Inyo

One Hundred Mules: Tracing L.A. Aqueduct with Lauren Bon

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On November 5, 1913, the Los Angeles Aqueduct began bringing water to the city. 100 years later, KCET is looking at what has happened, what it means, and more across its website. See more stories here.

At an abandoned industrial site next to a dead lake, they gathered together in fall sunlight and winter darkness. There, near the mostly dry Owens Lake, more than 20 residents of the Lone Pine area came together to practice playing wine glasses filled with water tuned to a musical scale. Lone Pine is a community about 200 miles north of Los Angeles, and each month from 2008-2009, this unlikely orchestra congregated near the remnants of the Pittsburgh Plate Glass factory. Before performing, they socialized with the artists from Los Angeles, enjoyed refreshments, cleaned their index fingers with alcohol swabs. Then, for the next two hours, in a yurt set up inside the factory, they practiced playing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."

Eventually, this group became known as the Metabolic Orchestra. Their performance on March 14, 2009 was filmed in the North Silo where the acoustics reverberated with a mysterious resonance for a film entitled "Silver and Water." An audience made up of two busloads of Angelenos added to the local audience for the event.

Lauren Bon and garden volunteers.

Then began a project called "Food, Film and Fuel," which included building a community garden in Lone Pine to be called the I.O.U. Garden and experimenting with growing alga for food (and fuel) on the saline surface of the dry lake. On the weekend of May 22, 2010 Inyo County volunteers participated in a "Three Day Shoot Out" which included working with one of the foremost German directors of Samuel Beckett's play, "Waiting for Godot." While one group rehearsed their lines for recording for a movie soundtrack, another group of "locals" and cultural adventurers were experimenting with shooting images of the dry lake with pinhole cameras on film stock and developing it with chemicals extracted from the lake's surface.

In the meantime, Metabolic volunteers visited the Veteran's Hospital in Westwood where another project called "Strawberry Flag" was underway. They made strawberry jam and in one case Irish soda bread with vets living there for a fancy tea happening on St. Patrick's Day.

Bon's movie, "Silver and Water," is an art product that has gone through several edits, reiterations really. When and how it will be screened remains to be seen. Fast forward to today, when some of the same community members from Inyo County and Los Angeles are engaged in "100 Conversations about Water," as the centennial for the Los Angeles Aqueduct approaches November 5 of this year.

Together, these vignettes are just another day (or month, or year, or decade) with Lauren Bon and her gang of performance artists her Metabolic Studio, based near the Los Angeles River on Spring Street. Lauren Bon is a process artist, and when you become engaged with her on her artistic journey, little do you know how many wonderful twists and creative turns you will experience along the way. A roller coaster ride doesn't even come close to the worlds of wonder that will appear before you as you travel. Many of the people around Bon bring copious amounts of positive energy and loving support for the community she continually creates. You feel good about yourself.

I got to be a part of her merry band of artists.

Lauren Bon explains the algae project.

In 2008, I joined the band of creators because I met them through the Inyo County Film Commission, which I head. I had worked with Jon Favreau on "Iron Man," and Michael Bay on "Transformers 2," and more recently Quentin Tarantino on "Django Unchained," but none of those experiences came close to working with the diverse collection of people Bon has gathered around her as she explores through performance and installation her varied and baffling "social sculptures." Her insight shows when she gathers a disparate group of talented people together, creates a fertile space for them to work, and watches what happens. For me, it was first the Pittsburg Plate Glass abandoned industrial site on Highway 395 south of Lone Pine. Then it was the Owens Lake bed, being worked on by the LADWP to mitigate the enormous ecological disaster created by sending the water south. There a giant American flag was raised on Flag Day 2011. Then it was an empty lot next to a bar in Lone Pine, where she partnered with the DWP and the town of Lone Pine to create the I.O.U. Garden. The name references the fact that she thinks L.A. owes the Owens Valley for their water. The Valley agrees. The V.A. Hospital in L.A., warehouses in the Arts District, planters, a state park that is "not a cornfield," the list goes on and on.

Now as part of that November event marking the completion of the aqueduct there is talk of an art action. One hundred mules will be driven along the Aqueduct, what Lauren has called "the Yellow Brick Road," from her studio in L.A. to the source of the Aqueduct in the Owens Valley. There is a subtext in her film referencing "The Wizard of Oz." But remember, Lauren is a "process" artist so what may happen this November could be quite different than what we expect today. It will be an outgrowth of her vision for her art. It is either an outlandish and intuitive vision funded by an heir of the Annenberg family, or one that has its own merit.

