In 1926, the United States adopted its Numbered Highway System. Perhaps the most famous of these highways was Route 66, stretching 2,448 miles from Chicago to Santa Monica. During the Dust Bowl, the highway became an important artery for those venturing toward California in search of better lives, as immortalized in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939). Long a transportation pioneer, Los Angeles is home to the world’s first stack interchange, which has connected US Route 101 and State Route 110 since 1953. To the present, much of everyday life in LA revolves around cars, with residents spending an average of 119 hours a year in traffic (though its average commute is actually shorter than those of New York, Chicago, and Washington DC). For proof of the car’s impact on the city, look no further than the recent COVID-19 lockdown, when for a brief moment LA boasted the cleanest air in the world, or the fact that the state hosts some of the worst roads in the country. As moguls like Elon Musk reimagine the automobile, we’re left with the uncomfortable knowledge that not only are we dependent on it, but that it occupies a prime place in the national imagination of the US as a symbol of both freedom and danger.
It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that several of the LA-based artists included in this current iteration of the Whitney Biennial present work that engages this complex history. In a series of watercolors and animations, Danielle Dean mines the history of Fordlândia, a prospective town Henry Ford constructed in the Brazilian state of Pará during the 1920s to circumvent the British rubber monopoly. The process through which Dean created the images is reminiscent of the multiplane camera techniques developed by the Walt Disney Studios, establishing a parallel between the assembly line methods of Ford and Disney. For both, the insight of “creative genius” is broken down into small, discrete, and replicable steps that can be performed by assembly line workers, scalable and thus capable of generating enormous profits. In both cases this process extracts value from laborers, but the auto industry also does so by ravaging the Earth. Even as electric cars inspire the hope of more sustainable futures, the potential environmental cost of this solution could be devastating.
Like many consumer objects, cars can become intimate fixtures of our lives even as they’re mass produced, a tension Jason Rhoades emphasizes in Caprice (1996): a readymade 1992 Chevrolet Caprice Classic Sedan. Selected from the year production of the award-winning Fourth Generation peaked, 1991–96, this model was particularly widespread across the US, used at once for state, civilian, and commercial purposes. Rhoades explains, “It’s not about an emotional attachment to all cars or one car. I have an attachment to certain machines and tools. I see cars as tools. They are very much part of my work, but also act like real things in the real world.” While the fact that cars are tools verges on truism, it throws the affective attachment we have to them into sharp relief. Why is it easier to imagine having an emotional bond to a car rather than a screwdriver, if both are mere tools? Perhaps the answer lies not in automobiles themselves, but in the unique place they fill in our cultural landscape.
Indeed, different people may have different reactions to the same objects or customs, as Guadalupe Rosales explores in her No Cruising (2022). Sourced from the area near the artist’s home in East LA, the sign references the county’s Code of Ordinances, which defines “cruising” as “the driving of a motor vehicle two or more times within a six-hour period.” Although written in a colorblind fashion, many have argued the law clearly targets Chicanos, among whom the practice became popular in the wake of World War II, particularly among so-called “lowriders.” Of course, the double entendre also signifies the search for casual sex partners in public places, especially in the context of the Whitney, located in New York’s Meatpacking District, one of the city’s most (in)famous gay districts from the ’70s through the early ’90s.
Alongside these more overt references, cars also exert a quieter influence on the exhibition’s Angelenos, for example in Aria Dean’s Little Island/Gut Punch (2022). Based on a monolith subjected to a computer simulated collision, Dean describes it as “beating up monumentality,” “minimalism,” and the “phallic gesture.” But in its austerity and violence, the piece is reminiscent of crash tests, which the auto industry uses to determine safety. The most stereotypical version involves a vehicle striking a solid concrete wall head-on at a specified speed. Rendered in the chromakey green used to composite videos in post-production, the sculpture has infinite potential. It could become, for instance, a crumpled highway barrier after a car wreck, a slumped over figure after a swift blow to the stomach, two opposed forces destined to cross paths.
Los Angeles is nothing if not a city made possible by the automobile. But despite its reputation for urban sprawl, LA is denser than Chicago, New York, or San Francisco. Whereas those cities consist of a hyper-dense core surrounded by low density periphery, LA is built at a more uniform moderate density. As a result of this structure, LA is a city without a center, without a privileged point of access. A city of the car is also a city of contact and flow. What remains to be seen, however, is whether the paths we carve through its space will cleave to the tried and true, or whether we might imagine other ways of moving through it. Either way, it’s safe to say that the car will have an important role to play in this future, for better or worse.
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