view stage three: part one here.

08.13.09 The Joy of Infinity

This piece could be considered stage two's Sonata 38. The audio was recorded in Davis on August 8 and both it and the video are more or less un-trifled with. Do your ears a solid and listen with some headphones.

Amendment: A new audio track was recorded in the Davis Brownlands watertower just after sunrise on 6 September. It’s fitting that a bird contributed: they’re present in nearly everything I’ve done recently.

Because ‘the infinite’ is arguably beyond human comprehension, it’s often described indirectly, not unlike considering the moon by gazing at its reflection on the surface of a pond. A horizon and its vanishing point are a common allusion as are the limitless sky and fathomless ocean, each of which make appearances in the piece. I hear the infinite every time a tone quiets beyond the range of my perception: it’s the place those sound waves go when they’re through bouncing off the inside surfaces of an industrial relic. Finally, the piece’s title references the open-ended design of the broader Illuminated Thread project. Infinite: able to be continued indefinitely.

Besides the distinctly meditative quality of the piece’s audio track, space for considered thought is carved out by its images as well. Many of the scenes suggest a moment of relative stillness I believe there’s a yearning for among the populace. The need for such a moment is so pressing that it’s feeding a fascination with the apocalyptic collapse of civilization: an event sweeping enough to interrupt the ceaseless and ever-intensifying noise of modern life. What’s sought is the calm after the shitstorm of gridlocked freeways, leaf blowers, internet porn, cruise missiles, and credit card statements that seems to be indicating the final blowout of our liberal capitalist democracy.

The nineteen clips chosen for the piece are each leftovers: scraps that failed to find their way into stage two’s fourteen other vignettes. Using them here effectively caps off the leg and clears the way for what’s next.

08.09.09 Human Remains

These abandoned minivans just appeared the other day at the Davis Brownlands. It’s like in Close Encounters when the aliens start returning all the shit they borrowed. “Yeah great guys, like we really need that ’87 Dodge Caravan back now. And thanks for fucking up the door.”

07.27.09 Leaving Los Angeles

Most of you know by now that I’ve returned by rail to the sweaty bosom of my hometown. I’ll be here in Davis for the next few months to read, write and secure funds for stage three: Los Angeles to Houston. When the deserts of the Southwest begin to cool this winter, I’ll be ready to cross them: aiming the thread east for the very first time.

06.20.09 Controlled Demolition: Hope International University's Terrace Office Center

I watched this late-60s-era structure come down over several days with the help of an 8-ton wrecking ball and a handful of bulldozers. The exposed innards, fragments of concrete, and twisted rebar recalled the Okalahoma City bombing, highlighting the aesthetic similarities between controlled and un-controlled demolitions. It’s a strange thing having the chaos of a half-destroyed seven-story structure interrupting the order of the urban landscape. It becomes sculptural, quite beautiful actually, and I was sad to see the razing completed.

Demolitions like this one will be increasingly rare as financing for new building projects continues to be scarce. Instead, we’ll get to watch structures crumble much more gradually as plants, weather, and gravity pull them apart.

There’s debate taking place in several rust belt cities as to whether or not vacant properties should be demolished, the land returned to nature, so that municipal resources can be diverted elsewhere. Those against the “Shrink to Survive” plan seem to possess that black and white mentality insisting growth is always good while contraction is always bad.

For me, to-bulldoze or not-to-bulldoze depends largely on what type of structure we’re taking about. Wooden-frame clapboard and vinyl homes in the outer suburban asteroid belts are difficult to squat and of little aesthetic value to begin with. They’re cheaply made and, in most climates, their decompositions are quick and unimpressive. We might as well give nature a head start in reclaiming the land they occupy. Conversely, structures made of masonry and stone have many years in them, even when no maintenance is being performed. The influence of time on our larger, more durable constructions is likely to be rewarding to witness unfold.

The Orange County Register's report on the Fullerton demolition
An article from The Telegraph: US cities may have to be bulldozed in order to survive

05.31.09 Border Field

This site has the feel of a militarized security zone. With helicopter’s flying about, border patrol agents on ATVs, surveillance towers and a formidable fence, one might mistake it for the West Bank. I was the only civilian for miles on the US side and kept expecting to be picked up and detained for questioning. Instead, I was studiously ignored. It seemed not being Mexican made me invisible. Even when I approached an agent at the window of his pickup he appeared distracted and paid me minimum attention.

