Fall 2015

Fall 2015 Editor’s Statement

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This 2015 issue marks another milestone in our quest to make ARID a sustainable publication. Thanks to the hard work of co-editor Kim Stringfellow, ARID has become part of the Emerge Program of the Pasadena Arts Council. Emerge provides the fiscal sponsorship that ARID has sorely needed, and much more. An incubator for art and design projects, Emerge offers financial management, marketing and fundraising support. Although the Emerge partnership is very new, Robert Crouch at PAC has already become a great ally. One area of crossover between the aims of PAC and ARID is our mutual interest in art-science. We want to point out that PAC has several art-science programs that may be of interest to members of our community including the AxS Festival and AxS Incubator that celebrate and nurture artistic practices that demonstrate a relationship to art, science and technology.

Climate change continues to drive many of the projects and writings featured in this year’s ARID, and we have found our contributors expressing a greater urgency around this global issue. The research represented illustrates that the scale of climate change requires practitioners from every discipline to bring their expertise and methodologies to the problem. We need everyone: artists, designers, scientists, the problem is just that big.

During the past year, the California drought and its connection to climate change has dominated the news. In this issue, Edward Morris and Susannah Sayler, co-founders of The Canary Project, provide an interim report on their developing American River Archive project following a single flow of water through California. While compellingly simple in concept, this project unveils the complexity of water use and scarcity in our current ‘age of extraction.’ Morris and Sayler have been responding to the problem of climate change for many years, and I recently had the opportunity to work alongside them during the Rising Waters Confab, an artists’ residency at the Rauschenberg Foundation on Captiva Island Florida.

Also focused on California, Scott Potlach’s fascinating Laying Claim is an investigation into the historical and contemporary practice and process of making rain. Through historical research and actual rain-making, Potlach uncovers the functional, sublime and absurd. Another look at desert sublime is presented in Arcy Douglass’ moving personal essay about land arts, and as if in direct response to Douglass’ questions about artistic practice in the desert, architect and landscape architect Katherine Jenkins’ and Parker Sutton’s Seeing through Subtraction: Four Figures in the Great Salt Lake Desert presents majestic documentation of temporary land art sculptures. A very different sublimity in the desert is illustrated in Christopher Langley and Osceola Refetoff’s Prayer Changes Things, Desert Faith in Trona, CA. How does a desert landscape impact faith in its inhabitants? Langley and Refetoff answer this question through the eyes of people living their faith in one small California desert town.

Does our new fiscal sponsorship with PAC, a California-based organization mean that ARID is becoming a California-centric publication? Absolutely not! Although we hold a strong connection to arid environments in the regions that include California, ARID is and will remain an international journal. While we respect that every arid environment is unique, we believe that as climate change increases the size and number of arid landscapes across the globe, we must share ways to live in and engage with this changing paradigm. Artists and designers are on the front lines responding to these questions and problems.

The Policies section of ARID has raised questions among our editorial team. In many ways, every project and essay we present has policy implications, and we believe that the practice of art and design in and about arid environments, or any environment, plays an important role in social and environmental justice. Therefore, every contribution we feature could be considered as Policies. However, in this issue, we have tried to reach some clarity about this broad subsection title. Jeffrey Widener’s contribution, A Fountain in the Desert: Heritage and Water Wrangling on Colorado’s Western Slope, provides graphic maps, information and other resources that directly relate to public policy in the Colorado River Basin that have implications for water use throughout the American Southwest. I compare this article with the American River Archive project in our Practices section and see the power of linking aesthetic practice to policy. Adrien Segal’s Snow Water Equivalent data sculpture project could have been placed in our Practices section as a purely aesthetic investigation, but we put it in Policies to emphasize the role that artists’ visualizations can play in public understanding of pressing environmental and social issues.

In his last State of the Union address, President Obama said “No challenge poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change.” While good science is crucial to responding to this challenge, art and design can deepen our understanding of the complex science of climate change and promote innovation through creativity. It can communicate powerful stories and help us collectively process our emotions. In the interview I conducted with Theresa Cardenas, The New Mexico Climate Change & Energy Outreach Consultant for the Union of Concerned Scientists in the Perspectives section of this issue, she states that one of the roles of an artist’s vision can be to help an individual understand climate change in the context of his or her environment in a more human way and therefore act appropriately.

Any educational initiative that claims to improve the future must address the issue of climate change. Recently we have been encouraged to find that nationally and internationally, the educational focus of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) is evolving to recognize the importance of integrating the Arts and Design, known as STEAM. ARID Pedagogies have always integrated STEAM with an emphasis on field-based educational initiatives. When we started three years ago, field-based programs exploring arid environments were few and far between. In our first issue, we highlighted work of the pioneering Land Arts of the American West (LAAW) program at the University of New Mexico created by our Editorial Board Member and now Distinguished Professor Bill Gilbert.

Three years later, we are seeing many more programs that provide opportunities for students to explore and respond to arid environments. Our two Pedagogies contributions highlight developing post-secondary field initiatives that integrate STEAM through immersive desert experiences. The first is a collaborative summer school intensive in Marfa, Texas between the UCLA Design and Environment program and the Amsterdam-based TAAK. ARID featured the work of students in this Summer School last year, and we are pleased to share the evolution of that program. In our second Pedagogies article, Nancy Floyd presents a university field-based program during which she travels with her Georgia State University students to Joshua Tree National Park with the goal of improving artistic and conceptual skills while learning about the history and culture of the land and its people.

On a personal note, this year I have had the opportunity to build a statewide collaboration to strengthen STEAM education in New Mexico with the support of Americorps/VISTA. This year our project helped to create public educational events for 516 ARTS’ statewide initiative Habitat: Exploring Climate Change through the Arts, and developed a partnership with Paseo Taos, a new outdoor new media arts festival that takes over the streets of Taos each Fall.

Also this year, Kim became a Guggenheim Fellow in Photography and launched The Mojave Project with a prestigious Cal Humanities‘ California Documentary Project (CDP) Production Grant for New Media.

These projects have demanded a large proportion of the time and energy of your ARID editorial management team, and to circle back to the long-term sustainability of the ARID Journal, while Kim and I have a strong commitment to the survival of ARID, we both want to step back from our roles to make room for fresh ideas and perspectives. We invite you as contributors, readers, and members of our community to submit editorial proposals for future ARID’s that extend our reach to artists, designers and scholars worldwide. Please send us your ideas at: editors@aridjournal.org.

Andrea Polli, ARID 2015 Co-Editor

American River Archive | Edward Morris & Susannah Sayler

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The American River Archive tells the story of a single flow of water in present-day California from origin to end-use. The project is a form of historiography and a form of allegory in which this one strand of California’s vast waterworks becomes the means of a broader exploration into an Age of Extraction that appears near its culmination. As a whole, the project will consist of original photography, writing, historical images, analysis and images of speculative futures, audio and maps compiled into a book and exhibitions. As with other water flows in the West, the “American River” is no longer a river at all, but an elongated site of capture and distribution, with a definite beginning but diffuse end.  The water is apportioned and owned the moment it comes out of the ground.


The following is an interim report on findings, quandaries and possible directions:

In November 2014, we came to California with the expectation of documenting drought conditions as part of our ongoing A History of the Future project. A History of the Future consists of landscape photographs in places impacted by or vulnerable to climate change that are then combined with archival images, video or installation elements to examine various aspects of the climate change crisis.

However, a number of factors led us to the creation of a more involved, stand-alone project called the American River Archive. As we dug into our research we discovered that climate change is only part of the complex water story in California. That story includes a massive terraforming project that rivals the currently proposed colonization of Mars, the promotion of the West by railroads and other vested interests, the questionable labor and farming practices of large-scale industrial agriculture, blind faith in technology vs. a neo-primitivism, and the contemporary mythologization of California as paradise such that populations have exploded beyond the carrying capacity of the land. In short, a microcosm of the Age of Extraction.

To address these complex themes and to move the project outside of an exclusive focus on climate change, we decided to explore a single flow of water in California. The idea was to follow the water from its origins in the mountains to its technological containment in dams, canals and pumping stations, and ultimately to its end use in agriculture, homes, businesses, etc. After some deliberation we decided to start our story with the headwaters of the South Fork of the American River near Echo Summit. After emerging from the high mountains, the river flows through Coloma, where gold was first “discovered,” to Folsom Dam, through land formerly populated by the Nisenan Maidu, through the city of Sacramento where it meets the Sacramento River and then into the Delta. From there the water is extracted by the Tracy Pumping Plant and siphoned into the Delta Mendota Canal from whence it makes its way to the San Luis Reservoir. From San Luis the water goes every which way – to Silicon Valley, to big Agriculture in the Westlands Water District, to the San Luis Wildlife Refuge, etc. We decided to focus, at least for the time being, exclusively on agriculture. Here is a sample of images showing that transition, see below at the end of this article for a fuller slide show with a voiceover.

We chose the American River as a starting point over rivers such as the Merced (which would incorporate the iconic Yosemite Valley) the Sacramento (which begins in the supremely picturesque Mt. Shasta region), or the Owens (which is the site of the quintessential California water story) for a variety of reasons. The American offers a relatively compact run through a great diversity of landscapes, including urban. It has a great name for a title that allows the project to function allegorically.   It is relatively free from the mythologies of previous treatments (the principal problem with the Owens or the Merced). However, the most significant factor in choosing the American is the fact that gold was discovered on it, which led to the hysterical stampede to mine this fetishized metal, to real estate speculation, to the initial wave of mass human migration to California and to the formation of a bubble economy, which we have seen many times since. In important ways, the nascent economic structures erected to capitalize on gold evolved to capitalize on land suitable for agriculture. This historical data has become a pivot point for the project.

Our interest in California’s water management coincided with a growing interest in the notion of the artist as historian, in particular a materialist historian as outlined by Benjamin. “For the materialist historian, every epoch with which he occupies himself is only prehistory for the epoch he himself must live in.”[1] A documentation of the river leads to an examination of the gold rush and the examination of the gold rush in turn leads back to an examination of our present water management which in turns leads to an examination of speculative economies, labor, and the ideology of extraction. It is not so much that the past is interpreted in light of the present as the past is remade in a dialectic conversation with the present with a view towards transformative futures. As Matthew Buckingham, who is another central inspiration to the direction of this project, puts it:

“Benjamin describes the vanishing point of history as always being the present moment. This formulation of history—thinking about the present moment as the point where history vanishes—is a way of reversing the received notion of history as vanishing somewhere behind us, vanishing into a nonexistent time, a time that no longer exists. [Benjamin’s notion] forces us to confront history as a construction. It implies that when we reconsider past events, we’re not so much returning to another time and retrieving material or events. We are restaging those events here and now in order to think about what’s happening here and now, to think about the present.[2]

Why is this mode of historiography particularly open to artistic methods and what are these methods? First, considering historical inquiry as a contingent narrative, allows for the collapse of binding distinctions between fact and fiction. We believe, like Walid Raad, that history is best told not through “crude facticity but through the complicated mediations by which facts acquire their immediacy.”[3] This calls for some negative capability and the discipline of “art” within the humanities is nothing if not for that mode of inquiry that allows for the “being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Accuracy is a tone not a precision point. Second, the materialist mode of historiography finds its method in the gathering together of images, particularly constellations of images or “dialectical images” that “flash up” like memories in a moment of danger. Here again is Benjamin:

“It is not that what is past casts its light on what is present, or what is present its light on what is past; rather, image is that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation.  In other words, image is dialectics at a standstill.  For while the relation of the present to the past is a purely temporal one, continuous one, the relation of what-has-been to the now is dialectical: is not progression but image, suddenly emergent.”[4]

“To articulate what is past does not mean to recognize “how it really was.” It means to take control of a memory, as it flashes in a moment of danger. For historical materialism it is a question of holding fast to a picture of the past, just as if it had unexpectedly thrust itself, in a moment of danger, on the historical subject.”[5]

In short, we find our project, which began in a documentary mode, turning into a sort of economic materialist history based in image constellations that reflect on the present moment of ecological crisis and the apparent end of extractive ideologies. We hope the reflection on the past is also thinking forward into the future. It is a risky proposition. Among the questions we face now are: is such a project obscurantist and culturally irrelevant? how do we retain complexity but also speak to a broad audience? how do we regard the core of the project, which is a set of landscape images in the present moment? how do we incorporate the history of labor, which is at the heart of the matter? if the relationship between past and present is dialectically complicated, what of the future?

Below is a slide show in the voice of a historian 200 years from now speaking about the American River and this archive of images as her own society begins to colonize Mars. In this work, which is really a sketch, we begin to feel for what these core landscape photographs really do. There are situated in an uncertain temporal place. They are mostly of ruins or Smithson’s “ruins in reverse” in which “the buildings don’t fall into ruin after they are built but rather rise into before they are built.”)[6]  They depict landscapes that are mostly out of time, somehow apart from the hurly burly of our current world and yet also somehow bolstering that world, holding it up.

American River Archive from The Canary Project on Vimeo.


Susannah Sayler and Edward Morris (Sayler/Morris) work with photography, video, writing and installation. Of primary concern are contemporary efforts to develop ecological consciousness and the possibilities for art within a social activist practice. In 2006 they co-founded The Canary Project – a collaborative that produces visual media and artworks that deepen public understanding of the Anthropocene. Works from The Canary Project have been exhibited broadly in venues including: MASS MoCA, The Kunsthal Museum in Rotterdam, The Museum of Contemporary Art/Denver, the Museum of Science and Industry (Chicago, IL). Sayler Morris are currently Smithsonian Artist Research Fellows and Artist Fellows at The Nevada Museum of Art’s Center for Art + Environment. In 2008-2009 Sayler and Morris were Loeb Fellows at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. They currently teach in the Transmedia Department at Syracuse University.


[1] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002) 474.

[2] From a lecture at the Slade School of Fine Art, University College London, November Buckingham takes the idea of the “vanishing point” from Susan Buck-Morss’s reading of Walter Benjamin. She has written that Benjamin “understood historical ‘perspective’ as a focus on the past that made the present, as revolutionary ‘now-time,’ its vanishing point.” See Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1991), 339. Quoted in Mark Godfrey, “The Artist as Historian,” October 120 (Spring 2007): 143.

