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After the Aqueduct: Art Considering a Dry Future

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The recent public prediction of water woes by a NASA JPL scientist is inspiring a new round of political proposals and emergency measures designed to stave off an anticipated environmental crisis. The distribution of water resources around this state, and particularly to the city of Los Angeles, though, has been a point of controversy since the middle of the 18th century, long before William Mulholland's 223-mile Los Angeles Aqueduct linked reservoirs in the Owens Valley to the city in 1913. This contentious history, as well as the contemporary and future ramifications of water consumption in our part of the world, are explored in "After the Aqueduct," a group show at the Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE) space on Hollywood Boulevard.

Exhibition curator Kim Stringfellow suggests that "After the Aqueduct" is "a place to inspire and educate Angelenos about where their water comes from." Much of it, of course, comes from the Sierra Nevadas, and Texas-based artist Peter Jo Rappmund's mesmerizing HD video "Psychohydrography," described by filmmaker and critic Thom Andersen as a "wordless Situationist essay," chronicles the fluid pathway from these snowcapped mountains through the Aqueduct down to the San Fernando Valley and then along the Los Angeles River into Long Beach. Rappmund's time-lapse video condenses this long journey into a hypnotically atmospheric hour-long geographical contemplation.

L.A. Aqueduct Near Jawbone Canyon, Kern County, California
L.A. Aqueduct Near Jawbone Canyon, Kern County, California

Video animation artist Nicole Antebi takes a more whimsical approach to the question of where L.A.'s water comes from in her short piece "Uisce Beatha, a Mulholland Beastiary." ("Uisce," the Irish word for "water" is pronounced "whiskey," and "Uisce Beatha," or "water of life," was the original term for that potent drink conferred by 6th-century Irish monks.) When Mulholland returned to Los Angeles from a preliminary trek to the Owens Valley in search of water sources, Antebi's video notes, he "joked 'that [his] route could easily be traced by following the trail of empty whiskey bottles.'" The video goes on to speculate as to whether the Belfast native Mulholland was actually a latter-day incarnation of the mythological Irish water horse also named Uisce, a "malevolent" figure who "betrays the innocent" and "would stop at nothing to find water."

A more expansive reckoning with the history of water distribution, not just in contemporary southern California but around the world, is on view under visitors' feet in "After the Aqueduct's" main exhibition room. "River of Hydraulic Time," created by Lauren Bon and the Metabolic Studio, is a timeline of several dozen plain black-on-white textual placards plastered onto the floor, each one identifying a significant moment or event in the development of irrigation, riparian rights, pump technology and other water systems. The first of these cards harkens back to the year 6 million B.C., when chimpanzees used crumpled leaves as sponges; the most recent chronological landmark noted is the completion of China's Three Gorges Dam in 2008.


"Indexical Mule March" (2014), Lauren Bon and the Metabolic Studio, 250 mule shoes worn in "100 Mules Walking the Los Angeles Aqueduct" (2013), rusted iron salvaged from Cerro Gordo, leather string and cable, 12' x 6' x 6'
"Indexical Mule March" (2014), Lauren Bon and the Metabolic Studio, 250 mule shoes worn in "100 Mules Walking the Los Angeles Aqueduct" (2013), rusted iron salvaged from Cerro Gordo, leather string and cable, 12' x 6' x 6'

Kim Stringfellow cites the Metabolic Studio's 2013 action "One Hundred Mules Walking the Los Angeles Aqueduct" -- a 27-day, 240-mile caravan from the Owens Valley to the Los Angeles basin commemorating the L.A. Aqueduct's centennial -- as a principal inspiration for the current exhibition, and the LACE entry room features video footage of that walk along with a formidable hanging chandelier-like arrangement of 250 mule shoes worn by the animals who participated in the event along with a string of the bridles they wore. A separate room at the back of the exhibition space displays wall-sized liminal photographic prints of the caravan and some of the people and communities they encountered along the way.

The Aqueduct itself is the subject of a series of quasi-idyllic photos by Chad Ress documenting seven points on the water pipeline's route south from Inyo County to L.A., including the Lake Crowley Reservoir at its starting point and the USC Swim Stadium pool at its terminus.

Though the historical influence of the Aqueduct on California history is a weighty presence in the LACE exhibition, Stringfellow insists that, true to its name, "After the Aqueduct" also looks "toward the future. It's not about being stuck in the issues and injustices of the past; it's also about the progress. What are we as a community going to be doing over the next hundred years to resolve these issues?"

No Tresspassing, LA Aqueduct, Owens Valley (2012) |  Kim Stringfellow<br />

Occupying a long wall in the exhibition space, the information panels in Cal Poly Pomona landscape architecture professor Barry Lehrman's "Aqueduct Futures," originally displayed in L.A. City Hall in 2013, provide an ambitious "roadmap" toward creating a just and sustainable water policy now that "after a century of service, the Los Angeles Aqueduct is obsolete." With an assertion that "recycling water and harvesting rain (even with our changing climate) [are] sufficient to supply water so Los Angeles can cut the umbilical cord created by William Mulholland," Lehrman and his students are "focus[ed on] developing alternatives to the status quo for the Owens Valley and the next 100 years of Los Angeles."

Stringfellow herself has created a 90-minute self-guided Owens Valley car audio tour provocatively titled "There It Is--Take It!" after Mulholland's (in)famous declaration to the people of Los Angeles at the opening of the Aqueduct. Available online at, the audio guide features the voices of various stakeholders in the future of the region, including indigenous Paiute tribe members, ranchers whose families settled in the desert area generations ago, environmental activists and government officials. Visitors to "After the Aqueduct" can listen to some of the tracks from Stringfellow's tour at the exhibition by scanning a QR code on their phones.

John Pugh's 2005 &quot;Drain&quot; mural, photograph (2012) | Kim Stringfellow
John Pugh's 2005 "Drain" mural, photograph (2012) | Kim Stringfellow

Certainly the show's most technologically ingenious approach to determining the future of the Owens Valley region is USC landscape architect Alexander Robinson's "Rapid Landscape Prototyping Machine for the Owens Lake Dust Control Project." This machine allows individual users to custom-envision their own distinctive post-Aqueduct Owens Valley landscapes by playing around with various contextual environmental parameter settings. When these designs are complete, the machine can print out physical postcards with vistas the new Owens Valley that each neophyte land use policymaker has created.

Real postcards from an imagined future aptly symbolize the project that Stringfellow has embarked on with her artistic colleagues, a demonstration that the fate of our water resources, and the desert areas we have exploited to produce them, is in our own hands.

Watch our documentary on Lauren Bon's "100 Mules Walking the Los Angeles Aqueduct:"

Artbound Special: One Hundred Mules Walking the L.

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Top Image: Opening Day, Lake Crowley Reservoir, Inyo County, California (2013) | Chad Ress

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