You can thank the Clinton administration for the heightened security. The upgrades were part of Operation Gatekeeper, an effort to, "restore integrity and safety to the nation's busiest border." The first phase of the operation, focusing on the five westernmost miles of the border, succeeded in shifting migration routes east and benefiting professional smugglers by increasing demand for their services.

While we’ve stemmed the flow of Mexico’s citizens through the area, we’re unable to redirect the course of its water. The heavily polluted Tijuana River crosses the border a few miles from the ocean and must be treated (like raw sewage) before its waters are released into a large flat estuary and eventually the Pacific.

wikipedia page
32°32'4"N 117° 7'25"W

Walled World. A map highlighting the planet's most heavily guarded border zones.

05.31.09 San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station

In terms of access, San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) couldn’t be more different from Diablo Canyon, its sister plant on California’s coast. When the tide is out you can actually walk the thin strip of beach between the plant and the ocean, bringing you right up beneath the security fence. There are rules though and a ban on photography in the vicinity is strictly enforced. My breaking of this rule did not go unnoticed and, interrupting my sandy march back to the bike, a barely discernable warning was squawked at me from a loudspeaker:

“…[unintelligible] camera [unintelligible] restricted area…”

I answered with a generous wave and continued up the beach. With the afternoon’s reconnaissance work complete, it was time for a swim. The water was cold and the seafloor rocky so, leaving the surf to the surfers, I dried in the sun then headed inland. As I exited through the state beach’s park gate, the nice woman I’d spoken to when I entered popped out of her little shed and hollered:

“Were you taking pictures of the plant?”
“Plant security called—said they were looking for a guy in a yellow shirt.”
“Thanks,” I returned, glancing at my sleeve, confirming its color and resolving to perform a costume change as soon as possible.

The next day I approached the plant from the south. It was a grey misty morning and the beach was deserted. Repairs to the plant’s seaward facing fencing were underway and I sat casually on a driftlog while crews worked nearby. When I returned to the trailhead, a park service security officer was waiting for me.

“Were you taking pictures of the plant?”
“What were you taking pictures of?”
“The sea cliffs… and… the surf!”
“We got a call from plant security. They get kinda nervous since the whole terrorist thing.”

The lie I’d fed him was a private joke because it’s safe to assume plant security knew exactly what my camera was pointed at. He took down my driver’s license number but sent me on my way before the inquiry’s results had returned. I sped off like I’d just robbed a bank wondering if having your name run through law enforcement databases is anything like having your credit checked. If you’re screened too often do you automatically become a criminal in the eyes of the system? Following this paranoid line of thought I imagined the government’s profile on me as it currently stood: power plants, freeway overpasses, Disneyland. I’m sure they’re thoroughly confused.

wikipedia page
33°22'6"N 117°33'18"W

05.31.09 AES's Huntington Beach Power Plant

Orange County uses vast sums of energy but only produces a modest amount within its borders; importing the rest from neighboring territories. Its only power plant is a natural gas-fired operation near Huntington Beach, just north of where the Santa Ana River trickles into the Pacific. The plant itself is relatively unremarkable but notable still for what it’s surrounded by. A wastewater treatment plant, an extended family of oil storage tanks and a 40-acre parcel that was used as an oil drilling waste dump for sixty years are all within the vicinity. In case you’re just dieing to know, waste at the superfund site includes chromic acid, sulfuric acid, aluminum slag, mercaptans, drilling wastes and styrene, all substances classified as “toxic” by the EPA.

My visit to Huntington Beach would have been routine if it weren’t for an odd roadside interaction I had with a fellow cyclist. The gentleman, probably in his late fifties, had closely cropped white hair and beard and a kind face with a brilliant smile that emphasized the lines around his eyes. I’ve dubbed our chat “Sermon by the Sea” because what started as a pleasant talk on vintage bicycles and the wonderful coastal climate became an indictment of my sinning ways.

“Have you ever stolen something—even something small?”
“Have you ever lusted after a woman?”
“All the time.”
“Have you ever used the lord’s name as an expression of discontent?”

