Dakota is Everywhere
Fog blankets Williston this morning as wet snow falls. Through a dirty hotel window I can just make out heavy trucks traveling east and west, even in this weather, to service oil wells along Highway 2. The four lane strip ties together much of the Williston Basin, a 300,000 square mile depression that includes part of North and South Dakota, Montana, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan. Two miles underneath lies the shale formation called the Bakken, where hydraulic fracturing has unlocked vast amounts of petroleum. Photographer Terry Evans and I arrived yesterday with our usual tools: cameras, history books, poetry, warm coats, and boots. This is our seventh trip to Williston in 18 months of exploring the effects of the oil boom on prairie and people. This morning I’m preparing to interview oil engineer Russell Rankin by reading “Song of the Exposition” by Walt Whitman, bard of American industrial ingenuity in an earlier age.
Whitman’s enthusiasm seems appropriate. Rankin helped Brigham Exploration, a company based in Austin, Texas, develop some of the techniques that make oil production in the Bakken economically feasible. Brigham was one of the first operators to drill two-mile long, lateral wells and hydraulically fracture (“frack”) them in multiple – sometimes up to 20 – stages, dramatically boosting production. In fracking, water, sand, and chemicals are forced into rock under high pressure to loosen petroleum. Recently the International Energy Agency reported that the United States will overtake Saudi Arabia as the world’s leading oil producer before 2020 largely because of the oil and gas now available – through fracking – from shale. Statoil, which is 67 percent owned by the Norwegian government, is so bullish on the Bakken that it bought Brigham late last year for $4.7 billion, gaining its expertise and 375,000 net acres in North Dakota. Brigham’s CEO and others moved on, but Russell Rankin stayed as Statoil’s regional manager in the Bakken.
He’s late because of snow and traffic, and when he arrives we forego a formal interview and talk over lunch in the fraying dining room of the hotel. He’s 39, courteous, and so enthusiastic about Bakken drilling techniques that at first he forgets to eat. He says Brigham/Statoil has quadrupled production – far more than he’d anticipated – since June 2011, when Terry and I began our explorations.
“We’ve learned a lot. We were at the development stage earlier, but now we’ve drilled enough that we can map more precisely where the oil is. When you first got here in June, 2011, Brigham was operating 70 wells; now Statoil has 270. We had 8 drilling rigs operating then and 19 by the beginning of 2012. We’ve got fewer rigs up now because we don’t need as many as before. We’re drilling more than one well now on each pad – we’ve got 4 on one site.”
Monthly oil production in North Dakota’s Williston Basin grew from 11 to almost 22 million barrels between May 2011 and November 2012. In the same period, the number of wells rose from 5,300 to 8,000. At least 45,000 wells are projected for North Dakota before this boom is done.
This is the juggernaut Terry and I have been exploring, and in the coming months this blog will feature what we’ve found.
After lunch, Rankin offers to take us to a nearby Statoil oil drilling site. We make our way through busy Williston streets to Highway 1804 (named for the first year of the Lewis and Clark expedition) and head towards the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers. Soon we turn onto a county road and wind through snow-covered prairie hills shrouded in fog. In a wooded coulee (as ravines here are called), I see golden leaves still falling and horses huddled together to stay warm.
A Sidewinder drilling rig, 176 feet tall and bright red, stands on a rise about a mile past the horses. Statoil leases the rig and subcontracts with specialists for drilling. This one had just been erected. It has robotic feet and will “walk” in order to drill two boreholes here in the next weeks.
From the pad (the raised platform where the rig sits), I can see that we’re in the middle of what will eventually be many wells along a section line road. Barely visible to the west, and ghostly in the fog, are more pump jacks and a wide gash through the prairie – a trench for a pipeline under construction. Just over the hill behind us is a barn, and I figure a farmhouse isn’t far away. Rankin doesn’t know who owns the mineral rights Statoil has leased to drill this well. As I observe the structures within view, I’m struck again by the rapid transformation we’re witnessing of formerly rural lands. North Dakota was, until recently, about 18% prairie (untilled land dominated by native grasses, shrubs, and flowering plants like black-eyed Susan), a source of pride to many people in the state. Terry’s photographs of the Bakken landscape document a continuing loss and fragmentation of that prairie by structures and activities associated with the oil boom.
