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Introduction: Nicole Antebi and Enid Baxter Blader
The Water, CA project grew out of our mutual connection to the Salton Sea.
The largest lake in California, the Salton Sea is bound by a sordid history of land developers gambling on plots surrounding a flash-in-the-desert resort. After two major floods, the landholders could trade their chips only for the bleached bones of tilapia that now cover the neglected sea’s shore. Popularly referred to on the internet as the only ‘man made mistake visible from space’, the Salton Sea has become a symbol for the misengineering of water, on a galactic scale.
However, the residents of Niland, Salton City and Bombay Beach refuse to give up on their marginal, ‘forgiving” communities. In Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer’s documentary, Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea, local holdouts traverse the Colorado Desert shores in golf carts, sharing mid-morning cocktails and fond, hopeful memories of the great parties of the past. They are articulate about their shared history on the sea. They share a mythology, as well: extolling the healing properties of the salty, wine-colored water. Such awareness of the water that connects them and holds them close is unusual in our society. But then, this Sea calls to mavericks.
The Sea also calls to artists. Its sublime, apparitional presence in the middle of a desert at the foot of the stark Chocolate mountains, just out of the way to nowhere, anchoring hot dry borderlands, is the perfect end for the San Andreas fault. Photographers, painters, and writers describe the abandoned resort structures, outstanding folk architecture, and the spectacular sense that here, something reveals what is often hidden. History shakes off the palimpsest of progress.
Although its re-creation may have been wildly accidental, the survival of the Salton Sea is vital. Even as the structures on its shores decay in a picturesque soup of salt and rust, the sea serves as a last refuge to many species of birds. It shakily stands in for wetlands now covered with the asphalt of Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego Counties.
Perhaps it is this state of watershed paradox - replicated all over and over, infused with apocalyptic splendor, fueled with myth, channeled in the violence of dams, swamped under secret decay- that inspires so many artistic investigations into California’s Water.
The projects featured in Water, CA delve into buried histories, uncovering convergences and unexpected connections. They revive dead languages, speaking words in ways that signify forgotten meanings. They meander down unexpected paths, reminding us of the joy of discovery. They are gentle, yet forceful, seizing the great opportunity for impossibility California’s Water offers.
Best described by Marc Riesner in Cadillac Desert, California’s water policies over the last 150 years directly manifest the mythology that made the West. “Clouds follow Ploughs,” the notion that tilled earth would create moisture, sent American settlers West with magic in their minds. Unusually wet weather patterns supported the theory that the bustle of settlers, the noise of imperialism would create moisture clouds, altering the climate. Dynamite exploding in arid skies create clouds set the tone the century. The superhuman irrigation of a “semi-desert with a desert heart” (Riesner) shaped the politics of the world.
As the landscape was reengineered, so was language. One can track the consciousness of water through the shifting vocabulary of the 20th century. ‘Conservation’ once meant ‘exploiting every possible resource for human use.’ ‘Waste’ meant ‘letting water reach the ocean unhindered.’ ‘Reclamation’ meant draining lakes, moving wetlands off the land.
Like the riparian areas, the watershed citizen has become dislocated. Supporting private concentrations of power and wealth through land development, water, as a 19th century business strategy, ended up state property. We have lost connections to where our water comes from, where it goes next, and what is sacrificed along the way. What is at stake is the evaporating illusion of our civilization.
The first section of Water, CA, Evaporating Illusions offers us a chance to reconnect the California water story. Reminding us the “We are Mostly Water,” Eli Wadley and Brad Monsma deliver their respective histories of water as internal travelogue. Monsma focuses on the Sespe, Southern California’s last wild river. Claude Willey advocates wildness, and counsels dissolution of marriage for concrete and water in the American West. Through portraits of monuments, May Jong echoes the identification the bloody runoff from these histories.
In Section Two: Private Revolutions, artists stage private revolutions, establishing active personal connections to the water, reclaiming language of the landscape, practicing art as Stewardship. Joel Tauber and Sant Khalsa document love affairs. Tauber’s is with a lone tree in a sea of asphalt. Khalsa offers us exquisite selections from her unremitting 30-year commitment to the Santa Ana watershed. Artist and activist Doug McCulloh takes us back to Mono Lake, connecting his personal history, spanning from childhood vacations through his time as a central figure in what became on of California’s most important environmental struggles, to the present, examining what it all meant. McCulloh reminds us why we care, and what happens when we do.
Maps create connections and define relationships. Water, when mapped still fluctuates in level, width, direction and meaning. In Section Three: Water Maps the form of the map is explored and exploded. Christina McPhee draws us a map in the wet sand with a toe. Isabelle Duviver and Jane Wolff create watershed maps. Wolff’s are also playing cards, alluding to the gamble of California’s Water. Katie Vann explores game-like digital tracking systems, creating real time water maps in the desert heart of the San Joaquin Valley. Charles Hood makes a map out of poems, playing with the language of water and redefining landscape. Jane Tsong offers “Myriad Unnamed Streams,” a map and self-guided tour of Eagle Rock, CA. All these works we challenge us make our own maps, redefining our relationships with California’s landscape and communities.
Mapping Water is one way to track the connections among seemingly disparate communities and places. In Section Four: Performing Water, artists take direct action, challenging our notions of environmental justice and artistic practice. July Cole and Cleo Woelfe-Erskine of Greywater Guerillas present two plays, while Jessica Hall, an advocate for resilient urban waterways, creates a parade. Teens from Echo Park Film Center get off the freeway and move slowly through the urban landscape, creating a portrait of the LA River on Super 8 film. Cynthia Hooper’s portraits and Billboards delicately examine the intersections of politics, formal sublime beauty and ecological devastation at the border. More radically, Steve Badgett and Nance Klehm introduces us to Clean Livin’, through stunning images and a self-reflexive conversation and about their inhabitation of a former military superfund site and its connection to healing the environment through artistic practice.
These acts, sensitize us to our environments, remind us of hidden histories and connect communities. In age where ‘green’ has become another corporate branding strategy, artists offer new strategies to affect social change. The collected works of Water, CA inspire us to break from isolation, reveal hidden links, and amplify quiet voices - the stuff of revolution.