The Visionary State: An Interview with Erik Davis

[Image: Philip K. Dick’s former apartment complex, Fullerton, CA; photo ©Michael Rauner].

In The Visionary State, published last month by Chronicle Books, Erik Davis and Michael Rauner explore the religious landscape of California. The state’s cultural topography, Davis tells us, mirrors the physical terrain, “an overlapping set of diverse ecosystems, hanging, and sometimes quaking, on the literal edge of the West”:

This landscape ranges from pagan forests to ascetic deserts to the shifting shores of a watery void. It includes dizzying heights and terrible lows, and great urban zones of human construction. Even in its city life, California insists that there are more ways than one, with its major urban cultures roughly divided between the San Francisco Bay Area and greater Los Angeles. Indeed, Northern and Southern California are considered by some to be so different as to effectively constitute different states. But that is a mistake. California is not two: it is bipolar.

Indeed, the state is animated from below with “titanic forces implied by its geology,” Davis writes, and a “frontier strand of nature mysticism” long ago took conscious root.

[Image: The labyrinth in Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve, Oakland; photo ©Michael Rauner].

Over the course of the book, the authors visit California’s “Buddha towns” and Vedantic ashrams, its National Parks and the properties of discontented theosophists. They try to fathom what strange mutations of 21st-century Christianity could produce Jesus, the “OC Superstar,” in whose name compassionate self-sacrifice and divine generosity have been reduced to a grinning statue rather pleased with itself in a well-watered grove of palm trees. They even stop by California’s hot springs, wineries, observatories, and mind labs – without forgetting the dark side of the state, where Charles Manson, “trippy folk songs,” and a psychedelic obsession with “the Now” all meet.
At one point Davis hilariously describes Anton LaVey, author of The Satanic Bible:

Born Howard Levey in 1930, LaVey was less a freak guru than a Playboy-era steak-and-martini man. He hated hippies and LSD, played Wurlitzer organs in strip clubs, and had no interest in mystically dissolving the ego. Though essentially a con man, LaVey had enough psychological frankness and sleazy charm to attract scores to the black masses he held at his house in the Outer Richmond, a place he had, as the song goes, painted black.

Meanwhile, fans of Blade Runner will be pleased to hear that Davis and Rauner visit the so-called Bradbury Building. There, in Ridley Scott’s film, lived J.F. Sebastian, abandoned by everyone and prematurely old, designing his robotic toys.

[Image: The Bradbury Building, Los Angeles; designed by George Wyman, the interior of the building “shoots upward toward a gabled canopy of glass, a lattice of light suspended over the delicate wrought-iron trusses that float in the clerestory haze.” Photo ©Michael Rauner].

Though I found the book philosophically adventurous, strangely good-humored, and particularly well-photographed, I will add that my own sense of the sacred – if I can phrase it as such – felt constantly challenged throughout. In other words, almost every time the authors visited a new site, I found myself immediately engaged in a kind of comparative landscape theology, asking: why is this place sacred?
Why on earth would they go there?
After all, is an archaeological site sacred to the Chumash more sacred than a street sacred to Philip K. Dick – or a quarry sacred to the Center for Land Use Interpretation? Or vice versa? What about a site favored by Erik Davis and Michael Rauner themselves, as they performed literally years of research for the book?
Such questions only lead to more of themselves. If the Mormons, for instance, launched a geostationary satellite over the city of Los Angeles, and they used it to broadcast radio sermons, is that precise location in the sky – a square-meter of rarefied air – to be considered sacred? Or is there a holy tide or blessed current that flows through the coves of Big Sur – whose landscape, a “wild harmony of impermanence and beauty,” Davis writes, so stunned the poet Robinson Jeffers? Does that visionary landscape have a correspondingly sacred hydroscape, some undersea world of the dead discussed a thousand years earlier in tribal myths? Can the weather be sacred – or even a particular storm?
And where does the geography of celebrity fit in…?
How do you differentiate between the sacred and the postmodern – and even outright kitsch?

• • •

I decided the best thing to do was talk to Davis himself – and so I called him. What follows is a transcript of the conversation.

