The project of modernization that drove the planning and development of cities as we know them today took one shape as its guiding form: the grid. The grid became the model for logical systems that logically taught us to be logically logical, and reasoned with the unreasonable to control their illogical desires, to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that they were members, producers and defenders of a code of conduct that perpetuated the same patterns, the same congruities, and the same sorts of citizens. Sam Kronick, a San Diego-based artist, calls the grid, "[The] United States government's First geometric intervention." The project, "Slab Sand Cloud Grid" (2012) brings together a set of objects and interventions Kronick and artist Hermione Spriggs produced collaboratively in and about one of Southern California's most notoriously off-the-grid communities: Slab City.
Slab City has been home to thousands of informal tenants who use the concrete slab foundations that give the area its name as the groundwork for various permanent and temporary structures that comprise the community. In their research into the history of "The Slabs," Kronick and Spriggs found that during the intense project of gridding driven by manifest destiny, the final square mile of each township, Section 36, was set aside to be used for educational purposes. Section 36 of Township 10 South, Range 14 East, located North of the community of Niland, CA near the East bank of the Salton Sea, is home to "The Slabs." Even though it may appear to be a defunct space for education, for Kronick and Spriggs Slab City is a laboratory imparting lessons on informal infrastructure and community designated city planning.
The Slabs were born from a very particular type of education: military training. In 1942 a Marines base was built in the stretch of desert near Salton Sea. Kronick explains, "When the military [arrived], it swiftly initiated a program of desert alchemy. Sand and scrubby plant life made fine bombing targets, but they provided no suitable terrain for the mess halls, lavatories, offices, and munitions stores that would become Camp Dunlap." When WWII ended, all infrastructure at camp Dunlap, except the slabs of course, was demolished. "From the time the base closed, several servicemen stayed on, camping in tents. The concrete forms and surrounding land have remained occupied ever since. As the settlement flourished, all [names] from the past faded away and Slab City was born."
Slab city has since then been home to "dune buggy-based adventure-seekers, aging snowbirds from the North, gutter punk runaway teens, fed up salarymen looking for a new life, perpetual hippies, migrant agricultural workers and just about every other demographic imaginable," share Spriggs and Kronick. Over time, residents found ways to create basic infrastructures for utilities, using water from nearby canals, solar power and gas generators. Among the more cushy public services found on the slabs are a library, an Internet café and a radio station that operates between the hours of 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. The magic melding of slabs, sand, cloud and grid produce an environment where in spite of the insufferable 120 degree summers, numerous ecological troubles, and local myths about the site as a home for cannibals and meth-addicts, people live (relatively) normal lives.
The objects, video and other media that constitute "Slab Sand Cloud Grid," represent an investigation of "The Slabs" as a pragmatic space. The projects are documents of the intermingling of the elemental Slabs, the desert sands, cloud technologies that dominate modern life, the gridded reality of our city lives, and our desert military past. They are documents of a space that is more than hippie haven or a bohemian retreat where well-to-do young people go to "find themselves." They are records of a space that could perhaps serve as a model for what it actually means to live off-the-grid.
"Desert Alchemy," 2012, is a three-channel video piece that documents the creation of a small concrete slab. Water drawn from the Coachella canal by Spriggs and Kronick mixes with sand from the omnipresent desert landscape and concrete. The video functions both to poetically record the birth of a slab, and to pragmatically detail the multiple steps in laying down concrete.
The line between poetic form and pragmatic function is also blurred with "USB Slabs," two functional flash drives embedded in miniature, Slab-City-slab-shaped concrete slabs. The piece serves as a lighthearted meditation on the contrast between nomadic technological infrastructure represented by flash drives, and the traditional permanence represented by the material in which it is embedded.
The piece "Desert Drop" continues this meditation on the juxtaposition between permanence and impermanence. An "off-grid, offline, local peer-to-peer file sharing service," the Desert Drop network allows users who come upon it to access and download files previously uploaded by other users, and upload their own contributions to the file sharing archive. "Desert Drop," and "USB Slabs" seem literally to pose the questions, "What is hidden within the Slabs?" What sorts of knowledge can be extracted from building a community around a system of open exchange of information? What can be gained from the sorts of interactions that take place on the slab and inside the slab?
If the other pieces are visual and perhaps social records, "Peripatetic Audio Map," functions as an audio-record of Slab City. The interactive piece, a modified surveyors-measuring-wheel, plays back audio recorded from the Slab City Free Radio, which broadcasts informally, at a speed proportional to the speed of the wheel. As you put on the earphones attached to the surveyors wheel and begin walking, you begin to hear the faint traces of radio, voices and crackles that become clearer as you modify your speed to match the speed that Kronick or Spriggs walked as they recorded it. Our ears, not our eyes set the boundaries of the map, the playback sounds becoming cleaner at the center of the city and becomes staticky at the outer border of Slab City. The alternative "cloud" that hangs in the air over the settlement is grafted to the act of walking, and listening. The ostensive objectivity of the map, is reveals its true subjective form.
Each of these objects does away with the notion that to live without traditional infrastructures means to live in a vacuous natural space devoid of any notion of modernity or technology. Instead these works present a more reasonable proposal for ways that technology has been and could further be implemented at sites like The Slabs. As aesthetic interventions, the works challenge the usual presentation of Slab City as a derelict paradise, to be documented photographically as a reassuring reminder to those of us who choose to live within the confines of cities, grids, clouds, that our way of life is far more justified. Instead of this "ruin porn", these objects re-image this space, and challenge the imagination to manifest new models for how we conceive of space, community, and technology.
For more information about projects by Sam Kronick and Hermione Spriggs visit:
hermionespriggs.com and newuntitledpage.com
Top image: Slab Sand Cloud Grid.
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