AUGUST 15, 2013
ANNIHILATED 138 TIMES by nukes, quakes, invasions (from terrestrial and extraterrestrial aliens), monsters, gangs, plagues, comets, cults: Mike Davis notes in Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster, “No other city seems to excite such dark rapture.” Davis published this ambitious survey back in 1998, 15 years after Blade Runner’s cyberpunk noir distilled anxieties over public space in Los Angeles. With the advent of networked fiction enabled by mobile technologies, Los Angeles’s imagination of its destruction has become both massively distributed across the physical landscape (with stories pinned to Google Maps) and physically intimate: conjured not just in the home but anywhere our bodies happen to be. We sleep with our smart phones, port them in our pockets and feel their vibration summon us from meat space. We consult them many times daily, autonomic as breathing.
The LA Flood Project, a sprawling work of speculative fiction produced by the eight-person, Angeleno writing collective LAinundación, imagines Davis’s “dark rapture” as an opportunity to explore the social geography of a multi-nodal city.
As an answer to the troubling apocalyptic visions of all-out race wars, from Charles Manson to The Turner Diaries, as well as the multicultural postmodern dystopias depicted in films such as Blade Runner and books such as Neil Stephenson’s Snow Crash, LA Flood Project depicts a near-future Los Angeles whose circumscribed morality strives to escape the flood waters and actively invites us all to tweet our own escape. LA Flood deserves consideration alongside another great L.A. disaster story, Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, with its empathic drive to escape a city in the process of collapse and instead, build something beautiful, connected, and entirely different in its place — not necessarily here and now, but somewhere down the road.
There are many reasons why Los Angeles is the city we love to destroy. Los Angeles is a key node in the network of global media production. Writers and directors, working with what’s available both in terms of shooting locations and ambient inspiration, might logically choose to set works in the place where they dwell. Los Angeles is an ecologically precarious city, supporting a large and growing population with limited water resources and a major fault line running through it. Davis argues that there is a deeper cause to these morbid spectacles, however: the paradox of inequality, injustice, and deprivation in a city that is also widely equated with sunshine, beauty, prosperity, fame, and happiness.
Writing this as Angelenos (one of us a transplant to the Midwest, the other having lived up and down the west coast most of her life), we are both familiar with living outside of a city that people consider a cosmopolitan land of opportunity, and living within a city propped up by a large underclass. An illustration of this peculiar tension is nicely summarized in Randy Newman’s 1983 song “I Love L.A.”:
Look at that mountain
Look at those trees
Look at that bum over there, man
He’s down on his knees
Look at these women
There ain’t nothin’ like ‘em nowhere
The song identifies the affluence and poverty of the city in stark juxtaposition, but the famous music video gilds this, splicing together icons of Los Angeles syncopated to the music and ending with enthusiastic crowds chanting “We Love It!” The satirical content of the song was drowned out by its catchy tune, and it quickly became an anthem for the city, particularly during the 1984 Olympic games for which “I Love L.A.” was written. What might be read as an ironic triumph of medium over message could also be an acceptance of irony itself. The city sees its ongoing problems, but fronts a blissful optimism. Today, anyone driving through the now two-years-long Westside 405-corridor expansion — a project many say will be obsolete the day it’s finished because it can’t accommodate driver demand — can see how blindered optimism is still at the core of L.A.’s urban design.
Compare, for instance, New York hip hop to Los Angeles hip hop. By the early 1990s, Los Angeles’s gangsta rap had evolved into the G-funk style, which strikes a contrast both sonically and thematically with New York hardcore hip hop of the era. At the risk of oversimplifying the differing sensibilities, fast-talking New Yorkers stereotypically grit their teeth through adversity while laid-back Angelenos smile.
Davis’s Ecology of Fear positions these contradictions as key to understanding L.A. disaster fantasies. Davis identifies the racial undertones as they are expressed throughout the genre’s history. The overtly racial component of L.A. disaster fiction increases in pace and intensity after the period of demographic transition, the 1970s, in which Latinos emerge as the largest “ethnic group,” and Los Angeles’s white population was supplanted as the majority. As the political landscape shifted, so too did the population’s attitudes to historical restrictions which kept African-Americans largely confined to South Central and Latinos to East L.A.
