In the summer of 2006, my family and I moved from the Bay Area to Los Angeles. Having grown up in the San Gabriel Valley for most of the 1980s, technically I was moving back to L.A. But like many kids living in the ‘burbs, I had no real sense of “The City.” I knew about the world within my three-mile BMX biking radius, but every other neighborhood was just a name on a Thomas Guide page. Coming back after 16 years meant re-learning Los Angeles from the ground up: Its tempos and temperaments, its tangle of mini-metropoles, its physical and cultural terrains.
I decided to let my stomach lead. I’ll go a long way for good food, so I began to ease myself back into L.A.’s geography by chasing meals in whatever corners I had to. That meant, inevitably, turning to Jonathan Gold.
Gold began writing about Los Angeles restaurants in the mid-1980s (when he wasn’t busy profiling N.W.A), but I had no idea about any of this as a kid. By the time I came across his “Counter Intelligence” columns in that ’06 summer, he had already been writing them for nearly twenty years. No matter: Both in the newspaper and in his 2000 compendium by the same name, his reviews felt like a revelation.
It wasn’t simply that Gold was a gifted writer, though he absolutely was. His Los Angeles Times colleague Carolina Miranda said it best when she wrote that his reviews “were both erudite and joyous—his glee over a good dish was always infectious.” Seriously, tell me this passage from his 2012 guide to Koreatown dishes doesn’t make you want to immediately run out to Vermont Avenue: “hwe dup bap is one of those dishes where each bite is subtly varied in spice, marine savor and green crunch, with the smelt roe crackling under your teeth, the raw fish melting into the hot rice.”
There was always a palpable exuberance in Gold’s attempts to relate the sensory experience of eating a meal. Yet more than just how Gold wrote about food, what made him so important, so indispensable to the city, is where he went looking for it.
He wanted to embrace its complexity and contradictions. Everything that others find off-putting and unruly about the city is where he found kaleidoscopic, resplendent beauty.
One of the stories Gold liked to tell audiences was how in his early twenties, before his days as a food writer, he decided to explore every eatery along Pico Boulevard, beginning at a downtown pupuseria and moving west, intending to end at a Santa Monica burger shack. If you’re not familiar with the thoroughfare, it’s a rather prosaic 14-mile stretch that runs through a dizzying number of neighborhoods, including Pico-Union, Koreatown, Beverlywood, Rancho Park, etc. No one street can possibly contain all the multitudes of the many Los Angeleses out there but if you wanted an inkling of the Southland’s overlapping, distinct, and disparate communities, you could do worse than a Pico perambulation.
Gold never made it all the way to the beach, but he got two-thirds the way there, and more than anything the attempt alone says much about the insatiable curiosity that gripped him when it came to understanding food and place. In 1998, he wrote a Counter Intelligence column recounting, “The Year I Ate Pico Boulevard.” It’s one of his very best pieces—which is saying a lot—and this passage is worth quoting in all its giddy, run-on glory:
Pico is home to Valentino, which specializes in preparing customized Italian food for millionaires, and to Oaxacan restaurants so redolent of the developing world that you half expect to see starved chickens scratching around on the floor; to Billingsley’s, a steak house, which could have been transplanted whole from Crawfordsville, Indiana, and to the Arsenal, a steak house decorated with medieval weaponry; to chain Mexican restaurants, artist-hangout Mexican restaurants and Mexican restaurants of such stunning authenticity that you’re surprised not to stumble outside into a bright Guadalajara sun. Greek and Scandinavian delis still flourish on stretches of Pico that haven’t been Greek or Scandinavian since the Eisenhower administration.
It’s all there: Gold’s gift for deep description, the rhythmic pulse of his writing, and most of all, an earnest ethos of inclusion and exploration. He wasn’t trying to sum up Los Angeles in a tidy turn of phrase. He wanted to embrace its complexity and contradictions. Everything that others find off-putting and unruly about the city is where he found kaleidoscopic, resplendent beauty.
More than any other part of L.A., though, I always saw Gold as the champion of the San Gabriel Valley, a massive swath of neighborhoods that begin near the L.A. River and sweep eastward towards the Inland Empire. Gold and his family lived in the SGV—Pasadena to be exact—for decades, not far from where I grew up. Back in the 1980s, I don’t recall any of my friends ever bragging about coming from “The SGV” let alone wearing “626” emblazoned on a t-shirt (this was still the 213/818 era at the time).
By the mid/late 20-aughts, this had changed as a younger generation were now claiming the SGV like it was Brooklyn or East Oakland. Much of that pride is rooted in the region’s astounding food cultures, a result of decades of Asian and Latinx immigrant communities settling across its dozens of cities. The critical masses of those diasporas meant that restaurants could cater to palates not yet assimilated by anodyne American tastes; that reality is what drew Gold, again and again, to explore the SGV’s myriad offerings.
His columns became completely indispensable for me coming back to what I thought were my old haunts, only to realize I had never really explored the region at all. Through Gold, I ended up in more Valley Blvd. and Garvey Blvd. strip malls than I can remember, chasing Taiwanese beef noodle soup in San Gabriel, Vietnamese bun bo hue in South El Monte, Xinjiang cumin lamb ribs in Rosemead, Guerrero-style lamb barbacoa in Highland Park. The day he passed, I happened to be on Valley for dinner and I knew that if I just strolled around one single block, I could find at least half a dozen restaurants with his review turned into a plaque on their wall.
I also thought about one of my favorite memories of Gold’s influence: my parents, who still live in the SGV house I lived in during high school, invited me and my family out to dinner at one of the newer Sichuan restaurants to recently land in Alhambra. My parents, while they eat out on occasion, have never been on the front lines of trends so I asked them how they heard about the restaurant. As it turns out, my dad’s best friends Peter and Alice had taken them there previously. But that couple lived out in Pacific Palisades, on the other, far side of town. “So,” I asked, “how did they learn about this place?” It turns out they had read a review of it… in the Los Angeles Times. And sure enough, I glanced towards the lobby and there was a framed review with a byline for Jonathan Gold.
“So,” I asked, “how did they learn about this place?” It turns out they had read a review of it… in the Los Angeles Times. And sure enough, I glanced towards the lobby and there was a framed review with a byline for Jonathan Gold.
An easy way to understand the uniqueness of Gold’s culinary geography of Los Angeles is found by comparing his orientations to those of many of his colleagues. Pick up any older, middlebrow guide to “food in Los Angeles,” and it’s as if there is no L.A. south of the 10 or east of the 5. We’re not talking about “pockets” of the region being skipped over. We’re talking about massive geographic and demographic parts of the Southland rendered invisible. Gold was astutely aware of all this. In one of the most oft-quoted parts from the acclaimed 2015 documentary about him, City of Gold, he says, “you’re used to having your city explained to you by people who come in for a couple of weeks, stay at a hotel in Beverly Hills, and take in what they can get to within ten minutes of their rented car.” Perhaps he was too polite to add that those myopic “explainers” also included people from L.A., not just out-of-town Zagat editors. Case in point: I recently picked up the annual “best of” issue of a long-running Los Angeles magazine and in their food section, out of twenty-five primary entries, only one was located in the SGV and absolutely none in either South or Southeast Los Angeles.
It may seem odd to say this about a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic who worked for two of the area’s biggest newspapers but in his thirty-two years of food writing for the Los Angeles Times and LA Weekly, Gold created a definitive alternative guide to Southland food culture, one in which East Hollywood mattered as much as West Hollywood, where Huntington Park and Monterey Park carried greater cachet than Hancock Park, and where Koreatown could be more interesting and vibrant than downtown. As Danny Chau wrote for The Ringer, “there is no one true Los Angeles. Perhaps the closest we’ve ever gotten to finding that core is the vision of L.A. through the eyes, ears, and stomach of Jonathan Gold.”
For all these reasons, it’s impossible to deny fellow food critic Gustavo Arellano’s claim that Gold was “one of our greatest and most important literary voices” because “our food in his hands became the prism through which outsiders could finally see the real SoCal.” Gold wasn’t simply a consummate food writer, he was also a quintessential Los Angeles writer, using meals as a way to probe and comment on the city’s innumerable frictions and fantasias. The inevitable—and necessary—Jonathan Gold anthologies and readers that will come are likely to cement what many of us already know: Gold’s writing has shaped a collective idea of Los Angeles to rival those of earlier scribes such as Reyner Banham, Joan Didion, or Mike Davis.
Importantly though, as Chau insists, “the vision of Gold’s true L.A. doesn’t belong to any one person.” It would be, of course, hubristic folly to assume that an individual could replace Gold as a singular figure. But Gold had transformed the entire landscape of food writing here long before his passing. His influence isn’t only reflected in individual writers who work in the same milieu but it’s embedded in the public imagination of how we think and talk about food in the Southland, whether that comes in the form of a high-production documentaries on immigrant restauranteurs in L.A. or random strangers debating soup dumplings on a message board. Jonathan Gold didn’t “discover” a Los Angeles that no one else knew about, but column after column he built us new maps to help navigate it. In his time, too brief it truly was, his lasting gift was to invite us into his city of Gold and so we could find different ways to break bread within it, together.
 Gold began his career not as a food critic but as a music critic and journalist. His profile of N.W.A, for the LA Weekly is still considered one of the important, early examples of West Coast rap journalism. Jonathan Gold, “NWA: Hard Rap and Hype From the Streets of Compton,” LA Weekly, 5 May 1989, www.laweekly.com/news/jonathan-gold-meets-nwa-2385365.
 In the 2015 documentary, City of Gold, Gold describes Los Angeles this way: “the thing that people find hard to understand is the magnitude of what’s here. The huge numbers of multiple cultures that live in the city that come together in this beautiful and haphazard fashion. And the fault lines between them are sometimes where you can find the most beautiful things.” City of Gold, directed by Laura Gabbert, 2015.
 Wendy Cheng, The Changs next Door to the Diazes: Remapping Race in Suburban California (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013).
 “The Migrant Kitchen” is a documentary series about food and immigrant communities in Los Angeles. Food Talk Central is a message board with a robust sub-section devoted to Los Angeles restaurants. The Migrant Kitchen, KCET, 2016, Food Talk Central, http://foodtalkcentral.com/c/usa-west/los-angeles.
Oliver Wang is a professor of sociology at California State University, Long Beach and co-editor of Journal of Popular Music Studies. He writes about culture, music, and food for KCET, the Los Angeles Times, the Los Angeles Review of Books and National Public Radio.
According to Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson was “the only twentieth-century equivalent of Mark Twain.”1 Wolfe’s comparison was meant to feature Thompson as a humorist, but biographical similarities also linked the two writers. Both Twain and Thompson arrived in San Francisco as obscure journalists, thrived on the city’s anarchic energies, and departed as national figures. Exactly one hundred years after Twain left San Francisco, Thompson moved to Colorado and created his most extravagant character: himself. The signature works that followed—along with his drug and alcohol consumption, gun fetish, and “fortified compound”—are strongly associated with Woody Creek, where he lived until his suicide in 2005. But if Thompson’s celebrity was a Colorado phenomenon, his literary formation played out in San Francisco during what he called “a Main Era—the kind of peak that never comes again.”2 That peak helped Thompson invent not only a literary genre, but also himself.
Thompson’s self-fashioning unfolded in stages. In 1960, he set off on a Beat-style cross-country drive that ended in Seattle. From there, he hitchhiked to San Francisco, where he visited City Lights Bookstore and other Beat shrines. After failing to find work, Thompson decamped for Big Sur, the Beat hangout and home of novelist Henry Miller, a major influence. (Although he staked out Miller’s mailbox, he never met his idol.) After two years of travel, Thompson moved to the Sonoma County town of Glen Ellen, home of Jack London, before settling with his wife and infant son at 318 Parnassus Avenue, not far from Haight-Ashbury. Scratching out a living as a freelance journalist, he covered the 1964 GOP convention at the Cow Palace and wrote an unpublished review of Tom Wolfe’s The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (1965). Editorial quarrels over the coverage of the convention and the Wolfe review led to his split from The National Observer, his primary outlet at the time.
Photograph of Hunter S. Thompson in the Hotel Jerome by David Hiser.
In January 1965, a destitute Thompson pitched story ideas to Carey McWilliams, then editor of The Nation. Before moving to New York City from Los Angeles in the 1950s, McWilliams had produced a stream of first-rate books and articles that established him as California’s shrewdest observer. His history of California farm labor, Factories in the Field (1939), impressed Thompson, who was compiling his own photographs for a book project called The Californians.3 Thompson’s query letter to The Nation, which referred to McWilliams as “an old California hand,” played to that expertise. Thompson’s first story idea was about “the final collapse of the myth of San Francisco.” In his view, the city’s personality had gone from “neurotic to paranoid to what now looks like the first stages of a catatonic fit.” His fallback ideas were stories about Governor Pat Brown’s budget proposals and a job his wife had taken as a telephone solicitor for a dance studio. What would happen, Thompson wondered, if a black customer accepted the telephone offer? He imagined the dilemma of a hypothetical and hard-pressed solicitor: “Will Sally make the sale and chance the ultimate disaster—a coon showing up at the studio—or will she somehow ascertain the pigment, then do her duty and queer her only sale?”4
McWilliams would not have welcomed the racial epithets in the query letter. Indeed, his earlier work on racial discrimination earned him an interview with the state legislature’s Committee on Un-American Activities in California in 1943. Committee chair Jack Tenney quizzed McWilliams about his views on interracial marriage, which was still illegal in California. McWilliams, who was serving in state government at the time, said he thought the law should be abolished. Tenney later reported that McWilliams’s views were “identical with [sic] Communist Party ideology.”5
In his reply to Thompson, McWilliams suggested a piece about the Hells Angels motorcycle gang, which Thompson eagerly accepted. McWilliams’s editorial intervention turned out to be life-changing. Shortly after that article appeared, Thompson had a book contract with Random House and spent the next eighteen months researching and writing his first-person account of life with the motorcycle gang. Dedicated to McWilliams, Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga was Thompson’s first bestseller, a parade example of New Journalism and a shrewd critique of the mainstream media. For the rest of his career, McWilliams was the one editor whom he consistently and unhesitatingly admired. Throughout the 1960s, he wrote McWilliams almost weekly on a variety of topics. “More than any other person, Carey was responsible for the success of Hell’s Angels,” Thompson later acknowledged. “He encouraged me around every bend.”6
As Hell’s Angels made its way into the world, Thompson met Warren Hinckle, editor of Ramparts magazine. Founded in 1962 as a Catholic literary quarterly in Menlo Park, Ramparts had become an award-winning San Francisco muckraker that ran bombshell stories on Vietnam, the CIA, and the Black Panthers. Thompson, who was listed as a contributing editor but never wrote for the magazine, admired Hinckle’s swashbuckling style.