[3] Walid Raad in conversation with Alan Gilbert, http://bombmagazine.org/article/2504/walid-ra-ad.

[4] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002) 462.

[5] Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of Historyhttp://members.efn.org/~dredmond/ThesesonHistory.html.

[6] Robert Smithson “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey”, in Flam, J. (ed.) Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings (Berkley: University of California Press, 1996) 72.

Laying Claim | Scott Polach

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Drawing on the history of pluviculture—attempts to induce rain artificially—these works examine water in Southern California. Using the drawn-down Morena reservoir, once one of the largest in San Diego County, and a 1915 professional rainmaker’s flood at the site as an initial point of entry, I’m currently exploring water use as something functional, sublime and absurd. During the Southwest’s current drought, I’ve been saving water from the shower as it warms, transporting it 60 miles to the east, filling water balloons and performing various rainmaking activities in a dry reservoir.

In December 1915 San Diego was in it’s fifth year of drought, and city officials began to worry as their main reservoirs were nearly dry. They saw no harm in hiring the world’s most famous rainmaker, Charles Hatfield, for a fee of $10,000 to bring enough rain to fill nearby Morena Reservoir. Using his “chemical highball,” Charles and his brother went to work the first day of 1915, and on the 10th day the rains began. Over the next few weeks the rain barely stopped, and 30 inches of precipitation caused the reservoir to overflow. Subsequently, a wall of water pummeled the lower lands, destroying dams, bridges farms and settlements. Newspaper accounts number the dead between 20 and 65 people. Hatfield demanded his payment for the water delivered, and the City of San Diego refused to pay stating it was an “act of God.” Hatfield sued the city, and the case was left open on the books until Hatfield’s passing in 1958.

My current work uses this story, and various other historical techniques of attempts to produce rain, as a starting point for exploring the current discussions, policies and practices of water use in the Southwest. I’ve been creating multidisciplinary works that explore various facets and experiences of water. From playful confrontations with water balloons on parched earth, to works dealing with the politics of invasive aquatic species, I am attempting to offer new entry points into the Southwest’s conversation on one of the most severe droughts on record.

Make ’em Hum #081714 (2.5m montage of 7min)


Scott Polach (b. 1980,  Hinsdale IL) is an artist, curator and educator who earned a B.A. from Loyola University Chicago and a M.F.A. form the San Francisco Art Institute. His work investigates how perceptions of ecological systems relate to the policies and practices that inform collective conceptions of nature.

The Sublime Is Then and Now | Arcy Douglass

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Michael Heizer's Double Negative. Photo: Arcy Douglass.

Michael Heizer’s Double Negative. Photo: Arcy Douglass.

The first time I went to Double Negative was almost 20 years ago. I remember driving along Mormon Mesa looking for signs that might point me in the right direction. After 45 minutes and more than a few wrong turns, I finally arrived, and what do I see? Nothing. There is no sign or plaque, no admissions desk or bookstore, and certainly no café. There was nothing to tell me that I was in the right place. It was just me and the work, and the work was exactly the experience that I made of it.

I remember walking down into the piece, inside the cut and across the mesa to the edge. Looking across the chasm to the next cut in the neighboring mesa, it was impossible to tell where the work ended. Immersed in the space of the piece, everything was important: the light, the shadows, the layered patterns of sedimentation, the silence alternating with the crunch of gravel underfoot. Double Negative seemed to fold in the entire space of the mesa, the mountains to the north and the river to the south into itself. An already very large work seemed to take up half of southern Nevada. It felt like the entire purpose of the work was to get the viewer to do one thing: Pay attention.

My first visit to Double Negative was one of the most profound art experiences that I have ever had, and I have spent the better part of 20 years trying to understand what happened to me that day.

This is not a history of Double Negative or any other work that is discussed here. There are better and more complete histories available online, in books and among museum archives. My intention is to view these works as archetypes and to determine if there are patterns and opportunities that might be embraced by others who, like me, are looking to process their experiences of land art. This is not so much a look back, but a look ahead. And it may be that the original artists’ intentions are challenged, or even creatively misread, in the hope that a discussion of these works is generative, rather than tied to a specific set of conditions that existed in the late ’60s and ’70s.

This journey includes three main stops: Michael Heizer’s Double Negative from 1968, and Walter De Maria’s Las Vegas Piece from 1969 and The Lightning Field from 1977. Our road trip ends with Donald Judd’s 100 Untitled Works in Mill Aluminum from 1982-86.

Man vs. Nature

First, let’s get the elephant out of the room. When Heizer took a bulldozer and a box of dynamite to cut up two sides of Mormon Mesa, he was trying to make a work so large and so grand it would be impossible to show in any New York art gallery. After a lifetime of digging in pits with his archaeologist father, he wanted to make the biggest hole of all. Big enough to swallow the New York art world in one enormous gulp.

Fine. He made his statement. We ended up with a great work of art. We look at the environment differently now than Heizer did at the time Double Negative was created. He might have seen Mormon Mesa as a blank canvas. We might see it as a fragile desert ecosystem trying to survive until the next rain. Wilderness he may have viewed as commonplace, we now see as exceedingly rare. What Heizer may have seen as empty, we see as full. When something is full, it is difficult to destroy what is already there to put something else in its place.

Double Negative is also surprisingly context-sensitive. I had a conversation with a friend who said that if Double Negative was next to Half Dome in Yosemite, it just wouldn’t work. It is also easy to imagine that Double Negative next to the Grand Canyon wouldn’t work either. Half Dome and the Grand Canyon are already too interesting and would render Heizer’s cuts too subtle and probably invisible. Double Negative needs an environment that is interesting, but not too interesting.

Double Negative was also meant to last forever. With the help of Count Guido Deiro, Heizer was able to buy property so that his work would be permanent. There also seems to have been two versions of Double Negative. The first one was thinner and shallower and was later recut to be more dramatic. This work brings together very specific conditions, including the opportunity to buy available land at a reasonable cost, the realities of finding a patron and financial backing, a different view of desert ecosystems, and the danger of literally driving a bulldozer off the edge of a cliff.

Where does that leave us now? The lesson of Double Negative is not for artists to go buy plots of land and have at it with bulldozers and dynamite. First, I would be hard-pressed to name an artist who even tried to do that. Second, Heizer has moved away from this kind of work, even if there are still echoes of this language in his dramatic slot at LACMA.

Looking back on my experience, it is clear that Double Negative was meant to last forever, yet it could not. At its heart, the work is an impossible and inherently irresolvable contradiction. How do you build something to last forever when you ignore the fundamental process and characteristics of the site? After the piece was made, a younger Heizer accepted the natural erosion of the mesa that would sooner or later render the clean lines of the cuts nothing more than a shallow dip. I wonder if later he wasn’t quite as comfortable with the idea of erosion because one would hear rumors that he wanted to install concrete retaining walls to clean up the geometry. If retaining walls were built, that would change the work in a profound way.

I think these ideas of control and intention at odds with nature are what makes Double Negative so interesting and relevant for artists today. Heizer begins the project with a clear idea about negative space superimposed on the land. The geometry relates to his intentions, is influenced by his own experiences, and not really related to the conditions of the site, other than the mesa allowed the sides to be visible across the scalloped edges of the landscape. It was an idea imposed upon the land.

Whether he wants it to be or not, the work has become collaboration between his original intention and the natural erosion of the site. The site is not natural because of the cuts, but the site is also not unnatural because the sediment reveals how the mesa changes over time. When you look at photographs of Double Negative, you can readily see the walls crumbling into small avalanches of sediment. The work began moving subtly yet steadily away from the artist’s intention at the very minute, the very second, Heizer drove the bulldozer out of the slot. A work that was intended as a statement of permanence has become a monument to change. When you go against nature, nature always wins.

Time and Space

Fifty miles north and one year after Heizer lit the fuse on Double Negative, Walter De Maria built a piece that encoded precise distances in a vast, sloping desert plane. The surrounding landscape at De Maria’s Las Vegas Piece stands in stark contrast to Heizer’s site. On Mormon Mesa, you get a more or less flat plane populated by small shrubs. In the Las Vegas Piece, you encounter large Joshua trees, and the whole site is traversed with sizable streambeds that flood during storms.

If Double Negative is all about depth, then the Las Vegas Piece is all about surface. After several years of experiments with chalk in dry lakebeds, De Maria, like Heizer, wanted to build something permanent and make a drawing with a bulldozer. The Las Vegas Piece comprises two mile-long lines connected at a right angle. One line is oriented north-south and the other east-west. Each mile-long line is subdivided at the half-mile mark. The two half-mile lines also connect at a right angle. When viewed in aerial photos, the Las Vegas Piece resembles a very large baseball diamond without the curve of the outfield.

Distance in the desert is misleading. It is impossible to gauge the distance of mountains. One’s perception of space in the desert is very fluid. Vast distances are compressed to seem impossibly close. You walk through the desert, but your senses are amplified. Into this environment De Maria inserted fixed limits marked off by the shallow cut of a bulldozer blade. He encountered a void and imposed a grid; the work is inseparable from the space that surrounds it. As with Heizer’s work, every detail becomes important.

De Maria’s lines cross streams, move rocks aside, and leave shallow indentions that are visible some 45 years later. Along the east-west line, the half-mile marker falls just after a large Joshua tree. It makes you wonder if he got lucky and that half-mile length is, in fact, just after the tree, or if he subtly changed the distance so that the tree itself becomes a kind of marker within the space of the piece. The end of the east-west line also terminates near a Joshua tree. Did the artist get lucky again, or is the distance slightly longer or shorter than one mile to accommodate the tree? If the tree were in the middle of the path would it have been bulldozed as well? Those trees are hundreds of years old, and I believe they raise the issue of an inherent contradiction within the work.

The current site is flat, but not especially so. There are probably dozens or maybe a hundred sites that would have suited De Maria. He could have built the Las Vegas Piece nearly anywhere. In fact years later, there were rumors of him building another one in New Zealand. For years, he built all kinds of ephemeral chalk pieces on the sunbaked surfaces of dry lakebeds throughout Nevada. He knew that if he built the bulldozed piece then maybe he could get people to come out to the site and see the desert as he saw it. This was the place he wanted to share with people through his work. And that is the contradiction. The desert that he wanted to share with people was scraped away and destroyed to make the work. In the process of making the work, he literally took away part of what brought him to the site in the first place.

Except he didn’t. After more than 45 years, the lines fade, and the desert comes back. Rather than being compromised by natural processes like erosion, the work collaborated with nature. The geometry has softened and is often only revealed by subtle indentations or small rocks in lines that remain in place after rolling off the edge of the bulldozer blade all of those years ago. What was once a wide-open clear path is now clogged with bushes, so the line has become fragmented and complex. Floods have washed out parts of the lines so that a search is required to find the line after it crosses a streambed. So the piece that was once so clearly linear has now become complex and provisional. Sometimes you know you are walking line, and sometimes you just have to take it on faith.

Here, our land art road trip takes a short detour to the East, the Far East. There is a story about the Zen garden Saiho-ji in Kyoto. Three hundred years ago, it was designed like any beautiful temple garden with every rock, tree and subtle ornament in its proper place. One day there was a rainstorm and a flood that destroyed the original design, upending earth and stone and causing so much disorder that the garden was abandoned for 200 years. Nature and numerous species of green mosses took their course, and now the garden is believed to be a masterpiece because it is a work that transcends human hands.

There is always potential for beauty when a design that is built one way is forced to change because of the environment. Time has changed the Las Vegas Piece just as defiantly as De Maria changed the desert with a bulldozer. The trick is to understand that time and change are part of the work, and that in this environment the artist’s intention was only one piece of the pattern we should now observe. In both Double Negative and the Las Vegas Piece, time and change have become essential parts of the work. For better or worse, the current conditions were only barely acknowledged, or all together ignored, by the artists. Are these pieces only about the intention of the artist? How much change can these works absorb and still be considered the authentic work? What does authenticity even mean when we are talking about these works? Should we applaud the artist’s willful ignorance of the conditions of the site? Should we cling to photos from the past to interpret the work today? Or should we confront what is right in front of us in its current state?

I sometimes wonder when an artist makes a work in these situations if he or she surrenders a bit of the original intention to nature. By definition, these works are collaborative. De Maria of all people should have understood this. A dry lakebed is often a very windy place. His chalk lines were probably being blown away almost as fast as he could put them down. It is literally the nature of the work. To ignore the natural processes of the desert environments is like crossing a street without looking both ways. You do so at your own risk.

Michael Heizer's Double Negative. Photo: Arcy Douglas

Michael Heizer’s Double Negative. Photo: Arcy Douglas

First Light

I wonder if De Maria did not find the Las Vegas Piece entirely satisfying. The site was, and still is, difficult to get to and can become dangerous in summer if visitors aren’t prepared. I assure you that visitors can count on at least one flat tire when making the journey. Drawing with a bulldozer in the desert was fine and daring in the ’60s, but environmental attitudes changed in the ’70s. De Maria must have known that the desert was quickly recovering the vacant channels of his lines, so any mark he made was at best provisional.

I know a lot of people think that The Lightning Field was based on De Maria’s bed of nails pieces, but I think that after the Las Vegas Piece he wanted to discover a way to get people to see and pay attention to the desert without cutting it up. For this follow up act, the landscape had to remain intact. If the desert plants are not disturbed in the first place, then they don’t grow back, so the lifetime of the piece stretches from a few decades to several centuries simply with basic maintenance of the site.

Like Double Negative, The Lightning Field was intended to be a permanent installation, which meant that the appropriate piece of land would have to be found and purchased. Again, like Double Negative, Count Guido Deiro helped De Maria track down a site outside of Quemado, New Mexico, that was purchased by the Dia Art Foundation for this purpose. The plot had to be large enough to support an array of 400 stainlesssteel poles arranged in a 20-by-20 grid measuring one mile by one kilometer. The top of each pole would touch an invisible flat plane, so depending on the topography of the land, each pole could be either longer or shorter to suit. The land would also have to be open enough so that any of the property around the field would not be distracting to the viewer. That means few, if any, houses and no roads or businesses could be visible from the site. The work would also have the requirement that any visitor to the installation would have to stay at least 24 hours. We know time changes the site conditions, and these works also take a long time to see. It takes a while to slow yourself down, so the longer you look at the work the more you experience.