He then gently delivered the news that I’d flunked his little test and was headed for eternal damnation unless I accepted Jesus into my heart. His logic was infallible so I just asked if this was his typical morning: riding up and down the coast rescuing sinners. As we prepared to part ways he added:

“May your journey deliver you to the foot of the cross.”
“—Or to the base of a nuclear power plant,” I countered, anticipating San Onofre later in the day.
“You’ve got a good spirit Brett.”

He had presented me with a little folded up pamphlet pulled from his bicycle seat bag. When he’d disappeared down the road I read the words printed in some childish font on its cover: Are you good enough to go to Heaven?

33°38'40"N 117°58'43"W

05.10.09 Orange Crush Interchange

I’ve never experienced the displeasure of being patted down on the side of a freeway—not before today that is. I tried not to take offence since it appeared to be a procedural formality associated with riding in a patrol car: another first. Apparently more than one concerned (read: over concerned) citizen called to report my suspicious roadside behavior and a CHP motorcycle unit was dispatched to intercept me. I did my best to play stupid (“What signs?”) but the officer wasn’t buying it and wrote me a ticket. I wasn’t allowed to leave under my own steam since it would have required further lane crossings, and a cruiser showed up later to taxi me back to where I’d parked the bike.

I have some experience documenting freeway interchanges. Their massive scale and wide flat forms make them particularly difficult subjects. They’re designed to be as unobtrusive as possible, both visually and audibly, and are often at least partially surrounded by large walls. To fully comprehend the magnitude of the space they occupy one must view them from above.

The Orange Crush is a special case, even by Southern California standards. According to The Center for Land Use Interpretation, the structure “provides 34 routes (including onramps and offramps) for 629,000 cars a day, traveling in 66 lanes over 13 bridges.” The 2002 edition of the Guinness World Records book credits the Crush with being “the most complex road interchange in the world.” The concrete trough known as the Santa Ana River crosses in the vicinity, adding a sub-layer to the clusterfuck.

The Crush is unarguably a feat of modern roadway engineering and I’ll attest to its absurd level of complexity. I’ve driven through it, circled its vast perimeter, and wandered deep into its core yet remain unable to produce a comprehensive mental map of its twists and turns. There’s an overwhelming moment, even as a passenger, when you drive beneath a baffling line of signs identifying which lane you’re meant to be in.

Making sense of what exactly I was doing there, the highway patrol officer asked the usual questions. We had a marginally successful conversation over the sound of tractor-trailers thundering by at freeway speeds. With the arrival of the inevitable exchange on why it’s not ok to photograph overpasses, he actually used the phrase: “not in this day and age.” While renewing my disgust for the meaningless cliché, I made an important realization. The qualities that make a structure a good case study for post-industrial decay also make it a potential terrorist target.

Large overbuilt pieces of infrastructure like bridges and power plants are designed and built for permanence. They represent enormous concentrations of public wealth, making their premature replacement almost unthinkable. Their sudden disappearance would have immediate and dramatic effects on commerce and the day-to-day operation of civilization. For these reasons, they’re expected to live out the entirety of their design life. Also, constructions in this category tend to have a significant presence in the landscape. They become landmarks, and in some cases landforms.

Structures as durable as an elevated section of freeway have the potential to outlast the function they were built to perform. I’d like for them to inherit new uses as those for which they were created fade into history. Above all, I imagine a reframing of their value as they go form being utilitarian infrastructure to monuments of the industrial age. And the longer they’re around, the more of their natural decomposition may be witnessed by whoever is present. When the Crush is no longer choked with cars, but harvesting rainwater from a passing storm, our descendents will gaze at its sweeping curves and marvel at the strength of its massive columns. They’ll say to each other, “Look at what our fathers and mothers built!” instead of, “Damn it! This thing needs like three more lanes!”

Note: The “PEDESTRIAN ON FREEWAY” ticket is available in the support section. Don’t be surprised if those three words end up as the title of a documentary.

wikipedia page
33°46'54"N 117°52'48"W

04.28.09 Disneyland Megaresort Parking Garage

Wanting to get a sense of the typical Disneyland visitor’s first impression of the park, I rolled into this immense structure on one of several entrance lanes fed by an I-5 offramp. (Picture that scene in Star Wars where the Death Star swallows the Millennium Falcon.) Assuming no one at the happiest place on earth would mind, I set up the camera and started shooting. In reality, I’d vastly underestimated security’s level of seriousness. Caught up in documenting the cavernous interior, the sudden appearance of two bicycle-mounted officers took me by surprise. They had been sent in ahead of the supervisor who arrived a minute later in an SUV. (I was pleased to find him resembling a young Walt Disney; an incredible likeness in his bone structure and thin moustache.)