[Images: Swami’s in Encinitas; a room in the Star Center, Unarius Academy of Science, El Cajon; and the Temple Room at Goddess Temple, Boulder Creek. Photos ©Michael Rauner].

BLDGBLOG: What were your criteria for deciding if a location – a building, a landscape, a particular street in Los Angeles – was sacred or visionary? Was your list of sites determined by rigorous historical and anthropological research, or by your own subjective interpretation of the sites?

Erik Davis: It was pretty clear, in an objective sense, where the major points were – the major locations to find. I was looking either for a new religious movement that had some literally visionary quality behind it, or for a novel, visionary development within an older and existing tradition. But there was always a grey area. On that level, I started to go a little bit on intuition – not just picking things that I liked, obviously, but picking things that seemed to complete or expand the story behind the book.

A good example is Luna, the tree that Julia Butterfly Hill sat in. Is it religious, is it spiritual, is it visionary? Even from an anthropological perspective, you’re kind of left wondering about that – but I really felt like there was something powerful in the way the tree came to serve as an update for the story of nature mysticism in California. We actually had to work quite a lot to access Luna – because it’s on private land, and they don’t like people to know where it is – but we did finally get there, and we went to the tree, and we thought, you know: it’s an impressive tree, it’s got these weird braces on it that stabilized it from where somebody tried to chop it down… But around the back side of the tree, there was this hollowed-out, blackened hole – and it was full of little trinkets. People had come, sneaking onto the land, in order to pay homage. There was a Navaho dreamcatcher and a little bodhisattva figure and a teacup and a little glyph of a tree – it was this rag-tag mixture of objects that had transformed the tree into a kind of miniature shrine.

I saw that and I thought: okay, I’m on the right track. [laughs]

[Image: Tire Tree, Salvation Mountain, Slab City; photo ©Michael Rauner. This, of course, is not Luna].

BLDGBLOG: At one point, you visit Gary Snyder’s zendo, and you mention the Beat Generation in several places throughout the book – but what about visiting a few more locations from the Beats’ literary heyday, like the apartment where Allen Ginsberg wrote “Howl”?

Davis: I tried to keep to things that were as explicitly religious or spiritual as possible – but, you can imagine, we had a long B-list of places we thought we could include. We were constantly asking for more space from the publisher! There are just so many elements that went into it: geography; wanting to keep a balance between urban and rural, north and south, different traditions – Buddhist, Christian, pagan, Native American. There were places that were famous vs. places that weren’t famous – this kind of high/low tension – but there were also things that just came out of the earlier sites. People start telling you stuff.

Like at Watts Towers: one of the guys who worked there was a local, and we started talking about assemblage, and collage, and using different pieces of trash to make art – and he said, Oh, you know, there’s this great place called Self Help Graphics out in East L.A., and I never would’ve found that place if I hadn’t met the guy. So Michael Rauner and I went out there, and it was great.

There were all kinds of synchronicities like that.

[Image: The Virgin of Guadalupe, Self Help Graphics & Art, East L.A.; photo ©Michael Rauner].

BLDGBLOG: This is perhaps a question more appropriate for J.G. Ballard than it is for The Visionary State, but were you ever tempted to include things like the site where James Dean was killed? Or the exact route driven by O.J. Simpson as he fled the police? For that matter, what if you’d found out that the whole Los Angeles freeway system had been designed by some rogue Freemason – and so all those knotted flyovers and concretized inner-city access routes are really a huge, psycho-spiritual landscape installation? Something between the Blythe geoglyph and the maze outside Grace Cathedral?

Davis: I would have loved that. [laughter] But, you know, the further you go into these weird mixtures of imagination and space, inevitably that kind of thing comes your way. That’s the thing about psychogeography – because, in a way, what I was doing was a kind of relatively gentle psychogeography of the state.

For instance, one thing I really enjoyed seeing was this witch’s map of California, where she’d laid the 7 chakras down onto different regions of the state – and I really wanted to work that in. But as far as the built, modern, commercial, secular landscape of California goes, if I had come across stuff like that – and I’m sure there’s some of it out there – then of course. That wouldn’t surprise me, for one thing – and it would excite me, for another. As I say, we have a long B-list.

