The sounds of the Grateful Dead rang out through the clear summer evening sky during another magnificent show at Mountain View’s Shoreline Amphitheater. It was the early 1990s. Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, academics, businesspeople, teachers, Gen-Xers, Boomers, old hippies, and all kinds of folks from the Bay Area mixed in the concert, and many more out in the parking lot, all having a good time or looking for one. On the minds—and tongues—of many was Purple Jesus blotter acid. Often referred to simply as “Jesus Christs” or “Purple Jesuses,” this was the LSD people wanted to trip on.
This acid was made possible by San Francisco–based art collector and printer, Mark McCloud, well known in California’s psychedelic community. The Jesus acid was personal for McCloud, a way to display his own theology in the form of something that both was and was not religion properly defined. It reflected a lifestyle. Perhaps this is what happens with ordinary and extraordinary artifacts in California, religious or not, but treated as religious in some respects, ritualized in ways that enjoy varying degrees of success and sustainability, innovation, and meaning. The art didn’t originate in California, but was reappropriated and reconstituted in California as something else. And California is where it popped, took on a life of its own, and then went out from here in a quasi-religious fashion inasmuch as acid has been taken in communities seeking to enjoy its religious benefits, inducing religious experience, and affirming religious sensibilities.
The art on the blotter paper was created by the psychedelic artist Alex Grey, whose work is familiar to West Coast artists from Venice to North Beach. At one time employed by Harvard Medical School’s anatomy department to prepare cadavers for dissection and, later, as an illustrator, Alex Grey’s fascination with the body and his new age sensibilities informed his art. They combined in his Sacred Mirrors project, which developed images of the human body that represent both physical and metaphysical anatomy, which for Grey embody deeper connection to astral bodies.
Purple Jesus by Alex Grey.
In 1976, Grey had a psychedelic vision of Christ going up in an atomic mushroom cloud towering over a burning city. Four years later he painted Nuclear Crucifixion, a 114-inch by 124-inch representation of that vision, which he later interpreted as signifying that “Christ stood for what is good in us, and that same brutality and ignorance that murdered Jesus could someday be responsible for a nuclear war.”1
More Jesus paintings followed. Part of his twenty-one image Sacred Mirrors series, Alex Grey rendered Christ (1982–1985) in oil on linen, drawing from the Gnostic Gospel tradition to depict a Yogi-like Jesus as mystical teacher.2Later, he painted the Cosmic Christ (1999–2000), a 50-inch by 102-inch oil on wood with gilded wood frame, meant to show how Christ transcends nature yet exists in every part of it together with the planet and collective story of humanity.3Grey, who was Jewish, continually came back to Jesus in his art because he saw Jesus as one of the first Western teachers to realize the truth that he was “the Word made flesh.” Grey saw in this a direct channel for the love and healing energy of God to all of humanity.4
The 20-inch by 20-inch oil on wood Purple Jesus (1987) may be the most successful of Grey’s Jesus paintings, both for its simplicity and for the popularity it achieved throughout California’s underground psychedelic community. With green, magenta, and blue droplets representing LSD transferred onto blotter paper surrounding him, Jesus hangs suspended on the cross—eyes closed, countenance resigned, bowels and skeleton in full view, bones and circulatory system visible, crucified surrounded by a flowering halo of blotter acid.
The humanity of Jesus juxtaposed with astral glory radiating from his body and shining through his heart, along with the explicit connection of Jesus to LSD and the psychedelic community, a psychedelic communion, made Purple Jesus emblematic of a particular time in California. The image came to prominence in the early 1990s when California—especially its youth—was in serious trouble, with increasing violence and a ballooning prison population jam-packed with adults and minors. The so-called “war on drugs” was at its peak.
Mark McCloud, who has been called the “father of blotter art,” was responsible for getting Grey’s Purple Jesus on blotter paper. He first saw Alex Grey’s work at the San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery show Retrospectacle, curated by Carlo McCormick in 1987, which celebrated the twentieth anniversary of the Summer of Love. The gallery hosted psychedelic art from artists old and new, including Purple Jesus, which Grey painted for the show. McCloud paid $1,000 for the painting—more than the asking price—as a gesture of kindness and respect to Grey, and gave it to his mother, who was living in Argentina’s Patagonia region. The original painting is still there.
McCloud grew up in a Catholic family in Argentina. His father was knighted by the Pope in the Order of St. Gregory (Mark possesses the sword from the knighting ceremony). In 1966, amid ongoing political unrest in Argentina, McCloud’s parents sent him at age twelve to Webb School, a boarding school in Claremont, California. At a hotel in Santa Barbara the following summer—as the Summer of Love flowered in Haight Ashbury— McCloud took LSD for the first time with a friend. The acid-infused sugar cubes came from the Timothy Leary–associated, Laguna Beach–based Brotherhood of Eternal Love.5About his first trip, at the tender age of thirteen, McCloud has said, “I was blind, but then I could see.”
The winter after graduating from Webb, McCloud took 300 micrograms*, an ordinary dose, of Orange Sunshine LSD while a student at Santa Clara University. During this trip, McCloud fell out of a window from the seventh-floor of his dorm room. When describing it later, he said he experienced “rapture” and an ontological change, in which the “basic fabric” of his existence changed. McCloud left Santa Clara the following year, continuing his education at l’Ecole du Louvre in Paris before returning to finish his undergraduate degree and then an MFA at the University of California, Davis.
After graduation, he moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, worked as a curator and an artist, lecturing from time to time at Santa Clara University, and became immersed in the Bay Area art scene. A two-time recipient of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, McCloud served on a number of boards and became a noted art collector.
After buying Purple Jesus and sending it to Argentina, McCloud turned the painting into a print. The print was reproduced on 7.5-inch-square blotter paper (a special kind of absorbent paper), which was then perforated so the paper could be torn into 900 small square tablets. McCloud printed around 3,000 sheets and distributed the perforated prints far and wide.
This yielded another San Francisco invention, in effect a new kind of communion, when an underground chemist put the LSD liquid substance (the “alchemical presence” or the “Holy Ghost,” in McCloud’s terms) on the back side of the blotter paper. The paper was then sold, broken along the perforations, and distributed for consumption. The chemist who worked with these particular sheets was arrested and sent to prison in the mid-1990s and his LSD-activated sheets became government evidence in the case.
Grey found out about this alchemical transmogrification of his art after giving a lecture in Boston in the mid-1990s, and a young attendee later showed a sheet of Purple Jesus blotter to the artist. Grey was upset at first that McCloud had transformed his art into a commercial vehicle for the delivery of a drug, but he eventually forgave McCloud. He later numbered and signed 500 copies of the blotter sheets, and included images of McCloud’s blotter sheet—one signed by Timothy Leary—in published volumes of his work.6
Purple Jesus blotter was very popular in California in the early 1990s. Jesus was not a new presence in the California psychedelic community. In fact, the community had a lengthy relationship with Jesus.7LSD played a role in the birth of Jesus Freaks.8It was at the center of the early Calvary Chapel, in which Lonnie Frisbee would sometimes carry on about Jesus and flying saucers after tripping on acid.9
Another well-known psychedelic artist, Rick Griffin became a born-again Christian in the 1970s. Having illustrated for Surfer magazine, Jimi Hendrix, and the Grateful Dead, Griffin started illustrating for groups associated with Calvary Chapel. In 1973, he released his classic Surfing Jesus, and over the next seven years he worked with pastor Chuck Smith of Calvary Chapel in Santa Ana and Costa Mesa to illustrate The Gospel of John.10
McCloud’s current collection contains a copy of Griffin’s Surfing Jesus as well as The Gospel of John. He has images on perforated blotter paper of Jesus and Judas—two of which bear markings indicating they were confiscated by the FBI at some point—and a Berkeley Bonaparte print by Griffin called “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory,” depicting a Jesus-looking Zig-Zag man smoking a joint while standing next to a Native American also smoking a joint. The same Indian is found in a ’66 Family Dog poster with a banner offering a prayer, “May the baby Jesus shut your mouth and open your mind.” Jesus was somewhere in Griffin’s mind even before he converted to Christianity. McCloud remarked, “If you take acid long enough, you’ve gotta’ deal with Jesus.”
McCloud’s gallery, “The Institute of Illegal Images,” boasts the largest private collection of blotter art in the world, tucked inside his Victorian home in San Francisco’s Mission District. “Illegal” is a misnomer, because the prints are no longer illegal; any LSD residue remaining on the framed blotter sheets became inactive long ago. But the collection does show the role Jesus played in the psychedelic community. The Jesus in this collection stands on the edge, in the way of danger, a Jesus of and for freaks.
McCloud sees his own role as participating intentionally in a movement, facilitating in a small, artistic way what acid could do for people. In the process of dispensing acid to Californians, McCloud developed his own liberation theology with LSD as the host. His people were trapped and looking for meaning. LSD could help them see and set them free, as it had done for him. On the perforated paper, a sheet of acid looks oddly like the “host” in many other congregational settings—like Jewish matzah or Christian communion cracker sheets. But in McCloud’s theology, it only assumes this special property when properly activated with the LSD, similar to the actualizing of the miracle in Roman Catholic theology, when a priest consecrates and gives thanks during mass, and an inert substance miraculously is transformed to become the divine host.
One gram of LSD is broken into ten thousand hosts when applied to blotter paper. McCloud calls this “the new currency.” One host equals one unit. As such he views his role, as a “Roman Catholic,” as having the duty of “bringing Jesus back to Catholics in full-fledged state, which is the honor of anybody.”