While my photography had gotten their attention, declining to hand over my identification was what really set them off. I realized I’d made a tense situation worse when two officers, dispatched by the Anaheim Police Department while I was still under surveillance, turned up and were visibly unamused. My little act of defiance had been interpreted as one of self-incrimination. I was ordered to dismount and sit on a curb where they hit me with a barrage of questions. When I happily surrendered my driver’s license to one of the two real police officers, explaining why I don’t give my ID to private security, they lectured me on choosing my battles more carefully.

The encounter dragged on and threats were made. I was told I’d need to erase the images I’d taken but the officers quickly backed down when I vehemently refused. Then there was the ludicrous assertion that, had I fled before being questioned, they’d have had no choice but to assign a helicopter to follow me around. It took the group, now six or seven, an exceptionally long time to arrive at a consensus on what was to be done with me. My numbers had come back clean and, after receiving a stern warning not to return, I was escorted off the property.

I’d gotten some excellent shots, but not having explored beyond the garage’s first floor meant the mission was a failure. I would have to go back. Considering all the fuss surrounding my initial drop-in, an alternate and perhaps softer approach was in order. Several days into my banishment I wrote to the Disneyland department that handles press visits and park photography:

To Whom It May Concern:

I am writing to request permission to photograph the interior and exterior of Disneyland’s Mickey & Friends Parking Structure. I’m a visual artist with a graduate degree from the University of Chicago and am currently traveling the country by bicycle: visiting, documenting, and writing about various structures and sites along the way. I’m interested in the Disneyland garage because of its immense scale and cultural significance, as well as aspects of its design and construction. I intend to place low-resolution versions of perhaps six to ten images in the context of a blog I’ve maintained throughout the journey. The project is non-profit and none of the images will be sold. I am not a professional photographer and photograph the sites I visit as a visual supplement to the articles I write about them.

I have already visited the garage once, and my presence was met with suspicion among Disneyland security personnel. I hope to avoid repeating such an uncomfortable situation by announcing my intentions in advance and having a future visit sanctioned by official channels. I understand your security policies have changed since 9/11 and do not wish to complicate the lives of Disneyland employees. However, I am deeply concerned by the fact that an architecture buff such as myself can not take a few snapshots of a structure used by thousands of individuals a day without being suspected of mischief.

Whatever help you can provide on this matter would be greatly appreciated.

Brett Tracy

Not surprisingly, my request for an authorized visit was ignored. Also not surprisingly, I went back anyway. Assuming the weekend security staff would be unfamiliar with my appearance, I chose a late Sunday afternoon. I was sneakier with my image taking this time, getting the shots I wanted before security caught on. When they eventually did, I disarmed my captors with light conversation while we waited for Anaheim Police. The Mexican bicycle-mounted security officer, tasked with making sure I didn’t cut and run before their arrival, told me he averages thirty miles a day within the garage: repeatedly riding the elevator to the top then descending through the structure’s six levels.

Both discussions with park personnel centered on the difference between an innocuous snapshot and a security breach. The Disneyland property is one of the most heavily photographed places anywhere. But because no one ever takes pictures of the parking garage, doing so raises a great deal of suspicion. I was told that a tourist photo’s key ingredient is people. If security spots a guest clicking away at buildings and rides with no sign of the wife and kids, they drag them in for interrogation. I promised that in the future I’d bring a human subject to stand in front of the concrete pillars I wanted pictures of.

It’s not inconceivable that I was allowed, both times, to keep my images. After all, I spoke the truth with regard to the nature of my interest in the structure. Enthusiasm in my voice, I persuaded the officers I believed the important piece of architecture should be documented for anthropological study. Supporting my case, I informed them of its longtime reign as North America’s largest parking garage: over 10,000 spaces. I revealed that, because of a design flaw, the northern half had to be torn down and rebuilt at enormous expense. I even shared the horror stories of friends lost in its labyrinthine interior. But what really convinced them I wasn’t a threat to public safety was one tall handsome officer bringing up The Illuminated Thread on his PDA.

