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100 Mules Walking: The End of the Road

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Mules near L.A. Equestrian Center. | Photo: Osceola Refetoff.

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.

The "One Hundred Mules Walking the Los Angeles Aqueduct" set a fast pace as they came down Western Avenue in Glendale on their way to the Los Angeles Equestrian Center in Burbank. Everyone, riders, wranglers and the mules looked proud, pleased that their journey was at an end, but full of hope their "art action" had stimulated thought and discovery along the way.

Lauren Bon and the Metabolic Studio team had begun the work many months before, and this was the 25th day of what the Grateful Dead meant when they sang "What a long strange trip it's been." I have been associated with the Studio for nearly six years and had observed and participated in many of their projects, events, performances and installations, but from my perspective this was definitely the most ambitious I had seen.

Right to left: Lauren Bon, and her Metabolic team members Jaime Wolters and Guy Hatzvi riding down Western Avenue. | Photo: Osceola Refetoff
Right to left: Lauren Bon, and her Metabolic team members Jaime Wolters and Guy Hatzvi riding down Western Avenue. | Photo: Osceola Refetoff.

At first, in the distance you could make out a forest of red, white, and blue fluttering and see the bodies of animals clip clopping down the cement. They quickly came into view, looking dusty but proud with the attentive wranglers watching their strings of mules but the Metabolic team riders excited if tired, waving to the small crowds that lined Western.

When they got to the Equestrian Center, the larger crowds started excitedly waving back and the mules completed their 240 mile three county, 50 community trek with energy. On their backs were Lauren Bon, Jaime Wolters, Guy Hatzvi, Sarah McCabe, Douglas Lee, Michelle Urton and many others of the Metabolic Team that had been the whole way. On the ground were Rochelle Fabb, Lou Pesce and John Yi creating a "bubble of safety" on the urban streets for the parade. The Owens Valley Growers Collective were there as were lots of people in white t-shirts with the blue number 100 who had either provided support, ridden or been swept up in Lauren Bon's dream for this art action.

The sweet smell of mule briefly replaced the city smell of exhaust, but a street sweeper followed and all too soon the streets of Glendale were cleansed and back to business as usual. The mules did a turn in an outdoor arena, followed the bridle path and then were given rest and water. At one o'clock they were turned out at the equidome at the center naked, without ropes or reins or the colorful saddlebags with the "100" that they had worn each day. They rolled, cavorted kicked and butted, showing the epitome of playful relief. The gathered crowd could feel their joy. They would spend another day or two and then be trucked back to Bishop for one final formal appearance at the Fairgrounds on Friday and then be returned to their home pack stations to be pastured for the winter.

Soon participants and viewers, fans and the curious would be disbursed also but still thinking about what had happened during the walking action.

My project ("High & Dry: Dispatches from the Land of Little Rain") collaborator Osceola Refetoff and I had been lucky to ride the longest leg on the third day, through the Alabama Hills from near the Manzanar Internment Camp, now a National Historic Site, to the town of Lone Pine. In complex ways the people of Lone Pine had experienced all the impacts of having the water of the Owens Valley and Owens River and thus the Owens Lake diverted to Los Angeles.

Many of the stories on the KCET Artbound site, including two of mine, have examined this environmental phenomenon, as well as Lauren Bon's artist practice in the area, from varied points of view and perspectives. I have lived more than 40 years in Lone Pine, I am Executive Director of the Beverly and Jim Rogers Lone Pine Museum of Film History, where the mules overnighted. I followed them to the PPG plant on Owens Lake the next day, met them at Neenach (west of Lancaster) where they had a day of rest as well. It is near there the Los Angeles Aqueduct crosses the California Aqueduct, an area now marked with several solar plants. The wind was blowing desert lonely and water, mules and the arid landscape were on everyone's mind.

Then Osceola and I had dined with the mules at Stetson Ranch, Sylamar next to the Cascades where the Owens Valley water enters the San Fernando Valley. It had been a private party of wonderful food, fellowship and story telling for those who had been on the backs of mules. The next night there was a public reception celebrating the roll-out of the new California magazine BOOM being published at UCLA and Editor Jon Christensen had spoken about the new edition that focused on the Los Angeles Aqueduct, the Owens Valley and Los Angeles. He was inspired by the 100 Mules project and urged everyone to keep the dialogue and table conversations going into the future, one of the goals of the quarterly publication.

Her creative ideas are a modern example of E.M. Forster's dictum "Only connect." Her many projects, performance pieces and installations spread across the land in a giant yet meaningful web. The connections become hot spots for action and change. With Mayor Garcetti and the Friends of the L.A. River and many others focusing so much attention, dreams and potential money on revitalizing this concrete riparian area, many exciting results may be in the offing for the city.