Before climbing onto the rig, we go into a trailer serving as headquarters for the drilling operation known as “geosteering” and meet workers from that group. Directed by engineers at the home office in Austin, they will guide the drill bit two miles down, gradually execute a 90 degree “bend,” and then go two miles laterally through dolomitic sandstone lying between two layers of shale. Eventually, fluids will be injected under explosive pressures into the shale, fracturing it and freeing the oil. Sensors on the drill bit provide the information needed to guide it by remote control. “It’s like steering a car backwards,” Rankin said.
Later, on the rig, we walk over large vats of churning “mud” – the drilling fluid (diesel fuel, water, and chemicals) that will clean and cool the bit and carry cuttings out of the hole. “Statoil is working towards a mineral-based, environmentally friendly mud,” Rankin says. “We’re also looking at ways to use recycled drill cuttings for construction – on roads for example.”
From the top of the rig we see a secondary berm around the pad. Rankin says Statoil took the lead in requiring two berms, not just one, so leaks would be less likely to spread. “Also, our pads are 100 percent compacted,” he explains, “so if an uncontrolled release occurs, it can’t sink down too far.” I think of a rancher we’ve interviewed who was sickened by waste from a different company’s well when it overflowed into a coulee near her home during the spring thaw. Rankin had already explained and vigorously defended hydraulic fracturing over lunch and now tells us that Statoil will use 50 percent recycled water to frack sometime in the future. He’s eager to explain that the company is environmentally conscious. Perhaps he senses critics nipping at his heels. As you’ll read later in this blog, Terry and I have observed the birth of a small but dedicated movement aimed at keeping oil wells off some North Dakota land and ensuring that drilling, fracking, and other operations are carried out safely everywhere else.
In mid-2011 we asked one cattle rancher who has made millions from oil why some companies have seemed so hurried in drilling the Bakken.
“It’s like when we’re haying and hear thunder in the distance,” he answered. “We work faster to get the hay in.” The thunder in this case would include permanent bans on fracking in France and Bulgaria (and a temporary ban in Great Britain) and a growing movement against it in the United States.
Also, the IEA report mentioned above reminds us that no more than one-third of the earth’s remaining fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) should be used by 2050 to avoid global warming of more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). As the U.S. acknowledged when it signed onto the Copenhagen Accord in 2010, scientists believe this is the limit beyond which climate change will become catastrophic.
Technical prowess is an important part of the Bakken story, and in an earlier America, a great poet might have “sung” the achievements of the talented people who have produced this industrial boom. Our world is still profoundly dependent on oil. Terry and I are acutely aware of this each time we board an airplane to North Dakota and travel to remote drilling sites in a rented SUV. Still, it would be hard to find a poet of Whitman’s genius to “sing” the Bakken boom. We’re exploring something new in American history – a major industrial leap in an era of global warming. To rejoice seems inappropriate – almost like dancing on a grave.
Excavating Carbon Sink: Meditations on Art Removal
‘Arguments,’ such as they are, given in support of the removal of public art in our time range from political to aesthetic to moral. In some cases, as in the April 2003 toppling of Sadam Hussein’s Baghdad statue, the removal is documented as a cause célèbres. In others, as in the recent removal of disgraced Penn State coach Joe Paterno’s statue, the endeavour is shielded from the prying eyes of the emotionally involved public and secreted away in disgrace. But what of the abstract, those works not attached to a specific person? Perhaps one of the most famous cases of public art removal occurred on the night of March 15, 1989, with the dismantling of Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc, previously resident of New York City’s Federal Plaza. From the moment of its 1981 installation, Tilted Arcgenerated a nationwide debate, both within arts circles and without. Complaints included the inconvenience that the 120ft long, 12ft high piece of curved steel caused the Plaza’s office workers, the fear that it would attract graffiti and its potential for terrorist use as a blasting wall.[i] So, following a public hearing, Tilted Arc was cut into three pieces and unceremoniously carted off to a scrap yard. A similar scrap yard ending recently befell artist Chris Drury’s Carbon Sink: What Goes Around Comes Around, formerly installed at the University of Wyoming in Laramie.[ii]
I previously wrote about Carbon Sink on this site, following the controversy it attracted, largely a product of the ire felt by Wyoming lawmakers in coal rich counties. Notably, Representative Tom Lubnau felt compelled to “educate folks at the University of Wyoming about where their paychecks come from.”[iii] This and other threats garnered a brief spate of international attention before the controversy ostensibly ceased, as Drury predicted it would. Fast-forward nearly a year, to a week after the University’s May 5th spring convocation when, like Tilted Arc, Carbon Sink was unceremoniously removed, as quietly as possible. However, unlike Serra’s work,Carbon Sink was denied its proverbial day in court. From the time of its removal, those of us not living in Laramie and near the site, waited until the end of July to learn of the piece’s destruction via Jeffrey Lockwood’s Wyofile article. No pre-emptive press releases were issued, no public forums were called. Reasons cited included the unlikely (the piece was always meant to come down) and the insulting (it was too costly to maintain). The wood was sent to the university dump, while the coal was (of course) sent to a power plant.