I met [Hinckle] through his magazine, Ramparts. I met him before Rolling Stone ever existed. Ramparts was a crossroads of my world in San Francisco, a slicker version of The Nation—with glossy covers and such. Warren had a genius for getting stories that could be placed on the front page of The New York Times. He had a beautiful eye for what story had a high, weird look to it. You know, busting the Defense Department—Ramparts was real left, radical. I paid a lot of attention to them and ended up being a columnist.7
A Thompson visit to the Ramparts office, where Hinckle kept a capuchin monkey named Henry Luce, quickly became legend. The two men left for drinks and returned to find Thompson’s backpack open, pills of various colors strewn across the floor, and a deranged Henry Luce racing around the office. He was rushed to the veterinarian’s office to have his stomach pumped. An unsympathetic Thompson later wrote to Hinckle, “That fucking monkey should be killed—or at least arrested—on general principles.”8
Thompson’s 1966 move to Colorado re-created the bucolic bohemianism of Big Sur, but he attended the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago with Hinckle and his colleagues. He told his editor at Random House that his Ramparts contacts assured him that “all manner of hell is going to break loose” in Chicago.9 It was another turning point for Thompson, who was appalled by the police violence he witnessed there. Scampering from agitated officers on Michigan Avenue, Thompson found two cops posted outside his hotel blocking his retreat. As he recalled in a letter, “I finally just ran between the truncheons, screaming, ‘I live here, goddamnit! I’m paying fifty dollars a day!’” The experience rattled even a seasoned reporter who thrived on action. “I went from a state of Cold Shock on Monday, to Fear on Tuesday, then Rage, and finally Hysteria—which lasted for nearly a month,” he later wrote.10 Having built his reputation covering the Hells Angels, San Francisco hippies, and student radicals in Berkeley, he began to target what he saw as the corruption and violence of mainstream American politics. “I went to the Democratic convention as a journalist and returned a raving beast,” he later told a fellow journalist.11
To cover the convention and the mayhem outside its walls, Hinckle produced the RampartsWall Poster, which reported on the convention and related street activities. The posters were single full-folio sheets whose title and format recalled the publications of Mao Zedong’s Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution. (The motto for the RampartsWall Poster was “Up Against the Wall.”) Two years later, Thompson lifted the idea during his campaign for sheriff in Pitkin County, Colorado. He promised to send Hinckle a copy of his Aspen Wallposter. “And if the Wallposter name rings a bell,” he wrote Hinckle, “well, I’ll never deny it.”12
When Ramparts filed for bankruptcy in January 1969, Hinckle left to start a new magazine called Scanlan’s. In its first issue, he ran a Thompson piece, rejected by Playboy, on skier Jean-Claude Killy. Thompson focused on the difficulty of writing the story, which would become a major theme in his work. While preparing the piece, he was accompanied by Boston Globe writer Bill Cardoso. Thompson wrote Cardoso into the story, and the presence of a companion would become another signature theme. Later, Cardoso coined the term “Gonzo” to describe Thompson’s work.
Thompson was grateful that Hinckle published the Killy article, but he was unhappy with the magazine’s design. “Graphically, it was a fucking horror show,” he wrote to Hinckle. “It looks like it was put together by a compositor’s apprentice with a head full of Seconal.” He especially disliked the illustrations that accompanied the Killy article. “On lesser fronts, I want to impose a condition on anything I may or may not sell you in the future—to wit: That any ‘cartoon/illustration’ by Jim Nutt will not be allowed within 15 pages on either side of my byline.”13 When Thompson offered to cover the 1970 Kentucky Derby for Scanlan’s, Hinckle paired him with Welsh illustrator Ralph Steadman, whose drawings became the visual counterpart to Thompson’s extravagant prose. After the Derby, Steadman recalled that Thompson was concerned. “This whole thing will probably finish me as a writer,” he said. “I have no story.”14 Later, he confided to Steadman that the article was “useless, aside from the flashes of style & tone it captures.” The illustrations, on the other hand, were fine, and he proposed another collaboration. “I’d like nothing better than to work with you on another one of those savage binges again, & to that end I’ll tell my agent to bill us as a package—for good or ill.”15
Poster by Thomas W. Benton, courtesy of Gonzo Gallery.
Widely considered the first example of Gonzo journalism, “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved” wasn’t the career-killer that Thompson initially feared. Writing to Hinckle in July 1970, Thompson proposed “a series of Ky. Derby-style articles (with Steadman) on things like the Super Bowl, Times Sq. on New Year’s eve, Mardi Gras, the Masters (golf) Tournament, the America’s Cup, Christmas Day with the Chicago Police, Grand National Rodeo in Denver…rape them all, quite systematically and then we could sell it as a book: ‘Amerikan Dreams.…’” The idea, in brief, was to “travel around the country and shit on everything.”16 Thompson thought the “Rape Series on Amerikan Institutions,” which Hinckle wanted to call the Thompson-Steadman Report, was a “king-bitch dog-fucker of an idea.” He and Steadman “could go almost anywhere & turn out a series of articles so weird & frightful as to stagger every mind in journalism.”17
Although the circulation for Scanlan’s reached 150,000 within six months, it tanked after eight issues, and Thompson again needed a suitable outlet. Now settled in Colorado, he began writing for Rolling Stone, an upstart San Francisco magazine that focused on the counterculture and its music. Its cofounders, Jann Wenner and San Francisco Chronicle music columnist Ralph J. Gleason, were both Ramparts alumni, but Hinckle laid off Wenner and infuriated Gleason by writing “A Social History of the Hippies” a few months before the Summer of Love. Nevertheless, Wenner lifted design elements from Ramparts and used the Ramparts office to mock up the first issue, which appeared November 1967.
Thompson began contributing to Rolling Stone the following October, but his next major work was a long piece on a motorcycle race and National District Attorney’s Association meeting that he and Los Angeles attorney Oscar Acosta attended in Las Vegas. Sports Illustrated rejected the article, whose word count far exceeded the editor’s request, and Wenner agreed to run it as a two-part feature in Rolling Stone with Steadman’s illustrations. Thompson used the byline Raoul Duke, the “well-worn pseudonym” he had used to acquire weapons while running for Pitkin County sheriff.18 The book version went to Random House, which published Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in 1972. Tom Wolfe’s blurb described the book as “a scorching, epochal sensation,” and it became Thompson’s Gonzo masterpiece. By that time, Thompson had been named chief of Rolling Stone’s National Affairs Desk. His reporting on the 1972 presidential election appeared in the magazine and was collected for Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72. Straight Arrow Books, another Wenner creation, published the book version in 1973.
Although Gonzo journalism is synonymous with Thompson’s output, the term masks his greatest achievement. From the beginning, Thompson considered himself a novelist and modeled himself on Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner. Whenever necessary, he shrugged off journalism’s protocols to supercharge his prose. “Fiction is a bridge to truth that journalism can’t reach,” he told an editor at Knopf. “Facts are lies when they’re added up.”19 That perspective wasn’t lost on his contemporaries. Political strategist Frank Mankiewicz observed that Thompson’s description of the 1972 presidential race was “the most accurate and least factual account of the campaign.”20 Likewise, novelist William Kennedy noted that his longtime friend seemed to be writing journalism while actually developing his fictional oeuvre. When his Random House editor asked whether Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was journalism or fiction, Thompson offered a lengthy reply questioning the distinction. In his view, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, which he described as “a long rambling piece of personal journalism,” was “the first big breakthrough on this front.”21 Wenner was less interested in such generic distinctions, and though Thompson complained privately about writing for a magazine preoccupied with what the Jackson 5 had for breakfast, Rolling Stone made him a celebrity. His notoriety even gave rise to a cartoon character, Uncle Duke in Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1975. Although Thompson resented Trudeau’s invention, it amplified his fame.
Poster by Thomas W. Benton, courtesy of Gonzo Gallery.
Fifty years after the publication of Thompson’s key works, and more than a decade after his death, Thompson is still regarded primarily as a celebrity. Yet there is a great deal of evidence to support his own claim, made to a Vietnamese colonel in 1975, that he was “one of the best writers currently using the English language as both a musical instrument and a political weapon.”22 Four separate developments combined to push Thompson beyond traditional journalism. The first was his experience in Chicago while covering the 1968 Democratic National Convention, which transformed his understanding of American politics and stoked his outrage. The second was his pairing with Ralph Steadman, whose illustrations were an indispensable part of Gonzo’s success. Third was Thompson’s idea to produce a string of stories in the mold of the Kentucky Derby piece. Although the Thompson-Steadman Report never came off at Scanlan’s, Thompson produced Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in its image. The final factor was Thompson’s decision to write that landmark book in the voice of Raoul Duke. It was an attempt, he later told Tom Wolfe, to prevent the “grey little cocksuckers who run things” from “drawing that line between Journalism and Fiction.”23
Well before Thompson visited Chicago, however, his literary formation was almost complete. “San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of,” he wrote in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. “Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run…but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world.”24 Thompson’s transformation required well-placed supporters and allies, and he was exceptionally fortunate to have worked with three California editors who shared his dissatisfaction with mainstream American journalism. McWilliams’s guidance, Hinckle’s audacity, and Wenner’s feeling for the countercultural zeitgeist were essential parts of Thompson’s self-creation. Unlike Twain, Thompson didn’t invent a new name for himself during his San Francisco sojourn; but much like his precursor, he left the city with everything he needed to become one of his generation’s most distinctive voices.
Thompson has at least one notable successor today. Matt Taibbi is profane, outlandish, scornful, and funny, and the Gonzo influence, especially in his early work, is unmistakable. His first solo book, Spanking the Donkey: On the Campaign Trail with the Democrats (2005), was an updated version of Thompson’s Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72. Taibbi even itemized the contents of his car trunk, as Thompson did at the beginning of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It was therefore fitting that Taibbi became a contributing editor at Rolling Stone following the book’s publication. After winning a National Magazine Award in 2008, he took on Goldman Sachs, the investment bank that he described as “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”25 But Taibbi did more than impugn the Wall Street giant; he also explained its complicated hustles to general readers. That combination of bombast and clear explication made his claims increasingly difficult to ignore or refute. Wenner now regards Taibbi as “absolutely the first person to come along since Hunter who could be called Hunter’s peer.”26
After Rolling Stone moved to New York City in 1977, Mother Jones became the standard-bearer for San Francisco independent journalism. Its founders—Adam Hochschild, Richard Parker, and Paul Jacobs—were Ramparts veterans, and their premier issue in 1976 won a National Magazine Award. If Rolling Stone inherited Ramparts’ id, Mother Jones has continued its knack for producing big whistleblower stories. In 2012, David Corn reported on GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s closed-door remarks about 47 percent of American voters being overly dependent on the government. That piece drew an awkward apology from Romney and earned Mother Jones the prestigious George Polk Award. Earlier this year, Mother Jones published Shane Bauer’s 35,000-word story about working for a private prison in Louisiana. Its website received two million hits in the first twelve hours, larger outlets picked up the story, and the Department of Justice later announced that it would no longer contract with private prisons.
It is unclear whether or how San Francisco might launch the next literary celebrity. The city today is increasingly dominated by high-tech corporations whose products have shattered the business models for American journalism and publishing. Despite these challenges, San Francisco outlets continue to occupy a distinct niche in today’s media ecology. From the Gold Rush on, the city’s writers have challenged the political and literary status quo with style. Despite his short sojourn in San Francisco, Hunter Thompson occupies a special place in that alternative tradition.
Poster by Thomas W. Benton, courtesy of Gonzo Gallery.
Jann S. Wenner and Corey Seymour, Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson (New York: Back Bay Books, 2008), 436.
Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (New York: Random House, 1972; 2d ed. Vintage Books, 1998), 66.
William McKeen, Outlaw Journalist: The Life and Times of Hunter S. Thompson (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008), 94.
Hunter S. Thompson, The Proud Highway: The Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman (New York: Villard Books, 1997), 481.
Peter Richardson, American Prophet: The Life and Work of Carey McWilliams (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2005), 128.
Peter Richardson coordinates the American Studies and California Studies programs at San Francisco State University. He has written critically acclaimed books about the Grateful Dead, Ramparts magazine, and Carey McWilliams.
The 128th Tournament of Roses Parade stepped-off on Monday morning, January 2, beneath overcast skies and temperatures in the low fifties. It was not the best climate that the parade has enjoyed in its long history but still better than weather in most homes throughout the United States watching the Pasadena festivities on television. It was certainly far better than weather outside my house in central Pennsylvania–slate grey skies, temperatures in the low thirties, and freezing rain mixed with just plain cold rain. As I watched the spectacle I wished I could spend the winter in Pasadena, but settled for putting another log on the blaze in my den. For more than a century the Rose Parade has been holding such visions of California as a mid-winter paradise in front of snow-and-ice bound denizens of the industrial and agricultural heartlands of the United States.
In 2017 the Rose Parade doubled as an advertisement not only for California as the American grail of idyllic living but for the quest of Los Angeles to garner a third Olympic spectacle. The City of Los Angeles float, “Follow the Sun,” featured a flowery recreation of the Los Angeles Coliseum on which former Olympians and Paralympians cavorted. Gymnasts Bart Connor, an American hero of the 1984 Los Angeles games, and Nadia Comaneci, an all-time great who after her Olympian career immigrated from Romania to the U.S. and later married Connor, waved to the crowd from the front of the float. Anita DeFrantz, a bronze-medalist in rowing in 1976, an American member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and one of the leaders of the LA 2024 waved alongside the gymnasts. Olympic volley-ballers, including beach volleyball stars April Ross and Holly McPeak, played a match in the center of the float. Lex Gillette, a blind Paralympian who won three silver medals in the long jump, saluted the crowd from the rear of the float as did LA 2024 vice-chairwoman Candace Cable, who competed in nine Paralympics and earned eight gold, two silver, and two bronze medals in both summer and winter events.
Right behind the City of Los Angeles’ promotion of the LA 2024 Olympic bid came the trio of grand marshals—three former Olympians with deep roots in Southern California, Allyson Felix, Janet Evans, and Greg Louganis. Felix, a Los Angeles native, won six gold medals and three silver medals in a variety of sprints over four Olympics from 2004 to 2016. Louganis won four gold medals and one silver medal in diving over three Olympics from 1976 to 1988, including double-gold at Los Angeles in 1984. Evans won four gold medals and one silver medal in swimming in an Olympic career stretching from 1988 to 1996. The Tournament of Roses selected the trio in concert with LA 2024 leadership to promote the bid effort. Indeed, Evans serves as a member of the leadership team for the bid, and Louganis and Felix join Evans on the LA 2024 Athletes’ Committee. The three Olympians embodied the 2017 parade theme, “Echoes of Success,” showcasing that American Olympic prowess emerges from a variety of different backgrounds and experiences.
