The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2020

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JUNE 2020 Issue
Art In Conversation

LAUREN BON with Phong H. Bui

“Movement has always been my most facile way of learning.”

Portrait of Lauren Bon, pencil on paper by Phong H. Bui.
Portrait of Lauren Bon, pencil on paper by Phong H. Bui.

Every once in a while, one will meet a visionary, but oftentimes it requires multiple encounters or repeated experiences to be able to absorb or digest that vision more readily. A Japanese proverb says: “Vision without action is a daydream. Action without vision is a nightmare.” Artist Lauren Bon is a visionary who is undoubtedly turning her vision into action. She has carved out a space between land art and conceptual art, where there is a tension that continues to generate an expanded notion of art and an expanded notion of society, the degree to which she trusts and follows her vision, and the required action this calls upon, is a most unique and rare path from and to her own “inner freedom.” Whatever else we're trying to mediate, as spectators and activists in one form or another, in our political and social life, driven by an economy that is increasingly being detached from our human scale, Lauren is fearlessly working to bring to life the wisdom of our ancestors, which has been neglected and undermined by the institutional bureaucracy of the post-Enlightenment, to direct our productive deployment of today's scientific resources. This unity is imminent especially in regard to our current condition, as we have entered the age of the Anthropocene.

The following is an edited version from our New Social Environment daily lunchtime conversation #27 (April 22, 2020), with Lauren as our special guest in honor of the 50th anniversary of Earth Day.

Phong H. Bui (Rail): I met you, Lauren, through our beloved friend, the legendary Jonas Mekas in late April 2016, even though I didn't manage to see the screening of your film 100 Mules Walking the Los Angeles Aqueduct at Anthology Film Archives, but I did manage to see it as soon as you sent an edition cast in clay and inscribed with “Artists Need to Create on the Same Scale that Society Has the Capacity to Destroy.” I was so happy, and when I finally saw the large neon version, especially when Trump withdrew from the Paris Agreement on climate change mitigation on June 1, 2017, I was reminded immediately of when we curated the monumental exhibit Come Together: Surviving Sandy, Year 1 at Industry City in Sunset Park, which was supported by Industry City and Dedalus Foundation and covered that 100,000 square-foot space, and we did it in just two months. Therefore it was perfectly natural, especially when we all realized how pertinent and prescient your neon spoke of and for our time, we immediately curated a huge exhibit in just one month that 50,000 square-foot glass gallery (designed by Richard Meier) at Mana Contemporary called Occupy Mana: Artists Need to Create on the Same Scale that Society Has the Capacity to Destroy plus its counterpart, Friends in Solidarity, Year 1, in the 25,000 square-feet of public space in Mana's main building. It was our occasion to celebrate the Rail's 18-year anniversary, while sharing our strong collective responses to Trump's divisive agenda. Your neon, with your permission, became the official slogan of Rail Curatorial Projects from then onward, so I want to begin with how did this neon initially come into being?

Lauren Bon and the Metabolic Studio,<em> Artists Need to Create on the Same Scale that Society Has the Capacity to Destroy</em>, 2017. Neon, edition of 2 of 12; glass neon, metal brackets; 72 x 174 inches. Courtesy the artist and the Metabolic Studio, Los Angeles. Photo by Zack Garlitos.
Lauren Bon and the Metabolic Studio, Artists Need to Create on the Same Scale that Society Has the Capacity to Destroy, 2017. Neon, edition of 2 of 12; glass neon, metal brackets; 72 x 174 inches. Courtesy the artist and the Metabolic Studio, Los Angeles. Photo by Zack Garlitos.

Lauren Bon and the Metabolic Studio,<em> Artists Need to Create on the Same Scale that Society Has the Capacity to Destroy</em>, 2017. Glass neon, metal brackets, 72 x 174 inches. Courtesy the artist and the Metabolic Studio, Los Angeles. Photo: Samuele Cherubini.
Lauren Bon and the Metabolic Studio, Artists Need to Create on the Same Scale that Society Has the Capacity to Destroy, 2017. Glass neon, metal brackets, 72 x 174 inches. Courtesy the artist and the Metabolic Studio, Los Angeles. Photo: Samuele Cherubini.

Lauren Bon: What an opportunity to speak with you today on Earth Day and thank you for calling into this conversation Jonas Mekas. At this point I'd like to call in some other ancestors, Sherrie Rabinowitz and Kit Galloway, who originally had made the statement that artists need to create on the same scale that society has the capacity to destroy for their electronic cafe in the '80s, which was a strategy to combat the nuclear arms race, not too different from what you and the Brooklyn Rail have set up with the New Social Environment. Their idea is that Cold War dynamics could be mitigated by being able to have a cup of coffee with someone who is considered your enemy. They had originally said that statement and my appropriation of that statement as the mission statement for Metabolic Studio really came with an understanding also of the nuclear arms race as being the big challenge on the level of scale for artists working at least in the intermountain West. The intermountain West is a region that the studio defines as a watershed. Unlike the East Coast which is challenged by sometimes too much water, we've been experiencing the gradual disappearance of watersheds that led to frequent mega droughts. All of the major rivers that fall from the Rockies and move their way west through the Great Basin have a major challenge because the Great Basin was the location of nuclear arms testing. In mid-century modern thinking that was the least worst place to bomb, because it looked like there was nothing there. So, in thinking about what a post 9/11 art practice could look like where the commodification of art needed to be replaced with a mandate to re-envision a world along a regenerative principle: we were thinking about how could we, as a studio practice, work to the scale of the nuclear bomb? So, Sherrie and Kit’s mandate that we needed to define our scale individually to what our brain could comprehend and attach all of our work brought into it was how that neon got generated.