Approximately a month after Drury’s coal burned, the West exploded in flames with the worst wildfire season in recent memory, fuelled (to some degree) by the pine beetle killed forests. These human and environmental tragedies prove, more than ever, that sensitive and complex work like Drury’s is vital. In my first analysis of Carbon Sink, I hoped that it would serve as a marker for memory in the minds of the state’s future leaders headed for a career in energy policy. Clearly, this is no longer possible in the way that I had hoped. But if the powers-that-be think that an incongruous patch of freshly lain sod can cover the fact of Wyoming’s energy dependence, they are ignoring the reality that every realist painting of unspoilt landscapes and every photograph of a running river reveals more in what they leave out than in what they include. The state’s residents know that just outside of the frame is an oil derrick; hidden in the river is tainted water. In desperately clinging to sanitized ideas of Wyoming, uncomfortable political, environmental, and aesthetic realities are cast into stark relief.
Though Carbon Sink’s removal marked a sad day for the arts, perhaps there is a glimmer of hope from the artist himself, who speculated last July that if the work was “to just sit there and get accepted, maybe it is not doing its job.”[iv] I would argue, that when a state scrambles to control its art, this often means the tide is turning. I doubt Wyoming has seen its last “Carbon Sink”.
[i] Kwon, Miwon. One Place after Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002), 78.
[ii] Lockwood, Jeffrey, “Behind the Carbon Curtain: Art and Freedom in Wyoming”, Wyofile.com, July 2012. http://wyofile.com/2012/07/behind-the-carbon-curtain-art-and-freedo…
[iii] Representative Lubnau quoted in: Laura Hancock, “Criticism of ‘Carbon Sink’ art at UW generates heat,” Gillette News-Record, July 17, 2011.
[iv] Chris Drury, Interview with the author. Laramie, Wyoming. July 23, 2011.
POSTSCRIPT: An interesting and revealing article about Chris Drury’s artwork was published by Wyoming Public Media September 28, 2012: http://wyomingpublicmedia.org/post/documents-show-artwork-removed-e…
Travels in Tasmania — Part 3 of 3
Tasmania’s Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) opened in 2011 to both raves and brickbats. Founded by mathematician and world-class gambler David Walsh, it at first appeared to house one man’s eccentric obsessions from old coins to works by Anselm Kiefer. Critics lambasted it as a monument to a global civilization in decline, as one might expect for a museum including a machine that processes food into odorous excrement. Admirers, however, noted that the unique juxtaposition of cultural objects from across 4,000 years could not fail to create new perspectives. The admirers are winning: MONA is now one of the most visited tourist attractions in Australia, and its new exhibition, “Theater of the World,” is utterly fantastic.
Photographer David Stephenson wrangled us an invitation to the opening, which was attended by more than 800 people. We joined a long queue from which ten people were admitted at a time. In part this was to assure a smooth descent several floors down a spiral metal staircase next to the exposed sandstone cliffs created when the site was quarried to admit the building designed by Melbourne architect Nonda Katsalidis. It’s not a small museum, holding as much gallery space as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
MONA hosts a legendarily egalitarian demography. I was there in jeans, a fleece jacket, and hiking shoes. Young women in short black dresses, young men in tight shiny suits (and short black skirts, come to think of it) mixed with the Tasmanian Premier, all of whom dove eagerly for glasses of champagne and wine from the local winery that is part of Walsh’s property (and a revenue source for the museum). Long trays of skewered roast birds, rounds of brie and slabs of ultra-rare beef were offered up as finger food. Bacchanal would be the right word. Think Burning Man in a black suit underground.
