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Experiments in the Garden of Good and Evil: a review of the gardenLAb experiment

"The ambitious time traveler doesn't need to know anything about Lorentz transformations or black holes - a good road map of Los Angeles County will suffice."
Mike Davis, _The Ecology of Fear_ , 1998
"I like the spaces in between."
Neil Hopper, quoted in Lelyveld Nita, "He Has His Walking Points," LA Times, 9.16.04

Los Angeles is infamous for its mediated representations. The expanse of utopic/dystopic literary depictions of cyborg assassins, cataclysmic volcanoes and bikini clad romps in the surf mix seamlessly with the nightly news stories of gang violence, deadly air quality and the excitement of Oscar night. These make up the visible points of LA county's terrain, as much as the surrounding mountains and Disney's blindingly reflective music hall. ( http://www.nd.edu/~acasad/images/news/ourladyofangels/disney/ )Of course, being the example of sprawl that it is, there is lots of space between its "points of interest," both geographic and metaphoric. It is this space BETWEEN the highly visible markers of LA's identity that is investigated by a new exhibition at Art Center College of Design's Wind Tunnel exhibition space in Pasadena.
The exhibition, entitled "the gardenLAb experiment," is part of a series of gardenLAb programs initiated by curator Fritz Haeg to explore various "ecology-based initiatives." It is also part of a larger network of events occurring in small, sporadic niches of the arts community that are performing what Matthew Fuller calls "not-just-art" - seen in exhibitions like MASSMoCA's "The Interventionists." A good portion of the fifty-five works in gardenLAb certainly are art, mostly created by artists, and meant to be looked at as art, but there is also a substantial presence made by the work of architects, urban planners, ecologists and others. There are also quite a few collaboratives represented, ranging from community organizations like the Friends of the LA River to the conceptual architects of AUDC and the performative interventionists of the LA Urban Rangers. The "inbetweenness" of the subject matter is complimented by "inbetweenness" in terms of disciplines, desires, and approaches. This is intra-, as opposed to inter-, disciplinarity.
One issue that comes up for a lot of LA artists and activists concerned with ecology and space is the notion of "open space." Those who have been to LA are most likely familiar with the expanses of under utilized space that exists between neighborhoods, under freeways and along the LA River. The paradox is that there is less open space per capita in this sprawling metropolis than any other major US city, with less than one acre per one thousand residents. And the unevenness of development and allocation of what is there forms what Mike Davis has aptly called the "third border" along race and class lines. How is it possible that as many as half of the children living in a coastal city have never seen the ocean? As Jenny Price and David Kipen's "Malibu Project" shows, what these children might encounter on their first trip to the beach may tell them that they're not wanted anyway. They have produced humorous variations on the signs lining 20 miles of Malibu Beach warning that long stretches of sand there are private property.
This may spark the desire in some to take matters into their own hands. Visitors could take Lize Mogel's "Public Park: Personal Planning Kit" to their neighborhoods and make any of those under utilized spaces a park for everyone. We could also join urban planner James Rojas in playfully "Rebuilding Eden" as a model city constructed of recycled and found objects. Or for those more pragmatically inclined, join the "Path to Freedom" homesteaders in their efforts to live the only "truly radical lifestyle" by growing as much of their own food as possible. And if we can't be trusted to liberate the planet, much less ourselves, perhaps we can radicalize our agricultural subjects as David Burns and Matias Viegener's "Corn Study" suggests. Their tongue-in-cheek solution: teach corn to revolt from the growing biotech regime by exposing it to the ideas of Thoreau and its own natural history.
The horizontal movement of LA is an entropic force, as communities expand and contract along the clogged arteries of the freeway system. And its shaping of space can be found in the gaps of urban structure. The conceptual architectural collaborative AUDC investigates this "culture of horizontality" in their research on the symbiotic relationship formed between architecture, design and social control through the development and implementation of Muzak and dispersed telecommunications. As in their other projects, a relationship is uncovered between the management of our interior and exterior spaces that is creepy to consider in conjunction with the militarized histories of much of our technological "advances."
Walking through the gardenLAb experiment, it's easy to get caught up in the moment, thinking about all of the city's problems and potential solutions. I imagine that that is indeed the intention of the curators. How else can we ask, "What is to be done?" The gardenLAb is a response to such a question on very localized and thoughtful terms. But it is also a response that is contained, formed within a particular set of terms and through a specific vocabulary. Walking through the designed gallery furniture, specifically designed for the exhibit from raw plywood, cardboard and brightly colored, translucent screens, I wondered what the framing aesthetics had to do with the goals of the exhibit. Certainly, much of it accommodated the weekly Saturday gatherings of guided hikes and discussions. There could be arguments made both for and against its success in facilitating the radicality of the projects it frames. Many probably think it doesn't matter either way.
But I wondered what the two radicals in Nils Norman and Lincoln Tobier's video "Green Love" would think. These two fictional women, who met during the great Southern California supermarket strike that took place earlier this year, became guerrilla urban planners, reshaping the spaces of the city to be more livable while no one was looking. How would they have redesigned the wind tunnel into a radical eco-vision? Would they blow it up, as they did tens of SUVs, as a symbol of over-consumption? But, such a question can never be answered, not because these characters are fictional, but because they are already, and prematurely, dead - the result of a Thelma and Louise style stand off with reality, the LAPD.
Ryan Griffis
The gardenLAb can be found online at www.fritzhaeg.com/garden.html