Rail: And regenerated into different scales depending on different contexts. Lauren, you have an unusual background: you were trained as a dancer with Martha Graham before attending Princeton University where you studied art, then MIT for graduate school in architecture—how did those experiences bring you to become an artist?

Bon: Movement has always been my most facile way of learning. I am by nature an immersive learner. Whenever I dance or I move or I experience my body in space I become the most receptive to a way of being in the world. As a child and as an adolescent, dance was my practice through which I learned about my environment. When I realized as a college student that I didn't perhaps assimilate knowledge as well through books as I did through movement I was able to get an apprenticeship with Martha Graham and it was with that apprenticeship that I found myself in the back of House Space working for the Isamu Noguchi, helping make his masks for Martha Graham's stage design. And it was my fascination in working with him that led me from dance into thinking about the story that is created through performance, through costume, lighting, and how absolutely critical it was for Martha to retell the classics. So, it was in that rubric that I realized studying architectural history and theory was critical because I wasn't primarily interested in the theater as a stage, per se, I was actually interested in the world as a stage. And learning about the building blocks of how to make things stand up, and how you permit the ideas that you want to stand up in the public sphere is what I looked at and I specifically focused on the architectural history and theory of how total abstraction occurred following the great war in modern memory. So that was my trajectory into the art world, understanding through movement and social trauma what the practice of making things could be.

Rail: That makes sense because when I last visited you at Metabolic Studio in LA a year prior to our collaboration as a Collateral Event at the last Venice Biennale, I remember we spoke about our shared interest in Rudolf Steiner, and of course dance and music was an essential part of his teaching and I remember how deeply he himself was influenced by Goethe in that thinking is an organ of perception no more, no less than let's say the ear as it hears sound, and the eye as it sees image, hence thinking itself would perceive ideas. And I remember we talked about all these similar and related activities but I would like to focus on your interest in Steiner's ideas of biodynamic agriculture, advocating for an ecological and sustainable approach to agriculture that increased soil fertility without the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and so on.

Bon: Steiner is one of the proto pollinators of my life. It's hard to say when I discovered his work because his memory and his ethos is like a dandelion that sort of wafts through time and space and at different times his profound genius grabs one or another idea of mine. I often think that when I really came to understand Steiner's existence was in that pivot point where I started to think about the movement between abstraction and total abstraction in art after the turn of the century and, especially after WWI and WWII. Steiner really had the courage to introduce an unsarcastic view of life which was coming from a very pure place where he was really suggesting that anthroposophy would be some kind of union between man and knowledge. That if we allowed our senses to inform us and not just our minds, if we could immerse ourselves in the building blocks of life on life's terms then we could have a non-hierarchical knowledge base at which everyone could participate in caring and moving the world forward. I think it was this moment in time when he really was working at his high point, which was the early part of the 20th century until his death in 1925, re-envisioning a world along a completely novel line. And of course, a big part of that was to think about how our relationship with the ground and the earth could be our teacher and make us well. And, through that, how everybody could be an artist because everybody who can touch the earth can be teachable in profound ways by all of the things that make the ground possible for us to live through and by.

Rail: I also admire his conviction to the notion of political equality and human rights as part of potential social reform. And you're right about the non-hierarchical element because that's how Joseph Beuys responded to him so wholeheartedly. When Beuys made the famous work—quite early in 1964—The Silence of Marcel Duchamp is Overrated, he really railed against Duchamp's fascinations with Henri Poincaré’s limits to knowledge. Beuys proposed the opposite idea of there being no limits to knowledge. And that's why such raw materials of warmth such as honey, fat, felt, etc. were being used against the cold intellectual approach of Duchamp, one can say. Can you share with us your fascination with bees and how they became a sort of material for your work, for example, Honey Chandelier (2007)?

Lauren Bon, <em>Honey Chandeliers</em>, 2007. Honey acquired from war-torn countries around the world, 2001-07. Collected jars, wire, burlap, hessian, light bulbs; dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and the Metabolic Studio, Los Angeles. Photo by Thom Sanchez.
Lauren Bon, Honey Chandeliers, 2007. Honey acquired from war-torn countries around the world, 2001-07. Collected jars, wire, burlap, hessian, light bulbs; dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and the Metabolic Studio, Los Angeles. Photo by Thom Sanchez.

Bon: I actually made a few versions of the Honey Chandeliers, which were made from a collection of honey that I gleaned from an early communication project that I still continue with beekeepers from war-torn countries around the world. I'm interested in conversations with them about how different forms of military conflict and aggression against the landscape were affecting beekeeping. Through those dialogues the beekeepers would send me back jars of honey, usually in milk containers, that I would use to hang with light as a chandelier. This is an allusion to both the Steiner idea, the bees as an example of a social-sculptural system, and how they’re required for culture because without their ability to support agriculture we need to go back to being hunters and gatherers so an act of culture is to support bees, and therefore not supporting them implies an anti-cultural posture by definition. Beuys's huge project for Documenta 1977 was Honey Pump at the Workplace where he took thousands of gallons of honey and circulated it around the room of the Museum Fridericianum that evokes how we're all connected in the circulatory system around the nectar of life with all of its poetics. But I would like to draw the study that I've done through the years that almost every religion has the stories about the disappearance and emergence of bees and connects it to our human consciousness so that it's been said that often famine, which is caused by the disappearance of bees, is the only thing that's capable of stopping war. So, the disappearance of bees might also be the bee's higher intelligence helping us save ourselves from conflict that we're incapable of solving without famine.

Rail: It’s such an omen that we shouldn’t take it lightly. To continue with Steiner, who was so prolific; among 2,000 lectures that he gave, towards the last five years of his life, nine were devoted to bees as an aspiration of an ideal community. The beehive is therefore permeated by the notion of love, equal distribution of labor, among other healing attributes of honey. This is evident in your Bee Box (2007).