“Fantastic” is a word that conjures up the dark circuses of Ray Bradbury, interstellar voyages to galaxies far, far away, and the musings of Monty Python. It is, in short, a perfect word to describe MONA’s second exhibition. Drawing equally from Walsh’s private collection and the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery’s trove of objects, the wandering exhibition sets Picasso’s famous Weeping Woman next to the eyes of an anonymous Yoruba beaded bag. Andy Warhol meets Japanese erotica, Damien Hirst’s flies trapped in resin resonates with an Egyptian sarcophagus, and 80 tapa barkcloths from the Pacific Basin are gazed upon by a Giacometti figure. Sex and death remain evident in the new pairings, but there is a sense of play and a deep engagement of intelligence as well as the senses.
The result is a cabinet of wonder, an experimental theatre, anthropology as alchemy. It’s an exhibition that I could visit weekly to learn from, be inspired by, and occasionally groan at. I wish it were in the United States, preferably in California — close enough to visit, but not so near as to take over my life. As a consolation, the website is excellent (and strange): http://mona.net.au
The thing about Tasmania, which I happily seem to visit almost every year now in search of art and archives, is that it retains that sense of life on the edge of the world. Walking the small harbor past both TMAG and the stalwart Aurora Australis, or traveling the length of the Derwent beside which sits MONA — it’s life as recombinant cultural DNA that is evolving in front of your eyes.
Travels in Tasmania — Part 2 of 3
The Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG), established in 1843, lives in a handsome sandstone building just uphill from the Hobart harbor, which at the moment has in port one of the few research ships that sails regularly to the Antarctic. The large orange Aurora Australis is an icebreaker that many Australian artists have journeyed on to the southern polar regions.
The TMAG, much of which is closed for an extensive expansion funded, nonetheless has up a terrific survey of Tasmanian landscape work titled Regarding Landscape. It starts with an elevated view of The Derwent River and Hobart Town painted in 1831, proceeds through the major 20th-century artists, including Lloyd Rees, Edith Holmes, and Arthur Boyd and into contemporary images. The adjacent gallery holds works specifically about water in Tasmania, which is capped with videos made by David Stephenson and Martin Walch from their 2012 Derwent River project (see previous post).
It’s interesting to look first at the paintings, sit with the videos and then to go back to the paintings. The first run-through of the landscape oils, which start with mostly unpopulated scenery and then become much more strident and symbol-laden over time, is just that: a run-through. You spend the stereotypical 17 seconds in front of each painting and its label before moving on to the next. The videos, as I mentioned in the last post, recalibrate your rate of cognition into a much slower mode.
The second time you visit the paintings, therefore — with your mental pulse now kicked down a gear or two — the scenes appear to be sharper, the colors inhabiting a wider spectrum, the details more numerous. It’s not an effect I could have predicted, but it is exactly the effect that Stephenson and Walch are seeking to create with viewers: to slow them down beyond simply the experience of the moment. And this also makes it a fine time to walk across the street to the Carnegie Gallery upstairs at the Maritime Museum, where the always peripatetic Stephen Eastaugh has a retrospective of his Antarctic paintings titled An Awfully Beautiful Place.
Eastaugh has been to the Antarctic nine times and is one of the few artists to have spent the winter on the continent. He’s more than familiar with the innards of the Aurora Australis, and his work uses materials easily transported, such as small squares of burlap and skeins of yarn. The results can be profound, the knitting of yarn and the sewing of thread throughout his canvases small and large a reminder of the almost quirky presence of humans in the severe strangeness of the Antarctic landscape. Most artists concentrate on portraying the Antarctic as a “white continent” seen during the six-month day. Eastaugh has managed dark views of the Antarctic as a “Big Beautiful Dead Place” (the title of a large, profoundly disturbing panorama of rafting sea ice under a black sky shot through with dark blue yarn).
Art that you see in places such as Tasmania can often remind us that abstraction, high technology, and elaborate systems of symbols can be used by artists to create more than just objects of high value in an international art market; they can also be put into service as links to our place in the world by altering our senses. Speaking of which, Hobart is also home to the world-renowned Museum of New and Old Art, which is devoted to exploring the twin themes of sex and death, and which just opened up its newest exhibition, “Theatre of the World.” Definitely disturbing — see the next post.