[Image: The Witch House/Spadena House, Beverly Hills; photo ©Michael Rauner].

BLDGBLOG: Finally, where do earthquakes and seismology fit in all this? For some reason, I was expecting the San Andreas Fault to play a much larger role in the book – but you don’t really play that up. Which I actually then preferred.

Davis: You’re right – I didn’t play that too strongly – but it’s definitely there as a kind of psychic twist inside the state. For me, the seismology thing really worked in a more gentle way, and that was by talking about the hot springs. In the hot springs you see how the seismically active underside of California has created an environment where you get natural springs, and those become centers of healing.

When I started out, I thought there were going to be more explicit landscapes to include in the book – like Death Valley, and the San Andreas Fault – but the more we got into it, the more we found there were built structures just screaming out for inclusion. The book ended up shifting subtly toward architecture and the built environment, with the landscape providing the background, as it were, for these more specifically cultural places of spiritual and visionary power.

[Image: Huxley Street, Los Angeles, named after Aldous Huxley. By the end of his life, Davis tells us, Huxley had “concluded that people needed to change on an individual psychological level if civilization was going to avoid the disasters he glimpsed on the horizon: overpopulation, high-tech war, ecological catastrophe, and the sort of narcotized totalitarian propaganda depicted with such lasting power in Brave New World.” Photo ©Michael Rauner].

• • •

At the book’s end, Davis reconsiders sunset, an event that resets the westward clock to its cyclic eastern origins; it is, he says, “the holiest moment of the day.” But sunset is too easily mythologized: it resets no clocks, and its cycles are not human but magnetic, thermochemical, turning on an alien timescale that knows nothing of earthly religion.
In the myths that do arise, however, transforming westward motion into something yet more godly and epic, California plays a distinct – and vulnerable – role:

In the American imagination, California’s shores stage both the fulfillment and decline of the West, its final shot at paradise and its perilous fall into the sea. That is why the California dream encompasses both Arcadian frontier and apocalyptic end zone, Eden and Babylon. As Christopher Isherwood put it, “California is a tragic land – like Palestine, like every promised land.”

[Image: Noah Purifoy Sculpture Garden, Joshua Tree; photo ©Michael Rauner].

(Thanks to Erik Davis for his time and enthusiasm, and to Michael Rauner for the fantastic photographs. Meanwhile, Erik will be presenting The Visionary State at a number of locations; here’s his schedule of appearances.

Mud Mosques of Mali

[Image: Tambeni Mosque; Sebastian Schutyser, 2001].

Belgian photograper Sebastian Schutyser spent nearly four years photographing the mud mosques of Mali. A collection of 200 such black & white photographs is now online at ArchNet.

The project “began in 1998,” Schutyser explains: “For several months I traveled from village to village by bicycle and ‘pirogue’, navigating with IGN 1:200.000 maps. The inaccessibility of the area made me realize why this hadn’t been done before.”

[Images: (top) Noga Mosque, (bottom) Tenenkou Mosque; Sebastian Schutyser, 2001].

Within a few years, however, and over a period lasting roughly till the Spring of 2002, Schutyser managed “to travel faster, and reach the most remote parts of the Inner Delta. To increase the documentary value of the collection, I worked with 35mm color slides, and photographed every mosque from different angles. Whenever I encountered a particularly pretty mosque, I also photographed it on 4-5 inch black & white negative, to add to the ‘vintage’ collection.”

[Images: (top) Sébi Mosque, (bottom) Tilembeya Mosque; Sebastian Schutyser, 1998].

“With 515 mosques photographed,” Schutyser writes, “this collection shows a representative image of the adobe mosques of the Niger Inner Delta. Advancing modernity, and a lack of appreciation for this ‘archaic’ approach to building, are serious threats to the continuity of this living architecture.”

