Pitzer Project: A Prototype System for the Production and Redistribution of Ancient Sunlight

Pitzer College, Claremont Colleges, Claremont, CA, 1996


Pitzer Project: A Prototype System for the Production and Redistribution of Ancient Sunlight, is an art work developed for the Los Angeles area, comprised of two interconnected sculptural elements. The first is an enclosed, gasoline-powered electrical generator with computer controlled on/off-timing cycles. The exhaust gas of the generator is vented through a 14-ft. high aluminum stack. A length of 2-in. electrical conduit to the second element, a 14-ft. high commercial-duty streetlight, connects the generator and flue. The electrical system was installed by professional electricians and is grounded by a copper rod driven into the soil below. The entire system is mounted on and unified by a low concrete foundation. The length of the on/off cycles of the light is experimental, aspiring for a balance of anticipation, contemplation and surprise for the viewer. A randomized cycle of illumination 2 to 8 minutes long, occurring 2 or 3 times over a 24 hour period with long intervals of dormancy in between is a typical timing sequence.

Pitzer Project was developed as a prototype and sub-unit for a proposed larger work, Orchards of the Sun.. The intention of both of these projects is to investigate the production and redistribution of ancient (Paleozoic or Mesozoic) sunlight as it relates to the origin and properties of fossil fuels. This is being explored by the separation and display of elements of the carbon/fossil fuel/light cycle into its industrial and natural elements. Eventual components of the complete version of Orchards of the Sun could include representatives of the complete cycle: ponds of blue green algae, coniferous groves, greenhouses, oil wells and pumps, cracking towers, etc. This project may be thought of as a time machine, summoning and revealing a form of the sunlight that fell on ancient forests or mats of algae floating on ancient seas which transformed atmospheric CO2 through photosynthesis into energy laden organic materials, later deposited and further transformed geologically into what are now called fossil fuels. The ignition and transformation into electricity of these fuels in the generator of Pitzer Project releases the ancient sun’s energy in the form of light in the streetlight. This process may also be seen as a possible analog to the metabolic systems of the human body with transformation of food into vision, the ability to see light.

The aesthetic of Pitzer Project is industrial. The elements of the project were selected or fabricated from the industrial, electrical environment. This feature emphasizes the production and commercial aspects of the process of transformation of fossil fuels into light that occurs continuously around the world. It also alludes to the scale of this production on a worldwide basis and the amount of materials actually used in this process. In a way of speaking there already exist tremendous "orchards of the sun;" e.g., the city of Chicago has over 175,000 streetlights powered by a range of fossil-derived-fuels that operate every night (source: the internet), not to mention the vast arrays of light production surrounding Pitzer Project’s site in Southern California.

The primary intention of Pitzer Project as an artwork is not one of critique or solution to a problem. Its purpose is revelatory and objective. Through formal, performative and referential means it presents a tangible facet of the consciousness persisting from the industrial revolution that pervades our current world, one that is deeply intertwined with our often subjective view of nature. The industrial transformation of fuel into light as demonstrated in Pitzer Project presents this relationship in an essential, structural form including an element of the primeval as the system (behaving as an‘organism’) may activate itself unexpectedly at any time day or night.

John Roloff, 1997