, triggered by real-time seismic data. Maffre improvised, as no one could predict the precise sound in advance.

All three of the works in this series: mementomori, Mori, and Ballet Mori share associations of memento mori: warning, rebuke, reminder of mortality, monochrome, the grave, death, and decay. Goldberg described the mood by quoting Shemp from the Three Stooges, “The morbid, the merrier.”

Bloom incorporates the same seismic data as the precedents. The mood of the piece was decidedly upbeat, exuberant, colorful and playful—replacing pessimism with optimism. The blooms resemble the representations of earthquake magnitude found on maps.




Industrial Materials

by Barron Bixler

From Boom Summer 2015, Vol 5, No 2

I began photographing California’s sprawling network of mines, pits, quarries, and materials-processing plants a decade before the Mars Curiosity rover touched down in Gale Crater in August 2012. Until then, my sense of the project I call Industrial Materials: Mining California was wholly terrestrial and specifically Californian.

At first, I was drawn to these landscapes by their terraformed brutalism, which seemed at odds with the California imaginary. But the deeper I dug, the more I came to see how quintessentially Californian they are. The incalculable volume of minerals extracted from our mountaintops and riverbeds has been refashioned into the very infrastructure that has paved the way for California’s growth. For instance, detritus washed downstream by disastrous hydraulic gold mining operations in the 1850s was used to build Sacramento, San Francisco, and the Sacramento River levee system. Limestone mined by the Monolith Cement Company in what is now Tehachapi provided the raw material for the Los Angeles Aqueduct. Mt. Slover in Colton—once the tallest mountain in San Bernardino County and now a whitish-grey lump of limestone with an American flag stuck on top—became many of the freeways, urban highrises, and sprawling suburbs that today are icons of Southern California and the new American West. Through this project, I have discovered that while tons of ink has been spilled trying to pin down the ephemeral nature of the California spirit, to understand California’s corporeal body you need only regard a pile of unassuming white boulders blasted out of a mountain of limestone.

When Curiosity began beaming back images of the surface of Mars to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in August 2012, the meaning of the project changed for me. I thought to myself just how much like Mars my pictures of denuded mining landscapes looked, and how Curiosity, in its many Martian selfies, resembled the hulking machines that have been used to dismantle and scrape bare the California landscape. A part of me was comforted to see novel photographic evidence of a sister planet with a recognizable, Earthlike geology. But another part—the part that has an affinity for dystopian sci-fi stories—was unsettled. Given that our drive to create world-altering technologies is outpacing our ability to mitigate their consequences, I thought, how long will it be before California comes more closely to resemble the surface of Mars?


Dry Season

by Matt Black

From Boom Summer 2015, Vol 5, No 2

Like the weather, what’s news comes and goes. As a documentary photographer whose work has focused on California’s Central Valley for more than twenty years, I’ve become accustomed to the whims and sometimes fickle span of public attention. But the drought has broken through. Legions of reporters and photographers from all over the world have been dispatched to the Valley’s small towns and farm fields. Communities I have worked in for years have become headline material.

Of course, the drought is news. The world’s richest farming region may seem on the verge of collapse as groundwater levels plummet, towns go dry, and hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland stand empty. But the Central Valley’s water supply has been declining for decades, and droughts have come and gone for as long as anyone can recall. The question is, whether this one is really different. Is this the mega-drought that finally turns the Golden State a permanent shade of brown?

On the ground, glimpses of apocalypse can certainly be seen. But the Central Valley is complicated, and its stories rarely check tidy boxes. Its contradictions and rough-hewn realities routinely confound even the most well-crafted narratives. The story of the drought is no different.

After decades of being ignored, a moment or two on center stage feels good in the Central Valley, even if some of the questions make us squirm. Like the neglected child in the back of the class, the Valley appreciates attention when it can get it, but deeper issues remain. A wet winter or two might erase this drought, but decades of declining resources, collapsing infrastructure, dirty air, and entrenched poverty will take longer to correct. When will we talk about those?

Sinamon lives in a makeshift home she built in a vacant lot just feet beyond Fresno city limits.

A dead almond orchard. Los Banos, California.

A shepherd’s camp in Mendota, California. Raul’s water for drinking, bathing and cooking comes from this 55-gallon drum.

Flea market. Tulare, California.

A man out of water. Alpaugh, California.

An almond harvesting machine leaves a trail of dust. Firebaugh, California.

A man whose well went dry. Farmersville, California.

Children at home. Alpaugh, California.

Fallowed tomato fields. Corcoran, California.


Human Nature

by Laura Aguilar

From Boom Summer 2015, Vol 5, No 2

Editor’s Note: Laura Aguilar’s remarkable Nature Self Portraits treats the human body as just another feature in the landscape. In the series, Aguilar positions herself in the center of her photographs, nude, often with her back to the camera. The curve of her back echoes the rocks, her black hair in the wind recalls the thin fingers of desert trees. The photographs are at once playful and beautiful, peaceful and provocative.

Aguilar’s first nude self portraits weren’t intended to be shared publicly. She has said in interviews that she made the first ones as a way to deal with her discomfort with her body and shame herself into changing it. It didn’t work—the friends she showed the photographs to thought they were some of her finest work. She decided to take the work outside, inspired largely by Los Angeles–based photographer Judy Dater, whose Self Portrait with Stone is echoed in the first photograph of the series.

When it came time to make the first photographs for the series, Aguilar was grieving the death of her closest friend. Working outside brought her back to her childhood spent camping and hiking with her family, and Sundays fishing with her grandmother who taught her that you didn’t have to go to church to get close to God.

Aguilar’s Nature Self Portraits may have roots in shame and mourning, but, transformed by the desert, the images become a celebration of the human body in nature. The earliest photographs were made in New Mexico and Texas, but more recent work was done in the Mojave Desert in California.

Laura Aguilar, born in San Gabriel in Los Angeles County, will be the subject of a retrospective—her first—at the Vincent Price Art Museum as part of the 2017–2018 Pacific Standard Time: Los Angeles/Latin America.

Grounded #106, Laura Aguilar, 1992. Collection on deposit at the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center.

Nature Self Portraits #12, Laura Aguilar, 1992. Collection on deposit at the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center.

Self Portrait with Stone, Judy Dater, 1981. Courtesy Judy Dater.

Grounded #111, Laura Aguilar, 1992. Collection on deposit at the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center.

Grounded Untitled 2007, Laura Aguilar. Collection on deposit at the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center.


Show, Don’t Tell

by Lynell George

From Boom Summer 2015, Vol 5, No 2

Back in LA’s wild nineties, when I was just starting out as a reporter, I envisioned my role as that of a chronicler, collecting and documenting the city’s underrepresented stories. Beyond the facts, I was looking for what, in newspaper parlance, is called “voices”: observations, eyewitness accounts, and the kind of texture provided best by memories. I was always fishing deep for the “other side” of the story, and I learned early that there were often more than two. Getting a handle on Los Angeles—the whole of Los Angeles—meant going deep into its margins and having the time to stay there. I sat at kitchen tables, on wraparound front porches, in living rooms with venetian blinds closed against the midday sun. I stood in alleys, in parking lots, on blacktop playgrounds filling up notebooks, listening, sopping up every detail until I was saturated.