Travels in Tasmania — Part 1 of 3
I’m in central Tasmania attending a conference about “Imaging Nature,” which is being held at an arts-and-craft resort high in the mountains. The Tarraleah Lodge and resort was originally the village for workers constructing one of the larger hydroelectric projects in the state, and my room faces out into a eucalyptus forest that is bordered by two enormous pipes dropping water down from the King William reservoir to a power plant at the bottom of the deep gorge on the other side of the building.
The first hydroelectric projects in the southern hemisphere were built in Tasmania, the large island south of Australia that holds the grandest mountain scenery and deepest lakes in the country. The central plateau of Tasmania was covered repeatedly by glaciers during the ice ages, tongues of ice that descended to carve out deep valleys now filled with water. In order to industrialize the state of Tasmania, the government undertook a massive expansion of the early hydroelectric scheme in the 1950s and 60s.
The result is a land of contradictions. Tasmania is known worldwide for heritage wilderness parks that are among the most remote and impenetrable on the planet, parks that about some of the most severely altered landscapes imaginable. It’s ground that’s been over-grazed, over-logged, and plumbed to channel every significant lake and river through tunnels and pipes. It’s also very beautiful in its own way — pastoral lands uninterrupted by the coal- and gas-fired powerplants that would otherwise be needed to provide power on the island.
This is terrain that photographers David Stephenson and Martin Walch have long been exploring in a series of poetic video meditations and still images about Tasmania’s most historically important river, the Derwent, a project that will culminate in an exhibition and book in 2015 or so. They volunteered to take me up the entire course of the Derwent, which flows from the deepest lake in the country to the state capital, the port of Hobart, while on our way to speak at the conference.
The waters of the Derwent are controlled by seven dams that impound water for the power plants. Enough hydroelectricity is generated during wet years that Tasmania sells power to the mainland via a cable that heads north under the Bass Strait. During droughts, Tasmania buys back power via the same cable, not a cheap proposition. David and Martin have started their project by repeatedly shooting from geo-tagged sites both along the shoreline of King William Lake, and out on its waters from a specially outfitted canoe.
The lake is often shrouded in fog in the early mornings, and their slow quiet drifts through the drowned forests of the reservoir are ethereal. Slow ripples spreading out from the canoe make you feel as if you are continually falling into the water, while the stark tree trunks rotate around each other in a seemingly impossible dance. It takes a minute or so before you can slow your mind to match the pace of the videos, but once you do, you are entranced.
The actual experience of being at the lake provokes a similar perceptual shift. The bulldozed and drowned shores are at first terminally ugly, but after an hour of walking exposed cobble and mud while the waters are low, and picking carefully through the constant lithic scatter that indicates many millennia of Aboriginal occupation — plus the odd rusted tractor parts, beer bottles tossed overboard by fishermen, and random plastic bits — you begin to appreciate the scene.
It’s winter solstice in Australia this June 20th, and there’s snow on the rocky peaks of the King William Range. Multiple streams meander into the reservoir, which at this time of year is slowly rising, and the shoreline is forested with gum trees marked with a dark plimsoll line from the high-water months. The capacity of the land to provide beauty even when so deeply modified is surprising–as is the ability of the human mind to construct such beauty around the edges of the ugly. Imaging nature is a collaborative effort between humans and their environments, a process impossible to ignore while standing on the dry bed of a reservoir.
Michael Heizer — Across Time and Space
In front of Reno’s downtown Bruce R. Thompson Federal Courthouse — and only a block from the Nevada Museum of Art — is the steel version of Michael Heizer’s Perforated Object. Created in 1996, the 27-foot-long sculpture is 9 feet 9 inches tall and 3 feet 4 inches wide. Its Michael Heizer’s radically re-sized version of a Paleolithic artifact excavated by his father, the renowned anthropologist Dr. Robert Heizer, from a Nevada cave in 1936. Perforated Object is on my mind because this summer the artist is installing his newest work, Levitated Mass, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The sculpture consists of a 340-ton boulder transported from a quarry 60 miles away and then suspended over a 456-foot-long slot in the museum’s grounds.
