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Metabolic Studio trades not in institutional critique, but in what we might term institutional speculation: What would it mean to build an organization that oversees public infrastructures with a different set of aesthetic, economic, and ideological reference points than we’re used to? The loose-knit group of artists, engineers, and designers organized around artist-philanthropist Lauren Bon has accomplished several feats of scale over the last two decades, notably transforming “the Cornfield” land parcel (now Los Angeles State Historic Park) into an actual cornfield (Not A Cornfield, 2005–6) and surveying the landscape of California’s Owens Valley with a giant pinhole camera made from a shipping container (2010–ongoing). The group’s recent show at Pitzer College focused on its largest project to date, Bending the River (2012–ongoing)—a years-long effort to dig into the concrete of the Los Angeles River channel and reroute ocean-bound water for use in public parks. Given the ambitious scope of these works, some uncertainty lingers about what the Metabolic Studio actually is: Is it a utopian think tank? A private corporation? A temporary autonomous zone? The exhibition, however, provided an impressive illustration of what the group does, modeling radical social-ecological infrastructures and drawing on the language of art to communicate its aims.
While Metabolic Studio’s work is future-oriented, it has a retro pedigree, calling back to artists such as Agnes Denes, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, and Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison, whose 1970s and ’80s interventions in urban space and infrastructure mark a transition from land art to the more capacious and ongoing genre of eco-art. At the Pitzer College Art Galleries, Bon and her collaborators foregrounded the imagination and the frustration involved in intervening in L.A.’s notoriously bureaucratic water politics. Near the front of the gallery stood An Expanding Block of Weighty Permits (2022), which is exactly that—a metal table covered in stacks of documents that archive, in legalese, the tangled process of securing a private water right to access the concrete channel (a process that involved more than 60 permits). If this work reminds viewers of the forbidding aesthetic of urban planning, other pieces communicate a sense of optimism: New Public Infrastructures (2022) is a 500-photo collage depicting the short span of the L.A. River that Metabolic Studio dug into to lay clay pipes for redirecting water. In the photos, the eye-catching, terracotta-colored pipes contrast with the industrial setting of the black-and-white concrete river, suggesting a path forward.
Elsewhere, A Flow Between the Roots and Microbes; Leachate/Filtration/Bioassay (2022) had the charm of an ambitious science fair experiment, with beakers of distilled water dripping into clay pots filled with lead-contaminated soil and various treatments, including biochar, mulch, plant ferment, and compost tea. The contraption is meant to determine which soil treatments can help decontaminate river water and encourages an expanded understanding of collaboration across species. The most impressive piece in the show was Living Room, an earthen pile of burnt logs, mulch, mycelium plugs, oak, and compost, irrigated with rainwater through a clay pipe. An expressionistic wash of the reddish clay covered the surrounding walls, while pinecones and rocks scattered on the mound contributed to the slightly stagey elegance of this earthy readymade. The piece is a conceptually layered neo-earthwork, an environmentalist echo of Hans Haacke’s classic soil and grass assemblage, Grass Grows (1967–9).
While most of the works in the exhibition comprised the larger Bending the River project, others referenced the group’s previous efforts: a photograph of Not A Cornfield (Ninety Miles of Irrigation Stripping, 2005) contributed a sense of Metabolic Studio’s trajectory, while Sound Map of Payahuunadü (2014–15) highlighted the group’s multisensory approach to mapping ecosystems. The piece comprises an aerial image of Owens Lake in the Central Valley—a region referred to in the title by its Paiute name—as well as a system of interactive audio outputs that index the soundscapes of locations in the area. The lake is now dry, depleted by the Los Angeles Aqueduct and the city’s insatiable thirst.
This was a show about water, and the L.A. River’s troubled history complicates the work. The 51-mile river was channelized, or cast in concrete, by the Army Corps of Engineers in the mid-twentieth century in the name of flood control. It has since become a monument to natural-cultural contradictions—a desolate thoroughfare linking L.A.’s racially and economically divided neighborhoods and a drainage ditch for rainwater in a drought-afflicted region. The Indigenous Tongva once lived along the river’s flood-prone banks; today, the river is a technocratic reminder of the colonial encounter and its violent aftermath. Bon is clear-eyed in her efforts to repair the river. She is also, it must be mentioned, a member of the Annenberg family and the Vice President and Director of the Annenberg Foundation, an elite philanthropic organization. Metabolic Studio can only do what it does because of a rarified form of institutional access and substantial funding. The work represents an utterly timely paradox, pitched between privatization and radical possibility.
Bon is currently the only private individual authorized to divert L.A. River water, and her stated desire to dissolve this “private water right” into a new, equitable eco-commons will strike some as misguided or overly utopian.1 Bending the River, however, is deeply effective as both an actionable public project and a provocation. It is a compelling plan for a beleaguered waterway and an opportunity for audience members to ask themselves: What is the future made of? Who gets to decide what happens to public space?
This essay was originally published in Carla issue 31.