Eric Avila, in the catalog for the outstanding Getty exhibit Overdrive: Los Angeles Constructs the Future 1940-1990 locates those historical restrictions in tussles between Beverly Hills and East L.A. over freeway placement. Today no freeways lead directly to Beverly Hills; nine lead to East L.A. Similarly, efforts to integrate the L.A. Unified School District were met by affluent white communities turning inward to establish their own school districts. Increasing immigration and greater geographic mobility happened alongside the emergence of new suburbs and gated communities. And then, through the 1980s, the crack epidemic and an increase in violent gang activity imposed further stresses on the city. In 1992, when four white members of the LAPD were acquitted for beating black motorist Rodney King, riots erupted across the city. These were followed by a variety of attempts at reform, though none of these seem to have resolved the underlying tensions.
Thus L.A. optimism, as the abundance of disaster narratives suggests, is hardly universal but an atmospheric attribute of a city dogged with real problems. On a grand scale, the mediated depiction of Los Angeles tends to be polarized. On the one side, there is glamorous, prosperous Los Angeles, blithely neoliberal in its creation of carefully controlled environments such as commercial districts, themed attractions, and gated or upscale neighborhoods. On the other is an alternative fantasy: a balkanized dystopian jumble of corruption and tribalism, or, worse, all-out insurrection. In mediated Los Angeles, there is rarely a middle ground between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The result, we might say, is that in Los Angeles, one gets the sense that there is something wrong, but there is no clear consensus or political will about how to address the problem (or even identify it). Hence the city’s fascination with uncontrollable, almost cosmic events that precipitate radical changes to its perennial problems that are cast as beyond our control or comprehension.
It is in this cultural milieu that the LA Flood Project emerges.
Each of LA Flood’s 64 “lexia” (or “bits of story”) is pinned to exact geospatial locations around L.A.-metro. As a Katrina-grade flood ravages the city, each lexis tells the story of a character in that location or of the location itself. Each simulates the three stages of flooding: water rising, water at its height, water receding. The story is perpetually available via desktop and mobile. Most of the time, the large, distributed story lies dormant. It springs to life during a six-day Twitterfiction installation that anyone can participate in. LA Flood creative director Mark C. Marino and writing partner Rob Wittig call this “improvised” Internet fiction “NetProv.” Two Netprov installations, one May 2011 for the L.A. Festival of Books and another October 2011 for a U.S.C. “Visions and Voices” event, generated over 70,000 tweets. Click to read the 543-page archive of the Netprov.
Based on the model of a War of the Worlds-style hoax, the story solicits participation from people tweeting both as their real selves and as invented characters. Often who’s “real” and who’s “fictional” is hard to discern. Mark Marino:
The LA Flood Project actually led to some real life confusion. When fictional character Manny Velasco (@ascovelasco) mentioned the rain falling in the morning, one of his followers expressed dismay as she was driving up from San Diego where there was not a cloud in the sky. When Robert Rex Waller, Jr. (@iseehawksinla) claimed the parking lots were flooded, the USC Parking Twitter account denied this claim.
Rather than a top-down storytelling experience such as Twilight: Los Angeles, in which Anna Deavere Smith organizes the many voices she says she copied “verbatim” into a story structure she designed, LA Flood is openly participatory. LAinundación made a story on the understanding that its readers will also be its writers, a practice akin to the historically dynamic relationships between readers and writers in the science fiction community. In LA Flood, such interactivity is augmented by its publication via social and mobile media forms. In fact, the collective refuses traditional notions of authorship by choosing to identify as an inundación (“flood” in Spanish), which is an accretion of volume that overwhelms a space. FEMA defines “flood” as “a general and temporary condition of partial or complete inundation of two or more acres of normally dry land area or of two or more properties,” reinforcing the formal conception of the work and its authoring as an event that is defined by its capacity to overwhelm boundaries and create common conditions. In another point of contact with Butler’s Parable and its exploration of shared pain and pleasure, LAinundación’s invitation to authorship allows readers to explore, momentarily, the boundaries between the “properties” associated with race, class, and ethnic identifications.