Lauren Bon, <em>Bee Box</em>, 2007. Jewelers cabinet, orange tree branch, two hives, with soundtrack from performance at Ace Gallery (November 2007-April 2008) with two queen bees; 44 x 66 22 ½ inches. Courtesy the artist and the Metabolic Studio, Los Angeles. Photo by Thom Sanchez.
Lauren Bon, Bee Box, 2007. Jewelers cabinet, orange tree branch, two hives, with soundtrack from performance at Ace Gallery (November 2007-April 2008) with two queen bees; 44 x 66 22 ½ inches. Courtesy the artist and the Metabolic Studio, Los Angeles. Photo by Thom Sanchez.

Bon: Absolutely, it was my created condition with a discarded display in your collection. But this is a work that is separate from the chandeliers in that this was a jewelry cabinet where I inserted, with the help of a beekeeper, two active hives side by side, which were mimetic of human lungs, so there are two chambers of the lungs and it was also an opportunity for us to study the competitive nature of bee hives because it's very rare for two queen bees to set up in an adjacent space for they're very territorial. Bee Box, among other works, was included in a show Bees and Meat at Ace Gallery on Wilshire in 2007 for nine months, which was a very long exhibition, and it was installed in a small room that had two holes cut into it so that the bees could leave and go pollinate and collect nectar during the day and then come back and build these hives. The sound was broadcast throughout the nine-month exhibition so there's a soundtrack that became part of the piece when it was shown at the Occupy Mana exhibit with a new title, The Music Box. During the course of a nine-month duration, one hive did in fact take over the other and it was quite an interesting negotiation to watch gradually over time.

Rail: Like Beuys, art and activism is one unity. In other words, activism in art is art. The same applies to your case. Your monumental project Not a Cornfield (2005) is a good example of that similar unity.

Bon: If you take the cognitive frame of the Bee Box (turned into The Music Box) and expand it to Not a Cornfield what you'll see is that we're still working to create the context for bees and other pollinators to create effect and have agency. So, Bee Box puts in a very contracted space a relational piece between two working teams. But to take it into a field—to have agency means to take that frame and to support the pollinators on a much bigger territory, and, again in the work we do at the Metabolic Studio being tied to the territory of the intermountain West, the watershed territory, we see ourselves as artists whose primary role is to support all forms of pollinators.

Rail: I could only imagine such an intense bureaucratic process you had to go through. How long did it take you from the very beginning to the completion of the project?

Lauren Bon, <em>Not a Cornfield</em>, 2005. 32-acre brownfield transformed into a cornfield; dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and the Metabolic Studio, Los Angeles.
Lauren Bon, Not a Cornfield, 2005. 32-acre brownfield transformed into a cornfield; dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and the Metabolic Studio, Los Angeles.

Bon: Not a Cornfield was a complete miracle. From the day that its vision came to me to the day we completed it was one year exactly, so that was an absolutely miraculous situation and the lawyers who went with me to California state parks said, “Don't get used to this because it will never happen again.” The journey to take this same field—this 32-acre breadbasket of the Gabrielino-Tongva Tribe, where something like corn used to grow—and reconnect it to the LA River, has taken eight years, and we’re finally under construction. It has required 76 federal, state, and local permits to do something which is truly obvious: to redirect a small portion of a wastewater river that's flowing out to sea and bring it to a 32 acre piece of land that used to be brownfield incapable of supporting life, and allow it to do its work so that the industrial corridor of Downtown Los Angeles can be fertile again. The genesis of this project was completely off the charts fast but the culmination of this project since Not a Cornfield in 2005 to when we expect the Bending the River Back Into the City project to be complete will be a 20-year project, so we started in construction last September, finally.

Rail: Can you describe how the vision came to you?

Bon: It came to me in a dream as corn and it was only later that I understood its epistemological connection to the Lakota Indians. This vision was sent to me by Grandpa [Chief] Roy Stone, Sr. of the Lakota tribe as an act of consciousness for sending back the buffalo that were overgrazing on Santa Catalina Island in 2004. That's a whole other trajectory that connects to the social activism that I fill my practices as an homage to the native people of the North Americas whose wisdom and knowledge on how to live on the land is essential for us all to embrace. In any case, I brought a piece of corn from Not a Cornfield, and just to say that each seed here is capable of growing a plant with two cobs so survival itself connects to things like growing a dried piece of kernel that can last forever. That was the origin of the concept of what we do at Metabolic Studio. That native corn in the west was the most profound monument that even the scale might be 32 acres, it's the seed that's monumental, not the acreage.

Rail: It’s true. Would it be fair to say your interest in shamanism from Grandpa [Chief] Roy Stone is no more or less different as a form of healing than Beuys’s own?

Bon: Absolutely. Shamanism has had an interest in me. [Laughs] I was not trained to think about shamanism but there are such profound healers out there, and they find us and work through us artists, writers, poets, scientists, thinkers, and remind us that if we're teachable, we can be agents that can manifest a rebalance and regenerative practice. When I began Not a Cornfield I had no idea how to plant a corn seed. So it was after we had laid 90 miles of irrigation stripping and brought in hundreds of truckloads of soil from other places that I was sitting in my trailer and heard a knock on my door from a native American man who had heard at a local thrift store about a lady who was going to plant corn in the historic core and offered his services to me. And we held an all-night ceremony on the cornfield, which was once an old derelict train yard, before we planted the first seed. So, it was by being an agent for the manifestation of shamanism that this project happened. I cannot claim authorship of this concept (it came through me) but it was as a result of that perceptual frame changing that I felt empowered to work on or to a scale that I felt I had the capacity to undertake, especially now with this infrastructure monument of Bending The River Back Into the City. It seems that if I could reconnect the river back to the historic floodplain, that there would be something meaningful that would come as another miraculous result, would not be in the shape of my creation only, but would be a manifestation of putting the right balance back to where it once was. To re-enchant a floodplain which had been buried for more than 150 years is an ultimate work of art.

