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#Hashtags: Water Water Everywhere

#environment #conservation #access #resources #water #public art #civic art #biennials

Los Angeles is a metropolis built on a delusion: that engineering can overcome a basic lack of sufficient resources to meet the popular need. Five years into a severe drought, one would think conservation would be on everyone’s mind, but the clean cars and green lawns all around town suggest otherwise. To increase discussion of water and its scarcity, the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs developed CURRENT LA: Water, LA’s first public-art biennial. Four LA-based curators invited thirteen local and international artists to create temporary public artworks, on view for one month in the summer at locations dispersed across the city’s fifteen council districts. Like the water from which it draws its central metaphor, CURRENT LA was an example of the tension between abundance and scarcity.

Gala Porras-Kim. Supplement to Ballona Discovery Park Informative Signs, 2016; mixed media; variable dimensions. Artwork commissioned by City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA) for CURRENT:LA Water. Photo by Panic Studio LA.

Gala Porras-Kim. Supplement to Ballona Discovery Park Informative Signs, 2016; mixed media; variable dimensions. Artwork commissioned by City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA) for CURRENT LA: Water. Photo by Panic Studio LA.

Water and art are both fraught with questions about equitable access to resources. DCA General Manager Danielle Brazell likened the CURRENT LA: Water concept to the flow of water: at times a trickle, at other times a gushing flow. This poetic analogy overlooks the structural inequality that determines water usage in drought. Rain may fall everywhere, but once water meets the ground, access to it is not evenly distributed. Conservation is encouraged through punitive pricing, which has the effect of enabling wealthy scofflaws while asking the poor to do more with less. LA’s aquifers, which represent the city’s water supply for future generations, have already been severely compromised by unregulated industrial activity. Once again, those who can pay are rewarded with abundance now; those who cannot have to plan for a future without resources. Discussions around revitalizing the long-suffering LA River often come up against similar concerns, as ecological renewal seems to come about only when property values reach a point of unaffordability for local communities. The fact that CURRENT LA was underwritten by Bloomberg Philanthropies, a private foundation whose Public Art Challenge seeks to “celebrate creativity, enhance urban identity, encourage public–private partnerships, and drive economic development,” only increases the anxiety around fair and equitable distribution of resources.

Some of these concerns were addressed by the artists Gala Porras-Kim, Candice Lin, and Kerry Tribe. Porras-Kim’s Supplement to Ballona Discovery Park Informative Signs (all works 2016) took the form of several didactic panels describing the destruction of historic wetlands and Tongva-Gabrileño religious sites to build the Playa Vista development and Del Rey Lagoon Park, where the work is situated. Candice Lin’s A Hard White Body deployed bacteria to subvert the traditional monumental form of a historic bust on a pedestal by literally inverting and deconstructing these forms. Kerry Tribe’s film Exquisite Corpse stitched together fifty-one minutes of footage shot along the fifty-one miles of the Los Angeles River, focusing on human activity including industry, community-building, and real-estate development, as well as conservation efforts.

Candice Lin. A Hard White Body, 2016; mixed media; variable dimensions. Artwork commissioned by City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA) for CURRENT:LA Water. Photo by Panic Studio LA.

Candice Lin. A Hard White Body, 2016; mixed media; variable dimensions. Artwork commissioned by City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA) for CURRENT LA: Water. Photo by Panic Studio LA.

CURRENT LA: Water served two main audiences: art lovers who made car trips to parts unknown, hoping to see the project in totality, and local residents, who might or might not have happened upon art in their midst. Scattered across over forty square miles, the biennial highlighted LA’s impressive range of ecologies, from the Ballona Wetlands on the West side to the banks of the LA River in Atwater Village. Art appeared along the rim of a dam in Pacoima, on the banks of an artificial lake in Echo Park, and throughout the city’s many parks and green spaces. Some projects were hyper-local, like Lucky Dragons’ (Delta) in Bee Canyon Park, intended to construct an experience for everyday users of the site to understand their daily surroundings in a new way. Others were broadly international, like Teresa Margolles’ La Sombra (The Shade), a memorial to murdered Angelenos for which the artist displaced a technique of washing the sites where murders had been committed—from violence-plagued Juarez, where the artist describes the streets as a kind of morgue, to the streets of Los Angeles, where the gang activity that drives Juarez’ high body count is largely of the past. Still others were subterranean, like Refik Anadol and Peggy Weil’s Under LA, a series of public visualizations of geologic core samples taken from the rapidly drying aquifers of East Los Angeles.

Teresa Margolles. La Sombra (The Shade), 2016; concrete veneer on wood. Artwork commissioned by City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA) for CURRENT:LA Water. Photo by Panic Studio LA.

