Refining The Art
in the spring of 1980, my partner in bc space gallery, Jerry Burchfield,
and I agreed to undertake a long-term project, documenting the gateway to
our hometown of Laguna Beach, California. Laguna Canyon, with its gently
winding two-lane country road was one of the last pristine passages to the
Pacific Ocean in Southern California, but it was also clearly the target of
numerous long-range development projects by some very powerful forces.
With the seemingly inexorable exurbanization of Orange County pressing
in on all sides, our canyon was slated to be consumed by the accepted concept
of progress. Leading the pack was the privately owned Irvine Company, which
controlled the bulk of the land in this region. Under the new ownership of
Donald Bren, who had wrestled control from the more benign Irvine Family
with its dedication to farming, the new direction called for intense development,
including building another “Master Planned City” in the canyon, under the
grand name of Laguna Laurel.
Major new urban centers, such as the burgeoning City of Irvine, were
consuming the surrounding farmland, while the bedroom communities of
Mission Viejo, Laguna Niguel, and Leisure World (now Laguna Woods) were
rapidly expanding. The older adjacent communities of Tustin, Newport
Beach, Dana Point, and Santa Ana were also seeing their formerly pastoral
hills sprout homes, business centers, commercial strip malls, and numerous
gated communities. was quietly working with county, state, and federal highway agencies to
promote several major new roads to facilitate development. Included in these
plans were California’s first toll way, the San Joaquin Hills Tollroad, and two
additional toll roads, which would link the region from north to south, and
east to west. As developers saw the gold in our hills and valleys, this sleepy
part of Southern California was rapidly becoming identified as one of the
fastest growing regions of the nation.
Like many refugees from urbanity, we had chosen to settle in this small
seaside community because of its relative isolation, as well as the unique
topography that distinguished it from the monotonous homogeneity that was
spreading across the inland flatlands. Laguna Canyon Road was our link to
that larger world, but it was also the filter that protected our identity. This
umbilical cord was about to become another Freeway and there was a redtiled
tsunami following in its path – unless something was done.
Our original intention was primarily to document this still bucolic
canyon as a way to preserve it in the established tradition of documentary
photography. But more importantly, we hoped to find a means to awaken the
public to the dangers of losing that landscape, while challenging their will to
save it. We titled this grand ambition The Laguna Canyon Project: The Continuous
Document and began the first phase, The Daylight Document on April 18, 1980. The
continuous aspect refers to the fact that once we took our first shot, we were
committed to the journey on a very tight timeline just to physically complete
it, plus it expressed our commitment to pursuing this project in various
phases over a very long time.
To physically accomplish Phase I, we assembled a small crew of six people
to sequentially photograph both sides of the entire nine-mile length of the
road from the off ramp at the Santa Ana Freeway all the way into the Pacific
Ocean. The resulting six hundred and forty-six frames per side were
subsequently printed into twin color prints, each three and one half inches
wide by two hundred and sixty-seven feet long. The pair of prints depicted
our passage down the “last nine miles of the westward migration” in classic
photographic detail. With this metaphor, we hoped to link the potential
development of this still beautiful canyon with the concept of “progress in the
West” and the danger of unchecked urban sprawl.
We did not publicize our plans for this phase until we were already into
the actual shooting and then only alerted a few reporters we felt we could
trust, since we were concerned that the highway authorities might shut us
down. This fear that was realized in subsequent phases (when we were
actually threatened with arrest and ushered off the road), but we managed
to successfully complete this first nine hour marathon without detection.
We were pleasantly surprised at the level of public interest that was
generated by the ensuing press coverage of Phase I. We had struck a media
nerve with this slightly bizarre art endeavor, and all the major media in the
area ran stories on the event while giving voice to our concerns and motives
for doing it. This news coverage in turn began to generate more public discourse
on the plight of the canyon. When we repeated a similar procedure (only at
night without light) for Phase III: Nightlight Documentation, the press had a field day.
“Pair Makes Night Moves” they reported…“Canyon Gets its Dark Side Exposed”
…and we were even branded “Lagunatics of the Week” by our hometown paper.
We bore the moniker proudly since we had made our point by reflecting on
the value of darkness. A benefit of the publicity was that it generated many
responses from people offering to help with future projects – if it might save
the canyon. We were grateful for their enlistment since we were already
planning more varied phases of the project, and needed lots of help.
With the media success, we quickly came to realize that our work was as
important as performance art as it was real documentation, and with Phase V:
Primary Light Documentation, we took it to another level in both activity and
concept. For this phase, we planned to “paint the canyon with light” which
would take many more people, expensive equipment, and permits from every
governmental agency that had any authority over the canyon or the highway.
