Los Angeles

The Unfinished: An Obelisk Along the L.A. River


"The Unfinished" is an obelisk-shaped excavation located along the banks of the channelized LA 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."

I have lived in downtown Los Angeles for 12 years. Every summer mosquitoes come from seemingly nowhere. There is no water in view, no lake, no stream, not even a puddle. From under the asphalt streets, the mosquitoes emerge. They thrive in the still, standing water of the storm drains, the invisible tunnels of water that feed the channelized L.A. River. In the summer of 2009, I was helping collect special places for Llano Del Rio's "Map For An Other LA," and I asked one of my long-term outdoor neighbors, Pepper, for a suggestion.

Until the forces of gentrification recently hit my immediate neighborhood, there had been an equal number of people living in the old brick buildings as there were living on the streets just outside them. The answer I received from my neighbor was: "Go through the hidden tunnel under the 6th Street Bridge and pop up into the L.A. River. It's the best view of the concrete trapezoid that is the L.A. River. It's actually not a view, it's a spot." Emerging from the tunnel is a confusion of LA playing itself: simultaneously a scene from Grease and a visceral experience akin to the slow moving parade of a massive earthship. I added it to the map as "Pepper's Point."

Emerging from "Pepper's Point" onto the L.A. River. | Photo by Michael Parker

Since then my daily walk has included a visit to the L.A. River and a crossing of the 4th or 6th Street bridges. This walk has changed since I first began taking it -- instead of passing numerous cardboard shelters and tents, I pass people drinking $5 coffee, $8 juice, or running with 40 lb kettle bells. I have watched the neighborhood expand, repopulate; there seems to be constant construction, and the threat to build more.

Discover more on the L.A. River from KCET Departures

Walking through my neighborhood, I began thinking about the currents of power that lead to changing the character of a place and the architectural shapes which embody it. Conceptually I'm a fan of urban infill, but since my rent has now doubled (as rent stabilization doesn't exist for live/work spaces), it's only a matter of time until I join my neighbors in losing their studios in this current wave of "revitalizing" the Arts District. It was a lot better for artists when it was still the Cold Storage district.

While walking and listening to the news of drought, floods, civil war in Syria, and the dissolution of the first democratically elected government in Egypt, I began thinking about the river, of the physical structures designed to control its flow and of the power to be wielded by those dictating its use. I thought about access, and how historically a region's agricultural prosperity, and ultimately its societal success is connected in its ability to get water. Tied up in the manipulation of the L.A. River is the history of western land grabs and the real estate speculation that drove the creation of the city. And the continual myth of the utopian dream driven by California's endless growing season and hypnotic climate.

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I saw a parallel in the Nile River and in the building programs of the great ancient Egyptian pharaohs. The flood of news coming out of present day Egypt and their people's struggle for a voice continued to stay with me as I reflected on these historic power structures. I came across Pharaoh Hatshepsut's "Unfinished Obelisk" in Aswan, one of her many monumental commissions. Intended to stand at 137 feet tall and carved from a single piece of granite, the work cracked just before its release from the bedrock and was abandoned on site. I was attracted to the incredible collective energy that could build such an obelisk and the incredulous authority of one person to will such an undertaking. The ancient site is located in the same town as the Aswan Dam which in 1971 stopped the Nile's annual flooding. This Nile dam, like our own California mega waterworks, is bitterly disputed.

Aswan unfinished obelisk | Photo: Dan Lundberg/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Artist and friend, Elizabeth Sonenberg, involved with my past project, the Steam Egg, was working at California State Parks and told me about an unused post-industrial bowtie shaped riverfront piece of land they were thinking might make a good location for temporary projects. Coincidentally, two days before I went into the meeting with Sean Woods and Stephanie Campbell from the CA State Park, Julia Meltzer and Mackenzie Hoffman from Clockshop came for a studio visit to inquire about my interest in working on a project at the L.A. River. They were in the process of putting together a Winter/Spring series, Frogtown Futuro, which takes a critical and varied view at the forces of river revitalization in their neighborhood. By having Clockshop as partners, I might actually be able to realize the project and deal with all the bureaucratic complexities.