Like all of these pieces, I find the best way to experience the work is by walking, but then I pace back and forth in front of Barnett Newman’s paintings too. Sometimes I walk around the edge of the piece, sometimes through the middle, alone with my thoughts and the sound of my footsteps. Over time, each of the poles looks a little different, and sometimes you come across one that is surprisingly tall or short. There is this beautiful ritual of walking the piece and then retreating to the porch of the Dia guest house, looking at the poles in the ever-changing desert light, and then eventually getting restless and going for a walk again. I have always thought it strange that if there is a thunderstorm with lightning everyone huddles on the porch to watch, both because of the mud and nobody wants to be hit by lightning. What is normally a very active experience becomes curiously static during a storm. This makes me wonder if The Lightning Field is better when it isn’t raining, or maybe that the experience of the piece does not have anything to do with lightning at all.

All art exists in time but when walking around a work like The Lightning Field, the sensation of time becomes acute. There is the time it takes to observe the work as you pan your head from one side of the field to the other. There is the time it takes to walk the grid of poles in the field. There is still another time that exists as you realize the metal of the poles is slowly and almost imperceptibly changing as it is exposed to the air. In the space of the piece, time is fluid and tangible, it is almost something that you can reach out and touch. Each pole is important, separate and unique, but it is the unfiltered experience of the field as a whole that is the work. The 400 poles are the bridge between the earth and the sky. Each pole is tapered to a point at the top so that it literally dissolves as it reaches upward. There is a geometric center to the work, but it is hard to shake the feeling that as you walk around, you are the moving center of the work. The oscillation between the individual parts and the undivided field creates the sense of time around the work. More than most works of art, these concepts exist in time and are experienced in time as well as space.

The irony is that so many land art projects find another mode of existence in photographs. These photographs create a kind of double life for the work. How many people have seen the iconic photos of The Lightning Field versus actually traveling there to spend 24 hours looking at it? Freezing these works in a single moment of time is dangerous and demonstrates that photographs are a double-edged sword. Recall the early photographs of Double Negative, in which the cuts are still geometrically perfect. Maybe the photographs make the work consumable to a larger audience, but there is a danger that the art community’s discussion of the work may become as frozen and static as the long-past moment in time captured in the photograph.

I think that Robert Smithson understood this better than most when he built two versions of Spiral Jetty. One is the earthwork that exists in the Great Salt Lake that is exposed to the wind, sun and varying water levels. The other is the film he made about his experiences making and traveling to the Spiral Jetty site, as well as his thoughts on the finished work. Both the land art and the film remain connected through a shared visual language, but they are inherently different in terms of presentation, portability and audience reach.

All of this is great for De Maria and the Dia, but where does that leave us today? The Lightning Field does not provide much traction for an artist today in terms of finding new ways of creating these experiences. The site is extremely large and seems to be growing all the time to maintain the integrity of the work. The work and the land were both expensive in the ’70s and are even more expensive now. The site will also require constant vigilance to prevent the slow deterioration of the viewer’s experience. Are there patterns that can be extrapolated from this experience that might be generative and applicable in a wider variety of environments? I believe there are.

If we look at The Lightning Field as an archetype, a set of patterns that might be applicable in a wider variety of contexts, it is useful to conduct a series of thought experiments to come to a deeper understanding of why the work has such a powerful effect. Here are a few patterns that come to mind: The field is made of a series of 400 poles that are similar, but not identical. The tops of the poles all meet in a single flat horizontal plane. Each pole is well designed, but not so much that it draws attention to itself because the emphasis is always on the field as a whole. There is a high degree of entropy to the work, meaning that the one set of poles from one side of the site could be moved to the other side and the basic experience would not change as long as the rules of the grid and the relationship to the top plane were maintained.

As stated before, the entire field is important, or more directly, the entire field requires all our attention at the same moment. Everything is designed so as to not distract the viewer in any way. For example, there isn’t a single gold pole at the center that becomes the focus of one’s attention. In the same way, with reasonable maintenance, there are no distractions with either an overemphasis or a neglect of craft in the design and construction of the poles. With the stainless steel we don’t get caught up in oxidation patterns or patina. When we are looking at the work, we are often moving our attention between the individual parts and the field as a whole. In this case, the field is organized as a grid, which allows the entire space of the desert to be rapidly perceived, assimilated into ourselves, so to speak. Unlike Double Negative and the Las Vegas Piece, the desert is allowed to retain its integrity, but like most land art pieces the space in which the work is installed is inseparable from the experience of the work itself. The work and the space are so tightly coupled that one could not exist without the other.

We could have a useful discussion about how these ideas are not necessarily unique to the work of De Maria and that similar patterns and approaches could be found in a wide variety of projects. This includes Tara Donovan’s Haze from 2003, in which a field of clear plastic drinking straws are stacked up against the wall, or Robert Irwin’s Excursus: Homage to the Square ^3 that was originally installed at the Dia Center in the early 2000s and is now recently reconstructed at Dia:Beacon.

These patterns appear again in Donald Judd’s 100 Untitled Works in Mill Aluminum, permanently installed at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, even though the materials, geometry and installation space are completely different. From 1982 to 1986, Judd installed a series of large aluminum volumes in two artillery sheds on an old army base. Each volume is unique, but there is a definite language and variation, as each volume is subdivided differently according to a narrow set of strict rules. The works are installed in an enclosed space and are lit by a series of very large windows that run down the length of both sides of the building.

The volume of each box is identical, so that as you look across the room you are instantly aware of both the number of the boxes and the subtle differences in structure of each. Although there is a logical progression of the openings from one box to the next, it is worthwhile to notice that the boxes are installed out of order, as it were. This is an important difference between the work of Judd and Sol Lewitt. Lewitt would install the works in order so that we see more of the logical progression from one piece to the next, almost like the score for a piece of music. A good example of this is Lewitt’s Incomplete Open Cubes from 1974. In Incomplete Open Cubes, we are aware of the logical progression, but not necessarily the field. Like De Maria, Judd wants us to forget the progression and concentrate on the field.

Judd saw each of the boxes as being both an individual artwork and also a part of the larger field. Judd did not want any distractions in either the boxes or the installation of the grid. Each box is very well crafted, but the way the boxes are fastened together does not draw undue attention, just as the openings in each of the boxes are very well thought out and sometimes spectacularly beautiful, yet do not stand out among their peers. Judd was working with the entire space, the entire field all at once.

Pattern Recognition

Ad Reinhardt said that the opposite of every good statement in art is often equally true. Since this is supposed to be a generative discussion, let’s play both sides while we articulate some of the patterns we have observed so far.

I don’t think it is a coincidence that most of these works have a lot of individual parts that come together to form a whole. The Lightning Field has 400 poles, Judd’s Mill Aluminum piece has 100, and Tara Donovan’s Haze has, I am not sure, perhaps tens of thousands of component straws, if not more. It does seem like there is a critical mass of both form and material to set up these kinds of art experiences. That being said, if these are the rules, can they be broken in interesting ways?

All of these works are also tightly coupled to the environments in which they are placed. Sometimes the nature of the environment provides the coupling, as in the case of Double Negative. At other times it is our perceptions of the space that join the work and the environment, as in the Las Vegas Piece. We know that these works can exist on a very large scale. Can they also exist on a small scale and create the same effect? If these works are in remote corners of the Southwest, can they also exist also closer to home or even in urban environments? Or could artists strike out in the opposite direction and place work in even more remote locations? What would those sites be?

While most of these works exist outside, we have also demonstrated that they can exist inside as well. If most of these works are installed on flat sites, either indoors or outdoors, could they also exist on sloped or vertical sites? How would that change the experience of the work?

Most of these projects were meant to be permanent and were expensive to build and maintain. What would it mean if the projects are temporary, and transient nature of these works were embraced? Could projects be built with very little or no budget? Equally, we know these projects can be made with metal and earth, but what about other materials?

What does it mean that most people experience these projects through photographs? Rather than creating a separation between those who have experienced the work in person and those who have experienced the work in photographs, can the experiences be blended or hybridized? Does an original even have to exist? Is the authentic experience universal or individual?

Every artist works with what they have in terms of resources, time and history. Can we embrace those constraints to open up new solutions?

Every day people still journey out to these sites to see the works for themselves. We still need these experiences. We are moving so quickly through time together, we long to go back to these sites to observe the change in both the works and in ourselves. Some of these projects have become like talismans, benchmarks for what the art of our time might become. I wrote this piece to share some of the ways that the experiences of these works have changed my life.


Arcy Douglass is an artist and writer based in Portland, Oregon. His archives of land art research are housed at the Center for Art + Environment at the Nevada Art Museum. In 2012, he organized a conference on the work of Donald Judd with Peter Ballantine at the University of Oregon in Portland. He was also part of a research project with the National Gallery to determine locations of Mark Rothko watercolors in the Columbia River Gorge. Special thank you to Julie Yamamoto for editing this essay.

Prayer Changes Things: Desert Faith in Trona, CA | Christopher Langley & Osceola Refetoff

Posted on by admin1963 Posted in Fall 2015, Perspectives | Comments Off on Prayer Changes Things: Desert Faith in Trona, CA | Christopher Langley & Osceola Refetoff

In Trona, California, I see a sign that says PRAYER CHANGES THINGS. I wonder about that. I walk out into the desert not too far from Searles Lake hoping to find out more about faith. It is nearly dark; I am alone except for the Milky Way that slowly appears as the sky darkens. I stop and sense a safe place. I am “running on empty.” Hope and expectation cease. I wait. It is silent except for a whisper of cooling wind through the brush. Is it a still, small voice I hear inside? It speaks beyond words and slowly I have a growing faith that I can get through one more day here in the desert at the edge of Death Valley.

Trona is a mining town nestled on the shores of Searles Salt Lake. For 100 years, the industrial plants in various incarnations, owned by several different companies, have taken brine from the lake and extracted several valuable mineral products including borax, potash, lithium, soda ash and trona. When the first churches were being established in the 1920s, the economy was going strong. This was a company town, but many things began to erode the safe feeling of being taken care of by The Company.

Everyone has an opinion about why Trona started downhill. Some people think it was when they tore down Austin Hall, the center of town since 1914. Todd Owens tells me it began with the 400-man layoff in 1981. Delores Hudson says it was when they closed the large, company-supported town pool called Valley Wells that the heart went out of the town. Lit Brush, the “Mayor” and head of the Searles Valley Historical Society, states with confidence it was when they brought in television. That’s when the town started to die. Many outside think Trona is dying today, but the stalwart residents who remain living in Trona have faith, both in God and the future. They say Trona is “a town just too tough to die.” In fact, several say the “spirit is moving in town,” and a revival has begun.

The desert has always been a sacred testing ground, a source of spiritual searching and a place where human contact with the Divine happens. Three major world religions (Christianity, Judaism and Islam) were shaped by their origins in deserts. Is there a connection between the desert and faith? A simple definition of faith, in the sense we mean it here, is “strong belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof” (New Oxford American Dictionary).

Here apprehension means the grasp or understanding of something without proof or inductive reasoning. It is more through intuition or some subtle sense of knowing. The New Bible Dictionary explains, “Faith means abandoning one’s own resources. Faith means casting oneself unreservedly on the mercy of God…Faith implies complete reliance on God and full obedience to God.” (413).

Jesus was led by the Spirit to go out into the desert and fast for 40 days. There, Satan tempted him. A long tradition of Desert Fathers also resides with the Christian religion. The sense of the desert as a real physical location, an area of contrition, fasting and soul-searching is balanced by a symbolic and archetypal meaning for the desert. Put another way, Gabriel Marcel wrote, “An individual is not distinct from his place; he is that place.”

In this essay, we are looking at faith active in the lives of people living in a place most today might not associate with a spiritual or sacred landscape. Our examination is anecdotal in nature. It uses the words and experiences of a sampling of the people of Trona.

In all fairness I must admit I am crossing my own personal desert as well, and recent times have greatly tested my faith. My wife, my friend, my partner, the mother of my children, the person whose wise counsel constantly guided me through the real Mojave Desert we lived in for more than 40 years died in January. As I write about faith and the desert, it is difficult for me to separate my autobiography from the stories of these wonderful people I met in Trona. My collaborator, Osceola Refetoff, has wondered if the desert calls to certain kinds of people to live there. The emptiness, the sense of intense quiet, the ever-present possible solitude are at the center of our experience of the desert and the testing and developing of a deep, abiding faith.

Octogenarian June Sayre has been a lifelong communicant at St. Madeleine’s Catholic Church, but now, because of a dropping population, the congregation only has one service a month. There is St. Anne’s in Ridgecrest, but she prefers the Catholic Mass held on the Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, in the chapel.

Her father died of a stroke at 49. As a girl, June had two friends, and together they took the rituals, Lent sacrifices, and religious ceremonies of the church very seriously.

June stayed in Trona when her siblings moved away. She married her husband there. She says she has never regretted her decision. She is still active, leading a Bible study. She and her husband raised four girls and a boy. Her son died at 56 of cancer. The priest and her faith helped her through this very difficult time.

She loves Trona, and she loves the desert. June takes a walk every morning to check in with God and to see what kind of day it is going to be. Her faith is linked to the desert and the aridlandscape setting of her town. Belden C. Lane writes in Landscapes of the Sacred: Geography and Narrative in American Spirituality, “Ordinary social constructions of daily life and passing moments of extraordinary mystery are, in truth, continuously intersecting realities in human experience. The one often slides into the other.”

June speaks quietly of the desert and her relationship with God after a few moments of quiet contemplation. “The desert has so much of God around us. In the area in which we live, I see God in the birds, and animals, and bushes, and the mountains…everywhere. He is always in my heart and I have never wanted to leave because I love Trona and the people in it.”

In terms of the culture and history of the settlers and now the residents of Trona, this essay is examining this phenomenon of faith as basic to understanding how and why many live in this desert, endure the psychological challenges and harsh conditions through relying on their faith.

Further, it is argued that the conditions of living in the desert create a kind of self-knowledge and bonding with the land that is both powerful and a component of having faith so strong that the landscape of Trona defines who these people are. Ortega y Gasset wrote, “Tell me the landscape in which you live and I will tell you who you are.”