Albert Hofmann, who discovered LSD, once said that “psychedelic substances are best used only with proper sacred or psychological guidance and support.” He hoped that “in the dawn of this new millennium people will use the full range of spiritual practices to help transform the worldview of our materially fixated culture.” Hofmann went on: “Such a change in values will lead us toward a greater feeling of interconnectedness with all of God’s creatures and a deeper appreciation for the infinite richness and wonder of the cosmos and the equally infinite inner realms of being.”11 He noted, “given the proper set and setting, a vast panorama of mysterious archetypal beings and highly articulated heaven realms become accessible.” In a similar vein, psychedelics have been renamed “entheogens” by scholars who consider them to be “sacraments for voyaging into the Godhead.”12
According to McCloud, art displayed on the blotter sheet, including the tiny fragment on a partitioned hit of acid, affects one’s trip. Even if the effect is subconscious, the “premise of alchemy” remains: any experiment can achieve any desired result. Bad trips happen, too, breeding fear, hellish, and sometimes demonic experiences, which have destroyed some people. I’ve strangely never heard anyone talk about having a bad trip on Purple Jesus. But “be careful with Jesus,” McCloud warns. He “came to correct an injustice.”
Here McCloud’s story takes another strange turn. In McCloud’s theology, Jesus came to correct the “mistake” of his father, God, who McCloud says was incorrectly forcing people into hell, hence the injustice. McCloud preaches this gospel as a member of the so-called Church of the Little Green Man. McCloud claims Jesus was also part of this church, which meets in New York. The Church of the Little Green Man has two requirements: trip with the brothers and sisters once a week, and turn someone on who hasn’t tripped. Here, again, McCloud sees the host returning to the people, carrying the people through a tunnel, journeying to heaven through hell. An oft-quoted phrase among the psychedelic community, and one used by McCloud is this: “If you want to soar angelic, take a pinch of psychedelic.” But, again, McCloud warns of potential danger taking LSD: “Do you want a one-on-one with your Maker?”
Duke ethicist Luke Bretherton has argued that the desire to engineer an ampliative experience may not entirely be about drugs (like LSD) at all, but perhaps a more fundamental longing for the eschaton, which people might truly feel, even if they’re only willing to pay five bucks for it, searching for the transcendent but in a banal, cheap way.13
The cost of a hit of acid may be quite discounted considering the goal—a new way of seeing the world and a new way of existence. But the dealer, still, makes the participant pay for a hit of the host in order to experience the trip. It doesn’t come free, which is the price of the living substance Jesus promises in Revelation 22:17.14The significance of Jesus’ relevance remains on display precisely at this point. When the Grateful Dead end their electrifying Shoreline show, friends go home. The trip is over. But Jesus remains, the same first century figure from the Gospels, the one identified by the church throughout the ages as the mystery of God incarnate, who has scandalized and brought hope to all kinds of people in every age in churches of all kinds throughout California and the world.
*An earlier version of this article said that Mark McCloud took 300 milligrams of LSD, instead of 300 micrograms. Thanks to Zane Kesey for bringing the error to our attention.
Photographs by Hannah Chu.
I am grateful to John Fox and Marisa Thornburg for their comments on an earlier draft of this essay.
1 Carlo McCormick, “Through Darkness to Light: The Art Path of Alex Grey,” in Alex Grey, Sacred Mirrors: The Visionary Art of Alex Grey (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 1990), 24.
2 Alex Grey, “The Sacred Mirrors,” in op cit., 37–8, 64–5.
8 See Larry Eskridge, God’s Forever Family: The Jesus People Movement in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 10–53.
9 Ibid., 33, 73.
10 See the more recent hardcover reprint, Chuck Smith and Rick Griffin, The Gospel of John (Costa Mesa: The Word for Today, 2008).
11 Albert Hofmann, “Foreword,” in Grey, Transfigurations, vii.
12 Stephen Larsen, “Transfigurations” in Transfigurations, 39.
13 Luke Bretherton, “Consuming the Body: Contemporary Patterns of Drug Use and Theological Anthropology,” in Public Theology in Cultural Engagement, ed. Stephen R. Holmes (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2008), 94–130.
14 “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come!’ Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life” (NIV).
Biodiversity loss became a major concern among environmentalists in the mid-1980s. Since then, writers and artists have addressed the fate of individual endangered species as well as global scenarios of extinction in novels, poems, nonfiction, documentary films, photographs, paintings, and musical compositions, not to mention hundreds of websites. Most of these works are inspired by a realist impulse. They aim to move readers and spectators through details and data about the animal or (more rarely) the plant species they portray, creating aesthetic specimens for audiences to marvel at and mourn.
Hiroko Yoshimoto’s Biodiversity series of oil and watercolor paintings takes a strikingly different route. The works have none of the realistic detail of museum specimens or close-up shots, but rather resemble modernist abstraction. Bursts of clashing colors and palettes of subtly shaded ones evoke the vibrant fauna and flora of biodiversity hotspots such as rainforests and coral reefs. Varied shapes call up the enormous range of biological forms, from a single cell seen through a microscope and the texture of a sea anemone to the complex shadings of tree foliage and flashes of birds’ wings. The drawings in a naturalist’s notebook explode into cascades of color. Juxtaposed on flat pictorial surfaces without the illusion of depth that is typical of perspectival paintings, all of the organic objects in Yoshimoto’s works, from single cell to flower blossom, call on the spectator to give them equal attention regardless of their taxonomic status.
“The series Biodiversity reflects my ardent wish that life’s diversity would continue to flourish in the face of accelerated destructive forces created by human hand,” Yoshimoto writes on her website. “The seemingly infinite and wondrous diversity of life forms, like the microbes in a drop of water, inspires unique colors, shapes, and lines that then come alive on my canvas.”
Forms and textures that in the twentieth-century avant-gardes of Europe and Latin America called up the estranged environments of modernity—Salvador Dalí’s melting objects, F. T. Marinetti’s explosive battlefields, Wassily Kandinsky’s colorful geometries, Yves Tanguy’s mysterious plains, Wilfredo Lam’s sculptural jungle—metamorphose in Yoshimoto’s more organic imagination into celebrations of nature’s exuberance, and mourning for the parts of it that we are losing.
Biodiversity #25, 2012, 10 1/2 x 9 1/2 in., watercolor on paper. Yoshimoto painted Biodiversity #25 in two versions: oil and watercolor. The lighter and brighter hues of the watercolor version reproduced here playfully evoke the different scales of marine life. Small circular areas surrounded by dots and light shading might be colonies of tiny, plankton-like organisms or island archipelagos on a map. Elongated red shapes might be slugs or sea anemones, but they also recall the soft, fringed objects in some of Salvador Dalí’s surrealist landscapes, such as The Persistence of Memory (1931). Though none of the objects in the painting can be identified unambiguously, their combination evokes the sun-drenched colors washing around a tropical coral reef: schools of fish, colonies of algae, swarms of microorganisms.
Biodiversity #1, 2012, 16 x 16 in., oil on panel, collection of the Museum of Ventura County. Biodiversity#1 conveys a sense of life’s many forms through an exuberant explosion of color. Shapes strewn across the canvas suggest individual cells, single-celled organisms, sea anemones, or flowering plants, pulled together and propelled along by a horizontal color bar that evokes a fallen tree trunk or a rapidly flowing river around which life proliferates in multiple small environments.
Biodiversity #6, 2012, 16 x 16 in., oil on panel. Biodiversity #6 is even more radically decentered than other paintings in the series. Rather than showing recognizable organisms or emphasizing the idea of ecological stability, it shows the building blocks of life in exuberant motion. Cells, drops, stalks, and leaves whirl about in a dance that recalls Wassily Kandinsky’s geometric configurations, but moving in dynamic, unpredictable reconfigurations.
Biodiversity #10, 2012, 9 1/2 x 19 3/4 in., watercolor on paper. Biodiversity #10 plays on the conventions of the naturalist’s sketchbook. Painted on two sides of a ring-bound notebook, the watercolor painting takes up and transforms the parallel lines of the metal rings into parts of organic shapes—the ridged stalk of a vegetable, flower petals, segments of a sinuous worm or tuber. Writing technology morphs organically into the forms of nature.
Biodiversity #22, 2013, 30 x 60 in., oil on panel diptych, collection of the Santa Paula Art Museum. Biodiversity #22 can be understood as a riff on the Japanese artist Hokusai’s famous woodblock print The Great Wave Off Kanagawa (ca. 1830), as well as the bright colors and bold dynamics of contemporary manga. If the round window at the center suggests a vanishing point that should logically organize the perspectival lines, the streams and flows of color that surround it defy any depth of perspective. Instead, they evoke flows of water, slides of mud, the push of growing roots, the speed of birds’ wings speeding past. From these dynamic, chaotic flows and clashes of ecology and biology, the still center emerges as a moment of genesis in which land and ocean separate from the sky, and organic forms begin to arise.
Biodiversity #33/6, 2013, 24 x 24 in., oil on panel, collection of Community Memorial Hospital, Ventura. Biodiversity #33/6 is the sixth and last of a series called The Future of Life, which forms part of the Biodiversity collection. The darkest and least varied of this series in its shapes and colors, it suggests that species extinction might bring about a future return to a more elemental array of environments and life forms: rock, water, and perhaps lichens and mosses.
Biodiversity #68, 2015, 11 x 14 in., monotype on BFK paper. This delicately colored painting resonates with the landscapes in Yves Tanguy’s surrealistic paintings, which are populated by strange objects and figures. A landscape of dried-up shore, desert, and mountains here seems inscribed with the traces of past life—shapes that suggest skeletal remains, tracks, and scat—but possibly also new small organisms and vegetation.
In the cool of an autumn desert night, the photographer Jamey Stillings and I roll out of Las Vegas into the dark Mojave Desert. With the glitz of the Strip in our rearview, we follow Interstate 15 south across dry desert lakes and wide alluvial fans, through miles of scrub and sand. The road is lonely, just a few long-haul truckers and crapped-out gamblers limping home to L.A. It’s a quiet time for humans, but out there beyond the asphalt there’s action in the desert. Owls and coyotes are hunting. Bats are darting after moths. Cacti and creosote open their pores to drink in the air’s moisture. Now and then a sign marks a lonely outpost: Sloan, Jean, Primm, once-hopeful townsites that never matured into towns. About five miles past Primm, on the California side of the border, we turn onto a road leading into the faint outline of the Clark Mountains. Our headlights catch a sign: Ivanpah Solar Project.