Both works are formal sculptural explorations of size and scale in time and space, but they also pay homage to Robert Heizer, whose areas of expertise included both Native Americans of the Great Basin and the ancient art of moving megaliths. In order to think about such a complicated knot, I asked Steve Glotfelty, an expert on Nevada rock art, to take me out to Humboldt Cave where the original perforated object had been found. Accompanying us were two PhD candidates in archaeology, my son Mathew Fox and his partner Jennifer Kielhofer.
The drive northeast from Reno on Interstate 80 follows the Truckee River for a half hour, then heads up the west side of the Humboldt Sink towards the town of Lovelock. Just before reaching that town — where Robert Heizer graduated from high school — we turned off onto the dirt and drove across an alluvial fan to the base of the Mopong Hills. From there it was a steady trek uphill past the site of the old archeological camp and its generator site, two weathered wooden posts from the camp tent still standing watch over the flats below.
A few hundred feet of climbing leads to an almost rectangular opening in a gray outcrop. The cave entrance is perhaps six feet across and eight feet high, and a steep floor leads down and back about fifty feet. Daubs of peeling white paint mark the level of the original floor, and it’s clear that a significant amount of dirt was removed by the team of scientists who scrubbed the cave clean in 1936. It’s an unprepossessing site now inhabited by pack rats and birds, but a fine place in which to contemplate the connections between Robert and Michael Heizer.
Robert Heizer and his colleagues took back the artifacts from the cave to be catalogued at UC Berkeley, where they now reside in drawers, as much an archive of an archaeological dig as a record of the cave contents. Michael Heizer’s version of the hand-sized perforated object, a thin piece of horn drilled through by ninety holes to no known purpose, now stands as a reminder to the federal courthouse and passersby of the area’s much earlier inhabitants, and their Paiute descendants.
After visiting the cave we drove around to the eastern side of the hills to visit two micro-playas nestled just below the ridge crest. Both of them hold the remnants of inscrutable geoglyphs — rocks arranged on the ground in the shape of anthropomorphs; sadly, both sites have long been disturbed by relic seekers, as well as the military helicopters that use the tiny dry pond beds as landing sites during maneuvers. In 1969 Michael Heizer scattered dry pigment on the Coyote Dry Lake of California to make Primitive Dye Painting #1, his own enormous version of an anthropomorph drawn out on the desert floor.
That same year he created his first earthwork just south of Mopong Hills, Displaced/Replaced Mass, a large granite boulder transported from Spooner Summit above Lake Tahoe down to the desert near Silver Springs. Issues of size and scale, the transportation of huge rock monoliths, the deep continuity of forms in a vocabulary for sculpture in North America–all are abiding interests of the artist, all are related to the work done by his father, and all arise from the family’s experiences in the Nevada and California deserts.
The art critic Lucy Lippard — who is an advisor to the Center for Art + Environment — wrote an important book in 1983 titled Overlay: Contemporary Art and the Art of Prehistory. It’s a valuable catalog of how art of the two eras resonate with one another around the world and across time, exposing the constant human need to perform rituals connecting nature and culture. Re-scaling ourselves to the cosmos is a critical part of that endeavor, and Michael Heizer remains the high priest.
Metabolic Studio in Lone Pine — Part 4 of 4
In the afternoon following the conversation at De La Coer Ranch, Janet Driggs from Metabolic Studio takes Matt Coolidge and me to the old Pittsburgh Plate Glass works on the edge of Owens Lake. I’ve driven by the multiple silos and sheet metal factory buildings for years, and it’s a wish come true to clamber atop the catwalks on the eighty-foot-tall cylinders. Mat and I have unparalleled views of the lake and the dust abatement ponds channeling water across forty square miles of the lakebed. Matt had once considered the site for a Center for Land Use Interpretation residence facility before settling on Wendover, and he’s keen to see what Metabolic is doing here.
Which turns out to be, among other things, the transformation that Richard Nielsen and members of the Liminal Camera project of the studio have wrought on one of the silos: constructing an enormous camera obscura inside to photograph the lake. The aperture is almost three inches in diameter and throws a spherical image across a 46-foot circular floor and up the walls for almost 360 degrees of coverage (with an ƒ-stop of 196 for you traditional camera geeks). Lauren has previously hosted musical performances in this space, one of the most acoustically live environments any of us have ever experienced, and is now embarked with her team on the construction of yet another immense metaphor.
