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.