Digging in the Dirt: On Jennifer West’s “Media Archaeology”

David Matorin reviews Jennifer West’s debut artist monograph, “Media Archaeology.”

Digging in the Dirt: On Jennifer West’s “Media Archaeology”

Jennifer West: Media Archaeology by Jennifer West. Radius Books. 301 pages.

FOUR DAYS BEFORE the governor of California declared COVID-19 a state of emergency, Future Forgetting, an exhibition of new work by Los Angeles–based media artist Jennifer West, opened at JOAN gallery in Downtown L.A. I curated the exhibition’s selection of video films, detritus sculptures, and decaying photographs sourced by West, both literally and figuratively, from the L.A. River. Future Forgetting was West’s first solo show in her native city in several years, and a personal one — a haunting love letter of sorts to the artist’s polluted inlet muse. Described by environmental historian Jenny Price as “the most famous forgotten river in the United States,” the artificial, often dry, concrete-encased waterway that curls through the notoriously heterogeneous quarters of the city in a circuitous comma, connecting the disparate parts of Los Angeles like clauses of a sentence, has likewise occupied an ambiguous space in the social imaginary. Simultaneously a symbol of utopian potential and catastrophic folly, the L.A. River is where urban planning’s aspirational prescience meets human avarice, incompetence, and neglect.


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West’s 6th Street Bridge Film (2020) documents, in digitally projected celluloid, the river’s iconic Sixth Street Viaduct in the last days before its demolition in 2016. A recurring and familiar Hollywood backdrop, against which Grease (1978), Repo Man (1984), and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) were shot, the bridge started dissolving from the time it was built in the early 1930s, when a corrosive alkali was accidentally introduced by the river water used to mix the bridge’s concrete. This structural disease prompted experts to diagnose it too vulnerable to withstand an earthquake — that other perennially foretold Californian disaster — and the bridge was torn down by the city. During her film’s completion, West dragged its 16 mm film print through the riverbed below the Sixth Street Viaduct’s former location, using the river as a treatment for its own image — an elegiac example of the way place and memory find material manifestation in West’s work.


For the weeks and then months that Future Forgetting sat empty in 2020, quarantined from gallery visitors, I remember thinking how swiftly and effortlessly the pandemic had shifted West’s exhibition away from a hypothetical and towards an uncanny, Cassandra-esque premonition. West’s readymade sculptural arrangements of litter and refuse — broken pieces of television screens, circuit boards, and compact discs dredged up from the riverbed — now read less like movie props and more like actual artifacts. With viewers absent for months, the show appeared like a taxonomic display of material evidence from our lost civilization, a bitter time capsule of the Anthropocene, but with no one to open it.


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Jennifer West: Media Archaeology is the artist’s debut monograph, published last summer by Radius Books. It chronicles nearly two decades of West’s work, and features writing by urban and media historian Norman Klein, critic and curator Andy Campbell, art historian and Radius publisher Chelsea Weathers, as well as a conversation between West and MoMA curator Stuart Comer, who worked with West in 2009. But it’s the book’s surrounding ephemera (filmstrips, snapshots, journal pages, and scanned documents take up as many full pages as the color prints) and the apparent fastidiousness of its compiling that set it apart. The monograph’s marginalia are equally centered ensemble players, rather than sidebar supporting roles. There is a foldout “zine,” originally featured in Future Forgetting at JOAN, tucked into the rear book flap. The zine includes images of lithograph prints of West’s photos documenting the 6th Street Bridge Film’s submersion in the L.A. River, and iPhone pics of the incidental riverbank discoveries, artifacts which were later repurposed as sculptures and exhibited in 2020. The book’s final section is a visual timeline of West’s life and career as an artist. There are dates of first encounters with influential artworks, first meetings with friends and colleagues, news items and current affairs, memories, and personal recollections. Overall, the monograph has the feel of a scrapbook or photo album — some physical repository of memories that has fallen out of fashion since we went online.