Teresa Margolles. La Sombra (The Shade), 2016; concrete veneer on wood. Artwork commissioned by City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA) for CURRENT LA: Water. Photo by Panic Studio LA.

Access to contemporary art, like water, is far from equitable. Few non-specialists are familiar with the formal and conceptual vocabularies of contemporary art. Community-based artists, whose work speaks directly to people on the streets, are often excluded from initiatives like CURRENT LA. Lower-income citizens, who don’t have backyards or lawns, could not fully participate in certain projects such as Mel Chin’s The TIE that BINDS: the MIRROR of the FUTURE, an artistically minded lawn-replacement program that requires a commitment of fifteen square feet of private outdoor space to realize. Still, for many locals, the challenge to access the art was often conceptual rather than physical.

Mel Chin. The TIE that BINDS: the MIRROR of the FUTURE, 2016; drought-tolerant plants; 15 x 15 feet. Artwork commissioned by City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA) for CURRENT:LA Water. Photo by Panic Studio LA.

Mel Chin. The TIE that BINDS: the MIRROR of the FUTURE, 2016; drought-tolerant plants; 15 x 15 ft. Artwork commissioned by City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA) for CURRENT LA: Water. Photo by Panic Studio LA.

Though it is a leading exporter of creativity, Los Angeles specializes in representation and narrative, two elements in short supply for CURRENT LA. An “If you build it, they will come” mindset common to many well-intentioned public art projects seemed to be in play, with the expectation that high-visibility museum curators selecting high-visibility contemporary artists would naturally produce successful public engagement. The results were mixed and depended largely on placement. Chris Kallmyer’s New Weather Station attracted mostly art crowds, while the local people who use the park stayed on the opposite side where facilities are located. Josh Callaghan and Daveed Kapoor’s Mast was situated in a high-traffic area, actively used by locals. Edgar Arceneaux’s The CENTER of the EARTH grappled with these concerns, presenting water as a reified material for spiritual contemplation and consumption, in a sculptural work that caused the park where it was sited to operate more like a museum, beyond questions of context, function, or legibility.

Edgar Arceneaux. The CENTER of the EARTH, 2016; mixed media; variable dimensions. Artwork commissioned by City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA) for CURRENT:LA Water. Photo by Panic Studio LA.

Edgar Arceneaux. The CENTER of the EARTH, 2016; mixed media; variable dimensions. Artwork commissioned by City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA) for CURRENT LA: Water. Photo by Panic Studio LA.

CURRENT LA: Water was a strong first attempt at a biennial of public art in Los Angeles, arguably one of the most important art cities at the moment, and one that has emerged without a strong international destination event. There is much to learn that will benefit future iterations of the project. For comparison, the recent Istanbul Biennial, whose theme of “saltwater” similarly organized major public-art commissions by international and local artists around a natural resource in a variety of urban sites, drew thousands of international art visitors and extensive coverage. CURRENT LA, similarly structured, was nearly invisible to visitors outside Los Angeles. The choice to schedule the biennial for the summer break from late July to early August, without targeting a tourist audience and when many artists and academics are traveling, almost definitely reduced its visibility. Those who did experience CURRENT LA at multiple locations had to drive to do so, adding to traffic congestion and consuming more scarce resources. Finally, the decision to treat CURRENT LA artworks as temporary, disappearing after one month, could be rethought in the future in light of how other public art festivals like Skulptur Projekte Münster have, over time, amassed significant collections of public artworks for their host cities.

Josh Callaghan + Daveed Kapoor. Mast, 2016; mixed media; variable dimensions. Artwork commissioned by City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA) for CURRENT:LA Water. Photo by Panic Studio LA.

Josh Callaghan + Daveed Kapoor. Mast, 2016; mixed media; variable dimensions. Artwork commissioned by City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA) for CURRENT LA: Water. Photo by Panic Studio LA.

Water is political, as evidenced by recent controversies around clean water access, most visibly in Detroit and Flint, Michigan, but also in East Los Angeles. Since the closing of CURRENT LA: Water, the protests against the Dakota Access pipeline, led by members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in defense of their local water supply, have made national headlines. Industrialized water built Los Angeles, where water scarcity has always been an issue of grave concern. The biggest threats to our water supply, and the future of our existence as humans, are not from natural causes such as drought. As the Michigan and #NoDAPL movements demonstrate, industry, corruption, and good old-fashioned profit are acute threats. Until access to clean water is treated as a human right, consciousness-raising through art is unlikely to make much difference.

CURRENT LA: Water was on view from July 16 to August 14, 2016.

#Hashtags is a series exploring the intersection of art, social issues, and global politics.

 

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