22 July 2013

from infrastructural tourism to tourism on and within infrastructure

Sunset at Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. Summer 2008.

Shannon Mattern, Media Studies Professor at the New School in New York and a generally interesting, provocative scholar-artist, published an essay at Places: Design Observer  on Infrastructural Tourism earlier this month. She makes an excellent argument for making infrastructure of all varieties visible, material, political, and fun through an examination of a variety of artists and scholars and other groups whose work investigates the networked landscapes of the commonplace things and systems that are often taken for granted even as these infrastructures are as vital as ever.

Reading the essay, I started thinking about the opposite side to this documentation of infrastructure, that of infrastructure as a destination for tourism in and of itself. In the American West, a common example of this is the use of large water reservoirs for recreation: boating, jet skis, fishing, picnics, hiking and cycling, camping, and so on. Water that comes out of the tap downstream acts as sporting or entertainment when retained behind a dam for a time.

One of the more remote reservoirs in the Sierra Nevada Mountains is Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, which provides water and hydroelectric-generated power for the City and County of San Francisco as well as other cities in the Bay Area. Hetch Hetchy Reservoir is located in Yosemite National Park, a long, windy drive on narrow, potholed roads from Highway 108 between Groveland and the entrance to Yosemite. The watershed is protected; any recreational use of the reservoir such as swimming, boating, and fishing is prohibited, but it is still a worthwhile visit, especially since virtually none of the crowds visiting Yosemite Valley make the journey.

I was fortunate to visit with a group of friends in the summer of 2008. The access gates to the area are closed to traffic at night, so you have the entire area to yourself. Even water and electricity flow west to San Francisco constantly, connecting the area intimately to the urban landscapes of Northern California, the area encompassing Hetch Hetchy Reservoir itself is quiet and calm; not disconnected but at a remove from the urban places it was built to provide for.

Unlike much of the work discussed in the Infrastructural Tourism essay, reservoirs are big, visible reminders of the reach of urban water systems, even if they typically are found far out in the hinterlands, out of site from the population centers themselves. The topic of infrastructures as sites of tourism deserves a much fuller consideration than I am offering here; but in the meantime, I've included three more photos from my visit to Hetch Hetchy below.
Playing music in a tunnel carved out of granite. The acoustics weren't bad.
Bunkhouse accommodation.

Downstream from Hetch Hetchy Reservoir is a small pool situated alongside the Tuolumne River. 

1 comment:

  1. Apologies for my delay in responding, Alan. I really enjoyed this! It's a perfect illustration of the whole "figure/ground" switch that characterizes infrastructure -- how various resources or structures switch between underlying support and "main event" depending upon how they're being used, or even simply how we look at them!