L.A. has a weird layout.
There’s the massive sprawl of neighborhoods, with random pockets of skyscrapers and high-rises alongside nature and open spaces. There’s a lack of a singular cultural or civic center, while the geographic center is densely packed and a pain to get to and from due to lack of proximity to the freeways. Running errands or going to a meeting from one side of town to the other can be like a day trip to a neighboring city.
Sprawling. Nebulous. Beautiful. How did Los Angeles sprout up like this?
Part of it has to do with the L.A. River, the literally hard-to-pin body of water that downtown L.A. was built around. Whenever we think of the river, we likely think of the cement channel (mysteriously absent of water) that Arnold Schwarzenegger motorcycled through in Terminator 2’s most memorable action set-piece. Occasionally, it’s something we have to drive over when we’re going somewhere involving DTLA. And it’s a popular path for residents near Griffith Park to bike and jog around. As I learned during my interview with Elaine Rene-Weissman, co-founder of the Los Angeles River Public Art Project, the L.A. River has been a concrete byway only since 1959, when the Army Corps of Engineers completed its cement retrofit of the river as part of the Flood Control Act of 1936. Prior to that, it would flood so badly every few years that when the water receded, the pathway of the river actually shifted dramatically.
“The history of the river and its physical location is not really well documented,” Rene-Weissman says. “They know [where they] directed water for agriculture around downtown L.A. Then as the city population grew and the city built up, there would be floods in a regular fashion and the river would physically move from one location to the next.”
Given that our city was built around the L.A. River, and that it has such a nebulous history and shifting geography, the idiosyncrasies that make up our urban landscape are now understandable. In fact, the characteristics of the L.A. River and the city of Los Angeles are pretty similar — the river is integral to what L.A. is. Thanks to that concrete makeover, we’ve had the river successfully controlled since 1959. Now it’s time to discuss how to truly honor it as both part of our city’s modern landscape and its historical heritage.
That’s the goal of Art Talks on the River, a series of monthly panel discussions produced by the Los Angeles River Public Art Project and Friends of the Los Angeles River, which began June 9 and will be running until Sept. 8. “I’m an architect,” Rene-Weissman explains. “One of the reasons we felt it was important [to address the L.A. River in this context] is our sense that vibrant public spaces need nature, art and play. It’s sort of an interesting equation, [but it’s a] simple equation. It isn’t always in equal parts, but it’s all three elements that bring public space to life.”
Nature is fundamental to the river. Play also is built in by this point, given its popularity for recreation. What’s missing from the equation to really make it a thriving public space is art — and getting the funding for that can be a tough sell. These summer art talks are part of the pitch. “It’s known that open spaces really benefit communities, and that’s an all-ages thing,” Rene-Weissman says. “[But] it needs to be connected to the community. One way it gets connected is through a cultural narrative.”
The June 9 panel kicked off the series of talks with “Collecting Stories: A Social-Cultural History of the River,” which gathered local legends like artists Chaz Bojorquez, Saber and Leo Limon to discuss the history of the L.A. River as a canvas. Bojorquez recalled finding old tar markings under the Arroyo Seco Bridge, which Rene-Weissman says would have been made by hobos in the decade before the 1920s — about 100 years ago. “Whenever you see bumpy surfaces on the wall, it’s literally old tar markings made in the teens,” she says. “It’s like an oral history.”
The next talk is coming up on July 14. “Artists on the River: Site and Response” discusses more recent uses of the river as a space for art of all kinds. In this decade alone, we’ve seen the L.A. River as everything from an opportunity to educate about water conservation to a setting in Hopscotch, the world’s first mobile opera (composer David Rosenboom will be a panelist). For Lauren Bon, a panelist whose studio sits on the banks of the L.A. River, the space has been an endless source of inspiration, even being a subject in an ongoing project called Bending the River Back Into the City.
The Aug. 11 talk, “A Global Perspective: Art in the Landscape,” will focus on how other communities around the world have successfully leveraged their public spaces. “The intent of this panel is for the L.A. community to look a little bit further than our own area to see what kinds of works are happening around the world and how organizations are positioning art along their landscapes,” Rene-Weissman says.
And there’s a lot to look at. Boston, for example, turned eight acres of freeway underpass into a vibrant art space and park called Underground at Ink Block. The Neon Museum in Las Vegas uses the natural desert landscape of Nevada to preserve the iconic signage the city is known for. The Sculpture Garden of the National Gallery of Art is a beautiful garden in its own right, but truly stellar for the world-class collection of large-scale sculptures on display.
On Sept. 8, “Upstream: A Future River” brings the series of talks to a close — and full circle. Just as the first panel covered the way art along the L.A. River naturally came from the community, this panel will discuss the necessity of keeping future public art projects community-driven.
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How do we achieve an integrated and enduring arts component as projects unfold along the river? That’s the enduring question that Rene-Weissman has asked since she began working on this mission of turning the L.A. River into a vibrant public space.
“The challenge is to get a healthy support system and funding stream [in place] to make sure that we have an art and culture component in the planning for the river,” she says. “It’s really easy to knock those off the budget unless you get them in the beginning. We just want to see great art, great public places and great cultural public spaces happening.”
For your part, you now have a perfect excuse to spend one Saturday afternoon a month for the rest of summer at the picturesque Lewis MacAdams Riverfront Park (picnics encouraged), listening to some of the brightest luminaries in the arts and architecture.
Here’s the full schedule of upcoming art talks.