There are stories people can tell you, and there are stories that can only be experienced. I learned this about three years ago, when life filled up so much—new job, new routines—that I didn’t have the open-ended luxury of time to listen to others as I once did. But I was still after the story. I didn’t want to lose my place in the city’s narrative. I dusted off my camera and began taking notes, this time visual ones. I retrained my focus. The backdrop became the forefront.

I was curious to see how the familiar litany of a changing Los Angeles—redlining, white flight, outmigration, gentrification, nostalgia, post-riots—had shaped the city and its sense of place. What I’ve learned is that some change happens so imperceptibly that we don’t yet have language for it. But sometimes, if you’re lucky, you can catch it in motion, for a fraction of a second. I discovered that these photos of shifting environments—often empty of people—still follow one of the cardinal rules of writing: “Show, don’t tell.”


River Glass

by Matthew Klingle with photographs by Michael Kolster

From Boom Summer 2015, Vol 5, No 2

Carleton Watkins was arguably California’s first great artist, but like many Californians, he came to the state as an emigrant looking for work. Born in upstate New York in 1829, Watkins arrived in San Francisco in 1850, just as the Gold Rush was underway and California became a state. Employed by childhood friend and future railroad magnate Collis P. Huntington, he delivered supplies to mines in the Sierra Nevada, followed by stints as a carpenter and bookseller, before turning to his life’s passion: photography.1

Watkins often used the wet-plate process to make his pictures. It was a laborious, expensive technique that with time, patience, and luck could yield exquisitely detailed images on glass plates. His famed mammoth-plate photographs, made with a custom-built camera that accommodated plates as large as 18 by 22 inches, were materially and financially exhausting. Making them required thousands of pounds of cameras, lenses, glass plates, plate holders, tripods, a dark tent for developing, and a mobile laboratory of volatile chemicals. Watkins often traveled by railcar, but just as often by steamer or mule train, as he did to photograph Yosemite Valley beginning in the late 1850s. It was worth the effort. His iconic panoramas of Yosemite and San Francisco would ensure his lasting fame. As historian Martha Sandweiss argues, the glass-plate pictures made by Watkins and his peers made California and the West “a familiar place to millions of Americans.”2

As much as citrus crate labels and early Hollywood films, Watkins’s wondrously gorgeous images helped to sell an idealized California to the world. But Watkins was an artist for hire who photographed the ordinary as well as the picturesque. During visits to Southern California in 1877 and 1880, traveling on a free rail pass, courtesy of Huntington, he made pictures of wineries, ranches, and the dusty wide streets of a young Los Angeles. In the first mammoth-plate view of the city, taken from atop Fort Moore Hill in 1877, Watkins pointed his camera northeast over the adobe and clapboard houses of Sonoratown, the Mexican neighborhood that grew up along the banks of the Los Angeles River.

Sunnybrook, Atwater Village, 2014.

Today, Angelenos are rediscovering their city’s eponymous waterway even if they can’t always find it “under ten gridlocked freeways,” as river advocate Jenny Price once put it.3 Numerous organizations, from Friends of the LA River to the Los Angeles River Revitalization Corporation, are helping Angelenos get to know their river again. For so many in Los Angeles—let alone the rest of the world—the river isn’t a river but a sad trickle of water, its concrete channel made famous in countless movie chase scenes. But in the past few years, a stretch of the river has been transformed. Small parks have sprung up, a bike path runs along the top of the channel, there’s kayaking in the summer, and birding year round. The city has a billion dollar plan to expand and extend this “re-rivering” of the channel, and many of those who have visited understand the real riparian promise of what for so long has been derided as fake. Yet images of the river’s concrete have been cemented in the minds of so many others. To change it, new images are needed.

So why not turn back to the original technology that was so successful in first creating iconic photographs of California and the West? For the past five years, Michael Kolster, a friend and colleague at Bowdoin College in Maine, made wet-plate photographs of industrialized rivers up and down the East Coast. His favored type of image is the ambrotype: a faint negative made on glass using salted collodion, a sticky solution of gun cotton in ether that creates a semitransparent skin on glass. (Collodion was originally used as a medical field dressing, notably during the Civil War.) For Kolster, the making of ambrotypes physically echoes the industrial processes that produced early photographic technology and the polluted rivers he shoots.

Wet-plate photography is full contact art. It is physically taxing and mentally absorbing. The process begins in his studio, weeks in advance of a trip, when Kolster prepares his silver nitrate bath, polishes stacks of glass, and thins the collodion with highly flammable ether and 190-proof Everclear grain alcohol. After the collodion ripens, he waits for a sunny day with no wind and moderate temperatures. The makeshift dark box he built out of thick canvas and wood is tipsy in stiff breezes—and if it’s too cold, the chemistry won’t work. When conditions are right, he loads the 8×10 view camera, lenses, tripod, glass plates, plate holders, collapsible darkroom, chemicals, and gallons of water into the back of his Volvo station wagon. An In-N-Out Burger sticker on the rear door hints at California; he taught photography in San Francisco for almost a decade before moving to Maine in 2000.

Once Kolster reaches his site, he scouts for a flat, shady place to set up camp. For each plate, he follows a strict regimen. After framing a scene with his view camera, he pours the syrupy collodion onto a plate by hand, coating it with a thin, uniform layer of goo before placing the plate into a silver nitrate bath for several minutes. He then removes the plate, puts it into a lightproof holder, sprints to the camera and inserts the plate, opens the shutter, and measures the exposure by counting under his breath for between ten seconds to a minute, depending on the light and age of his collodion. Because the process only records ultraviolet light, traditional light meters are useless. Once he has the shot, he runs back to the dark box, turns on his red-light headlamp, pours developer over the plate, and waits a few seconds for the image to appear. When it does, he washes off the developer, clears the rinsed plate, moves back to the camera to frame another shot, and repeats the process. For the next eight to ten hours, he’ll be in constant motion. On a good day, he can make up to twelve plates. Afterward, at his studio or in a hotel room if he’s on the road, Kolster washes and dries the plates before coating them with varnish to protect the image.

Elysian Park Overlook (triptych), 2014.


The result is more like sculpture than a traditional photograph. On the collodion-coated side, if Kolster timed his exposures and developing correctly, and the light was sufficient, the silver-tinted areas float on the collodion film. When put against a black surface, like velvet, the image reverses and becomes a positive as the areas with less silver appear as shadows and the rest as diaphanous light. Places where the collodion peels or coagulates add texture or contrast to each individual plate. In addition to exhibiting the plates, he makes highly detailed large-scale prints from digital scans of the glass images.