Ivanpah is the largest concentrated solar power (CSP) installation in the world. It’s also one of the most controversial. The $2.2 billion project, which came online in January 2014, is capable of producing 392 megawatts, enough electricity to power 140,000 homes—or all of Pasadena—during peak demand. It’s one of a handful of new mega-plants—including the Topaz solar farm in San Luis Obispo County, the Desert Sunlight plant southeast of Joshua Tree National Park, and the Genesis Solar Energy Project in eastern Riverside County—that have turned California into the first state to generate more than 5 percent of its electricity from utility-scale solar. But Ivanpah has come under fire from conservationists concerned about its bird-frying capabilities, and from green-energy skeptics who accuse Ivanpah’s backers of under-delivering on what was promised.
It’s so dark that I can’t make out where we are. Before I realize it we’re among the heliostats, the 173,500 pairs of mirrors that reflect the sun onto Ivanpah’s three power towers. Each tower is 459 feet tall, four-fifths the height of the Washington Monument. The mirrors stand upright at night in what their keepers call “sleep position,” so that when you drive among them in the pre-dawn gloaming it’s tough to make them out, what with the hall-of-mirrors effect and all. Dark reflecting dark reflecting dark.
“It’s like an immense art installation,” I say to Jamey.
Photograph by Jamey Stillings.
Jamey’s been documenting the creation of Ivanpah for years, so these mirror-made mirages are nothing new to him. But coming upon them with fresh eyes, I can’t help but think of the monoliths of Easter Island, and the light-and-sensory artwork of James Turrell. I can’t wait to see what happens when the sun comes up.
We pass through security and find our way to NRG’s control room, a spacious chamber with computer consoles, dozens of flat-screen monitors, and about ten engineers. At 5:45 a.m., the day crew takes over from the night staff, which has been doing maintenance and prep.
Dawn arrives. Out in the desert, nocturnal owls, rats, mice, and bats retreat to their burrows. They want nothing of the day’s blasting heat. The heliostats, controlled by computers, slowly rotate into position. The first faint light shines on the dark band of the power towers.
At 8:02 a.m., the first of Ivanpah’s three units comes online. It starts small, generating six megawatts. Then nine. Then eighteen. At 8:14, an engineer calls from across the room. “We’re synced!”
Solar power shoots down the line. In San Francisco, customers of PG&E check their email and brew their coffee with Ivanpah energy. In Los Angeles, Southern California Edison brightens traffic lights and gives air conditioners their hum with power from the sun.
For Ivanpah, this counts as a good day: a clear sky with two power towers humming. (The third was briefly offline for maintenance.) Many days, the shift operators aren’t so lucky. Ivanpah was expected to produce more than one million megawatt hours per year, but in its first eighteen months the plant recorded less than half that output. Power plants, regardless of fuel type, aren’t turnkey systems. They require a break-in period during which they run at reduced capacity as engineers work out the bugs. At Ivanpah, that break-in period coincided with an unusual stretch of cloudy days, further reducing its output. The plant’s ramp-up accelerated in early 2015—producing more than double the power of a year earlier—but that didn’t stop critics from pouncing. “High-Tech Solar Projects Fail to Deliver,” the Wall Street Journal declared, presenting Ivanpah as Exhibit A.
That typified the plant’s first year, during which Ivanpah took a pounding in the media. In 2014, the Associated Press moved a story that claimed the plant was “scorching” as many as twenty-eight thousand birds annually—a total that would have required a full-time shovel crew to remove the constant rain of carrion. The biologist who came up with that number later downplayed it as a “back-of-the envelope” estimate, but the damage was done.
Then there was the erosion of confidence in concentrated solar power itself. Between Ivanpah’s groundbreaking in 2010 and its start-up in 2014, the price of photovoltaic (PV) solar panels dropped by more than half. That encouraged thousands of homeowners to join the distributed power revolution, which lets them use rooftop PV panels to power their homes and feed green energy into the grid. Then in 2015, Congress decided to end many of solar power’s federal grants, loan guarantees, and tax breaks. Green energy now provides about 24 percent of California’s needs, and the state’s renewable energy portfolio standard requires that to reach 33 percent by 2020. But right now, utility-scale PV farms and rooftop solar look like better economic bets than CSPs such as Ivanpah. Things change quickly in this space. In 2014 the U.S. Department of Energy saw Ivanpah and similar plants ushering in a “CSP renaissance in America.” By late 2015, it was uncertain whether Ivanpah’s power towers would be among the first of their kind in America—or the last.
The Mojave is a deceptive place. The driest and smallest of North America’s four deserts—it could fit inside West Virginia—it encompasses an extreme range of topographies and temperatures. The gentle, snow-capped peak of Mount Charleston rises to nearly twelve thousand feet just west of Las Vegas. It’s as much a part of the Mojave as Death Valley, the lowest (282 feet below sea level) and hottest place in the United States. In outline, the Mojave is lumpy and misshapen, like a deerskin tossed over California’s meeting point with Nevada and Arizona.
The Mojave’s defining quality is the difficulty of sustaining life within it. Anyone who’s road tripped from Los Angeles to Las Vegas knows this landscape as the journey’s major crossing, a sandy sea that requires preparation, supplies, and good luck to reach the other side. “The Mojave is a big desert and a frightening one,” John Steinbeck once wrote. “It’s as though nature tested a man for endurance and constancy to prove whether he was good enough to get to California.” 1
Photograph by Jamey Stillings.
The animals and plants that survive here are finely adapted to do so. The jackrabbit’s paddle ears are lined with shallow blood vessels, which allow the air to cool its blood. Kangaroo rats seal their burrows to capture the precious moisture released when they breathe. Owls and vultures obtain water from the blood of their prey. The desert tortoise, which often digs its burrows under the shade and camouflage of creosote bushes, survives the harshest seasons of the Mojave by estivating: it gorges on cacti, grasses, and wildflowers during spring, then disappears into the cool darkness of its underground home and waits out the heat of summer.
Native Americans have lived in parts of the Mojave for at least ten thousand years, but the human presence has been sparse throughout most of the area’s human history. Until recently, our need for water limited human habitation to areas where it pooled and ran. The Mojave Indians congregated mostly along the spine of the Colorado River. The nomadic Chemehuevi people, whose traditional lands include the Ivanpah Valley, are known as “those who play with fish.” Human impacts were minimal until the arrival of miners and ranchers in the mid- to late 1800s. The Clark Mountains attracted swarms of grubstakers seeking silver, borax, copper, lead, tungsten, and fluorite. In the 1880s, the mining town of Ivanpah popped up about where the solar complex stands today. The town did a brisk trade: saloons, a butcher shop, hay yards, hotels, and a weekly newspaper. Around 1900, the minerals ran out, and so did the people. The town was abandoned and the desert reclaimed the space.
Just as the seemingly empty and forbidding Mojave actually pulses with life, a desert that can appear bereft of industry in truth supports—and sometimes suffers—quite a lot of it. Though the town of Ivanpah never returned, the mining industry still survives here. Just over the shoulder of Clark Mountain sits the open-pit Colosseum Mine, a gold strike that operated from the early 1980s until 1993. A few miles south of Ivanpah is one of America’s largest rare-earth element mines, which produce the metals used in smartphones, high-efficiency lightbulbs, and photovoltaic cells. Mining is no longer the major industry here, however. Today the area’s economic engine is power production.
Photograph by Jamey Stillings.
Just over the border in Primm is the Bighorn Generating Station, a 598-megawatt natural-gas power plant completed in 2004. Next to it is the Silver State North Solar Project, a 50-megawatt photovoltaic solar farm. When it opened in 2012, Silver State North became the first power-producing solar project on federal land. It’s expected to be followed in the next few years by Silver State South, a 250-megawatt sister project, and by the 300-megawatt Stateline Solar Farm Project, a PV farm tucked between I-15 and the Ivanpah heliostats. In a little more than a decade, the Ivanpah Valley has become one of the most concentrated centers of power production in the American West.
That could be a good thing or a bad thing. It depends on your perspective. In the United States we produce most of our energy—82 percent—by burning oil, coal, and natural gas. With every megawatt produced from those sources, more carbon dioxide escapes into the atmosphere, stoking global warming. Nuclear power is extremely difficult to finance, permit, and build new plants for. Only solar, wind, and geothermal have the potential to replace big chunks of our appetite for burning carbon.
But no energy source is perfect. Ramping up renewables requires real estate. Wind power only works in places with a consistent blow. Solar power needs acreage. You can’t stack mirrors or PV panels on top of one another. Some of that space exists on rooftops. But rooftop solar has its limitations. If every house and commercial building in America harvested energy, they’d meet only 60 percent of the nation’s electrical demand. We most likely need more conservation, rooftop PV, better efficiencies, and utility-scale wind and solar.
On the day Ivanpah opened, solar power accounted for only 0.4 percent of America’s electricity budget. “There is an enormous gap between what needs to get done and what is actually happening on the ground,” said John Woolard, then CEO of the firm that designed Ivanpah, BrightSource Energy, during the plant’s construction. “I don’t think people really have digested how far behind we are from a policy perspective and how bad the consequences are. On a global basis we have got to put one gigawatt of zero-carbon power online every single day between now and 2040 just to stabilize CO2 emissions.”
That means lots of land. Ivanpah’s heliostats range over roughly five-and-a-half square miles (thirty-five hundred acres) of publicly owned, federally managed desert landscape. That’s four times the size of New York City’s Central Park. The Silver State North PV farm covers about one square mile. Stateline will shade another two and a half square miles.