Rail: I assume a similar and massive organization was required for your 100 Mules Walking the Los Angeles Aqueduct (2013).

Lauren Bon and the Metabolic Studio, <em>One Hundred Mules Walking the Los Angeles Aqueduct</em>, November 2013. To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the LA Aqueduct one hundred mules walked the 240 miles of ditches, pipes and channels that move water from the snow melt of the Eastern Sierra to Los Angeles. Mules were the labor force that helped realize the gravity fed system.
Lauren Bon and the Metabolic Studio, One Hundred Mules Walking the Los Angeles Aqueduct, November 2013. To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the LA Aqueduct one hundred mules walked the 240 miles of ditches, pipes and channels that move water from the snow melt of the Eastern Sierra to Los Angeles. Mules were the labor force that helped realize the gravity fed system.

Bon: Oh yes, this question of water in the arid West. When you look at the floodplain of the LA River and you connect the water that I put on Not a Cornfield to its source, it was the snowcap of the eastern Sierra that actually was irrigating the cornfield, not the LA river. The city of Los Angeles, in order to grow and support the film industry in the middle of the 20th century which was really transforming the city from an outpost into a major city, owes a debt of gratitude to the silver mining of the West which was located in the heart of these same mountains. 60 or 70 years after silver mining ended, we would exploit knowledge of the snowcap to create a gravity-fed system that would bring the snow to Los Angeles in the form of an aqueduct like people have done for thousands of years. The stories of all great cities coming into existence have been about moving water where you want it to go. I felt that for the centenary of the opening of the LA aqueduct, an artistic action where we draw this line in space—again going back to my dance training to put my body in space—and to actually internalize, physicalize the 240 mile network of channels of pipes and siphons that bring the snowcap of the Eastern Sierra to Downtown Los Angeles with the labor force that built the aqueduct to begin with, which was the mule. The mules still exist and they were brought to the valley by miners as a way to carry water from the foothills of those mountains up to the mining encampments. They've been in the west since silver mining, and their mainstay is in the tourist industry taking people up into the great Sierra for trips, but the mules have also been a part of Metabolic Studio’s performative action of building soil for the people of the Owens Valley. One of the things that has been a byproduct of moving water from one place so that another could thrive is that the agricultural richness of the Owens Valley has been sacrificed, and Metabolic Studio has been active in creating a network of growers who can use the mules to build soil and distribute it to workers throughout the Owens Valley, or what the Paiute call “Payahuunadü,” a place where there will always be water. So, this is a unification drawing between one place and another that relies on each other for survival very much like the Bee Box was a two-chambered box. So, there's an idea of this exploding scale and creating a relational connection between two places that are in fact one place.

Portrait of mule wranglers and the Metabolic Studio project team. Jen and Lee Roeser, owners of McGee Creek Pack Station and their wranglers team helped Lauren Bon and the Metabolic Studio team lead the 100 Mule Walk from Owen's Valley to Los Angeles along the Los Angeles Aqueduct. This action was performed to remind Californians of the role mules played in building the aqueduct that brought water to Los Angeles for more than 100 years. Photograph by Josh White.
Portrait of mule wranglers and the Metabolic Studio project team. Jen and Lee Roeser, owners of McGee Creek Pack Station and their wranglers team helped Lauren Bon and the Metabolic Studio team lead the 100 Mule Walk from Owen's Valley to Los Angeles along the Los Angeles Aqueduct. This action was performed to remind Californians of the role mules played in building the aqueduct that brought water to Los Angeles for more than 100 years. Photograph by Josh White.

Rail: It's beautiful but at the same time the very idea of bringing two elements together, be it objects or subjects, things or people, as one horrifies me especially now—how the politics of race is based so much on the insular attitude towards purity of one race, one nation rather than allowing or encouraging the idea of hybridization to naturally occur. If two people from two different races fall in love and get married, we’d have a better world. In other words, when I discovered that the word mulatto was directly applied to (Charles) Baudelaire's lover Jean Duval, a derogatory term no doubt, even though she's been immortalized in so many of his poems—“The Dancing Serpent,” “The Balcony,” and was painted by (Edouard) Manet—but her father was French/Caucasian and her mother was from Haiti. And the word “mule” means a hybrid product from the male donkey and the female horse. To some of us, considering such a unity is a beautiful metamorphosis and catalyst for harmony, not friction nor division.

Bon: Thank you for bringing that up. Although we may think of the mule as nature, the mule is actually one of the first hybrid animals designed to do our labor. So we owe an amazing debt of cultural gratitude to the mule, the labor force that has built the aqueduct of the West to the Erie Canal of the East, and beyond to the Panama Canal, and I should note this is how George Washington made his fortune when he imported the mule from Europe—partly because they have profound intelligence and very unique feet that allow them to be trailblazers, and they're still used to fight the mega fires of the West. At any rate, what we did was all of the wranglers of the Metabolic Studio team took the walk from one full moon to the next in 2013 (four weeks) to survey the aqueduct and celebrate the mule through every town and landscape that the water traveled and we learned so much from these people and they in turn credited so much of what they learned from their own hybridization of their daily work life with these intelligent sentient beings, the mule.

Rail: What about the Liminal Camera from the Optics Division within Metabolic Studio’s practice?