Kolster honed his technique in the East before heading west in the path of Watkins. Like his nineteenth-century predecessor, he hauled his entire photography factory with him, but fitting for a modern day survey, he traveled by freeway in a rental minivan packed floor to ceiling with his gear. Once he arrived, photographing the Los Angeles River presented other challenges, beginning with reliable access. Finding good vantage points proved difficult but not impossible. The results speak to the resonances between Kolster’s work and his forerunners.

At the Glendale Narrows, leafy branches of overhanging trees drape a light dappled pool dotted with exposed rocks. Absent the caption, it would be hard to see this lush riverside idyll as the much ridiculed version of the Los Angeles River. But other images turn typecast into observation. A triptych of the South Gate Railroad Bridge, with each shot taken at a slightly different angle, bends the trusses into an arc bulging over the concrete channel and into the foreground. Further upstream, where the channelized Arroyo Calabasas and Bell Creek join to form the river’s headwaters in Canoga Park, the concrete divider thrusts at the viewer like a spear tip, pushing the eye aside to avoid the strike. Neither place is typically scenic, yet both photographs are beautiful.

Headwaters, Canoga Park, 2014.

Another striking image is a triptych created at an overlook in Elysian Park in central Los Angeles, facing northeast, above the confluence of Interstate 5 and State Highway 110, the Arroyo Seco Parkway. Beneath the streams of concrete and asphalt is the waterway, elbowing past the location where, in 1789, Gaspar de Portolà gave the river its European name.

Like Watkins and other nineteenth-century photographers who captured the beauty of a once-distant California, Kolster has been on his own expeditions. But instead of going to the great out there, he has traveled to the great nearby, photographing places we take for granted or ignore. His photos point toward a new aesthetics of place, with roots in earlier photographic traditions, like the New Topographics movement of the mid-1970s, or even further back to Watkins himself. Kolster’s striking pictures are part of a longer tradition of blurring boundaries between pure and prosaic in American landscape photography.

Watkins might have appreciated what Kolster is doing with his rebooted version of wet-plate photography. For his entire life, Watkins was a hard working artist who, according to Jennifer A. Watts, curator of photographs at The Huntington Library, spent his “lifetime balancing client demands with his own aesthetic perfectionism.” When a paying customer asked him to photograph an irrigation canal or a bunch of grapes, he turned the everyday into the remarkable, insisting that viewers “stop and linger awhile to marvel at their simple beauty.”4

Rattlesnake Park, Fletcher Street Bridge, Elysian Valley, 2014.


Glendale Narrows, 2014.


Del Amo Blvd., Long Beach (diptych), 2014.


Kolster does the same in his photographs. He invites us to revisit the Los Angeles River as a place of splendor regardless of its checkered past and uncertain future. His ambrotypes are windows on the river of time, opening views full of possibility and even hope.


1. For Watkins as California’s “first great artist,” see Christopher Knight, “Carleton Watkins on the Frontier of U.S. Photography,” Los Angeles Times, 27 October 2008, [accessed 28 March 2015].

2. Martha A. Sandweiss, Print the Legend: Photography and the American West (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 153. For Watkins’s work in California, see Judy Graeme, “Photography of Carleton Watkins,” LA Observed, 24 November 2006, [accessed 24 March 2015] and Weston Naef and Christine Hult-Lewis, eds. Carleton Watkins: The Complete Mammoth Photographs (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2011).

3. Jenny Price, “Thirteen Ways of Seeing Nature in L.A.,” Land of Sunshine: An Environmental History of Los Angeles, William Deverell and Greg Hise, eds. (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005), 228–29, republished in The Believer 4: no.3 (April 2006), [accessed 20 March 2015].

4. Jennifer A. Watts, “Railroads and Agriculture,” Carleton Watkins, 397.


The Boom Interview: Lauren Bon

From Boom Summer 2015, Vol 5, No 2

The Metabolic Studio’s devices of wonder

Editor’s Note: Lauren Bon is a transformative figure—her canvas is huge: Los Angeles, the American West, the way we think about landscapes, our water and where it comes from, and what we owe the land and communities, our moral, economic, and political relationships. “ARTISTS NEED TO CREATE AT THE SAME SCALE THAT SOCIETY HAS THE CAPACITY TO DESTROY” proclaims a red neon sign on one wall of the Metabolic Studio in a warehouse on the edge of Chinatown in downtown Los Angeles. It’s a very high standard, and one that Bon takes very seriously in every aspect of her work from her first major work, Not A Cornfield, which transformed an old contaminated railroad yard, a literal brownfield across the street from the studio, into a verdant color field in view of downtown’s skyscrapers, to her latest work, Bending the River Back Into the City—a waterwheel that will draw water from the Los Angeles River and distribute into the City. For its monumental images of the Intermountain west, the Optics Division of the Metabolic Studio uses landscape material rather than traditional chemistry to document the landscapes that the Metabolic Studio is working to transform. Bon sat down to talk with editor Jon Christensen about her work reconnecting Los Angeles with the source of it’s water and about how silver and water mined out of the Eastern Sierra has catalyzed photography and film making for this special issue of Boom on photography, art, and landscape.

I wonder if we could just start by you describing where we are sitting right now.

Lauren Bon: Well, right now, we’re sitting inside of a frame that was built to house the Salon De Fleurus, which is a re-creation of Gertrude and Leo Stein’s art collection in Paris at the turn of the last century. That salon space has now been moved. This frame we are sitting in next to the Amtrak lines that run adjacent to the LA River corridor—[pauses for a train passing by]—this is a new vista for us. This concrete block wall didn’t have any doors or windows that opened to the east. Between 2006 and 2013, the front of the studio was looking at the Los Angeles State Historic Park, and the back of the studio opened to the underside of the Spring Street Bridge. We were actively cultivating these places, and both closed at the same time. The park went into construction and so did the bridge. So now we are looking at the industrial corridor of the city of Los Angeles when we come out here. Your back is to the Spring Street Bridge, and my back is to the Broadway Bridge. And those two bridges cross the LA River from the west side of the river to the east side of the river.

Where we are sitting will be very different by next year at this time. Everything you see around here is transforming. The Spring Street Bridge is being rebuilt now. Across the river Albion Park is being put together. The state historic park is under construction. And if all goes well, a year from now where we’re sitting right now will be a massive hole in the ground.

Lauren Bon in a cottonwood grove. Saplings were grafted from a mature cottonwood grove in Owens Valley and transported to Los Angeles via One Hundred Mules Walking the Los Angeles Aqueduct in 2013.

Boom: Just because our readers won’t all have been here, we’re sitting right outside your studio, Metabolic Studio in this warehouse, a former warehouse.

Bon: Current warehouse.

Boom: Your studio, where many of the things that we’re going to talk about have happened. But pretty soon, there’s going to be a giant water wheel bisecting this building.

Bon: Yeah. Cutting it in half.

Boom: And that’s La Noria. Can you describe that?

Bon: So historically, where we’re sitting right now would have been a floodplain of the unbridled LA River. And Spring Street was a very active spring that pooled quite a bit of water from the LA River all the way to a giant sycamore that was located behind what’s now Union Station. If you look at old photos of LA from up until 1890 when it was cut down, it was the largest visual object in this area. So all of the early photos of LA have this giant sycamore called “El Aliso” or “the sycamore.” It was rumored to be 400 years old and have a 200-foot canopy, and all the tribal people would come from miles and miles around to sit under that tree for problem solving.