I might also add that each building is a kind of ritually re-repaired ventilation machine capable of generating its own microclimate: “During the day,” ArchNet explains, “the walls absorb the heat of the day that is released throughout the night, helping the interior of the mosque remain cool all day long. Some structures, for example, Djenné’s Great Mosque, also have roof vents with ceramic caps. These caps, made by the town’s women, can be removed at night to ventilate the interior spaces. Masons have integrated palm wood scaffolding into the building’s construction, not as beams, but as permanent scaffolding for the workers who apply plaster annually during the spring festival to restore the mosque. The palm beams also minimize the stress that comes from the extreme temperature and humidity changes typical of the climate.”

Finally, each tower is “often topped with a spire capped by an ostrich egg, symbolizing fertility and purity.”

Schutyser’s images have been collected in a beautiful book, co-written with Dorothee Gruner and Jean Dethier, called Banco: Adobe Mosques of the Inner Niger Delta.

[Image: Sinam Mosque; Sebastian Schutyser, 2002].

(All images in this post are ©Sebastian Schutyser).

Rooms of algebraic theology

[Image: The supercomputer pictured above is the MareNostrum, “meaning ‘our sea,'” New Scientist writes; “it is housed in a 1920s chapel at the Technical University of Catalonia in Barcelona, Spain, and built from commercially available parts.” Photo by Simon Norfolk].

“The supercomputers I’m showing here are powerful almost beyond human understanding,” photographer Simon Norfolk explains, describing his extraordinary new images of supercomputers and their architectural settings. “They can map every molecule of the billions on a human DNA string; scrutinise at the atomic level the collision between two pieces of plutonium in an exploding bomb; or sketch the gravitational pull of every star in the galaxy upon every other star in the galaxy. These are not questions that humans could grapple with given plenty of time, a notebook and a sharp pencil.”

Norfolk has also photographed computers used for “mapping and predicting global virus outbreaks” and for “simulating automotive crash tests.”

[Image: “Modeling physics inside an exploding nuclear warhead.” Simon Norfolk].

These computers, Norfolk continues, “are omniscient and omnipresent and these are not qualities in which we find a simulacrum of ourselves – these are qualities that describe the Divine. The problem is not that these computers might one day resemble humans; it is that they already resemble gods.”

[Images: Simon Norfolk. The top image is titled “Mapping the human genome.” The others are the TERA-1 and the TERA-10].

In almost supernaturally sterile rooms, these angelic landscapes of silicon quietly hum their way through introspective worlds of calculation: derivatives, logorithms, advanced topologies. One could, in fact, imagine a whole new series of Duino Elegies, written by a posthumous Rainer Maria Rilke, in terrified praise of these cloistered machines – machines Rilke seems to describe preemptively in his “Seventh Elegy,” where the “annihilator” meets the “Angel.”

Rilke writes that “the external shrinks into less and less”:

Where once an enduring house was,
now a cerebral structure crosses our path, completely
belonging to the realm of concepts, as though it still stood in the brain.
Our age has built itself vast reservoirs of power,
formless as the straining energy that it wrests from the earth.
Temples are no longer known.

In this context, it seems almost like an act of religious sarcasm that the MareNostrum computer – pictured at the top of this post – has been housed in a chapel. (Of course, a consecrated supercomputer is certainly a stunning intellectual possibility – perhaps setting up the plot of Da Vinci Code 2, wherein future archaeologists discover that the Vatican is not a complex of buildings at all but a fully functioning Jesuit supercomputer).

In any case, because all harddrives are actually geological objects – careful rearrangements of minerals under the influence of artificial magnetic fields – these are mathematical terrains in the most exciting sense: the surface of the earth dreaming of stellar detonations.

[Images: Two close-ups of cerebral machines. Simon Norfolk].

Finally, Giordano Bruno, following Giulio Camillo, wrote extensively about the idea of a Memory Palace, or Memory Theater. As Victoria Nelson tells us, the basic idea was that an “esoterically trained memory was a godlike vessel for encapsulating the entire universe within a single human mind.” This was part of what Nelson calls a Neoplatonic “quasi-religion” that “venerated memory as an organ possessing magical and world-ordering powers.” Neoplatonists believed that “the whole cosmos could be ‘memorized’ in a much more overt imitatio dei and by this act magically incorporated into the human organism” – or, of course, into the air-cooled circuits of a supercomputer.

