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A Brief History of Public Art and the L.A. River

"The Unfinished" is an obelisk-shaped excavation located along the banks of the channelized L.A. River. The horizontal excavation, dug into and through the asphalt of an empty post-industrial lot, will be a 137-foot to-scale replica of the Ancient Egyptian archaeological site known as "The Unfinished Obelisk."

Michael Parker's work-in-progress "The Unfinished" is a temporary installation on "The Bowtie" parcel at Taylor Yard, a narrow site that runs parallel to Elysian Valley and the Glendale Narrows stretch of the Los Angeles River. "The Unfinished" has taken shape through a collaboration between Parker, California State Parks and the nonprofit organization Clockshop, whose Frogtown Futuro series is showcasing diverse perspectives on river revitalization efforts and their implications for fast-changing neighborhoods like Elysian Valley. Inspired by an ancient and incomplete Egyptian obelisk on the banks of the Nile as well as Parker's firsthand experience of gentrification in L.A.'s downtown Arts District, "The Unfinished" aims to produce "a place to think about hierarchy and individual agency and the possible capabilities of a collective force." Part sculpture and part engineering (involving state park officials, soil scientists, surveyors, archeologists, and others), "The Unfinished" is the latest in a vibrant line of public art projects that have played a major role in reimagining and redesigning the L.A. River.

Lauren Bon and Metabolic Studio, "Not a Cornfield," 2005. | Photo: Steve Rowell, courtesy of Curating Cities: A Database of Eco Public Art.
Lauren Bon and Metabolic Studio, "Not a Cornfield," 2005. | Photo: Steve Rowell, courtesy of Curating Cities: A Database of Eco Public Art.

A long parade of visual artists, performance artists, dancers, filmmakers and writers have been trailblazers at this crossroads of public art and river revitalization: a community that includes Judy Baca (creator of "The Great Wall of Los Angeles" mural), Lewis MacAdams (the poet, journalist and filmmaker who co-founded Friends of the L.A. River (FoLAR)), the L.A. Urban Rangers (who developed the L.A. River Ramble in 2011 in conjunction with MOCA), and Lauren Bon (whose 2005 installation "Not a cornfield", as just one example of her body of work, created a "living sculpture" of lush corn planted on a 32-acre industrial site where the L.A. State Historic Park now sits and not far from where "The Unfinished" will find its own similarly temporary home).

L.A. River and Environs. January 2011. | Photo ©2011 Barron Bixler.
L.A. River and Environs. January 2011. | Photo © 2011 Barron Bixler.
L.A. River and Environs. January 2011. | Photo ©2011 Barron Bixler.
L.A. River and Environs. January 2011. | Photo © 2011 Barron Bixler.

A watershed project, "The Great Wall of Los Angeles" offers a window onto what public art on the L.A. River has achieved and why it remains so vital in the current context of river revitalization. Started in 1976 with US Army Corps of Engineers support and completed seven years later, the mural enlisted hundreds of L.A. youth along with historians and artists, all of who came together through Baca's Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC). The mural site is located in Studio City and stretches an impressive half-mile along the L.A. River's concrete banks nearby what is now described as "the grassy-tree-lined Tujunga Wash Greenway". Recently restored, "The Great Wall of Los Angeles" narrates the long history of California centered on experiences of indigenous and immigrant communities from the prehistoric past to a Cold War present. Shaped by Baca's participation in the Civil Rights movement and activist work related to Latino youth and gang violence, the mural was conceptualized as a "tattoo on the [concrete] scar where the river once ran" and, too, "a monument to interracial harmony." Put differently, the mural strikes a delicate balance between transforming the L.A. River into a public space that everyone might enjoy and documenting stories of community building and community disenfranchisement with which today's river revitalization efforts must reckon.

L.A. River oasis | Photo: Lila Higgins
L.A. River oasis. | Photo: Lila Higgins.
Scene from "Grease" (1978)
Scene from "Grease" (1978).

The story of Baca's mural draws into relief something I've observed as a newbie to the L.A. river community: the arts have long been on the vanguard of revitalization endeavors. Of course, when readers encounter "art" and "the L.A. River" in the same sentence, they may well think not of projects like "The Great Wall of Los Angeles" and "The Unfinished" but of Hollywood films like "Grease," "Chinatown" and "Drive" that have popularized a dystopian story about the river as a space of crime and alienation. And if such images come to mind for some Angelenos, for others, the L.A. River may invoke very little -- a place unfamiliar and rarely seen.

Allison Wyper, "L.A. River Encounter under the Hyperion Bridge," May 21, 2013. | Photo: Paul Outlaw.
Allison Wyper, "L.A. River Encounter under the Hyperion Bridge," May 21, 2013. | Photo: Paul Outlaw.

