Reading the Watts Towers, Teaching Los Angeles: Story Telling and Public Ar
Sculpture isn’t simply an object in space. It lives through the processional or returning views.
Built environments deploy their own ethos of reading wrapped-up in urban form and the rhythms of everyday life. I had finished re-reading Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities for the third time the day before I traveled to the Watts Towers. Like many monuments and the cities of the world that Calvino’s Marco Polo speaks of to the Kublai Khan in Invisible Cities, the Watts Towers, before I knew them, were a work of great imagining. When I finally arrived, the landscape around the Towers was utterly calm despite the frenetic hodgepodge of materials that composed the piece. My eyes were racing along portals, walls, and masts of the structure. The infinite networks of cement scaffolding and mosaic tiling were overwhelming. The compulsion to simultaneously look up at the Tower’s peaks and step back to see the whole piece, only to move-in closer again to view the details of green soda-bottle glass and cement engravings, felt like engaging with the stubborn detail and expansiveness of Los Angeles.
The experience felt very LA: desperate attempts to make connections across vast stretches of the urban impossible. After numerous stops for directions, however, we found it. The landscape around the Towers was utterly calm despite the frenetic hodgepodge of materials that composed the piece. My eyes were racing along portals, walls, and masts of the ship. The infinity of the networks of cement scaffolding and mosaic tiling and the compulsion to simultaneously look up at the Tower’s peaks and step back to see the whole piece only to step in closer again at the details of green soda-bottle glass and cement engravings, felt like the journey I had just taken through South Central. Focusing in and out, trying to seeing detail and expansiveness at once felt like engaging the stubborn simultaneity of Los Angeles.
A feeling of déjà vu overcame me as I discovered how many imagined trips I had taken to and through the Watts Towers before I actually experienced them. They were utterly unexpected and yet emblematic of the journeys I had take through LA, through other cities, and through Calvino’s work, to get there.
I recalled Marco Polo’s words to the Great Khan in Invisible Cities: ‘it is the spaces around the stories told, “the void not filled with words,” where imagination flourishes and the city begins to exist.’ Navigating the spaces around stories told recalls the work of oral historian Alessandro Portelli. Meaning rests, for Portelli, in the accumulation of these spaces, tied to highly personalized perception, that interact with and continually forge the meaning of reality in the world. How we imagine realities, then, becomes a way to form new realities. The mnemonic value of the Towers is their ability to facilitate, if not instigate, the exchange of stories. “The Watts Towers is overwhelmingly a history of its representations,” public art historian Sarah Schrank remarks, and those representations are mined from incredibly localized experiences and deployed through the Towers monumentalization into a collective memory and history of LA. While questions of production certainly dominate our interactions with the Towers, questions of reception, especially for public art, illuminate the Towers’ social and urban function.
Its representations, its myriad imaginings, illuminate the pedagogical work that the Towers can do for reading and producing knowledge about the city. There is no established field of urban pedagogy—and urban education conjures another field entirely—however ‘urban’ can be an incredibly powerful heuristic through which to consider the relationships between what, how, and where we teach. Environment, the topography of the city, must be both subject and mechanism of urban pedagogy beyond context. Urban topography is a plane through which distinctions between myth, history, reality, perception, and representation are mediated and made meaningful. Within the built environment one can encounter what French urban sociologist Henri Lefebvre called the “urban phenomenon,” the urban as a space of passage and exchange that is perpetually caught-up in a process of signification that only gives meaning in fluctuating contexts. The urban exposes the problems of how to maintain specificity without separation; unity without mixture. Such challenges illuminate core dissolutions in epistemic disciplinary models, those trying to alert our attention away from the objects of study (the city), and towards the ideologies we use to construct such objects, or imaginations. Urban environments function as an open totality where one can understand that the “real” object is an image and ideology. Thus an ‘urban pedagogy’ is not a model of urban but rather a pathway towards it. The, “urban is a horizon, an illuminating virtuality, defined by its journey” (17). For Lefebvre, space is an environment and means that is always referring to something else, realized through the dialectic between objects and the virtual objects that enable us to examine and situate the realized through its urban elsewheres (on the horizon).
Hence, my relationship with the Watts Towers is heavily mediated by the work of these two other Italian artists: Italo Calvino and oral historian Alessandro Portelli. Both of these men, in their respective fields, examine and engage the processes of story-telling in order to illuminate the dialectic construction of memory and meaning, especially in cities. They are interlocutors of the Watts Towers, as is Lefebvre, who embark on the dialectical analysis of concrete contradictions of the city” (39). Invisible Cities gives us an iteration of the ‘urban palimpsest’ through which to read how places are continually and cumulatively constructed and reconstructed, layered upon and through one another, by storytellers. The character of Marco Polo in Calvino’s book dissolves boundaries between illusion and truth to reveal the influence imagination, memory, and context on our perceptions and constructions of realities and experiences. Calvino’s story draws our attention to the limitation of the audience (characterized in Kubla Khan) to be able to envision the worlds narrated by Marco Polo’s stories of Venice. Indeed, how do we begin to see everything all at once and at the same time? How can all these cities, characters, and plots be of one place? We can ask the same questions of the Watts Towers and, moreover, of Los Angeles.