There’s no way around it. Those are significant chunks of prime Mojave wildlife habitat. And therein lies a dilemma for environmentalists. Back in 2009, local conservation groups raised the alarm about losing five and ahalf square miles of high-quality tortoise habitat to Ivanpah’s footprint. The desert tortoise, Gopherus agassizii, is a long-lived and emblematic Mojave Desert species. It’s been listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act since 1980. In some areas, the desert tortoise population has decreased by as much as 90 percent in the past thirty years.2
And the Ivanpah Valley, by all accounts, is excellent desert tortoise habitat.
That forced a number of environmental advocates, who usually champion solar, to take a critical look at Ivanpah. Solar power “should go on rooftops or in appropriate places, not the pristine desert,” April Sall, director of the Wildlands Conservancy, told Bloomberg Businessweek in 2012. “We need to tackle warming, but not forget there are other things at stake.”3
Local chapters of the Sierra Club found themselves divided on the issue. Some favored Ivanpah for its carbon-free energy; others thought the wildlife costs were too high. After the power plant’s partners agreed to significant tortoise mitigation measures—including buying seven thousand acres of private land to set aside as protected habitat, and keeping a permanent biology staff on site at Ivanpah—the national Sierra Club gave the project its blessing.
At midday, Jamey and I drive into the heliostat field with Len Cigainero, NRG operations manager. We stop at the boundary between the inner and outer rings of mirrors that bounce sunlight onto the boiler of Tower 2. “The inner ring is cleared and graded,” Cigainero explains. “Beyond that it’s left in as natural a state as possible.” Jamey and I wander amid the concentric circles. Each heliostat contains two garage-door-size mirrors. “There’s nothing that special about them,” Cigainero tells me. “They’re mirrors just like you have in your bathroom.” Except much, much bigger.
Photograph by Jamey Stillings.
As the day’s heat reaches its peak, Cigainero leads Jamey and me into a crude elevator that hoists us 376 feet—about thirty-seven stories—up Tower 2. It’s an awesome sight, standing at the rail, looking out at the mirror field: 120,000 brilliant white cards, all pointed in our direction. I imagine it’s something like Jimi Hendrix saw at Woodstock. Above us, the 800-degree heat generated by the focused solar energy of sixty thousand heliostats is creating superheated steam that cranks a power-producing turbine. All I feel is the warm day and a light breeze. The mirrors are so precisely focused on the boiler that nothing outside their flux zone feels the heat. But within that zone, birds and insects get scorched. If you watch the sky for a while, you’ll see little flares now and then, a visual record of birds and bugs flying too close to the flux.
Wildlife advocates raised early concerns about the effect of Ivanpah’s solar flux field on passing birds. Solar flux is a measure of the light energy in a given area. Ivanpah’s solar flux field encompasses the airspace between the mirrors and the tower boilers. The heliostats don’t create superheated air. Air absorbs very little light energy. Any object placed in the solar flux field, though, will absorb light energy and convert it to thermal energy. It’s the reason you can breathe the air in a car that’s been sitting in the hot sun, but can’t touch the steering wheel. Therein lies the risk to birds. If they fly through the flux field, they can singe their feathers and even catch fire.
It’s an enormous issue, for both Ivanpah and the future of concentrated solar power. Concern over bird mortality has stunted the growth of wind power, and singed wings could do the same to CSP. To ground truth the matter, the plant’s operators hired a team of biologists to record bird sightings and bird deaths for one full year. During my visit, I watched biologists use bird dogs to search the tower and heliostat areas, finding and recording avian carcasses. Meanwhile, engineers such as Cigainero are trying new solutions, including sound deterrents (sudden loud noises) and a scent derived from grapes that’s obnoxious to birds (smells like grape juice). From October 2013 to October 2014, biologists estimated that 1,492 birds were killed by the power tower and heliostats, through heat flux and collisions. A further 2,012 birds were killed by causes other than the solar power plant, and may represent something close to the area’s natural background avian mortality—birds killed by predation and disease. That’s nowhere near the alarming 22,000 number. But it’s still significant.
Photograph by Jamey Stillings.
Ultimately, Ivanpah’s bird issue comes down to a question of relative harm. The number of birds lost to solar flux pales in comparison to those killed in the United States by windows (an estimated 97 million) and domestic cats (110 million). But that comparison only gets us so far. It’s more useful to measure concentrated solar plants such as Ivanpah against other forms of power generation in a watt-by-watt comparison. Benjamin Sovacool, a Vermont Law School professor and energy policy analyst, has done just that. Sovacool looked at a wide range of data, from bird collisions with nuclear cooling towers, to wind-turbine mortality, to the effects of mercury poisoning and acid rain. The estimates were astonishing. Fossil fuel power plants (coal, oil, natural gas) were responsible, directly and indirectly, for 9.4 bird deaths per gigawatt hour (GWh) of power produced. Nuclear facilities were responsible for 0.6 avian fatalities per GWh. Wind turbines, which have become notorious for their bird damage, turned out in fact to be the most bird friendly of the compared power sources. Sovacool estimated that the blades and towers were responsible for 0.3 avian mortalities per GWh.4
Sovacool didn’t include concentrated solar power in his calculations. The technology was too new and the data simply didn’t exist. But if we use some crude calculations based on an early, small sample size, Ivanpah’s avian mortality lands somewhere in the wind turbine and nuclear power range. Ivanpah is expected to produce somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,000 GWh of power in a year. If all bird deaths are counted, that means the plant would be responsible for 0.6 avian fatalities per GWh; if only solar flux losses are counted, the figure comes down to 0.1.
Concern for bird fatalities at concentrated solar power plants seems to be a classic example of what we might call the fallacy of visible harm. We see a bird with singed wings and are moved, rightly, to call for more protection for these imperiled creatures. But what we don’t see are the millions of birds killed by the indirect forces—habitat loss, acid rain, mercury poisoning, climate change—perpetuated by our continued addiction to fossil fuels. The comparison isn’t even close: it’s a full order of magnitude. Coal-fired and gas-fired power plants kill more than ten times as many birds as wind and solar facilities combined. The difference is, those birds are dying hundreds of miles from the causes of their deaths.
As the sun makes its first move toward the horizon, we drive over to Ivanpah’s biological center, a modest collection of shipping-container offices and fenced tortoise habitats. This is Ivanpah’s desert tortoise biological center, a place they playfully call Desert Tortoise Head Start.
At Ivanpah, the desert tortoise acts as an umbrella species. The protocols taken to safeguard the reptiles and their habitat benefit a multitude of other species in the ecological web. NRG’s permit from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management allows them just nine desert tortoise “takings”—a euphemism for death—over Ivanpah’s planned thirty-year lifespan. They’ve already had one. “A biologist ran over a tortoise when doing a tortoise check,” Cigainero told me earlier that morning. “The tortoises look for shade, and this one found it under the wheel of his parked truck.” Ever since then, everybody on site does a vehicle perimeter check before starting up. It’s not just direct hazards that Ivanpah workers have to watch out for. There are indirect dangers, too. “We’re very careful about trash,” Cigainero told me. Desert tortoises have a coterie of predators: ravens, kit foxes, coyotes, red-tailed hawks, golden eagles, badgers, and burrowing owls. A spilled Coke or a misplaced Carl’s Jr. bag might be enough to draw these predators—especially ravens—to the site. And then their sharp eyes might spot a tasty tortoise.
At the biological station, I meet up with Max Havelka, a biologist who oversees the juvenile tortoise pens. The heat of the day has come up, and he’s decked out in full desert work wear: a wide-brimmed straw hat, extra-dark sunglasses, and a slathering of sunscreen. He tells me about the tortoise relocation operation.
“This turned out to be better tortoise habitat than anyone imagined,” he says. In the fall of 2010, before Bechtel broke ground on construction, a team of biologists scoured the Ivanpah site. Fall is typically an active time for tortoises, who emerge from their long summer burrowing to graze in the cooler autumn temperatures. The biologists gathered 173 adult and juvenile tortoises and relocated them to temporary holding pens in a 433-acre preserve set aside for rare plants and wildlife. “We started with sixteen tortoise pens, and ended up with more than a hundred,” Havelka tells me.
Photograph by Jamey Stillings.
Tortoises have a slow and precarious reproductive cycle. They can take up to twenty years to reach sexual maturity, and females lay eggs only when environmental conditions are optimal. Most hatchlings don’t survive. Researchers estimate that up to 98 percent of juvenile tortoises are killed by predators in their first years of life. That makes what happened after the tortoise-gather all the more curious and remarkable. Female tortoises in Ivanpah’s temporary holding pens began laying eggs left and right. Maybe it was coincidental. Maybe it was a response to stress. Maybe the females looked around at the plentiful forage, water, and predator protection, and thought, optimal conditions! Havelka and other biologists don’t know for sure. What they do know is that by the spring of 2011 they had fifty-three new juveniles on their hands.
After fitting the adult tortoises with tiny transponders, Havelka and his colleagues released them back into the Ivanpah Valley, outside the heliostat fields. The transponders allow NRG’s staff biologists to locate the reptiles and check on their health twice a year. To release the juveniles, though, would be to lose 98 percent of the next generation of a federally threatened species. So Havelka and the Desert Tortoise Head Start crew continue to nurture them behind protective fencing.
“We’ll keep them here until their carapaces”—their upper shells—”reach twelve centimeters in length,” Havelka explains. That’s about long as a Pepsi can is tall, and takes about five years. “At that point they’re able to fend for themselves.”
Photograph by Jamey Stillings.
As we stroll through the Head Start center, it’s tough to spot any tortoises. And yet we’re surrounded by dozens of them. “There’s one,” Havelka says. A four-inch juvenile crawls glacially under the shade of a creosote bush. Desert tortoises live up to 95 percent of their lives underground, and when they do emerge they exhibit no darting movements, as these would alert predators to their presence. Rule of survival: you don’t eat what you can’t see.