While some might interpret the choice of the three—Evans, a woman; Felix, an African American woman; and Louganis, an openly gay bi-racial man of Samoan and Swedish heritage who made a post-Olympic career of fighting for LGBTQ causes as a California commentary on America in the age of Trump—they were in fact announced as marshals a few days before the 2016 presidential election when most pundits and pollsters confidently predicted a different result in the race than what eventually transpired. Louganis, Felix, and Evans appeared at the gala heralding their selection with “Sam the Eagle,” the old mascot of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. They also fit neatly into a much older tradition of using American Olympians to celebrate ethnic, racial, gender, class, and other categories of diversity—one that stretches back to the earliest interpretations of American performance at the origins of the modern Olympic movement. This persistent and popular deployment of American Olympians as symbols of some sort of heterogeneous “melting pot” as a key to the national success in international competition has never been a partisan position in American politics. Instead, liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats, the ardent left and the fervent right have cheered U.S. Olympic teams as signifiers of equality and meritocracy. From Theodore Roosevelt (Republican) and Woodrow Wilson (Democrat) to Ronald Reagan (Republican) and Bill Clinton (Democrat), American political leaders have long embraced Olympians to promote their visions how diversity has promoted American exceptionalism.
While ideologues of a wide variety of stripes have used American Olympic diversity to combat the extremes of nativism that have historically waxed and waned in American culture, had the LA 2024 bid committee and the Tournament of Roses Association really wanted to send a message about the contributions of immigrants to American prowess they could have selected a triumvirate of immigrant American Olympian grand marshals that included Lopez Lomong, a Sudanese “lot boy” migrant who carried the flag for the U.S. at the 2008 Beijing games; Meb Keflezighi, an Eritrean refugee whose family relocated to the U.S. when he was a boy and later became the silver medalist in the marathon at Athens in 2004; and Southern California’s own Olga Fikotová, who won a gold medal for Czechoslovakia in the 1956 Olympics, married her American sweetheart Harold Connolly, migrated to Santa Monica, and served as the U.S. flag-bearer in the 1972 Munich Olympics. Had the engineers of the 2024 Los Angeles bid sought to express solidarity with the LGBQT community they could have chosen U.S. soccer gold medalist Megan Rapinoe and U.S. basketball gold medalist Elena Delle Donne to serve alongside Louganis.
But the LA 2024 and Tournament of Roses collaboration was not designed to promote alternative political or social visions. It was crafted to sell Southern California to the nation and the world as an Olympian paradise, a California dreamscape that would be ideal host for the world’s most spectacular sporting event. Such collaborations between sporting magnates and boosters of Southern California lifestyles have an ancient–by California standards–history, stretching back into the late nineteenth century. The Rose Parade and Los Angeles’ multiple Olympic bids have their genesis in the idea of using sporting spectacles to sell California to the world.
Like many Southern California traditions, the Tournament of Roses Parade began as a promotion for a real estate development. In 1890 the well-heeled members of Pasadena’s Valley Hunt Club, most of them transplants from the high society environs of New York City, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, St. Louis, and other established metropolises, came up with the idea for a Tournament of Roses to advertise their majestic mid-winter environs to snow-bound relatives and neighbors in their former hometowns. They planned a retro medieval-style tournament that featured a mixture of modern and antiquated equestrian events, from jousts to polo matches. With an abundance of mid-winter flowers in bloom, they kicked-off their well-bred extravaganza with a parade that featured horse-drawn carriages garnished with bountiful blossoms cut from local gardens. So began the Rose Parade, an annual event held ever since to promote Southern California as the sun-dappled, affluence-blessed lifestyle capital of the United States—the sweetest slice of the American dream.
Early Tournaments of Roses showcased the athletic and aesthetic sensibilities of the country club set. Dr. Charles Frederick Holder, a former curator of the American Museum of Natural History and the scion of a prominent Boston family who had retired to Pasadena to take advantage of local sport fishing opportunities, led the charge as the first president of the Tournament of Roses Association. In addition to the parade and equestrian sports, Holder sprinkled in a few other athletic events, including footraces and tugs-of-war. American football, a game that originated during the 1870s as primer in manhood at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and the other finishing schools of the country-club set, joined the Tournament of Roses festivities in 1902. The University of Michigan trounced Stanford University in the inaugural tilt between gridiron gladiators. In spite of the overflow crowd that turned out for the game, football would not return to the festivities until 1916. In its stead, in 1904 the Tournament of Roses added chariot races, inspired by best-selling novel Ben-Hur, that sought to evoke the neo-imperial grandeur of Rome in modern America. The chariot contests ultimately proved too expensive and too dangerous, much as they had for the Roman Empire, and disappeared in 1915. Football returned the following year. The Rose Bowl gridiron matches have proved more enduring than the chariot races and remain a Tournament of Roses staple that neither danger nor expense has yet curtailed.
From the outset grand marshals led the parades that started the Tournament of Roses festivities. Early marshals were elite sportsmen drawn from the leadership of the festival’s sponsor, the Valley Hunt Club, including Professor Holder and his cronies. By the end of the 1920s the Southern California boosters turned to celebrity marshals to generate national publicity for the parade. Hollywood actors, military heroes, politicians, astronauts, and other American luminaries dotted the roster of parade leaders. Many had California connections, from Jimmy Stewart (1982) to Kermit the Frog (1996) to Earl Warren (1943, 1955). Others, from John Glenn (1990) to Dr. Jane Goodall (2013) to Gerald Ford (1978), were national figures without any obvious California linkage. The Tournament of Roses selection committee probably came to regret a few of the choices in light of later scandals—Paula Deen (2011), Bill Cosby (2003), and Richard Nixon (1953, 1960) spring to mind. Athletes have figured prominently on the grand marshal roster. The veteran voice of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Vin Scully, led the parade in 2014. Jackie Robinson, the man who broke the color line in major league baseball, received a posthumous nod in 1999. The last major leaguer to begin his career, like Robinson, in the Negro Leagues got the Rose Parade nod the year after he overcome a mountain of racist venom from angry white fans and broke the all-time major league home run record: “Hammerin’ Hank” Aaron led the parade through Pasadena in 1975. Golfers Juan “Chi Chi” Rodriguez (1995) and Arnold Palmer (1965) served as grand marshals, as have global soccer legend Pelé (1987), football player and announcer Merlin Olsen (1983), and legendary football coach Amos Alonzo Stagg (1944)—although in Stagg’s long tenure his teams never played in a Rose Bowl.
The 2017 marshal trio are not the first Olympians to lead the parade. In 2015 a rider-less horse led the parade in honor of Louis Zamperini, the evangelist, war-hero, and Olympic runner at the 1936 Berlin games whose astounding life story had been chronicled in a best-selling book and major motion picture. Zamperini passed away in the summer of 2014 before he could undertake his marshal duties. David Wolper, the Hollywood producer who helped to stage the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, shared marshal duties in 1999 with Jackie Robinson (a posthumous honor since the legendary star had passed away in 1974) astronaut Buzz Aldrin, and Hollywood child-actress legend and diplomat Shirley Temple Black. Two American Olympic stars, track-and-field star Carl Lewis and gymnast Shannon Miller, earned grand marshal honors in 1997.
The first—and for interpretations of the 2017 parade as a commercial for the Los Angeles Olympics, the most significant—appearance of an Olympian as grand marshal occurred in January of 1932 when William May Garland, a Los Angeles real estate developer, member of the IOC, and the godfather of the original installment of the Los Angeles Olympics, served as grand marshal. Garland and the Tournament of Roses Association made the entire parade into an Olympic promotion under the theme of “Nations and Games in Flowers.” Every float that year took on an Olympic theme, representing either a nation attending or an athletic event or an ancient Greek Olympian connection. The Olympian Rose Parade bedazzled Jean Bosquet, a recent Eastern transplant to Southern California who covered the event for the Los Angeles Times. For Bosquet, the experience of wintertime rose petals combined with Olympian grandeur carried the power to instantly transform Easterners such as him into converts of California as paradise, as he breathlessly confessed in a front-page essay on the Rose Parade.
Like the originators of the Rose Parades, Garland staged the 1932 Olympics to sell property. As one of the largest realtors in greater Los Angeles, he managed to get municipal governments to use taxpayer funds to spiff up his holdings by planting the ubiquitous palm trees that came to signify the city along the boulevards that led to his developments. That same spirit of civic boosterism and profit motive would animate the 1984 Olympic extravaganza, as governments in the Los Angeles basin rewarded real estate developers with additional palms to gentrify local throughways. As political theater the 2017 grand marshals and Olympic-themed floats have more in common with the 1932 Rose Parade led by Garland than they do with a growing progressive spirit among the powerbrokers who stage these events. True, in 1932 a rich, white, male entrepreneur served as the public face of the Los Angeles Olympics while in 2017 the diversity of both the core leadership of the bid group and the public faces of LA 2024 reveal some remarkable changes in the constitution of power elites. Still, Evans, Felix, and Louganis are being made to do essentially the same thing today that Garland did decades ago. The effort is not calling for a profound social revolution or an ambitious economic redistribution but rather is selling the Olympics to a public whose consent is required to get the job done. The corporate promoters who design Olympic bids understand that what rich, white male personas could do in 1932 now takes a multi-cultural team. However, while the racial, ethnic, and gender make-up of the elites has broadened considerably, they remain the class destined to profit most handsomely from a third Los Angeles Olympics. This is not meant as an indictment of Evans, Felix, and Louganis, who have each used their global fame to partner in important charitable campaigns to improve the quality of life for all Southern Californians. Rather, it is intended to highlight the ironies that while since Garland’s era the elite classes have been profoundly democratized in terms of their ethnic, gender, and sexual composition, the mechanics of acquiring an Olympics in Los Angeles or any other city have not been similarly democratized but remain in the hands of the elites.
For a real challenge to social status quo, the 1975 grand marshal choice, Hank Aaron, represented a much more radical departure by the Tournament of Roses Association. Aaron was the first African American grand marshal in the history of the parade. His chase of Babe Ruth’s all-time home record had elicited death threats from white supremacists and revealed the deep racial fissures that remained in American culture in the post-Civil Rights era. Aaron consistently refused to offer white America feel-good platitudes about how his own personal triumphs demonstrated that racism was about to disappear from American life. He routinely decried institutional racism in baseball and other American institutions even as legal and customary segregation diminished during his career.
Rarely, however, have the promoters of Southern California who stage the Rose Parade made as dramatic a choice as Hank Aaron. What if they had selected native Pasadena son Jackie Robinson as grand marshal in 1948, in the aftermath of his first season in the major leagues when he had led the Dodgers to the World Series and won plaudits for his fierce determination to erase the national pastime’s color line, rather than when he had been dead for almost three decades when they finally made him a posthumous grand marshal in 1999? What if they had tabbed Greg Louganis as grand marshal in 1996, shortly after he came out as both gay and HIV-positive? What if they selected Los Angeles native Florence Griffith-Joyner in 1989, after she set sprint records as the fastest woman of all time in the 1988 Seoul Olympics? What if in 1937 the Tournament of Roses Association had selected a trio of local African Americans who had won glory and medals under incredible duress at the 1936 “Nazi” Olympics in Berlin—James LuValle, the bronze medalist in the 400-meter dash who grew up in Los Angeles; Cornelius Johnson, the gold medalist in the high jump who grew up in Compton; and Matthew “Mack” Robinson (Jackie’s older brother), the silver medalist in the 200-meter dash who grew up in Pasadena?
“What ifs,” however, are the historian’s trusted sleight-of-hand, designed mainly to shift the focus in order to pontificate about what might have been rather than what was. The civic deacons who stage Rose Parades and select its grand marshals are not social crusaders who appeal to better angels of human natures. They are purveyors to the ice and snow-bound masses of January rose petals and sylvan vistas, of suburban utopias in balmy Mediterranean climes, of palm trees and Pacific beaches, of mission-style cul-de-sacs littered with year-round backyard swimming pools and perpetual orange blossoms. They trade in California dreams—a product they share with Los Angeles Olympic promoters. Sometimes, as in “Echoes of Success” and “Nations and Games in Flowers,” their advertising campaigns intersect. From my bleak midwinter chair in front of the television and fireplace in gloomy central Pennsylvania, their pitch has a remarkable appeal. Janet Evans, Allyson Felix, and Greg Louganis would make fabulous neighbors.
 While some categories of diversity such as ethnicity, race, gender, and class, have remained constant over the history of American Olympic enterprises, others have changed considerably. In the first half of the twentieth century pundits paid a great deal of attention to regional identity, particularly East versus West. By the end of the twentieth century notions of regional identity had mostly disappeared, but questions of sexual identity had become a major focus of interpretations.
 Mark Dyreson, Making the American Team: Sport, Culture and the Olympic Experience (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998); idem, Crafting Patriotism for Global Domination: America at the Olympics (London: Routledge, 2009); idem, “Return to the Melting Pot: An Old American Olympic Story,” Olympika: The International Journal of Olympic Studies 12 (2003): 1-22; idem, “Playing for a National Identity: Sport, Ethnicity and American Political Culture,” Proteus 11 (fall 1994): 39-43; idem, “Melting Pot Victories: Racial Ideas and the Olympic Games in American Culture during the Progressive Era,” International Journal of the History of Sport 6.1 (May 1989): 49-61.
 Mark Dyreson and Matthew Llewellyn, “Los Angeles Is the Olympic City: Legacies of 1932 and 1984,” International Journal of the History of Sport 25.14 (December 2008): 1991-2018; Mark Dyreson, “The Republic of Consumption at the Olympic Games: Globalization, Americanization, and Californization,” Journal of Global History 8.2 (July 2013): 256-278; idem, “The Endless Olympic Bid: Los Angeles and the Advertisement of the American West,” Journal of the West 47.4 (Fall 2008): 26-39. On the mass media’s role in this process Michael R. Real, Super Media: A Cultural Studies Approach (Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1989).
 “Garland Named Roses Marshal,” Los Angeles Times, 9 December 1931, sec. A, p. 1; “Floats Entrance Throngs,” Los Angeles Times, 2 January 1932, sec. A, p. 1.
 Jean Bosquet, “Beauty and Glory Join in Rose Parade Epic,” Los Angeles Times, 2 January 1932, sec. A, p. 1.
 Dyreson and Llewellyn, “Los Angeles Is the Olympic City”; Dyreson, “The Republic of Consumption at the Olympic Games”; Dyreson, “The Endless Olympic Bid.”
 Certainly Aaron’s autobiography challenges the racial status quo. Hank Aaron, with Lonnie Wheeler, I Had a Hammer: The Hank Aaron Story (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991). See also, Howard Bryant, The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron (New York: Pantheon Books, 2010).
 John Gleaves and Mark Dyreson, “The ‘Black Auxiliaries’ in American Memories: Sport, Race, and Politics in the Construction of Modern Legacies,” International Journal of the History of Sport, 27.16-18 (November/December 2010): 2893-2924.
Mark Dyreson is professor of kinesiology at Pennsylvania State University, specializing in history of sport, social and cultural dynamics of human movement, race, ethnicity, gender, and sport. He has served as President of the North American Society for Sport History, is co-editor of several collections on sport and society, and author of Making the American Team: Sport, Culture, and the Olympic Experience, and director of research and educational programs at the Penn State Center for the Study of Sport in Society.