Before we could approach the authorities, we began by mobilizing further
support within the region. With our growing army, we started lobbying
regional environmental groups, the art community, and local public officials.
Most were willing to endorse our plans, and some even offered financial
assistance. By this time, the community was getting actively involved in the
struggle to save the canyon, and we were seen as highly visible proponents of
that effort…odd perhaps, but helpful to the cause. Besides, Laguna Beach had
based its reputation on being an “artist colony” and even weird art had to be
tolerated as a means of expression; and there would be the actual documentation
that would provide a very accurate historical record of our last nine miles in
a very unique fashion.
Phase V took more than two years of planning, gaining permission, and
fund raising. Although we tried, we were not very adept at grantsmanship,
so we had to be creative in this process. The National Endowments for the
Arts, not even ten years old, was already under siege for sponsoring the “wrong
kind of art” and President Ronald Reagan had declared that art should not
be publicly funded. Our solution was to pre-sell sections of the proposed
photograph. Local papers were carrying this story, and we used our expanding
grapevine to get the word out that interested supporters could purchase
sections representing one hundred and ninety-eight feet of frontage on Laguna
Canyon Road, painted with red, green, and blue light for two hundred dollars
per section. The result of the process was that potential patrons were roaming
the canyon to choose sections they anticipated would be the most interesting.
Fortunately, we actually sold most of the prints in advance, so we could
afford to pay the mounting costs of this grand endeavor, including a million
dollar co-insurance policy protecting the participants and the city against
We finally put all the pieces in place, and on September 27, 1983, executed
the Primary Light Documentation. That year, marking the tenth anniversary of BC
Space, which had faithfully served as the fountainhead for our enterprises,
seemed an auspicious occasion for this phase of the project. This was the most
complicated phase to date, requiring a thirty thousand watt generator towed
by a forty foot flatbed truck, sixty-five designated participants (plus an equal
number in relief), thirteen vehicles, escort by three different police agencies
and Caltrans officials. We had a ten-hour permit to complete the project and
from 6pm to 6am , we moved this entire caravan methodically down the road
taking one thousand and two hundred thirty-nine individual frames every
thirty-three feet, every forty-five sections, until we completed the whole
passage. The results were assembled into a single color print that was three
and one half inches wide by five hundred and sixteen feet long, depicting the
entire length of the Northeast side of Laguna Canyon Road.
Given the nature and long-range planning necessary for this phase, the
media was already well informed and the resulting press coverage included
full pages in both the Los Angeles Times and the Orange County Register, plus good
air time on regional television news. This was a terrific result, since we were
already planning another, even more challenging project with Phase VIII: The Tell,
a large scale mural in the land itself. This phase alone would require six more
years of planning, significant fundraising, extensive lobbying, and marshalling
even greater support.
While trying to learn how to promote and conduct public art in preparation
for this next big phase, we continued to execute slightly less involved projects
to keep our supporters and the public involved. Among these was Phase V: The
End of the Middle of the Road where just Jerry and I walked the nine mile course
photographing the middle of the road at every quarter mile interval. Phase VII:
Surface Collection of Found Objects in which we conducted a “garbological study”
of the trash along the road. The objects we collected were duly catalogued in
archeological format as to their precise location, date, and time, and then were
transformed into large-scale Cibachrome photograms, which we referred
to as Tellgrams, since they were essentially telegraphing the coming of The Tell.
We were enjoying some success exhibiting earlier phases at local art venues,
but quickly found the limitation to exhibiting the results of the Primary Light
piece. There was simply no easy method for presenting a five hundred and
sixteen foot long print, but with the creation of the Time Machine For Moving Stills,
we found a way. This thirty- six foot long motorized bridge provided a dramatic
means of showing the entire sequence by having the images of the light
painted roadside essentially commute for the viewer. This unique framing
device caught the attention of museum curators and we were able to take
Laguna Canyon on the road from Newport Harbor Art Museum (later to
become OCMA), to Boulder Colorado’s Contemporary Museum, to Boston’s
prestigious Photographic Resource Center. This was a great way to take our
message on the road and significantly expand interest in our project, and
the issues it addressed. This affirmation by the art world also gave us greater
credibility in approaching the local bureaucrats, whose support we vitally
We finally had to stop the traveling shows, however. They were becoming
very consumptive of our energies and resources, and we had a far more
important venue in mind. Time was running out. Core samples were being
taken for the first toll road path and the maps were drawn for the new city
to be built in the canyon. As both were slated to begin construction in 1989,
we needed to take the art out of the lofty realm of museums and galleries and
bring it back to the public…and on to the road itself.