I.O.U. first conversation.

I live in Lone Pine, am a retired educator, a writer, a film historian who helped build the Lone Pine Film History Museum. I have been influenced and puzzled by working with Lauren. She intends to transform everyone and thing she touches and yet she cares little about creating an audience or being noticed. I learned to play the glass harp. I got to wear a funny hat and have fun. I learned to make jam. (My specialty is pomegranate, now made from the fruit off the tree by my front door.) I improved my gardening and became a California Master Gardener, inspired by the I.O.U. Garden experience in the summer of 2009. I learned about pinhole cameras (Metabolic Studio Optics Department is now working with a giant pinhole camera they call the Liminal Camera) and learned from Walter Asmus on how to recite Beckett lines. Yet around me, hardly anyone noticed Bon working on her projects. For some, this is the most frustrating aspect of her artwork.

Asmus and Terrence Lyons discuss process.

Yet, I have learned a lot about landscape, met very talented artists and sharpened my critical visual acumen in this process. When I met photographer Osceola Refetoff from the L.A. Chinatown through my film work in 2012, I was prepared to partner in a project called "Desert Chimera: Seeking the True Face of the Mojave." There is no direct connection between this artist and those of the Metabolic Studio, but after working with Lauren I was better prepared to start the search for meaning and point of view in the desert.

I had visited the Metabolic Studio several times so I knew that when Osceola and I began to explore the L.A. River in March 2013, one access point would be the studio off of Spring Street. You ask what does the L.A. River have to do with the desert? It's a question I might not have been prepared to ask before my work with Lauren. In part, I learned to look for unusual and unexpected connections between things through working along side Lauren's troop on what some critics have called self-indulgent projects.

My work with the Metabolic Studio was one factor that led me to intensely look at landscape and to delve into the writings of French Philosophers Deleuze and Guattari There I was introduced to the concept of the rhizome. I liken the rhizome to grass where it grows in complex networks of connections across the land. Rhyzomes as described by Deleuze and Guattari are built of connections. There are no central points. Wherever you begin, you connect to all the other parts in a non-hierarchical means.

Lauren Bon's work is rhyzomatic in structure, and the complexity is almost daunting because everything connects to everything else, even when the different projects, performances and installations seemingly have no connection. What do Rochester, New York and Los Angeles California, and Lone Pine, California have in common? For one thing they have Lauren Bon's "Silver and Water" project, the Owens Lake and pinhole cameras in common. They are also connected by silver; mined near Lone Pine, sent to Rochester to be used to make film, returned to Los Angeles, where Hollywood went to Lone Pine to film hundreds of movies since 1920.

I believe that Bon's work can be transformative and that she means it to be in a world-changing way. The world has yet to really notice and critics and supporters alike debate how effective her process methods will be. It is about creative art actions she forces by combining people from different areas, lives, and visions together to create a kind of art machine made up of instruments, people, media, places and connections. She hopes that everyone who comes in contact with her will become a unique artist, and in ways they little thought possible before meeting her. If that in fact is really true remains to be seen. It is an on-going process.

What is Bon working on today? Sustainability, community building, communication between people, connections between Los Angeles and Lone Pine, and a vision for the future, among other things. What projects is she engaged in? Wait five minutes and the answer will have transformed slightly. Can "not knowing where you are going to end up working on a project" be frustrating or a little scary? Yes, of course, definitely for the faint of heart more than others. Rochelle Fabb, Bon's project manager for many art actions, told me near the beginning of my being part of Lauren's work, that sometimes she only really understands the full meaning of a completed project after looking back at it. That is not a kind of art for everybody but a few testify it is a wonderful, transformative experience for those who can join in for the ride.

Did I mention Bon and her gang are a lot of fun along the way? It is an artwork that embraces laughing, giggling, feasts, and fun. What more can you ask of a life playing at artwork? Instead of artbound , so to speak, there is the promise of becoming artfree. Whether that will make a difference for the world remains to be seen.

AgH20 is a 240-mile work that aims at reconnecting Los Angeles with the elements that made it viable historically: silver and water, both mined from the mountains of the Owens Valley.

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Top Image: Pittsburgh Plate Glass factory

About the Author

Christopher Langley, a life-long educator, has lived in and studied the Mojave Desert for more than forty years.
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