A Responsibility to Water

This year at Metabolic Studio we will break ground on Bending the River Back Into the City. We begin the process of diverting water from the Los Angeles River through a wetland and cleaning facility and into Metabolic Studio on North Spring Street. Then we will distribute it via an engineered network to properties that once would have been the floodplain of the unbridled river. The river water will be cleaned in the studio in an experimental wetland and treatment system. Once it meets regulatory requirements for cleanliness, the water will be distributed through subterranean irrigation to Los Angeles State Historic Park, and the future Albion River Park.

Bending the River Back Into the City culminates my twelve years committed to reconnecting us with the Los Angeles River and sustaining living systems. This journey began with Not a Cornfield in 2005–2006 on the site of the recently opened Los Angeles State Historic Park. Contracted by the State Parks agency for one agricultural cycle, we created a durational performance in honor of this pre-colonial watershed that became the industrial service channel for Los Angeles. We laid ninety miles of irrigation piping, planted corn sourced from and returned to the Native American community, and cleaned the soil of this abandoned train yard. Not a Cornfield’s transformation of the land back into a public space—a commons—created the possibility for a deeper public consciousness and a sense of shared ownership of this historic floodplain.

The opening of the Los Angeles State Historic Park has encouraged me to reflect upon the past twelve years. Not a Cornfield responded to the wider struggle of local people to create a safe place to recreate and have a decent urban life in the face of real-estate trauma and social unrest. It softened the edges of the friction between social justice and access to water that challenges communities and civic agencies in this area of the city. It fulfilled a civic need to envision better and more sustainable ideas for life in compromised urban sites, and acted as a proposal for how we, as artists, shift the ways of thinking that bring us to our present moment.

While Not a Cornfield purposely enacted the millennia-long custodianship of this land by the Tongva and Gabrielino tribes, the impossibility in 2005 of directly using the adjacent Los Angeles River as the cornfield’s water source has kept me here for over a decade, and led me to Bending the River Back Into the City. The LA River today is the final stretch of the journey of the glacial lakes of the Eastern Sierra, transported downhill to the San Fernando Valley by the LA Aqueduct, and to its engineered flow into the ocean. Not a Cornfield led me to establish my practice and collaborations that stretch all the way to Owens Valley—the circulatory connector of Los Angeles to its water sources in the Eastern Sierra, and a paradise exchanged for the development of Los Angeles.

The concrete-sealed basin protects valuable real estate from the ancient route of the Los Angeles River and from its swelling and flooding. It also disconnects us physically and spiritually from the shared, life-giving resource of our water. It is within this context that Bending the River Back Into the City will make its actual and symbolic bend. Construction of Bending the River begins this year with the piercing of two holes in the cement jacket of the River just north of Metabolic Studio. One hole and tunnel will “bend” the river westwards and draw a small percentage (0.00158% of dry-weather flow) from the river’s basin, bringing it into a newly-formed wetland and treatment system for cleaning before its distribution. Another tunnel will pierce the sealed river basin further south, returning unused river water that continues its journey to the port of Long Beach. This first phase of Bending the River Back Into the City is not a strategy for re-naturalizing the LA River—a prospect that many of us hope will come into being in the future -- but an immediate solution and an achievable model for respectful stewardship of our life-giving birthright.

On a bureaucratic level, Bending the River Back Into the City is made possible by the securing more than sixty interconnected permits and approvals from twenty-three federal, state, regional, county, and city agencies. The linchpin agreement is the Water Right that was awarded to me by the State Water Resources Board in March 2014. It is important to qualify this water right: it has been awarded to me personally rather than as a trustee of the Annenberg Foundation, as director of Metabolic Studio, or in exchange for any funding or capital advancement for the State Water Resources Board. My Water Right is interpreted by me as a water responsibility that I share with the public and with which I demonstrate the tenet of this right as a public service. Under the Water Right agreement, distribution of treated Los Angeles River water to the State Park system alone will save fifty thousand dollars a year in water payments.  In return, Bending the River Back Into the City calls for the acknowledgement of the shared stewardship of our water through the establishment of best practices in water management, including the prevention of toxic- herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides on the property, and avoiding soil irrigation during the heat of the day.

I openly admit that my having a “water right” to bend the LA River is humbling and I do not carry the burden of its language lightly. I believe that water is a right for all living things to share, and that Bending the River Back Into the City will activate and transform a water right into a water responsibility. My stewardship of this responsibility is inextricably shared with all of the institutions and agencies who partner with me on permanently re-adapting the LA River. My deepest hopes as we break ground for Bending the River Back Into the City is that the communities and partners that it touches are galvanized by its systematic and emblematic power to transform the way that we think about water. If water is life then our aim is to bend life in the direction that we all need it to go.


  • Metabolic Studio is pleased to announce we are producing a film from Suzanne Lacy's project De tu Puño y Letra. For more information click here.

  • The next Reimagine Everything Print workshop will be Thursday September 21 from 5-9 pm for anyone who would like to come silkscreen a shirt or paint a poster or protest image. Please RSVP to info@metabolicstudio.org. Our kitchen will be open for potluck sharing. Suggested donations appreciated in the form of used clothing for people to print on—and or some healthy food to share with whomever shows up to print that night.

  • Upcoming Exhibition at Mana Contemporary (A collaborative community bringing together art, dance and music under one roof), Jersey City, New Jersey. Artists Need To Create on the Same Scale that Society has the capacity to destory, on view October 2017–January 2018. For additional information, click here

  • The Optics Division will have two works included in a group show at Fresno Art Museum. The show is called California Nature, curated by Jay Belloli. The prints will be on view starting January 27 through June 10, 2018.

  • Two Optics Division prints [Hoosick: The Beyone Place 1 and Hoosick: The Beyond Place 2] have been commissioned by MASS MoCA and will be unveiled at their newly renovated building opening May 28, 2017. These images will be on view until 2019. For more information, click here

  • Register Now for the 2017 Art + Environment Conference Thursday, October 19 through Saturday, October 21, 2017. Join Lauren and other artists at the symposium as they discuss the Greater West. 

  • Lauren Bon and the Metabolic Studio will be participating in a panel titled Saving the Greater West as a part of the Knowledge/Culture/Ecologies International conference in Santiago, Chile November 15-18, 2017. For more information click here.

  • Friday Happy Hours at the Gertrude Stein Salon—now open for visitors on Main Street in Lone Pine on Fridays with tea from 6:00-8:00 pm. The Salon is open for groups, meetings, visits by appointment by calling 800-571-0745.

  • Upcoming Summer of 2018A Portable Wetland exhibition at Various Small Fires. Stay tuned for more details.


  • For a limited time, watch the One Hundred Mules Walking the Los Angeles Aqueduct (Artist Cut, 2015) at this link.
    Review our News Archive to see where this film has screened in the last year as well as the awards it has received.


  • View the Optics Division Collection Here.