Monday, July 20, 2009

SILVER & WATER: an art piece at Owens Lake by Chris Langley

The following is a series of terrific articles and observations about the Metabolic Studio and its projects in the Owens Valley, written by project participant Chris Langley and published in the Territorial Review from January - May 2009. The posts below are from January and February 2009. More to follow!

SILVER AND WATER: an art piece at Owens Lake
January 2009

By Chris Langley

We are traveling home on 395 after the fourth rehearsal of the Community Glass Orchestra at the Pittsburg Plate Glass site. There is a half moon burning with surprising reflected light on the snow splashed Sierra. The recent rains and snow had brought up quite a bit of alkali, which was growing in white crystal piles. All about us, as we talked about the rehearsal, the prospects and the themes of The Wizard Oz, the white powder glowed with a translucent green-white light that made it different from the light reflected off the snowy mountains.
We were talking about themes of going home, or returning home. This is an important theme of the Wizard. Dorothy can’t wait to get home and discovers she had the means all along. The Indians were marched off to near Fort Tejon after the end of the Owens Valley Indian Wars. Yet, when they returned, they discovered they were homeless, as the white settlers had laid claim to their ancestral lands. On the other hand, the Japanese internees were sent to Manzanar, stripped of their homes, land and most of their belongings. For them, the return to home would be, in most cases, away from here, although they had worked unceasingly to create a home away from home in the few years they were here. In many cases, when they returned home, their homes no longer were theirs.

Members of the Metabolic Glass Orchestra, and others who joined the greater group, had been invited first by Project Manager Rochelle Fabb. Lauren Bon, the visionary artist who was creating the installation/performance piece she had named Silver and Water, suggested she wished us to collaborate in the creative process. As participating partners, we had been raised to respected artists and collaborators with the many young members of the Metabolic Studio to join in helping to create the final form and concept of the art piece.
I had met Rochelle a year and one half before as she introduced me to this artist collective’s hope to produce an art piece here in the Owens Valley, centered on the Owens Lake. She used the term “social sculpture,” an art form I had never heard of before. I have always thought of sculpture as solid, hard, frozen in time and space, even if originally its composition had been malleable. Iron, clay, marble, even ice were all materials that had been used. When I heard “social” I thought of piles of people shaped into various forms. I had known the dance group Pilobolus, and even reminded of those pyramids of young bodies with cheerleading enthusiasm. Chinese acrobats, anyone?
As we chatted I began to understand that art has left the canvas, the museum, the studio. Art now was much more participatory, process as much as product. I knew art had a conscience. It was provocative, often with political ambitions. This art form intended to have a positive social outcome. It meant to detoxify, educate, enlighten, and address famine or environmental degradation as much as aesthetics.

Years ago I remember the M.I.T Media Lab had created an art installation in the Alabama Hills called Desert Sun, Desert Moon. The artists had used, solar power, computers, satellite position and other modern technologies for their work. I remember the wind harp that generated music from the desert zephyrs blowing though it. What I remember most vividly was the monumental effort of the artists to launch a group of helium balloons with organic shapes. When lit by the spotlights, they reminded me of prophylactics. The balloons lifted a cellist who later that night played music on her instrument as she floated somewhat tentatively over the rocks of Ruiz Hill. The painted Monkey Face (on a rock at Ruiz Hill) appeared quite mundane in comparison. This clearly had not been my mother’s concept of art.
Just a few years ago I had worked with Bill Viola, the accomplished video artist, as he worked on an installation for a German art museum. His work was mind blowing for me and his ideas like none from an artist I had heard before. His exhibit “The Passions” had just opened at the Getty and I had a chance to see it when working at the A.F.C.I. (Association of Film Commissioners International) Locations show. Viola spent several weeks picking the site he would use. He described his process, the needs of space and emptiness and light moving across the mountains that he wanted. His vision was shaped by Chinese landscape art and philosophy. His choice remained obscure to me in its subtlety. I was lucky enough to see up close his creative processes, the uses he put to landscape and the “talent” that walked for fifteen minutes towards the high definition camera. The working title was The Immortals and the inspiration was Taoist. I watched him critique the “dailies,” the twenty to thirty minute uninterrupted shots taken in high definition video that would eventually play side by side on twin plasma screens on the wall of the museum.