So we’re sitting in a place that has lots of history, both told and untold, and lots of mythology, both told and untold, and La Noria taps into some of that. La Noria is a kind of avant-garde nostalgia. In looking forward to what can be, we’re looking back at what was. Because when the river was here, it supported trees. When the river was here, it supported industry. And it supported industry in that age-old way by creating power for things to happen. And one of the means by which power was created was waterwheels. The state park was a place that supported about six different power waterwheels. And we’re alluding to that typology in the waterwheel that we’re about to build.

We are about to build a waterwheel that will bisect this building and pick up water that will be redirected from the LA River channel via a pipe under that railway track where the trains are going by. So the trains will still be going by, and all the sounds you hear will be pretty much, more or less, like they are. And all that you see around you—the riverbank, built of concrete and covered with graffiti—will still look the same. The LA River’s reintroduction to its own flood plain will happen through a single hole that will puncture that jacket. Water will be pooled up from the river by a dam that will be right out there. Water will enter the pipe, run under the railway track, be picked up by La Noria and deposited on the roof of this building before it begins its journey through a new network of pipes, and channels, an infrastructure artwork that aims to form a distribution network that we call the “Delta of Mount Whitney.”

Boom: What does that mean, the “Delta of Mount Whitney”?

Bon: Every river has a delta, the place where it deposits its load before it dissipates. The delta of this new river, the parallel river that will form from moving our wastewater that would normally go out to sea back into the city will be known as the “Delta of Mount Whitney.” We have chosen that name to allude to a source of our water, 240 miles away. It’s only one source of that water, but we think it’s an important one to name in that delta, which is the snow peaks, or what once was the snow peaks of the Eastern Sierra.

Boom: You’ve talked about La Noria as a device of wonder. What do you mean by that?

Bon: I know it when I see it, that thing that raises you up out of the daily discussion of a thing into a kind of transcendent appreciation of it. The motivation of the work that I do with the Metabolic Studio is to utilize devices of wonder to catalyze a paradigm shift. So one can talk for a long time about master plans for the LA River, but in proposing a device of wonder, like a waterwheel and a dam and a new distribution system, I’ve been able to catalyze a change that needs to happen. It’s happening because it needs to happen, not because I’m a great artist. But maybe I am a good enough artist to get that ball rolling. And I’m happy with that, you know?

So the work that I’m doing with the studio is about creating an opportunity for a paradigm shift through utilizing devices of wonder. These devices and the engagement the studio has around them can help reframe the discussion from master planning alone to intervention that can perhaps catalyze the master plan because then there’s one that’s done. This piercing needs to be one of many piercings. It alone will only provide 100 acre-feet of water per year to me. And then I can choose how to redistribute it. But through that paradigm, I hope that the California Water Board sees potential for other kinds of interventions in the stormwater management system.

One Hundred Mules Walking the Los Angeles Aqueduct, October 18 to November 11, 2013, an artist action to commemorate the centenary of the opening of the Los Angeles Aqueduct.

What is the paradigm shift that this is part of?

Bon: Well, we need to reuse our wastewater. Right now, all of the water that’s going out to sea does not reenter the city for any beneficial use, and that’s a paradigm that needs to shift. That’s the primary goal of La Noria.

Then it will be up to the contracts that we develop with other delta users to see if we can also galvanize other paradigms to shift. For example, we’re in negotiation with the state historic park across the street. They wish to receive water from us. We have agreed in principle to supply water, but there are conditions. One of the conditions that they have agreed to is to change the pesticides and herbicides that they use on what they grow, so that the watershed does not become compromised. That’s become policy in the whole state park system, not just this state park, as a result of that contract from the Delta of Mount Whitney. So the device of wonder utilizes language to create a connection to a snow pack, but its knife angle is in changing paradigms of behavior within entrenched bureaucratic systems.

Bending the River Back Into the City, 2012—ongoing. First, an inflatable dam will pool wastewater headed out to sea. Then a piercing in the storm channel will move water under the railway tracks via a pipe. Finally, a waterwheel will lift the water from the river bed to the roof of the Metabolic Studio.

This might be a good moment to talk about the metabolic in Metabolic Studio. Why “metabolic”?

Bon: Metabolic means that we’re dealing with life processes. All living things are divided up into two activities, the anabolic and the catabolic. The anabolic builds up and the catabolic tears down. The Metabolic Studio looks at taking land and water that can no longer support life and aims to return it to supporting life.

In our work along the Owens Dry Lake, we’re actually playing within the catabolic dust and repurposing it to find it has some agency. We take a system that has almost ceased to support life—the Owens Dry Lake—and explore it for new potentiality. The water that has been redirected from the lake is held in trust for us as citizens of the state of California. And now the dust from the dry lake is blowing dangerous chemistry into the air. All kinds of health and safety problems have ensued around that.

But it’s still a lake in terms of how it’s politically organized. It’s held in trust for the people of the state of California as a water body, which means that as a water body, we all have access to it for recreation.

So our Metabolic Studio Optics Division uses it to recreate. We’ve found we can use the dust as photographic chemistry. We go out onto the dry lake in the middle of the night to bury exposed film, large format sheets of photographic paper in the mud. We leave them for the night and pull them out in the morning. The images we make there are not just images of the landscape but made out of the landscape itself. And the action of making them is an activist action. Taking time to work out there is an important thing to do because we participate in a civic right by occupying that space. We know other artists who are thinking similarly and have launched kayaks on the dry lakebed.

As an art practice, we don’t want to leave physical objects behind, but to use our labor as transformation—to make art work as a verb rather than a noun. Up until the waterwheel, all of my work in the last ten years has been ephemeral. Everything is about catalyzing other things to happen through these devices of wonder. The waterwheel is the first piece that is permanent.

Boom: Speaking of Owens Valley, on the hundredth anniversary of the Los Angeles Aqueduct you traveled with a hundred mules along the whole route. What was your vision for that project? And what was it like?

Bon: One of the puzzles for me is how to draw a line for people in Los Angeles between those two points. They see the river. And they see the snow. They recreate in that snow. But the 395, the massive highway that drives up there, has a whole lot of Mojave Desert in it. And people tend to listen to their music and enjoy what deserts do best, which is to get you into the bubble of your car and that kind of great space of the West that allows us all to think differently.

But I really felt that for the centenary of the aqueduct, I needed to build a device of wonder for people in both locations, in the Owens Valley and in Los Angeles, to acknowledge that the snow pack of this year is being moved to Los Angeles, and to acknowledge it by spending time with the intention of celebrating the physical object, saying that this is an amazing piece of engineering that has a physical reality, that has a fiscal reality, that has a historical reality, that has a relationship to the history of engineering. It’s not just this secret pipe.

