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Sandwiched between the rail, the river, and the freeway, the Bowtie Parcel can seem like an uncomplicated landscape that simply unfolds before its visitors, but it is more than that, as designer Rosten Woo proves with his audio tour of the Bowtie Parcel, unveiled recently.
On the surface, little seems to have changed within the post-industrial site. Clumps of grass, gravel and graffiti still litter the land, interrupted every so often by site-specific installations by local artists. Though it seems nothing more could be said of the land, Woo shows us there is. "There's so much in urban life that you can see, but without any context," explains Woo of his medium.
Woo's first phase began with a set of signage modeled after the familiar ones found in parks. This second phase, which was also possible through an ongoing collaboration between arts organization Clockshop and the California State Parks, who owns the property, and with additional support by Play the LA River and the California State Parks Foundation, follows up that impulse by creating a near invisible, yet more intimate experience of the landscape by using a visitor's ears. "It's designed to make the most sense when you're standing right there and seeing the different vistas," says Woo.
At the entrance of Bowtie Parcel, a small sign greets visitors, informing them that an audio tour is available, which they can access through their cellular phones by calling a number or navigating to bowtiewalk.org. A total of ten posts are peppered throughout the bowtie-shaped site, stretching from the entrance, all the way southeast toward the rear of Sotomayor Learning Academies. The wooden posts are low to the ground, poking out just enough to be noticed, but what they offer visitors are gems of information. "After making first signs from phase one, I did not want to create situation where the site was littered with signs," says Woo.
The designer may only have our ears to play with, but he uses that constraint as an advantage. Within just a few minutes, the designer uncovers strange facts surrounding the parcel that it makes one wonder what else has been missed?
At the very first stop, his tour reveals that the low-slung building at the entrance houses Nelson-Miller, an industrial manufacturer, which has been in Southern California since its aerospace days. Inside this nameless building, you can see where everything from airplanes to espresso machines were produced.
The rest of the stops are similarly mind-altering, not in a psychedelic, but eye-opening kind of way, as if you finally have x-ray vision and can see multiple layers of a single thing. Stop after stop calls out a simple detail then delves into it, plumbing unexpected depths.
The brevity of the audio tour stops belie the time Woo has invested gathering his information. "I got to speak with people at the Department of Public Works about the sewer system underneath. I spoke with L.A. Department of Water and Power about the transmissions towers. I've also gone fishing in Long Beach with people from Friends of the Los Angeles River," says Woo. He also invited guest speaker Dan Wuebben to speak to visitors about the historical and aesthetic merits of transmission towers, during his audio tour's unveiling. His research highlights not just the technology behind power lines, but their cultural and aesthetic history as well.
Though Woo began work around October of last year, a large portion of it was undertaken around February this year. His investigations uncovered the tensions that undergird the Bowtie Parcel, but also Los Angeles as a whole.
At one stop, he asks listeners to contemplate what it means to actually remove concrete from the Los Angeles river. Channelization has made it safe for residents to build close to the river, but it has also done its damage to flora and fauna -- not to mention our water supply, sweeping away as much as 80 percent of water that falls in the city out to the Pacific Ocean. But take away this barrier between people and the water and what you have is a wilder river that the city may need to make more room for. Are we prepared for a little more unpredictability in our lives? What will riverside development look like if they couldn't build so close to the waterway anymore?
At another stop, Woo calls attention to the non-native fountain grass, which has invaded the land. In the next breath, he points out that many of us welcome the non-native orange groves growing all around Los Angeles. Then, he pulls in a strange fact that the first proponents of native horticulture were, gasp, Nazis. By bringing up such disparate facts, visitors are left to ponder, what does it mean to be a native? Where do I stand when it comes to the racial make-up of Los Angeles?
His narrators, whose voices reflect Angelinos from ten different countries of origin, also mirror Los Angeles' diverse racial make-up, underpinning his delicate point even more.
"I loved all the different voices that I heard during the tour," says participate Kate Hoffman, an artist living at the nearby Brewery Artist Colony, "It felt like I was getting sort of a different take from different people about the site." Hoffman had been going to the site ever since Clockshop and State Parks' collaboration began about a year ago, but yet Hoffman says she still found discovered many things she never knew before.
Woo provides no easy answers, only provocative questions during the tour. "I try not to resolve these contradictions, but to present different facets to people," says Woo. That is exactly what the collaboration between Clockshop and California State Parks hopes to achieve. By allowing artists such as Woo to re-interpret the site, organizers are hoping visitors will find new layers of meaning at the Bowtie Parcel and invest themselves into shaping a land that they can call their own.