33°48'55"N 117°55'34"W

04.26.09 Brea, CA: ecology of an oil town

upper left: God was like, “Yeah… thanks for the effort guys but this structure ain’t honoring shit.”

upper right: “When we build the Utopia, Phil Collins will be heard from every street corner!”

lower left: Take another look at that window.

lower right: Things found in the backyard: patio furniture, grill, dog’s water bowl, 30-foot brick wall.

Jessie and Nathan were adamant about me experiencing this place. They had gone to see a movie in the town’s heavily redeveloped entertainment district and discovered a “creepy” residential neighborhood adjacent to the equally weird downtown. The three of us got on our bikes and pedaled over the hill from Fullerton, arriving before dusk to stroll around and snap some photos.

A quick Wikipedia read on Brea reveals it to be an interesting case study. Recorded in its history is the evolution of a town that got its start in resource extraction. Brea is the Spanish word for tar, a reference to the “black gold” that attracted the area’s first corporate landowner: Union Oil. Typically when the original resource dries up, the boomtown either dries up with it or adapts to exploit some other local resource. When its oil production began to wane, Brea’s succeeding resource was a climate suitable for growing citrus trees. After WWII, its orange and lemon orchards were gradually replaced by residential developments: the beginning of the Great Suburban Build-out that so thoroughly ruined much of the American landscape. Highly symbolic of this process was the 1956 opening of the first two restaurants in the now ubiquitous Carl’s Jr. franchise: one in Brea, the other in nearby Anaheim. Although accompanied by some industry, the construction and servicing of tract homes, strip malls and fast-food joints is a questionable foundation for a local economy. In some ways, Brea is a microcosm for the country as a whole, demonstrating how our national economy came to be one based on real estate (suburban home building) and credit spending (shit to fill the homes with). In the long run, such an economy produces little more than waste streams and is about as real and substantial as that painted on window.

It’s useful to think of Brea’s history in ecological terms. In a process not unlike that by which a meadow becomes a forest, the town has passed through several stages of succession before arriving at its current form. The wooden oil drilling towers that first sprouted on the hills gradually gave way to citrus trees, which in turn gave way to single-family homes. Each local economic model replaced the one before it as niches disappeared and new ones emerged. Said another way: oil production was an early seral stage in the succession of Brea’s local economy types. The master-planned downtown with its shops, movie theatres, sidewalk cafes and restaurants is a later stage in the same sere.

So why is downtown Brea (a.k.a. Brea Downtown) so strange? The primary reason is that when the 50-acre swath at Brea Boulevard and Birch Street was torn down and rebuilt in the late 90s, it was likely done as cheaply as possible. Low-bid construction employs corner-cutting techniques that can make a place appear slightly off. Second, successful downtown districts, like those found throughout Europe, have taken many years to become what they are. Charm takes time; more of it than developers care to admit. Brea Downtown is a caricature of a successful downtown district. The parody is based on a handful of architects’ collective vision of what such a place should be (or at least look like).

Postscript: To be fair, Brea’s waste streams do provide a source of income. In addition to receiving a third of Orange County’s trash, Brea’s Olinda Alpha Landfill actually imports garbage from neighboring Riverside, San Diego, San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties. In fact, 35% of the waste that ends up there originated outside the county. The importation scheme began in 1994 when a bankrupt OC desperately needed to generate some cash. The county has since raised millions of dollars letting outsiders contribute to Brea’s heaping pile of refuse. The landfill was supposed to close in 2013 but its life (and projected size) was recently extended—a move worth $30 million dollars to the city over the next twelve years. We can (appropriately) write in “importing trash” next to “retail shopping” on Brea’s list of revenue sources.

Check out this report by the OC Register. I’ll bet that mountain hits the 1,415 foot mark before 2021. Then they can plant some trees on it and pretend it was there all along.

Also, this KunstlerCast on the Disneyfication of America

33°55'8"N 117°54'2"W

view stage two: part two here.

stage two: part three

San Francisco, CA to L.A./San Diego, CA