There’s an intentional mirroring apparent in Media Archaeology. Both West’s artwork and the monograph interrogate memories by sifting through the impermanent vehicles in which they arrive to us. Recurring in West’s art is a process of braiding together various strains of time through their respective media. Small gauge films, analog videos, and digital displays each recall a specific era of technology that has since faded into obsolescence. In West’s work, they intermingle promiscuously, with insistent repetition, like the reveries of a tumbling time traveler, a kind of dirty, mnemonic excavation to unearth the castoff and forgotten.


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West grew up in Topanga Canyon, in and around the art studio of her mother, Elissa Freemon Greisz. Between 1988 and 1990, West attended the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, a central origin point for the timely and explosive riot grrrl scene. At Evergreen, West studied feminist film theory, semiotics, 16 mm film and video production, and the work of Barbara Hammer, Chris Marker, and Maya Deren. It’s important that West’s introduction to experimental film came during the twilight of chemical silver photography, which was gradually replaced by digital over the ensuing decade. The messy, liquid development darkroom, with its pungent smells and tactile stickiness, would soon cease to be part of image-making. That loss of film images’ corporeal intimacy appears, at least in part, to be what drives West’s heavily processed, malformed, and decomposing media. An equal impulse towards preservation also exists in West’s work, especially pronounced in her consistent fetishization of the physical containers of images and media. It’s this preoccupation that keeps her work grounded in process-oriented artmaking, rather than abstract media theory, and that makes West as much a sculptor as a filmmaker, a truly transmedia artist.


Norman Klein, whose 1997 book The History of Forgetting inspired Future Forgetting’s exhibition title, lets flow a torrent of anecdotes in his essay contribution to Media Archaeology. One describes how the cast and crew of Grease, immediately after shooting the movie’s climactic dance sequence under the Sixth Street Bridge, all fell ill from the L.A. River’s fumes. In a historical overview of the bridge’s past and future, Klein remarks on the way Hollywood and Los Angeles always treated the bridge as a nonplace, foreshadowing its physical disappearance. In his words, it was “where downtown L.A. became nothing,” a spot of special oblivion surrounded by the major rail terminus of Southern California. Klein also recalls moving, in 1979, to Boyle Heights, the Eastside neighborhood that connects to Downtown Los Angeles via the Sixth Street Bridge. At that time, the neighborhood still retained remnants of L.A.’s postwar era and was home to Jewish, Serbian, Japanese, Black, and Mexican Angelenos — the most ethnographically mixed district of the city. However, this seemingly utopian diversity was the result of redlining and racial deed covenants that hindered Boyle Heights’s urban development. Klein reflects on the craftsman bungalow he bought nearly 50 years ago for $57,000, which could sell for more than $1,000,000 today. It’s a very contemporary irony that the city’s once most neglected communities are now prohibitively expensive, and their long-standing inhabitants displaced. In 2016, when West filmed 6th Street Bridge Film, she also captured glimpses of the community that came out to witness and memorialize the bridge’s final moments, something the rest of the city failed to see as worthy of preserving. In addition to the publication of Media Archaeology, 2022 also saw the grand reopening of the new Sixth Street Viaduct, renamed “Ribbon of Light” for its multiple concrete arches lit from below, which cost $588 million to build anew. “The year 2016 feels already like another century,” Klein writes. “But please, no nostalgia allowed. There is no time for that.”


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David Matorin is a writer, curator, and filmmaker based in New York City. His writing has appeared in publications including Art in America, Modern Painters, Flash Art, BOMB, Truthdig, and East of Borneo.

LARB Contributor

David Matorin is a writer, curator, and filmmaker based in New York City. Previously based in Los Angeles, he organized Jennifer West’s 2020 exhibition at JOAN. He is also co-director of the short documentary PIPPA: Queen of the Future, featured in artist Pippa Garner’s traveling retrospective exhibition, Immaculate Misconceptions, and producer of the 2021 web series Future Continuous, featured on the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art’s “MoCA Screen” platform. He is currently a producer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. His writing has appeared in publications including Art in America, Modern Painters, Flash Art, BOMB, Truthdig, and East of Borneo.

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