Although the Netprov artists direct the flow of the tweets by encouraging participation through re-tweeting and discouraging other participation by not retweeting, Twitter is an open platform. There is no way for the authors to control who will speak, or what or when they will say it. People stumbling into the story who don’t understand that the fiction is unfolding over six days, for example, could mess up the realistic timeline. It’s a risk to disperse control to the crowd, but the rewards are a truly eventful, addictive reading experience that brings fresh urgency to a mapped, networked story.
LAinundación’s refusal to create paths for readers shifts the register of the art experience from a consumable object to something else. Gone is the catharsis that Twilight yields; but gone, too, is the stasis and retrospective sense of inevitably that can result from catharsis. There’s no such thing as a second authentic experience of Twilight. Repeat viewings allow one to admire Smith’s technique but not to be surprised by the story itself. In LA Flood, the same lexia recombine into different sequences depending on how the reader navigates her way through the story; this is made even more dynamic and recombinant if the story is accessed on a mobile device in actual spaces around Los Angeles. There’s no denying that Twilight is a brilliant work that still tells us crucial things about uneasy race relations in Los Angeles. But the mobile, social aesthetics of LA Flood scatter similar narratives across the city, making the entire L.A-metro a game-like space.
The result is what Davis refers to as the “ergodic” character of Los Angeles science fiction. Topographic richness and multiplicity replace the coherence of the linear text. Espen Aarseth, the noted scholar of “cybertext,” uses “ergodic” differently, to describe texts that require “non-trivial effort” to navigate. In LA Flood Project Davis’s and Aarseth’s terms converge. The text is demanding: ethically complex, structurally hypertextual, and materially distributed. When it’s read on-site, as Kathi’s USC students have done for three consecutive semesters, the work becomes even more complex because the wifi network performs erratically depending on the draw on that particular tower at that particular moment. Students report frustration in not being able to load the story on their phones. Others can load it easily. Whether or not the story will “work” is almost entirely unpredictable.
Lack of access, however, is an important reading experience that gives mobile readers a unique first-hand experience of LA Flood’s overarching theme. Frustration, the experience of being shut out of opportunity by forces beyond one’s control — indeed, by forces that are invisible and ubiquitous: LA Flood’s failures to load connect mobile readers of all races to the experiences of racism described by characters in the LA Flood story. Victims of racism are shut out, penned in: as fictional character Elizabeta Montana says glimpsing the rising L.A. River: “just another border, just another ‘stay on this side’.” The game-like experience of reading LA Flood yields for on-location readers a first-hand experience of the story’s theme.
Throughout LA Flood, anti-racist poetics takes shape in the speculative fictional space of the networked disaster narrative that spans the city and spares no resident the flood’s egalitarian logic. Baldwin Hills is an affluent, predominantly African-American neighborhood in the hills of west Los Angeles. In the lexia “Baldwin Hills,” the “silt of successful consumption” is insufficient to ensure rescue:
As the waters recede, the View Park convalescent home gleams on the hill, surrounded by the silt of successful consumption. Chairs, lamps, stereo speakers, iPods, computers, place settings, Steeler flags, bicycles. It stand brightly as if it had been sitting by the window, watching the rain, thinking about rains past, the rains of Mississippi, the rains of Alabama, Louisiana, rains that brought with it a kind of Old Testament unforgiveness, the merciless downpour of a decision too late to change. Its inhabitants did not find a clear escape. The rescue pontoons did not make it to the base of Baldwin Hills, claiming they got lost, while attempting to locate Rodeo Drive.
It’s unclear what’s provoking the Old Testament god’s wrathful “unforgiveness” in this second “downpour of decision.” Is it the false gods of consumption, the “stereo speakers, iPods, computers, place settings”? Is it the ambition of American class mobility, leaving the “rains of Mississippi. . . Alabama. . . Louisiana” to rise above “Oz” with a clear view west, like manifest destiny, to the city of Santa Monica and the expensive boulevards named for “arid starry states” Colorado, Arizona? The lexis doesn’t decide. It doesn’t matter because in any case, the rescue party “got lost attempting to locate Rodeo Drive.” The authors of LAinundación make it clear that rich and black has less access to emergency services than rich and not-black.
