Nina Dubois and Jeanette Hart-Mann, Culture digest(e)

Smudge flew to New Mexico this weekend for two events: the Dispersal/Return 2000-2006 exhibition currently at the University of New Mexico Art Museum (part of the continuing LAND/ART project); and the semi-annual opening of the Trinity site to the public (see our Trinity posting here).

These two events drew us from New York to Albuquerque because they span two interests that shape our work on this blog and as artists-collaborators ( That work is to trace how contemporary artists are responding to forces that shape the land, land use, and built environments; and to expand human capacities to sense and live in relation to deep time.

We arrived at the UNM campus and Dispersal/Return after weeks of posting to this blog photos, announcements of openings, and artists’ statements about the exhibition. We were excited to see the works ourselves and to read across them as a group.

Dispersal/Return gathers recent works by 18 artists who participated in the innovative pedagogical experiment that is the Land Arts of the American West program. Work by the program’s founder, Bill Gilbert, is featured alongside the students’ in his one-person exhibition entitled Physiocartography 2005-2006. Land Arts of The American West continues to this day in a new form, with one group of students accompanying Bill Gilbert out of UNM and a second group accompanying the program’s co-director, Chris Taylor, out of his new home institution, the College of Architecture at Texas Tech University, Lubbock TX. (Click here to view reports from Taylor’s students now in the field).

Dispersal/Return marks the return of students to the place from which they set out in 2000 on the first Land Arts of the American West field semester. Their return consists of new works that bear traces of their formative experiences during that semester. Never heavy-handed in their references to the raw, in-the-field experiences of the Land Arts program, the works instead shimmer with what seems to be an indelible afterglow of those experiences. Far from waxing nostalgic or reminiscent about the field semester, the works exude the freshness of recent, deeply embodied encounters with land, place, and environment. For these artists, “the field” has become the lives they are living now in dispersed sites that include urban and public spaces, the domestic, and interiors (psychological and constructed). The creative responses they are making today to place, environment, and bodies exposed to the forces that shape the world continue to develop and expand what they learned and practiced during the field semester: namely, to respond as artists to where you are.

Many of the works share a common gesture of invitation that reaches beyond that of the artist’s self-expression and acknowledges the audience/viewer. Invitations include opportunities to interact directly with works and to add to them by taking them into the field for a small taste of what is at the heart of the pedagogy of the Land Arts program. They also include offerings of experiences that give a sense of the power of a body’s prolonged living in the field as students/artists.

Julie Anand's Itinerant Camera Obscura

Several works invite viewers into small and simple shelter-like spaces of inhabitation ... places that seek to moderate the intensity of exposure to the field that is the Southwest with its vast, monumental and sometimes harsh environments. These works expose as they shelter and shelter as they expose--much like the Land Arts of the American West field-based pedagogy itself.

The physical, emotional, intellectual, and aesthetic effects and treasures that return with students after weeks in the field can never be explained or told directly to others who weren’t there ... but they can be translated into colors, shapes, motion, objects, and actions.

Nicolas Bourriaud, (Gulbenkian Curator of Contemporary Art at the Tate Britain and author of Relational Aesthetics) writes in a new book (“The Radicant”) about the power of translation within the contemporary moment. He speaks of “wandering” as an aesthetic and political form at this moment in history. Dispersal/Return, Land Arts of the American West, the field notes currently emerging from the Lubbock group’s journeys, and Bill Gilbert”s Physiocartography 2005-2006 might be viewed as emblematic of several of the social and contemporary art developments that Bourriaud addresses in his book.

Here’s Bourriaud:
"... contemporary creators are already laying the foundations for a radicant art--radicant being a term designating an organism that grows its roots and adds new ones as it advances. To be a radicant means setting one’s roots in motion, staging them in heterogeneous contexts and formats, denying them the power to completely define one’s identity, translating ideas, transcoding images, transplanting behaviors, exchanging rather than imposing. What if twenty-first century culture were invented with those works that set themselves the task of effacing their origin in favor of a multitude of simultaneous or successive enrootings? This process of obliteration is part of the condition of the wanderer, a central figure of our precarious era, who is insistently emerging at the heart of contemporary artistic creation. This figure is accompanied by a domain of forms--the domain of the journey-form--as well as by an ethical mode: translation .... In performing [translation], one denies neither the unspeakable nor possible opacities of meaning, since every translation is inevitable incomplete and leaves behind an irreducible remainder.” (The Radicant, p. 22)

Bill Gilbert’s Physiocartography 2005-2006 could be taken as a case in point. Its audio recordings and journaled mappings are translations of self via the journey and of particular journeys via their translations by Gilbert into aesthetic events. In this case, the events are Gilbert’s walking journeys that leave no trace on the land and whose pathways are given neither pictorial nor representational documentation. The emphasis is on the itinerary, the path--what Bourriaud might call “a dialogical or intersubjective narrative that unfolds between the subject and the surfaces it traverses, to which it attaches its roots to produce what might be termed an installation: one ‘installs oneself’ in a place or situation in a makeshift or precarious way, and the subject’s identity is nothing but the temporary result of this encampment.” (Bourriaud, pp. 55-56).

It’s an ethical act, Bourriaud suggests, to make works of “translation” because all translations require both the translator and the translated to change in accord with one another. “...translation in both directions.” (Bourriaud, p. 56).

And this is what we believe is the aesthetic event and eco-ethics of the pedagogy of the Land Arts of the American West program: it involves students both in translating and being translated by the environments they traverse. Its students are invited to install themselves within the field precariously and create temporary artist-selves-as-encampments. They experiment with being selves who efface where they came from in order to face each field-day's new situations ethically--meaning, by becoming highly responsive to their new surroundings.

A pedagogy that teachers and invites responding creatively to where you are was not, unfortunately, the pedagogy that we experienced when we visited the Trinity site’s semi-annual open house.

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