CLAREMONT, California — Upon entering Bending the River: Lauren Bon and The Metabolic Studio at Pitzer College Art Galleries, visitors have to sidestep a large stack of papers. The papers, all legal documents, are printouts of the 73 city, state, and federal permits The Metabolic Studio has had to obtain to produce the artwork in the show.
Artist Lauren Bon started working with the Los Angeles River roughly 17 years ago, when she diverted some of its water into an irrigation system that sprouted a 32-acre cornfield for one agricultural cycle in Downtown Los Angeles. In 2006, she established The Metabolic Studio alongside the concrete-encased waterway and, with the help of those permits, began to physically uproot asphalt and concrete that had paved over native wetland. This project is called Undevelopment One (2006–present) and most of the work in the Bending the River revolves around it.
Bon uses documentation like photography, maps, field recordings, and soil samples to make adaptive reuse look like fine art. Ultimately, Bending the River is an infrastructural project that will one day recycle waste water, which currently drains into the ocean, and redistribute it into Los Angeles homes.
A few works near the gallery’s entrance represent Undevelopment One’s early excavation and research process. “Living Room” (all works 2022) depicts the natural and industrial materials discovered within the soil. Bon paints the walls with natural clay, and lays a long slice of terracotta pipe across a large mound of dirt, a mixture of mulch, mycelium, oak, compost, and rainwater. For “A Flow Between the Roots and Microbes; Leachate/Filtration/Bioassay,” five beakers filled with lead-based water, representing the Los Angeles River’s pollution, drip onto different species of fungi that sprout from oblong pots. The plants that thrive might be able to absorb toxins in the soil, and The Metabolic Studio will distribute them along Undevelopment One.
Just past these works is “Metabolic Decommission of Tarmac.” An enormous slab of asphalt roughly in the shape of a coffin balances delicately on a steel frame that helps it float above a mound of dirt filled with mycelium. The mycelium slowly decomposes the material, which doubles as a sculpture and a specimen.
Many more works utilize the freed dirt as a living artistic collaborator. “Inoculated Undevelopment One (2, 3, 4),” a trio of gelatin silver prints, depicts aerial views of the desiccated Owens Lake, which dried out when its water was diverted to the Los Angeles aqueduct. Bon buried the negatives in dirt, allowing the photographs to develop with the aid of fungi cultures, which warped their surface.
Though Bon emphasizes the importance of letting nature reclaim the land, she still needs to lay new pipelines underneath the soil to take advantage of the private water rights The Metabolic Studio has gained through the long permitting process. “New Public Infrastructures” assembles 500 photographs, shot over the course of six weeks, into a massive collage to illuminate the new vitrified clay pipes that connect to the Los Angeles River. The photos, all black and white except for the glowing copper pipe, stitch together aerial and landscape views, formulating a surreally duplicated perspective of the construction site that simultaneously shows the project from above and on foot.
At the back of the gallery are Bon’s future visions for The Metabolic Studio and Los Angeles’s water supply. Here, we learn that Bon views her work as an act of reparation, an attempt to reverse the colonization of Southern California. Right now, The Metabolic Studio has the only private water rights in the state, but Bon imagines this water being collectively managed by the public. A brainstorming chart, “Towards a Novel Form of Community Commons,” replicates an activity at a Metabolic Studio retreat: attendees wondered if a decentralized autonomous organization, or DAO, composed of indigenous people, activists, and local residents, could determine how to fairly and equitably recycle waste water in a city as large as Los Angeles.
For the moment, that vision can only be tested on the small scale of Undevelopment One, but Bon’s dense exhibition lays out the possibilities if citizens, rather than the government, owned their own utilities. It sounds farfetched, but the aqueduct that carried the river to Los Angeles was completed barely a century ago. We can’t rewind time, but we can un-develop the land and let the soil breathe.
Lauren Bon and The Metabolic Studio: Bending the River continues at Pitzer College Art Galleries (1050 N. Mills Ave., Claremont, California) through December 16. The exhibition was co-curated by Fulcrum Arts and Pitzer College Art Galleries.