California is drying up. The drought that’s plagued the state for the past five years shows no sign of relenting, and it’s taking a toll on the landscape of Los Angeles: lawns sit brown and thirsty, the Los Angeles River flows sluggishly.
A new art installation, UnderLA, adds another dimension to the reach of the drought. At two sites along the concrete banks of the L.A. River—the First Street Bridge and the river’s origin at the intersection of Arroyo Calabasas and Bell Creek—the artists Peggy Weil and Refik Anadol have projected a slow-moving journey 1,400 feet below the surface of the city. Scrolling through images of soil samples taken at intervals of 10 feet, the projections—commissioned by the City of Los Angeles as part of L.A.’s first public art biennial, Current:LA Water—detail the increasingly stressed and vulnerable aquifer system underpinning the city.
In a sense, Weil says, the installation is “a straightforward photographic landscape of these incremental soil samples.” The artists worked with researchers from the U.S. Geological survey to photograph soil samples taken from two Los Angeles wells, both located close to the projection sites; interspersed throughout the scrolling videos (below) are USGS data testifying to fluctuating water levels at those same well sites.
But watching the video play across the wide swaths of riverbank is a transformative experience. “As you descend in space, you’re also going back in time—at 1,400 feet, you’ve gone back 2.5 million years,” Weil says. In each aquifer layer, “there are recognizable fragments: shells, little bits of wood, colored rocks—things you’d see on the surface layer,” she adds. “But it’s incredibly moving to realize that they’ve been underground for that long, and that they’re forming a foundation we still depend on.”
The drought has heightened the importance of Los Angeles’s groundwater supply, and in response the city has set itself on a path to cut its reliance on imported water in half over the next decade. Funneling stormwater back into the earth instead of draining it down to the ocean is a large part of that plan. Adanol sees UnderLA as a “poetic exploration” of the data around Los Angeles’s aquifers and groundwater levels. “It’s making this invisible system visible,” he says.
The aim of the Current:LA biennial is to use contemporary art as a means of placing community issues at the center of public discussion; water was an obvious choice for its inaugural year. Each of the 16 works commissioned for the program were installed alongside a local body of water, inviting passerby to reconsider water’s role and future in the city.
UnderLA, which runs through August 14, has also activated a new public space. “In Los Angeles, other than the beach and the hiking trails in the hills, most of the congregating spaces are commercial, like shopping malls,” she says. But forUnderLA, the city closed down the surrounding streets, and the area by the river banks “became like a little pop-up park,” Weil says. “There were no food trucks, no amenities of any kind—people just gathered on the bridge and looked out at the projection and talked to each other.”
That opportunity for reflection, particularly on something as intangible as groundwater supply, is rare. “One of the clear problems with climate change communication is conveying scale,” Weil says. “It moves too slowly, it’s too big, it goes into places we can’t actually see.” But watching the layers of soil unravel across the walls of the L.A. River, the magnitude of humans’ influence on the planet feels much more immediate. “If, every so often, people in the city stop and ponder [that] our water could come from ground that’s 10,000 years old—that we have that legacy—the appropriate response [is] only awe, and respect for our resources,” Weil says.