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The Underground Cathedral

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When I was a boy, my mother took me on a trolley car to downtown LA. On the way she said to me, “I want you to remember this ride because you will never see it again.” This marked the end of the Pacific Electric Railway, that was once the largest commuter train system in the world. 

Growing up in sunny southern California, it would have never dawned on me that the demise of its public transportation system and simultaneous boom of the automobile industry was intricately related to dramatic world events that would impact everyone’s lives in any number of ways, while directly inspiring an art project many years later that I have worked on now over four decades. As car sales and suburban sprawl exploded after the end of WWII, freeways were built that tore through suburban neighborhoods nearby the home where I grew up. A resulting thick brown ozone layer became such a health hazard that during the summertime I would cough uncontrollably after just one lap in a swimming pool. Strict exhaust regulations were then imposed on car owners that somewhat improved air quality, still this served as a harrowing sign of things to come. When I later enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley, the students shut down the school in protest of the US participation in the Vietnam War, which was increasingly perceived to be immoral and imperialistic. Some people have theorized that Vietnam was the first of a series of wars waged over access to oil reserves abroad. As the war came to an end, in 1973 an oil embargo threatened automobile transportation that almost everyone in southern California depended on. From the website, History:

In the United States, the effects of the Vietnam War would linger long after the last troops returned home in 1973. The nation spent more than $120 billion on the conflict in Vietnam from 1965-73; this massive spending led to widespread inflation, exacerbated by a worldwide oil crisis in 1973 and skyrocketing fuel prices.

All of these circumstances would dramatically impact a sense of purpose behind my artistic expression that began to formulate just a few years later.

For me, the original definition and purpose of the medium of stained glass, as an ecclesiastical light art form, became a means of exploring the inevitable links between oil production, religion and war. Alas, the subjects I chose were sacrilegious, for they concerned evolution as opposed to creationism.

My earliest stained glass artwork directly inspired by this topic is composed of a graph I found in a 1975 edition of Scientific American. It accurately projected the rapidly growing US dependence on foreign oil between 1960 and ’90. This prediction clearly reflected the consequences of the Arab-Israeli War in 1973, resulting in an oil embargo. The outcome was both a surge in petroleum product costs in the United States and 2 to 3 hour-long waits in line to fill up one’s gas tank.

Please see the full page regarding the artwork, “Vision After the Sermon,” by clicking here

Between the time that my mother took me on that trolley ride in the early 1960s and the oil embargo around a decade later, Southern California’s dependency on the oil industry for transportation became a serious threat to what had become an accepted lifestyle. Southern California has been paying ever since for this grossly myopic civic mismanagement during a period of dramatic real estate development in the Wild West, without government regulations controlling sprawling growth. Some alleged that it was caused by what became known as the “General Motors Streetcar Conspiracy.” It has been argued that the burgeoning automobile industry’s ambition was to dismantle public owned transportation systems throughout the United States. While apparently there is some truth to this, further investigation has uncovered the fact that the first commuter train lines themselves were privately built to transport people to areas where the train line owners also owned vast areas of land that was for sale. Quite simply, southern California became a haven for the automobile industry during a period of dramatic expansion, as the train system was not properly cared for and was eventually dismantled. This article outlines the story of the Pacific Electric Red Car system that in its prime covered 25 percent more mileage than today’s New York Subway:

The Great Red Car Conspiracy

My deep concern for this subject that influenced my upbringing was first expressed with the artwork, “Vision After the Sermon – US Dependence on Overseas Oil (1960  – 90),” that I created from the graph in Scientific American.  The graph proved to be prophetic. Not only did it’s projection over time come to pass, but it is equally striking that in August 1990, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait as he set fire to hundreds of oil fields. Then, in January 1991, he called for a worldwide “Holy War” against the US and its allies.

For me, the original definition and purpose of the medium of stained glass, as an ecclesiastical light art form, became a means of exploring the inevitable links between oil production, religion and war. Alas, the subjects I chose were sacrilegious, for they concerned evolution as opposed to creationism. 