A North-Eastern facing view of the "Bowtie" industrial site. | Photo by Emma Sheffer

Cal State University Long Beach student Juliet Johnson describes the site from atop the ladder to Michael Parker and her fellow student Jim Haag. | Photo by Emma Sheffer

Michael Parker discusses the plan for the obelisk with CA State Parks Superintendent Sean Woods and CA State Parks staff Carl Stromberg and Abel Diaz, as they attempt to locate all underground utilities and potential obstructions. | Photo by Emma Sheffer

"The Unfinished" is an attempt at articulating complex contradictions in an overwhelmingly intertwined world. How can I simultaneously create a massive earthwork that is a literal copy of a Pharaonic power symbol and also self-implicate the double-bind of being a gentrifier and a gentrified (pharaoh and craftsman)? I envision a replica of The Unfinished Obelisk lying in wait next to the L.A. River as a place to think about hierarchy and individual agency and the possible capabilities of a collective force.

The best way to visualize where this northeast L.A location is: "behind the Super King on San Fernando Road, on the opposite bank from Frogtown, just South of the 2 Fwy where it connects to the 5 Fwy." The "Bowtie" State Park takes fifteen minutes to walk from end to end and it is sandwiched between the freight/commuter rail lines and the bank of the concretized L.A. River. It is covered in asphalt, exposed gravel and soil, scruffy chaparral, abandoned train tracks and a circular rail turntable. It is at one of the most luscious sections along the river: full of willows, sycamores, arrundo reeds (which are invasive), cormorants, swallows, egrets and great blue herons.

Cal State Long Beach student Nick Gaby sporting wild sage picked at the "Bowtie" while assisting on site. | Photo by Emma Sheffer

Graduate Anthropology student Jeanette Harlow surveys the ground for non-traceable utilities and industrial detritus. | Photo by Emma Sheffer

Cal State Long Beach Graduate Anthropology students Matt Rice and Candice Brennan prepare to survey the 150 foot long dig site using ground penetrating radar. | Photo by Emma Sheffer

In late November the California State Parks gave us permission to begin the extended process of review from their resource experts. In January the District Superintendent granted conditional permission for the project contingent on soils testing. We had to rule out potential toxicity levels and use ground penetrating radar to "see" what is beneath the ground prior to digging.

Rendering of the "radargram" that covers the survey area ranging from the near surface to about 0.6 meters in depth. | Image courtesy of Matt Rice

The Present & Near Future:

These steps created further opportunities to open the project to more people. Last week we had a group of archeology masters students from the Lipo Lab at California State University Long Beach use ground penetrating radar to search for submerged obstacles and culturally sensitive artifacts in the lines of our excavation. After their study gave us the all clear, we took soil samples at various depths to rule out toxic soil...five days of waiting, the lab results broke our final impediment.

With the cooperation of an ever growing number of individuals and agencies, we have cleared all the hurdles and are days away from being shovel ready. We are renting the heavy equipment needed March 7 - March 8 and March 14 - March 15. "The Unfinished" will officially open at 4 pm on Saturday March 15, 2014 until sunset. But, for now, I just keep thinking "what was it like that morning in Ancient Egypt when the laborers came in and found the obelisk had cracked?"

Please join us for this excavation.

For up-to-date information about the time, location and directions, please visit Clockshop's website or email info@clockshop.org.

The "Bowtie" industrial site at sunset. | Photo by Michael Parker

Read more on the L.A. River from KCET Departures:

L.A. River Design Proposals that Can Handle the Floods
How can we design along the Los Angeles River, while still taking into account its flow conditions?

Councilmembers O'Farrell and Cedillo Rally City in Support for Comprehensive Changes to L.A. River
Councilmembers O'Farrell and Cedillo rally support for the most expansive alternative (and expensive) offered by the U.S. Army Corps impending plan for revitalizing the Los Angeles River.

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Top Image: Clockshop, The Unfinished.

About the Author

Michael Parker is a Los Angeles based artist whose practice explores individual agency and collective action.
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