The Los Angeles Aqueduct, the physical reality of it, is a phenomenal thing. It will be, in the distant future, the central ruin of our civilization, of our moment. It’s reasonable to assume at some point, all of this will be gone. I don’t know when. I don’t know how. But when it is gone, the aqueduct will be there. The aqueduct was built by mules as was the Panama Canal, which opened the next year. So it seemed to me that in drawing that line to connect the Eastern Sierra to Los Angeles, how wonderful to be able to use the very animals that built it to begin with, the very animals that have been so critical to the construction of the West as we have come to know it.

Walking the Los Angeles Aqueduct with one hundred mules was moving on so many levels. Quite literally. It was great to be able to move that slowly—twenty miles a day, over a one-month period. It was wonderful to be part of something that was so well organized. Days just kind of had this rhythm to them, because everything was organized around moving the mules. And I also really understand every inch of the LA Aqueduct now, probably better than most people, because I walked that slowly the entire network of open channel, pipes, siphons, and underground channels covered with concrete from the intake through the Alabama Hills, through the canyons like Jawbone Canyon where the heroic siphons are, into the Mojave Desert, through to where the California Aqueduct meets the LA Aqueduct in Neenach, into the Verdugos after the Cascades. I really know it. I know how it looks. I know how barren the Mojave really is. I understand that the aqueduct was a miraculously lucky thing to be able to build because it’s all downhill.

Walking from the Owens Valley to LA means you’re walking downhill the whole way with an occasional climb up a pass. The mules did that with not a lot of work. The mules thought this trip was super easy. Basically, they didn’t carry anything but a pad that said “100” and an occasional rider. There was only one rider per every ten mules. And it was all downhill. They were extremely well kept. They all came in plumper, happier.

Bending the River Back Into the City, 2012—ongoing. The water filtered through this three-part metabolic sculpture will become a community asset ready for redistribution via a new network, or Delta.

Your work in the Owens Valley has taken place under the rubric of what you’ve called AgH20—silver and water. Why silver?

Bon: Silver mined from places like Cerro Gordo on the top of the Inyo Mountains gave birth to the film industry—perhaps the best example of any of a devise of wonder. George Eastman, way over in Rochester, New York, figured out how to take silver from the mountains out here in California and turn it into film stock that could become a populist activity. “You press the button and we do the rest.” Film stock for motion pictures was shipped back from Rochester across the country to Hollywood and brought back up to the Owens Valley where they made Westerns.

So silver and water mining from the Owens Valley are the two elements the city of Los Angeles has been constructed from. This body of work that I’ve done with the studio since 2008 called “Silver and Water” includes a myriad of action, hundreds, in fact, of artists’ actions that have been taken around this idea of silver and water, including the photographic prints and experimentation, including the sonic work being done at the silos, including the mule march, including the metabolic soil project, including the IOU Theater project and the IOU Garden project, and all of these devices of wonder are, in effect, tending to this space, which is the kind of sacrificial twin of the city of Los Angeles. The more I understand Los Angeles, the more I realize that it kind of has a symbiotic birth, like it is born with the Owens Valley, which has ultimately been the compromised twin. One has thrived at the expense of the other. And I feel that part of AgH20 is the consciousness of acknowledgement saying, “We do owe you.”

Boom: The project that I think you are really best known for was Not A Cornfield. Is that where the idea of a metabolic practice really came together?

Bon: Oh yes, the “Chlorophyll Revolution.” The moment when the old train yard became emerald green with corn, things shifted. That was a big, big shift, and I could see the power of both a metaphor of corn and the reality of how life brings life, whether it’s ladybugs or hummingbirds or crickets at night. The power of living things in juxtaposition with a place like this gave birth to a notion of a practice that I would call a “metabolic sculpture” to differentiate it from other kinds of sculpture.

It’s not land art, per se. A lot of times Not A Cornfield would be construed as land art because it was on the land. It’s not that it wasn’t land art, but there is also a whole lot about it that was not normally associated with land art. One of the things that it was about was transformation. Because we weren’t going to have a cornfield there forever, it was both a cornfield and not a cornfield. It was a way of creating the potential for something else to occur there because the site had stalled in its process of becoming, and the cornfield was meant to galvanize it into that possibility again. So that seems to be an unusual way to look at sculpture, which is often about its formal end being the subject of the work, rather than it consuming even its formal end into a greater notion of transformation, which seems to be more about metabolic things than it does about sculpture in a traditional sense.

Boom: Your artistic practice, a practice that is engaged in activism, sometimes provokes some pretty strong reactions. Not A Cornfield got some pretty strong reactions at the time.

Bon: I see it now as a kind of acupuncture needle. I hit a nerve when I began this work, and like the work that I had done in the Owens Valley, it’s been the fact that I have stayed put for ten years that things have changed. I think people were concerned that I came in to take something away rather than to offer a transformative potential that I would then stay and support. And I think over the ten years, I’ve shown who I am around here. And now times have changed, but at the beginning, it was very frightening and very confusing. I have come to understand where it was coming from, and so I see it differently.

I don’t think I would do anything differently, by the way. I thought about this, knowing now what I know, how would I do things differently, and I think it’s also important to acknowledge that sometimes things are -check-the-box “Other.” One of the things that Not A Cornfield was not was public art. I think a lot of people would have liked me to go through the way public art gets commissioned in a city, and it wasn’t that way. So would I, knowing what I know now, do it that way? No.

Boom: You have this neon sign in the studio that says, “Artists must create on the same scale that society has the capacity to destroy.” Is that your saying?

Bon: Actually, I thought it was, and it turned out not to be. I love to take notes in notebooks, mostly around drawings, and I had an old notebook from the years I lived in Belgrade where I had written that quote.

I found it during Not A Cornfield. People would question me about scale. Not A Cornfield was thirty-two acres. It’s a lot, a big, big piece.

It turned out to be Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz from Electronic Café. It was a statement that they made during the work they were doing with the early Internet about connecting people in the Soviet Union and in the United States via a café that had Internet in it in the 1980s. That was their statement, not exactly that, but pretty close to it. And we now call that the “metabolic manifesto” via the Electronic Café manifesto, which is also cool because it’s West Coast thinking.

One of the things that’s interesting about art coming from the West Coast is that there’s something about these vast expanses that causes you to think differently. You think about these big things, these big expanses. In living out here as an artist, this mandate to operate on a scale that society is destroying is where that comes from.

Lauren Bon and Richard Nielsen at Owens Dry Lake Bed.

Boom: What did you take in your experimenting and your self-education and the decade that you spent in Europe where you really said, “I’m just going to experiment for a decade”? What did you carry there from California and the West?

Bon: Liability obsession. I realized while I was there that a lot of things don’t happen in the West out of feared of being sued. That certainly, places in the Eastern Bloc, places like Russia, Mongolia, China, ex-Yugoslavia, are different. So a project like what I’m undertaking now, which is a metabolic sculpture in the form of a revisionist review of infrastructure comes straight from Belgrade in the years just before the war, the wars in Belgrade, where what it meant to be really modern was to have the best possible infrastructure. So societies were really proud of hosting conversations when the city streets would be ripped open and people would be showing these new pipes and new roads. And they would allow people to walk over these crumbling pieces of sidewalk in a way that if that happened here, people would be terrified that somebody would sue.