So if I were forced to take issue with the existence of these machines, it would not be because of their use in modeling new nuclear warheads – as Norfolk makes clear they do – but in something far more secondary, even faintly absurd: what I’d call the lack of a supercomputer poetics, or a more imaginative role for these machines to play in our literary and even religious lives. Oracular, Delphic, radically non-secular: they are either all or none of the above.

(With thanks to Simon Norfolk, who supplied all the images that appear in this post. And don’t miss BLDGBLOG’s later interview with Simon Norfolk, in which he discusses his war photography in much greater detail).

Walking over a valve chamber outside the Brooklyn Academy of Music

Whilst BLDGBLOG was out exploring the underside of Manhattan, from the island’s faucets to its outer city aqueducts, an email came through from Stanley Greenberg, photographic author of both Invisible New York: The Hidden Infrastructure of the City and Waterworks: A Photographic Journey through New York’s Hidden Water System.

He’s a fascinating guy.

“I started photographing the city’s infrastructure in 1992,” he explained, “after working in NYC government in the 1980s. A few things led me to the project. I felt that the water system was being taken for granted, partially because the government is so secretive about it. Places that were built as parks and destinations were now off-limits to everyone – especially after 9/11. I’m concerned that so many public spaces are being withdrawn from our society.”

The secrecy that now surrounds New York’s aquatic infrastructure, however, is “really just an acceleration of a trend,” Greenberg continued. “City Tunnel No. 3, the new water tunnel, has been under construction since 1970, and its entryways are: 1) well hidden, and 2) built to withstand nuclear weapons. While there were always parts of the system that were open to the public, there were other parts that became harder and harder to see. But even worse, I think, is the idea that we don’t even deserve to know about the system in ways that are important to us. It’s that much easier to privatize the system (as Giuliani tried to do). The Parks Department here just signed a contract with a private developer to turn part of Randall’s Island into a water park, which will not only take away public space, and probably be an environmental disaster, but will also institute an entrance fee for something that was free before. We don’t know how well our infrastructure is being taken care of and we’re not allowed to know, because of ‘national security.’ So how do we know if we’re spending too little money to take care of it?”

Greenberg’s photographic attraction is understandable. In his work, the New York City water supply reveals itself as a constellation of negative spaces: trapezoidal culverts, spillways, tunnels – cuts through the earth. His subject, in a sense, is terrain that is no longer there.

As Greenberg writes: “The water system today is an extraordinary web of places – beautiful landscapes, mysterious structures, and sites where the natural meets the man-made in enigmatic ways.”

These excavations, drained of their water, would form a networked monument to pure volume, inscribed into the bedrock of Hudson Valley.

“While the work is not meant to be a comprehensive record of the system,” Greenberg explained over email, “it is meant to make people think about this organism that stretches 1000 feet underground and 200 miles away. I did a lot of research, and spent some time helping to resurrect the Water Department’s archives, which had been neglected for 50 years, so I knew the system pretty well before I started. It got to the point where I could sense a water system structure without actually knowing what it was. My friends are probably tired of my telling them when they’re walking over a valve chamber, or over the place where City Tunnels 1, 2, and now 3 cross each other (near the Brooklyn Academy of Music), or some other obscure part of the system.”

Such tales of hidden topology, of course, do not risk boring BLDGBLOG. One imagines, in fact, a slight resonance to the ground, Manhattan’s sidewalks – or Brooklyn’s – very subtly trembling with echo to those who know what lies below. As if the water system could even have been built, say, as a subterranean extension to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, a strange and amazing instrument drilled through rock, trumpeting with air pressure – a Symphony for the Hudson Valves, Bach’s Cantatas played through imperceptible reverberations of concrete and clay?