When I was old enough to have a car but too young to have anywhere to go, late in the night on weekends my two best friends and I used to drive to downtown Los Angeles. This was in the mid-1980s. The parts of downtown that weren’t Skid Row were as empty as if they’d been neutron-bombed. We were looking for Blade Runner; we got The Omega Man.
We’d head for Bunker Hill and Grand Avenue, carving through the middle of what city mapmakers used to call the “central business district.” In the city’s infancy, grandees lived on the hill in Victorian mansions. Twentieth-century business ambitions replanted the landscape with a forest of skyscrapers amid a brutalist-meets-futurist combination of super-wide surface streets, overpasses, underpasses, below-ground malls, and elevated pedestrian paths.
My friends and I would park in front of the then-new Museum of Contemporary Art—as sci-fi-looking a building as any Angeleno could have hoped for. The lights suspended above the empty streets gave the whole experience an acid, radioactive glow, bouncing off the smog corralled against the mountains. Other than our voices, there was only silence, which is downright eerie in a city.
When we goaded each other into it, one by one we’d walk out into the middle of Grand, and we’d lie down.
We were not risk-taking kids, particularly. Honestly, it was probably as safe as lying down in our backyards. We could hear cars coming miles away, and two of us always stood guard. That didn’t matter, though. None of us could manage to stay prone against the asphalt for more than a minute or two. It felt wrong. Streets are not for lying down on.
Like all good Angelenos, we had grown up thinking about movies. We watched a lot of them. We went downtown chasing the peculiar authenticity of being in parts of the city we’d seen on screens. The ubiquitous orange hue of the streetlights was part of our actual experience of Los Angeles—and also the experience of the city we shared with anyone who had seen the thousands of TV shows and films set there.
Neither of those cities, real or cinematic, exist anymore. Illuminated nighttime Los Angeles is in flux. Today, if I went downtown in the wee hours and laid my head against the Grand Avenue pavement—well, for starters I’d get run over, now that people work and play downtown again. But the last thing I’d see before the Prius crushed me would be a black sky, not an orange one. The glow around me would be bright blue-white. A citywide program, one of the most innovative in the country, is swapping out a half-million streetlight bulbs for the colder, paler glow of light-emitting diodes.
In a city with as long-term a relationship with electric light as Los Angeles has had, that’s a striking difference. The color of the city is changing, literally. Not during the day—as writers from Raymond Chandler to Michel Foucault have pointed out, LA’s stark, raving sunlight bleaches color from the wide, flat city. That’s still true. But at night, lights bring color back to LA—in a characteristic, unnatural spectrum. Now that spectrum is changing, which means the city’s identity will be transformed, too.
Photograph by Alex Scott.
Los Angeles electrified its streetlights early. The first pole with lights on top illuminated downtown in 1881, just a year after New York first installed arc lights—high voltage, power-hungry, and burning in air (as opposed to a competing technology, Thomas Edison’s incandescent lightbulb, which used an electrified filament that glowed in a vacuum). Soon enough, LA, filled with boosters whose pride belied a certain, let’s say, insecurity about the metropolises of the East, was touting lights more brilliant than Chicago’s and a Great White Way to rival New York’s. Leapfrogging to electric technology gave the city’s leaders a kind of legitimacy. “You can imagine that in New York and Boston the gas industry fought against electrification,” says Sandy Isenstadt, an art and architecture historian at the University of Delaware who studies city lights. “But Los Angeles had this intimate start.”
The timing wasn’t accidental. After staying roughly stable for 300 years, the raw price for artificial light—any kind, all the way back to fire and whale oil—began to drop precipitously around 1800. By the early decades of the twentieth century, lighting cost a fifth of what it had a century before,1and the technology—multiple technologies, actually—took off.2What really made Los Angeles special happened in 1924: the word Packard, glowing orange at Seventh and Flower3in the heart of today’s downtown, a few blocks south of where I used to lay in the street. It was part of the country’s first crop of neon signs. Later improvements in the coating of the glass tubes that contained the light, and the use of gases other than neon, expanded the color palate to two dozen. The night no longer meant an absence of color; it was quite the opposite.4
To commemorate the completion of Hoover Dam in 1936, which would provide a surplus of power to booming Los Angeles, a billion-candlepower beacon surrounded by pinwheeling searchlights turned the sky over downtown white. Over the next few years, those same type of searchlights would come to arc and dance in front of movie theaters lining the new cinematic corridor of Hollywood Boulevard, a symbol of local industry and glamour visible from anywhere in the Los Angeles basin.
The mid-century city, with neon signage blaring from high buildings, entire skyscrapers awash with light, streets blazing with hundreds of thousands of streetlights, had become something entirely new, unlike any city on Earth.
Fighting back darkness over 500 square miles of city isn’t easy—or cheap. “I’ve been here since 1977, since I was 17,” says Ed Ebrahimian, director of LA’s Bureau of Street Lighting. “I’m very aware of what a huge city Los Angeles is, and how many miles of streets and streetlights it has.” (For the record, it’s more than 4,500 miles of lit streets, second only to New York City.)5By the time Ebrahimian took over the bureau in 2005, the city’s annual bill for streetlight electricity was $16 million a year. In 2008 he pitched a new approach: convert the mostly sodium-vapor bulbs in the “cobrahead” streetlights, tall towers with big, flared-out heads that cantilevered over major thoroughfares, to a relatively new technology: light-emitting diodes, or LEDs.
It made sense. Sodium bulbs heat sodium metal until it vaporizes; in a gaseous state, the metal glows when current runs through it. LEDs last years longer and kick out more than double the light per watt.6Their lighter draw on the grid appealed to then-mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who wanted the city to have a smaller carbon footprint. Ebrahimian predicted saving $7 million a year on electricity and $2.5 million in maintenance.7
Photograph by Alex Scott.
For once, history was on Los Angeles’s side. Other cities have been trying to make the same switch—Seattle, Austin, Las Vegas—but because LA is so big and was first, its demands can drive the market toward certain technologies (and a more palatable price), and street lighting is an infrastructure improvement the city can actually afford. Back in the 1930s, LA created a maintenance assessment fund to pay for street lighting; anyone with a streetlight in front of their property pays into it, and the money can only go to streetlights. “Because of that, funding has not fluctuated like it has in other big cities,” Ebrahimian says. “All those other cities, they use the general fund for street lighting, and it competes against fire, police, and other priorities.”
The trick for Ebrahimian was picking the right kind of light. The noontime sun contains roughly equal measures of all the wavelengths of light visible to humans, plus some infrared (heat) and ultraviolet (suntan, cancer). Artificial sources of light are wildly variable. Incandescent bulbs emit the whole visible spectrum, but they favor the red end over the blue—meaning no ultraviolet to tan by, but lots of infrared, which is why they burn your fingers. Sodium lights emphasize yellow-orange wavelengths almost to the exclusion of all others.8
But a light’s spectrum is actually less important than what people see—and believe it or not, those things are different. The color of an object is a combination of the wavelengths of light hitting it, the wavelengths it reflects, and what your eye can actually register. (You don’t see ultraviolet, for example, but some insects do.) What really determines what color you see—and this is the most important part—is how your brain combines all that information with the light and context around it.
This dynamic plays out in real life all the time, but the most famous recent instance might be the Internet meme flare-up over a photograph of a dress that appeared blue and brown (or black) to some people and white and gold to others. Passed through Photoshop, the actual pixels that comprised the photographed dress were indeed blue, and the trim was brown. But something about the lighting around it—the time of day it implied, the position of the sun, maybe the suggestion of shade—made the image of the dress polarizing. People saw colors that were really there, but weren’t real, if there can be said to be such a thing as real when it comes to color.
Color, if you ask a philosopher, is a big problem. If it arises from a blizzard of photons descending on and then bouncing off an object (and then funneling through the lens of an eye, triggering uncountable biochemical reactions among the pigments and neural connections of the retina, setting off even more biochemistry in the interconnected neurons of the visual cortex), then do objects actually possess intrinsic color at all?
For now, put those late-night-dorm-room thoughts aside and light a candle at the altar of neuroscience. The human eye and brain together create an image of the world, in part by doing all that analysis of photon wavelength unconsciously. Lighting can change the color of something as effectively as a coat of paint; that streetlight orange you see in a movie might well be an effect of a gel like Rosco’s “Urban Vapor,” designed to make lights simulate sodium’s glow. But in real life, our brains fight the effect. They try to keep the color of an object constant even as the light around it changes.
So LEDs, for example, look white or blue-white to the naked eye. But they often drop the blues or reds at either end of the spectrum. Things that would look yellowish under full-spectrum sun or incandescent light may look white under LEDs. Skin tones look unnatural, even dead.
Lighting specialists try to avert those kind of catastrophes by carefully measuring the color of light. One metric they use, the Color Rendering Index, measures the fidelity with which a light reveals the color of an object (the accuracy of CRI is a matter of some controversy).9A second measure, color temperature, gauges the color of the light itself. Its units are degrees Kelvin, because it calculates what temperature you’d have to heat an idealized object called a black-body radiator so that it would glow the color you were looking for. For example, 4,000K is a sort of bluish white, and 3,000K is more yellowish. Incandescent bulbs tend to register between 2,700K and 3,000K. For Los Angeles’s needs, LED manufacturers pitched Ebrahimian 6,000K—the hard-edged glare of an electronic flashbulb.
Ebrahimian didn’t go for it. A city needs romance, not 5,000 miles of lights that evoke nothing more than paparazzi and selfies. His group did a little research and figured out that the color temperature of the moon was about 4,100K. So that’s what they asked for. All the new cobrahead lights are 4,000K, plus or minus 300—tiny grids that shine like moonbeams. “Downtown, you really notice it,” Ebrahimian says. “Go to Pinks on La Brea, or just walk on Sunset or Hollywood, and it’s an amazing feeling.”
Los Angeles and lights evolved in parallel. As the city went nonlinear in its expansion—or rather, rectilinear but in every direction until it ran up against the mountains or the Pacific—cars needed lights to follow new routes. Isenstadt, the architecture historian, points out that bright streetlights were perfect for the 1930s and 1940s, when the city wanted to extend shopping hours and connect multiple urban cores.10Illuminated buildings, neon apartment building signs, and bright movie theater marquees, all aimed at people driving cars, became the defining characteristics of Los Angeles.
The proliferation of glaring lights marked, as one book put it, a “victory of symbols-in-space over forms-in-space in the brutal automobile landscape of great distances and high speed.”11That book was Learning from Las Vegas, and it didn’t come out until 1972. But the lessons that the other pop-up city in a desert teaches were apparent in LA thirty years earlier, had anyone cared to learn them.
Artificial lights don’t illuminate everything equally. Brighter nighttime lights leave darker nighttime shadows. They call attention to edges, outlines, themselves. The movies solidified the role of lights in Los Angeles’s mythology. Noirish writers like Chandler and directors like Billy Wilder loved the irony of a city so brightly lit (day and night) hiding horrors in its shadows. By the 1950s, garish neon on screen was a shorthand for harshness and danger.
Neo-noirs made artificial light sources glorious. In Chinatown, the classic of the form, detective Jake Gittes smashes the taillight on the car of someone he’s following so he can track the car at night. That’s as much of a foreshadow of what happens to the dame in question, Evelyn Mulwray, as the imperfect mote in her eye. (Spoiler: She gets shot through the eye in Chinatown—right in the headlight, as it were.)
And then there’s Blade Runner. The Los Angeles that director Ridley Scott constructed owed more to Kyoto and Times Square than to LA, though it did absorb the Las Vegas lessons on signage. Flying cars require skyscraper-sized animated billboards, and permanent acid rain refracts a vast plain of yellow-orange street lighting. Somehow Blade Runner managed to frame what LA might become without being much like LA at all, except for the color of the streetlights, which felt right even if the idea of rain in LA now seems more like science fiction than ever.
Photograph by Alex Scott.
But then movies have their own authenticity; for an Angeleno steeped in them, they become as real as the city outside. When Michael Mann made the movie Collateral, one of his goals was to make nighttime Los Angeles a character, and the city’s lights—shot with a dizzying array of digital technology—have never looked better. Mann started his career on Miami Vice and made the heist movie Heat; he is arguably Hollywood’s king of depicting cities at night. But the effect he creates is just that—an effect. Mann thought the combination of LA’s actual sources of illumination looked weird on his monitors; he and his crew tweaked it in post-production to look “real.” 12
Lights are not the same as movies of lights. And memories of lights and movies? That’s a whole other thing. Color and the memory of color, already filtered by the eye and brain, dance a few steps even further away from whatever we might call the color of reality when recorded by technology, by a camera. “Remembrance of the city is mediated by a technology that is itself sensitive to the way the light is produced,” says Bevil Conway, a neuroscientist at Wellesley College who studies color and vision. “In very blunt terms, there’s a difference between your experience of the sodium light and your experience of a picture or movie shot using sodium illumination.”
To Conway, the key is that trick the human visual system plays. It’s called color constancy. In essence, it’s the ability of the eye and visual cortex to correct for the color of illumination that’s spilling across a scene and reflecting back to an observer. Most of the time, humans can subtract the “spectral bias” of a source.
Photograph by Alex Scott.
Occasionally, artificial or external effects break color constancy—accidentally, as with the dress, or intentionally, in the theater or a movie. Our brains “see” a color that isn’t really there. Different light sources can set off the same color coding in the eye under one set of conditions, but not another. Look at a shirt in the store and it matches your pants; get it home and it doesn’t. Color constancy has played you for a patsy. “As you switch from one lighting condition to another, from sodium to LED, you are profoundly changing the way color objects appear,” Conway says. “And that’s huge. It’s going to change the associations people make.”
Sodium lights are effectively monochromatic, which means that while you can see by them, you essentially have no color vision, though just as in dim lighting you’re unlikely to notice. As with black-and-white images, Conway argues, memories add a kind of personal retrospective colorization, but LEDs drag everything into full color. “I wonder whether your nostalgia for sodium-illuminated LA has something to do with this,” Conway emails later, after we talk. “Under sodium lights, you can experience the city with your own private visualized colors, and these don’t align with the real colors given to you with LED lights. It’s disappointing, just as seeing a movie based on a favorite book is rarely satisfying.”
The lights of Los Angeles are going to keep changing. Now that he has converted the cobraheads along commercial streets, Ebrahimian is targeting the 50,000 or so decorative streetlights in residential areas. He figures the city has 400 different styles. And they need a different color temperature, he says; the bureau is going with the more yellowish-incandescent hue at 3,000K. “It keeps the neighborhood feel,” Ebrahimian says.
Because LEDs can essentially be turned into computer chips, it’s easy to attach them to a network. Philips Electronics is working on adding to every cobrahead fixture a wireless connection to the Bureau of Street Lighting. It’s just a little control module that plugs into the light and then sends its status back home, via the Internet, to Ebrahimian’s bureau—on, off, broken, whatever. It won’t let anyone change the color of the light—that would need a different kind of LED—but it will mean that the fixtures will deliver more than just illumination. They’ll deliver information.
