28 June 2010

Report: Elliot Anderson's "The Monuments of Silicon Valley"

This Saturday, Elliot Anderson presented his "Monuments of Silicon Valley," the first of three summer Nonsite Collective events investigating the contemporary commons. Anderson began by discussing his recent "landscape," Nonsite, Alamitos Creek, a hydroponics system installed in the Kala Gallery which filters groundwater tainted with mercury. On one side, water is filtered through genetically modified plant life designed to neutralize the mercury (but to what cost?), and on the other, the same toxic groundwater cycles through native flora deracinated from the creekbed. He writes of the project,

"The mountains surrounding the San Francisco Bay are an abundant source of mercury, which was mined from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century...Mercury and other heavy metals continue to leach into creeks, which eventually empty into the bay. Mercury is always with us in one form or another. It is a bioaccumulate where each organism in the food chain accumulates mercury in its tissue from the organism it eats. The food chain eventually leads to us.

Superfund sites dot the American landscape as the monuments of progress. How do we remediate these sites? One method is the replant these places with species of plants hybridized or genetically modified to purge the toxicants from the soil and water. Is the 21st century American sublime a cultivated landscape of toxification and remediation?"

This last question prompted Laura Moriarty to ask whether the project has a pastoral element, which lead to a conversation around the notion of "reversibility," where the promise of remediation becomes its own pastoral ideal. Elliot mentioned that a common reaction to the work is a sense of relief that, because plants can be genetically modified to filter groundwater, the problem is "solved."

After reading Smithson's "A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey," Elliot displayed a slideshow of the Superfund sites he's investigating in Silicon Valley and we continued the conversation around the problem of remediation and the promise of reversibility. Smithson's image of entropy at the end of the article seems especially apropos to the conversation:

"Picture in your mind's eye the sand box divided in half with black sand on one side and white sand on the other. We take a child and have him run hundreds of times clockwise in the box until the sand gets mixed and begins to turn grey; after that we have him run anti-clockwise, but the result will not be a restoration of the original division but a greater degree of greyness and an increase of entropy."

We were all immediately struck by how innocuous these sites appear, that, in the words of Taylor Brady, "they don't resemble 'Love Canal' at all" (Taylor also mentioned how closely Smithson's text mirrors Dante's Inferno, an observation I've been thinking about a ton these past few days). In fact, the most unsettling element of the Superfund sites is how they promote a kind of collective amnesia: no bubbling green goo, no cans of toxic waste, no caution tape or imposing warning signs. In fact, these sites seem to perfectly capture what Smithson calls an "ordinary abyss," because there is absolutely no visual representation of their toxicity. In fact, Elliot's main question hinged on this problem: how can you make the disaster legible if the site obscures its own malignance?

Tanya Hollis drew our attention to how carefully the landscaping at these sites seemed to further obscure their hidden nature as Superfund sites. In fact, given Tanya's comments, we began discussing the necessity of a kind of glossary to better understand the symbology of "campus landscaping." It became clear at once that one could "read" the landscape to better understand the nature of the site, what it's hiding, and the supposed promise of its remediation.

According to Elliot, there are 29 Superfund sites in Silicon Valley, many of which are directly related to the manufacture of computer hardware. We'll be organizing a field-trip to a number of these sites in the coming months in anticipation of Elliot's proposed "tour" of the "Monuments of Silicon Valley," a project he's developing in collaboration with the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. Details will be posted at the Nonsite website when available.

And finally, Elliot posted a plethora of crucial resources and information about the project at the Nonsite website here.

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