For me, the condition of emptiness in the desert brings forth a spiritual self-examination, a contemplation of who I am, why I am here, and what is the meaning of it all. When this happens, a self-examination always leaves me a feeling of want. That in turns drives me to confront the existential dread that the same emptiness without also lies within. It is only through grace, the free and unmerited favor of the Divine that I can accept myself, learn to love myself, and in turn love all that is around me. Walking in the desert, in every small thing I see a Divine presence. Perhaps it is the same for June.

The Christian Fellowship is a very active church: one of the five that have fullime pastors living in Trona. Chris and Lynne Darling didn’t know they would be spending most of their lives founding an independent Christian church. When Chris was hired on at the plant, he and Lynne were definitely NOT Christian. It was due to the “witnessing” of their next-door neighbor about Jesus that brought Lynne to be born again.

They decided to seek out a church. Although she was raised a Catholic, they went to the Baptist Church. Chris says, when he put his hand on the doorknob, he definitely heard an audible voice say, “Welcome home, son,” even though he was the only one around. That ultimately led to founding their church, followed by 30-plus years of miracles and happenings that bolstered and supported his and Lynne’s faith. He had a ruptured disk problem and was on his way to surgery when he was healed. Chris and Lynne have founded an ecumenical movement in Trona, with a formal council and a monthly community dinner.

The harshness of the desert, the terrible winds, the dry desiccating sun, the intense heat, and yes, the equally intense dry cold, strip me of pretense and preciousness, and push me to get down to the basics of living. In the desert there are few, if any, man-made distractions like we find in a small peaceful town, a busy self-important city, or an intense, vibrating metropolis. Like a soporific drug, our business dulls us. We crave that resulting numbness. In the desert you are alone with yourself; ultimately you finally accept that you are there to create meaning. I like to think I share a responsibility that the desert has shown me. I am to play a small part in redeeming my home, my land, my planet and all those who I come in contact with. Walking out into the desert reminds me, teaches me, forces me to experience this truth.

Gary Cartwell of the New Hope Foursquare Church knows where he’s at now. There is certainty in his voice when he states emphatically, yet gently, “God is on the move here.”

Gary has a large presence, his beard announcing a patriarchal, almost Biblical, confidence that he knows about faith and God. He leans against the old wall of the now leveled Austin Hall in downtown Trona.

Gary is feeling gregarious. A loquacious person by nature, he doesn’t mind talking about his life these days. He is ready to testify to how he “once was lost but now is found,” to quote the old popular hymn. Back when he was a hard-working, hard-drinking, philandering man here in this company town, he was lost. During his first marriage, he lived with another woman for 23 of the 30 years. He was either working at the Westend plant or drinking and carousing at the local bars in town. Finally, he found religion.

How God crashes unbidden into peoples’ lives is a mystery. Theologians say that you cannot even create a space for God in your soul because that means the eternal and infinite Divine must fit into a small human-made “box” within a lost soul. Psychologists and sociologists offer tepid explanations of “reaching bottom” and sudden “psycho-spiritual” transformations of human personality.

Gary, along with millions of other Christians, places faith at the center of becoming saved. The mystery then involves faith or belief in something through apprehension rather than proof. That is counter to how our modern rational world is supposed to work.

He and his second wife Janice now live on the outskirts of Ridgecrest. They faithfully come back to Trona on Sundays for church. They return on Tuesdays to have lunch at the Senior Center. He now dedicates his life to one of service, helping other seniors in any way he can, including picking up their trash.

Gary’s life divides neatly between a self-centered, dissolute one and the later one of faith, service and loving his fellow man. He remains the living incarnate of God on the move here. Whatever doubts about his faith he might have, he is steadfast and sure of God’s love. He is also certain he is part of God’s simple calling to do good for others less fortunate. He knows he is a very fortunate man to have survived his first life.

I walk out into the desert, often bringing my own personal desert with me, and I am very small. I read somewhere once that I am minute, halfway between a sub-atomic particle and the universe in size. I look up and see countless stars, and know there are a hundred or more times as many that I can’t see. My heart is broken because of my loss, my grieving grinds me down. Then I think there are a million forms of life out there that are grieving at this same moment. The pain is overwhelming, yet we are not alone in it. We actually have each other. In our smallness and our solitude, in our singularity, at a time when we are totally alone, in fact we are not. I am broken-hearted with a pain I didn’t even know existed in the human heart, but actually I am not at all alone. Across this world, and even across our universe, there are so many of us who have lost someone we loved; it is the human condition. The desert teaches me I am very small, but I am not alone.

Todd Owens is a man of quiet faith. Todd came back to Jesus, he explains, during the Jesus movement of the 1970s. He candidly admits he said he would come to Jesus if the high he got was better than the one from drugs. It was. When his daughter was two weeks old, she had a heart transplant. She is now 25 and being monitored for a replacement heart. His second daughter has stage 3 cancer in Washington, D.C., where his wife is spending most of her time. Then, Todd tore two tendons. He is a month after surgery, on crutches, and cannot drive or sit comfortably.

I ask him if he doesn’t feel like Job. He pauses thoughtfully and then replies with a determined look, “I know I have God’s love on my side. He is with me and will give me the strength to get through this.” As he speaks, his faith is palpable.

Faith takes different shapes and serves different purposes in peoples’ day-to-day lives. It also wavers, strong at some points, weak or unseen in others. Even for the most faithful, it can be a struggle as faith is challenged by events, both natural and accidental. In the desert, faith grows, matures and is singled out in the emptiness, silence and solitude. The acknowledged role of God and grace depends on the human context. Fr. Brad Karelius, in his book Encounters with the World Religions: The Numinous on Highway 395, quotes the prophet Hosea, “I will draw you out to the desert and I will speak to your heart.” HOSEA 2:14. Many are still responding to that call.

Visit KCET Artbound’s High & Dry feature for more dispatches from this collaboration.


Christopher Langley, a lifelong educator, has lived in and studied the Mojave Desert for more than 40 years. Working as a film historian, founder of the Lone Pine Film History Museum, and the Inyo County Film Commission, he focuses on the desert’s complex relationship with cinema, history and culture. His collaborative project with photographer Osceola Refetoff, High & Dry: dispatches from the land of little rain, can be found at desertdispatches.com. His professional writing includes three books on California’s arid landscape. His work appears on diverse platforms including KCET Artbound, The Sun Runner, Palm Springs Life and The Inyo Register. Feature stories about his work have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times and BBC Magazine. His environmental advocacy has won several awards, including a National Conservation Cooperation Award and a Sierra Business Council 20/20 Vision Award.

Osceola Refetoff’s interest is in documenting humanity’s impact on the world—both the intersection of nature and industry, and the narratives of the people living at those crossroads. He holds an MFA from NYU’s Graduate Film Program, where he earned the Paulette Goddard and Warner Brothers Fellowships. Refetoff’s photography is featured in The Los Angeles Times, Hemispheres and WhiteHot, amongst other publications. He earned the 2015 OWAC Award for “Best Outdoor Feature Photograph,” and has exhibited at numerous solo and group exhibitions including Photo LA and the San Diego Art Institute. Refetoff’s parallel careers as an editorial and fine art photographer are characterized by an evocative, cinematic understanding of how scale, point of view, architecture and motion can be expressed as both information about and experience of a given place. His current focus is an expansive set of portfolios surveying the human presence in the deserts of the American West at ospix.com.

Interview with Theresa Cardenas | Andrea Polli

Posted on by admin1963 Posted in Fall 2015, Perspectives | Comments Off on Interview with Theresa Cardenas | Andrea Polli

Arid Co-Editor Andrea Polli interviews Theresa Cardenas, founder of Nobel Renewables Group LLC and New Mexico Climate Change & Energy Outreach Consultant for the Union of Concerned Scientists at the UNM Invisibility, Uncertainty, Art and Landscape Symposium, part of HABITAT: Exploring Climate Change through the Arts, a New Mexico statewide collaboration led by 516 ARTS.

TC: Today I’m making a presentation on New Mexico and climate change, how we are feeling climate change impacts and how it will change our landscape. I started learning about the environment as a home builder. At the time, 20 years ago, there was a building boom and sustainable building was not an industry priority. For my small company it was and became a personal choice to use sustainable building materials and techniques. Instead of continuing with business as usual, in 2013 I decided to leave the building industry because I didn’t feel the industry was moving fast enough to mitigate climate change. Transitioning my work into the policy arena of climate change, water and energy made perfect sense. I wanted to be a part of the solution and not part of the problem.

AP: What was different about sustainability at that time compared to today?

TC: Sustainability practices was experimental in the mainstream building world and conducted out in the field without much awareness of climate change. It was driven one house at a time by the consumer. The demand for sustainable buildings 20 years ago was something that the average person couldn’t even afford, so it had to be a gradual transition.

Today, consumerism continues to dictate how people make choices. Consumers have more power now than ever before to make environmentally sound choices. Advocating for responsible policies that can allow the consumer to make better decisions would make economic and environmentally sound sense. Its common sense policies that will help lower green house gases. One example is the link between energy use and water use.

In 2014 I became the New Mexico climate and energy outreach consultant with the Union for Concerned Scientists, a nationally recognized non profit that combines science and technical analysis with effective advocacy to create innovative, practical solutions for a healthy, safe, and sustainable future. They have a very clear idea about where we are headed if we don’t take action to lesson our dependence on fossil fuels.

AP: What policies need to be changed in New Mexico?

TC: New Mexico is well-positioned to increase the role for clean energy use in the state as a key driver to lesson the impacts of climate change. For example, New Mexico currently ranks second in the nation for solar energy potential, according to the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department but we rank 7th in the US for renewable energy production. We can do much better than that. For one, what needs to change is the way our large energy producers prioritize clean energy choices. The consumer needs to drive the demand. And, that will happen as renewable energy like solar becomes affordable. We can also count on technologically advances to help drive the policy changes necessary to transform our energy grid. Transitioning to clean energy has astounding economic and health benefits for all of us. We also need to advocate for more building efficiency policies and incentives, we are not pushing that hard enough. New Mexico needs to emphasize both clean energy technology and energy efficiency in the state energy plan to the EPA to comply with the nation’s first-ever limits on carbon emission from power plants..the single largest source of heat-trapping emissions that exacerbate climate change. New Mexico policies need to meet the current climate change reality.

AP: How and why did you get involved with The HABITAT art and climate change project?

TC: wanted to help the project connect the climate change dots and if you can connect the dots then you can curate a impactful climate change project. There is a human perspective to the climate change dialogue that can at times be polarizing with the debate surrounding climate policy. You might say it’s complicated. I shared several UCS reports with 516 Arts Executive Director Suzanne Sbarge which gave her the sound science information on prolonged droughts, growing water scarcity, more frequent and severe wildfires, and other impacts. So Suzanne started collaborating with groups of people that had something to offer to the exhibition in an artful way. The climate change dialogue begins with the facts and then advances to a personal level. Climate change impacts needs to reach the person at a personal level. The arts can serve that purpose. Art becomes a conduit to engage the person to help make meaningful connections so they can make a conscious choice to take action. This might mean changing their lifestyle to meet the current climate reality.

AP: In what other ways is climate change affecting culture?

TC: We have to recognize that cultural heritage is a human right and that the changing climate will put some aspects of cultural heritage at addition risk. Cultural heritage is an asset that makes ongoing contributions to the present and the future. Take for example; what would we do without our New Mexico red and green chile? Our chile is a cultural icon that connects us to our homeland. UCS is reporting that sea level rise, worsening wildfires and floods are putting many of the places and treasures we hold dear at risk. Including landmark historic sites around the US.

AP: Can the arts help?

TC: Absolutely, because they help educate by us by helping connect the climate impact dots and move us to action. The arts can give us different perspectives through the lens of the artist. It can bring an impact like flooding or drought to a personal level.

AP: Tell me about the report that will be released soon.

TC: The Union of Concerned Scientists will be releasing a report in November that addresses New Mexico’s response to climate change impacts. New Mexico’s climate is changing and more resources are needed to prepare and respond. It will be a comprehensive report about how climate change is fundamentally altering temperatures, water availability, and extreme weather. Our landscape is changing and the resources and infrastructure systems that New Mexicans depend upon are becoming strained, and the changes may challenge and threaten New Mexico lifestyles.

AP: What else is in the works?

TC: We are hosting two workshops for scientists, researchers, and scholars to learn about how to communicate their science to the public. Very few scientists have had good training in how to communicate their findings with the public. We also want them to have a clear understanding of the public’s perspective on climate change. The second workshop is bringing together water stakeholders and scientists to dialogue about water supply and availability trends and solutions for managing increasing climate variability.

Then we are hosting a talk called Cultural Perspectives on the Global Quest for Water in November as a part of the HABITAT exhibition. The guests speakers will be filmmaker Ruben Arvizu who will address how climate change is affecting Hispanics, connecting his work in Latin America with the Southwestern United States. Arvizu says, “We take the gifts of Nature, of which we are an integral part, without thinking about how we will repay her. It is as if we have a bank account to which we only withdraw funds but never make deposits. There will come a time when that account runs out of resources. We extract the riches of the Earth and do almost nothing to give back some of what she gives us. We just take and squander.”

AP: What are some of the impacts and threats that relate to Latin America?

TC: Like the US there are many significant impacts. But one that comes to mind that a connects globally is the availability of a fresh water supply. There is newly published NASA satellite data on all of the very important aquifer depletions in certain parts of the world and they are showing that about one third of Earth’s largest groundwater basins are being rapidly depleted by human consumption, despite having little accurate data about how much water remains in them. That means we don’t know how much is left. That’s true for New Mexico’s water resources. This means that significant segments of Earth’s population are consuming groundwater quickly without knowing when it might run out, the researchers conclude. The findings are published in Water Resources Research. Latin America has three large basins that have exceeded sustainability tipping points and are being depleted. What is so worrisome is highly stressed aquifers located in a region that have socioeconomic or political tensions like Latin America can’t supplement declining water supplies fast enough.

AP: How will New Mexico experience climate change?