Photograph by Jamey Stillings.
Like a lot of conservationists, Havelka is aware of the tough trade-offs involved in a project such as Ivanpah. He sees the gains and losses every day. The Mojave, he says, “is amazing. It’s like a desert version of an old-growth forest.” It’s an apt description. The Mojave’s creosote bushes can thrive for centuries. They’re drought hardy and so oily that herbivores don’t touch them. King Clone, a Mojave Desert creosote bush ring, is believed to be one of the oldest living organisms on Earth. UC Riverside botanist Frank Vasek, who discovered the bush in the late 1970s, estimates the plant’s age at around 11,700 years.5
Desert tortoises in the wild can survive for fifty years or more. Their survival into the next century may depend on whether we can ramp up our renewable energy output—because they too are imperiled by climate change. Female tortoises lay fewer eggs during drought years, and soil temperatures affect the sex of embryos. Temperatures above 31.5 degrees C (88.7 degrees F) favor the development of females, so an increasing number of heat waves produced by climate change could leave the population here with a reproductive ratio problem. In other words, doing nothing is as risky to the long-term health of the desert tortoise as are the disturbances imposed by projects such as Ivanpah.
Late in the afternoon, we climb into a helicopter and rise thousands of feet above the desert floor. As the horizon pulls the sun closer, the Robinson R44 offers us yet another perspective on the Mojave. From sixty-five hundred feet up we can see over and beyond Clark Mountain and the Castle Range, the two mountain bands that define and drain into the Ivanpah Valley. The light’s low angle raises the contrast on the land. A multitude of dry creeks, washes, deer paths, jeep trails, rail lines, and dirt roads crosshatch and serpentine over the terrain.
At 5:11 p.m., all three Ivanpah power blocks glow an eerie white. They’re lit up like tall candles on a dining room table. Tiny movements ripple through the mirrors as the computer controlling the heliostats milks every last watt from the sinking sun.
Twenty minutes later, the shadow of Clark Mountain reaches out across the valley floor, nearly touching the outer ring of Unit 3’s heliostats. The darkness moves at a hiker’s pace, slow but steady. All three power blocks blaze until finally, at 5:56 p.m., Unit 1 and Unit 3 begin to fade.
The end of the solar day arrives quickly. Within two minutes the power block on Unit 3 is dark. Unit 2 still shines, but Unit 1 is fading fast. One minute later, Unit 1 is dark. By 6:03 p.m., all three tower boilers are black. Ivanpah is off the grid. One by one the heliostats move into sleep mode, standing vertically, reflecting darkness.
Meanwhile, in the desert, the nocturnal creatures start to emerge. As the intense heat of the day dissipates, they peek out of burrows, foxholes, and caves. Bats flutter into the evening sky. Tortoises crawl out of their holes to forage. The Mojave Desert stirs to life.
As we take one last swoop over the darkening valley, it strikes me that the Mojave has found, in the desert tortoise, its perfectly emblematic species: one that captures all the slow vigor, fragility, reticence, deception, indomitability, and strange beauty of the desert. Like the desert itself, its wonders and charms aren’t apparent upon first glance. But take some time to learn, understand, and appreciate. The same might be said of the Ivanpah project. It’s compelling and strange and not easily comprehended. But it may represent one of our best shots at getting right with the tortoise, the valley, the Mojave, the continent, and the planet. As the light fades, it seems a step in the right direction.
1. John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley (New York: Viking, 1962): 209.
2. Source: Defenders of Wildlife.
3. Quoted in Ken Wells, “Where Tortoises and Solar Power Don’t Mix,” Bloomberg Businessweek, October 10, 2012.
4. Benjamin K. Sovacool, “The Avian and Wildlife Costs of Fossil Fuels and Nuclear Power,” Journal of Environmental Sciences 9, no. 4 (December 2012): 255–78.
5. Frank C. Vasek, “Creosote Bush: Long-Lived Clones in the Mojave Desert,” American Journal of Botany 67, no. 2 (February 1980): 246–55.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 www.waterworks.io.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
Editor’s Note: Lauren Bon is a transformative figure—her canvas is huge: Los Angeles, the American West, the way we think about landscapes, our water and where it comes from, and what we owe the land and communities, our moral, economic, and political relationships. “ARTISTS NEED TO CREATE AT THE SAME SCALE THAT SOCIETY HAS THE CAPACITY TO DESTROY” proclaims a red neon sign on one wall of the Metabolic Studio in a warehouse on the edge of Chinatown in downtown Los Angeles. It’s a very high standard, and one that Bon takes very seriously in every aspect of her work from her first major work, Not A Cornfield, which transformed an old contaminated railroad yard, a literal brownfield across the street from the studio, into a verdant color field in view of downtown’s skyscrapers, to her latest work, Bending the River Back Into the City—a waterwheel that will draw water from the Los Angeles River and distribute into the City. For its monumental images of the Intermountain west, the Optics Division of the Metabolic Studio uses landscape material rather than traditional chemistry to document the landscapes that the Metabolic Studio is working to transform. Bon sat down to talk with editor Jon Christensen about her work reconnecting Los Angeles with the source of it’s water and about how silver and water mined out of the Eastern Sierra has catalyzed photography and film making for this special issue of Boom on photography, art, and landscape.
Boom: I wonder if we could just start by you describing where we are sitting right now.
Lauren Bon: Well, right now, we’re sitting inside of a frame that was built to house the Salon De Fleurus, which is a re-creation of Gertrude and Leo Stein’s art collection in Paris at the turn of the last century. That salon space has now been moved. This frame we are sitting in next to the Amtrak lines that run adjacent to the LA River corridor—[pauses for a train passing by]—this is a new vista for us. This concrete block wall didn’t have any doors or windows that opened to the east. Between 2006 and 2013, the front of the studio was looking at the Los Angeles State Historic Park, and the back of the studio opened to the underside of the Spring Street Bridge. We were actively cultivating these places, and both closed at the same time. The park went into construction and so did the bridge. So now we are looking at the industrial corridor of the city of Los Angeles when we come out here. Your back is to the Spring Street Bridge, and my back is to the Broadway Bridge. And those two bridges cross the LA River from the west side of the river to the east side of the river.
Where we are sitting will be very different by next year at this time. Everything you see around here is transforming. The Spring Street Bridge is being rebuilt now. Across the river Albion Park is being put together. The state historic park is under construction. And if all goes well, a year from now where we’re sitting right now will be a massive hole in the ground.
Lauren Bon in a cottonwood grove. Saplings were grafted from a mature cottonwood grove in Owens Valley and transported to Los Angeles via One Hundred Mules Walking the Los Angeles Aqueduct in 2013.
Boom: Just because our readers won’t all have been here, we’re sitting right outside your studio, Metabolic Studio in this warehouse, a former warehouse.
Bon: Current warehouse.
Boom: Your studio, where many of the things that we’re going to talk about have happened. But pretty soon, there’s going to be a giant water wheel bisecting this building.
Bon: Yeah. Cutting it in half.
Boom: And that’s La Noria. Can you describe that?
Bon: So historically, where we’re sitting right now would have been a floodplain of the unbridled LA River. And Spring Street was a very active spring that pooled quite a bit of water from the LA River all the way to a giant sycamore that was located behind what’s now Union Station. If you look at old photos of LA from up until 1890 when it was cut down, it was the largest visual object in this area. So all of the early photos of LA have this giant sycamore called “El Aliso” or “the sycamore.” It was rumored to be 400 years old and have a 200-foot canopy, and all the tribal people would come from miles and miles around to sit under that tree for problem solving.
So we’re sitting in a place that has lots of history, both told and untold, and lots of mythology, both told and untold, and La Noria taps into some of that. La Noria is a kind of avant-garde nostalgia. In looking forward to what can be, we’re looking back at what was. Because when the river was here, it supported trees. When the river was here, it supported industry. And it supported industry in that age-old way by creating power for things to happen. And one of the means by which power was created was waterwheels. The state park was a place that supported about six different power waterwheels. And we’re alluding to that typology in the waterwheel that we’re about to build.
We are about to build a waterwheel that will bisect this building and pick up water that will be redirected from the LA River channel via a pipe under that railway track where the trains are going by. So the trains will still be going by, and all the sounds you hear will be pretty much, more or less, like they are. And all that you see around you—the riverbank, built of concrete and covered with graffiti—will still look the same. The LA River’s reintroduction to its own flood plain will happen through a single hole that will puncture that jacket. Water will be pooled up from the river by a dam that will be right out there. Water will enter the pipe, run under the railway track, be picked up by La Noria and deposited on the roof of this building before it begins its journey through a new network of pipes, and channels, an infrastructure artwork that aims to form a distribution network that we call the “Delta of Mount Whitney.”
Boom: What does that mean, the “Delta of Mount Whitney”?
Bon: Every river has a delta, the place where it deposits its load before it dissipates. The delta of this new river, the parallel river that will form from moving our wastewater that would normally go out to sea back into the city will be known as the “Delta of Mount Whitney.” We have chosen that name to allude to a source of our water, 240 miles away. It’s only one source of that water, but we think it’s an important one to name in that delta, which is the snow peaks, or what once was the snow peaks of the Eastern Sierra.
Boom: You’ve talked about La Noria as a device of wonder. What do you mean by that?
Bon: I know it when I see it, that thing that raises you up out of the daily discussion of a thing into a kind of transcendent appreciation of it. The motivation of the work that I do with the Metabolic Studio is to utilize devices of wonder to catalyze a paradigm shift. So one can talk for a long time about master plans for the LA River, but in proposing a device of wonder, like a waterwheel and a dam and a new distribution system, I’ve been able to catalyze a change that needs to happen. It’s happening because it needs to happen, not because I’m a great artist. But maybe I am a good enough artist to get that ball rolling. And I’m happy with that, you know?