To those interested in hearing it, voices are a mobile map. Travis Barabbas Kingsilver is a character whose soliloquy, like that of several other characters in LA Flood, roots the sound of vernacular to a geographically specific location. Spoken-word perfomance lets the mobile reader stroll 37th and Vermont streets in south-central Los Angeles, listening as Travis mixes his sales patter with knowing critique of the “savings and blown” crisis that enriched him, but now traps him.
He’s a crooked mortgage dealer surveying the “rows of tombstones” that are the “foreclosed” signs staked in the yards of his former clients:
Home ownership. The American dream. Bank of America. Dream. . . Pass that up? Shiiit. Mooove right on in wich your wife, kids, auntie, girlfriend on the side — whomever dawg — coz now u got a yard, gotta get a dog now, a cute one; shit all over your yard, but he’ll lick your face at night. Then. After 3 months? Shit. Well, everybody’s got to pay some time or another. The way it’s always been. Not my fault, a course. Can’t blame me for so much stupid goin’ around.
Barabbas — the thief whom the crowd demands to be released instead of Jesus — understands his name as both birthright and curse. But though this allusion gives us a bead on his character, it’s Travis’s distinctive way of talking that flummoxes a straightforward interpretation of meaning. Barabbas’s patois of vernacular and perfect grammar, indicated by “whomever” cozying up with “dawg” opens an aporia: who is Barabbas? “Dawg” invokes African-American vernacular, summoning masculine prowess, sex, talk among men. “Whomever” is the provenance of the educated, their mastery of grammatical rules a synecdoche for their place in Los Angeles’s pecking order.
As readers stand on site listening to the actor James Hurd give a masterful vocal performance, we also hear him turning the paper pages of the script. This mistake ought to jettison us from the immersive fiction. But in a networked environment, where our attention already pings from stimulus to stimulus, in fact the “mistake” just makes Hurd’s performance more authentic. Barabbas is almost never not performing: it’s as if he always has a script in hand, so canny is his performance as the crooked mortgage dealer corrupted as a way to survive. His spontaneous help to the drowning school children is psychologically threatening to him and physically dangerous. In a city that views him and all black men as juridical subjects, Travis hides his assets — intelligence and moral rectitude — to preserve his agency, his freedom to hide from the historically corrupt and militaristic LAPD For Barabbas, to offer help to drowning children is also to make himself visible, an asset to be captured in a carceral system that systematically captures black men. As with Butler’s protagonist, Lauren Olamina, there is a recognition that empathy is both a virtue and a burden. It is a threat in conditions of conflict and inequality. Among the many consequences of the “ecology of fear” diagnosed by Davis is the way it deforms the basic impulse towards social identification and the formation of community.
That’s why Travis Barabbas Kingsilver swims out of our view, “[y]ou better believe it, swimming the hell away from here,” as the flood rages on. In the grip of catastrophe, he bucks the “dog-eat-dog” logic that often prevails when civility collapses and which he seems to espouse, and unwillingly becomes a hero: not a shining model of virtue in service of sombody’s parable, but a black man who did right in spite of all the bullshit that the city inscribes on the bodies it seeks to contain. His good deed is mirrored by the others frantically scrambling to free the children from the submerged bus.
Meanwhile, at the Coliseum, a neighborhood coalition is joined by a street gang and the Nation of Islam; a small-scale collaboration unfolds, though not without some ethnic division of labor: “Armenians run the imports. Mexican Americans the distribution networks. Koreans run the service shuttles. African Americans run the books and maintain the house, the Coliseum itself. Some Caucasian refugees from USC maintain the facilities.” Here, at its most utopic, LA Flood depicts a microcosm of the city that is not too terribly far beyond the present. Though with boundaries broken down, privileges flattened, and interdependence made critical, this is the place where Los Angeles, purified by diluvial waters, can be reborn with its rich diversity intact: a disaster narrative gone right.