TC: We are already feeling it. Some of our landscapes in our forests have suffered the bark beetle and devastated by large catastrophic forest fires. I’m seeing a confusion between what’s normal and what’s an abnormal weather patterns. The report will help clarify the visual impacts and the weather pattern. The report says that New Mexico’s climate has become hotter and drier in recent years, consistent with regional and global warming trends. Average annual temperatures in the Southwest have increased by 1.8°F since the mid-1970s. In New Mexico, this warming has resulted in earlier springs, hotter summers, and milder winters. Precipitation patterns have also changed, with more intense droughts and storms and a greater percentage of overall precipitation falling as rain rather than snow. These changes have led to lighter snowpack and earlier snowmelt, which contribute to lower stream flows and reduced water availability during the summer.

AP: What will the report say we will experience in terms of storms and forest fires?

TC: Forests in New Mexico will increasingly be affected by large and intense fires that occur more frequently, in spite of efforts to manage forests in ways that reduce the risk of fire. The warming climate will also bring increasing pest problems, diseases, and droughts. And this will change our landscape for a very long time. If these climate trends continue, as scientists expect, policymakers in New Mexico will need to increase efforts to protect residents from the economic consequences of less water, the health impacts of more excessive heat, and possible losses of lives and property from wildfire, while safeguarding the state’s natural resources and historical sites.

The artist’s vision can help a person who is experiencing their art understand climate change in the context of his or her environment in a more human way.  This makes it easier to understand and act appropriately.

Seeing through Subtraction: Four Figures in the Great Salt Lake Desert | Katherine Jenkins & Parker Sutton

Posted on by admin1963 Posted in Fall 2015, Practices | Comments Off on Seeing through Subtraction: Four Figures in the Great Salt Lake Desert | Katherine Jenkins & Parker Sutton

Figure 1: Exframe at Site #3 in the the Great Salt Lake Desert, Utah.

The aesthetics of America’s Great Basin, and deserts moreover, so often described as banal, empty, static, wastelands, may explain its patterns of development as much as any logic based on pragmatism or the utility of this strange landscape. This is not to argue that aesthetics explain the presence of all land-uses of the Great Basin. Many local land-uses – salt farming, copper mining, potash production – are obvious outgrowths of the unique geologic and atmospheric make-up of the place. But others – nuclear waste burial, chemical production, weapons testing – may be borne of some combination of the unique landform aesthetics of this particular environment and conventional modes of human perception.

The terrain of the Great Basin has a long and volatile geologic history. Benches from the ancient pluvial lake that once saturated our present-day airspace are etched into the basaltic and rhyolitic peaks that articulate the Basin’s perimeter. A cataclysmic breach into the plains of Idaho some fifteen thousand years ago that remade lakebeds into playas remains visible in Red Rock Pass.

The tale of human habitation here is comparatively short; its vestigial traces less apparent – hidden or erased. From the absence of such anthropological landmarks we infer an emptiness. This ideological impression of emptiness is compounded by a visual one: the field-like regularity of vast areas within the Great Basin that dulls our innate perceptive abilities. This optic fatigue evokes a feeling of vastness and isolation that can belie the remoteness of one’s true geography, as with the area surrounding America’s largest Magnesium Chloride plant, a mere 45 miles upwind from central Salt Lake City.

Figure 2: Site #3 before (left) and after (right) construction of the exframe

Repetition makes it difficult to pick out a defining feature or landmark from the larger landscape. We see fields but no figures. The evenness of the terrain – its undifferentiated hues, lack of contrast, and unbroken horizontality – contradicts our tendency to structure the world in plain geometries. Absent the basest elements of our visual structure, foreground and background vibrate in overlapping planes. This is an environment that is a challenge to see, no less to conjure in one’s mind. This makes it difficult, then, to picture what has been lost, or ruined, by the advent of hazardous waste processing facilities, such as those in Aragonite, UT, west of the Cedar Mountain Range.

Further, this is a landscape perceived in pieces, its wholeness only sensed serially, over great distances and time. Our inability to grasp its magnitude is not unlike the cognitive barrier that prevents our comprehension of the infinitude of a hyper-object such as nuclear waste (a proposed import to this region) whose potency and longevity is heretofore unknown.

How we see and what we select to see is a reflection of what we value in a place. Adrift in the constant pulse of the desert we are blind to subtle changes disguised by broader patterns in the land. In this aesthetic sphere, we see little and value less.

Figure 3: Sites 1-4 after construction of the exframes


Four 10’x10’ incisions in the ground plane operate as extra-framing devices, or exframes, to animate not within, but external to the space they occupy in the desert continuum (Figure 3). At each installation in the Great Salt Lake Desert near Wendover, Utah, the frame (a square) is interior; the picture: everything around it. Four sites were selected to reveal the subtle variation in materiality, scale, and mutability of the Great Salt Lake Desert:

Site 1: Dry packed alkaline silt at the foot of the Silver Island Mountains

Site 2: Rhyodacite gravel eroded from the Silver Island Mountains

Site 3: Moist alkaline mud lightly caked in the Great Salt Lake Desert

Site 4: 1-inch thick white evaporite salt deposits atop mud in the Great Salt Lake Desert

The square is the standard unit for measuring and parceling frontier land, and while no manmade inscription in the land is neutral, the square is – courtesy of Jefferson – endemic to the territory of the Great Basin. Hence, each exframe manifests this familiar orthogonal form. Like the Jeffersonian Grid, the exframe meshes uneasily with the land’s natural contours. Its straight lines cut through the grain of the earth and its surficial distribution of rock, salt, and sage. An exframe’s linear shadow on the otherwise boundless plane of the desert reveals scale and contrast; a line against which we may measure our place (Figures 4 and 5).

Figure 4: Site #3

Figure 5: Site #3, detail of the ground pattern along the edge of the exframe

A presence and an absence, a void within the void, the exframe fluctuates between figure and field, space and matter. Each excavation provides not a frame through which to look, but rather an inflection that allows us to look everywhere else with renewed interest and intensity.

If the uniformly random patterning of the ground plane fatigues our eyes and establishes expectations for what will appear in the next mile – or ten – then the opening created by each square provides relief and restores the perceptive field. The spectrum of what is visible widens.

As a lens into the land – not merely over or across – we may begin to perceive the chthonic weight of this place. The volume of material from two inches of alkaline mud unearthed in the formation of the exframe at site #3 fills twenty-five 4-gallon buckets, equaling one ton of earthen mass (Figures 6 and 7). These two inches of material conceal an estimated 9,000 feet of sediment collected at the bottom of the Great Basin.
The exframe’s 10’x10’ break in the even desert surface hints at the great stratum of material below and the geologic epoch in which it accrued. It is a peeling back of the crust to contemplate both landform processes and human signification. The exframe provides a point of reference for both, disassembling the conventional mode of seeing “empty” spaces and presenting new terms for looking.

Figure 6: Site #3, twenty-five 4-gallon buckets of mud extracted from the exframe


Figure 7: Site #3, one ton of mud opposite the exframe

Figure 8: Site #2

Figure 9: Site #2, dust from the square incision animated by the wind


When an environment has the aesthetic qualities described herein, it risks becoming a backdrop to production; a receiver rather than a collaborator. Today, the hazardous industry within the Great Salt Lake Desert perpetuates the association between its aesthetics and its ostensible value. The exframe alters the visual field to shift our way of seeing, and relating to, this land.

(Note: All installations were temporary and sites were restored to their original condition)

Figure 10: Site #4, exframe incised in the the Great Salt Lake Desert


We are an architect and landscape architect operating a joint design-research collective. Our field of inquiry, Terra Interregnum, examines landscapes that are interstitial in both time and space, from the bizarre topographies of bubble-economies to the ground beneath Arctic pipelines. Our work has been published in journals such as Bracket (forthcoming), Uncube, and Lunch, as well as numerous design blogs, including ArchDaily, Architizer, and Bustler. We are recent winners in the San Francisco I-280 Freeway Competition, and we presented our research on the extraordinary coupling of mega-infrastructure and shifting terrain in the Arctic at the American Society of Landscape Architects national convention in November 2014. Website: www.topo-logic.com.

The work presented here was completed during our shared residency at the Center for Land Use Interpretation in Wendover, Utah in June 2015.

Messing With Texas, an Eyewitness Account | Adam Eeuwens

Posted on by admin1963 Posted in Fall 2015, Pedagogies | Comments Off on Messing With Texas, an Eyewitness Account | Adam Eeuwens

A report on TAAK Summer School Marfa 2015, Third Edition

A trip to Marfa, Texas, and rather than the purgatory of modern day flight, a drive made solo in a small SUV, courtesy of a free rental upgrade thanks to overbooked spring break demand, paid partly with American Express miles, part reimbursed by TAAK Summer School Marfa, in exchange for the role I am to perform as tutor for the first fieldwork trip by the UCLA Arts Center for Design + Environment, a new initiative by professor Rebeca Méndez, that finds her successfully fundraising with her chair of the department and dean of the school to participate with six volunteer graduate students in the program run by the Amsterdam-based cultural platform TAAK.

Torrential Trail of Tears

The road trip begins just around the corner of my home in California, hitting the 10 Santa Monica freeway at the four level interchange of the perpetually gridlocked intersection with the 405, and ends almost an exact 1000 miles east, driven mostly on the same 10 interstate highway, in the wild west of lore, like James Dean’s last film Giant[1] and Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men[2]. In a comfortable climate controlled bubble barreling at 80 miles per hour through the Mojavan, Sonoran and Chihuahuan Deserts, landscape backdrops changing from joshua trees to saguaro cactus to yucca bushes in their death bloom, through southern California, Arizona and New Mexico, the dashboard reporting outside temperatures up to 116 degrees, at times interrupted by lightning and torrential rains. Never seen the desert this green. Aided by the excellent map and database of the Center for Land Use Interpretation[3], exits along the road are revealed to lead to county, state and federal prisons, nuclear energy and waste plants, missile launch sites, open air mines, the site of the first atomic bomb test, industrial agriculture and cattle ranching, military bases, border patrol stations, a gigantic air force plane graveyard, and several counties in multiple states that lay claim to harboring a corridor of death; arid border regions where undocumented migrants cross, and walk through the desert for days in triple degree temperatures without adequate resources, leading to hundreds of deaths a year. This land has a trail of tears in every direction.

At El Paso, TX, the road skirts its sister city of Ciudad de Juarez, a murder capital of the world (8.5 murders a day in 2010), divided by a borderline drawn by the Rio Grande, where the Mexican cell phone towers overpower those of my service with AT&T, my own private little first world problem for which they do immediately text me to warn of international roaming fees if no immediate action is taken. While driving, never having left the country; itcanwait.com, indeed.

The poo-poo choo-choo payload

Before taking a right at Van Horn, TX, for the last hour ride across a stretch of ‘authentic’ American prairie to my final destination of Marfa, there is a full stop to be made for the Border Patrol at the Checkpoint of the Stars in Sierra Blanca –a dusty town 16 miles from the Mexican border that, despite international treaties forbidding it, is home to the nation’s largest open air sewage sludge dump, where daily from 1992 to 2001 45 sludge train cars dubbed by the Texas Observer ”the poo-poo choo-choo” completed a 2,065-mile journey by dumping 250 ton of New York City sewage cake on the West Texas land, earlier in the 20th century already the scene of the Dust Bowl. The known list of toxins the sludge cake contains counts over 68,000, from cyanide to dioxin to e-coli, left to dry and fly of as dust over Texas and Mexico, a crime against the environment and humanity a long line of governors like GW Bush still encourage as good business, public health be damned. Long train caravans accompany one throughout the ride through the southwest, their horns and rumblings part of the scenery, the industrial arteries of our civilization, its payload the price we pay.

Checkpoint of the Stars

During the ‘citizen check’ the Border Patrol agent eyes my foreign passport and permanent resident Green Card suspiciously and is borderline rude, part of his training to take charge and keep control, entitled by an absolute power to fuck with my destiny if shown just the slightest contempt. I learn later, a Belgian shepherd dog is nearby sniffing vehicles specifically for hidden aliens, but also for that medical marijuana from California or the recently legalized product from Colorado and Oregon. Possession is still a federal crime, especially not to be messed with here in Texas. Ask Willie Nelson, Fiona Apple and Snoop Dogg, the stars arrested at this checkpoint and finding themselves up against federal charges of felony-level drug possession. Thank good old west coast space age innovation for its vacuum sealed, chocolate brownie, thc-laced edibles, however a liberty ignorantly taken once but too intimidated by the ruthless consequences to dare to repeat, a restriction on my personal choices and freedom enforced by this loony lone star state that thumps its chest for being the most freedom loving of them all, yet limits mine as it has its for-profit private prisons to fill. In this militarized border zone my good fortune of course is that I am white and citizen of a nation that is part of the favorable equation.

Building 98

I drive down this metaphorical colon of the United States again on June 19, 2015, now paid to coordinate the two-week stay of six students from Cooper Union, New York and six students from the Sandberg Instituut Amsterdam, in the program run by the TAAK Summerschool Marfa, the third year in a row that the Dutch cultural platform has organized this fieldwork studio for art academies. TAAK’s mission is to initiate innovative art projects and educational programs relating to social issues such as ecology, urbanization, social design and human rights, and is embodied in their Summer school program. The students and tutors stay at Building 98 in Marfa, an old army barracks built around the 1900’s for bachelor officers, a simple concrete and adobe structure with an enclosed courtyard where the TAAK students sleep in tents and have one shower and two bathrooms to share among each other. There is an officer’s bar (off bounds to the students) where once General Patton held court, and drank whiskey until his bulldog would cry to signal to his boss he was getting too drunk. The bar comes complete with murals painted by captured German soldiers during World War II. In the ballroom we may use, a majestic grand piano and glorious Eames Lounge Chair supply superb props. Proprietor of Building 98 is the wonderfully eccentric Mona Blocker Garcia, a grand dame whose family has been rooted for generations in Texan soil, and who is the president of the International Woman’s Foundation. Its vision for the Foundation in the storied compound is ‘to develop a nurturing and protective haven, especially for mature women, who are underrepresented in the artistic community, so they can fulfill their true promise and potential.’

