Becoming PLAND

[uds-billboard name=”nancy”]For almost three years in Houston, I had been working in the arts world at what, for me, was a breakneck pace, a wannabe overachiever just out of graduate school. I knew I was lucky to have the job that I did and I loved all the responsibilities, the perks, and the challenges. But I also knew that if I didn’t find a much needed balance, I would have to leave the art world for good. And I very much wanted to stay.

In the midst of this personal and professional overextension, I agreed to partner on a land purchase with my friends and colleagues, sisters Erin and Nina Elder. We each put up a few hundred dollars at auction and next thing we knew, we were property owners. Our idea was that we would embark on a collaborative, site-based project in New Mexico — the details of which were yet to be determined. Several months in, we three realized that we truly wanted to live the vision we had imagined and to commit to the project we had created: PLAND, Practice Liberating Art through Necessary Dislocation. We saw in PLAND an opportunity to own land, build our own house, create our own organization, and make our own rules. We began to plan our escape.

I brainstormed ways to move my life to New Mexico, to what I hoped would be a pared down, balanced lifestyle and a more intentional arts curatorial practice. I decided to quit my job and work on a WWOOF farm in Northern New Mexico where I could learn agricultural and construction methods specific to the region. I came upon Calliope Collaborative (now called Fodder Project Collaborative Research Farm), a small family-fun farm where I could learn basic organic gardening, animal husbandry, and sustainable building practices. A short time after I agreed to work there, I learned that Jenn Hart-Mann, the woman who ran the farm, was an artist and educator. The magic of New Mexico had begun to reveal itself.

In April 2010, I packed my car, said goodbye to the city and friends that I had grown to love, and took about a week to drive from Houston, TX, to the farm in Anton Chico, NM. I camped along the way, taking my time and stopping in San Antonio, Marfa, and various small towns. My memory of these days is a blur, other than lots of road travelin’ music.

For two solid months, I decompressed. I paid off credit card debt with my vacation and retirement savings. I lived in a yurt behind Jenn’s house, with a view of the farm and the neighbor’s cattle pasture. I built fires in the small wood-burning pot belly stove. I woke every morning at sunrise to help milk the goats, feed the animals, gather eggs, and make breakfast. It was a luxury – I worked until noon, then had the rest of the day to myself. I couldn’t really tell you what I did with those afternoons. I had internet, yes, but I also had rocky hills to climb, paths to run, books to read, and time to think. I took a week away from the farm and hiked the Grand Canyon. I went into town (Las Vegas, NM) on the weekends. I got lost while running and the dogs guided me back to the farm. I deleted my work email account. I took deep breaths. I slept. I cried. I planted. I weeded. I learned.

By July 2010, Erin, Nina, and I had moved our lives out to PLAND, a site with no running water, electricity, or amenities in remote Tres Piedras, approximately 30 miles northwest of Taos, NM. That summer, we lived out on the mesa in a handmade house of dirt, rock, wood, and tires — living quarters that were donated to us by one of the original homesteaders in the area. This house was within walking distance of PLAND. So, we got to work. And we invited residents to join us.

On a basic level, PLAND is a residency program and a building program. On a conceptual level, PLAND is an experiment: in living, making, being, learning, partnering, owning, administering, and more. Each summer season of PLAND is different, and brings different challenges, both logistical and ethical. We are using hand tools to build the actual residence of PLAND (the Main House) which means it’s slow-going and labor intensive but oh, so much fun. In these interim days, we have fulltime and parttime jobs and pay rent year-round for houses elsewhere. During the summer of 2011, we lived in Taos and drove out to PLAND, staying overnight for a few days each week to work and be with the residents. Questions arose for us about how to conserve our resources (mostly fuel) and whether we could, indeed, leave our residents on-site mostly on their own, entrusting them with the same freedoms we saw for ourselves in the project. This summer, we will again commute out to the site, pursuing more ways to achieve balance between PLAND and our other commitments. We will welcome our 2012 residents. We will see our neighbors again and catch up on the latest off-grid happenings. We will continue to work on the house to provide shelter, prepare the land to produce food, and maintain the cistern pumps to filter water. We will also decide how to position ourselves as some sort of formal entity, finding an organizational model that fits with PLAND’s principles.