“I did all my photographs with permission,” Greenberg continues. “For one thing, it’s hard to sneak around with a 4×5 camera. For another, many of the places are extremely secure. I went back and forth over several years, sometimes being allowed in, other times being a pariah (and a threat to national security, according to the city, since I knew too much about the system). For some reason in 1998 I was given almost total access. I guess they realized I wasn’t going to give up, or that they would fare better if I were the one taking the pictures. I finished taking pictures in spring 2001. After 9/11, I’m sure I would have had little access – and in fact the city tried to stop me from publishing the book. I contacted curators, museum directors and some well-known lawyers; all offered their support. So when I told the city I would not back down, they gave up trying to stop me, and we went to press.”

You can buy the book here; and you can read about Stanley Greenberg’s work all over the place, including here, here, and here (with photographic examples), and even on artnet.

Meanwhile, Greenberg has a show, open till 20 May, 2006, at the Candace Dwan Gallery, NYC. There, you’ll see Greenberg’s more recent photographs of “contemporary architecture under construction. Included in the show are photographs of works by Norman Foster, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Steven Holl, Daniel Libeskind, Yoshio Taniguchi, Winka Dubbeldam, and Bernard Tschumi.”

Earlier: Faucets of Manhattan and London Topological.

Silt

The surface of the planet renews itself through geothermal hydrology, sulfuric lakes, new continents of silt –


– as natural acids scour shapes in slow terrains.

These are all photographs by Bernhard Edmaier, whose work can be found on his own website


– and in the beautiful (if unfortunately named) Earthsong.

Meanwhile – though I repeat myself – these bring to mind J.G. Ballard’s novel The Drowned World, with its vision of a flooded, neo-tropical Europe, London become a backed-up toilet full of silt and Jurassic vegetation, “a nightmare world of competing organic forms returning rapidly to their Paleozoic past.”

Huge iguanas laze around in the heat. Buildings left and right are collapsing, their lower six floors immersed in polluted seawater, “miasmic vegetation… crowding from rooftop to rooftop.”

The city is fossilizing.

As Ballard writes: “A few fortified cities defied the rising water-levels and the encroaching jungles, building elaborate sea-walls around their perimeters, but one by one these were breached. Only within the former Arctic and Antarctic Circles was life tolerable.”

So the story goes that a research biologist is touring this neo-tropical London, boating from hotel to hotel across fetid lagoons, recording the types of plants that infest the city. Meanwhile monsoons are coming up from the south, everyone is dying of skin cancer and no one can sleep. The intensity of the sun’s radiation is making everything mutate.

In between some eyebrow-raising moments of ridiculous, pop-Nietzschean pseudo-philosophy – the surviving humans find themselves psychologically regressing down the totem pole of evolution toward… something or other; it’s all very psychedelic and 2001 – there are some cool descriptions of these new urban tropics:

“Giant groves of gymnosperms stretched in dense clumps along the rooftops of the submerged buildings, smothering the white rectangular outlines… Narrow creeks, the canopies overhead turning them into green-lit tunnels, wound away from the larger lagoons, eventually joining the six hundred-yard-wide channels which broadened outwards toward the former suburbs of the city. Everywhere the silt encroached, shoring itself in huge banks against a railway viaduct or crescent of offices, oozing through a submerged arcade… Many of the smaller lakes were now filled in by the silt, yellow discs of fungus-covered sludge from which a profuse tangle of competing plant forms emerged, walled gardens in an insane Eden.”

In any case, one could easily imagine Bernhard Edmaier’s photographs here bearing much in common with Ballard’s new alluvial world of fresh earth, architecture reduced to deltas of sand. Old eroded reefs of brickwork. Lagoons of pollution.


Erosion and hydrology, the most powerful urban forces on earth.

Britain of Drains


Here are some absolutely spectacular photographs of sewers, drains and tunnels, taken by urban spelunkers from London, Bristol, Manchester and beyond:


[Images: See this ridiculously great website for loads more photographs – almost every one of which could be uploaded onto BLDGBLOG with open enthusiasm – as well as for relevant bits of info on tunnel locations and all further et ceteras; meanwhile, an upcoming BLDGBLOG entry will pursue more of this, with a London bias, soon].


An entrance to the topological undercity, a parallel world of drains and bricked abstract passages, monolithic concrete feeder chutes re-leading lost rivers through darkness.