'This is the city; Los Angeles, California. They make movies here.'
Thom Andersen Los Angeles Plays Itself
'The Los Angeles River is the single most powerful space in Southern California: our Golden Gate Bridge, our Yosemite.'
Kazys Varnelis The Infrastructural City: Networked Ecologies in Los Angeles
UnderLAy focuses on the phenomena of externalities not as distant, partitioned territories discarded by prior activity, but rather an internalized urban condition described through infrastructural and human ecologies. It examines these ecologies not only as a product and producer of the city, but in many ways, also it’s foundational elements. These systems of urban description and narration are ultimately leveraged to synthesize current and historical perceptions of place.
Located in Los Angeles, California, the work evaluates the capability of film and video to house these explicit perspectives within the Los Angeles River canal. Cinema, the city’s iconic representational medium is used to illustrate one small portion of the greater whole. The thesis negotiates cinematic techniques and spatial indexing to integrate a broader range of filmic representation aside from the more notable works that already exist. In doing so, a range of societal groups may then coalesce for the purpose of event, spectacle, memory and public space.
Previous attempts to negotiate this region’s sprawling characteristics, specifically Reyner Banham’s 1971 “Four Ecologies”, worked to develop a descriptive framework that group urban elements into the ecological models of Surfurbia, Foothills, Plains, and Autopia. While this quasi-scientific approach attempted to create analytical categories as a way of understanding the sprawl, a differing methodology of combining two partial, yet specific descriptive systems appears more practical and productive; in this case, the ecologies of the Los Angeles River and Hollywood cinema. Taking cues from Martha Rosler’s “The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems”;
a photographic and poetic documentation of Manhattan’s Bowery district, one comes to understand that what is excluded, is in fact the subject, rather than what is included. In many ways, this thesis is interested in the recasting of Los Angeles through the descriptive technique of film (both in terms of the history of film in the city, and film as an active agent which, like Banham, continually produces new identities for the city), as well as in the technique of film itself; framing, cropping, perspective, etc. What is left out quite literally refers to the spaces of infrastructure, marginalized populations and the space beyond the frame or behind the cameraman.
Through investigation of ecological overlap, the river section between First and Seventh Street Bridges is denoted as an appropriate test-piece for the methodological outcomes of character tracking, camera angles and architectural recall. Containing an almost infinite array of films, including Chinatown (1974), Blood In Blood Out (1993) and Escape from LA (1996), the films Point Blank (1967), Grease (1978) and Repo Man (1984) are utilized for their varying genres, era and execution of integral scenes within the denoted river section. In practice, there is an exploration of infrastructural and filmic perspectives, as well as the human element maintained within each. The camera’s ability to separate viewer from physical space via frame or crop, sometimes repositioning the scene altogether, becomes more obvious. It’s this very abstraction that describes so well the history of Los Angeles at-large. While the city, like any other, does maintain a factual existence, it is infinitely better known through its chronicle of the cinematic. For instance, it’s more realistic to assume one will recognize the Bradbury Building at 304 S. Broadway and Third Street, not as an early 20th century work of architecture, commissioned by the mining magnate Lewis Bradbury, but rather a 21st century apartment building in Blade Runner (1982), the Mandalay, Burma Hotel Royale in China Girl (1942), or Jack Nicholson’s New York Publishing firm in Wolf (1994). In conclusion, UnderLAy works to assist in the re-thinking of our assumptions of externalized space given by way of a compression of infrastructure, cinema and public event.
The examination of these elements UnderLAyed throughout the city informs an ephemeral architecture of cloth projection surfaces, able to deploy on pathways of previously recorded filmic history, physically denoting the famed human or automotive procession. Rail-anchored, protracting elements for viewing digital projections of legendary films, obscure shorts or live YouTube feeds line the site. At it’s center, an observation tower just north of the Sixth Street Bridge highlights the physical infrastructure of the river as cinematic backdrop. By physically intervening on the space, it creates a new mode of interaction, an instant feedback loop. The tower now becomes another background element in films to come, and the tower then expands to document these. The space becomes spectacle; an unending evolution of time and place, forwards and backwards. Architectural intervention instigates an ongoing experiential event; cultural commemoration and social outlet. UnderLAy capitalizes on the city’s known representational medium to provoke human infiltration of the normally overlooked Los Angeles river canal, as well as help re-frame it’s filmed chronicles. While Los Angeles may never be fully described through its Hollywood pictures, the integration of a broader social cinema will indeed promote a perspectival realignment of interaction within the seemingly well-known, yet unknown “externality” of the Los Angeles River.