BY MELISSA RAGAIN
Los Angeles is fascinated with the improbability of its own existence in an otherwise depleted landscape. As a behemoth system, it has had an almost Faustian capacity to sustain itself by diverting resources away from smaller, less powerful systems. This summer, the Los Angeles Forum produced a show, now on view at the WUHO gallery, with the work of Lane Barden, whose 50-foot-long series of aerial images follows the flow of cars, water, and shipping containers through the city. It’s paired with Joseph K. Lee and Benedikt Groß’s The Big Atlas of L.A. Pools, which delivers exactly what it promises: a catalog of all 43,123 swimming pools in the city of Los Angeles. These projects together address the more subtle flows and stoppages of L.A.’s common-pool resources, using water as a metaphor for global movement and the uneven distribution of capital.
Barden’s piece, Linear City, focuses on the city’s arterial flows. Barden, a professional architectural photographer, has produced an aerial homage to the deadpan aesthetics of Ed Ruscha’s Twenty-Six Gasoline Stations from 1963, but without the humor. It’s a cumulative panorama of the Alameda Corridor railroad, Wilshire Boulevard, and the glorified ditch that is the current Los Angeles River.
The Big Atlas of L.A. Pools occupies the opposite wall and floor of the gallery, and Lee and Groß, a cartographer and computational designer respectively, adopt the more political posture of 1970s institutional critique. Their Atlas is organized by neighborhood in order from most (Long Beach) to fewest pools (Watts, for example, has none), and cross-references several other publicly available data sets, including the Megan’s Law sex offender registry, neighborhood crime statistics, and Proposition 8 donations. Like Hans Haacke’s Gallery Visitors’ Profile, the work appears to offer unbiased information that nevertheless charts connections between otherwise disconnected psycho-geographies of the city.
Lee and Groß certainly produced the sexier project, replete with beautifully rendered data that promises revelations about, among other things, the different shapes of pools in wealthy versus middle-class neighborhoods. Yet the cultural geographic claims are red herrings for the work’s actual content that confirms common tropes of social inequality. Swimming pools are easy ciphers for personal wealth, and low crime statistics or high political donations in wealthy areas where they proliferate are not unexpected. Where Linear City is quite literal in its presentation style (it is what it is), the critical content of Atlas is obscured by the very satisfying aesthetics of good data visualization and design. It isn’t clear whether this was intentional or an effect of such a seductively exhaustive data set.
However, Lee and Groß are open about the fact that they culled their impressive data by crowdsourcing and outsourcing much of the labor for their piece, suggesting that their production decisions were strategic. Photographs from the National Agriculture Imagery Program were used as base images. Pool shapes were traced by employees of the India-based company Clipping Factory, and checked by workers provided through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, which promises to “give businesses and developers access to an on-demand scalable workforce.” Lee and Groß use the physical geography of L.A. pools as a means for mapping labor in an otherwise ill-defined elsewhere. What, then, is there to be learned from the pools themselves?
Linear City and Atlas together point to the tension between the demand for free movement of global capital, whether signified by shipping containers or the knowledge economy, and a more conservative impulse at the local level for security and stability. This is especially vivid in the transition from aerial to street-level views using Google Street View API, as seen in the video L.A. Swimmer by Lee and Groß. While the dimensions and shapes of individual pools might be fully available to aerial surveys such as Atlas or Linear City, they are nevertheless guarded physical spaces that yield to older notions of the private accumulation of resources. These works reveal a countertendency within, but not limited to, the improbable system of Los Angeles, and raise complex questions about how the increasingly fluid movement of people, goods, and information will affect our still very concrete landscape.
Linear City and The Big Atlas of L.A. Pools are on view at the WUHO Gallery in Los Angeles through August 3, 2014.Melissa Ragain is an assistant professor of art history at Montana State University in Bozeman, Montana.