Accepted paper:

On aqueducts and anxiety: reading L.A.'s water future through infrastructure stories


Sayd Randle (University of Southern California)

Paper short abstract:

This paper explores the expectations for and meanings of L.A.'s water future articulated through artistic representations of the city's water network. I show how infrastructural imagery is used to index anxieties about crises of water scarcity-to-come.

Paper long abstract:

Empty aqueducts. Bleached out water tanks. Rusted cloud seeding machines. In recent years, images of derelict water infrastructure have become common tropes in cultural production dramatizing the future of the United States West. Readers and viewers are drawn into witnessing the region's infrastructural ruins, and to contemplating a desiccated California-to-come. Drawing on participant observation among the producers of these works and selected readings of their texts, this paper unravels the affective and symbolic dimensions of such confrontations with the arid region's abject aqueducts. Situating the production of narratives centered on these future-ruins within the growing Anthropocene literature, I also examine the politics of these fables of high modernist engineering's coming failures. I focus particularly on works representing the infrastructures of the pipeline-dependent city of Los Angeles. The L.A. Aqueduct system has delivered Sierra Nevada snowmelt to the Southern California metropolis since 1913. Initially celebrated as a symbol of civic pride and technical ingenuity, the pipeline took on a darker cultural meaning after the 1974 release of Roman Polanski's Chinatown, one tinged with guilt for swindling faraway regions out of their water. Since the Aqueduct's centennial, new works have emerged, envisioning futures in which the pipeline delivers no water. This shift - from a focus on an unjust past to one on an impotent future for the Aqueduct - suggests a substantially different basis for critique of regional water supply arrangements, and an emergent set of ideas about time, technology, and prospects for human habitation in the arid urban West.

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Water futures: making a living in times of environmental uncertainty