The river's environmental and social history has no doubt influenced how it's been popularly imagined (or, conversely, forgotten). L.A. was founded in 1781 with the river as a vital conduit for urban growth and settlement but one whose ecological and social vitality steadily eroded over the course of the twentieth century. In the early 1900s, the city began to import water, and after the Second World War, the Army Corps took the drastic step of terraforming the river into a 51-mile concrete channel with the aim of flood control. Today, the consequences of channelization are well documented: storm sewers funnel toxic contaminants into the river, the concrete infrastructure funnels most of that same storm water out to the Pacific, and the City of L.A. alone spends $1 billion per year to import 200 billion gallons of water from watersheds located throughout the Western United States (a system that constitutes 20 percent of the city's energy use). Taken together, the L.A. River and L.A. Aqueduct have thus come to symbolize a water-hungry and power-mongering megacity, perhaps above all for disenfranchised communities like the Owens Valley.

L.A. River tour. | Photo: Lila Higgins
L.A. River tour. | Photo: Lila Higgins.

Given the river's history, calls in the 1980s for revitalization met with skepticism in some quarters. Nonetheless, a revitalization movement gained steam in the nineties that was kickstarted by FoLAR (itself founded by artists), and the last two decades have brought new parks, wetlands and bikeways to the river along with comprehensive master plans that aspire to addresses air and water quality, conserve water supplies, enhance public park space, connect communities, and facilitate the civic life of Los Angeles. With the centennial of the L.A. Aqueduct in 2013 (whose development shares much with that of the river), the past year has been especially pivotal for revitalization efforts with nearly every relevant public agency, dozens of nonprofit groups, and hundreds of policymakers and activists having entered the mix. In particular, the year has witnessed a lively and important debate around four different proposals for revitalization that fall under the ARBOR (Alternative with Restoration Benefits and Opportunities for Revitalization) framework. With the most ambitious plan (Alternative 20) garnering public support, the Army Corps seems poised to commit up to $1 billion toward environmental and social revitalization of the river they channelized. Meanwhile, the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority (MRCA) took the lead in a coalition of nonprofits and agencies last summer that made a short stretch of the river open to kayaking and other recreation.

Such efforts represent an unprecedented effort to clean, conserve and expand water supplies and to connect and green L.A.'s diverse communities. However, although a huge set of players is deploying increasingly large sums in support of revitalization, the river remains stubbornly invisible to many Angelenos, and there are still many communities who have not yet been engaged in this grand civic project.

Art is especially well equipped to make the invisible visible. And art has been particularly important on the L.A. River because it has been a place that desperately needed to be re-inscribed into our collective memory. Artists like Baca, Bon, McAdams, and Jenny Price (co-founder of the L.A. Urban Rangers) have been trailblazers precisely by envisioning the L.A. River -- its past, present and possible futures -- in expansive and inclusive ways. As many of these artists' continued work on the river highlights, there remains much more work for public art to do, both because the dystopian vision of the L.A. River has been so enduring and because the success of revitalization hinges on broad public engagement.

An ever-expanding number of artists seem inspired by this imperative to engage critically and creatively with river revitalization and are building on the long tradition of public art on the river. This vibrant arts community seems to be taking shape around two axes among others: (1) temporary public installations, such as Parker's "The Unfinished," a series of pop-up cafés called "River Wild" and Lauren Bon's "La Noria" project and (2) participatory programming that melds the spirit of 1960s happenings with twenty-first-century tools of social media and crowdsourcing, such as the bike-in movie nights that the L.A. River Corp sponsors through its River Regatta Club. As has long been the case on the river, these projects transcend the boundary between public art and urban planning in fostering new senses of place (what is now termed creative placemaking). To wit, Bon aspires for "La Noria" to "transform one of the most heavily industrialized stretches of the river into a slice of sylvan tranquility." In remaking this industrialized "slice" of the river into an oasis, this 60-foot water wheel (one element of the ambitious "Siempre Agua" project) will be a bold artistic installation inspired by a wooden water wheel constructed in the 1860s and, itself, a sophisticated engineering project requiring the collaboration of Bon's Metabolic Studio and the engineering firm Geosyntec.

Project 51, a collective co-founded by Price in which I am a core member, is hatching a project called "Play the L.A. River" that joins forces with these other public art projects by helping to make the river a place where many communities can play. The project will launch in fall 2014 with a come-one-come-all festival at the River Center and will run for 51 weeks. It will call people daily and en masse to play on the L.A. River. Through a unique guide to 52 river sites (in the form of a playable card deck disseminated widely), an interactive website and a yearlong event series (partly curated and partly viral in nature), "Play the L.A. River" will invite people to come down to the river to salsa and tango, to juggle and hold chess tournaments, to sing a cappella and watch theater, to race kayaks and gather for pick-up soccer, to stage tamale tastings and to picnic with friends. When the year of play winds down in fall 2015, Project 51 hopes that the project will have brought thousands of Angelenos to the river for celebration, recreation and community in ways that might inspire more of us to participate in shaping the river's future.

In short, the river is happening. Coursing through the heart of Los Angeles, it's inspiring more and more artists to join forces with activists, engineers, public agencies, developers, and community groups of all stripes toward the challenging, exciting work of once again making the L.A. River anew. In some sense this is just the latest chapter in what has been a three-decade movement in which the arts have long been at the center. As MacAdams recently reflected on the origins of FoLAR in 1986, "FoLAR began life as a performance piece in a basement theater on skid row. We called it a '40-year artwork to bring the river back to life.' I donned a white suit and painted myself green as if I were the ghost of William Mulholland."

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