And I find that that’s a really big difference. Like even in phobia about—there’s a definite phobia about lawsuits that operates—even in the water dispute site, I was talking to a journalist who recently passed away, who lived up in the Owens Valley. I said to her, “If there was one thing that you would like to see changed with the Department of Water and Power and the Owens Valley situation, what would it be?” She said she’d like them to stop their litigious behavior, that it was a waste of time and money. I thought that is really important to hear. So much of the energy of transformation is being subsumed into litigious behavior. So that was one thing I really got through my self-educating period around the globe is that not all countries are equally litigious, and that was a big, big difference.

Boom: That’s interesting. The other side of that question is, what did you bring back to California and the West from those experiences?

Bon: You know, really from my days as a college student, I’ve been interested in the collapse of the avant-garde and the relationship of the last century to this idea that to be totally modern meant to be working on a collective project, and that the whole of an avant-garde was that community of creative enterprise, and this mandate to be modern, and how that came about during the World Wars—so the relationship between destruction and art production and collectivity and art movements and an avant-garde. When I was a college student in the eighties, most of the smartest people would say very definitively that the avant-garde was dead. And I’ve tried to bring the avant-garde back to the West with me because I think about the West as still an open field for creative life. In other words, it’s very different in tone and temperament from the East Coast, which is much more referential to the art market and to Europe than the West Coast needs to be.

A lot of the reason why people come to Los Angeles is that it’s really possible to reinvent one’s self here and to define the terms of one’s engagement. And I’ve really worked on collectivity since I’ve been back. I’ve worked on demystifying art practice as the bastion of genius and tried to really support and incubate talent without a host of intermediaries that usually divide us so that we are not engaged with one another. The whole notion of collective engagement is something that I have focused on that really had its beginnings in my work at the Hereford Salon in London, where I brought artists together to work on what I called “work in progress.” The only thing that we wouldn’t show at the Hereford Salon or discuss is finished work. So the rule of thumb was, it had to be something you were stuck on or wanted to address.

Our work has intersected with a lot of different galleries and art museums. So in no way are we not wanting to engage with them. But at the same time, there’s a whole world of opportunity for creative life that we’ve tried to make tangible for people, so that when people come, they see it. We definitely, ten years into it, see how much it inspires especially young people to see that there’s another way of being an artist outside the traditional system.

Boom: Another thing that you seem to have brought back was a kind of artistic and a philanthropic practice that was based around projects.

Bon: You know, one of the things that we talked about is how Not A Cornfield was not a public art project, partly because there wasn’t an intermediary that made it happen. In a similar way, I can say that a lot of the work I do is not philanthropy because there’s no nonprofits involved. There’s no nonprofits that are involved with AgH20. So Silver and Water is not a normal practice of philanthropy whereby money is passed to a nonprofit for programming or capital campaigns. This is direct project-based philanthropy, which doesn’t exist, like the term I gave metabolic sculpture. I mean, you’re not going to go look it up in a book for my definition. But what it has meant is that I’ve been able to activate potentiality toward a nonprofit in places like Owens Valley. There is today a growers’ co-op in the Owens Valley that receives funding from other organizations that came about because of my soil production project.

Similarly in the Veterans Administration site in west LA, there was no nonprofit by which I could do Strawberry Flag and activate that site for anything new. So Strawberry Flag was a means by which potential could be grown. And now there is a new nonprofit, the Veterans Print Studio, that comes from the work that we did in turning art supplies we found in the basement of an under-purposed building into an art studio for veterans.

So in many ways, I’ve been able to, through the devices of wonder, like a strawberry aquaponic farm, learn a lot about how to catalyze potentiality toward the more traditional philanthropic approach.

So ten years in, a lot of the work is not as unusual as it was when I began, because we succeeded in growing the potentiality to support more traditional approaches. But what we’ve also done as a team is the Metabolic Studio. Since 2010, we’ve called ourselves the “Metabolic Studio,” and the Metabolic Studio is different from Not A Cornfield in one important regard and that is that the eighteen full-time employees of the Metabolic Studio share my trustee-hood in the Annenberg Foundation. So they are the philanthropists in the studio. I’ve decided in order to be able to focus my time on what I do best in this life, which is to make art and to organize community and to speak to power from my experience as an outsider, I need to be able to make sure that I have a team that is backing me up with the work that people do in making philanthropic decisions.

The Metabolic Studio is different from those earlier incarnations of my work in that that relationship is formalized. All the full-time people here are my trustee-hood manifest, so we work through that collaboratively. And I no longer function as a unique philanthropist in this city. I pass that on to the community that I work with. And we call that “citizen philanthropy” because the eighteen people who work here are not trained to do that job any more than I was. They are just living their lives, and they found themselves in this position. And we have trained ourselves to process that potentiality through our direct engagement with site, not through papers or applications or any of that. The foundation does that for us. So we are like the satellite to the foundation, a satellite that is operating on the ground and in places that are challenged in the absence of sufficient nonprofits to pass the money to. The demographics of philanthropy are often in cities, so when you move into places outside of cities, there can be a real drop in the opportunity for traditional philanthropy to be practiced. We really run into that question quite a lot.

Richard Nielsen and Tristan Duke using alternative chemistry on a Metabolic Studio Optics Division photograph.

That’s true in some cases in cities, too, though, like the Veterans Administration project, no? Tell us about that project.

Bon: In the year and a half that I worked on a daily basis at the VA of West LA, I learned about the complexity of creating the opportunity for paradigm shift. In the case of the VA, that means that land should stop being just a hospital. The VA of West LA is on land that was donated to the US government in 1888 by Arcadia de Baker, who owned all of the land in one hacienda between the beach in Malibu and downtown. And she gave choice land for recuperating veterans in perpetuity as a home. In the 1960s, the asset moved from being part of the Department of War to the Department of Veterans Affairs. There was no Department of Veterans Affairs before Vietnam.

When the asset was moved from one department to the other, it just ceased to be a home anymore. They built a new hospital. They moved all the functions out of the home. It’s now the most valuable asset in the VA chain. And it’s been a big puzzle for people for forty years about what to do with all of that land that was left undeveloped, underused in the midst of the largest homeless population for veterans in the country.

So the question as an artist was how to bring awareness to that, and Strawberry Flag was the answer. What we learned in the time it took to make that artwork became a lawsuit.

I realized that there was no nonprofit out there that protects veterans’ land use. There are nonprofits that deal with veterans who are homeless. But we’re talking specifically about land use. How do you make that land operate for the people it was left in trust for?

So the thing I was able to do when Strawberry Flag ended was write a lawsuit that showed how donor intention has been upheld in the court of law over time, and say, to begin with, that we would never sue the federal government. This was simply a lawsuit in case someone else wanted to sue the federal government, because I don’t want to be litigious. But the ACLU picked up that lawsuit and sued the federal government, and the result is, five years later, everybody in charge of the VA has been fired. And the whole thing has cracked open again for a discussion.