Maintenance is just the beginning. Streetlights could flash in unison when paramedics barrel down a thoroughfare. You could guide people to certain streets to control entry and egress to a mass event, like a ball game at Dodger Stadium. How about connecting real-time traffic information collected from a phone app like Waze? If that sounds like the exposition that comes before a villainous hacker brings Los Angeles to its knees, well, wait for it. I’m sure that script is already in development.
In cities, light defines space. In a way, the placement of every source of artificial illumination encodes a priority of the city. People chose to illuminate this, not that.
Artificial light, though, also defines time. “By night, motion is calibrated against an episodic, even flickering visual field rather than the uniform rendering of form that comes with an even wash of daylight,” Isenstadt writes. “By night, Los Angeles is a radiant and reflective construct, no longer beholden to the geometric structure and material resolution of the day.”13The nighttime downtown where my friends and I lay on the street twenty-five years ago did indeed have a certain radiance and reflectivity. But I don’t remember—or at least I don’t remember remembering—light decoupling from the geometry of buildings and the street grid. The light didn’t just define the city; the city defined the light.
Any new memories of the city I form will be literally colored—tinged, maybe—in a new way. Old movies star my city; new ones will feature the city. The same apocalyptic fate that always seems to come to Los Angeles in movies has finally arrived in my orange-lit, neon-bordered version: Fade out.
2 John A. Jackle, City Lights: Illuminating the American Night (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), 73.
3 Lydia DeLyser and Paul Greenstein, “Signs of Significance: Los Angeles and America’s Lit-Sign Landscapes,” Overdrive: LA Constructs the Future, 1940–1990, Wim De Wit and Christopher James Alexander, eds. (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2013), 104.
4 John A. Jackle, City Lights: Illuminating the American Night (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), 86.
10 Sandy Isenstadt, “Los Angeles after Dark: The Incandescent City,” Overdrive: LA Constructs the Future, 1940–1990, Wim De Wit and Christopher James Alexander, eds. (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2013), 49.
11 Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour, Learning from Las Vegas, Revised Edition, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1977), 119.
13 Sandy Isenstadt, “Los Angeles after Dark: The Incandescent City,” Overdrive: LA Constructs the Future, 1940–1990, Wim De Wit and Christopher James Alexander, eds. (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2013), 62.
On the future of expertise and public conversations
Editor’s Note: We asked Abby Smith Rumsey, an expert on scholarly communications, publishing, and the changes being wrought by new technologies, to put what we are trying to do with Boom—bringing our great universities and the public into conversation—in historical perspective and shine a light on the path ahead.
Invited to offer a vision for scholarly communication in the coming decades, my mind lights up. At once I see a world in which advances in knowledge and new critical perspectives are communicated swiftly and directly to an engaged and curious public, a world in which experts cultivate an informed citizenry along with new science and scholarship, and our cyber-infrastructure supports an open, accessible, mutually comprehensible and respectful conversation between specialists and their publics. Experts readily acknowledge the responsibilities that come with their privileged status, responsibilities to the public who count on them and to whom they are accountable. The public is assiduous in seeking knowledge and participating fully in its stewardship. In this world of proliferating arenas of expertise and specialization, we accept that we are, each and every one of us, “the general public” in all things except our own particular area of knowledge or skill. To the mycologist, a microbiologist is a layman, and to the expert on Leonardo da Vinci, the Nobelist in economics is at best an amateur in matters art historical. But, collectively, we advance knowledge and attend to the responsible use of that knowledge.
Stand/Deliver at Soundwalk, Long Beach.
Utopia, right? This vision is hopeful, no doubt. I describe a world I would want to live in and would be proud to pass on to the next generation. But it is in no way utopian. I was thinking of the past. As a young child in the 1960s, I was an unwitting witness to a massive awakening of an elite to their responsibilities to be open and share the stewardship of their privileged knowledge. I refer to Vatican II. Under the leadership of Pope John XXIII, the Roman Catholic Church convened a council of leaders that, among other things, redefined the relationship between priests and parishioners. The Church told priests to turn around, face the people during mass, and perform the rites in the language of the congregation. In seismic terms, this was a massive shift of continental plates whose dramatic release of pent-up energy reverberates to this day.
Vatican II created two tectonic displacements of authority. The first was a rhetorical shift: the translation of the mass from Latin into the vernacular gave people direct access to the sacred liturgy. The second—the spatial equivalent of the rhetorical displacement—was the turning of the priest to face the congregation. Before Vatican II, the celebrant spoke not out to the faithful but up to the heavens in words meant only for God.
The change in orientation was no doubt a bit tardy. It has been a long time since any ecclesiastical body monopolized the power of explanation and consolation—this is how the world works, this is who we are, this is why we are here, and this is how to deal with pain and death. By the end of the nineteenth century, the natural and human sciences had taken that mantle of authority for themselves. With that authority, they also took the mysteries of enchantment, fully appropriating the affects of awe that are inherent in the power to turn mysteries into problems, as Noam Chomsky phrased it. Revealing that the universe is 13.8 billion years old, that our brains have 100 trillion synapses, that cockatoos make tools, and crows can count—awesome!
But the power to explain and enchant comes with responsibilities. Our government was set up as a democracy that empowers elected representatives to exercise the people’s will. The citizens, in turn, are obligated to be informed and select informed representatives, to hold those representatives to account, and to ensure that the government makes information and education freely accessible.
Today’s secular public increasingly recognizes not the clergy, but scientists, scholars, and artists as experts with privileged access to truth. They constitute a recognizable tribe: professionally credentialed following a decade or more of strenuous training; adhering to strict and transparent methods of truth finding, such as hermeneutics and the scientific method; lending their learning to policy makers on some of the thorniest problems our nation faces. In the twenty-first century, artists’ and scientists’ mastery of materials science and computer code has given them command over the affects of awe and wonder that religion and magic still control in nonsecular societies. They wield these affects deliberately, both to enrich the lives of the public and to seek their continued support. I need only point to the effective use of the widely distributed color-enhanced photographs taken by the Hubble telescope to redeem this troubled scientific exploration in the mind of the public and reconfirm their commitment to support the mission. This was a masterful form of persuasion in which artfully invoked awe trumped argument when logical explanations of Hubble’s long-term value failed to captivate the public.
What does this have to do with scholarly communication? Everything. The communication of scholarship through the translation of expert knowledge from domain-specific language to the language of another domain or the vernacular serves two constituents: those who create knowledge and those who use knowledge. As currently practiced, scholarly communication often conflates serving scholarship in the advancement of knowledge with serving scholars in the advancement of individual careers. The causes for this are complex and beyond the scope of this essay. But it is important to note that this turn is a relatively recent phenomenon. Expanding our view of scholarly communication will benefit not only the public but scholarship, too.
Those who create knowledge need a reformation in scholarly communication to lower the high cost of collaborating across disciplines. Imagine the Leonardo specialist, an expert on the emergence of humanism and its consequences for visual representation (a subject of keen interest in the media age) partnering with the economist to look at long-term trends in the commodification of art objects and the effects on global trade—or the fungus scientist and microbiologist investigating strategies to mitigate the spread of disease-causing molds, likely to increase in the coming decades of rising sea levels and severe, frequent flooding. Each expert is fluent in their highly specialized domain-language and research technique. Both experts will need to find a shared language, a way of explaining what they do, how they do it, and what their fields contribute to solving specific problems. The issue of translation, then, of moving from an esoteric language to the vernacular is not simply one of the expert talking to the curious public. It is also, and fundamentally, about two experts communicating across the chasm of disciplinary subdivisions.
While a very small group of people actually create knowledge in any given domain, it is the vast majority of nonexperts who are called upon to make decisions about how that knowledge is deployed, how the technologies that devolve from it are implemented, for what ends, and under whose oversight. Given the scope of pressing social, economic, and environmental problems facing us, experts from many different subdisciplines will be under increasing pressure to collaborate in problem solving. Each of these collaborations will produce several varieties of possible solutions, which then become matters of public policy. These matters are never questions of choosing between clear good and pure evil. We face a series of trade-offs between competing ends and do so with imperfect knowledge of future consequences.
Stand/Deliver at Perform Chinatown.
Many such problems—water pollution, soil depletion, overfishing—arise from our current and past uses of technologies. We will inevitably create more technologies to mitigate them. As we do that, we are likely to continue in a well-established pattern of creating a technological solution to one set of problems, only to discover later that the solutions themselves produce unintended consequences. Geo-engineering to create deceptively named “green energy” could help us move away from consumption of fossil fuels. But what would happen to coastal marine ecosystems, for example, if we choose to capture energy from waves, say, of Pacific coastal waters and the currents of the San Francisco Bay? Genetic engineering could obviate the ravages of some diseases. But what impact would the cure and prevention of Alzheimer’s disease have on a population already growing beyond sustainable levels, consuming more and more resources, straining Social Security and Medicare, or continuing to occupy senior positions in various companies and blocking the rise of younger talent—what I call the Queen Elizabeth Syndrome?
Such solutions will use technologies as the means to an end, but decisions about which means will not be based on their technical efficacy alone. We must factor how instrumental knowledge operates within specific cultural and legal frameworks. Humanists and artists are particularly qualified to understand and represent complexity and cultural specificity, and, through storytelling, to engage publics in conjectural thinking about the future, making visible the trade-offs that are involved in some of these major public policy issues. Facing the people and speaking the vernacular becomes absolutely vital to find and implement minimally invasive technical solutions wisely.
This is where California is uniquely positioned to take a leadership role. Both the sciences and the arts rely increasingly on the type of specialized labor and expertise that grows well in the Golden State’s diverse soils. California not only has the computing and technology prowess associated with Silicon Valley (although in fact found across all parts of the state). California is also the home of the arts and entertainment industries, commonly associated with Hollywood but also distributed across the state. These are enterprises that use technology to stimulate the public’s imagination and empathy. Communication with the public should deploy the full spectrum of senses accessible to us now through media. Immersive technologies able to represent knowledge and stimulate speculation should become key features of this expanded communication.
The dialogue begins in the classroom, or before, when toddlers and young children first speak and interact with knowledge and objects. Multimedia educational platforms for transmission of knowledge should be one of the Golden State’s primary businesses by 2050. Southern California’s arts and entertainment industries should increasingly work in partnership with the data-intensive enterprises of Northern California to communicate and animate knowledge through learning technologies that include haptic experiences and storytelling. As science and technology expand our capacities as a species to modify our environment and ourselves, the arts will continue to illuminate the human condition through imagination and conjectural thinking, deepen our self-understanding, and inculcate in us a tolerance for ambiguity. The arts can help us to preview a future in which categories of race, ethnicity, and gender—categories that seemed absolute and unbreachable only a few decades ago—will lose relevance, though new categories of discrimination and exclusion based on access to knowledge may arise.
Is this really a job for scholarly communication? Why not let journalism do this? After all, we see lots of news stories about advances in scholarship—granted they tend to be gee-whiz stories about science and engineering, with particular emphasis on biomedical research. The mission of journalism is valuable but distinct from scholarly communication. The journalists’ job is to cover the news. The scholars’ job is to make their particular area of expertise accessible—accessible on demand, not only accessible when something they do happens to make the news.
This argues for a broadband platform that provides ready access to expert knowledge. A journal such as Boom is a model of one kind of medium for access to expert knowledge being put to use. There are publications such as Nature and Science that combine the communication of expert knowledge to other experts with feature stories that translate that knowledge into the vernacular, and provide the context for grasping the implications of that knowledge for policy-making and other considerations. Is it too much to imagine that each domain, from history to linguistics, do the same? The economics of making such access readily available is unclear, but the commitment to such access must come first and business models will emerge in time.
Decades after Vatican II, sordid news about the abuse of parishioners by members of the clergy emerged. While a profound crisis of authority for the church, the unfolding scandal was not necessarily a crisis of faith for parishioners. After decades of direct stewardship of many parish responsibilities, some church members had the will to purge the church of abusers and those who protected them, a will accompanied by a clear sense of the power to do so.
While of a very different order, there will be similar challenges to the public trust in scientific and scholarly experts. There will be times when those who advance knowledge will be negligent or abusive of their powers, when we read stories of scientists falsifying research results, historians profiting from plagiarism, lab directors treating students and employees irresponsibly, researchers hiding financial arrangements with research and development firms, experts of all kinds gaming citation systems to pad their resumes, and so forth. The increasing economic value of the products of expertise will create a corresponding rise in temptation and corruption. We must have an informed public able to distinguish between the valuable enterprises of science, humanities, and the arts, and the failings of some practitioners themselves. We cannot simply assume that we will have such a public. We must actively cultivate them, and that is the job of scholarly communication.
The United States has a long and robust history of anti-intellectualism and now, increasingly, segments of the population are anti-science. We are already seeing the dangers inherent in a citizenry who pick and choose their evidence and how to interpret it—creationists who disclaim the theory of evolution, for example, and yet clamor for next-generation antibiotics to combat bacteria that have evolved to be drug-resistant. It goes almost without saying that we shall have to find a new term for the work ahead, for “scholarly communication” fails to connote either the audiences for or the intentions behind this communication. I have been using the term “expert knowledge” in lieu of “scholarship” to acknowledge that information vital to our well-being is generated by many who are not traditionally considered scholars and that what is of greatest value is the knowledge that such experts create from raw information and data. Whatever term we embrace in the end, what matters is to focus equally on those who create and those who use knowledge.
As we look back at the long-term effects of the Manhattan Project, we see not only major breakthroughs in physical science and engineering that have been used in war and in peace. We see an awakening of experts to the power of the knowledge they have created to change the world, and the humbling recognition that they have little control over how that knowledge is used. It was at that moment, when scientists such as Albert Einstein, Leó Szilárd, John von Neumann, and Robert Oppenheimer realized that they had responsibilities beyond their labs, that they began actively working with policy makers and communicating their expertise broadly. Thus began a golden age of science. The challenges and opportunities we will face in the coming decades will demand the same humility, concern, and commitment to engage in translating expertise for multiple audiences and attending to the consequences of using knowledge responsibly.
Images from Stand/Deliver, an interactive installation, were provided by Los Angeles-based arts collective Finishing School. The “dueling free speech unit” consists of two portable platforms and megaphones, and whomever would like to face the people and speak.
jesikah maria ross works at the intersection of art, education, and community action, collaborating with communities to generate change. Not only has she been instrumental in the founding of such initiatives as the Bioneers Reel Change Agents Program and the Media Arts Institute, she has launched participatory youth media programs in South Africa, Ethiopia, Uganda, and South Sudan that have addressed equity issues worldwide. Her award-winning independent media projects have brought environmental justice issues to PBS and NPR. In her collaborations, residents engage in citizen storytelling and public dialogue or students partner with community members to create social issue documentaries. Before founding The Art of Regional Change (ARC), a joint initiative of the Davis Humanities Institute and the UC Davis Center for the Study of Regional Change, jesikah codirected Saving The Sierra: Voices of Conservation in Action (savinghesierra.org), which documents community efforts to conserve the culture, economy, and environment of the Sierra Nevada mountain range.
