Into the Field: Land Arts of the American West
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.
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.