The Californian Techno-Sublime
Having been born a few miles from where Google would eventually be, to parents who both worked in tech, I grew up in a Bay Area full of intersections. I mean this both literally in the sense of the countless six-lane intersections amidst the sea of squat, unremarkable shopping centers, but also of the unexpected intersections that characterize a place like Silicon Valley: intersections of the banal and the magical, the engineer and the artist, the natural and the digital. I always felt that Silicon Valley and its entrepreneurialism could not be fully understood without a visual grasp of the rolling hills of dry, yellow grass and the blue Santa Cruz mountains in the distance. There was a certain openness that interacted somehow with the digital manifest destiny happening inside the monolithic buildings I’d pass on one of too many freeways crisscrossing the valley.
"Only now do I understand that my dad was actually an inventor, but I always understood that he was an artist."
Even more than that, I remember peeking into our dusty and spider-filled garage and seeing my dad soldering circuit boards and fiddling with various knobs. Although he tried several times to explain to me what transistors were, I ignored them and was only interested in the glowing wavy lines of the oscilloscope, the most obviously magical thing in the room. Only now do I understand that my dad was actually an inventor, but I always understood that he was an artist. In any case, to try to apply a distinction between artist and engineer to my dad would have made no sense. He alternated among designing fault-resistant power supplies at work, spending long hours making things up on the guitar, riding his bike to the top of a nearby mountain, idly drawing circuit diagrams, and tinkering in the garage. All of these were interrelated (for instance, he still claims that he has his best ideas for circuits at the summit of a bike ride) and he approached them all in the same way: as an ongoing productive relationship with a problem. Like any artist, he looked at a situation, and in response made a thing that had never before existed.
It’s hard to say when the word “tech” began to take on the oppressive, autocratic connotations that it now has in the Bay Area, or when “hacking” ceased to seem earnestly mischievous and turned into an eye roll-inducing buzzword, but it certainly happened within my lifetime. By the time I started making serious art, the heyday of things like the Homebrew Computer Club and Survival Research Labs was gone, and perhaps with it, the idea of making technology do something new and weird and exactly what you wanted. My own work, which is sometimes heedlessly thrown into the “tech art” category, is not an example of the artist-tinkerer ethos, because I’m at the mercy of the (technological) tools at my disposal. As an artist, I use the technology—I don’t make it.
"We now see “adopt-an-artist” programs where artists are placed in large tech firms for an injection of exotic creativity"
Instead, at the moment, any interaction between tech and art seems increasingly comprised of an invasion of slick and humorless “techies” into traditionally bohemian spaces—buying up buildings, evicting artists, and making everything boring in the process. We now see “adopt-an-artist” programs where artists are placed in large tech firms for an injection of exotic creativity into the corporate culture. But the early and abiding entanglement of entrepreneurialism, counterculture, whimsy, a prospector’s rapacious eye, and a fascination with the technological sublime has left its impression on even the stodgiest of places, in Silicon Valley and in California in general. It could be the mark of the artist that explains why so many tech firms here strive to be awe-inspiring or bacchanalian Gesamtkunstwerks. Below are just some of the sites in which one can still read the Californian penchant for the weird, the new, and the supposedly impossible: outgrowths of a technological wild west.
The new Facebook campus, which can accommodate 2,800 employees, was designed by Frank Gehry and looks like a cross between downtown Palo Alto and Disneyland’s Main Street USA. All the restaurants are free, and painted on the main plaza—visible from a plane, is the imperative: HACK.
The Google Barge
San Francisco Bay
The mysterious Google Barge, a gargantuan white block constructed out of shipping containers, was docked in the San Francisco Bay near Treasure Island for a while in 2013 and 2014. (Another appeared briefly on the far coast of Portland, Maine.) Some speculated that it housed showrooms for Google Glass and other products. Eventually fire restrictions required the Barge to be taken out of commission, after which it was relocated to the docks of Stockton, California.
Black Rock Desert, Nevada
The first Burning Man was a small gathering on San Francisco’s Baker Beach in 1986. The cops shut it down in 1990, forcing its founders to move their sticks into the desert. Since then, the week-long, sand swept bacchanalia has taken place in Nevada, though Californians make up the overwhelming majority of its visitors. And while its reputation was as a mecca for hippies, Burning Man has become increasingly popular with tech CEOs, who compare it to a kind of business retreat or innovation incubator (including Mark Zuckerberg, who has flown in on his private helicopter). In fact, the festival has lately had to contend with a burgeoning service industry, in which people are hired to arrive early and set up camps, then attend to and wait on visitors and revelers.
Situated on a military airfield owned by the NASA AmesResearch Facility, Hangar One, an icon of Silicon Valley, is one of the largest freestanding structures in the world. It fell into disuse in 2002; soon afterward, its outer panels were removed, revealing a surreal, hulking skeleton. Last year, Planetary Ventures, a Google subsidiary, announced that it would be leasing the airfield for the next sixty years, using Hangar One as a research facility for commercial space exploration.
In 2008, a group of local tech enthusiasts took over an abandoned McDonald’s—now nicknamed McMoon’s—and turned it into an improvised mission control, using crowdfunding to help acquire secondhand electronics in order to gain control of a decommissioned satellite (launched in 1978) that had been floating un-used in space and bring it back to Earth. Sadly, the group lost contact with the satellite in September of last year.
Currently under construction, California High-Speed Rail, one of the most expensive public-works projects in US history, will connect San Francisco to Los Angeles with trains traveling over 200 miles per hour. Some have complained that it is too expensive to be worth it—including Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors and SpaceX, and whose proposed alternative (the Hyperloop) would shoot pressurized capsules through low pressure tubes at more than three times the speed.
Mojave Desert Boneyard
Parked in disarray in the middle of the desert is a host of rusting, retired airplanes, rarely photographed because of their location—the Mojave Air and Space Port, which has several secretive aerospace research and development facilities.
Santa Susana Field Laboratory
Among many other things developed at the now-defunct Santa Susana Field Laboratory was the first nuclear reactor to be launched into space. The facilities suffered a string of accidents, including nuclear fires and a partial meltdown in 1959 that a nuclear advisory panel estimated was 459 times worse than Three Mile Island. Workers who needed to get rid of barrels of nuclear waste would allegedly shoot at them until they exploded, releasing their contents into the air. The lab was also the site of several reported UFO sightings.
Ivanpah Solar Facility
Ivanpah, the largest solar farm in the world, opened last year in (more or less) the middle of nowhere. Google was a principal investor in the project, which had to be scaled back because it was encroaching on the habitat of California’s desert tortoise.
Theme Park Tech Wars
Several amusement parks in Southern California are trying to out-class one another with ever more sophisticated rides and experiences, prompting a description of the situation as a “high-tech arms race.” Knott’s Berry Farm just installed something that’s reportedly “like riding a roller coaster and watching a movie and playing a game all at the same time,” according to Eric Marradi, creative director for Triotech, the Montreal company building the ride.
Google’s growing presence in Venice Beach and Santa Monica has earned the area the name Silicon Beach. Around Google’s building is a dense smattering of start-ups, leading some to decry the shift toward start-up culture and away from the bohemian flavor the area was once known for. But however disliked, such a shift is less arbitrary than it seems—because tech and bohemia have common roots in California.
This article and its illustrations were originally published June 25, 2015 on VQR Online, and is republished here with the express written permission of the author.
JENNY ODELL is a Bay Area native and artist working with online imagery.