Blogging from the Edge

signals, reports, and creative responses



LANDSAT Thematic Mapper false-color image of the Salton trough region of California

polaroid: Jamie Kruse

This field note was filed for the Testing Ground project.

Question #1: What becomes possible, thinkable, and doable when we design artworks and media in ways that relay audience attention, imagination, and sensibilities out from the regional to the global?

Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea, narrated by John Waters
25 International Awards for Best Documentary

Field Note #4: Regional/Global Creative Responses + Environment

On the Testing Ground field trip, we experienced two very different responses to local environments.
  1. The Nevada Museum of Art’s Conference was a visionary inauguration of what it hopes will become a regional Center for research and art projects related to landscape, land use, and artists responding to environments. By focusing on environments, the Museum actively invites connections between its local region and much broader environmental forces and interpretations. Because the NMA is the only accredited Museum in the state of Nevada, it has an obligation to prioritize its own region in its programming, and to fulfill a role that the region would otherwise lack.

    What makes the NMA visionary and exemplary for us, in the context of all we've seen on this trip, is that it has decided to address its proximate environments in a way that exposes its local audiences to the ways that broader, even global forces shape and are shaped by their own region. In the words of the first question we framed for our field tests: this museum's current and planned activities don't "end" with the regional--rather, the artworks they feature relay audience attention, imagination, and sensibilities out from the regional to the global.

  2. Salton City is living out the consequences of a very different response to its local environment. Background:

    From Plagues and Pleasures website:
"Accidentally" created by an engineering error in 1905, reworked in the 50's as a world class vacation destination for the rich and famous, suddenly abandoned after a series of hurricanes, floods, and fish die-offs, and finally almost saved by Congressman Sonny Bono, the Salton Sea has a bittersweet past.

Now amongst the ruins of this man-made mistake, these few remaining people struggle to keep a remodeled version of the dream alive. However, this most unique community is now threatened by the nearby megalopolises of Los Angeles and San Diego, as they attempt to take the agricultural run-off that barely sustains the Sea. The fate of this so-called ecological time bomb and the community that surrounds it remain uncertain, as the Salton Sea might just dry up.

From "Where the Ghost Bird Sings by the Poison Springs":
Honeymoon paradise and toxic sump. Teeming fishery stinking of dead fish, bird sanctuary where birds die by the thousands. (What choice do the birds have? Ninety-one percent of California's wetlands are gone!) Lovely ugliness—this is the Salton Sea.

If you are confused, so is everybody else. Formed by accident in 1905Ð1907, when an attempt to divert the Colorado River (and, incidentally, to steal a lot more of Mexico's water) sent a series of floods into the salt-caked basin of California's Imperial Valley, the new sea kept rising, for like all seas it has no outlet. Farms, saltworks, and pieces of towns went under, and by the time the leak was plugged in 1907, the sea covered 500 square miles. Experts predicted evaporation within 20 years. And the water level did go down, at first. But a century later, it still takes up 380 square miles.

In the beginning it was a freshwater realm; trout survived here as late as 1929; a National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1930. Tourists came right away, but the golden age of fishing and waterfowl hunting that old-timers remember started to fade in the 1960s, when the sea began to stink a trifle and the resorts began to board up their windows. Ecologists were already warning that if the salinity—fed by irrigation runoff from the Colorado Desert's salt-rich soils, souvenir of a prehistoric ocean—continued to increase, the sea would become a wasteland. It did rise, of course, and the sea itself crept higher, too; Salton City and Bombay Beach lost houses beneath these strange reddish-brown waters.

We wandered the city for a couple of hours. It’s one of the most bizarre places either of us has ever been. Imagine vacant lots, weeds growing, road signs on corners of dirt roads waiting for houses never built. Eerily quiet contemporary ghost town in the foreground, sparkling and intensely blue sea in the distance. Close up, the sea isn’t blue at all, but a salty, milky thick, smelling stew of floating fragments of bird and fish bodies. At our feet—what could be mistaken from a distance as crisp white sea shells or sand. But force yourself to keep breathing the smell long enough to take a closer look, and realize that the white beach is composed of salt-bleached fish carcasses, bird feathers, bones.

Salton City is a local community. People do live here. They’ve chosen to stay or have no choice. Across the highway, a safer distance from the littered beach, developments of new homes appear to be arriving. Agricultural fields surrounding Salton City sport mature palm trees for transplanting and landscaping and vineyards. Oddly, this part of California is a desert. The soil is powdery gray. To see huge irrigated plantations here is to see an intervention into the region made possible only by massive infusions of chemicals, fertilizers, and irrigation via diverted waters from the Colorado river system.

