The Los Angeles River | Heterotopias for Art

Blake Gumprecht wrote at his book The Los Angeles River: Its Life, Death, and Possible Rebirth:

Years ago, a Los Angeles politician campaigned that, if elected, he would paint the bed of the Los Angeles River blue to make it look more like a river. This incident, though politically and historically insignificant, symbolizes just how different the Los Angeles River is from other rivers [...] For much of its history, the Los Angeles River has been little more than a local joke. Though millions of people cross it everyday on more than a hundred bridges, many do not even realize that the concrete conduit that passes under or alongside some of the nation’s busiest highways is, in fact, the bed of a river.

This quote is perfect to go on with the “blogiscussion” around The Infrastructural City orginized by mammoth, that this week is focused on the the second chapter of book, “Flood Control Freakology” by David Fletcher.


The Los Angeles River. Google Earth caption


The Los Angeles River. Google Earth caption. Detail

In words of Michel Foucault, an heterotopia can be described with these words:

There are also, probably in every culture, in every civilization, real places – places that do exist and that are formed in the very founding of society – which are something like counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted. Places of this kind are outside of all places, even though it may be possible to indicate their location in reality. Because these places are absolutely different from all the sites that they reflect and speak about, I shall call them, by way of contrast to utopias, heterotopias.

And this is exactly the feeling you have while looking at the Los Angeles River, that has been inspiration and support for sculpture, photography, pen and ink, watercolor, oils, mixed media and a preponderance of graffiti —some of which dates back to hobo etchings from 1914. It has been used as film stage for more than ten films in the latest 30 years. But how can a river that has been described as “little more than a local joke” can be a source of inspiration for all these artistic representations?

It may be the dystopic sense of its presence in the most populous county in the United States, and the contradictions involved in its history. It is controversial to think that, as a living ecology, all the human activity that surrounds the river, as oil extraction, urbanization and agriculture, among others, have eliminated the historical ecologies of the river but at the same time, all this trash has become a vital component to the riparian ecosystem. It’s ironical that all our waste and detritus suddenly became the seeds to nurture all the new organic life in the river, as David Fletcher pointed. We think that these controversial facts are enough to inspirate local artist to use the river for their art works.


Grease car race at the Los Angeles River in 1978


The Los Angeles River’s wider channel near the mouth, graffitti

In the artistic project The Ulysses Guide to the Los Angeles River, curators at the Pasadena Museum of California Art examine the River and find in its degredated state a surprising wealth of inspiration. The exhibition aims to take a closer look and examine the details of the River, from its zoological offerings to its artistic ones, which make it a living representation of Los Angeles culture.

As we said before about the term heterotopia, the Los Angles River is absolutely different from all the sites that it reflects and speaks about. Foucault pointed at his third principle of heterotopia that the heterotopia is capable of juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible. And this is certainly the term that comes to our mind when talking about a river that is a waste deposit and at the same time, a film location.


To Live and Die in L.A. Movie still

Films involving the river include The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, Chinatown, Them!, Blue Thunder, Escape from L.A., Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Grease, Volcano, Point Blank, Freaky Friday (1976 film), among many others. Several music videos have also been filmed at the Los Angeles River, e.g. “Youth Against Fascism” [Sonic Youth], “Under the Bridge” [Red Hot Chili Peppers] and “Wake Up Call” [Maroon 5].

It is possible that curator Evan Skrederstu was talking about Foucault’s concept of heterotopia [juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces] when he said: “No doubt, for all the insults hurled against what is frequently just a trickle of fluorescent green algae, the river—to those who actually spend time in it—is a weird little escape from the city. You’re still in the middle of L.A., but sometimes it gets super quiet.”

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