The Tell was slipped past the scrutiny of the powerful development interests
under the guise of a celebration of the 1989 Centennial of Orange County and
the Sesquicentennial of the Discovery of Photography. After numerous setbacks,
and clearing what seemed to be endless bureaucratic and political obstacles, we
finally got permission to construct our mural in the canyon. It was appropriately
situated directly across the road from the Irvine Company’s proposed Laguna
Laurel housing project, and immediately adjacent to the designated pathway
for the San Joaquin Toll Road, California’s first such debacle.
The Tell became a six hundred and thirty-six foot long sculpture, which
undulated through the landscape adjacent to the road, echoing the shape of
the surrounding hillsides, and ranged in height from thirty-four feet near the
road, to dwindle down into the ground in the distance. This enormous mural
was comprised of thousands of individual photographs, mostly color snapshots,
depicting all aspects of California life. Most importantly, this photo-mural
resembled a giant reclining figure that could be seen echoed in the silhouette
of the surrounding hills, and incorporated a stylized Easter Island head*.
These highly personal images, all donated by Tell supporters, were rigorously
assembled by content and character to fashion deeper stories about Man’s
interaction with the Land, that were assembled by various themes within the
chakra points of the figure.
The story began at the far end from the road with abstract renditions of
the Big Bang Theory and Starry Night, then evolved through early indigenous
occupation, the Westward movement and on into current time…complete with
projections for the future. It culminated near the road with the slightly vague
outline of many people struggling to help the figure stand upright. The
overall impression of the piece was of a giant pointillistic figurative painting
with many tales within tales.
Since an inherent characteristic of most photographic prints typical of
that time is that they fade when subjected to such harsh conditions, we
carefully tested how the various materials would change, and discovered that
most of the donated color prints would predictably fade into an attractive
sepia cast. This feature provided an intriguing kinetic aspect that we employed
by carefully weaving the more over-arching philosophical messages in the
mural out of longer-lived print material such as black and white or Cibachrome.
The difference was not readily apparent in the beginning, but as time went
on these images slowly emerged to dominate the story line. Just as the
landscape itself changed from vibrant Spring colors to brown desert Fall, the
individual life stories went from colorful and crisp in the early days to later
fade into a sandstone colored web that held the more enduring collective
messages together. This became another key component of the mural since
most people were initially drawn to the artwork to see themselves represented;
but in later visits, they found that their life stories had become a part of the
greater whole telling another, more foreboding, tale.
The result of this enormous project was that, after first engaging only a
few stalwart supporters in what we were told was a hopeless cause given the
forces we were facing, our numbers ultimately swelled into hundreds and
later thousands as the project evolved and grew in size and notoriety. With
The Tell, we were also able to open the canyon to the public for the first time in
twenty years, and people came from all over to both see the mural (and add
their stories to it) – and to visit the land at stake.
We were getting more adept at press releases and garnering coverage,
and when this phase rose from local media to hit Life magazine and CNN,
the level of interest multiplied dramatically. In the process of building this
artwork, we were actually creating a focal point for the issues of the canyon,
while simultaneously providing a catalyst for the battle to save it, and a
megaphone to sound the alarm.
Perhaps the most notable single event was held on November 11, 1989,
when we coordinated with local environmental groups to host a march to the
mural. For this event, over eleven thousand people walked six-and-a-half
miles from the Festival of Arts in downtown Laguna Beach out to The Tell to
demonstrate their desire to preserve Laguna Canyon in its more natural
state. As a consequence of this public display, Donald Bren finally acceded to
negotiate with the Cities of Irvine and Laguna Beach to release the land for
public acquisition. In 1990, the residents of Laguna Beach overwhelmingly
voted to tax themselves to buy it, and the canyon is now a key part of the
Laguna Wilderness Park. A provision of this park is that it be preserved as
Open Space in Perpetuity.
What had begun as a rambling darkroom discourse over what we, as
solitary artists, could do with the tools we had to help protect a valuable piece
of our countryside, had evolved into a multi-phased, multi-dimensional
project that ultimately helped to preserve that land beyond just the
Although encroachment is still a threat that demands constant vigilance,
the road and its immediately surrounding hills are currently designated to
remain undeveloped forever. That is a very long time, however, and we plan
to continue to refine our art as a vehicle to inform and involve the public in
the process of preservation…for as long as we are able to do so.
Although The Tell* itself was destroyed in the wildfire of ’93, it has become
a part of local folklore. A representation of a portion of it has been incorporated
into the Nix Interpretive Center, which serves as the gateway to our sixty-two
hundred acre Laguna Wilderness Park.