As if unconsciously, the tragic loss of southern California’s public rail transportation system continued to influence my artistic expression in other ways. Among my other very first artworks in stained glass conceived in the mid-1970s, were literal interpretations of the first recognized forms of life found at the bottom of the ocean. In 1976, I designed and executed an architectural stained glass commission for a residence in Santa Monica, California, its composition one of these undersea forms of life that I found in a zoology book. Its unusual linear form provoked me to name it: “A Proposal for the Los Angeles Subway System,” something the city desperately needed.

Eventually, a curiosity about other cultures emerged, as travel taught me about urban life where transportation by car was not a necessity. My first trip to Europe changed everything, when I took a ride on the Paris Metro. From this would emerge an unanticipated preoccupation with the artistic study of subway systems from around the world. Upon returning home, I created an enormous stained glass artwork, its composition derived from a hand sized map of the Paris underground. “See “Les routes de La Grande Odalisque (The Large Brain. “)

A stained glass subway map became the impetus for the title of a lifelong project: The Underground Cathedral. 

From the first forms of life on Earth to an underground subway map, my exploration extended to the realms of Quantum Physics, which integrates spirituality with science. My work’s development became an examination of the process of evolution of civilization, in the form of studying underground subway systems of the world. This preoccupation continued in other media including photography, computer graphics, video art, sound, music, writing and even web design. The original website of “The Underground Cathedral” completed in 1998 and revised in 2014, is navigated by clicking on the links of what appears to be an interactive subway map. The site is integrated with the new version that is a component of this website.

My fascination with the maps as aesthetic iconography of actual underground transportation systems gave rise to a long journey of personally studying life in various undergrounds throughout the Western Hemisphere. This underworld became my playground, where one inevitably encounters a potpourri of humanity from diverse races and cultures. It started when I took photos inside of the far from finished first line of the Warsaw Metro at communism’s end in 1989. I continued taking still shots in undergrounds while traveling from country to country in Europe. My fascination expanded in new directions, as I also recorded sounds of life in the underground. This evolved into the realm of music and multimedia storytelling, when I recorded a spontaneous interview and musical performance inside of the New York Subway in 1992. The subject was a saxophone player busking for spare change, who claimed that he was from another galaxy. Based on just a few photos and a sound recording, I made a short film called, Antenna Man. Here is a new remake of that film, presented here for the first time:

Once I started recording with a video camera and became adept at composing and recording musical compositions, including sampled sounds of underground life, I made both films and live performances with edited film projected in the background. My ever-growing obsession with life in the underground continued throughout much of Western, Central and Eastern Europe, before I returned home two decades later.

It seemed that everything came to a head at the end of the 1980s, a transformational moment, which also happened to be the near end of the Reagan era, the Cold War and the toppling of communism in Eastern Europe. Shortly after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait over oil. Francis Fukuyama, deputy director of the US State Department’s planning staff, then famously asked, “Is this the end of history?”

More accurately, it was a transformative moment with far reaching implications being played out today in unsettling ways.

Also in 1990, the first short segments of the new LA Metro opened. At that time, I was frequently riding the metro in Barcelona, Spain, where I was then living, while creating my first music videos of The Underground Cathedral. That same year, a cover article that I wrote about my project, was published in the quarterly magazine of The International Union of Public Transport in Brussels, Belgium. 

In 2013, a history of The Underground Cathedral was documented in the book “Going Underground – New Perspectives,” published by the London Transport Museum commemorating the 150th anniversary of the London Underground.

In May of 2016, a new line of the LA Metro opened, connecting downtown once again to the seaside in Santa Monica, which passes not far from my home and new art building.

Despairingly, this has done nothing to alleviate either traffic congestion or improve on air quality, while severe drought conditions have plagued California. What has inspired my artistic investigations of The Underground Cathedral over decades of my life, has resulted in a far more ominous development that now confronts the entire world: climate change, which has largely been the outcome of dependency on the fossil fuels industry. Incomprehensibly, the last administration of Donald Trump threatened the state with abolishing environmental standards, which if allowed to happen, could have returned air pollution to the intolerable levels of the 1960s. Even more incomprehensible is Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, which has had countries taking sides, at a time when it is urgent to mutually cooperate, to make vital systemic changes that are essential to minimizing the grave global danger of climate change.

I thus feel that my dedication to this subject is of greater significance today than when I began to address the issue artistically, following the first oil embargo in the US, way back in the early 1970s.