Understanding life is achieved through making connections and as Rochelle spoke about the sites and we scouted for locations, this new face of art began to make sense to me. In this case, landscape played an enormous part in the piece, and my thinking and reading was already focused on issues of landscape. Rochelle was very interested in historical issues dealing with our area, in all aspects. She said that the project was in that early stage already centered on the lake, on a glass orchestra, a musical and dramatic performance. We looked at various locations, and as we drove and walked across the landscape, the degradation and damage done to the lake and its environs was clear. I could tell from her reactions and what she said that this art piece would address in a positive way the effect of the environmental damage. It had been done historically, particularly by industrial uses that the lake shore had endured.
There were many return visits by Rochelle and various members of the project team. They met people all over the area, offered labor and materials to help with projects locally. They offered to replace a roof on a civic building in Keeler, they offered help on projects up at Cerro Gordo. They settled on the former PPG (Pittsburgh Plate Glass) Plant as the site and undertook cleaning the warehouse and surroundings in what must have been like Hercules’ task of cleaning the Augean stables.
They had wanted to establish an office/studio on Main Street, to have a presence and become part of the fabric of community life during the project. This never happened but instead they established a yurt in the warehouse at PPG, which became the place where we would rehearse our part in the project. I learned we would be playing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” under the instruction of Douglas Lee, a glass musician of note.
Rochelle was the Project Manager and she said that Lauren Bon, the visionary artist of the project, was creating the piece under the inspiration of The Wizard of Oz. This tickled me and opened my mind to wild speculations about exactly what was going on and what part would we play in the piece as it developed.

When townspeople gathered for the first meeting and rehearsal, it was the most wonderful mix of people from our town. A video loop was being projected on one of the tin walls of the building. It showed the lake, the wind sweeping across the salt plains, lifting great clouds of dust and chemicals into the area. Then it cut to these mysterious figures gliding on the cement surfaces of the L.A. River. They had wings not unlike gargoyles. My associations with the flying monkeys from the film from first seeing it at age five were very negative. These creatures in the film seemed mysterious and chthonic as they flickered in rolling movements on the crude walls of the building.
Rochelle gathered us and we walked to the north silo and entered. What we found there, what sounds we heard, and the very surreal magic of the moment lifted my spirits and gave me great freedom of thought and openness to taking a risk.

6. FEBRUARY, 2009

It was cold and dark at the PPG plant as we made our way over to the north silo to hear Maestro Douglas Lee, dressed in a tuxedo, play on his glass music instrument. We were shepherded by the many young folks connected with the Metabolic Studio. There was a feeling of camaraderie for many of the locals knew each other and had known each other for years, even decades. The artists had a wonderful open and gentle manner which helped us overcome any anxiety of why we here in this dark industrial wasteland that had once produced mineral product even while ravaging some of the natural resources of the valley.

Stepping into the silo, where there were lights flooding the walls, was like entering a strange land on a planet far far way, in a time long long ago. I don’t know the size of the silo structure overhead, for in the light there was an optical stretching and bending of the dimension about us. Disorienting, uplifting, I felt we were in an amusement park ride that was about to start. We lined up about the circle, our backs to the curved wall that had been painted white. I learned later that it had been painted white a long time ago so that the present owner could practice golf. That must have been efficacious because she went on the profession golf circuit.

We looked across at each other as if in a moment the barrel ride would begin, centrifugal force holding us to the walls as the floor dropped away. Wrong. It stayed motionless, our feet solidly on the ground. As I looked up, however, instead of seeing straight walls up to the ceiling a hundred or more feet over our heads, the walls bent into a cone like shape. That was just in my mind, or my eye, or wherever this misperception is based. Later when I went out to check the walls of the building, they went strait up to the curved roof.

After we each introduced ourselves, Rochelle asked Douglas to demonstrate the sound of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” on the glasses. The sound of your finger rubbed on the edge of the glass is otherworldly to start. For me it is best compared to sounds produced electronically by a moog synthesizer. But it is a natural sound, produced by the human element of our squeaky clean fingers rubbed against the edge. The variations of pressure were the skill and the source of the artist’s element.