Mule Crossing sign at the L.A. Equestrian Center announces the art action end. | Photo: Osceola Refetoff
Mule Crossing sign at the L.A. Equestrian Center announces the art action end. | Photo: Osceola Refetoff.   

As Bon describes it herself: "Hundred Mules Walking the Los Angeles Aqueduct is a prelude to "Bending the Los Angeles River Back into the City," a work that will pierce the concrete jacket of the Los Angeles River and use a seventy-two foot waterwheel to reconnect the land to the river that originally supplied all the city's water."

Bon has also stated, ""One Hundred Mules Walking the Los Angeles Aqueduct' is an action with a resolution to move forward into the next hundred years with a renewed appreciation for this vital resource: Let it be resolved that the citizens of Los Angeles will do better at utilizing this life-giving resource in the next one hundred years."

Bon promises a plenary session in March, which will bring forth as plan for the next 100 hundred years. Already a website with the name "" is up and will be keeping people informed of developments. Lauren Bon herself oversaw the creation and updating of a facebook page for "100 Mules Walking the Los Angeles Aqueduct." This social media created a complex web recording and sharing the hundreds of personal experiences, photographs and artistic expressions, which even included an original song. It was the way you could find out what was happening the next day with the mules as well.

Many wonder why the artist doesn't use general news sources and mainstream media to build awareness of this performative art action. It is by and large a grassroots movement.

I think it is all about connecting people and ideas and I am not sure this can be done on a mass media level. It takes dreamers, thinkers and doers within the community to move it along. It takes cognitive and emotional work, building understanding and questioning, always searching for new answers.

I recently came across something critic Carl Van Doren wrote about writer and feminist Mary Austin, who spent many years in the Owens Valley where much of this performance took place. He wrote of Austin, "She herself prefers less to be judged by any of her numerous books than to be regarded as a figure laboring somewhat anonymously toward the development of a national culture founded at all points on national realities." I thought of Lauren Bon immediately. Simply substitute the words "projects, performances and installations" for "books."

Osceola and I have done a lot of discussing of this project, both while we rode with Lauren and her team and later trying to understand what we had experienced. Osceola told me he had known about the water issues, and had photographed the Owens Valley. He had experienced Lauren's "Not a Cornfield" project which is only a few blocks from his home in L.A.'s Chinatown, long before he knew it was a project of the Farmlab of the Metabolic Studio. He had learned a lot more in depth from my experience from having lived the last forty years in the Owens Valley with all the environmental and water questions that the aqueduct has caused the area. Being part of the "100 Mules Walking" has quickened both our inquiry and dialoguing about the future of the desert.

That day at the Equestrian Center, after things quieted down, when Osceola and Richard Edson, an actor (Stranger than Paradise, Platoon, Eight Men Out), artist and photographer were talking, I sat down on some grass and began to sort out what I had experienced. Lauren Bon's work had created a new kind of community along the trail. It was made up of different groups of disparate people, with very different needs, agendas and perspectives. But they had all been united by the mules and the experience. I began to see as I sat there a complex structure of levels, of nets or webs that lay one upon the other, connected by Lauren's practice, by their very humanity and by the many technological and historic perspectives the 100 Mules brought together.

Lone Pine and Independence residents greet the mules (L to R) Jane MacDonald, Julie Fought, Kathy Bancroft, Bevery Vanderwall, Judyth Greenburgh and Chris Langley | Photo: Osceola Refetoff
Lone Pine and Independence residents greet the mules (L to R) Jane MacDonald, Julie Fought, Kathy Bancroft, Bevery Vanderwall, Judyth Greenburgh and Chris Langley | Photo: Osceola Refetoff.

I have been greatly affected by French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari's philosophical text "A Thousand Plateaus." I understand Bon's practice in this way. There are many layers to it, nets of connections spread physically and conceptually across the land. These layers have various characteristics, forms and organizing principles.

Sitting on the grass I looked around and thought of the "plateaus" of internet, the radio broadcasting and solar panels (on the mule Dolly) that powered the internet for the parade. There were cameras on a mule recording everything that happened from the mule's shoulder perspective. There was the aqueduct, the roads, highways, trails and paths that had been used for the journey. There were photographers like Osceola Refetoff and Richard Edson recording the events that day as well as most of the Metabolic team, and the people who came to watch. There were videographers and occasionally regional journalists along the way. There were people talking, and riding and talking, and talking in camp with the public. There were many levels of communicating and connecting and thinking. The studio has been assembling an archive of material about the "machinic" nature, process and experience of the event.

In this complexity of structure and connection, epitomized by Lauren's use of Social Meida, lay the source of new community. A great subtle power is there and as Lauren Bon's artistic practice continues, like Charles Van Doren's analysis of Mary Austin's work, we can hope for "the development of a national culture founded at all points on national realities."

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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