The Cast

The trip in March included six graduate students from UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture, department of Design Media Arts, where my wife Rebeca Méndez is professor, which explains my presence, as where she is, I am often in the vicinity, closely involved in projects we pursue together as partners in our design studio, art practice, and the startup of the aforementioned Center for Design + Environment, which aims to add fieldwork such as this Marfa trip to the media arts curriculum. The Center under construction aims to ready artists and designers for environmental change and the way we live. Five of the UCLA students rented a similar small SUV together and drove 15 hours straight to arrive Sunday morning at 3am, and a sixth student I pick up at El Paso International Airport, still a 3-hour drive plus timezone change from Marfa. Meanwhile the nine students following a performance related art and research MFA program at the Dutch Art Institute (DAI), administered by a curatorial production house called ‘If I Can’t Dance, I Don’t Want To Be Part Of Your Revolution’, based in Amsterdam, have travelled across the Atlantic Ocean with its program director Frederique Bergholtz and two tutors; the Basque artist Jon Mikel Euba and Australian curator Susan Gibb. The Dutch TAAK program coordinator Simone Kleinhout and TAAK curator Martine van Kampen have arrived a day earlier from Amsterdam, and as a courtesy set up all the tents, and their fair western European winter complexion has sunburned under the merciless Texas sun. They cook the first dinner, which thereafter is done by a revolving trio of students. In March it was too cold and it rained too much to stay in the tents, most sleep spread out on the wooden floor of the ballroom, 15 strangers camped out for 14 days and nights, having to share and make do with less resources and less than ideal circumstances at hand. The lock of the communal toilet breaks the first day.

Malina Suliman

The Afghani Malina Suliman received her visa to come to the United States only 24 hours beforehand, and the DAI went through great expense to get her a last-minute plane ticket. The first evening the only place open is next to me at the communal dinner. Her first words are: “You know nothing about Afghanistan, it is not evil, it is a good place.” Ok, I answer, that is a perspective not heard by me before, please elaborate, because the one thing to me that to this day justifies the presence of the Americans and their NATO allies is the chance for a generation of girls and boys to receive a complete education, so they from within can lead the country out of the grasp of the reactionary forces. Malina, the youngest of 9 children, talks about the love for her family, the beautiful times she shared with friends, out in the wonderful nature. Yet she herself had to flee the country under cover of night, because she took up graffiti and throughout Kandahar used spray paint on walls to demand rights for women, having stones thrown at her while doing so, with very real threats by the Taliban to destroy her eyes and deform her permanently by pouring acid over her face. As her project in Marfa, she is constantly out on the bike around town and records every single person she encounters asking them to tell her their name and where they come from, a collection called Where Are You From? in response to the first question that everyone asks her, before even her name.

The Program

The arduous journey to Marfa is of course a pilgrimage to witness the works by Donald Judd and friends at the old army base of the Chinati Foundation, and to visit the house, studios, galleries and ranches he acquired and adapted to his needs, and are managed by the Judd Foundation. The TAAK Summer school program includes a visit to the Marfa Station of the Big Bend Border Patrol Sector; a tour of the Blackwell School (1889-1965), the segregated school all the hispanic kids went to school; and an overnight camping trip. The one in March was to the boiling hot Big Bend National Park, in gorgeous bloom with a glorious swim in the muddy and cold Rio Grande. The June field trip was to the Permian Basin Oil Patch, and included a visit to the annual West of Pecos rodeo, the world’s first rodeo, which some of the group wholeheartedly embrace as joining in on an age-old local custom one should respect and partake in, and most others are increasingly horrified by, resulting in schemes on how to liberate the calves and steers at next year’s rodeo. These programmed events take place in the first week, so in the second week the students are informed and inspired to create a work that responds to the context they have been exposed too, like Donald Judd would do, and go free range.

The Tutors

In the first week the tutors give lectures; Martine van Kampen on Land Art Live, a series of artist interventions she curates in The Netherlands in response to six existing land art works erected in Flevoland in the seventies, on land gained from the sea a decade earlier. Jon Mikel Euba has an essay of his written in Spanish translated live from Amsterdam, with the translator’s voice transmitted via skype. Visiting lecturer Aurora Tang presents the aforementioned Center for Land Use Interpretation as collectors and custodians of information that they gladly share, and upon request takes time to meet with each UCLA DMA student individually. Rebeca Méndez presents her art practice, and the singular pursuit of the arctic tern around the globe that we share together. In June, independent curator Nathalie Zonnenberg, in the line with her PhD dissertation, lectures on The Dilemma of Site Specificity and Reproducibility in Minimal Art; Grazer Kunstverein artistic director Krist Gruijthuijsen speaks about what does it mean when an artist consciously withdraws from art; while Cooper Union tutor Stephan Pascher, who himself has bought a house and built a studio in Marfa, explores Marfa, the Cultural Landscape: Vaqueros, Cowboys, Giants and Judd. Summer School initiator and TAAK founder Theo Tegelaers, present on the second trip, oversees all with the air of a man who in the third year of the program is seeing a good idea come to fruition. The Marfa community welcomes each new group as a breath of fresh air, the programming is rock solid, and both students and tutors undergo a formative experience that will fuel them years to come. And Tegelaers has more up his sleeve, planning longer stay residencies for the tutors, an open call to art academy alumni, an expansion to architecture and design schools, and others uses for Building 98 that could help turn it into Mona’s oasis for art, artists and art lovers. TAAK’s program is supported as part of the Dutch Culture USA program by the Consulate General of the Netherlands in New York, and by the Netherland-America Foundation, though the new plans being nurtured could use an extra million or so more…”

The Cornerstone

The last building we enter on the tour given by the Judd Foundation is the old Marfa Bank, which among other objects such as Rembrandt etchings and Josef Albers prints, is used to store a gorgeous collection of design furniture Judd collected; mid-century works from Mies van der Rohe, Alvar Aalto and quite a few pieces from Gerrit Rietveld, including an original zigzag chair. As we are about to leave I notice a peculiar bench that is oddly familiar. “It is a Rietveld,” the guide tells me, “designed for the only church he ever built, and which Judd managed to buy at an auction when it was closed down.” This church is in the town of Uithoorn in the Netherlands that happens to be the place I grew up. In 1985, when I was 17 years old, this church was converted into a library, just when I was learning to walk again after a severe motorbike accident. The longest distance I could manage was to the library, where I would spend the next year reading all the philosophers I could lay my hands on, desperate to find a rhyme or reason to this life I had almost lost. As a pronounced atheist Rietveld was an odd choice to ask to design a church. Inspired by the biblical verses of Revelation 21:15-16 which speak of the dimensions of New Jerusalem having the exact same length, width and height, Rietveld designed a multi-use complex in the form of a perfect halve cube. The cube is completed by its reflection in a man-made pond in front of the building called De Hoeksteen (The Cornerstone).

Theo Triantafyllidis

In presenting his plans for a Marfa-inspired artwork the Greek UCLA DMA Student Theo Triantafyllidis put his impressions of the first week into a poem:

everything you do is a balloon

inflatable drones monitor immigrant dreams

meep meep

a roadrunner paints a tunnel on a rock and then disappears running through it.

in 1836, General Santa Ana is caught with his pants down. he exchanges Texas for his life.

in 2012, Snoop Dogg is caught with weed in his tour bus. he gets away with it.

drug-sniffing canine will smell the sweat of immigration

meep meep

a group of balloons are shot crossing the border, they were trying to smuggle Mexican air.

no Wi-Fi signal – your connection to the land is lost

lumbersexuals are selling vintage cowboy belts at the meet market

do racist Texans eat burritos?

is this poem political or just cocky?

are guns allowed in art openings?

you are not precise enough

in 2020 Jonald Dudd buys the rest of Marfa and starts war against the empire of Judd.

the Marfa lights turn off

Judd is reincarnated as a concrete block

a river is split in two

meep meep

roadrunner speeds into the horizon


The Juddian Gesamtkunstwerk

The work of Triantafyllidis from day 1 has him tirelessly placing an inexhaustible supply of expertly inflated balloons placed all over, like a graffiti artist out tagging; sticking out of the fireplace and grand piano of the ballroom at Building 98; swaying in the wind between the razor sharp leaves of the prickly pear; woven in the fencing of the Chinati Foundation; and dotted around a canyon along the Rio Grande. With his architectural background and alpha male persona he is instrumental in leading the UCLA group in an admirable cohesive and collaborative project, where with joint efforts, each student pitching their expertise and manpower, they prototyped a small kite, then built the largest possible kite, based on the box-format of Judd’s concrete structures. Sneaking in the field of golden grass and the 15 concrete Judd sculptures they tested the medium size kite, and the Chinati Foundation was not amused. Despite numerous heroic running efforts along a deserted country road the largest kite never flies, does crash spectacularly, the failed effort a victory in itself.

Misra Walker

Cooper Union student Misra Walker, born, raised and based in the Bronx, picks up on the plight of the Blackwell School students, “the psycho geographic nature of this struggle” intimately described in an Afterall essay called “A Politics of Fears: The Museum of Useless Efforts, Marfa, TX.’[4] The students spoke only Spanish at home, but in a flag ceremony at school were forced to bury Spanish in a coffin, and from then on it was only accepted in song, or a whipping would follow. When the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed segregation, in one final (but not last) act of humiliation the Blackwell students had to lift their own school desks and carry them a mile from south to north across the railroad tracks. Walker films the 73-year old Joe Cabezuela following the path through town they took, a Spanish English dictionary in his hand, with a seed that he plants on the other side of the tracks at the new school.

Clément Carat

The Border Patrol visit inspires Sandberg Instituut student Clément Carat (French) to ask for a private audience with the agents, proposing to them to play a game together, called The Border Patrol Hide and Seek. Following a strict set of rules Clément would hide himself, for instance in downtown Marfa, moving every 10 minutes. Officer Martin Valenzuela, who earlier had given the group a talk and a demonstration how he and his canine find someone hidden in a vehicle, would deploy his dog to chase down Carat. This would be filmed. Supervising Officer Rush A. Carter immediately understands the artist’s intention is not to edit a performance together, but that the value is the act itself and has to be in real time. In the meeting with the agent is also Krist Gruijthuijsen, the Sandberg course director, and we freely bandy about ideas how to make the game work. We agree to limit the hide and seek to the compound of Building 98 –Mona immediately gives her okay– yet as the request requires the deployment of government resources it needs to go up the command chain, where it is inevitably turned down. As consolation Carat gets to go on an actual patrol to the border with an agent, and upon his return he immediately applies for an artist-in- residency in Marfa. His final work is a video with his voice reciting the rules of the game while filming his handwritten note book, shown on the dvd screen of the rental van, used to shuttle visitors between the exhibition at El Paisano Hotel and the annex of an abandoned house.

Eloísa Ejarque

I credit the gentle but determined ways of Portuguese Sandberg student Eloísa Ejarque for landing us the El Paisano Hotel as exhibition space. For her art work, she befriended the staff at the hotel (where James Dean stayed when filming Giant in the summer of 1955), from the managers to the ladies that clean the rooms. In the laundry room she records the noise of the machines, the chatter of the workers, a Spanish language program on Marfa Public Radio in the background, and in the exhibition shows an mp3 player with headphones sitting on a tidy pile of white towels. In an interesting audio-Droste Effect, Marfa Public Radio plays the clip on air the night before the opening. A discarded piece of carpet from the lobby, Ejarque lovingly restores and places as a welcome mat in our dusty annex. A torn bed sheet is fixed and hung over a balcony by the pool. Invisible and inconspicuous, just like the workers, only noticed if you pay attention to detail. Her artist statement reads: “There is work to do. Work needs to be done. While I am at work other people are too. We all have got work to do.”

David Johnson

A Manhattanite who attended Cooper Union, David Johnson’s work is dubbed The Bees and the Bird, a iPhone video projected large in the El Paisano’s ballroom, and shows footage of an amazing find on our field trip in the oil basin. Driving off road to witness a pump jack oil well up close, the group is soon surrounded by a cloud of menacing bees, with a panicked mama Cassin’s kingbird fluttering in between. On one extreme of the pump jack is a swarming beehive, on the other end the kingbird has built her nest, and her screaming little chicks are begging for sustenance. Johnson was struck by the anthropogenic situation where the natural and unnatural have created a perfect little ecosystem to co-exist within, where the kingbird has its own fly-through fast food.

Hsinyu Lin

The final exhibition in March took place in the gallery space of Marfa Book Company, and in the lumber yard out back. From chicken wire, paper, glue, plants, a knife, a fruit cocktail squasher and watermelon UCLA DMA student Hsinyu Lin, a green card holder from Taiwan, has concocted a landscape in which she is hidden during the exhibition. Titled How To Make Watermelon Cocktail the sculpture has holes in it that allow her to poke an arm or foot through and grab the knife or squasher to stab at the watermelon. It is a sly commentary on the commodification of natural resources, which has people divorced from the true cost of and waste in blind consumption.

Yes You Can Get

In June the space of Marfa Book Company gallery is taken by the exhibition James Benning: Thirty-one Friends. Fortunately the independent filmmaker has stuck around, and joins our lectures, dinners and drinks a couple of nights, regaling the students with stories of a full circle driven around the whole of the United States on a motorbike, filming the mighty land with a handheld 16 Bolex camera. He enchants with his theory that the fact that we in this moment of time are together in this space belongs to a greater destiny, and means we are good people, heading toward better, and we all take another sip of alcohol. Marfa Book Company owner Tim Johnson however does have an abandoned house next to the home he lives in and generously offers us this space. It is not until 48 hours before the exhibition that we secure the El Paisano Hotel, who donate the use of their ballroom, all other available spaces having fallen through because the deeply American affliction of liability fears has infected these quarters too, a stifling development that does not bode well for the pronoïa that fuels a certain kind of Dutch, this innocent belief that the universe will conspire to help them. No you have, yes you can get, they say.