In the silo, the sound was echoed, reinforced and enhanced. It didn’t just sound in our ears, but subtly in our bones, or feet and our imaginations. It was sonorous, even stranger magnified and mysterious. It was most pleasant.

When Douglas finished, I knew that we had just had a very otherworldly experience in a very mundane, even industrially wasted, setting. Some were totally engaged, others made uncomfortable or left unimpressed. They would not continue to be part of the orchestra.


We had talked a lot about all sorts of things: community things, historic things, and music things. When I left that night I wanted to focus my attention on more details about Farmlab, Metabolic Studio, Lauren Bon and Rochelle Fabb. I wanted to know where they had been, what they had done and about their vision of art, our world and the interaction between the two. I wanted context and there was lot of that on the Internet and from handouts they provided.


My search to understand “social sculpture” quickly led me to a German artist who came to real prominence in the 1960’s. I had lived through the Sixties as a socially flexible even briefly revolutionary time. I remembered the Sixties and as the saying went, “If you remember the Sixties, you weren’t there.” I was in the Peace Corps after graduating from college in 1966 and for the next two years lived in Iran and traveled in Asia. By the time I got back to the U.S., it was a different country and I had been changed by being immersed in an Islamic culture and society. I had missed living through two rather tumultuous years back home in my country.

While many of my ideas had been changed from my original middle class upbringing, my life arc was in the opposite direction to family man, husband, father, and wage earner.

At the time, Joseph Beuys was challenging the very foundations of what art was and the role of the artist. His life (1921-1986) was on a very different track and I am sure I would have been antagonized by his work had I confronted it. On the Internet I read “Indebted to Romantic writers such as Novalis and Schiller, Beuys was motivated by a utopian belief in the power of universal human creativity and was confident in the potential of art to bring about revolutionary change. This translated into Beuys’s formulation of the concept of Social Sculpture; in which society as a whole was to be regarded as one great work of art (the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk) to which each person can contribute creatively (perhaps Beuys’s most famous phrase, borrowed from Novalis is “Everyone is an artist.’”)

This particular quote from Beuys connected my experience with art theory and with history. “Only on condition of a radical widening of definitions will it be possible for art and activities related to art [to] provide evidence that art is now the only evolutionary-revolutionary power. Only art is capable of dismantling the repressive effects of a senile social system that continues to totter along the deathline: to dismantle in order to build ‘A SOCIAL ORGANISM AS A WORK OF ART’…EVERY HUMAN BEING IS AN ARTIST who…from his state of freedom---the position of freedom that he experiences as first hand---learns to determine the other positions of the TOTAL WORK OF THE FUTURE SOCIAL ORDER.”

When Beuys came to American with startling art installation/performances at the Guggenheim in New York City, American critiques were often vitriolic with one writer calling his ideas “simple-minded utopian drivel.”


Much more can be explored with Beuys life and artistic career but already I was experiencing my ideas about art being radically expanded. Fast forward through several decades to understand how Lauren Bon, Farmlab and the Metabolic Studio fit into this.

In one of the brochures that we were welcome to pick up at our rehearsals, some more of the work was described and the roots of Farmlab explained.

“Farmlab, a project by artist Lauren Bon that is ‘committed to the preservation and perpetuity of living things,’ was born out of a pair of now-gone large scale urban Los Angeles ecologies: Not A Cornfield and the South Central Farm (SCF).”

“Not A Cornfield (2005-2006) was an action by Bon that took place on 32 acres of land between Chinatown and Lincoln Heights. The work—among many others-redeemed the lost fertility of the earth and transformed what was left from the industrial era into a renewed space for public gathering.”

“The SCF (1992-2006) was a 23 acre community garden, a rare verdant swatch in South Los Angeles. The site’s landowner, and representatives of the 330 family farmers who had cultivated the land were long at odds about the future of the acreage.”

The process of dealing with the future of the SCF led Bon to gather a multi-disciplinarian team of artists, writers, designers, agriculturists, planners, and laborers to work with her.


Even as our group continued to meet to form a cohesive social unit at the PPG plant, I knew I needed to visit Farmlab and the Metabolic Studio to see this ongoing process in action. Rochelle Fabb and many of this team were very open and excited to show me their work and their place. ---CHRIS LANGLEY

1 comment:

semshine said...

What a beautiful piece of writing!!!
Thank you Chris