LOS ANGELES — Across every metropolitan area, there are numerous electrical substations that keep power pulsing through the city. They’re home to steel behemoths that generate high-voltage electrical currents, which speed through the grid of cables and transmission towers until they eventually power the lights in our home. Substations are dangerous; a wrong step could electrocute someone in an instant. But amazingly, if you look carefully, you’ll see that electricity does not deter the life of flora and fauna. Poking through the gravel, there may be a fragile dandelion shedding its seeds in the wind.
On its surface, there is nothing linking a fleet of transformers to a delicate weed, but the anonymous art collective simply known as the Art Department — known for constructing a teahouse in Griffith Park, dropping jacaranda petals in alleyways, and nurturing bioluminescent algae — has found a way to show a kinship between these two subjects.
Last weekend, the Art Department welcomed visitors to a decommissioned building situated on the grounds of the Laguna Bell Substation in Commerce, which it had transformed into “a secret wish-processing facility.” Dandelions, we were told, was ultimately where the white, puffed seeds ended up after being blown by a dreamer — and it turns out that wishes don’t always come true. The seeds were analyzed in a logical, quantitative matter by busy bureaucrats juggling the millions of wishes that floated into their premises.
Visitors who wanted to make their wishes in person were handed a ticket and instructed to climb a flight of rusted stairs that led to a dilapidated administrative building. Inside, a grassy, dandelion-lined corridor pointed wishers to their first station: a cramped office where a brusk employee asked the visitor to describe their wish without spilling the specific details (the Department of Small Things That Float on the Wind, which oversees the wish-processing facility, firmly believes that sharing a secret wish automatically disqualifies it from coming true). The bureaucrat asked more general questions. Could the wish be categorized as altruistic or selfish? Did it pertain to romance or your career?
Then the wishers were ushered to the next station, where they took a more thorough survey on the WISH_TEK2000, an old, ’90s-era computer running on DOS. At the end of the survey — which asked you to rate your general luck on a scale of one to 100 — the computer spat out the likelihood of the wish being granted; for me, it was a long shot.
With the analysis wrapped, it was finally time to receive a dandelion and make the wish. A horticulturist gently snipped a dandelion growing in a vial and pointed to a pneumatic tube system where the seeds would be evaluated and eventually dumped into the seed sorting department, the archived collection of hundreds of thousands of dandelion seeds.
The whimsical journey, which was unique, beautiful, and expertly produced, may feel like it lacked depth conceptually, but was genuinely engaging. Even though it was visually impressive, it didn’t dissolve into Instagrammable gimmicks. Pulling visitors into the immersive script discouraged them from breaking the fourth wall by pulling out their phone, and the surveys put pressure on visitors to think more seriously about what they may wish for if they actually had the chance for it to come true.
But just as important to the performance was the Art Department’s choice of location, which presented an unlikely metaphor. By imagining the infrastructure of wish making, it also unearthed the role of substations. Like the ubiquity of dandelions, substations can be found in all corners of urban life, even our own backyards, but their pervasiveness rarely register in our conscious. While stepping through Dandelions, catching sights of the generators, transmission towers, and power lines that loom over the building through the windows, it felt as if the infrastructure needed to electrify homes for millions of people were also essential for granting the millions of dandelion wishes made every summer.
I began to wonder how much energy is spent on something often taken for granted. The heaps of seeds stored in the facility represented a staggering amount of labor; a representative of the Art Department told me it took over a year to collect enough dandelions for the two-day installation. The installation and the substation stored an astonishing amount of seeds and electricity, but were mostly unnoticed. Just a few people would stop and take the time to explore these places that, through granting wishes and generating power, keep Los Angeles humming.
Dandelions, hosted by the Art Department, took place at the Laguna Bell Substation (6319-6337 Garfield Ave, Commerce) on May 11–12.