L.A. River Project

Film / Video / Projects with Youth

1989, 12-monitor “video river” and mixed-media installation

Collaboratively created by artist Cheri Gaulke, teacher Susan Boyle, and high school students Susan Barron, Jose Esquivel, Leonard Martinez, and Manuel Ortega. Produced by the Media Arts Mobilization Project/Humanitas program at Woodrow Wilson High School, Los Angeles, program director Patrick Scott.

In the spring of 1989, teacher Susan Boyle resolved to enact her lifelong dream — to descend into the oft-ignored concrete channel known as the L.A. River. She took four students with her and what they discovered is that even though its residents shunt it aside, the river is really quite beautiful and has a life of its own — wild life, both animal and human. They found kids inner-tubing and unhoused people washing laundry; they found ducks, reeds, and rocks as beautiful as any serene water garden.

They were joined on later adventures by video artist John Arvanites. The river was documented in its many lives, both its industrial and natural segments. Still photographs were taken, videotape shot, a water sample was collected and sent to a lab for analysis. A shopping cart and other choice debris were retrieved. In archives and libraries, historical photos were found, contemporary articles collected, experts identified. The students interviewed poets, politicians, and visionaries about the future of the river. In the classroom, students drafted their own architectural plans for a river lined with bike paths, native plants, and murals.

In the fall of 1989, video artist Cheri Gaulke joined the team to help realize the installation which included all aspects of the river that had been explored. Other teachers helped the students with carpentry, music recording, and film research. The dramatic centerpiece of the installation was a 12-monitor “video river” where viewers could intimately experience the rush of water at close range. Other elements in the room-sized installation were the water sample and its analysis, the shopping cart complete with video monitor showing portraits of river garbage, a mural based on graffiti seen on the walls of the river, historical photographs, quotes both silly and sublime, aerial maps, photographs, a video narrative, video interviews with visionaries, media articles, Hollywood movies shot on the river, and the students’ own architectural plan.   

The L.A. River Project has been exhibited at California State University in Los Angeles, the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena, the Queens Museum of Art in New York, and was toured nationally by SITES (Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service). The students’ architectural drawing served as a backdrop during State Senator Art Torres’ press conference introducing legislation to save the river. The future of the Los Angeles River has become a subject of heated public debate and through the L.A. River Project, high school students, teachers, and artists have envisioned a new life for the river in their community.