The cycle here is unsustainable: water diverted for irrigation of chemically supported agriculture runs off to poison and increase the salinity of a land-locked sea.

Why hasn’t this region been able to turn this decades-long disaster around? It still doesn’t have a thriving, “local,” healthy, community. It's been accepted as what it is by most people, and by others, the broader environmental implications have been underplayed in the name of promoting recreational uses. Beyond those in the immediate vicinity, most people don’t actually “know” about the Salton Sea or live it. And that means that there are few people able or willing to assert their own experiences of the local in the face of competing meta-narratives about its recreational opportunities and how clean up is economically unfeasible.
From "The People of the Sea":
The sea's deterioration has failed to attract much attention outside Imperial and riverside counties. "The Salton Sea isn't a water supplier, and there's a small percentage of people directly affected by the sea so it's out of the ball game when it comes to water politics," said John Letey, associate director of California's Centers for Water and Wildland Resources. Local officials, however, believe the sea's health is a state, if not national, problem and deserves the attention and resources of Sacramento and Washington, D.C.

..."Creation of the Salton Sea Authority is the smartest thing you could have done," said Richard Engberg, who oversees the U.S. Department of the Interior's National Irrigation Water Quality Program. "Congress is definitely responsive to grass-roots efforts." The Salton Sea, 1994

After spending a few short hours in Salton City, we are even more convinced about the power of media to relay local stories of a region's own environments beyond themselves and out to broader communities. The Nevada Museum of Art has begun to do this with its new uses of media. Environmental scientists, artists, and documentarists have begun to use media to trouble metanarratives about the Salton Sea with the small, local narratives of humans and other life forms there. The gesture of media design that we sense is most important to make in response to what we experienced at the Salton Sea is to compose stories and images in a way invites the audience not to "stop" with the local story--but to relay their imaginations, sensibilities, and participation out from there to their own environments.

The local story of lived, embodied human experience always trumps the metanarrative. The local is nothing more or less than the highly particular playing out and human, embodied living out of broader forces.

Perhaps what the Salton Sea needs more than anything else right now, is a visit from Story Corps, This American Life, or the Environmental Media Fund . . .

. . . it's already benefited from a visit by artist-educator Kim Stringfellow. Her book, Greetings from the Salton Sea, offers images and stories of the local and the lived.

click image to enlarge

Kim's trans-media works take up ecological, historical, and activist issues related to land use and the built environment. Her hybrid documentary forms incorporate writing, digital media, photography, audio, video, installation, and locative media. She's an Associate Professor in the School of Art, Design, and Art History at San Diego State University. You can experience the local--and its global implications, through her interactive web experience. Through it, Kim gives creative, documentary, and educational expression to the current realities of the Salton Sea.


Anonymous said...

Wow, this really takes me back to history class... Let's not forget about the other places that were severely affected by the water diversion. Mexico has been struggling for years while LA takes over the water supply for the entire region. The really amazing part is the way that the water tables have shifted. Environmental scientists have been studying the effects of LA and San Diego's water consumption on the water table, and the results are scary. The water cycle is not such a quick renewable thing. It's a little hard to document vividly enough to show the populace how their showers, dish washers, lawns and other useless water consumption have affected the ground they live over. Not to mention all the chemicals that head into the water stream from these events. Amusing to note that America has "seas" even though (from the Midwest at least) we think of America as a nation of fresh water(not to mention as a "civilized" nation of clean water).

These photographs are beautiful and shocking. It's so easy to forget that California was once lush and fertile, but now only salinated ground remains. Is California also exhibiting the pictures of these people? Are they present at the wine groves? Are the pictures on display for Hollywood's most important? Or for Hollywood? We not are aware of these happenings, but what of those who aren't, who are directly effecting it? A real shame. These people have a right to live where they'd like, and they, like the rest of this country, have a right to clean water and a safe environment.

Sandra said...

I think that the video by John Waters is an excellent way for visual artists to combat existing metanarratives that are detrimental to the difficulties facing small communities. His video communicates the reality of the people who actually live in Salton Sea, elevating their personal accounts on living in the area as the ones that should be payed attention to by the government. Also it brings the problem of a local community outside its natural boundaries, enabling it to transcend these and reach people across the nation or further away. With the knowledge imparted by videos such as these, people can take a stand for communities such as Salton Sea and not be so easily misled by governing metanarratives. In my opinion, if the situation of these people is prioritized by the state or brought to their attention by people who experience videos such as these, something significant can surely be achieved so as to approximate Salton Sea with that of a healthy community.