What follows is an excerpt from an essay we submitted for PHONEBOOK3, an artist’s directory of sorts created by threewalls in Chicago. We were invited to submit a “how to” essay, and I often refer to it as a reminder of why PLAND is such a valuable investment of my time and energy:

By simply throwing ourselves (and every element of our lives) into starting a residency program in the middle of nowhere, we learned some valuable ‘how to’s.’ First and foremost, we learned that the PLAND experience is ultimately about sharing a place. PLAND — this thing we created — has everything to do with our specific location in a failed suburban grid near the tiny, nearly abandoned town of Tres Piedras, NM. It is informed by our neighbors, the weather, the phases of the moon, the state of the dirt road, the time it takes to drive to town. It is not a place that most tourists or students or artists would find themselves. It is weird and wild and, without trees or in plain site of the highway, it is quite vulnerable. But we love PLAND. We love all of the eccentricities of the place. To share the infectious curiosity about our locale is the most generous gift we could give our guests.

For PLAND, residency and hosting go hand in hand. We invite people to share the experience of how and where we live. Through this bold experiment in sharing our experience, we discovered something essential about hospitality. We found that we did not need to provide our guests with soft beds or gourmet meals or fancy art studios or even a roof. Certainly, these luxuries would have been lovely to share but through the unorthodox practice of welcoming people into a situation that could be potentially uncomfortable or new or unknown, we discovered that what makes our guests comfortable is a shared faith that everything is going to be okay, that the dark cover of night will give way to a new day, that bathing from a basin might actually be fun. Hosting, for us, is not about sharing luxuries or even a good time, but about the opportunity to consider where and why and how.

How to start a residency program with nothing:

  • Allow yourself to be romanced and see that the relationship that comes from this romance is powerful.
  • See the immense possibility where nothing exists.
  • Do not worry about context. You can create meaning anywhere, with anybody.
  • Have no fear of completely changing your life: location, job, economic status, relationships.
  • Really live. Just as a person can not be loved who does not already love themselves, one can not start a residency program without deeply residing somewhere.
  • Money does not mean much. It comes in handy, but it really has little meaning.
  • Do not ignore a bolt from the blue. If you are suddenly wildly inspired (like we were to drop everything and buy a tiny piece of land for $1200), it is probably something rare and worth jumping on.
  • Collaborate. We always say “Team work makes the dream work.”
  • Do not try to do everything alone. This is different than collaborating.
  • Do things with individuation. Everyone has a special gift, a favorite task, a wonderful quirk.
  • Do not apologize for your process. Things happen slowly, in odd ways, in strange places, with bizarre outcomes, and no one will fully understand it. Not even you.
  • Celebrate what you love. If you love walking, invite people to walk with you.
  • Eat together.
  • Accept fear. Some people are really scared of rats, others are not. Some people are afraid of driving down really long dirt roads, others are not. Embracing experience means the good and the bad.
  • Recognize what feels wildly wonderful, maybe even crazy. Then share those moments. It is what makes you, and your context unique.
  • Be friendly. You never know who will be your next guru, benefactor, or neighbor.
  • Do not wait for everything to be perfect. There never will be enough money, the right time, or all the know-how. Desperation breeds innovation.
  • Do things you do not know how to do. It is amazing what you can figure out.
  • Give everyone space. If you over facilitate, your guest is having YOUR experience, not theirs.
  • Consider what is TRULY essential. Food. Water. Sleep. Embrace that how the essentials are administered is up for creative intervention.
  • Set some guidelines. People need boundaries, such as “Do not walk barefoot in the desert,” or “Don’t just poop anywhere.” It makes the experience better for everyone.
  • Allow your guest’s curiosity be your guide. You will learn more about them, yourself, and your environment.
  • Laugh.


Images courtesy of the author.

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