Bon: This is another allusion to a major infrastructural artery of the Alameda Corridor. Metabolic Studio sits not only adjacent to the LA River but next to a network of train lines and tunnels that connects the port of Long Beach with stores across the United States through the shipping container which is the standard unit of international trade. So, the Liminal Camera was a subversion of the shipping container from a container which would contain goods and services to a container which would contain nothing but image and light. So the Metabolic Studio's Optics Division which consists of me, Richard Nielsen, and Tristan Duke, we built this camera, retrofitted a shipping container, put it on a truck, and took several tours across the United States to document failing infrastructure and developed that film using the often toxic waterways that were the subject, ourselves. So, we can use that camera as a dark room as well as a social practice/teaching space, and we can display the prints with magnets on the outside of the container. We love the idea of wherever we go, we can take pictures, then immediately develop and show the prints so people who were on location would see the results right away.

Rail: How did such a process develop?

Image of the liminal camera on the Owen Valley lakebed.
Image of the liminal camera on the Owen Valley lakebed.

Bon: The Owens dry lakebed, as I mentioned before, is a dessicated lake that was dried up by the removal of water from the Owens Valley or Payahuunadü in order to bring water to Los Angeles. It is held in trust for the people of the state of California as a water body, which means you can recreate there to your heart's content. So, as a performative action, the Optics Division uses the dry lakebed to develop our film in. We've discovered the extremophilic bacteria that's latent in those ponds actually can replace photographic fixative. So we take our photographic negatives that we developed inside the liminal camera, and under cover of darkness we go out onto the lake and we dig a hole and bury those large format prints in the dry lake bed at night, and then come back in the morning and take them out and rinse them in the river. So, in that context, we bring consciousness to the scar of the city of Los Angeles, we own it and declare this is a place that's important to treasure and cultivate. But we also rethink the agency of even a dry lake bed. The fact that a dry lake that has photographic agency is an extraordinary thing. A lot of the images that we have are effectively scarred by their night in the lake grime, but they also bring to the surface the metal that's latent in a photograph. Not a digital photograph but an actual photograph, which is actually made out of silver suspended onto a surface like paper or glass. So, we're interested in exploring this natural alchemy.

Rail: How big a size can you develop?

Bon: A standard roll width, which I believe is about 3 and 1/2 feet by the width of the shipping container, which I believe is about 12 feet so I think it was roughly 4 by 12 feet.

Rail: I should add in addition to this toxic waste land turned natural art materials, there’s a carcinogenic dust from the lake, am I right?

Bon: Yes. To go back to this mid-century modern exploitation of the Great Basin—as the least worst place to test nuclear bombs—the Owens Lake is one of hundreds of basins that stretch between the Rockies and the Sierra. Once upon a time there were glacial lakes that flowed one into another through the massive basin, and a giant earthquake created a rift which ultimately created the Colorado River, which allowed that water to flow out to sea, and these basins became desiccated but had seasonal floods and many of them remained full of water. When this one in particular dried out it created dust storms that carry the world's largest propagator of carcinogenic dust over not only the continent but the Pacific Ocean into China. So again, to come back to this mandate that somehow artists need to create on the same scale that society has the capacity to destroy, you have this 100 mile lakebed that has to be networked into a regenerative conception because even though we didn't cause this unthinkable consequence, we are the inheritors of it. It's affecting the biome of the ocean, the disappearance of the coral reefs, there's no place for proto pollinators like birds to land any more. The follow-on effect of that change is so profound but it also was the critical creation of the carcinogenic dust, like this virus generated a consciousness associated with a place which was already in a terrible condition. And the US government, through the Environmental Protection Agency, mandated that the state of California get that dust under control, so the state defaulted to the city of Los Angeles which was, until Metabolic Studio got a private water right, the only holder of this water right. They've spent billions of dollars trying to fix the problem and it's still nowhere near resolved. So, the question is how can we artists posit concepts that will bring consciousness to something that affects us all?

Rail: I couldn't agree more. That's exactly what Beuys was trying to do in the same sense that if we believe in the practice of shamanism, we believe in the wisdom of the old, the ancient, and our ancestors. Right now, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, some of us feel it's really nature saying to herself, “I no longer can take your aggressive abuse, so I'm going to bring everything to a stop so I can heal my body.” We, too, are trying to heal things ourselves and our man-made world. I’m thinking of your piece Inverted Mediterranean Pine (2019), which you made for our Collateral Event as a site-specific work at the Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Penitenti in Venice, as a thoughtful gesture of healing as well.

Image of <em>Inverted Mediterranean Pine</em> during the Acqua Alta of May 18, 2019. Photo by Samuele Cherubini.
Image of Inverted Mediterranean Pine during the Acqua Alta of May 18, 2019. Photo by Samuele Cherubini.

Bon: First there's two things that need to come together as context. One is that we in the West are experiencing, every November, these major megafires that are defining the imprint of the West in relation to global warming. The other, Venice, a polar opposite, is experiencing an unusual frequency of Acqua Alta with equal treachery. Venice is teetering on a perilous edge as is the West, so this piece, like the two-chambered lung of the beehive in the Bee Box, attempts to bring into focus in one perceptual space these two contexts of global warming's manifestation. What came to my mind between the rising tides of Venice and the burning forests in the West was the pine tree, which is the connecting theme. The pine tree is ubiquitous to all Mediterranean climates and Southern California is one of the few places on earth which enjoys a Mediterranean climate. So to manifest a burnt pine as a sculptural artifact in a church that had a pre-existing hole in the floor, caused by rising tides that slowly eroded the structure that holds up the floor itself, to pose them one on top of the other was a way to build a perceptual frame that's relating these two contexts as one experience that's happening everywhere, all the time, right now, which is climate crisis. Climate crisis is like a virus threatening human beings with extinction. It was an attempt to use the frame of the Mediterranean and the cultural tourism of the Venice Biennale to communicate what art needs to do moving forward.