So the work that I’m doing with the studio is about creating an opportunity for a paradigm shift through utilizing devices of wonder. These devices and the engagement the studio has around them can help reframe the discussion from master planning alone to intervention that can perhaps catalyze the master plan because then there’s one that’s done. This piercing needs to be one of many piercings. It alone will only provide 100 acre-feet of water per year to me. And then I can choose how to redistribute it. But through that paradigm, I hope that the California Water Board sees potential for other kinds of interventions in the stormwater management system.
One Hundred Mules Walking the Los Angeles Aqueduct, October 18 to November 11, 2013, an artist action to commemorate the centenary of the opening of the Los Angeles Aqueduct.
Boom: What is the paradigm shift that this is part of?
Bon: Well, we need to reuse our wastewater. Right now, all of the water that’s going out to sea does not reenter the city for any beneficial use, and that’s a paradigm that needs to shift. That’s the primary goal of La Noria.
Then it will be up to the contracts that we develop with other delta users to see if we can also galvanize other paradigms to shift. For example, we’re in negotiation with the state historic park across the street. They wish to receive water from us. We have agreed in principle to supply water, but there are conditions. One of the conditions that they have agreed to is to change the pesticides and herbicides that they use on what they grow, so that the watershed does not become compromised. That’s become policy in the whole state park system, not just this state park, as a result of that contract from the Delta of Mount Whitney. So the device of wonder utilizes language to create a connection to a snow pack, but its knife angle is in changing paradigms of behavior within entrenched bureaucratic systems.
Bending the River Back Into the City, 2012—ongoing. First, an inflatable dam will pool wastewater headed out to sea. Then a piercing in the storm channel will move water under the railway tracks via a pipe. Finally, a waterwheel will lift the water from the river bed to the roof of the Metabolic Studio.
Boom: This might be a good moment to talk about the metabolic in Metabolic Studio. Why “metabolic”?
Bon: Metabolic means that we’re dealing with life processes. All living things are divided up into two activities, the anabolic and the catabolic. The anabolic builds up and the catabolic tears down. The Metabolic Studio looks at taking land and water that can no longer support life and aims to return it to supporting life.
In our work along the Owens Dry Lake, we’re actually playing within the catabolic dust and repurposing it to find it has some agency. We take a system that has almost ceased to support life—the Owens Dry Lake—and explore it for new potentiality. The water that has been redirected from the lake is held in trust for us as citizens of the state of California. And now the dust from the dry lake is blowing dangerous chemistry into the air. All kinds of health and safety problems have ensued around that.
But it’s still a lake in terms of how it’s politically organized. It’s held in trust for the people of the state of California as a water body, which means that as a water body, we all have access to it for recreation.
So our Metabolic Studio Optics Division uses it to recreate. We’ve found we can use the dust as photographic chemistry. We go out onto the dry lake in the middle of the night to bury exposed film, large format sheets of photographic paper in the mud. We leave them for the night and pull them out in the morning. The images we make there are not just images of the landscape but made out of the landscape itself. And the action of making them is an activist action. Taking time to work out there is an important thing to do because we participate in a civic right by occupying that space. We know other artists who are thinking similarly and have launched kayaks on the dry lakebed.
As an art practice, we don’t want to leave physical objects behind, but to use our labor as transformation—to make art work as a verb rather than a noun. Up until the waterwheel, all of my work in the last ten years has been ephemeral. Everything is about catalyzing other things to happen through these devices of wonder. The waterwheel is the first piece that is permanent.
Boom: Speaking of Owens Valley, on the hundredth anniversary of the Los Angeles Aqueduct you traveled with a hundred mules along the whole route. What was your vision for that project? And what was it like?
Bon: One of the puzzles for me is how to draw a line for people in Los Angeles between those two points. They see the river. And they see the snow. They recreate in that snow. But the 395, the massive highway that drives up there, has a whole lot of Mojave Desert in it. And people tend to listen to their music and enjoy what deserts do best, which is to get you into the bubble of your car and that kind of great space of the West that allows us all to think differently.
But I really felt that for the centenary of the aqueduct, I needed to build a device of wonder for people in both locations, in the Owens Valley and in Los Angeles, to acknowledge that the snow pack of this year is being moved to Los Angeles, and to acknowledge it by spending time with the intention of celebrating the physical object, saying that this is an amazing piece of engineering that has a physical reality, that has a fiscal reality, that has a historical reality, that has a relationship to the history of engineering. It’s not just this secret pipe.
The Los Angeles Aqueduct, the physical reality of it, is a phenomenal thing. It will be, in the distant future, the central ruin of our civilization, of our moment. It’s reasonable to assume at some point, all of this will be gone. I don’t know when. I don’t know how. But when it is gone, the aqueduct will be there. The aqueduct was built by mules as was the Panama Canal, which opened the next year. So it seemed to me that in drawing that line to connect the Eastern Sierra to Los Angeles, how wonderful to be able to use the very animals that built it to begin with, the very animals that have been so critical to the construction of the West as we have come to know it.
Walking the Los Angeles Aqueduct with one hundred mules was moving on so many levels. Quite literally. It was great to be able to move that slowly—twenty miles a day, over a one-month period. It was wonderful to be part of something that was so well organized. Days just kind of had this rhythm to them, because everything was organized around moving the mules. And I also really understand every inch of the LA Aqueduct now, probably better than most people, because I walked that slowly the entire network of open channel, pipes, siphons, and underground channels covered with concrete from the intake through the Alabama Hills, through the canyons like Jawbone Canyon where the heroic siphons are, into the Mojave Desert, through to where the California Aqueduct meets the LA Aqueduct in Neenach, into the Verdugos after the Cascades. I really know it. I know how it looks. I know how barren the Mojave really is. I understand that the aqueduct was a miraculously lucky thing to be able to build because it’s all downhill.
Walking from the Owens Valley to LA means you’re walking downhill the whole way with an occasional climb up a pass. The mules did that with not a lot of work. The mules thought this trip was super easy. Basically, they didn’t carry anything but a pad that said “100” and an occasional rider. There was only one rider per every ten mules. And it was all downhill. They were extremely well kept. They all came in plumper, happier.
Bending the River Back Into the City, 2012—ongoing. The water filtered through this three-part metabolic sculpture will become a community asset ready for redistribution via a new network, or Delta.
Boom: Your work in the Owens Valley has taken place under the rubric of what you’ve called AgH20—silver and water. Why silver?
Bon: Silver mined from places like Cerro Gordo on the top of the Inyo Mountains gave birth to the film industry—perhaps the best example of any of a devise of wonder. George Eastman, way over in Rochester, New York, figured out how to take silver from the mountains out here in California and turn it into film stock that could become a populist activity. “You press the button and we do the rest.” Film stock for motion pictures was shipped back from Rochester across the country to Hollywood and brought back up to the Owens Valley where they made Westerns.
So silver and water mining from the Owens Valley are the two elements the city of Los Angeles has been constructed from. This body of work that I’ve done with the studio since 2008 called “Silver and Water” includes a myriad of action, hundreds, in fact, of artists’ actions that have been taken around this idea of silver and water, including the photographic prints and experimentation, including the sonic work being done at the silos, including the mule march, including the metabolic soil project, including the IOU Theater project and the IOU Garden project, and all of these devices of wonder are, in effect, tending to this space, which is the kind of sacrificial twin of the city of Los Angeles. The more I understand Los Angeles, the more I realize that it kind of has a symbiotic birth, like it is born with the Owens Valley, which has ultimately been the compromised twin. One has thrived at the expense of the other. And I feel that part of AgH20 is the consciousness of acknowledgement saying, “We do owe you.”
Boom: The project that I think you are really best known for was NotACornfield. Is that where the idea of a metabolic practice really came together?
Bon: Oh yes, the “Chlorophyll Revolution.” The moment when the old train yard became emerald green with corn, things shifted. That was a big, big shift, and I could see the power of both a metaphor of corn and the reality of how life brings life, whether it’s ladybugs or hummingbirds or crickets at night. The power of living things in juxtaposition with a place like this gave birth to a notion of a practice that I would call a “metabolic sculpture” to differentiate it from other kinds of sculpture.
It’s not land art, per se. A lot of times Not A Cornfield would be construed as land art because it was on the land. It’s not that it wasn’t land art, but there is also a whole lot about it that was not normally associated with land art. One of the things that it was about was transformation. Because we weren’t going to have a cornfield there forever, it was both a cornfield and not a cornfield. It was a way of creating the potential for something else to occur there because the site had stalled in its process of becoming, and the cornfield was meant to galvanize it into that possibility again. So that seems to be an unusual way to look at sculpture, which is often about its formal end being the subject of the work, rather than it consuming even its formal end into a greater notion of transformation, which seems to be more about metabolic things than it does about sculpture in a traditional sense.
Boom: Your artistic practice, a practice that is engaged in activism, sometimes provokes some pretty strong reactions. Not ACornfield got some pretty strong reactions at the time.
Bon: I see it now as a kind of acupuncture needle. I hit a nerve when I began this work, and like the work that I had done in the Owens Valley, it’s been the fact that I have stayed put for ten years that things have changed. I think people were concerned that I came in to take something away rather than to offer a transformative potential that I would then stay and support. And I think over the ten years, I’ve shown who I am around here. And now times have changed, but at the beginning, it was very frightening and very confusing. I have come to understand where it was coming from, and so I see it differently.
I don’t think I would do anything differently, by the way. I thought about this, knowing now what I know, how would I do things differently, and I think it’s also important to acknowledge that sometimes things are -check-the-box “Other.” One of the things that NotACornfield was not was public art. I think a lot of people would have liked me to go through the way public art gets commissioned in a city, and it wasn’t that way. So would I, knowing what I know now, do it that way? No.