I first encountered jesikah at the 2008 ARC launch. She stood on the parapet of a fountain in a courtyard, spread her arms wide, and enthusiastically described her model of using place-based media projects to bring about community self-empowerment and personal transformation.
She’d begun her love affair with video in college, and the activism she also began there carried her into the world of alternative media. She equipped herself further through graduate work in Community Studies and Development and day jobs in television production. With the university, she forged a dream job that blended being a community media facilitator, project director, and documentary media maker.
I began to work directly with jesikah at the start of her most recent poly-vocal, multimedia, multi-ethnic, intergenerational project, Restore/Restory.
jesikah maria ross welcoming the crowd at the Restore/Restory project debut and story showcase event. Photo courtesy of Steve Fisch Photography.
As I understand it, ARC has done a whole series of amazing university-community collaborations. Tell me about your latest project.
jesikah maria ross:
Restore/Restory is a collaborative public history project that tells the story of California by examining one small place here in Yolo County, the Cache Creek Nature Preserve.
I think when people hear “public history,” they think of something that involves people who have some training going out and getting information from other people, collecting oral histories as data, essentially, that gets gathered into an archive. Then other people with training use it somewhere down the line.
There are many ways to do public history. One is in the way you just described, which kind of follows a resource extraction model: professionals go into communities to extract resources that are then taken away and used by others. It’s a model that you wouldn’t necessarily associate with knowledge production; academics wouldn’t see themselves as being part of a corporation that does resource extraction.
Adding the collaborative component makes it into a completely different sort of beast altogether.
Yes. But you can see why it’s important to create reciprocal projects. You’re doing something to benefit you; once you actually involve other people, you have to ask, how will they benefit? Finding that out usually means you need to have a dialogue and some shared decision-making.
My drive to have communities represent themselves comes from deep experience of being left out of the frame myself, being misrepresented or unacknowledged. Not just me, but the issues I was working on. So it’s important to me that the people who give their stories feel like they are receiving something as well as giving and have some editorial control.
Did you push against that resource extraction model while you were working in the university?
Definitely, and I did that by using a counter-model of collaboration, cocreating projects with a local community-based organization and designing every project based on their needs. I had to stay very clear about how to bring students and scholars in to work with residents in a way that was respectful and supportive and built on what the residents were interested in as well. The question I kept asking was: how do we create something in line with the university’s land grant mission and with old-school community development principles?
In that spirit, in Restore/Restory, we brought stakeholders together to design and implement a project that would gather a wide range of stories about very different peoples’ experiences, understandings, and uses of the land that is now the Cache Creek Nature Preserve.
Let me just back up a little bit. I think it would be useful to say what the Preserve is, so we get a sense not only of how small a piece of land it is, but how fraught.
It’s a 130-acre parcel, not big, right on Cache Creek, which starts up north in Lake County, flows down through Yolo County through the Capay Valley and ends up in the Sacramento River Bypass. Along the way it’s feeding agriculture and ranching, recreation, and, of course, many other uses the people have for water.
And the Preserve is one section on it, sort of like a quarter-inch on a yardstick.
Exactly, on the lower part of the creek. The Preserve came about at the end of what is referred to as the Gravel Wars, a twenty-year battle that was really messy and acrimonious, as were many environmental struggles in the seventies and eighties, where jobs were pitted against the environment. In Yolo County, the top industry was agriculture and the second was mining aggregate—gravel—out of Cache Creek. Until legislation in the mid-seventies, mining companies weren’t required to do squat after extraction. Anyone living in that area, whether environmentally focused or not, saw moonscapes, trashed landscapes, because there was no requirement for the companies to do otherwise.
Most people in the environmental community wanted to stop the mining altogether. But the mining companies didn’t have to stop, they had the extraction rights, but they were willing to move their operations outside of the creek channel. Some agricultural community members wanted this because they had aggregate on their land, and they were going make money off of it. But they were also concerned about the effect on the land. And then you had a lot of people whose jobs and livelihoods depended on mining: the County who got huge revenue from it and all the businesses that support it.
The moonscape. This photograph of trucks carrying gravel from the creek bed ran with one of the articles tracking the gravel wars in The Davis Enterprise in May 1996. Photo courtesy of Todd Hammond/Enterprise file.
The County was trying to figure out a policy that would take into account all the different needs, but you know, government works just a little bit faster than erosion.
Such grievances were mounting that a group of activists came up with the idea to have a referendum, a public vote. That seemed like the best strategy to put the issue into the public consciousness and to force the mining companies to come to the table.
But something happened.
Yes. Between the plans that the County ratified and a public referendum to stop mining, an understanding arose that there needed to be an umbrella organization to bring the fighting parties together to find common ground. That was one impetus for starting the Cache Creek Conservancy. Another way I’ve heard it said is that the Cache Creek Conservancy was built into the planning process as the organization that would oversee creek restoration.
And along the way, the mining companies said, “We’ll pay this amount of money on the ton to provide for restoration,” right? That’s what funds the Cache Creek Nature Preserve.
Right. So the Cache Creek Conservancy was founded in the mid-nineties; but it didn’t even have a formal office. Around 1998, one of the mining companies, Teichert, had this piece of land that was right on the creek with an incredible variety of habitats: some of the oldest oak groves in Yolo County, some grassland. It had, of course, the riparian corridor.
Grasslands stretching out from Cache Creek. The riparian corridor of the creek is marked by the line of dense trees, mostly willow and oak, running along the back and to the right. Photo courtesy of Steve Fisch Photography.
And some beautiful historic buildings.
It had the historic barn, yes. Teichert wasn’t going to mine the property anymore. It was an ideal site for the Conservancy to manage, and the preserve would be a great example of restoration of a mining site.
People who are a little more skeptical call it a poster child for the mining companies.
The boardwalk and viewing platform over the former mining pit, now restored into wetlands. Photo courtesy of Steve Fisch Photography.
True enough, and it has received a lot of funding and attention. But I have to tell you, when we started Restore/Restory, everyone, including me, thought we would focus on the Gravel Wars because it was such a bitter episode here in Yolo County. What became clear to me with basic research was that if we only focused on the Gravel Wars, the story would only be about the conflict and collaboration between industry and environment. I realized that if I really wanted to tell the story of a place, we needed to go way beyond that.
This place, as far back as we know, was the homeland of the Wintun Nation. They would be left out. And how would we tell the story of Spain and Mexico and the fur trappers and European explorers who also were on this land?
What you’re saying now takes me back to something that you said before. You spoke of telling the story of California through telling the story of this site. But you actually didn’t start there.
Right. I didn’t start there. But in any project, when you get into research and development, you learn a lot more. When I looked at the larger story, when I looked at the people who had been on that land, how they used the land, I saw the different views on what that land is for and on the people who’d been there.
And, maybe, whose presence has been erased?
Yes. I wanted to try something that was not really centered on a galvanizing issue but instead on a humanities question. The most compelling story was not about the Gravel Wars; it was what’s the story of this place?
How did you choose a community partner?
For all sorts of reasons, the Cache Creek Conservancy seemed like the most appropriate collaborating partner. I worked with them to form a project advisory group that would be representative of the different stakeholders on the creek, people who have different views of the creek and track back to different histories. We had native California leaders, miners, educators. We had policy makers; we had local historians. I wanted to be sure that we had a project that was tapped into academic expertise but grounded in community experience while being aesthetically compelling. So the Advisory Group, who had specific knowledge and experience with the creek, generated and prioritized a list of themes that we might want to explore and named a range of people to speak to those topics.
And while that was happening, you put out a call to UC Davis faculty?
Yes. We had funding, which meant that we could involve university faculty in a way that advanced the project, filling a need of ours and meeting some need the faculty had—for conducting community-based research, for example, or teaching courses connected to a live project. We also funded community historians and culture keepers to work alongside the faculty.
And in addition, you became the instructor of a UC Davis Technocultural Studies class.
I did. In other projects, my role has been teaching community members to make their own media. In this project, the university students made the stories and I worked with them on the fundamentals of community-based media making.
And they made stories not about themselves, but about other people.
So you’ve got an Advisory Group identifying storytellers and, and meanwhile, you’ve set up this class. Then these two things converge: the students in the class attend community storytelling days and record the stories. Give me an idea of what went on.
We had a series of five story days, all held at the Cache Creek Nature Preserve. Students worked in teams, rotating positions. They did a very quick interview: 20–30 minutes usually, and took photos. We staggered the interviews, scheduling storytellers every 45 minutes. Sometimes we had fifteen people recorded in something like four hours.
Janaki Jagannath interviews Claudette Cervinka during one of the five storytelling days. Photograph by Alex Yang.
Let’s get back to all these collaborations. You’ve got your community collaborator, which is the Conservancy. And you’ve got the advisory group coming up with names of the storytellers, and students are being equipped to record the stories. And then you’ve got writing students who have their role.
The broad brushstroke way to say it is that from all the range of people involved, we collectively generated a story map of community memories, audio pieces with photos, and written profiles of the storytellers. We created an audio tour, a kind of multi-poly-vocal history of the Preserve given through five very different views of that land. And I created a series of digital murals—a combination of archival images and contemporary landscape photos that depict the different habitats on the Preserve—with audio stories embedded in them.
The story map created for the Restore/Restory project. Online, a viewer can click the red buttons to link to storyteller photos, audio clips and profiles. Photo courtesy of jesikah maria ross.
One of the digital murals celebrating the peoples and habitats of the Cache Creek area. From left to right: Former slave Basil Campbell, a Wintun elder, original land-grant recipient William Gordon, and local historian Joann Leach Larkey. Photo courtesy of jesikah maria ross.
What happened after everything was gathered, edited, and live, in media terms?
It was run through various people to be authorized, approved, revised. And authorized for sharing, which is a really important piece.
The project debut and story showcase event was held at the Cache Creek Nature Preserve on a Saturday afternoon in late October 2012. It was designed so that there was a series of different activities through which people would come together and engage with the project stories and each other on the site. One activity was a series of nature and culture walks, where I paired together a humanist and a scientist who have some kind of shared background or shared interest but come at it from very different points of view. Another was the debut of the audio tour, guided by a graduate student who worked on the project. There was a story circle in the amphitheater. There were the basket weavers and seating around them. And finally, in the barn, there was a media exhibit, with two of the Technocultural Studies students acting as docents.
Within the historic barn, UC Davis students Janicki Jagannath and Tim Kerbavaz present project images and audio stories. Photo courtesy of Steve Fisch Photography.
Also, through all of this, there was music.
Yes, and I picked a band that could play different musical styles so that different people would resonate, be inspired, be interested. So if you were Latino and you came, you might hear something and think, “Oh wow! That’s mine!” Or you were Hawaiian, or you know, liked bluegrass. They played a huge repertoire.
Okay, so there were all these events going on—
—at the same time—
—up to a certain point, and then the multiple stuff stops, and then there’s the showcase event.
Right. Everything stops.
And then everybody’s invited to come and sit at the tables, where there’s food.
And then I kicked off a series of six speakers, who gave brief presentations. Each selected a story that they wanted to share and then talked a little bit about why they picked that story. After the speakers finished, table guides I had organized used a series of very loose prompts to help people respond to the stories, and through that, make meaning of the experience together.
The ultimate goal of the whole day was this: when people have the opportunity to engage with each other and stories and place, they have the opportunity to forge stronger connections across people and place and with place. That will actually manifest in social benefits that we can talk about.
Everyone’s attention was drawn to one thing that they were doing together. All of that stuff about activities is what happened. But then there’s what happened. The net experience was far greater than the sum of its parts.
Right. One community development concept that I love is “spillover effect”: There are many things you can plan; but so much more will happen that is unplanned. “Spillover” conjures up for me a big beautiful vessel that is so abundant and full of water that it spills over. That’s what I was aiming for. I can map out and produce and plan and curate a really kick-ass program and have some real clear ideas of the kinds of experiences and outcomes that will happen, but a ton of things will happen due to the constellation of different variables that come together in different moments—like who’s sitting at a table or what somebody says. Those will spark and galvanize and ignite other impacts.
Sometimes those are the ones I hoped for; sometimes they’re not. There’s a certain level of outcome you’re striving for and then there’s a level you hope for. You know something will happen on top of that.
But you don’t know what it’s going to be.
Yes. You just hope it’s good.
It was! Let’s go on to invisible things being made visible. We touched on this when you talked about how this one spot became the story of California, a California involving a lot of people whose experiences generally don’t register.
Right. They become legible at a certain moment. All sorts of things became legible, or registered, at the event. The biggest one, I think, for a lot of people was that we were sitting on the homeland of the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation. We all know that all of California was Native California. But there was a moment, in the way that stories were framed and presented and by whom and discussed, that it became very clear that we were actually sitting and having this amazing party on their traditional homeland.
Yes. And some of the Wintun were there. We were all there. We were all there in relationship. Maybe there was some tension around it, but we were, by being in the same place, in that place—
—having a shared experience. That was key.
And, at the same time, while that registered, Joe Farnham’s wonderful old voice, his story, comes on. He’s talking about his granddad and clearly his heart is also in this place.
In a nutshell, what got made visible was that there are different histories of this place, and that for a lot of us, hearing those different histories will call into question what we know and what we don’t know, and why.
Story showcase presenters Beth Rose Middleton, UC Davis Assistant Professor of Native American Studies. Fernando Moreno, Community Media Activist. Isao Fujimoto, Senior Lecturer Emeritus, UC Davis Community & Regional Development. Photos courtesy of Steve Fisch Photography.
In the foreground, after hearing presenters play audio stories and share their reactions, groups around tables share their responses with each other. Michael Barbour, UCD Professor of Plant Science, facilitates conversation with Putah Creek Council member Valerie Whitworth, Capital Public Radio journalist Catherine Stifter and others. Photo courtesy of Steve Fisch Photography.
In the audiotape, a person is responding to the question, “What does this place mean to you?” And then you’ve got someone else who’s standing before a crowd of 100–200 people who are sitting around picnic tables with food, saying, “This story is meaningful to me for this reason.” And every one of us sitting at the tables is listening. One way or another, each of us was then put in relationship to the place and to each other. Some of that relationship was conflicted, but because we were all sitting there and because of this listening and because of the structure that you gave to the whole program, there was an ‘us’ created. The “what does this mean to me” was doubled and then geometrically increased so that we were all sitting there in this kind of reverberation of listening about what this place means to us. Even though the answers were really different—it’s our homeland, it’s our grandfather’s property, it’s where I come for school, it’s where I learned from jesikah how to do audio recording—right in the middle of all that, it turned into “it’s meaningful to us.”
