Looking Up Through Trees

It’s LA, so I’m late because of traffic. On NPR, an analysis of what’s expected for the second 2016 Presidential Debate plays all the way to Santa Fe Springs, where the Elections Operations Center for the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk is tucked away within a maze of warehouses a mile from the main office. The maze seems to go on for blocks. This one center prepares materials for all of LA County, the biggest voting district in the United States with 5,000 precincts. On November 8th, these precincts will transform from churches and theatres into polling stations, inviting citizens to come and decide the future of their government.

The unassuming, hard-to-find warehouse is where all the ingredients for this metamorphosis are assembled and rolled out over many months. When polls close on November 8th, every ballot is retrieved in a single night by a fleet of Sheriff’s Deputies and helicopters coming from as far as Catalina Island. This cavalcade makes sure nothing is tampered with, a massive operation that feels less like local government than like something out of Mission Impossible. Fitting the scale of the change it facilitates, the Center’s warehouse itself is transformed by a massive piece of public art – Rebeca Méndez’s 2008 work, Tree by Tree, from Sea to Mountains. The photographic banner stretches 132 feet across one wall and rises up from the ground opposite each of the stacks to create the effect of a forest canopy.

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Rebeca Méndez’s Tree by Tree, from Sea to Mountains (2008)

Billie Keller, the Head of Election and Document Processing Services, shows me around the warehouse with pride, describing the staggeringly huge election operation which gives every LA citizen the vote they are entitled to. Beaming about how the artwork livens up the space, Keller describes how the one hundred temporary employees the Center has hired for this season are transported every time they look up by a meditative glimpse of sky. Artist Rebeca Méndez tells me her goal was to bring something of the outer world into the inner-world of the warehouse. The first time she visited, it was a hot day. The door was shut, with air conditioning on high blast, and she knew this windowless space needed to be cracked open, to let the outside in. She says warehouses are spaces not built to human scale, and so individual identities get lost – ironic when you consider that this warehouse stores birth, marriage, death, and property records, as well as administering elections.

In response, Méndez worked from the start with architect Michael Lehrer, who brought her in to break up the walls with sunlight, shining through the trees. A sideways ocean bleeds off the leftmost side of the giant photo banner she created, vast and placid but disorienting, as if gravity itself had changed direction. “It feels like you’re spinning around,” Keller tells me. From the ocean, the piece moves through a 180-degree skyward pan to the San Gabriel Mountains, looking up through a rich canopy of trees meant to represent the urban forest of LA County, a huge biodiversity of trees reflecting the diversity of the County’s people. The banner is matched and echoed by stripes of autumn orange on the floor and brilliant greens and reds that line the walls, synergistically blending with the warehouse design as a whole.

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A wider view of Rebeca Méndez’s 2008 work, Tree by Tree, from Sea to Mountains

Méndez says that the concept of the piece was inspired by the Los Angeles County seal, which depicts a Native American woman standing at the shore of the Pacific, with the San Gabriel Mountains in the background.

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Los Angeles County Seal

In Méndez’s concept, the viewer becomes the woman, looking up through LA’s canopy of native and imported trees, which come from all over the world. “Trees and sky are an equalizing force,” Méndez tells me. In an era of social stratification, in whatever neighborhood, “looking up, everyone has the same view.”

On the logistics end, Keller and the warehouse employees meet the challenges of diverse needs and epic scale that the artwork represents. From the warehouse, materials in nine languages go to 78 regional distribution stations across LA County’s 4,000 square miles, reaching a total of five million registered voters in 16 languages. “It’s a mile to the truck depot,” Keller tells me, “but on Election Day I walk, because there are 206 trucks all the way from here to there carrying materials.” Even the stacks of red ballot boxes have an Andy Warhol, pop art quality, infinite replication on a single recognizable theme. Méndez laughs as she tells me about the giant photographs that differentiate each of the stacks on one half of the warehouse, stretching up toward the ceiling. The photographs, all of different types of trees, seem akin to both the uniformity of the materials going out, and to the variety of views which they will bring back in. Apparently, the stacks hadn’t been part of the original commission, but the photographs on them seemed so right for the space, so necessary to enclose the inside in the outside world, that Méndez ended up creating that portion of the artwork outside of the original commission and donating it to the County.

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Giant photographs of trees differentiate the stacks and stretch towards the ceiling.

Dating back to the Roman horrea, ancient warehouses have left their exoskeletons across the ruins of empire. They crumble, these empty rooms built only for efficiency, unadorned with the mess and art and culture of real human life. But not in this warehouse.

For the thirty-five permanent employees and up to 100 temporary employees that keep this space running, Méndez has planted a seed of art and design that brightens each workday. At the end of our conversation, the artist leaves me with a Greek proverb, reflecting on what she wanted to say with her artwork, which will weather not only this election season, but countless to come. She tells me,

“Society grows great
when old men plant trees
whose shade they know they will never sit in.”

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By Brian Sonia-Wallace

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