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.