When photographers Jerry Burchfield and Mark Chamberlain of BC Space grew weary of seeing the picturesque environs of Laguna Beach get “developed,” they created Laguna Canyon Project: The Continuous Document. Started in 1980, and lasting for 30 years, the two men photographed the Laguna Corridor in thorough detail, night and day, over the course of 16 eventual “phases.” If the area’s natural splendor was inevitably going to be razed by developers, then the activists would have a memento mori of what once was. There was also the faint hope that by documenting what most people blithely drove through every day, the artists might make what was in plain sight actually visible and grassroots concern for the environment might actually spring up and lead to its rescue.
The result was thousands of pictures, the epic scale of the work drawing in admirers who also wanted to participate; it eventually became The Tell, a photographic installation intentionally placed in the path of a proposed toll road. A derivative of the Arabic word tel, tell is an archeological description for an unexcavated mound of historical detritus left over when a city builds and rebuilds atop itself. Burchfield and Chamberlain’s Tell was a more-than-600-foot-long mural shaped like animals, human beings and the mountains around it, close to 40 feet tall in places, and covered with more than 100,000 photographs and ephemera taken or supplied by people from all over the world.
The passionate politicking and The Tell‘s explicit detailing of people’s love of the unblemished countryside caused the Irvine Co. to scrap its plans and sell the land back to the city.
“The Canyon Project: Artivism” at Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Dr., Laguna Beach, (949) 494-8971; lagunaartmuseum.org/the-canyon-project-artivism. Open Fri.-Tues., 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thurs., 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Through Jan. 17, 2016. $5-$7; children younger than 12, free.
Chamberlain and Burchfield’s project changed the future of Laguna Canyon. Remarkably, both men lived to see their work come to fruition.
Cal State Fullerton professor and Begovich Gallery director Mike McGee curated the Laguna Art Museum’s retrospective on the duo’s project, “The Canyon Project: Artivism.” A good curator is like an archeologist: You dig up what is often out of sight, document it, figure out what it means historically, and then put it up on display for people to rediscover or remember. McGee gathered together artifacts, documentation and even one of the few remaining sections of The Tell, a piece that survived the 1993 Laguna fire that destroyed most of the work, along with 16,000 acres of the city itself.
When asked what drew him to the project, McGee says, “It’s connection to the community. This is the only art project that made a sound, political difference locally. If they hadn’t done that project, Laguna Laurel [a planned 3,500 homes in the canyon] would have happened. It’s unique to see.”
Burchfield died in 2009, so he’ll only be at the retrospective in spirit, but I reached out to Chamberlain via email to ask what feelings he has about his participation in this important piece of OC history. He replied that it was satisfying, for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that something that took so many years of his life now comes full circle, showing the full breadth of the project. “Many people who were around at that time were aware of Phase VIII: The Tell, but most are unaware of the seven phases and nine years work that preceded it . . . and made it possible . . . or the eight phases that followed,” says Chamberlain. “This is the first time the full story will be shown for the old-timers, as well as to a whole generation who know little of how this land was spared the seemingly inexorable suburbanization that has consumed so much of Southern California.”
The fact that the museum hosting the exhibition initially refused to have anything to do with the politically charged project doesn’t go unappreciated by Chamberlain. “Although we were never given a clear reason, it was most likely . . . fears of financial repercussions from their major donors, [companies] invested in the developments we were opposing. Now . . . it falls right in line with the museum’s dedication to their ‘Art & Nature’ series. The gap between art and activism has been bridged [for now], and this feels like real progress.”
Chamberlain says his dream is that the long-term effects of the project will continue past this celebratory moment. “I hope [it] will . . . remind people that when they unite and act in concert for a common cause, they can win against almost any odds,” he says. “Throughout history, we have seen that when a united citizenry takes to the field, [it] generally wins the battle. . . . But they cannot then just go home and lose the war. Constant public vigilance and engagement is needed. . . . It was not just art for its own sake, but public art for a cause—and [it] ultimately proved that art matters.”