Into the Field: Land Arts of the American West

[uds-billboard name=”landarts”]first moments of free time it seems. camp chair and coffee. open views. drawing.
the ruins are over there and everywhere. Hard to imagine another population in this place, but as we spend more time, it gets easier.
Everyone is drawn to the erosive dry-creek bed. There is a sense of shelter in the intimacy and space that it provides, walls, rooms, passage ways. Thinking about structure, designs and maquettes. Spent a decent amount of time learning about the exacting nature of aligning zippers.
see: I am now aware of rattlesnakes.
Journal Entry – Ryan Henel, MFA candidate in Art and Ecology at the University of New Mexico.
9/18/2011 Habitation Project, Armijo Canyon, New Mexico.
Specified as a place-based studio arts program offered through the University of New Mexico, Land Arts of the American West transverses the American Southwest and Northern Mexico investigating place as a fully discursive form. Our fall semester always begins with the premise that field-based research and practice is stimulated by being experientially located within the context of diverse ecotopes and human interventions. Students and faculty live and experiment side-by-side, traveling rugged territories for up to 50 days while camping, investigating, and making work. Actively engaged in collective and individual arts practices, our methodology induces critical research through praxis. Blurring boundaries of inquiry, the program fosters interdisciplinary exchange, bringing students from diverse studio and academic areas together with scholars, artists, organizations, and grassroots community groups.
Our objectives during the 2011 program were particularly intensive. From the end of August through the end of October, we investigated two overarching conceptual frameworks: Utopian Architecture and The Border. These frameworks took us round and about, from Spiral Jetty in the Great Salt Lake to a rural ejido in Juan Mata Ortiz, Chihuahua, Mexico. A three-fold methodology wove together this trajectory with activities supported through investigative sites, individual work sites, and collaborative project sites.
During the Utopian Architecture journey, habitation became a focus of discourse. Corresponding research was conducted at Spiral Jetty, The Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI), the north rim of the Grand Canyon, Arcosanti, Biosphere II, and a wilderness area in El Malpias. Many of these sites provided individual field-based work space for students to experiment. Projects included numerous navigations with buoyant body floats of Rozel Bay in the Great Salt Lake; perceptually unfolding sound and video movements across the Bonneville Salt Flats via sequins and a rat suit; Bark Beetle wayfaring in the subalpine forest of the Grand Canyon; and a personal geodesic occupation of Biosphere II.
At The Center for Land Use Interpretation in Wendover, Utah, artists Steve Badgett and Matt Lynch of Simparch joined us for a second year in a series of collaborative experiments as part of their Clean Livin’ project. As points of exchange between art and life, Clean Livin’ brings together the daily function of biologic necessity (shelter, water, power, and waste disposal) as it is directly tied to the projects undertaken at this CLUI residence. Metabolic action and re-action induce and challenge unalienated responses to working in and inhabiting place. Located on what is referred to as “South Base,” we were surrounded by police and military hothouses, an active shooting range, and military munition bunkers now filled with casino junk. Surrounded by military detritus and a seemingly vacant world of salt, artists work at the Clean Livin’ unit while daily responding to the needs of the physical living system in which they inhabit.
Students identified three projects of interest at Clean Livin’: a greywater garden fountain and compost shower, a solar oven, and a metabolically active shade structure. Collaborative groups designed and built each project using mostly salvage materials. After three days, a human-bicycle powered Tetra-Tipi made from art scrap was cruising the salt flats and greywater was trickling down the fountain providing water for the 2010 Land Arts terraforming garden project. On the fourth day, water boiled in the solar oven.

Utopian Architecture as an investigative framework produces a slew of responses, from the romantic to the reactionary. What is habitation in any of these ideological strongholds? How do sensory experiences, historical expectations, and biological needs ground or limit our desires for making place? What do these look like? What does it mean to be dislocated?

If habitation means to be in place, then The Border journey was precisely about the permeable territory between dislocations. This conceptual framework began with a trip south, to the boot heel of New Mexico and Southeastern Arizona to spend five days along the US/Mexico border fence with photographer David Taylor and US Border Patrol Agents. Hiking, driving and scouring the border for “sign,” smugglers, lay-ups, artifacts, and border monuments, our query induced shadows of self and other. On the last day, everyone wandered the border fence in search of proximity. Projects along the massive steel fence, like Nina Dubois’s lean-to, attempted to locate a bodily presence in the margin and puncture its delineation through giving shelter and creating connections.

Crossing the boundary into Mexico, the road took us through military check points where automatic weapons pointed at us from tripods. Our destination was far from the border – a village called Juan Mata Ortiz, where Hector and Graciela Gallegos would show us how to dig clay, process it, hand-build pots, finish surfaces, and paint with mineral pigments. We then fired them under a galvanized metal tub with bark and cow dung.

In Juan Mata Ortiz, art is a craft of skill, identity, history, and the future. It is literally the boundary between several worlds, where economics, labor, culture, and creativity intermesh. Yet, the border is still explicit. These objects have no life without flow, and as violence and security has increased on the border, the exchange between US currency and pottery has slowed, shifting the possibilities of how art objects and the artists who make them influence and are influenced by the contingencies of history.

Crossing back into the US, our Border investigation was winding down. After a brief hiatus into the Gila Wilderness for individual explorations and work time along the river, we headed to Barrio Buena Vista in El Paso, Texas – our final stop.

Land Arts students have been collaborating with the Centro Artistico y Cultural and the Buena Vista Neighborhood Association for several years. This year our time was divided between collaborating with the neighborhood association on developing a bus stop shelter and working with the Centro and Maestra Marylou Valencia to prepare for Dia de los Muertos festivities.

A neighborhood surrounded by highways, a train, a river, a quarry, and a bridge to nowhere, Buena Vista is literally bounded on all sides with the movement of transportation corridors, resources, and borders. For years, the residents have requested a bus stop shelter from TexDOT, so that they might be sheltered from the heat while waiting for a bus in 100-plus degree temperatures. Nothing had appeared. Until now.

At this time, the bus stop shelter stands as a welcome reprieve from the elements and functions as a neighborhood communication board. Stapling of local postings and fliers are encouraged and a laminated bus schedule is displayed prominently. The Barrio Buena Vista Neighborhood Association has been navigating city bureaucracy as threats of demolition continue. None of the Land Arts students would want to see the bus stop shelter destroyed. But, I think, we all realize that the power of our actions are not really held in the material structure itself, or in art itself, but rather in its position as an instigator of learning, experience, and action, challenging the status quo.

When Land Arts returned to the University of New Mexico in late October, the semester was nearly over. But, students return with one last charge: in less than one month, they were to produce the 2011 Land Arts Exhibition, a full-blown exhibition of works in a local gallery. Returning to field research or site-specific works, revisiting studio practices, and/or beginning totally new processes, students took up this challenge by actively responding as artists – doing, making, listening, challenging, and performing.


Land Arts of the American West exhibition is open through January 13th 2012 at SCA Contemporary Art in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Gallery hours are Thursdays & Fridays 12-5pm and by appointment.

For more information about Land Arts of the American West please visit:


Jeanette Hart-Mann, New Mexico: contributor
Jeanette Hart-Mann is an Assistant Professor in the Land Arts of the American West program at the University of New Mexico and is the director of Fodder Project Collaborative Research Farm in Anton Chico, New Mexico.


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