Rail: The burnt part right on the far right is a very distinct and direct evidence.

Lauren Bon, <em>Inverted Mediterranean Pine</em>, 2019. Paper pulp, wire mesh, steel armature, plaster, copper, tubing, ink, ceramic; 168 x 300 x 180 inches. Courtesy the artist and the Metabolic Studio, Los Angeles. Photo by Samuele Cherubini.
Lauren Bon, Inverted Mediterranean Pine, 2019. Paper pulp, wire mesh, steel armature, plaster, copper, tubing, ink, ceramic; 168 x 300 x 180 inches. Courtesy the artist and the Metabolic Studio, Los Angeles. Photo by Samuele Cherubini.

Bon: It’s actually a death mask that was made around a tree of my friend, the artist Lita Albuquerque, who lost her family home and her work to the Woolsey Malibu fire a year-and-a-half ago. We began a conversation about loss and what loss and surrender means for artists. So she allowed me to remove this desiccated pine tree to my studio where my amazing assistant Rachael (Neubauer) and my collaborators in the Optics Division of Metabolic Studio ground the carbon from the tree, made a wire mesh mask of the form, and then covered the mesh with rice paper dipped into the carbon from Lita's ground-up tree to form that black feather-like husk of the tree that was then installed in the church in Venice. There's a way that Inverted Mediterranean Pine sits in the space that alludes to my dance background, which in this instance feels very balletic. There is a striking allusion to the pietà that was a way of offering surrender, and creating the idea of fragility. This piece actually stayed installed during the November Acqua Alta when we were all there to close the show. My other colleague Roxanne Steinberg actually performed in the Acqua Alta in 4 feet of water above that hole—a dance to the moon and the tides. So again, the whole idea of the fetishized art object which needs to be temperature controlled and in its own building was, in our case at our Collateral Event, literally just an offering. Like throwing a flower into water and recalling Lucio Fontana's brilliant statement that in the eyes of eternity, art that lasts a second is the same as art that lasts a millennium.

Rail: We all experienced it together indeed. Which brings to mind your other eerie piece St. Jerome’s Study (2007), covered with tar and installed in a small, dark room, where I didn’t dare go in by myself.

Lauren Bon, <em>St. Jerome's Study</em>, 2007. Mixed media: writer's desk, tar, capoc, wire, research books, ceramic seed pods, cow bones; 83 x 42 x 66 inches. Courtesy the artist and the Metabolic Studio, Los Angeles. Photo by Samuele Cherubini.
Lauren Bon, St. Jerome's Study, 2007. Mixed media: writer's desk, tar, capoc, wire, research books, ceramic seed pods, cow bones; 83 x 42 x 66 inches. Courtesy the artist and the Metabolic Studio, Los Angeles. Photo by Samuele Cherubini.

Bon: This was an homage to Antonella de Messina’s Saint Jerome in the Study (c. 1475), which has long been recognized as the first oil painting at least in the cultural history of Saint Jerome in his study as a subject. Saint Jerome was sainted for his translation of the Bible from Greek and Hebrew into Latin. In the painting you'll see Saint Jerome sitting at his scholarly desk and in the two windows on either side of his desk you can see the agricultural fields, painted as an allusion to how scholarship needs to be supported by food in order to give the scholar time to do his or her work. So, my piece was a reinterpretation of Saints Jerome's desk. It has placed the artist, or in a sense myself or other artists like me, as translators of living systems into action. The top shelf has seed pods that are terracotta collected from the Hopi drybed farmers which is where I got my corn seeds. There’re Rudolf Steiner’s and Joseph Beuys's books, and the first whole earth catalog on the bottom shelf. This piece has a totemic meaning for me, and the materials refer to Arte Povera like sheep's wool coming out the desk-like innards. And then the entire piece was dipped in tar which was obviously an allusion to our moment in time where we're dipping everything that we're making, everything that we care about we are immersing it in the residue of the petroleum industry. It was also an acknowledgement of tars' stickiness so that sculpture starts to re-emerge as coded like that whole thing about tar and feathers, like that thing is impossible to clean, so it says it's a built poem in a way.

Rail: It refers directly again to the mission statement “artists need to create on the same scale …” and so scale is a psychological condition of whatever way we mediate with the object we've made, be it time-based or a permanent object.

Bon: I also want to mention that art is a function of privilege. All of us who have the ability to make art, or write or to think about the world in a new form or to translate, are being supported by people who are growing our food. Especially here, on Earth Day, if this piece means anything, it’s that we should thank consciously all the people out there who are bringing us food and medicine on a daily basis so we can have this conversation, and we can re-envision the way forward.

Rail: It couldn't be a more frightening omen, as the 1969 Santa Barbara Oil Spill that led to Earth Day a year later on April 22, 1970. So, let’s end on an optimistic note, with your yet another monumental project Bending the River Back Into the City.

Image of construction crew working on <em>Bending the River Back Into the City</em>, 2020. Courtesy the artist and the Metabolic Studio, Los Angeles. Photo by Joshua White.
Image of construction crew working on Bending the River Back Into the City, 2020. Courtesy the artist and the Metabolic Studio, Los Angeles. Photo by Joshua White.

