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Los Angeles: Camouflage and Contestation

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This image essay is a contribution to Incendiary Traces, a conceptually driven, community generated art project conceived by artist Hillary Mushkin. As part of Incendiary Traces, a series of "draw-ins" will take place in Southern California in the coming months. They will be followed here on Artbound, along with related posts on historical and contemporary topics like this one.

As part of my research on art and visuality in Los Angeles, I've recently been thinking about a rather uncanny intersection of three midcentury architectures: Disneyland, Lakewood and the aerospace industry. All are understood as staples of the California landscape and each, in its own way, has generated its own body of artistic imagery and cultural discourse. Lakewood, as seen in the now famous photographs of William Garnett, embodied the democratic and economic idealism of postwar suburban life. Disneyland was an even sweeter confection, with its ersatz main streets, storybook fantasylands and mechanical thrill rides offering middle class Americans a regulated release from the normalcy of everyday life (above). Aerospace, with its high paying jobs and technological innovation, was the economic and industrial gel that held the triad together. Beginning with the expansion of military production during World War II, airplane factories put depressed Californians to work, money in their pockets, and dreams in their heads (figure 1). At war's end, the industry did not shrink but rather expanded fueled by the Cold War politics, synthetic consumerism and technological messianism that typified American life in the '40s, '50sand '60s. As turboprop aviation gave way to the jet age and the space race and wartime polymers became the basis for Tupperware food storage containers, depression-era communalism was transformed into individuated middle class desire.

Overlapping social histories aside, the question may still linger as to what draws these three architectures together. For me, as an art historian, the answer is vision or, more specifically, a certain tension between showing and concealing. In the images of all three sites -- all shown, not coincidentally, from aerial perspectives -- the clarity and order of visual prospect lends itself to extrapolations about the nature of the sites represented. Framing Lakewood as a pattern of one homestead after another that stretches to and beyond the edges of the photographic plate, Garnett's imagery appeared to materialize an ideology of independent yet likeminded middle class democracy that is both Californian and Jeffersonian. Disneyland's manicured fantasy spaces, from its miniature Wild West canyons to its idealized European villages, likewise presented the chimera of encompassing vision and, simultaneously, cultural enclosure. It's a small world after all. Aviation fulfilled humanity's Icarian fantasy by enabling a visual perch whose circumspection had belonged only to the gods' eye. If airplanes granted a heightened sense of visual power over the terrestrial space during the early part of the century, the emergent visual technologies of the space race eclipsed it. As engineers in high desert labs devised means to rocket satellites into orbit, the human gaze was elevated in tow. Cameras peered down from atmospheric space and scrutinized the earth's surface with unblinking gazes. Los Angeles became the locus of a new order of irresistible, even chronic, visibility.

As we might anticipate, along with the ability to reveal came the need to hide. While postwar Los Angeles was readily understood to be a place where visibility reigned, it also emerged as an important place for the development of technologies for concealing. This more obfuscating visual architecture also had cultural roots that were deeply southern Californian. When De Mille and others brought the nascent film industry to Los Angeles (significantly, De Mille also built Hollywood's first airfield), they inaugurated a culture of stagecraft, artifice and visual deception. The movie studio was a place where sight was constructed and landscapes invented. With the right props, nowhere could be transformed into anywhere. This artifice seeped into the very soil of the city. The city's landscape, as Carey MacWilliams insightfully noted, was not itself regional but instead contained elements of every region: trees from northern hardwood to tropical palm and home styles from medieval hamlet and Bauhaus modern to Spanish Mission and Japanese teagarden. Ersatz became elemental. When World War II exploded into American life, this culture of artifice became central to a pressing military need: camouflage.

While concealment had long been a concern of modern warfare, the 1940s saw it perfected. Los Angeles was the site for much of this work. At first, the need was local and immediate. After Pearl Harbor, the threat of Japanese bombers loomed large in the minds of Americans and it was assumed that their key target would be the vast aviation factories of the West Coast. Military and industry came quickly together to strategize the concealment of these sites. At places such as the Douglas aircraft plant in Santa Monica and Lockheed in Long Beach ad hoc teams of landscape architects, Hollywood set designers and army camoufleurs came together to craft schemes for concealment. Like the factories themselves, their plans were grandiose. Since the complexes were too big to simply screen off -- a blank spot in the midst of the city, after all, is no less conspicuous than a factory -- they were instead disguised to blend into the surrounding sub/urban terrain. Factory rooftops became sites for the construction of entire ersatz suburbs, complete with fake cars, roads, homes and foliage (figure 2). Actors were hired to inhabit these spaces. Their simulated picnics, yard care and evening strolls completed the charade (figure 3). As it had in Hollywood, the pantomime of real life became a serious occupation. Fake neighborhoods and enacted leisure were placed like a disguise over the factory floors where weapons technology and industrial labor (myths of Rosie the Riveter aside) were the order of the day.

Of course, the Japanese bombers never came. The camouflage programs that were so vigorously enacted in 1942 were mostly removed by 1944 and forgotten shortly thereafter. As I see it, however, these early efforts to disguise Los Angeles' wartime industry reveal important clues to understanding the visual culture of the city during its fabled postwar expansion. In ways I'm just beginning to understand, hiding a factory under a mask of suburban living was not only an act of protection, but also prognostication. The Los Angeles that emerged from World War Two, from Horkheimer and Adorno's culture industry to Mike Davis's fortress L.A., was without doubt a city that placed great importance on seeing and being seen. Yet what we long ago learned was that the appearance of things should not necessarily be taken at face value. What lay below the surface was at least as significant as that which was covered up. (I cannot help but think of H.G. Wells' Time Machine, its surface dwelling Eloi and subterranean Morlocks). Far from being about merely fooling the eye, camouflage's real basis rested in tricking the mind through the manipulation of visual form and cultural expectation. Returning to my three postwar architectures -- Disneyland, Lakewood, and the aerospace industry -- what I see tying them together is an effort to mask ideology with idealization. Disneyland camouflaged cultural rootlessness in a fantasyland that mixed nostalgia and futurism, Lakewood plastered over consumerist homogeneity with mythologies of middle class independence and the aerospace industry disguised systems of surveillance and control behind a mask of scientific discovery. Like military intelligence officers, it is our task to see through these surface fictions.

Jason Weems is assistant professor of American art and visual culture at the University of California, Riverside. His contribution to this blog is part of his broader investigation of camouflage in American culture during and after the World Wars. His other ongoing projects address the intersection of visuality and aviation, the relationship between art and archaeological representation in the early twentieth century and the conceptualization of scale in American art and scientific imagery.

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