The water from the Owens Valley, as previously mentioned, was used by Hollywood to process the film coated with silver from the mine at Cerro Gordo across the lake. The Liminal Camera team is capturing silver and other minerals in the lakebed to produce film, coat it with emulsion, then develop and fix it on-site after exposures have been made in the silo. Their darkroom is a portable Vietnam War-era U.S. Army darkroom that sits just outside. The camera is thus making a picture of the constituent elements of the photograph as both image and object, as nifty a trope for both the process of photography and the link between LA and the Owens Valley as can be imagined. Oh, and then there’s Lauren Bon’s idea that this modest mining of the lakebed for film can actually be a sustainable local business. More social practice.
Sitting inside the silo and looking at the projected image of the lake is eerie, meditative, and hilarious all at the same time. The lens projects the image onto enormous sheets of paper being developed into black-and-white test prints just outside the hatchway. It’s a clumsy, delicate, unpredictable process that produces images of a landscape that is naturally harsh, yet ironically made almost alien by virtue of its aridity created by human intervention. Lauren Bon, Richard Nielsen, and all the members of the Metabolic Studio have transformed the silo, an industrial ruin that Robert Smithson would have loved, into a giant instrument of metaphor.
For more information on the Metabolic Studio and the silver-and-water project at Owens Lake, visit the following websites
Metabolic Studio in Lone Pine — Part 3 of 4
The nature of social practice was never more evident than this morning, sitting in the upper reaches of the De La Cour Ranch some 1500 feet above the Owens Dry Lake. Lauren Bon and her studio had gathered together some of the major local food producers, many of whom use soil produced at the ranch for their gardens down below. Through the conversation action items emerged, such as locate the databases containing information about soil composition throughout the valley, and where all the water flows.
The ranch, which runs along Carroll Creek, was an early pack station for rich people exploring the mountains, and one of the birthplaces of the Sierra Club. The stream not only makes possible the ranch’s lavender gardens as a source of income, but is also the only source for electricity here. Sitting under cottonwoods and looking down at the geometry of dust abatement ponds out on the dry lake is a reminder that the water flowing by us never makes it to the lakebed, but instead is diverted to Los Angeles.
The next town to the north from Lone Pine is Independence, the county seat, which has attained an unplanned zero population growth and teeters on the edge of unsustainable shrinkage. Lauren finds the name of the town a powerful metaphor for Independence becoming a site of transition away from dependance on LADWP–and that the accidental “ZPG” status is actually a positive and a possible role model for other communities.
We broke for another historically-derived lunch, this time of miso soup, dried nettle omelets, and glazed pork inspired by the Gardens of Defiance raised by the Japanese-Americans imprisoned at Manzanar during World War II. The camp was located midway between Lone Pine and Independence, and held more than 11,000 Japaense-Americans during the war. The gardens were symbols to the internees of spiritual and material independence from their guards, as well as being a source of healthier food than that provided by the military. The voicing of the metaphors generated by the juxtaposition of impounded water and imprisoned people, the gardens of Manzanar and the new community gardens in the local towns, are part of what makes this more than just a discussion about ecological restoration, but an art project.
Metabolic Studio in Lone Pine — Part 1 of 4
I’ve traveled down the Eastern Sierra from Reno to Lone Pine, a five-hour drive on what I’ve always considered to be the most beautiful road in this part of the country. Lone Pine is in the middle of the Owens Valley, and to the west Mt. Whitney rises 10,000 feet from the valley floor to the highest summit in the Lower 48. Lone Pine, besides being a jumping-off point for Sierra hikers and climbers, is also where Los Angeles-based artist Lauren Bon and her collaborative Metabolic Studio have their satellite headquarters.
I’m here to attend a Metabolic meeting with Lauren, Helen and Newton Harrison, Matt Coolidge from the Center for Land Use Interpretation, and others to consider how art, activism, and environmental sciences can intervene in what for a century has been one of the largest water grabs in the country. In 1913 William Mulholland, Superintendent of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) opened the tap on the aqueduct that drained the Owens Valley of its water in order to build, in part, the suburbs and towns of the Sen Fernando Valley 233 miles to the south. “There it is. Take it,” he proclaimed to the land developers of Los Angeles, the most famous words in the history of the city.
