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Unreal City

Unreal City

Views from the Los Angeles Aqueduct

Environmental Art+Media Lab @ Princeton University

Solo Show

October 2021-June 2022
Princeton, New Jersey

Exhibition Text

The building of the Los Angeles Aqueduct between 1908 and 1913 hinged on an audacious, covert plot to buy up and then divert the entire Owens Watershed that runs along the eastern Sierra Nevada mountain range into a 280-mile gravity-flow aqueduct system. By all accounts, the Aqueduct was and is an engineering marvel: across inhospitable high desert terrain it transports 430 million gallons of water a day from as far away as Mono Lake to Los Angeles’ sprawling, water-starved environs. Until the water reaches its destination, a massive concrete-lined lake called Van Norman Reservoir, not a single mechanical pump is used.

But the Aqueduct’s legacy of environmental and social ruination is impossible to square with the blithe narratives of human achievement and economic necessity attached to it. Toxic dust storms, wildlife habitat and biodiversity loss, and a compounding of water shortages with poverty throughout Owens Valley communities are just a few of its many disastrous effects.

Made a century after William Mulholland’s fever dream of turning an arid Los Angeles into an irrigated paradise, these pictures are both an elegy for what was lost in the making of the city, and a meditation on the surprising resilience—and even beauty—of the technological landscapes spawned by its water wars.