Boom: You have this neon sign in the studio that says, “Artists must create on the same scale that society has the capacity to destroy.” Is that your saying?
Bon: Actually, I thought it was, and it turned out not to be. I love to take notes in notebooks, mostly around drawings, and I had an old notebook from the years I lived in Belgrade where I had written that quote.
I found it during Not A Cornfield. People would question me about scale. Not A Cornfield was thirty-two acres. It’s a lot, a big, big piece.
It turned out to be Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz from Electronic Café. It was a statement that they made during the work they were doing with the early Internet about connecting people in the Soviet Union and in the United States via a café that had Internet in it in the 1980s. That was their statement, not exactly that, but pretty close to it. And we now call that the “metabolic manifesto” via the Electronic Café manifesto, which is also cool because it’s West Coast thinking.
One of the things that’s interesting about art coming from the West Coast is that there’s something about these vast expanses that causes you to think differently. You think about these big things, these big expanses. In living out here as an artist, this mandate to operate on a scale that society is destroying is where that comes from.
Lauren Bon and Richard Nielsen at Owens Dry Lake Bed.
Boom: What did you take in your experimenting and your self-education and the decade that you spent in Europe where you really said, “I’m just going to experiment for a decade”? What did you carry there from California and the West?
Bon: Liability obsession. I realized while I was there that a lot of things don’t happen in the West out of feared of being sued. That certainly, places in the Eastern Bloc, places like Russia, Mongolia, China, ex-Yugoslavia, are different. So a project like what I’m undertaking now, which is a metabolic sculpture in the form of a revisionist review of infrastructure comes straight from Belgrade in the years just before the war, the wars in Belgrade, where what it meant to be really modern was to have the best possible infrastructure. So societies were really proud of hosting conversations when the city streets would be ripped open and people would be showing these new pipes and new roads. And they would allow people to walk over these crumbling pieces of sidewalk in a way that if that happened here, people would be terrified that somebody would sue.
And I find that that’s a really big difference. Like even in phobia about—there’s a definite phobia about lawsuits that operates—even in the water dispute site, I was talking to a journalist who recently passed away, who lived up in the Owens Valley. I said to her, “If there was one thing that you would like to see changed with the Department of Water and Power and the Owens Valley situation, what would it be?” She said she’d like them to stop their litigious behavior, that it was a waste of time and money. I thought that is really important to hear. So much of the energy of transformation is being subsumed into litigious behavior. So that was one thing I really got through my self-educating period around the globe is that not all countries are equally litigious, and that was a big, big difference.
Boom: That’s interesting. The other side of that question is, what did you bring back to California and the West from those experiences?
Bon: You know, really from my days as a college student, I’ve been interested in the collapse of the avant-garde and the relationship of the last century to this idea that to be totally modern meant to be working on a collective project, and that the whole of an avant-garde was that community of creative enterprise, and this mandate to be modern, and how that came about during the World Wars—so the relationship between destruction and art production and collectivity and art movements and an avant-garde. When I was a college student in the eighties, most of the smartest people would say very definitively that the avant-garde was dead. And I’ve tried to bring the avant-garde back to the West with me because I think about the West as still an open field for creative life. In other words, it’s very different in tone and temperament from the East Coast, which is much more referential to the art market and to Europe than the West Coast needs to be.
A lot of the reason why people come to Los Angeles is that it’s really possible to reinvent one’s self here and to define the terms of one’s engagement. And I’ve really worked on collectivity since I’ve been back. I’ve worked on demystifying art practice as the bastion of genius and tried to really support and incubate talent without a host of intermediaries that usually divide us so that we are not engaged with one another. The whole notion of collective engagement is something that I have focused on that really had its beginnings in my work at the Hereford Salon in London, where I brought artists together to work on what I called “work in progress.” The only thing that we wouldn’t show at the Hereford Salon or discuss is finished work. So the rule of thumb was, it had to be something you were stuck on or wanted to address.
Our work has intersected with a lot of different galleries and art museums. So in no way are we not wanting to engage with them. But at the same time, there’s a whole world of opportunity for creative life that we’ve tried to make tangible for people, so that when people come, they see it. We definitely, ten years into it, see how much it inspires especially young people to see that there’s another way of being an artist outside the traditional system.
Boom: Another thing that you seem to have brought back was a kind of artistic and a philanthropic practice that was based around projects.
Bon: You know, one of the things that we talked about is how Not A Cornfield was not a public art project, partly because there wasn’t an intermediary that made it happen. In a similar way, I can say that a lot of the work I do is not philanthropy because there’s no nonprofits involved. There’s no nonprofits that are involved with AgH20. So Silver and Water is not a normal practice of philanthropy whereby money is passed to a nonprofit for programming or capital campaigns. This is direct project-based philanthropy, which doesn’t exist, like the term I gave metabolic sculpture. I mean, you’re not going to go look it up in a book for my definition. But what it has meant is that I’ve been able to activate potentiality toward a nonprofit in places like Owens Valley. There is today a growers’ co-op in the Owens Valley that receives funding from other organizations that came about because of my soil production project.
Similarly in the Veterans Administration site in west LA, there was no nonprofit by which I could do Strawberry Flag and activate that site for anything new. So Strawberry Flag was a means by which potential could be grown. And now there is a new nonprofit, the Veterans Print Studio, that comes from the work that we did in turning art supplies we found in the basement of an under-purposed building into an art studio for veterans.
So in many ways, I’ve been able to, through the devices of wonder, like a strawberry aquaponic farm, learn a lot about how to catalyze potentiality toward the more traditional philanthropic approach.
So ten years in, a lot of the work is not as unusual as it was when I began, because we succeeded in growing the potentiality to support more traditional approaches. But what we’ve also done as a team is the Metabolic Studio. Since 2010, we’ve called ourselves the “Metabolic Studio,” and the Metabolic Studio is different from Not A Cornfield in one important regard and that is that the eighteen full-time employees of the Metabolic Studio share my trustee-hood in the Annenberg Foundation. So they are the philanthropists in the studio. I’ve decided in order to be able to focus my time on what I do best in this life, which is to make art and to organize community and to speak to power from my experience as an outsider, I need to be able to make sure that I have a team that is backing me up with the work that people do in making philanthropic decisions.
The Metabolic Studio is different from those earlier incarnations of my work in that that relationship is formalized. All the full-time people here are my trustee-hood manifest, so we work through that collaboratively. And I no longer function as a unique philanthropist in this city. I pass that on to the community that I work with. And we call that “citizen philanthropy” because the eighteen people who work here are not trained to do that job any more than I was. They are just living their lives, and they found themselves in this position. And we have trained ourselves to process that potentiality through our direct engagement with site, not through papers or applications or any of that. The foundation does that for us. So we are like the satellite to the foundation, a satellite that is operating on the ground and in places that are challenged in the absence of sufficient nonprofits to pass the money to. The demographics of philanthropy are often in cities, so when you move into places outside of cities, there can be a real drop in the opportunity for traditional philanthropy to be practiced. We really run into that question quite a lot.
Richard Nielsen and Tristan Duke using alternative chemistry on a Metabolic Studio Optics Division photograph.
Boom: That’s true in some cases in cities, too, though, like the Veterans Administration project, no? Tell us about that project.
Bon: In the year and a half that I worked on a daily basis at the VA of West LA, I learned about the complexity of creating the opportunity for paradigm shift. In the case of the VA, that means that land should stop being just a hospital. The VA of West LA is on land that was donated to the US government in 1888 by Arcadia de Baker, who owned all of the land in one hacienda between the beach in Malibu and downtown. And she gave choice land for recuperating veterans in perpetuity as a home. In the 1960s, the asset moved from being part of the Department of War to the Department of Veterans Affairs. There was no Department of Veterans Affairs before Vietnam.
When the asset was moved from one department to the other, it just ceased to be a home anymore. They built a new hospital. They moved all the functions out of the home. It’s now the most valuable asset in the VA chain. And it’s been a big puzzle for people for forty years about what to do with all of that land that was left undeveloped, underused in the midst of the largest homeless population for veterans in the country.
So the question as an artist was how to bring awareness to that, and Strawberry Flag was the answer. What we learned in the time it took to make that artwork became a lawsuit.
I realized that there was no nonprofit out there that protects veterans’ land use. There are nonprofits that deal with veterans who are homeless. But we’re talking specifically about land use. How do you make that land operate for the people it was left in trust for?
So the thing I was able to do when Strawberry Flag ended was write a lawsuit that showed how donor intention has been upheld in the court of law over time, and say, to begin with, that we would never sue the federal government. This was simply a lawsuit in case someone else wanted to sue the federal government, because I don’t want to be litigious. But the ACLU picked up that lawsuit and sued the federal government, and the result is, five years later, everybody in charge of the VA has been fired. And the whole thing has cracked open again for a discussion.
So what I’ve been able to do through my art practice is focus more incisively because I have time where I’m actually working on something—a lot of these projects are durational—to ascertain what can be done and what can’t be done to shift the paradigm and utilize my trustee-hood at the foundation to take those actions that I can take to move the agenda toward some kind of happier return.
Bubblers of Owens Lake Rehydration Project, 2012. Indexical image of the lake made with materials from the lake itself.
Boom: I want to come back to this phrase that “Artists must create on the same scale the society has the capacity to destroy.” A lot of your work in the last ten, fifteen years has gotten you involved with very big institutions like the VA, State Parks, the LADWP, the Army Corps of Engineers on the river. It seems that part of this practice has made you need to learn about these big institutions and how they operate and how they might change in order for the practice to succeed.