Charlie Dance and Marie-Andrée Pellerin

Charlie Dance and Marie-Andrée Pellerin, a Brit and Canadian from the Dutch Art Institute, at the end of week 1 started digging a hole[5] at nearby ranch land and through this act connect with the family, who invite them to shoot some guns on their range, the target the Barbie dolls their grownup daughter had left behind. On YouTube you can find vomit-inducing clips of what used to be the common targets, and what would still be the targets today, if their drastically decreased offspring dare show their faces. Prairie dogs once counted in the hundred of millions, perhaps billions out on the Great Plains of America. They live in burrows beneath the land, appearing from mounds of earth, to forage for grass outside, disappearing down an elaborate maze of tunnels they share with extended family. These communities are called coteries. They were part of larger wards and neighborhoods, which themselves form a colony, some running longer than 10 miles. The totality upon encountering it in 1841 was described a ‘commonwealth.’[6]Prairie dogs are a keystone species, with a 150 other animals and birds counting on them for their livelihood. In 1899[7] bubonic plague snuck onto the American continent, a disease transmitted by fleas on rats, that jump from its cold body when they have killed it, onto humans or prairie dogs. Already the ranchers believed the critters ate all their grass and the booby-trapped prairie full of tunnel entrances broke the legs of cows and horses, and now they had an excuse to spray the land with all pesticides possible to eradicate the species. Nowadays perhaps 10 million remain in the whole continent. At the final exhibition, outside in the burning sun, Dance and Pellerin make and give away little hand-pressed volcanoes made of the earth they dug, topped off with a shaving of colored crayon, the title handwritten on the chipboard that it rests on: Making Work Harder, Marfa 2015.

Road Kill

Both trips I brought along a book and a set of cards called Medicine Cards, The Discovery of Power Through the Ways of Animals. It is like a tarot, but then with the animals that once spanned the American continent, whose spirits certainly feel near and dear in the wide expanse of grasslands surrounding Building 98. One by one over the course of our stay I have each student and tutor shuffle the deck and pick a card, and I read out loud to them what wisdom their totem animal has to bestow on them at this point in time, to fill this person with the agency of the animal. While not necessary more value than the magic portions of your average snake oil salesman, it is a thing of beauty to see while I read and look up, faces turn earnest, eyes turn inward, while nervous giggles, blushes and running commentary erupt. The DAI students include 7 women whose names all start with an ‘M’ which I all mix up, yet their animals I remember exactly (Antelope, Weasel, Dog, Turkey, Dolphin, Otter, Snake). Simone draws buffalo, the mother of abundance, the most animal sacred of all, who in native ceremony represents the seeding of life. Simone is just a few months pregnant. Jon Mikel, the DAI tutor, is Moose, and he likes it, with fervor acting out the large mammal’s ‘pride in his maleness on a musky spring morning.’ Yet his card is also spot-on; its call is for the 47-year old to lead the young bucks and spread his lifelong wisdom freely, with the calmness of the respected elder he has now become. Before I leave to Marfa, I pick Eagle, which dares me to soar into unknown territory. Yet, while at the Summer School, not pleased that my totem vulnerability has not been exposed, Clément does his reverse power trick and demands I pick a card myself. It is ‘contrary’ Armadillo[8], an animal I have only encountered along the way as road kill.[9]

Project site: www.taak.me


[1] http://www.avclub.com/video/james-deans-last-movie-was-marfa-texas-first-holly-83063

[2] http://www.npr.org/2011/07/15/138163048/on-location-50-years-of-movie-magic-in-marfa-texas

[3] www.clui.org

[4] http://www.afterall.org/online/a.politics.of.tears.the.museum.of.useless.efforts.marfa.tx#.Va2puhNVhBc

[5] http://learn.taak.me/?nk_entry=people-at-the-hole

[6] https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/tcp01

[7] http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aso/databank/entries/dm00bu.html

[8] http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aso/databank/entries/dm00bu.html

[9] http://talkingpointsmemo.com/livewire/armadillo-shooting-texas


A Fountain in the Desert: Heritage and Water Wrangling on Colorado’s Western Slope | Jeffrey Widener

Posted on by admin1963 Posted in Fall 2015, Policies | Comments Off on A Fountain in the Desert: Heritage and Water Wrangling on Colorado’s Western Slope | Jeffrey Widener
Figure 1. Aspinall’s dry memorial at Veteran’s Memorial Park in Palisade, CO, August 2012.

Figure 1. Aspinall’s dry memorial at Veteran’s Memorial Park in Palisade, CO, August 2012.

Geographers embrace cultural landscapes as frames for understanding how humans treat places. How we make sense, then, of the ideas behind the creation, conflicts, and emotions imbued in the cultural landscape requires a variety of sources of information—firsthand observation, archives, oral interviews, and primary and secondary resources—to help us form our understanding. There is, in fact, really nothing better than a landscape that piques curiosity, prompting ideas for further study. In the tiny town of Palisade, Colorado, a water fountain honoring former US Congressman Wayne Aspinall represents more than just Aspinall’s legacy in water politics, it represents a larger theme of land and life in the American West.

A few blocks south of Palisade’s tiny downtown district is Veteran’s Memorial Park. In its southeast corner is a bust of native son Congressman Wayne Aspinall. His face looks out toward the Grand Mesa, which has one of the watersheds from which the valley gets its water (Fig. 1).

Aspinall’s bust is part of a water feature that honors his contribution to water conservation on Colorado’s Western Slope. The “Palisade Peach” was a significant player in the water history of the region, making sure that during his tenure in Washington, D.C., that his home region received its fair share of the water that flowed toward the Pacific. Aspinall’s legacy in water conservation makes sense as to why town members honored Aspinall with a water fountain. His words, “In the West, when you touch water, you touch everything,” are engraved in stone.

When I first saw Aspinall’s memorial in August 2012, however, it was dry. The region had been in a drought since 1999. Grand Junction and Palisade city leaders have worked to conserve water in this arid region for sometime, and some residents have tried conserving water as well (Figure 2). And in the early 2010s, the Bureau of Land Management began approving leases that allow oil and gas companies to drill on Grand Mesa.[1]

Perhaps, these were good symbolic reasons for having a dry fountain? It turned out that the fountain was out-of-order, and water returned to it sometime later. Still, that dry fountain represented for me the paradox that exists in the American West. Your eyes tell you that humans have made it appear to have plenty of water, but most of it is in fact quite dry.

Figure 2. Location map for Colorado’s Grand Valley.

Figure 2. Location map for Colorado’s Grand Valley.

Some Water Background

For nearly a century, 80 percent of Colorado’s population has lived on the Front Range (Figure 3). In contrast, 80 percent of the state’s precipitation falls in the higher elevations on the Western Slope and that water naturally flows toward the Pacific (Figure 4).[2] By 2004, however, it could be said that when “someone in Denver drinks a glass of water, 55 percent of the water in that glass comes from the westward flowing Colorado River.”[3]

Figure 3. Colorado’s 2010 Population Distribution.

Figure 3. Colorado’s 2010 Population Distribution.

Figure 4. Precipitation in Colorado, 1981-2010.

Figure 4. Precipitation in Colorado, 1981-2010.

Water use for agriculture gets more attention. Eighty percent of all water in Colorado goes toward agricultural. This statistic gets used repeatedly by environmentalists and urban planners, but it is a number that farmers in the valley would argue against. Farmers claim that agriculture may use, or is guaranteed 80 percent of the water in the state, but agriculture does not consume all of that 80 percent.[4] In the Grand Valley, for instance, farmers reported that a large percentage of the water they use runs off their land and returns to a canal or to the river, proceeding to move downstream for Lower Basin use.[5]

More efficient water-conveying technologies and more effective watering schedules have enabled some Grand Valley farmers to leave more water in the canals and in the rivers (Figure 5).[6] A changing national and regional economy, however, that is based more on services and specialized production than on agriculture, filters over into the ideas of how water should be allocated. People in the valley, for example, are using water that used to go to farmland for their lawns and for recreational activities on reservoirs and in rivers.

Figure 5. Localized, micro-jet irrigation enables farmers to consume and use less water.

Figure 5. Localized, micro-jet irrigation enables farmers to consume and use less water.

Conservation of American West water resources in order to sustain agriculture, industry, and, metropolitan growth were formidable goals of the Bureau of Reclamation and its projects. Projects designed to help struggling farmers get water to their fields during the Dust Bowl era droughts and to provide jobs to those impacted by the Great Depression spun so many pipes and tunnels that the network looks like a spider’s web.[7] Since the Great Depression, Western Slope access to Colorado River water has suffered setbacks as conservationists looked to manage water efficiently so as to not “waste” resources for the sake of progress.[8]

During the 1930s, a prolonged drought resulted in large-scale diversions from the Western Slope to the Front Range. In 1934, the Northern Colorado Water Users Association organized to lobby, often successfully, state and federal leaders to fund projects that would divert water over the Continental Divide. In 1937, Congress approved the building of Green Mountain Reservoir in Summit County and the Colorado-Big Thompson Project—the latter completed after WWII.[9] The growth that occurred in the American West after WWII led to other reclamation projects such as the Colorado River Storage Project, which took more water away from the Western Slope.[10]

Ideas about strategically using and specifically securing every drop of water for consumptive and/or beneficial use are still ongoing in this arid to semiarid region, in spite of the Colorado River basin region’s current status as being in the midst of one of the worst (circa 2015), if not the worst, droughts ever recorded. Essentially, a Colorado drought is not the same as a Midwestern drought; as a Daily Sentinel writer stated it: “A better definition of drought for Colorado might read: A period of insufficient snowpack and reservoir storage to provide adequate water to urban and rural areas.”[11] Especially dry years invite new ideas.

Water disputes arise constantly. Laws are perpetually changing, and no one knows what Mother Nature will do from year-to-year. Some years, local American West newspapers are heavy with columns commenting on proposed bills and studies, amendments and filibusters, and water checks and rations. Government committees and subcommittees battle it out, while conservation districts across the West butt heads with progressive state and local governments seeking to grow their populations and their industries—channeling the water here while impacting people and places there.

Water in a Colorado Drought

During the late 1970s, the nation was able to see how efficient the reclamation projects in the American West were. Specifically, in 1977, the worst drought in the region since the Dust Bowl era was made even worse because too many people were tapping into the short supply of water. By mid-August of that year, Grand Valley Project managers had to issue a 1908 call on the Colorado River—“all diversions with priority dates after 1908” were shut down, which included diversions “from both the Colorado River main stem above the project’s roller diversion dam in De Beque Canyon and from tributaries above there.” The Daily Sentinel unfurled the incredible give-and-take complexity of the situation:

Denver may continue…to store inflow of water to Dillon Reservoir and to make diversions from the Blue, Williams, Ford, and Fraser Rivers if an amount of water equal to the flows of those streams is released from Williams Fork Reservoir on the Williams Fork River. The Colorado-Big Thompson project may continue to store or divert flows of the Colorado River above Lake Granby and Willow Creek, provided the Bureau of Reclamation releases an equal amount from Green Mountain Reservoir… John Savage of Grand Valley asked why his junior pump on the Colorado River was shut off when there is water in Green Mountain Reservoir. The only answer The Sentinel could run down was that by placing the call on the river, the Grand Valley Project shifted to the junior appropriators the task of requesting releases… Colorado Springs, Aurora, Pueblo, Colorado Fuel and Iron Co. and other transmountain diverters that do not have reservoirs for release of replacement water have been shut off. The Fryingpan-Arkansas Project quit making diversions through the Charles Boustead Tunnel in the middle of June, when water in the Fryingpan River and tributaries dropped down to minimum amounts of water which must be left in streams under operating principles for the project… Some water does double duty at Vineland. It either generates electricity at the project hydro-electric plant or runs hydraulic turbines that provide power to run pumps lifting water to the Orchard Mesa and goes back into the Colorado River through a canal to a point above the diversion dam of the Grand Valley Irrigation Co. This process is called checking-back. Gates across the tailrace of the power and pumping plant divert the water into the canal taking the water upstream. Because Plateau Creek flows into the Colorado River below the roller dam, the water users in the Plateau Valley were not affected by the call. Ute Water Conservancy District, however, is prepared to replace water being diverted from Plateau Creek by water purchased from Ruedi Reservoir through the Colorado River Water Conservation District. The Redlands Water and Power Co., which diverts water from the Gunnison River in the canyon south of Grand Junction, placed a call on the Gunnison River earlier this summer. Redlands is using what water is available to generate as much power as possible and is buying power from the Public Service Co. of Colorado to lift 70 feet of water to four canals on the Redlands. The Denver Board of Water Commissioners has refused to release 28,662 acre-feet of water stored this year in Dillon Reservoir which the Colorado River Water Conservation District argues must be allowed to flow down the Blue River into Green Mountain Reservoir under terms of 1955 and 1965 stipulations and decrees. A hearing will be held in Federal District Court in Denver Aug. 19 and 20 on the motion of the river district to require Denver to comply with the decrees and release the water.[12]

The 1908 call that occurred in 1977 limited the Front Range’s use of Colorado River water, initiating proposals for securing more water that have not stopped coming.[13] Residents on the Western Slope have learned some things—particularly that they needed to pay attention to the water flowing downstream that they did not use but that Lower Basin states were able to use without paying for it.[14] Despite the Western Slope’s senior rights to the Colorado River, water managers became exasperated because there is no set division between the Front Range and the Western Slope of the state’s 3.9 million acre-feet share of the water as established by the 1948 Upper Colorado River Commission. The only thing in place, dating from over 100 years ago, is that many Western Slope places tied to the Colorado River, such as the Grand Valley, have senior water rights that stipulate set amounts of water they are entitled to, thus enabling river districts to place calls on the Colorado River. Western Slopers are worried about these rights, given that their representation in the political arena, sans Aspinall, has been weakened and that there are no plans for reining in population growth projected to occur on the Front Range (Figure 6).[15]

Figure 6. Aspinall’s fountain symbolizing conjunctive water use in the American West.

