Edgar Watson Howe, a journalist, writer and editor in the late 1800s and early 1900s, wrote that “One has fear in front of a goat, in back of a mule, and on every side of a fool.”
Arguably, some might say there was a little of all three to be found at the “100-Mules Walking the Aqueduct” living art performance project by the artist Lauren Bon of Metabolic Studio, which began on Friday, Oct. 18, at the L.A. Aqueduct Intake in Aberdeen. If anything can be said about the saga of the long-standing dispute between the Owens Valley and the City of Los Angeles, it is that plenty of goats, especially scapegoats, mules, and fools have, at some time or another, been involved in its creation and perpetuation.
Bon immersed herself in the history of the Aqueduct since coming to the Owens Valley in 2007 with the goal of bringing a positive message through her conceptual art performances and educational efforts. Her hope is that her efforts will remind Los Angeles residents that they have been receiving water from the Owens Valley for 100 years and that perhaps there can be an end to the “goats” and “fools” that have far too long dominated and distorted the dialogue on both sides of the water issues.
In addition to the 100-Mules project, Metabolic Studio has sponsored youth employment training, promoted home gardening and sustainable agriculture, and funded local farmers markets, benefitting local residents and creating a better understanding of the water issues between Los Angeles and the Owens Valley.
The list of local luminaries at last Friday’s kickoff and the dedication of a plaque by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power commemorating the 100th Anniversary of the Aqueduct included Inyo County Supervisors Linda Arcularius, Matt Kingsley, and Mark Tillemans, who brought along his young sons, Tobee and Tayden. Jim Yannotta, the Manager of the L.A. Aqueduct, was on hand, along with Los Angeles Deputy Mayor Doane Lui representing the Mayor’s Office.
Some have questioned whether or not the 100-Mules project is “art.” One online commenter characterized the performance as a publicity stunt, a political statement, a protest, or even an attempt to educate the public, which he could accept, “but this is emphatically not art,” he said. Yet how someone defines “art” depends very much on the intellectual and emotional understanding of the viewer, which can vary greatly.
Lauren Bon is a conceptual artist who trucks in the world of ideas. She does not shy away from controversial subjects. The purpose of her works are to raise awareness, increase understanding, and hopefully arouse appreciation, even personal involvement, all of which the 100-Mules project clearly does. It is a physical, mental, and emotional living art project that represents the issues that have revolved around the 100 years of the Aqueduct’s existence. Bon picked a fitting canvas for the performance of her project, considering the 100 mules are traveling through a landscape forever altered by the creation of the Aqueduct.
The mule project has been in planning for many months and required a great deal of preparation and coordination with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP). According to a spokeswoman for Bon, “The DWP could not have been more cooperative. Lauren feels that they genuinely pulled out all the stops to help us make this presentation a success.” To its credit, the DWP actively and enthusiastically supported the project despite its obvious potential for negative as much positive publicity.
Using mules to symbolize the 100th Anniversary of the Aqueduct was a natural and symbolic choice; in 1913 the Aqueduct could not have been built without them. As to the continuing disputes between the City of Los Angeles and the Owens Valley as a result of water issues, hopefully both sides might take a lesson from a popular saying heard recently: “There is no education in the second kick of a mule.”
The project is now in the fifth day of its 27-day, 240-mile trip. Interested readers can follow the “100 Mules Walking the Los Angeles Aqueduct” performance progress on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/OneHundredMulesWalkingtheLosAngelesAqueduct.