Bon: I think that’s true. Every one of the signature projects of the Metabolic Studio has had to engage with the structure that the land or the water is owned by and controlled by. In the case of Not A Cornfield, we were working directly with the State of California as well as the City of Los Angeles. So my role as an artist and private citizen and trustee of the Annenberg Foundation was, in a way, to build a bridge between the people of the state of California and an asset held in trust for them. And, therefore, the work cannot be classified as public art because it’s coming from a very different place.
Similarly, with the VA of West LA, that land is held in trust for veterans by the federal government. So even though it’s in Los Angeles, it actually has very little to do with the city of Los Angeles in terms of how it’s organized or run. It has its own police force. It has its own, essentially, mayor, who is the person in charge, and it’s like the Vatican. It’s a separate city within Los Angeles.
So, it’s partly because of my unusual practice at the intersection of art and philanthropy that I’ve been able to have these direct engagements that are usually not available for the general public, and to sometimes slowly, sometimes not so slowly, see change happen. I don’t think any of us thought there would be these massive transformations at the VA of West LA in five years since Strawberry Flag.
Boom: In order to create at the same scale that society has the capacity to destroy, the art has to engage with these big institutions.
Bon: Yeah. It has to become sympathetic with those agencies. When the LADWP agrees to allow the Metabolic Studio to walk 240 miles of aqueduct, something is happening systematically. That’s a first—that they opened up all of the gates to let those mules through. I think that’s an important consideration of the project—that we didn’t break their trust. They had a good experience for a public-private partnership. And part of what we were aiming to do for the centenary is also reframe the LADWP from being the villains of the water system that we have, to being an agency that’s doing a job, and is also the largest employer in the Owens Valley. So there is no human being who is the LADWP. It’s an agency. And it doesn’t do any good for us to continue to place the LADWP in the role of villains in a narrative they didn’t create.
The project was really about let’s try and move forward into a new century of thinking by looking at rehumanizing, reconnecting with the human beings who actually work at the LADWP, who are showing up every night for dinner as the mules pass through their section of the aqueduct, who show up and tell stories or bring a violin to play by a section of the pipe. Let’s allow this agency to be a series of individuals who like the benefits that the LADWP community gives them. I think it’s a good job. I think it’s a good service. It’s certainly one that we can’t do without right now, and it could be a lot worse. It could be a private system, and that would be worse.
So these are the kinds of things that each of these projects have been able to do—make small changes within the VA and create opportunities for a different VA, create different opportunities for a different California urban state park system, create opportunities for the LADWP to rethink its public face. And that’s where those intersections of the devices of wonder, which are the artworks, dovetail with my trustee-hood.
Boom: There’s always artistic authorship in all of these projects. There’s the really authentic and reciprocal engagement with community, with these institutions, but there’s also always your artistic vision that is important there.
Bon: The art is what’s driving the agenda. The art and the urgency. This is something that needs to happen. And they know that. Somebody has to be first. Somebody has to pierce that jacket and bring that water back into the city, and this is the best way to do it.
Boom: And if it’s based on the art, the agent here is the artist.
Bon: The water right I have for one hundred acre feet of wastewater that we pull from the river via La Noria is not a water right to a philanthropic organization. It is not for the Annenberg Foundation nor the Metabolic Studio. It’s my water right. As an individual, I applied for a water right in order to create a distribution network to share the water, without exchange of capital and without commodifying the water. I ascribe to the United Nation’s dictate that water is a human right. So just like I have shared my trustee-hood with the Metabolic Studio, I will share my water right at no capital cost to the people or organizations that will form the Delta of Mount Whitney. As human beings, we speak for all living things, all the animals, all the wildcats in these hills who need water too. That’s the big challenge.
Boom: Where do you see going from here?
Bon: Me personally or the project or the water?
Boom: You as an artist.
Bon: Oh. I don’t know. There’s so much to do. Right now, I’m forming a new country, the country of Rose, so I think that’s the next project.
Boom: Can you say more about this country? Where is it?
Bon: Well, to really try and understand what the waterwheel is and is not—it’s a drop in a bucket in a systemic collapse. The LA Aqueduct gave birth to the Hoover Dam, Lake Powell, the California Aqueduct. And because of the drought, we’re getting a glimpse into a system in crisis. Because whether or not there is a drought, we’re maxed out in terms of what we can do demographically with the amount of water we can move in the Intermountain West. So the country of Rose is an opposition that we need to reorganize, not around states, but around watersheds. It’s based on the idea that there are four basic watersheds in the country of Rose: the Columbia, the Colorado, the Rio Grande, and the water table of the ancient lakes Lahontan and Bonneville that run between Lake Tahoe and Salt Lake. The basic idea is that outmoded state boundaries don’t serve us anymore. And for metabolic processes to continue in the Intermountain West, we are going to need to reorganize around the protection of our watersheds as the primary purpose of all political organization.
Los Angeles and LA Aqueduct are just a small part of a system that’s all interrelated through its water. So when I really came to understand that, I realized that’s probably the next body of work. And that’s what I’m working on with the mule team packers for them to do a survey of Rose as a relay of all the packers in the Great Basin. We’re going to get them all involved.
One Hundred Mules Walking the Los Angeles Aqueduct, 2013. Penultimate trek with view of Los Angeles Skyline.
Panorama: Tales from San Francisco’s 1915 Pan-Pacific International Exposition, Lee Bruno (Cameron + Company, 191pp, $29.95) and San Francisco’s Jewel City: The Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915, Laura A. Ackley (Heyday, 352pp, $40.00)
A critical appreciation
by Elizabeth Logan
Why does the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition still captivate Californians? The centenary of the fair, which celebrated the construction of the Panama Canal, and showcased San Francisco’s reemergence after the 1906 earthquake and fires, has been greeted with much fanfare in the city including press coverage, museum exhibitions, a dramatic lighting of the Ferry Building, and several new books to mark the occasion. Two of those books, Lee Bruno’s Panorama: Tales from San Francisco’s 1915 Pan-Pacific International Exposition and Laura A. Ackley’s San Francisco’s Jewel City: The Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915, offer a kaleidoscope of possible explanations for this enduring interest.
The root of the authors’ fascination is simple to pinpoint. Lee Bruno’s Grandma Ruby piqued his interest early through the stories she shared about her father, Reuben Brooks Hale, a prominent San Francisco businessman and one of the exposition’s masterminds. For Laura Ackley, the draw was less familial; the exposition caught her attention as an undergraduate at Berkeley, where she attended a series of lectures on the Beaux-Arts built environment. Both authors highlight that the fair celebrated innovation, shifting geopolitical power, and commercial opportunity, and that it brought the world together just as it was being ripped apart by World War I.
The draw for Californians more broadly, may be in observing a recognizable past in California’s present. But perhaps collective interest in the fair’s centenary is also symptomatic of an increasingly complicated relationship with the ephemeral.
We live in an age in which we constantly encounter the paradoxical longevity of digital media. When we send an email, tweet, or post something on the Internet, our actions, comments, and photographic achievements endure in a virtual yet permanent space largely available for the world to explore. Even rapidly “vanishing” selfies on Snapchat can be stored forever. With Bay Area and Silicon Beach companies leading the charge toward greater and greater e-innovation, are Californians in the middle of the redefinition of what is considered ephemeral and ephemera? Does some of the fascination with a 100-year-old exposition stem from our own interest in the temporary and the fair’s momentary and fantastical qualities?
Panorama and San Francisco’s Jewel City both approach the exposition’s fleeting nature as well as the details of its day-to-day fanfare through photographs, postcards, tickets, pamphlets, and the written words of planners, visitors, and scholars.
Bruno’s Panorama consists of thirteen sections celebrating the 100-year-old narrative of a reemergent San Francisco and capturing short biographies of the exposition’s visionaries. The exposition springs to life through the story of “Big Alma” Spreckels, who arranged for five Rodin sculptures to travel by sea to San Francisco, and through the stories of builders, such as Bernard Maybeck, and visitors ranging from Helen Keller to Charlie Chaplin. Bruno painstakingly curated the images and created a visually attractive souvenir of the centennial. Panorama personalizes the exposition in a mesmerizing way, and the design and graphics impress.
San Francisco’s Jewel City, published in a partnership between Heyday and the California Historical Society,offers a detailed account of the fair, perhaps bested only in its breadth of coverage by Frank Morton Todd’s official five-volume history printed around the time of the exposition. Inserted within Ackley’s nineteen substantive chapters are vignettes set aside in gold and images of printed material fair-goers in 1915 could have hardly imagined would have survived 100 years. Ackley uses narrative to tell the history of the exposition, addressing even the darker “evils of the era” from eugenics to gender and labor battles. Ackley’s discussion of the important role that light played is particularly captivating, as when she describes the colorful light shows projected onto the fog by the Scintillator and the electric kaleidoscope—ephemeral illustrations of the modernity of the entire venture. For those seeking a comprehensive memento of the fair, San Francisco’s Jewel City provides a detailed and compelling account.
By printing some of the exposition’s ephemera and plotting the details of the exposition in print, these two works alter its very ephemeral nature. Just as bits of paper served as physical reminders of the exposition, the two books serve as souvenirs of its centennial. They help change the fair into something more durable that might attract more readers, tourists, anthropologists, historians, visual studies scholars, and collectors not just to these two books, but to the archives that house its sometimes dusty remnants. Expansions in digitization promise increased access to those who might reimagine the event from its remaining pieces. In today’s digital age, it makes a historian smile to see books continue to play such a vital role in this process.
If you wander San Francisco this weekend in search of remnants of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition or any of the many citywide centennial celebrations, your guidebook or iPhone might lead you to the Palace of Fine Arts, the remaining architectural gem from the 1915 exposition—but just start your search there. Keep going. Panorama, San Francisco’s Jewel City,and the city’s archives and libraries dare us to go a little further as we contemplate the ephemeral.
Elizabeth Logan is a historian and assistant editor of Boom. She is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West.
Photograph at top courtesy of the San Francisco Public Library.