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George Bataille on the LA Freeway: The Public Art Work of Luther Thie
By Frederick Young

What immediately strikes one about Luther Thie’s LA Interchange is the scope and magnitude of the project, a real-time memorial to automobile crash victims sited right at the heart of America’s freeway system. Thie’s proposed public artwork invokes the ghosts of numerous important critical theorists of the 20th and 21st centuries, most notably Bataille and his concept of sacrifice, and presents a way to explore their ideas in real-time, real life—to literally put the rubber to the road.

The LA Interchange, positioned in downtown Los Angeles at the meeting of the 110 and the 10, is a work of public art that abandons the “important space” of the gallery in favor of the public sphere. This transformation is itself political. In the Greek concept of Polis−which Jean-Luc Nancy conceives as citizens interwoven into the same articulation as community, rather than as separate individuals−the classical monument was the site that gathered the community together. LA Interchange will re-contextualize and complicate the monument by means of “real time” information and response.

LA Interchange demands that America faces its obsessions with the automobile−our almost adolescent fear of death, love of speed, and impatience with time, culminating in our refusal to reflect on our own mortality. The work responds to Walter Benjamin’s politics of art, in which art moves from a representational and static ritual into a transformation of the public sphere, a movement toward a radical democratic space and a material transformation of culture. LA Interchange revitalizes an epistemological function in art, as a mode of knowledge, weaving it into the quotidian space of networks of freeways and the blind and infrangible false confidence that the velocity of the automobile gives us in America. What is so striking about this work is that it is monumentalizing, in “real-time,” what Benjamin referred to as “now-time”—Jetztzeit, in which the Angel of History will emerge as an event to shock us out of everyday constructions of our individualistic pseudo-reality.

Thie’s work does not attempt to shock us openly, by using blood-red water; but rather the blue water signals a work of collective mourning, the water of a city built in the desert, and the contract of public sacrifice that we all participate in, every day on the freeways. Some 50,000 of us will not return to our homes each year. We will die on the Interstate. Thie brings the task of mourning to a collective reflection on “now-time” and our relationship to life, death and ourselves. LA Interchange challenges our culture of youth and public isolation, which has such an intimate connection to consumption and velocity, to the point where all social relations are produced and mediated by the image or Spectacle (as per Guy Debord) in which no one ever dies.

Henri Lefebvre, in his seminal work, The Production of Space, critiques our culturally inherited Cartesian sense of space as abstract or geometrical, as something that can be calculated or measured. Lefebvre offers a more radical conception of space as something that is culturally produced, political, dynamic, and experienced in real time−exactly where Thie’s vision will land us. The project invokes Bataille’s concept of sacrifice, of humanity’s refusal to directly confront our own mortality. In his infamous relation of the museum with the slaughterhouse, Bataille describes how we divert our collective attention away from sacrifice, toward art. LA Interchange positions itself both literally and figuratively between Bataille’s sardonic equivalences. This hidden sacrifice is linked to eroticism, which like death, exceeds rational and controlled thought. Sacrifice belongs to a general economy, to an excess that cannot be calculated or controlled by the machinations of the task-oriented, restricted economy. The lineage of this idea can be found in de Sade, Lautréamont, and Nietzsche—who practiced an ethics of life, as opposed to adherence to the strictures of morality.

LA Interchange will open Americans to a politics of art, a transformation of the polis through its gentle insistence on and reminder of our lives’ collective worth, and our responsibility to each other in the public sphere. The work is a reflection of loss, and an affirmation against an infantilizing culture of consumption and narcissistic drives. It shows us our own refusal to face what Heidegger calls being-towards-death−the awareness of our own mortality, epitomized by our involvement in two wars.

Statement for ProArts Exhibit
March 9 - April 9, 2010
Anu Vikram, Curator
Luther Thie’s LA Interchange is a truly contemporary monument, which draws its lineage from the work of 1960s conceptual public artists such as Robert Smithson and Claes Oldenburg. Fed by real-time incident data from the California Highway Patrol,  LA Interchange is a fountain that shoots a jet of water up to five stories into the air upon report of a traffic collision. The height of the water correlates with the severity of the collision, such that a severe incident with risk of fatality causes the jet to reach maximum height and to turn a luminous blue. The work, which would be sited in an industrial neighborhood in downtown Los Angeles, raises questions about the way we as a society use and distribute our most valuable resources – water, land, and human life.

Proposed for the intersection of the 10 and 110 freeways, LA Interchange occupies an intersection of our American obsessions with car culture, true-crime and “reality” drama, the Hollywood glamour machine, and creeping economic and ecological scarcity. Thie brings his background in graphic and interaction design and his artistic lineage in conceptual, performance and earth art practices to bear on an area of public sculpture that has historically been tied with celebrations of military victory and nationalist virility. In the mold of JG Ballard, Thie’s proposal unsentimentally addresses the links between rampant consumerism, sexual transgression and vehicular violence. The work is a commentary on a technologized social condition, which has us racing toward progress and away from our own mortality at a breakneck clip.

Essay by the artist in Leonardo Journal of Arts, Sciences and Technology's Creative Data special online issue.