I really think these local narratives could be useful in bringing the local reality of small overlooked communities that are out of site to people all over the world. It would certainly help a great deal in third world countries where many poorer regions are overlooked in favor of the much more established and domineering higher class.

D.V. Caputo said...

The footage and photography of stagnant waters, fish corpses and dilapidated, rusted 1950s trailers and architecture is so visually striking! What I find most fascinating about the film's use of local narrative to combat the Salton Sea's greater metanarrative is how it combats it aesthetically; in focusing on its broken-down mid-century trailers and buildings the film is directly beating back the imagery of the Salton area's heyday-- replacing the prevalent mental image of star-studded, gleaming 1950s architectural scapes with rotting, post-apocalyptic, post-deco decor.

Lauren Altman said...

I would like to comment on the 4 images posted that were taken during the visit to Salton Sea. I was astounded be the description of the town being so polluted and under developed. I felt that the imagery as a source of media best portrayed the description, and also the 4 images chosen really gave me a sense of the town. The imagery plays with the beauty of the environment from a far, and then the dirty pollution from up close is depicted very clearly.

Svea said...

Although it saddens me to see such pollution, I am not surprised. The image of the fish against the gravel struck me most. It is a perfect example of art+environment, in my opinion, solely because it is a completely natural situation but the photograph shows such an artistic representation of the environment. The grey quality fits the ideas presented about Salton Sea.

I agree that a visit from This American Life would be beneficial. I love this program, I listen to it every week and have watched the television series as well. It's a good point that more media coverage might help.

Anonymous said...

I was really shocked by the video, especially the old woman who was obviously still living in the past believing that Salton Sea is beautiful and that one can swim in it. I don't understand how people are living there, what do they do? how to they raise money and why don't they choose to leave especially if you have a child. I'm confused as to why the government isn't doing anything for those people or the land, it couldn't be healthy for those people to live there. I feel like someone really rich could buy that place and clean it up and set up the old dream again... or did i just miss something that said it couldn't be done...?

Andrew Tatreau said...

To an extent, I understand why a lot of these people, specifically the older people that have clearly been there for some time, still enjoy the town. My grandmother lives in Percival, Iowa, now a town of less than 100 people. But at one point it was a lively/booming place to live. The town was built because of the railroad. The tracks and passenger train station created a border on the eastern part of Percival, with the bluffs in the horizon. Then when the highway came through, it created a border on the western part of the town. My grandpa owned a lumber yard there as well. But, with the decline of passenger trains, and the construction of the interstate (less than a mile away from the town), the train station was bulldozed, the elementary school closed, all stores, bars and restaurants closed, the gas station deteriorated, and my grandpa sold his lumber yard. Eventually even the post office shut down, leaving the town church which sustains itself by traveling pastors. Yet every year when I return I see the same people living in their same homes, doing the same things they always did. My grandparents lived in Percival their entire adult lives, and although it's just my grandma now, she is established in the community and her only source of communication to others is by phone and writing letters. For a lot of people in rural communities,mainly extremely small rural communities, the evolution of transportation and technology has left the predicament: Leave your entire life behind, or maintain it the best you can.

Anonymous said...

These images seems very tragic. Old rusted 50's trailers, dead fish, filthy waters, old road almost seem like a wasteland. This media exposes the real-life environmental problems we are facing today as global warming increases due to various human activities. I was wondering why are these people still living there? Do they receive help from the government while living in these conditions? When I watched the documentary, the residents seem to have limited access to things they need to survive- like stores, recreation centers and restaurants. Why couldn't the government help these people? Does the EPA notice about the environmental problems in Salton City and the Salton Lake? The local residents seems very unhappy of what they see and experience living in a town that looks like a wasteland. The smell of decaying bodies of fish and dead birds , the dry gray dust that was once soil from the agricultural farms, old rusting 50's automobiles that hasn't moved by man for past four/five decades ago shows a representation of this "ecological time-bomb". People communicate about the things they experience would relay the audience attention because, local residents tells their personal stories about what their community use to be a utopia paradise in California before the disaster and the aftermath. Overall, I believe this documentary serves attention to the people who are concern about the environmental problems we are living in today and how can we solve this issue and restoring resources and habitats.

Lisa said...

"The most beautiful body of water in california?" And the bathe in this? With the thick foaminess and dead animals floating on top?
My question is why do they have to stay there?