Bon: This is the “at last” moment, seven years and 78 permits into Bending the River Back Into the City last September. The gleaning of all those permissions was an endurance performance. Like working with mule packers, the opportunity to work with civil engineers and the construction industry is a complex social practice—these people doing the labor to make the first alteration to the LA River Federal Army Corps Floodplain Mitigation Project which was built 75 years ago, felt that they were part of a mission-driven initiative rather than just a job. When the triangular-shaped patterns were scored into the concrete, and then lifted from the ground, we all cheered when we discovered underneath the concrete an incredible thing, which was the still-vital and enchanted floodplain of the unbridled river, full of seeds, mycelium, bacteria, and all kinds of living systems. Having excavated a trench, we then lay 48 inch pipes. This work was a probe on how we can redirect a small portion of that low-flow channel, just a portion of the water that always flowing in the LA River, and the portion of this low-flow channel is redirected under the Alameda Corridor train tracks to a water wheel which will lift it into a native wetland, and which will cleanse and distribute it to a network of public parks where we're hoping to grow forgeable food and medicine for people, and other living systems. Fueled by reciprocity amongst one another, we will continue to strive to maintain nature’s cycles and empower each other. This “citizens’ utility” is experimental in nature but founded on our belief of interdependence as a collective action centered and prioritized around the common good and community.

Q & A

JC: Thank you both so much for that conversation, I don't know about everyone else but I was scribbling notes in my notebook the whole time. And now to moderate our Q&A, let’s go to our first question.

Audience: Thank you for such a wonderful discussion, I’m going to start with a very simple question. Lauren, we had the privilege of meeting in Venice and I was talking to you about my momentary happiness living in New York, which is where I am from and my relationship with it is somewhat contentious. You asked me something that has stuck with me: what my ideal city looks like. It's something I have thought about a lot over the past few months and I would love to turn it back to you and ask you what your ideal city looks like.

Bon: That's a very good question. My ideal city or the city that wants to emerge is a regenerative, sustainable city which considers all of its means of production as having a feedback loop back to the life web from which everything can be extracted. So I think that an ideal city is going to require us to think that wherever we are can be an ideal city. And in my particular case I think that my ideal city of Los Angeles is one in which the adaptive reuse of our infrastructure is well underway so that we can again make this Mediterranean climate bear fruit and be a breadbasket for all kinds of living systems. My other form of an ideal city would be one in which we redefine our borders from outmoded ideas of municipality into thinking about our borders as being our watershed, so that the underpinning of place is thought through and acknowledging that water is life, and that our lifestyle is supported by a watershed that we in turn need to support.

JC: You are definitely well on your way to making that city a reality. I'm so glad you’re doing that work, it's so important. Let's go to our next question.

Audience: Lauren, thank you so much and greetings from Los Feliz. I guess it's a good segue from the first question. I've been sitting here the whole time thinking about the art related to LA, and how much you are to me a quintessential Los Angeles artist. When I moved here in the early ’90s from New York, I'd been coming here for a while and Mike Kelly was the LA artist. You can go back to the late 19th century with artists here—many not ver well known—such as Ben Berlin who sort of figured out Cubism around 1910-1920.. There’s also Lorser Feitelson, Helen Lundeberg, Edward Kienholz, and Lita (Albuquerque)] who is here with us today. LA artists and cultural producers have a different relationshipo the notion of what a boundary is in the first place. And I see your work fitting that and taking us through the history of a lot of people working with the environment and the planet in their work in a particular LA way. I'm curious what your thoughts are about LA's relationship to boundaries other than borders, like aesthetic boundaries and boundaries of type.

Bon: Thank you so much for your question. For me, the unique trajectory that LA offered was the feminist art movement and the historic Women's Building, which was right next door to Metabolic Studio, as critical. The artists that put that together in the ’90s were truly embarking on a completely revisionist view of the art world and what it meant to have artistic agency. I would say that the trajectory that I try to adhere to and uphold is what the Women's Building artists and the feminists put into play in Los Angeles which really transformed the art field internationally. We're still at work doing it, but the whole idea of equal access to platforms of communication from museums, curators, shows, collectors was uniquely and still remains disproportionately male, and often white male. The Women's Building set out to re-historicize art history through Judy Chicago's challenge to bring courses together to think through that. Her student, Suzanne Lacy, revolutionized the world in bringing the term social practice to an international art audience, and herself became a profound teacher still training generations of people to think not just about gender but race. The way forward remains a collective manifestation. LA has been ahead of the curve in setting the agenda for social processes, gender consciousness, thinking about access to museums. I would also say the whole idea of maintenance art, which is part of social practice, which great artists from the East Coast like (Mierle Laderman) Ukeles with the New York City Sanitation Department projects brought to Los Angeles through her colleagues at the Women's Building. Sometimes the best thing we can do as an art practice is to clean things up, and that’s usually been at the gender divide—the great genius makes the work and then the women make lunch and clean up.

Audience: When I moved here in ’94 from New York it was to become the first critic in residence at Otis College of Art and Design, and you know Sue Maberry who is the director of the library was instrumental in the Women's Building slide archive being brought to Otis. That's now all available through the Getty. I invited my great friend and colleague Laura Cottingham from New York to come out and be in residence for a week and she did this amazing slide talk from the slides, discovering the lesbian fashion show that happened at the Women's Building, and all these things beyond the narrow notion of art .I think that everything is available on the Getty’s websiteThe Women’s Building was so crucial.

Bon: And a quick shout out to Cheryl Swannack, who we just lost. Cheryl was the person who physically built the Women's Building and saw construction as one of the last frontiers of gender separation, and so with Bending the River Back into the City, I need to be out there working with the Federal Engineers as an homage to Cheryl.

Audience: I’d like to add one thing on what you just said about LA. The west coast never looked to New York City, it really aspired towards Europe, and I think that association of Lauren’s commitment or fascination with Beuys seems very natural more than a look toward New York. I don’t think artists from LA and San Francisco artists did that.

