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The Material World

Something remarkable is happening at the AUDC Gallery on Wilshire Boulevard. The space, a converted single apartment cater-corner from LACMA’s blockbuster King Tut show, is half the size of a storage container, yet miraculously summarizes nearly all of the modern world. The brief exhibit, titled “Ether,” is devoted to One Wilshire, a bland, forgettable office tower in downtown Los Angeles. Seven photographs, an obsolete Apple Computer running an equally outdated version of SimCity, a foot-tall plastic microwave tower, a wood-and-plexiglass architect’s model and a miniature cardboard diorama with a peephole viewer provide a concise portrait of the cybernetic age.

The exhibition explores “The Palace of the Empire of Ether,” a building crammed full of the hardware and global capital needed to keep the Internet and telecommunications alive. We quickly understand that cyberspace has not liberated us from corporate dominion nor from the bounds of the material world: The building is owned by the politically powerful investment firm the Carlyle Group and is stuffed with millions of spun-glass cables; bales of copper wire; countless computer servers, micro-switches and LCDs; and miles of fat electrical conduit. The parallel electronic universe, unchained from physical structures, simply does not exist.

“The utopian vision of a network without hierarchies is an illusion, an attractive theory that has never been implemented,” says Kazys Varnelis, “Ether”’s co-curator. Through essentially 19th-century documentation and sleuthing, Varnelis and Robert Sumrell are unmasking cyberspace, forcing us to consider the relationship of the immaterial to the concrete buildings we once understood as abiding symbols of our commercial culture.

One Wilshire started life in 1966 as one of L.A.’s first, and tallest, skyscrapers. The moniker and the height attracted powerhouse law firms anxious for a prestigious address and a good view. But 15 years later, when the real estate market slumped, One Wilshire slipped into steady decline. Then, in 1992, the first President Bush deregulated the telecommunications industry, forcing the phone company to give competitors access to its lines at the central switching station downtown. Access didn’t mean space for equipment, and so MCI went looking for it. Three thousand feet down the street from PacBell stood One Wilshire, which was soon transformed into a “carrier hotel,” one of just six in the U.S. and the only one on this coast.


 The "Meet-Me-Room," which
exposes the profound mess
behind the internet.

“Through One Wilshire, virtually all of the global market leaders share a physical investment on the West Coast,” Sumrell and Varnelis write in an article accompanying the exhibit. “Being ‘plugged in’ is their literal need, not just an abstract notion.”

“Ether” begins with surprising understatement, considering the breadth of the show. Tucked inconspicuously next to the LCD monitor projecting SimCity is a little microwave tower, a 1950s hobby-shop version of the real thing. Until you ask, it isn’t entirely clear that this piece inaugurates the exhibit. The uncertainty is a bit like the wonderment prompted by the meticulously encased objects found at the Museum of Jurassic Technology. Are we dealing with facts or sideways simulacra?

If nothing else, the model provides a clue to where we are headed by reminding us from where we came. After World War II, microwave transmission was touted by AT&T as “the foundation of democracy.” Cold War communications strategists sought a nationwide network invulnerable to nuclear attack. “Distributed” networks were the answer. Although not especially efficient, they have no centers; messages can be routed through multiple pathways, ensuring delivery. The Pentagon, however, balked, and instead launched ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network), using the phone company’s existing land lines, which pass through central switching stations everywhere. Like Hydra, from ARPANET the Internet was born — hard-wired.

This last, salient fact becomes evident through three key photographs. The first, The Most Expensive Space in North America, is a shot of a patch of blacktop. Cryptic monograms, like NYSE ticker symbols, are scrawled on the asphalt. From the caption you learn that these are “Underground Service Alerts on Grand Avenue In Front of One Wilshire.” Every square foot has some spray-painted notation — indicating the welter of wiring that runs in and out of One Wilshire. Should anyone start tapping with a jackhammer or shoveling with a backhoe, a media blackout could ensue. (You ask: How often do they have to rewrite this palimpsest?)

The next image takes us to what is known in the telecom world as the “Meet-Me Room,” a splendid appellation that grafts the nomenclature of the corporeal — literally, a place where people gather, and, we assume, do much more than that — to the formless, unpeopled ether — the new locale where people gather, and, we know, do much more than that. Countless wires, some bundled together in bright-orange corrugated plastic tubing, “meet”; that is, they’re spliced. The confusion and tangle is intense, and it beggars the imagination to think that anyone knows where all these wires are coming from and going to.

The “Meet-Me Room” conveys more than the sheer volume of wired traffic it handles. The nebula of coiled and unsheathed copper wire exposes the profound mess behind the alleged rationality of binary systems. The room is like a medieval city: There is no road map to its byways nor can there ever be one. Extreme density, it seems, is the precondition for the presumed nothingness of the Internet.

The last of this trio of photographs, A Giant Stock Exchange, shows one among hundreds of “server cages,” tiny enclosures crammed full of telecom companies’ computer gear. The proximity of these actual chainlink coops to the panoptic “Meet-Me Room” makes One Wilshire the priciest real estate in the United States — $250 a square foot.

A number of epiphanies, some very disquieting, come to mind while taking in these few morsels of information. Among other things, what would have happened had al Qaeda been less obsessed with symbolism and more focused on the centralized mechanics of Western society? Never mind terrorism, what happens if a fire engulfs even a portion of the fiber optics at One Wilshire? These are far from random thoughts. Full stop. Disaster.

“Ether” delves beyond the guts of One Wilshire into the nature of architecture in and out of cyberspace. After all, “architecture” is the term appropriated by computer scientists to label their systems. Will the new usage unseat the old?

A 30-by-40-inch image, snapped in 2004, interprets this question. One Wilshire is captured perfectly: a spiritless 39-story white grid superimposed on a black-glass background. Here is the epitome of intentionally meaningless architecture. All that distinguishes the 1966 structure is its height and its sign, “One Wilshire,” emblazoned on all four parapets. The designers at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (then and now the ultimate corporate architectural firm) must have believed that the only qualities a landmark required were visibility and clever labeling. Indeed, even the address is devoid of content: One Wilshire is actually 624 S. Grand Ave. Wilshire Boulevard dead-ends at the foot of the building.

One Wilshire was always, in some sense, an oxymoron: an exterior that said nothing about the interior. This is what made the building ideal for a cybernetic invasion. The architecture, in truth, beckons such a takeover from within. Law firms yesterday; fiber optics today; holographic projections tomorrow.

Seen from the outside, function doesn’t matter. Windows, mullions, floor dividers, two-story-high lettering, are all, now, superfluous. One Wilshire could take any shape, have any exterior. And — here’s where the fun or disaster begins — the cyberbuilding is free from the traditional demands of architecture to produce an effect or meaning, the way, say, Frank Gehry’s Disney Hall billows atop Bunker Hill or Norman Foster’s Swiss Re tower blasts off into the cosmos above London. It could be a flat, black box; it could be a green mound; it could be a stainless-steel funnel.

One Wilshire, as “Ether” shows, is architecture without moorings. The building can be picked up and moved anywhere and deployed for any purpose. And so the exhibit ends with a photograph of the scale model transplanted to a rocky cul-de-sac in Joshua Tree National Monument. Wildly out of context, One Wilshire remains stupefyingly unchanged by the new surroundings. A frightening realization, yet one perfectly suited to the “empire of ether.”

ETHER | AUDC Gallery, 6128 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 211 | Open Thursdays, 2-6 p.m., and by appointment | (323) 634-7850 | Through September 10


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