Infrastructure as art

Geoff Manaugh, on road painting crews in Los Angeles:

Nonetheless, it’s not those canvases but the project’s most basic conceptual move—putting the Caltrans striping crews into the same context as, say, Jackson Pollack or Marcel Duchamp—that interests me the most here, implying new possibilities for interpretation, even whole new futures for art history and landscape criticism, with this recognition of avant-garde projects going on disguised as the everyday environment.

Pushing this further, the transportation system itself becomes an earthworks project that dwarfs the—by contrast—embarrassingly unambitious Michael Heizer or Robert Smithson, revealing Caltrans, not Field Operations or any other white-collar design firm, as one of the most high-stakes landscape practitioners—a parallel civilization of mound builders hidden in plain sight—at work in the world today.

If we take it another step further, it’s not just Caltrans that’s responsible for these gargantuan works. It’s us. In the literal sense, we elect officials and fund departments of transportation like Caltrans with our tax dollars, making us both indirect designers and patrons.

But we’re also the real artists behind the works. Infrastructure is built to respond to our demands. We shape it through our actions, every single day. That would make cities and the networks that connect them perhaps the biggest earthworks project ever.

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