Bon: In fact the great curator Walter Hopps did the first-ever retrospective of Marcel Duchamp at the Pasadena Museum of Modern Art. Duchamp was never able to get a retrospective until Walter Hopps canonized his work and it was the last show of his lifetime so I do think that curators were looking towards New York but they were looking to put together shows that perhaps couldn't happen in New York.

Audience: I wanted to follow up a little bit in regards to Madeleine's question because I remember when I started working on the Rail I memorized Ernst Cassirer’s statement about Utopia. He said:

A Utopia is not a portrait of the real world, of the actual political or social order. It exists at no moment of time and at no point in space, it is a “nowhere.” But just such a conception of a nowhere has stood the test and proved its strength in the development of the modern world. It follows from the nature and character of ethical thought that it can never condescend to accept the “given.” The ethical world is never given; it is forever in the making.

I hope I remembered that right, but I just wanted to make sure you heard that, Madeleine.

JC: Thanks all for your questions, and Lauren for your replies. We have another question.

Audience: First I want to say thank you Lauren for your great work and this opportunity. I have a question about the participation of communities of color and representation. I know from your experience that you would like to understand and make this participation larger and better..

Bon: Thank you so much for your question. I think the third and most challenging part of Bending the River Back into the City will be forming a citizens’ utility. The idea of having a private water right to 106 acres of water and cleansing that through a regenerative wetland and distributing it to the network of parks presents a challenge to the community about who is this for? How does it benefit?, Who are the activators about potentiality? As an infrastructure monument this will go on after I'm not alive, after the studio no longer exists, so the idea of forming a citizens’ utility is the next frontier for participation. We're starting at the studio to look at that as a network of people in our neighborhood who are co-creating our medicine and food shed. It’s called the Interdependence Salon and the idea of that is to account for what we have currently in our storeroom, what work needs to be done and how people can contribute to participate so that as many people as possible have access especially during this challenging time to medicine, seeds, and a process of making them and storing them that is collective. You can join every Thursday at 1 p.m.

JC: Thank you, Lauren. We have one more question.

Audience: Hi Lauren, it’s such a pleasure to see you! My mindset has been in artistic lineage lately, and I thought about the video that Newton Harrison did for our Collateral Event in Venice titled A Meditation on the Mediterranean (2019). In it there is a portion where he’s talking about the Mediterranean is being affected by cruise ships and the tourism industry. I'm curious how we can dynamically reassess and rethink our actions and our thought behavior and processes in the “art world”? Because in Venice, this wonderful Biennale generates so much waste. And there’s so much activism I noticed there of local citizens and I’m curious how you think about that, and about the global initiative that you have with Newton.

Bon: The Mediterranean Sea is the smallest sea with the biggest story. When we when we embarked collectively to do the Venice Biennale what really was at heart for Newton, and for me as well, was whether we could bring a larger vision or context to how cultural tourism negatively impacts the Mediterranean, and to get ourselves to question the overall imprint of a soft diplomacy like Biennales and their impact on the life web. So in Newton's video he eulogizes the Mediterranean because all of the rivers that flow from all of the countries that border the Mediterranean Seahave been exploited by and colonized by tourism. The nicest places are run by international tourism, and overfishing of the Mediterranean has depleted food reserves to such an extent that restaurants are serving fish native to the Mediterranean but have to be shipped in from other places on airplanes. And that's before you get to the mining of oil in the Mediterranean. So Newton eulogized the Mediterranean, and I would suggest that in this moment of collective pause that we reconsider our power as consumers. The power we each have to consume can be righted by thinking about walking yourself through the imprint that that has on the life web, and ask yourself is it worth it? Are there other ways to participate that are less damaging and also to invoke the seven generation mentality? Again, some of my colleagues and friends who have been guides and teachers who are Native American have said that no decision for them tribally is made without them thinking about the seven generations of ancestry that got them to this point, and the seven generations that will proceed them.

JC: Thank you Lauren and thank you Nick for asking that question. I want to take this moment to shout out the whole Metabolic Studio team. They were collaborators with us in Venice last year and it was a pleasure and a privilege to get to work with them and this is kind of a nice reunion. It’s good to see all your names in the chat bar.

Audience: I also want to commemorate that we were all in Venice almost exactly a year ago today!

Bon: Wow, what difference a year makes! Our teams gathered every night during the beginning of the Venice Biennale for a meal and a social environment so our virtual presence today is really anchored in a very wonderful network of evenings around the ritual of dining and sharing time and space. I also would say on Earth Day how profoundly affected and arrested we were by the magnificence of Venice and of the stones that had been brought from both Venice and Istria to build that city and the engineering to underpin it. And the magnificent dance of light on water as being the mycelium strands that connect us now in this virtual world. I think that that's also really important and it's why we come together around soft diplomacy so that when we can't be together it's based in something tangible, real, and magical.

JC: Yes, our shared meals were like the original social environment, and it has spun off in today's conversation.Like the music, dance, and poetry that happened in Venice, and I see a few of our production assistants here today!YIt's a village and villages are connected with mycelium both literal and emotional. We’re going to move to our traditional reading of a poem, which we use to close every lunch conversation both in the office and online. Our production assistant Jorja (Willis) is going to read for us today.

Audience: Happy Earth Day everyone. Thank you so much Lauren for talking to us today. I’ll be reading “Water Devil” by Jamaal May:

Spout of a leaf,
listen out for the screams
of your relentless audience:
the applause of a waterfall
in the distance,
a hurricane looting
a Miami shopping mall.
How careful you are
with the rain-cradling
curve of your back.
Near your forest,
all are ready to swim
and happy to drown
in me: this lake of fire
that moats the edges.
From my mouth,
they come to peel the flames
and drink their slick throats
into the most silent
of ashes.


Phong Bui

Phong H. Bui is the Publisher and Artistic Director of the Brooklyn Rail.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2020

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