No single image can contain a city, particularly one as large as Los Angeles. But through the accumulation of many, it may be possible that the irreducible complexity of a city can become slightly more legible. Pairing aerial photographs by Los Angeles-based Lane Barden with a geo-mapping project by the German-American duo Benedikt Groß and Joseph K. Lee, the summer exhibition of the Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Design presents two distinct perspectives with which to view the city.
Barden’s Linear City project traces immense infrastructural elements of Los Angeles as they cut through the city, highlighting these often-overlooked but vital components of urban ecologies. Groß and Lee’s Big Atlas of LA Pools is a multifaceted project documenting the private pools of the city through publicly accessible data and imagery, drawing attention to the unsustainable practices of Angelenos. With new reports that 33% of the state is currently in “exceptional drought” conditions, the exhibit feels particularly timely.
Barden documented three significant infrastructural conduits: the L.A. River, the Alameda Corridor railroad trench, and Wilshire Boulevard. His photographs are laid out in three rows – one for each conduit – and printed on a large canvas that stretches along the entirety of the gallery space’s eastern wall. At work here is a subtle but effective play of linear elements that bring out the architecture of the space itself, which is long and narrow. In another gallery, the photographs could have felt cramped and busy because, fundamentally, there are too many of them. While many of the individual shots are quite beautiful, together they drown each other out. That being said, the photographs are presented together as a single Wilshire is not just a street or series of buildings, but also the cars and the people that pass through it; the L.A. River is not just its banks but also the water coursing (or not) through it; the Alameda Corridor is not just its tracks but the cargo – and economy – carried along them.work. They seem much more affective if viewed as a stand-in for what is being depicted, as fragments that can only begin to represent the whole collectively. In this sense, the superabundance of images is successful. The project’s overwhelming scale parallels the uncontainable massiveness of the subject matter.
Some of the photographs are quite familiar views for a Los Angeles native. But when they are coupled with more unusual and rarely-seen locations, they begin to stop making sense as they are revealed to be just a single part of an otherwise unwieldy mass. It is in this juxtaposition of the recognizable and the unrecognizable fragments that something like the “whole thing” begins to emerge. Barden’s piece works best in these uncanny moments. Wilshire Boulevard becomes more than just a series of intersections but an object in its own right, one that defines and determines a significant portion of an intricate urban system. This is even more striking with Barden’s images of the L.A. River that capture the shifts from bucolic verdancy to concrete-lined urbanity. The Alameda Corridor, the least publicly visible of the three, is more surprising than the other two, its relative unfamiliarity from the outset intensifying the difficulty of recognizing something so huge as a whole.
Haunting Barden’s images is the understanding that Wilshire is not just a street or series of buildings, but also the cars and the people that pass through it; the L.A. River is not just its banks but also the water coursing (or not) through it; the Alameda Corridor is not just its tracks but the cargo – and economy – carried along them. In choosing to document infrastructure, Barden presumably wants to point it out as an often unnoticed, but fundamentally vital, aspect of urban life. Scale, however, is not the only reason infrastructure seems to withdraw from intelligibility. Barden seems uncertain of whether to try to make sense of things or to revel in their lack of sense, and in the process the images become rather formulaic and don’t accomplish much of either.
On the opposite wall, the linearity of Barden’s images is complemented by Groß and Lee’s study of Los Angeles pools, materialized in a series of books displayed on a long shelf. Organized by neighborhood, the books altogether contain aerial images of every pool in Los Angeles. That some of the volumes are so much thicker than others creates a neat visual condensation of the city’s geo-economic segregation. While there is obviously too much information to digest in a single visit, the books lend themselves well to the casual perusing facilitated by a gallery context.
Along the floor are low boxes, printed with data visualizations drawn from Groß and Lee’s research into the pools. The images themselves are aesthetically remarkable; in particular, one consists of every pool size in the city overlaid on top of one another, creating a seductively abstract image. However, they do not add much new information to the exhibition, serving more of a visual than a conceptual purpose.
That being said, the data-driven works of Groß and Lee actually seem to speak more in their silences than anything else — as in, the conceptual vitality of the project is structured into One cannot keep ecology at arm’s length. The clinical standpoint of the datatician or the aerial photographer is like that of the sociologist studying a society and forgetting that she herself is part of it.the research, and therefore does not need to be stated. By utilizing public mapping databases to document private pools, the duo are already troubling the tidy distinctions between public and private spheres. There is no need to invoke socioeconomics directly when the books themselves are a visual representation of them. Likewise, conversations about drought and resource management and excess and luxury don’t require vocalization. After all, today it is impossible to turn on sprinklers in this city without these rehearsed discourses playing out in one’s head. The operability of the project despite their silence is a measure of success.
However, in the exhibition’s supplementary text, the Big Atlas of LA Pools is described as displaying “Angelino’s perverse resistance to native ecologies.” This momentary incursion of the polemical into their project reveals a crack in their attempt to assume an objective, aloof position. Not only does this framing reveal a particular orientation to their research, it also puts the very possibility of an outside position into question. After all, the datatician also has “a perverse resistance to native ecologies.” Data centers, presumably including the ones containing the material that Groß and Lee appropriated in their work, are among California’s biggest consumers of energy.
The most visible common denominator of the show is that the artists involved have distanced themselves from their subjects of inquiry. It is precisely this cool clinacility that enables the works in the first place; only through the literally elevated position of the helicopter or the satellite is it possible to consider conceptual objects of such a large scale as infrastructure. Seen just in its parts, infrastructure goes unnoticed. But from above the parts begin to compose a whole, which is, fundamentally, ecological. It is therefore no coincidence that the various subjects of inquiry in the exhibit all live in the uneasy division of the natural and the man-made. For Barden, Groß and Lee, the position and involvement of humans in a greater ecology is only clear from high above.
However, presenting ecological conditions at this scale also renders them abstract and often unintelligible. One cannot keep ecology at arm’s length. The clinical standpoint of the datatician or the aerial photographer is like that of the sociologist studying a society and forgetting that she herself is part of it. Fundamentally, the ecological reality that is the most interesting aspect of both of the projects becomes neutralized as it is aesthetized. Beautiful, interesting images may provoke thought, but they do not produce fear, anxiety, depression or any of the other myriad emotions that they probably should.
Writer and visual artist living in Los Angeles. I am interested in the margins of architecture, in particular its intersections with art, politics, and ecology.