To begin the three-day meeting, two dozen of us gathered at the gravesite of legendary LA art curator Walter Hopps (1932-2005), who decided to be buried here because he “couldn’t think of a better place to spend eternity,” according to his widow. Two dancers slowly approached his marker at sunset, water and flowers in hand, as an offering to the grand old man who inspired so many of us early in our careers. I’d last seen him in 1979 or so at a meeting of art museum people in Santa Fe, and I’ve always considered him a classic curator — brilliant, socially eccentric but aesthetically principled, perpetually late.
We ended our reverie with appetizers made from local greens, rabbit, and freshwater mussels from the Owens “Dry” Lake (famously emptied by the aqueduct), the first meal in what will be a progression meant to evoke the evolution of the local foodshed. This was the Paiute-Shoshone phase, which was followed by a Basque Sheepherder stew for dinner over at the Metabolic Studio headquarters in a rented house a few blocks away. The house has been transformed into a proper planning studio with maps of the watershed and sounding lines of Owens Lake, and a long table around which we will play “Aqua-opoly,” a board game where units of water piped to LA is the currency.
Lauren hopes to frame up a hundred-year strategy for artists and activists to form a water community from Lone Pine to LA. She’s already started by creating a local cooperative garden to raise awareness of the issues, hence our locally-sourced meal plan for the meeting. “Learning from the ground up, “ Matt Coolidge quipped. For me this is yet another chance to witness the early stages of an Art + Environment project that is situated in that fluid and mostly undefined area of contemporary art labelled “social practice,” more about which in the next posts.
Metabolic Studio in Lone Pine — Part 2 of 4
Monday evening, and the progressive meals by Kevin West and Tom Hudgens (graduates of the renowned Deep Springs College nearby) have moved through a miner’s lunch (based on home-canned food such as sauerkraut) and into a Mexican dinner. The inspiration for the latter was a description by local author Mary Austin from her essential book, Land of Little Rain, which described an early-20th century Mexican-American settlement at the lower end of the valley.
The morning was spent in a group meeting laying out the parameters of water sources and usage throughout the Owens Valley, which ranged from ranching, the local Paiute Reservation wells, and local food production to the attempt by the bottled water company Crystal Geyser to expand its operations. Water ownership is mostly very simple here: the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power owns almost all of it. But the exceptions, like the Reservation and the family that owns the wells used by the bottled water company, are potential sources of transition for the towns here — to “get off the water grid,” as Lauren Bon puts it.
A complex part of the local puzzle is the court-ordered effort by LADWP to mitigate blowing dust caused by the anthropic drying out of Owens Lake. The consequent dust storms contain very unhealthy amounts of arsenic and the vastly more poisonous selenium, which cause problems for the towns downwind, such as Keeler.
Metabolic Studio’s effort is bimodal: it’s to change how the Owens Valley water is sourced, and also how LA uses water. Part of the briefing by Andy Lipkis, founder of the nonprofit Tree People, and artists Helen and Newton Harrison revolved around how to use wastewater in LA — ”mining the sewers” — in order to reduce the city’s water consumption, thus freeing up water to flow through the Owens Valley into the lake.
This evening’s meal is a potluck at Metabolic’s community garden in Lone Pine named Emerald City. It features dishes made from locally grown food, which is itself a trope for the rich web of public metaphors that Lauren Bon and her colleagues have deployed on behalf of social change here. The silver used in the early days of Hollywood was mined out of the mountains east of Owens Lake. “Emerald City” is both an allusion to the hidden powers controlling an urban myth in The Wizard of Oz, but also evokes the patchwork links of greenery that existed here when the river flowed. Metabolic Studio’s ongoing support of Master Gardener classes in the local foodshed are a patient social strategy where the art is deliberately kept almost invisible, but the potential for change is huge. Emerald City is also known as the IOU Garden; on one side stands an old red water truck used to bring rainwater collected at the Studio’s Los Angeles facility and brought to the Owens Valley, a symbolic repatriation of resources.
The artistic practice of Lauren Bon is to generate poetic and visual metaphors as inspiration for re-greening the valley and re-connecting Los Angelenos with the source of their water. The Studio then manifests those metaphors in actions, such as community gardens — hence “social practice” as an art form.