So what I’ve been able to do through my art practice is focus more incisively because I have time where I’m actually working on something—a lot of these projects are durational—to ascertain what can be done and what can’t be done to shift the paradigm and utilize my trustee-hood at the foundation to take those actions that I can take to move the agenda toward some kind of happier return.

Bubblers of Owens Lake Rehydration Project, 2012. Indexical image of the lake made with materials from the lake itself.

I want to come back to this phrase that “Artists must create on the same scale the society has the capacity to destroy.” A lot of your work in the last ten, fifteen years has gotten you involved with very big institutions like the VA, State Parks, the LADWP, the Army Corps of Engineers on the river. It seems that part of this practice has made you need to learn about these big institutions and how they operate and how they might change in order for the practice to succeed.

Bon: I think that’s true. Every one of the signature projects of the Metabolic Studio has had to engage with the structure that the land or the water is owned by and controlled by. In the case of Not A Cornfield, we were working directly with the State of California as well as the City of Los Angeles. So my role as an artist and private citizen and trustee of the Annenberg Foundation was, in a way, to build a bridge between the people of the state of California and an asset held in trust for them. And, therefore, the work cannot be classified as public art because it’s coming from a very different place.

Similarly, with the VA of West LA, that land is held in trust for veterans by the federal government. So even though it’s in Los Angeles, it actually has very little to do with the city of Los Angeles in terms of how it’s organized or run. It has its own police force. It has its own, essentially, mayor, who is the person in charge, and it’s like the Vatican. It’s a separate city within Los Angeles.

So, it’s partly because of my unusual practice at the intersection of art and philanthropy that I’ve been able to have these direct engagements that are usually not available for the general public, and to sometimes slowly, sometimes not so slowly, see change happen. I don’t think any of us thought there would be these massive transformations at the VA of West LA in five years since Strawberry Flag.

Boom: In order to create at the same scale that society has the capacity to destroy, the art has to engage with these big institutions.

Bon: Yeah. It has to become sympathetic with those agencies. When the LADWP agrees to allow the Metabolic Studio to walk 240 miles of aqueduct, something is happening systematically. That’s a first—that they opened up all of the gates to let those mules through. I think that’s an important consideration of the project—that we didn’t break their trust. They had a good experience for a public-private partnership. And part of what we were aiming to do for the centenary is also reframe the LADWP from being the villains of the water system that we have, to being an agency that’s doing a job, and is also the largest employer in the Owens Valley. So there is no human being who is the LADWP. It’s an agency. And it doesn’t do any good for us to continue to place the LADWP in the role of villains in a narrative they didn’t create.

The project was really about let’s try and move forward into a new century of thinking by looking at rehumanizing, reconnecting with the human beings who actually work at the LADWP, who are showing up every night for dinner as the mules pass through their section of the aqueduct, who show up and tell stories or bring a violin to play by a section of the pipe. Let’s allow this agency to be a series of individuals who like the benefits that the LADWP community gives them. I think it’s a good job. I think it’s a good service. It’s certainly one that we can’t do without right now, and it could be a lot worse. It could be a private system, and that would be worse.

So these are the kinds of things that each of these projects have been able to do—make small changes within the VA and create opportunities for a different VA, create different opportunities for a different California urban state park system, create opportunities for the LADWP to rethink its public face. And that’s where those intersections of the devices of wonder, which are the artworks, dovetail with my trustee-hood.

Boom: There’s always artistic authorship in all of these projects. There’s the really authentic and reciprocal engagement with community, with these institutions, but there’s also always your artistic vision that is important there.

Bon: The art is what’s driving the agenda. The art and the urgency. This is something that needs to happen. And they know that. Somebody has to be first. Somebody has to pierce that jacket and bring that water back into the city, and this is the best way to do it.

Boom: And if it’s based on the art, the agent here is the artist.

Bon: The water right I have for one hundred acre feet of wastewater that we pull from the river via La Noria is not a water right to a philanthropic organization. It is not for the Annenberg Foundation nor the Metabolic Studio. It’s my water right. As an individual, I applied for a water right in order to create a distribution network to share the water, without exchange of capital and without commodifying the water. I ascribe to the United Nation’s dictate that water is a human right. So just like I have shared my trustee-hood with the Metabolic Studio, I will share my water right at no capital cost to the people or organizations that will form the Delta of Mount Whitney. As human beings, we speak for all living things, all the animals, all the wildcats in these hills who need water too. That’s the big challenge.

Boom: Where do you see going from here?

Bon: Me personally or the project or the water?

Boom: You as an artist.

Bon: Oh. I don’t know. There’s so much to do. Right now, I’m forming a new country, the country of Rose, so I think that’s the next project.

Boom: Can you say more about this country? Where is it?

Bon: Well, to really try and understand what the waterwheel is and is not—it’s a drop in a bucket in a systemic collapse. The LA Aqueduct gave birth to the Hoover Dam, Lake Powell, the California Aqueduct. And because of the drought, we’re getting a glimpse into a system in crisis. Because whether or not there is a drought, we’re maxed out in terms of what we can do demographically with the amount of water we can move in the Intermountain West. So the country of Rose is an opposition that we need to reorganize, not around states, but around watersheds. It’s based on the idea that there are four basic watersheds in the country of Rose: the Columbia, the Colorado, the Rio Grande, and the water table of the ancient lakes Lahontan and Bonneville that run between Lake Tahoe and Salt Lake. The basic idea is that outmoded state boundaries don’t serve us anymore. And for metabolic processes to continue in the Intermountain West, we are going to need to reorganize around the protection of our watersheds as the primary purpose of all political organization.

Los Angeles and LA Aqueduct are just a small part of a system that’s all interrelated through its water. So when I really came to understand that, I realized that’s probably the next body of work. And that’s what I’m working on with the mule team packers for them to do a survey of Rose as a relay of all the packers in the Great Basin. We’re going to get them all involved.

One Hundred Mules Walking the Los Angeles Aqueduct, 2013. Penultimate trek with view of Los Angeles Skyline.

Wow! That’s huge.

Bon: You can apply for a passport, by the way.

Boom: Really?

Bon: Yeah. The passport is on the Metabolic Studio website.



Inland Empire

by Lewis deSoto

On the west side of San Bernardino is a high plateau that overlooks the Lytle Creek Wash. To the east I could discern the terse grid of the city at night. However, within this orderly checker board is a chaos of seemingly unregulated activity. San Bernardino is a vast story of creation and destruction.

First came the Spanish, who named San Bernardino, then the Mormons, who were tricked into the middle of turf wars between opposing indigenous groups. Next came the new Americans, who swept in like waves of difference—Spanish, Mexican, Irish, German, Japanese, Chinese, African American, and then the refugees who blew in like dust from Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas during the Depression.