You nailed it. On the other hand, I also remember everyone listing to former Conservancy Director Ann Brice talking about what it was like both to be an environmentalist and to be called names for being willing to collaborate with the County and the mining companies. We are listening to her even while the Conservancy representatives were not at the tables, were standing around the periphery. How they were standing and how they all wore the same color made very clear their structure and their response.
Right. That also became visible. And at the same time, what became visible to them was everybody else, also in relationship to “their” place.
A fundamental problem in the project was that they did not, in fact, have ownership.
Well, they had ownership of the Preserve. The mining companies’ fees-per-ton support the Preserve, and the Conservancy oversees the administration of it.
Right. Maybe I should say they had ownership of a particular type of outcome.
And it was a very limited piece. They were only focused on the audio tour, and they imagined the audio tour to be pretty promotional and Cache Creek Conservancy-oriented. So there was a lot of tension because the tour wasn’t like that. Had they owned the project, in the wider sense of having multiple outcomes benefiting the different groups involved, they would have realized there was so much more to it than the audio tour.
I said something earlier about this project offering an alternative to resource-extraction-style public history through intentional community collaboration. But, you know, you never get what you expect. What we ended up with, to some extent, was a demonstration of what happens when you pick a collaborating organization that isn’t fully representative of all the communities involved in that place. It’s also a good example of a collaboration going astray when you are using terms that you don’t have a shared meaning for until you’re very far along—for example, “outreach and education.” The Conservancy articulated a need for an audio tour that would serve their outreach and education goal. The Conservancy meant by the term whatever would enhance their K-6 field trip program. But I took the term to mean “outreach” and “education” in the widest possible sense: from K-12, to college students, to continuing learning, to migrant worker education, to nature buffs, to families.
Yes, and what they conceive of as ownership isn’t what you mean by ownership. For tribal people, this place is homeland. For farming people, this place is where their great-grandfather put down roots and where their family’s been. Those are different kinds of ownership.
Certainly the farming families who have deeds on the land would say that they own the land. The people for whom it is homeland may not own it in the same kind of legal document trail kind of way, but the reference that anybody at the basket weaving table made to where they gathered or where they resided was always in terms of “I gather this in my homeland,” or “I don’t live in my homeland, but I live in this other place.” That whole way of talking about place came right up against all the other kinds of ways of talking about place.
I love how you just put that together. In these kinds of collaborations, you have these collision points. But out of those not-always-feel-good moments, each participant grows. I ended up with a much better understanding of so many things I would not have thought of, and I really feel that the Conservancy, too, saw possibilities they hadn’t thought of before: how many kinds of people would come to the site, a deeper understanding of the power of media. One of the things about a messy, tension-filled project is that if people can stay in it together, they both learn and grow.
When I think about the experience I try to create and facilitate, that I can plan for and hope that there’s spillover from, it is that all the participants have a stronger and deeper connection to each other, whoever those others are, and to this place.
We have that because…?
We have that because of three things. An environment’s been created which has helped us become open and comfortable. We’ve had an opportunity to engage in something that we have, in some way, chosen. We chose to do an activity. We chose to ask a question. And then, third, you’re sharing that experience with a range of people who are probably different than you and you are hearing things that you may not have heard before.
And may not even agree with.
Yes. So, being comfortable, open, trusting, willing to engage, being given an opportunity to decide what you want to do within that. And then sharing that experience with people different from you in a way that is engaging and fun allows you to make meaning of it with other people.
And it’s all very intentionally focused on just the 130 acres of the Cache Creek Nature Preserve. So the “what does this place mean to you?” gets changed to “what does this place mean to us?”
And then what the word “place” in that statement means also changes. It’s no longer what does this place, this 130 acres, mean to you? It means, what does this county that you live in mean to you? Or what does California mean to you?
If I were in a classroom and writing on the board, I would have written, “What does this place mean to you?” and I would have to start crossing out terms. I’ve crossed out “you” and put in “us” because we’ve realized that everyone becomes engaged in the question of “What does this place mean to us?” And then you have to cross out “place” because—
—you zoomed out.
Yes. You need multimedia because suddenly each term is a whole bunch of interchangeable things.
I think that’s why I end up using “shared” in front of a lot of words: “shared vision,” “shared experience,” “shared geography,” “shared humanity,” because people aren’t going to care for places or other people unless they have some kind of connection with them, unless they have some kind of regard. And it’s hard to develop a connection and regard unless you have some physical contact.
My goal was to create a story of “us” that would have social benefits in Yolo County. We would have a stronger sense of a collective identity. We would have a better sense of what our watershed is, how it works, and what the challenges and tensions are in a natural environment. That would be a very healthy, functioning, democratic, inclusive, and just community.
jesikah maria ross would like to acknowledge the funders who took a bit of a risk in providing monies to a project and program that was a bit outside of the box: the Quitalpás Foundation, the UC Institute for Research in the Arts, and the UC Humanities Research Institute.
“The best academics and smartest journalists should be natural allies in the effort to bring new ideas to the public square,” writes John Mecklin in the Columbia Journalism Review. And “Boom has made a nice start toward fostering such an alliance.” Boom is an example of a promising new model in the growing nonprofit publishing ecosystem, Mecklin writes in a wide ranging article that recounts the origins and history of the journal, probes its business model, and examines the visions of editor Jon Christensen and University of California Press publisher Kim Robinson for the quarterly journal.
“Boom was conceived as an interdisciplinary ‘scholarly magazine’ that would translate the best ideas of academics in the UC system, making them accessible to the general public,” Mecklin writes. “Boom includes journalists and photographers among its contributors because it is consciously ‘not just another academic journal,’ Robinson says. ‘It is this hybrid, but it’s still an experiment.’
“Boom started as a way for researchers to converse with the public about California studies,” Mecklin writes. “But, Christensen says, he hopes to expand the magazine’s reach, so it speaks to people outside the state as well, addressing the idea of ‘California in the world.’ He also hopes the journal can help break down, if not do away with, the mutual suspicion—some might say disdain—that often characterizes the relationship between academics and journalists.”
Ricardo Dominguez, Professor of New Media, Performance Art, and a Principal Investigator at CALIT2 at the University of California, San Diego, specializes in electronic civil disobedience as an art form. In January, 2010, he was placed under university investigation for misuse of research funds, a charge that could have resulted in his termination. At issue was the work of his research organizations, b.a.n.g. lab (for “bits, atoms, neurons, genes”) and his Electronic Disturbance Theater. Dominguez directed these organizations in creating the Transborder Immigrant Tool, an application that could allow immigrants to use GPS technology in cheap cell phones to find water caches in the desert between Mexico and Southern California and to access poems, which Dominguez calls “survival poetry.” Before the investigation was completed, several congressmen demanded punitive action and anti-immigrant pundits on cable news networks demanded Dominguez be fired. Louis Warren sat down with Ricardo Dominguez to find out what happened.
Louis Warren: When was it that you realized that the university might actually fire you for your research?
Ricardo Dominguez: Well, that was on January 11, 2010. I received an email from Accounting and Auditing at UC San Diego saying that they were going to initiate an investigation of the Transborder Immigrant Tool Project.
Warren: Was this a surprise?
Dominguez: I had had no indication up to that point that there was institutional concern about the project. Up to that point, I had received funding from UCSD. I had received letters of commendation for my teaching in these areas of electronic civil disobedience and border disturbance technology.
Warren: You had been involved in this kind of work for years, in New York and in Florida, before you got hired at UC San Diego. So, it’s not like the people at UCSD who hired you didn’t know what they were getting, right?
Dominguez: Indeed, it was the track record that initiated the conversation for me getting hired.
Warren: How did you develop the idea of electronic civil disobedience prior to coming to UC San Diego?
Dominguez: The original theory that we had in the 1990s was that electronic civil disobedience could only be really developed by those who had a coherent understanding of digital bodies, and those would be hackers. And that it would have to be a secret cell of hackers who had an intimate knowledge of code to initiate electronic civil disobedience. We felt that activists who were bound to the question of the streets would never initiate electronic civil disobedience because they had a history of Luddite quality, for good reason. But we felt, and we made a very harsh rhetorical statement, the streets are dead capital.
Warren: The streets are … .?
Dominguez: Dead capital. We felt that cybercapitalism was lifting off from the streets—that electronic civil disobedience would be, really, the only way to disturb the conditions of cybercapitalism, because the streets were now no longer bound to the flows of capital. But we also felt that hackers didn’t have a politics. They were only really bound to a question of politics of code qua code. The politics of the street, of the meat space, were something they wouldn’t really care about. So, we found then that activists would not create electronic civil disobedience and really, hackers wouldn’t do it ’cause it wasn’t in their particular frame, right? So it had to be artists.
Warren: So where is the “performance” in this performance art?
Dominguez: I think it is interesting to try to imagine the conditions of data bodies and real bodies interacting within each other as a performance.
Warren: You were uniting activists and hackers to create “hacktivists,” hackers with a political goal? Is that it?
Warren: How is electronic civil disobedience related to the Transborder Immigrant Tool?
Dominguez: Well, as I was saying, one of the problems that we had conceptually with the original idea of electronic civil disobedience was that it was dependent on a cadre of hackers [and] on a certain knowledge of technology. Which is a similar assumption to what the RAND Corporation had done in their definitions of cyberwar, cyberterrorism, cybercrime. You needed infrastructure. You needed instant tactical knowledge of code. You needed a semantic awareness of how to transfer that information between code builders and machines.
Warren: So you’ve got the Transborder Immigrant Tool, the purpose of which is to get real bodies, real bodies to cross the border, cross these desert spaces without dying of thirst, for example. How is this performance art?
Dominguez: Performance art is about the body and transgression. It’s about the relationship of the body to space, right? For instance, with the Transborder Immigrant Tool, we are taking a technology, the GPS system and a cell phone system, which, again, are very attuned, at this moment in time, to attachment to the body. And so the Transborder Immigrant Tool does continue the history of electronic civil disobedience in creating a code that basically performs the belief that there is a higher law that needs to be brought to the foreground: a universal common law of the rights of safe passage. And so the tool calls forth this sense that there is a community of artists who are willing to foreground the higher law. We connect to the histories of higher law within the US, from civil disobedience to the underground railroad. So, the performative matrix that b.a.n.g. lab and Electronic Disturbance Theater has always tried to establish is indeed a deep connection between code and the body—a deep connection between code and those bodies that are outside of the regime of concern in terms of rights, in terms of consideration, in terms of being a community worthy of some sense of universal rights.
Warren: Do you want to abolish the border?
Dominguez: I do feel that whatever rights commodities have, individuals should have those same rights. A Coca-Cola can has more rights of protection in the flow across borders than the people who make the can, who fill the can, and pack the cans. And often they are devastated enough in that process that they feel they have to go elsewhere. And NAFTA seems to indicate that these commodities have [rights] and a right of flow. So, to me, transborders, trans-California, would be about an equation wherein the equality of the commodities would have a direct impact on the equality of the individuals who are the very flows of production there.
Warren: Have immigrants actually used the Transborder Immigrant Tool?
Dominguez: No. The investigation that started really slowed us down because our lawyers felt that to move forward would’ve put us in some jeopardy in terms of the investigation. But what we did do is, we continued to work with the NGOs and communities that leave water caches because they are a very important part of the project. And so we’ve been very lucky in that they’ve been very supportive and see the tool function. So what was supposed to be like a month long investigation turned out to be about ten months. And we accidentally discovered that we had been cleared. They never sent us the final “you’re cleared” statement. It was only by sheer accident that I discovered that we had been cleared of misuse of funds.
Warren: What triggered the investigation?
Dominguez: I did an interview with a magazine called Vice. This was picked up by Boing Boing [the online magazine], which is a major hub for exchange, and then it was picked up by NPR. This was in September/October of 2009; the project started in 2007. Before that, we had been funded, awards, all that sort of stuff, but it was internal. So this Vice interview went viral, and the nativists started getting involved. Every time there was a story on Fox News, we’d get slammed by hate mail. [In] most of it, they wanted to kill us in one way or another. We were accused of creating a cadre rebel army within the UC system. And that’s what started the university investigation.
Warren: How did Congress get involved?
Dominguez: It was midway through that investigation that three Republican Congressmen sent this letter requesting that the university investigate us about misuse of funds. Now, the irony is that Congressman Hunter [one of the three who sent the letter] is the nephew of John Hunter, and he is the person who started Water Station, Inc. about ten years ago. And he’s a hardcore Republican guy.
Warren: Water Station, Inc.—they cache water in the desert for immigrants?
Warren: But they come from the political right?
Warren: Why do they do this?
Dominguez: Well, I guess some of them might actually believe the New Testament. And they don’t want people to die unnecessarily. They want to help their brothers and sisters.
Warren: What’s the disposition of the university investigation of your lab?
Dominguez: Nothing was discovered in the investigation. No misuse of funds.
Warren: When some people think of art, they’re looking for a painting that will match their sofa. You seem to operate from the premise that art should make us uncomfortable with our assumptions—that there is something profoundly discomforting and political about true art. Is that right?
Dominguez: An artwork should create a sense that there is something that is occurring, something is happening. It should disturb the normal ontology of things. It seems to be unframing rather than framing. And it initiates a deeper currency of conversation beyond the museum or gallery. It forces art onto the front pages as opposed to the leisure page or the technology page or the art page, or somewhere in the back of the newspaper. It initiates a dialogue about art with congressmen. The truth of painting I would say is around the question of the frame. And for us, artwork is about unbinding that frame and letting it spill out into the conditions of the social space.
Warren: How do you see yourself in relation to artists in times past, say the Impressionists or anyone else? Were they disturbing the political world in parallel or analogous ways to what you’re doing?
Dominguez: Our work is more in the minor key. We are outside of the landscape of the major important work. But for us, the minor condition is much more important.
Warren: You mean minor as in dissonant, not minor as in less important?
Dominguez: No, no. I mean, for people who support the most conservative definition of art, Kafka is minor literature. Because that’s what Kafka called it. And certainly we saw during the cultural wars that performance art by women—Karen Finley, Holly Hughes, art that deals with questions of women’s bodies or lesbianism—were not part of what is considered the frame of art. The National Endowment for the Arts was attacked for funding it. Tim Miller’s performances of being a gay man were not considered something that should be funded, either. Mapplethorpe’s imagery—not to be funded, right? And so we fall much more along the minor literature, the minor art of the Holly Hughes, Karen Finley, Tim Miller, perhaps to some kinship with Mapplethorpe and others along that particular line. We are concerned more about the qualities not of the exterior presentation, but with the internal mechanism of what is being produced and its intent.
Warren: In a sense, museums are ways of containing art. The art that you do is radically uncontained. It bursts not just the boundaries of the building but of the nation—thus, the Transborder Immigrant Tool … .
Dominguez: Right, but at the same time, we insist we are artists. We do want to have a conversation with art. So, we have no anxiety about [speaking] in a loud way. Everybody in this research team are all out-of-the-closet artists: Brett Stalbaum, Micha Cardenas, Amy Sara Carroll, and Elle Mehrmand. We’re not activists, we are artists. Our interest is not GPS global positioning systems but global poetic systems.