When I though about LA and how I wanted to introduce my group of non-LA students to this overwhelming metropolis, I went through a list of spaces that we could begin from. There is no politically, socially, or culturally neutral space in city. Historians suggested I begin from the LaBrea Tar Pits, as an archeological-historical site; a ideal place from which to launch into a sound chronological history. Others suggested I start from MacArthur Park, flashpoint for discussions about contemporary racial and ethnic migration and tension that has become characteristic (if not utterly cliché) about the city of angels. To fulfill the desire I had to address both urban form and content, I could think of no better place than the Watts Towers. Away from the center of the city, the Towers felt like a choice entrée into the worlds of LA. As a public art piece that lives simultaneously as a timeless and continually evolving site, the Towers are a powerful space through which to engage the ‘concrete contradiction’ of urban space; to, “study the city through a dialectical analysis [and experience] of its contradictions” (39).
Years after my initial experience of “Reading Los Angeles,” I took my own class down to Watts on the Blue Line. As I had a few years earlier, everyone was looking out the windows of the train in anticipation of the of our arrival at the Towers. I did not have them read much about the Towers before we arrived there, preferring to let the image of the Towers as a public art and state landmark(?) in South Central to linger in their imaginations. Upon arrival, we sat in the little amphitheatre in the shadows of the setting sun the west and the ever-darkening Towers to the east. We discussed the role of public art in the city and how it interacts with its surrounding communities. “The community takes the towers and turns them into a landmark apart from the artist’s intentions,” one of my students remarked in a bit of frustration. The transference of meaning, the process of making public art and public spaces, we discussed, were essentially summed-up in his comment. A public landmark, a monument, extends beyond itself, encompassing a fullness of space that overflows its material boundaries. The function of the Towers as a public art piece and a monument conjures significant dissonance, as my students’ reactions indicated. As an art piece, the Towers inhabit and create an active space, like Marco Polo’s storytelling, a product and process of imagining. As monument, they become objects through which to speak about Simon Rodia, the Watts Riots, the legacy of folk art in LA, and the list goes on of localized histories that are memorialized in the Towers. Caught between art and monument, public is the powerful qualifier that enables us to reconcile the politics of this space, who it represents, who has the right to imagine it and sustain its future, and why. In art perhaps, but moreover in cities, intentionality, or rather the reification of an object that is pure, is a perceptual fallacy. Or, if it does, it is a product of systems of elaborate production conducted by and through urban space that is hopelessly processual, simultaneously accumulating and dismantling. The Towers are a vessel of the urban phenomenon, an entity of and through, Los Angeles. Thus, the Towers orients us towards an urban pedagogy that is a double-helix of sort between urban spaces and urban processes.
The dialectics of migration are represented and deployed through the construction(s) of the Watts Towers. Public Art requires a certain openness to this Calvinian-style of story telling and re-telling. Although we tend to focus much more on Rodia’s story when speaking about the Watts Towers, there is a relinquishment of authority found in public work that separates the work of Rodia from that of the art we find in galleries and museums. This art, in this space, holds a political power mined from its bi-lateral participation in the creation and definition of a community. What the Towers mean and how they represent, and are representative of, is a collaboration between the residents of Watts and public representations of the South Central community. They embody (as opposed to merely symbolizing) stories of survival through urban unrest, the struggles of immigrant communities, and the great imagining of “visionary architecture.” As Bud Goldstone notes in 1997, the Towers are emotionally charged because they are, “lessons, stories, and hearsay; opinions, the force of circumstance, evidence of change.” The elusive nature of the Towers and their meanings reflects their resistance to being a monument to any one event, community, or interpretation.1 Their transience among and between the worlds of Watts make them the quintessential space and symbol through which to teach the rootlessness and mobility that is representative of 20th century America: they are Los Angeles.
The stories told and the processes through which they are told are couched in an infinite dialogue that, like cities and memory I would argue, are always in a process of making meanings. If nothing else, we learn from Portelli and Calvino’s character Marco Polo that transience–migration between contexts, audiences, and authors–is the ideological context through which the stories of immigrants and cities are shaped.
The Towers are a staging ground for talking about other LAs. As a public space anyone can (and does) inhabit the Towers. We weave our eyes and hands in and out of the sculpture’s scaffolding; its details and its vision. As a student and teacher of Los Angeles, and the ‘urban’ moreover, my role is more than to just bring students to the Towers, but to bring them into the Towers as a way to refract and re-contextualize how they read a space that complicates their own subjectivity within that process. No one event or person, not even Simon Rodia, is embodied in the Towers; their power is in their gesture towards and through the urban fabric. Positivistic to be sure, but as such the Towers are not longer solely of Rodia, folk art, or the Watts community, but a symbol of migration and the global city; they literally and symbolically embody how the phenomenon of the global city is firmly rooted in local experiences.
1 Schrank, Sarah. Art in the City (2009).