We Cahuilla watched it happen all around us. We were the invisible insiders. We were there among the gridded territories of difference. We mingled in the markets and exchanged glances at traffic lights. Lettered streets, numbered streets kept out the history and let us all float free without real suburban planning. Agriculture begat industry begat suburbs begat malls. When the balance upended, as it did from time to time, the decay and neglect compounded. Left behind were vast tracts of empty buildings that glowered like ghouls, like black holes.

San Bernardino, February 2013

San Bernardino, February 2013

The grid held together a kind of nothingness of direction, each intersection both a disaster and miracle that was visually superseded by the bulk and majesty of the mountains above. The mountains were the staid observers of the two extremes of whizzing activity and empty storefronts.

From the 1950s through the 1980s, there were stretches of months during which the mountains became invisible, cloaked behind a wall of sulfurous carbon monoxide, nitrous oxide, lead particulates, and ocean haze. It left behind in me the panic of asthma, of strangling on dry land and days spent in bed breathing painfully and shallowly.

Then there were days when Santa Ana winds would infect the air with electricity and clarity was temporarily restored. The palms crackled and swayed, bombing the streets with their crispy fronds. Everything looked perfect. Fine dust would filter through window cracks like the sand in an hourglass. The mountains overwhelmed the chaos and shoddy home carpentry below and pointed out the magnificence of nature’s presence. That was enough to remind us we were a chosen people, to be in this place while others, in the far east, labored in the sleet, snow, and mud.

San Bernardino, February 2013

San Bernardino, February 2013

More magnificent still were the awesome rumbles of the land shifting below our feet and pushing the ground in novel ways, upsetting my mother’s crystal bells and porcelain angels, sending my books flying off the shelves, and breaking water mains so that water ran down the streets the way it used to run down the trenches between the fragrant citrus trees. Freeways collapsed and hospitals crumbled, and I would trace the mysterious line of cracked plaster on my ceiling until my father sealed it up and repainted the room.

Now, thanks to modern regulations, the days are clearer, but the city still struggles to find the kind of order envisioned by the designers of the grid. Basic services cannot be delivered by a bankrupt government, so the city suffers. Individuals push on, teaching, repairing old houses, and creating visual and poetic culture in this place where anything is possible but rarely ever occurs.

I was born in San Bernardino and spent my childhood there. My adult life began in Riverside, and I fluttered between those two worlds for many years until I moved to Washington State when I was thirty-one. Growing up, my consciousness was shaped by the landscape, especially how it looked passing through a windshield. Cars were my window on the world—and it was a glorious view.

This place was called the Inland Empire, and despite its name it was free of singular leaders and tyrants. It was an empire of things: oranges, tract homes, steel, freeways, earthquakes and floods, desert and deep water, crackling fire in the hills. It was an empire of smog, the asthma it gave me, that is still with me to this day. It was the empire of mountains, deserts, and weird inland seas. It was marvelous and abject. It was framed by opposites: blue mountains with white snow presiding over crispy weeds in sunbaked lots.

Colton, August 2012

Colton, August 2012

I was of native blood, Cahuilla blood. I had “Hispanic” cultural tags. But I felt alien to all groups. It was the empire of me. I was put there to figure it out.

I began photographing when I was ten years old. My first subjects were the scale model cars I carefully crafted on weekends. A few years later, my father came home with a Polaroid camera in a leather case, and I used it to photograph everything that interested me. When my father abandoned that camera, it became mine, and when he later gave up his Minolta SR-T 101, it became my instrument of choice.

While at University of California, Riverside, Steven Cahill taught me how to make photographs and Joe Deal, the steely “New Topographics” photographer, taught me a new way to think about the landscape. It wasn’t his own way, or that of his friends, Lewis Baltz, Robert Adams, Frank Gohlke. Rather, he showed me how to see in the landscape a process of becoming that encompassed the paradox of empty utility and evanescent beauty existing in the same visual moment. While Baltz reduced and purified, and Adams haunted and lamented, I was interested in larger forces at work.

Redlands, January 2013

Redlands, January 2013

On the surface, some might think these forces were merely industrial upheavals. What I saw was a redistribution of power as it related to cosmology. As someone who believes certain things about the origin of the world, this knowledge dictates, almost preordains, how I think the land should be treated.

I started my photographic journey with an epicenter in the Empire: Mt. Slover, where granodiorite was mined and turned into cement. The native people called it Tahualtapa, “Hill of the Ravens.” The ravens were messengers between the spirit world and the human world. The Spanish called it Cerrito Solo, “Little Lonely Mountain.” Were the Spanish so alienated from the landscape they could not see this mountain as being part of the valley that surrounded it? Anglo-European settlers called this place “Marble Mountain,” for what they could get out of it, and later renamed it for Isaac Slover, the owner of the rancheria on the mountain. This is how the world comes to be named, not for its own characteristics but for men. I have made photographs, sculpture, drawings, and diagrams that examined the relationship between cosmology and language, and attitude and use.

As I thought about the land and learned to look at it in my own way, I also thought about other artists, letting their perspectives trigger my own ideas. Robert Smithson, Walter De Maria, Michael Heizer—they were builders, in a sense. Smithson built a paradoxical entropic paradise, De Maria built pure gestures, and Heizer hoped to build monuments for the future, cultural ruins. I began by working with my camera at night, recording on film what I was seeing in the relationships between humans and nature. My pieces also represented relationships in time. They were a mark in the immensity of all time. I felt those other artists were thinking too small.

Redlands, January 2013

Redlands, January 2013

During my adulthood in the Empire, I drove from job to job, teaching in Los Angeles, Rancho Cucamonga, Riverside, but every weekend my partner at the time and I retreated to our trailer in North County San Diego, at the edge of the world, facing the sea. While I spent many hours in Riverside, I spent more time driving between places and wondering about it all. I took volumes of photographs that fit in between my other, more themed works.

After I left the Empire, I realized it was not just a place but an imprint that contained within its paradoxical territories both myself and my approach to art. To capture this sense, I broadened my artistic reach. As the realm of the Empire itself took multiple forms, I expanded my practice beyond photography to sculpture, sound, music, video, and installation work, a more encompassing artistic practice.

Ontario, January 2014

Ontario, January 2014

In this photographic project, I have punctuated large panoramic works with smaller nodes of interest. While the panoramas instantiate a broad public exposure, the single-frame images make a kind of private view. In reencountering these places from my past, I felt like a ghost returning again and again to locations that witnessed moments of great invisible drama.

Although I left the Empire three decades ago and now live in the agricultural haven of Napa Valley, I feel fossilized, like the mollusks of ancient seabeds, in the landscape of my home territory. I inhabit its paradise and its hells. No place I have experienced offers the full range of elements that compel and inspire—the vast public works, the neighborhoods both grand and beat down, the air fragrant with citrus and acrid from smog and industry. Cool pine breezes waft off the snow, and hot blasts of wind are scented with creosote. It is the Empire. It is everything.

Rim Forest, June 2013

Rim Forest, June 2013


Text and images are adapted from Empire by Lewis deSoto, forthcoming from Heyday.