Warren: Is the Transborder Immigrant Tool being used or are similar things being devised for other borders around the world?
Dominguez: Well, we hope. The code can be used by other communities of artists to deal with their own poetics and aesthetics around their borders, to create transborders.
Warren: Are transborders places of crossing? Are they spaces between nations? What are they?
Dominguez: If you count all the folks who are crossing borders across the arcs of the world, it’s a pretty large population—larger than some countries. So the concept of the “transborder” as undocumented bodies moving between states is a way of imagining them as a flowing nation state that perhaps should have their own transborder rights, transborder rights to health, education, labor rights—in the not too distant future we may all be stateless undocumented bodies whose only rights will be transborder rights.
I recently sat down with Yolanda Cruz, a filmmaker, graduate of UCLA’s film school, and 2011 Sundance Screenwriters Lab Fellow, to talk about filmmaking, her indigenous origins as a Chatino (one of sixteen indigenous groups in Oaxaca, Mexico), and her views of indigenous peoples in California and, more broadly, across the globe. Cruz has produced seven films, including her latest, “2501 Migrants,” which depicts the unique work of Alejandro Santiago, an indigenous artist from Oaxaca. The film examines how Santiago uses his artwork to bring attention to the migrants who have left the region and inadvertently created what has been called “a landscape of cultural and domestic abandonment.” In our conversation, she mused about the power of filmmaking, organizing indigenous communities, dispelling myths about indigenous people, immigration and globalization, perseverance, and education.
What inspired you to go into filmmaking?
When I came to the US in the 1990s, I came with the intention of learning English and returning to Mexico to get a degree in law or teaching. But because I come from a very active community in Oaxaca, I was very active in Olympia, Washington, where I lived and went to college. I studied photography and creative writing. Then I took some media classes and realized that media was a very effective tool for organizing. That led me to study other forms of filmmaking around the world. I was so amazed with what film could do that I wanted to do one on the revolutions of Latin America. I think that because the idea was pretty crazy, I got the attention of the Selection Committee at UCLA. And, to my surprise, I was accepted to film school.
I had to fight to find a place for my voice. When I got there, to UCLA, it was difficult to adapt because it was like going back to my years in Mexico. We were told what to do. I became a part of a group of Oaxacans living in LA, more so as an individual than a filmmaker. For my thesis, I chose to do a documentary about a community activist from Oaxaca, a man who was so passionate for his community that he spent five years of his personal savings to return to his village and make an offering. I submitted it to the Sundance Film Festival, not knowing how competitive it was, and it was accepted. When I learned that, I was like, oh my God. The entire experience was overwhelming too because it was my first festival and I got a lot of attention I didn’t want. I realized that my film was different from what I had originally wanted to do in film school, which was to organize the Oaxacan community.
In many ways, it is possible to argue that your films relay messages about what it means to be a global citizen living in a global society.
I think so. But I also think that my films dispel the myth that indigenous people do not contribute to the global society. They do more than just maintain the traditions and history. I don’t just go around asking them to tell me about their old stories. Indigenous people are concerned with what is happening around the world and I want to give them a chance to express their opinion.
What do you think about the formation of Oaxacan communities—with intimate ties to Oaxaca— in places like California and the United States, more broadly?
I think it’s important to study these communities because Mexico and the United States are neighbors and they need to collaborate more on slowing the process of immigration. I think this involves improving the life of a particular community. But I think it’s more difficult to slow the process [now] and we need to find new ways of working together.
In “2501 Migrants,” you tell the story of Alejandro Santiago, an indigenous artist based in Oaxaca. What inspired you to tell his story?
Most of my films are about organizing the Oaxacan community in Mexico and the United States. I learned of Santiago’s story a few years back. I thought his project to create hundreds of clay statutes representing the migrants who had left the region was a little crazy. But then I understood that as an artist, his dream was to populate his village because he felt emptiness. Santiago himself left Oaxaca and later returned. He and I have a lot in common. We both immigrated when we were really young and now we’re both trying to do something for our community even though the community never asked. We all want to be the voice of our communities, [have a say] about how things should be, but then we leave. Unlike the locals, we are immigrants who have the privilege of going back and forth to the United States. In the film, I started exploring this idea and I think it gives the film a very honest perspective. It is not about how once Santiago creates a statue, everybody’s happy.
Are you satisfied with the reception that “2501 Migrants” has received?
I don’t know how satisfied I am, but I am overwhelmed and grateful. Initially I thought, who in their right mind is going to follow this kind of story? I thought that like my other films, it was going to have a very select group of universities and museums screening it and that’s it. But no, it’s had wider appeal. I think it is because people see art as neutral ground, not political, and it allows for a conversation to begin about the larger issues. Plus, when people hear about this eccentric guy, the statues, and the immensity of the project, they become interested.
What do you see as the film’s message for people in Oaxaca or in Mexico in general?
If you look at Alejandro Santiago, he didn’t have a formal education; in Oaxaca, it’s a privilege to have that. He went to high school and trained himself to be an artist even though there is no art school in Oaxaca. For a year, he would go to the library everyday. He’d do that as a job. He’d go from eight in the morning until one in the afternoon, and he would take a lunch break, and then he would go back at two and stay until eight. There are a lot challenges indigenous artists have to endure. That’s something I always say to young people—we have to motivate ourselves. If you want things to change and to improve the quality of life, you need education and self-motivation. When I started out, I did not think about the competitiveness of filmmaking. I thought, I want to do this and I’m going to push myself to do it. Migrants face a lot of obstacles; they have to take action on their own to achieve their dreams.
Given that you’re originally from Oaxaca, Mexico, a Chatino, and you speak three languages, English, Spanish, and Chatino, how do you identify yourself?
When I moved to the city of Oaxaca, I was indigenous. Then, when I came to the US, I was Latina, a Mexican. And, now, when I go back to Mexico, I’m Chatino, and when I go to Europe, I’m an immigrant. I embrace all the labels. I think it’s very important to recognize that people have fought really hard for their identities. But more than anything, I would consider myself an indigenous filmmaker.
What kind of advice would you give to young Latinos or Latinas who are interested in going into film?
If they have a story they’re dying to tell, they should pursue it in school or with someone in the industry who can teach them. In order to succeed in this business, you have to be unique and I think we all have unique stories. We are all special. But sometimes it can be discouraging when people don’t respond well.
Can you talk about your next project?
It’s about a boy who lives in a town [where] all the grown men have left, and the boy wants to do the same. But he’s waiting to grow up a bit, since he’s eleven-years-old. Then one day he finds a refrigerator and he decides to sell it, thinking it’s his ticket to the United States. Yet the refrigerator keeps breaking down and giving him a lot of headaches and he can’t sell it. Essentially, it’s a comedy about survival.
I drive Interstate 10 east, following the curving concrete line out of downtown Los Angeles. I clear the Inland Empire, pass Banning and Beaumont, and when I see the T. Rex and the Brontosaurus, those fading plaster emblems of lost worlds, I know it’s coming, that feeling I won’t be able to control. I switch the radio dial to KWXY as the freeway bows south and then crests in a sea of towering, spinning white windmills. The car fills with the sound of lush strings, gentle voices, and tickled piano—Jackie Gleason visiting “Shangri-La,” the Norman Luboff Choir cooing “Tenderly,” Ray Conniff watching the fall of “Autumn Leaves,” and all I can see is what suddenly surrounds me: the vast, caked brown expanse of the desert. My eyes water, my heart aches, and I have to pull over. It’s as if, to borrow the words of one of the Sublime’s great advocates, Friedrich Nietzsche, I have put my ear to the “heart-chamber of the world-Will and felt the roaring desire for existence gushing forth into all the veins of the world, as a thundering current or as the gentlest brook, dissolving into a mist.” How could I not fail, as he put it, “to break suddenly”? It might not be a Wagner opera or a recital of eighteenth-century instrumental music and might just be the purring vanilla swing of The Ray Charles Singers, but this is my sublime, my desert sublime. This is where I break suddenly, where I put my ear to the world.
The whispery-voiced golf announcer DJs of KWXY still call the station’s format “Beautiful Music,” a post-WWII FM radio format that stations like KWXY employed to characterize their “soft” and “unobtrusive” music. It was mood music for the imaginary quiet villages of post-war suburbia, its formulaic, nearly commercial-free hush meant to heal the ears of a country made tired by war, social unrest, and rock ‘n’ roll. “Isn’t the rattle of your neighbor’s garbage can lids enough without having to listen to freaked-out music?” one Beautiful Music station asked. “Pull yourself out of your old radio routine and get into something nice and sweet. They say many young people today will be deaf by the time they’re 30. Their own music is doing them in. Life has gotten louder for the rest of us, too. The song bird, the cricket, the soft crunch of snow underfoot are all becoming lost in the roar of the Seventies. … Fortunately, there’s still one place where you can hear something beautiful.”
Yet as Wagner himself once argued, even the beautiful, when stripped of its appearances and order, when its Apollonian nature is taken over by Dionysian impulses, can become the sublime—the beautiful can be where the sublime begins. For me, KWXY’s music is not only beautiful, not only a hush or a calm or a lull, but sublime, a soft roar that shakes me. Not topiary and manicured English gardens, but the swoon and sweep of awe, melancholy, and mystery.
I have spent most of my life coming to the desert. My maternal grandparents lived there for almost thirty years, at first as weekend golfers and bridge hounds, and eventually as full-time residents—two former North Dakota farm kids, with Russian and Swedish family trees, reborn as retired Palm Springs desert rats with impressively low handicaps, the greens and sand traps of the eighth hole as their backyard. My grandfather was a volunteer police aviator. He flew over the Mojave weekly in his wire-rim sunglasses with chocolate brown lenses, looking down over its subdivisions, soaring above its vast aridity.
KWXY was my grandfather’s station of choice. Back on the ground, he would listen as he drove, singing and humming along in his gentle voice to the Ink Spots and the Mills Brothers. When he was in the hospital, not long before he died, I asked him what it was that he liked so much about the station. The music, he told me, is “olden but golden,” a comforting sentiment for a man realizing that his own life was nearing its end. These were songs and artists, sounds and recording techniques, that were outdated and archaic, forgotten by most; surely all of them were, as my grandmother liked to say, “dead you know.” Yet the dead lived, the ghosts sang, the olden became golden, the dinosaurs never really left. The end was not the end. Through music, the past outlived itself.
Tune in to KWXY and, especially if former RCA Victor archivist Don Wardell is at the boards, you’ll hear something like this: the sound of the station’s trademark strumming harps, Henry Mancini performing “Latin Snowfall” from Charade, a station I.D. that is more like a poem or a prayer (across the blue of the sky, jet trails remind us of journeys long ago, and the sounds of the desert), Erroll Garner playing “And My Heart Stood Still,” Percy Faith and His Orchestra doing “Theme From ‘A Summer Place’,” a weather report registering a 108-degree summer afternoon, Doris Day singing “Our Day Will Come,” and then an in-house choir released from an old open reel analog tape that reminds you what you’re hearing, a musical rainbow, K-W-X-YYYYYY.
Yet the music I most associate with KWXY, which after decades of airing on 98.5 FM has now retired to its new AM home, is its endless parade of stereo-surround strings—a lushness that seems to float above the speakers, like aural clouds or angels made of sound—and the voices, all of those whispering and sighing choirs, exalting love lost and found, days rainy or sunny, nights in Old Monterey, or days of wine and roses. Though it’s also home to classic film scores and songbook standards, KWXY’s lingua franca is the “beautiful and familiar” instrumental cocktail music and singing choirs that blossomed in 1950s recording studios— a sonic balm usually mentioned right alongside the postwar, GI Bill birth of suburbia, the rise of the supermarket, and the sale of the first home air-conditioning unit. Closed-in environments needed piped-in music, and studio arrangers like Ray Conniff were happy to oblige.
As muzak historian Joseph Lanza has written, “Conniff’s music connotes the mystically metallic clanking of shopping carts trailing down aisles, the rustle of cash registers, the tinkle of loose change, and the grunt of chromium doors automatically opening for the next phalanx of shoppers.” It was Conniff, a former regular with the Harry James band, who is credited with first pairing the studio choir (four men, four women) with the delicate swing of orchestrated, symphonic brass played by over eighteen musicians. There was something always spectral about the Conniff choir and the choir craze he started. The voices were human but sounded disembodied, like ghostly echoes serenading from the grave, mystical shadows back to haunt the present.
Even though he did his time in Hollywood and was certainly out West long enough to shop at my grandfather’s clothing store and leave with him a signed autograph copy of his Somewhere My Love LP, Conniff is not usually thought of as a Westerner. But the music he made in the ’50s was quintessentially Western. It was music that cut right into the closed-in spaces of the developed West—the planned communities and shopping malls, the parking lots, the supermarkets and country clubs and tract homes and mobile trailer parks—and piped in some open space, some vastness, some ooh and some ahh, some sublime. It was also Western in its ghostliness, in its desire to use music and the technologies of recorded sound to speak with the past and not let the past go silent. “That’s the game The West invites,” Marianne Wiggins writes, “the game everybody plays out West: pretending we can see the past, here, in the present. Pretending we can call down the impossible, invalidate the present, and convince ourselves we’re in another time, another century. The West—true West—attaches to you like a shadow.” Conniff’s choir gave those shadows sound.
When I am in my car, facing the burning desert through the windshield and immersed in his angel choirs, I am pulled out of time and into place, into the aurality of space where my grandfather still lives, invisible but present, olden but golden, another dinosaur still hanging around the desert shadows. If the desert is what the theologian David Jasper calls “a theater of memory,” a stage for a cyclical return to the past as a means of returning to the present, then out on the side of the highway, breathless and teary-eyed and sublime-sacked, I am center stage, my grandparents in the wings, Ray Conniff filling the packed house with angel voices, and I face the desert with my ears open wide, swarmed by noisy shadows.
Kiene Wurth, The Musically Sublime: Infinity, Indeterminacy, Irresolvability. Dissertation, University of Groningen, 2002. 172.
Joseph Lanza, Elevator Music: A Surreal History of Muzak, Easy- Listening, and Other Moodsong (New York: Picador, 1994), 173.
Marianne Wiggins, The Shadow Catcher (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008), 13.
David Jasper, The Sacred Desert: Religion, Literature, Art, and Culture (Malden: Blackwell, 2004), 44.
*A KWXY SAMPLER
Percy Faith Orchestra, “Theme From ‘A Summer Place'”
Ray Conniff Singers, “Autumn Leaves”
Tony Bennett, “When Joanna Loved Me”
Paul Weston, “Time After Time”Norman Luboff, “Laura”
Henry Mancini, “Latin Snowfall”
Doris Day, “Our Day Will Come”
Jackie Gleason, “Shangri-La”
Gordon McRae, “Carousel Waltz”
Anita Kerr Quarter, “La Mirada”