The Los Angeles Aqueduct Digital Platform (LAADP) is situated within larger efforts, both at UCLA and beyond, to develop digitally-based means of organizing, presenting, and analyzing historical source material. These strategies go by many names – digital humanities, digital collections, OpenCourseWare, etc. – but they share the aim of developing a new informational aesthetic with equal emphases on dynamism, engagement, and centralization. This “aesthetics of digitization”, a scholarly appeal of our age, is implicitly positioned against a more culturally-entrenched form of informational presentation, the “aesthetics of administration”, a bureaucratic affect primed on ordered rows of archival boxes under fluorescent lights, amidst no-nonsense architectural décor, containing documents upon documents without clear hierarchical distinction. Defined by the historian Benjamin Buchloh in his 1990 essay, “Conceptual Art 1962-1969: From the Aesthetics of Administration to the Critique of Institutions”, the administration-aesthetic, as a cultural phenomenon, reached its apotheosis in the postwar culture of the 1950s-1970s, amidst the bureaucratic onslaught spurred in part by various interdisciplinary initiatives and think-tank models. Tellingly, this aesthetic found its purest life in new modes of art practice during that era, termed “Conceptual art” for their emphasis on process, idea, and information over visually compelling form.
To be clear: the aesthetics of administration is historical opponent to the aesthetics of digitization. It is inefficient, banal, ugly, disorganized, sprawling, unwelcoming, overwhelming, at times inhumane. It plays the barren labyrinth to digitization’s sleek and ever-new skyscraper of knowledge. And its sense of space is entirely alien to the laptop screen in more literal ways: think windowless buildings, monumental in the bad way, containing mostly “behind-the-scenes” storage warehouses complemented by charmless and cramped reading rooms.
We might thus be tempted to dismiss, with gratitude, the obsolescing of these older places, and of the taxing research protocols they demand. Certainly this is the implicit call of many recent university-based research initiatives – a model of totally linear progress, with the new emphasis on speed, mobility, and convenience signaling an upgrade over the archive-behemoths of old. But accepting such narratives would be a mistake, a willful overlooking of the ways that sited and digitized, real-space and virtual-space, old-fangled and future research methods coexist and intermix within our scholarly Zeitgeist.
Take, for example, the LAADP in the archival context of Los Angeles institutions. In-depth engagement with the Platform’s digitized original source material and scholarship provides a framework for understanding the historical, cultural, social, political and economic context of 20th century L.A. water infrastructure, but in order to realize that framework’s full potential one must follow research cues that lead elsewhere, and perhaps historically backwards – to the spaces of the administration-aesthetic. Which is to say, the story that the LAADP tells – of a vast engineering endeavor undergirded by a complex civic and bureaucratic apparatus – is necessarily a sited story. It takes up space. And it is still actualized, in part, within the halls of administration.
And so I took the cues; I read the scholarly ciphers for what I thought them to be. And sure enough they led me to vast warehouses, industrial yards, awkward architectural behemoths, file boxes without hierarchy, nondescript rooms under fluorescent lights, gray worktables. The itinerary had site-specific value: in these spaces, the history of the Aqueduct appeared richly elaborated yet urgently incomplete, capable of unfolding according to an infinite number of contradictions and sidebars. The peculiarity and difficulty of the experience underlined its potential, in other words.
At the L.A. City Municipal Archives (set atop a vast police garage and auto shop on the fringes of downtown) and the L.A. Department of Water and Power Records Center (set amidst an East L.A. industrial yard bordering an emergent above-ground metro line), I studied the complete construction reports of the Aqueduct, administrative files from the various departments within the Aqueduct Bureau, the full run of reports by Aqueduct engineers to L.A. city administration, scrapbooks on early-20th century L.A. water culture. Within these archives, typewritten texts were annotated and amended by the pens of William Mulholland and Joseph B. Lippincott, key players in the project’s conception and execution. These documents summed not so much to a historical snapshot as a rough historical taxonomy. More firmly securing the categories of information according to their relative research-value would require further visits, driven by other questions.
What did these archives offer? They delineated an expanded cultural and physical geography of the city, forcing engagement with sidelined places that felt remote from the centers of official culture. They forced consideration of these places as essential to the city, substantial within its informational infrastructure. They delivered the sited experience of sited knowledge–both through the persons of the archivists themselves, and in the organization of the archival materials; these documents upon documents were not arranged solely according to the cold, rote logic of chronological or thematic structure, although they purported themselves to be. Organization was shown to be a form of knowledge-production within the archives, but also a form of criticism and historical analysis. No archive is neutral. Lastly, I arrived in the course of this work at a more deeply-registered sense of the Aqueduct’s oft-discussed scale (historical, infrastructural, physical, financial, administrative, archival). In its spatiotemporal span, the Aqueduct touched on many categories of socio-cultural production, articulating them along the path from one place to another and from then to now. The encounter in the archives was with the dimensions of that megaproject, in its historical situation relative to our own.
By Nico Machida, Research Scholar for the Los Angeles Aqueduct Digital Platform in the Center for Primary Research and Training