Droughts and Ideas Continue

Droughts continue to be a catalyst for change. The year 2002 was pivotal for Colorado and was significant for the Front Range because this region was in one of its worst droughts on record.[16] That year marked the second driest year for the state over the past 40 years (1977 was number one), leading all Colorado River basin states to begin taking water conservation measures.[17]

In December 2002, Colorado’s government passed Senate Bill 156. [18] This bill allows the owners of water rights to apply through the water courts to gain instream flow rights, with more options for what is considered to be consumptive/beneficial use of water. For example, water in streams, rivers, and lakes could be “used” and maintained for recreational purposes, for the enhancement of picturesque landscapes, and for sustaining fish, wildlife, and other ecosystem-related functions.[19] The bill also helped change the idea that “if you don’t use it, you lose it,” to one that encourages conservation.[20] A Trout Unlimited representative stated that SB 156 gave “Colorado a powerful new tool to improve the health of its rivers, which is good for the fish, for the anglers,” and for other elements associated with the New West economy.[21] The framers of the bill formed it on the idea of conservation easements or land trusts, in which landowners capitulated development rights of their properties in exchange for tax benefits and for the sentiment of helping protect the environment.[22] Not everyone was on board with the proposal, including farmers and even some environmental groups.[23] The 2012 drought marks the third worst drought year reported in Colorado. The wetter 2011 did keep water storage facilities in better conditions to handle the water shortage, but 2012 reminded Grand Valley residents of water flux.[24]

By 2050, Colorado will likely have a 1.5 million acre foot shortfall because its population will probably double. Grandiose ideas exist for how to deal with the water side but not for controlling population growth.[25] For example, the Colorado Aqueduct Return Project, better known as the Big Straw Project, conceived by Ralph E. “Butch” Clark, an environmental planner from Gunnison, would move water from the Colorado and Utah borders into the Colorado River basin for Western Slope communities.[26] The idea of piping in water from the Midwest comes up occasionally.[27] An $11.2 billion project proposal surfaced in 2012 to build a 670-mile-long pipeline to ship water west from the Missouri River. An article from Oklahoma’s Tulsa World warned that “Any plan for diverting significant amounts of water from the Missouri would encounter opposition…in the Midwest given [its own] drought and competition for water resources.”[28]

A number of other issues affecting the Western Slope’s access to Colorado River water exist. These include the decades-long salinity issues and efforts by the Bureau of Reclamation to lower salt levels in water flowing to Lower Basin states and into Mexico.[29] As well, a group was working at one point to raise awareness about arsenic levels in the drinking water, often a problem where mining and agricultural activities take place.[30] Oil shale and gas development will continue to haunt water supplies in this region, too.

Even though Front Range communities and Lower Basin communities are making improvements to use water more efficiently, those enhancements only masquerade the larger issue of uncontrolled growth and consumption in the American West. This, in fact, makes it extremely hard for farmers and agricultural regions to survive when there is no water. While every drop of water in the Colorado has been accounted for—for a fountain that commemorates heritage to a local community, a car wash, a fish ladder, a house, a golf course, or for an orchard—not every drop has to be consumed. Indeed, the cultural landscape in the American West mirrors important clues to how we value this precious resource. More care, however, could be taken to sustain its permanence in this arid region.


Jeffrey M. Widener is the GIS Librarian and an assistant professor at the University of Oklahoma in Norman. Jeffrey is a cultural and historical geographer with varied research interests—including conservation, cultural landscape change, place attachment, geography education, and the digital humanities. This paper stems from a chapter of his dissertation entitled “Holding True: Agriculture in Colorado’s Upper Grand Valley,” a study that explores how farmers in this small irrigated corner of the American West survive as the world around them develops at a furious rate. He can be reached at jwidener@ou.edu.


[1] Marija B. Vader, “GJ Council Unveils New Plan for Watershed,” The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, CO), June 5, 2003; Mike McKibbin, “‘Don’t Drill in Watersheds,’” The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, CO), March 6, 2006; Sally Spaulding, “Trust U.S. with Water, City’s Told,” The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, CO), March 13, 2006; Mike McKibbin, “Residents Flood BLM with Water Worries,” The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, CO), March 16, 2006; Mike McKibbin, “State, Fed Agencies’ Help Sought on Watershed Worries,” The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, CO), April 27, 2006; Sally Spaulding, “Protests over Grand Mesa Leases Yet to Be Resolved,” The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, CO), April 27, 2006; Mike Wiggins, “Watershed Ordinance Approved,” The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, CO), September 7, 2006.

[2] Chris P. Jouflas, “Water-Wise: Time Has Come for Formulating Statewide Compact,” The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, CO), May 11, 1986.

[3] Josh Nichols, “Local Group Gets Look at Issues Upstream,” Grand Junction Free Press (Colorado), June 29, 2004.

[4] Trout Unlimited boosted the percentage to 90. See: Trout Unlimited Colorado Water Project, A Dry Legacy 2: Progress and New Threats in a Drought Year (Boulder: Colorado Water Project, 2003), 3; likewise, this article: Michael C. Bender, “Owens to Push for Laws to Foster Water Projects,” The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, CO), December 11, 2002, put the figure between 85-90 percent. 80 percent is what many Grand Valleyers I spoke to agreed on.

[5] Mark Harris, in Panel on Drought and Agriculture, “Natural Resources of the West: Water and Drought,” Colorado Mesa University Water Center Seminar Series, aired online on December 3, 2012.

[6] Heather McGregor, “Despite High-Dollar Budget, District Keeps Low Profile,” The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, CO), July 14, 1996; Bruce Talbott, in Panel on Drought and Agriculture, “Natural Resources of the West: Water and Drought.”

[7] Thomas E. Cronin and Robert D. Loevy, Colorado Politics and Government: Governing the Centennial State (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993), 67-68.

[8] George Sibley, Water Wranglers: The 75-Year History of the Colorado River District: A Story about the Embattled Colorado River and the Growth of the West (Glenwood Springs: Colorado River District, 2012), 2-5, 405.

[9] Marija B. Vader, “Officials Claim Fed Agency Waters Water from W. Slope,” The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, CO), January 7, 2001; Carl Abbott, Stephen J. Leonard, and Thomas J. Noel, Colorado: A History of the Centennial State, 4th edition (Boulder: University of Colorado Press, 2005), 383.

[10] George Sibley, “‘Water Wrangling’ for the West Slope,” Post Independent (Glenwood Springs, CO), October 28, 2012.

[11] The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, CO), “Grand Valley Drought & Water Conservation,” http://www.gjcity.org/WorkArea/DownloadAsset.aspx?id=2147485668 (last accessed December 3, 2013).

[12] William H. Nelson, “GV Project Issues Water Call on Colorado River,” The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, CO), August 16, 1977.

[13] Sibley, Water Wranglers, 312.

[14] Michael Moss, “Battling for Colorado Water: ‘Greed, Growth, Power Grabs,’” The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, CO), July 18, 1982; Bob Silbernagel, “Water Lease Plan Stirring Controversy,” The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, CO), June 20, 1990; Gary Harmon, “McInnis Wants to Tighten the Faucet on California,” The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, CO), January 10, 2002; Sally Spaulding, “Water Pressure: Legal Battle Looms if Drought Lingers,” The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, CO), September 5, 2004.

[15] Chris P. Jouflas, “Water-Wise: Time Has Come for Formulating Statewide Compact,” The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, CO), May 11, 1986; Mike McKibbin, “Growth Doesn’t Depend on Water, Board Is Told,” The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, CO), January 16, 2002; Marija B. Vader, “Lawmakers Expect West Slope Water to Be Target,” The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, CO), July 14, 2002; Gary Harmon, “Water Bill down Drain,” The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, CO), February 28, 2004.

[16] Bruce Talbott, in Panel on Drought and Agriculture, “Natural Resources of the West: Water and Drought;” Aaron Porter, “Water Wars,” The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, CO), October 14, 2002.

[17] Scott Condon, “Drought of 2012—Sign of Times?,” The Aspen Times, December 3, 2012.

[18] Gary Harmon, “Water Bill Awaiting Governor’s Signature,” The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, CO), May 2, 2002.

[19] Shannon Joyce Neal, “Gov. Undecided on Senate Water Bill,” The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, CO), February 19, 2002; Gary Harmon, “Walcher: It’s Time to Change Water Law,” The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, CO), February 20, 2002; Gary Harmon, “Compromise May Leave More Water in Streams.” The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, CO), March 14, 2002.

[20] Gary Harmon, “Farmers, Developers Blast Water Proposal,” The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, CO), April 18, 2002.

[21] “Trout Unlimited Applauds House Passage of SB 156,” April 25, 2002, http://www.tu.org/press_releases/2002/trout-unlimited-applauds-house-passage-of-sb-156 (last accessed March 28, 2013).

[22] Gary Harmon, “Compromise May Leave More Water in Streams,” The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, CO), March 14, 2002.

[23] Gary Harmon, “Farmers, Developers Blast Water Proposal,” The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, CO), April 18, 2002.

[24] Scott Condon, “Drought of 2012—Sign of Times?, The Aspen Times, December 3, 2012; Bruce Talbott, in Panel on Drought and Agriculture, “Natural Resources of the West: Water and Drought.”

[25] Summit Economics and The Adams Group, Water and the Colorado Economy (December 2009), http://www.summiteconomics.com/FRWP_Econ_Final_2011910.pdf (last accessed March 3, 2013), 5, 7-9; Drew Beckworth and Dan Luecke, Filling the Gap: Commonsense Solutions for Meeting Front Range Water Needs (February 2011), http://www.westernresourceadvocates.org/gap (last accessed January 13, 2013).

[26] Zack Barnett, “Water Project Would Be Big, Bring Boom to Area, Backer Says,” The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, CO), March 17, 2002; Zack Barnett, “Big Straw Should Be Studied, Says River District,” The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, CO), April 17, 2002; Mike McKibbin, “River District Continues Backing of Big Straw,” The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, CO), October 17, 2002; Erin McIntyre, “Sizing up Big Straw: Pros, Cons of Formidable Water Project Are Discussed,” The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, CO), December 11, 2002.

[27] Marija B. Vader, “Lawmakers Expect West Slope Water to Be Target,” The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, CO), July 14, 2002.

[28] “Major Pipeline among Ideas for Aiding Arid West,” Tulsa World, December 11, 2012.

[29] U.S. Senator Bill Armstrong, “All Water Not Created Equal,” The Palisade Tribune (Colorado), April 8, 1982.

[30] Shannon Joyce Neal, “Group Raises Awareness of Grand Valley Arsenic Levels,” The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, CO), April 27, 2001.

Joshua Tree National Park Field School 2015 | Nancy Floyd

Posted on by admin1963 Posted in Fall 2015, Pedagogies | Comments Off on Joshua Tree National Park Field School 2015 | Nancy Floyd

In the Southeast, everything seems to live and grow because of an abundance of water. The Appalachian Trail, the coastal waters, and the lush hiking trails in Georgia offer unique and awe-inspiring experiences. Yet, I feel the desert has a lot to offer young art students, not only for its austere beauty, but also for what it lacks. For me, sitting in a desert landscape allows my mind to wander to places unknown. Only if I stay put for a while do I awaken to the life that exists in this harsh place. The lack of sound, except for the occasional wind, bird, or squirrel, heightens the experience and I become more aware of, and focused on, my surroundings. I wanted my students, art majors in the Ernest G. Welch School of Art and Design at Georgia State University to experience this, and more.

On May 11, 2015, I drove nine undergraduate students into Joshua Tree National Park for the first time. They ranged in ages from 19-25. Only two had been in the desert and their experiences were minimal. My plan for the class was two-fold: immerse them in a three-week field study of Joshua Tree National Park, where they would produce a body of work, and expose them to artists and other individuals who live in the area. The goal was for students to improve their artistic and conceptual skills, while also learning about the history and culture of the land and its people. Among the highlights were visits to A-Z West, The Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Museum, and Sky’s the Limit Observatory. We also met with local artists Kim Stringfellow, Sant Khalsa, Frederick Fulmer, Bobby Furst, and Steve Rieman. The artists, while diverse in their artistic practices, were selected because they all had strong connections to the place they lived, and their work was informed by their knowledge of the environmental, social, or cultural issues of the Southwest.

For the first two weeks the students and I worked at The Ranch, one of the properties offered to artists every summer as part of the Joshua Tree Highlands Artist Residency Program. The final week the students had a popup show at Wilson’s Ranch House in Joshua Tree, CA.

It can be difficult for an established artist, much less a student, to come away with strong work after only three weeks. I was concerned they might play it safe, work with materials they already knew, or work in a style they had already mastered. Therefore, we talked about keeping an open mind and responding to their experiences. A lot of work was produced; a lot of work was discarded.

The highlights:

  • • Alexis Huckaby and Shae Edmon, seemingly influenced by Bobby Furst’s work, were interested in a feminist critique of Western landscape art and popular culture.
  • • Joshua Sun Yu used the highway as a metaphor for class and upward mobility. His four-channel video contained deadpan views of ordinary street corners, highways, and bus stops shelters. Cars passed along the highway and a van was stuck in the sand on the side of the road. All the while pedestrians walked along the sidewalk or waited for a bus.
  • • Sara Endrias used the required reading, “The Trouble with Wilderness; or Getting Back to the Wrong Nature” by William Cronon, as a springboard for her work. An artist with strong religious beliefs, Endrias’ installation includes landscape photographs hanging above a table covered with personal religious cards and her journal entries.
  • • Sarah Bryan’s three-panel wall sculpture, Home is Where Nothing Is, was inspired by a fieldtrip led by Kim Stringfellow to abandoned ‘jackrabbit’ houses in Wonder Valley. Bryan wrapped twine around nails to reference the roads in Wonder Valley, and placed three anonymous portraits of a man, a woman, and a child (purchased at a local thrift shop) in each of the panels to denote a family.
  • • Danielle Miller’s approach was to make handmade paper out of plant life, trash, and miscellaneous materials found on the ground.
  • • Michael White juxtaposed landscape photographs with close-up details of objects found or seen at each location.
  • • Although we traveled to different sites in the park as a group, more often than not, Poe Grimlock spent the time alone, away from others, in search of a private location for meditation and artistic inspiration. Primarily she drew mandala-like abstractions that she would later paint and glue sand on.
  • • Zoë Cato made detailed sketches in the desert that she later collaged onto 4” x 4” blocks of wood. Passages from daily writing exercises, as well as miscellaneous found objects, were often included on the blocks.

I am proud of my student’s artistic accomplishments. However, what they gained from the Field School was more than the opportunity to make a few pieces of artwork.  First, the group formed a tight bond, helping each other out when there were artistic, personal or financial challenges. Second, spending time with local artists inspired them in ways that will continue beyond this one class. Third, working in a place where nature rides right up to your doorstep made for lasting impressions at the studio. We worked around an abundance of jackrabbits, birds, and lizards, along with one very large gopher snake who made its home under the foundation. Finally, we all take away fond memories from our trips into the park. It is magical to see coyotes with pups at Barker Dam, to find a grinding stone used by Native Americans long ago, and to climb to the top of the rocks at Hidden Valley and watch the sunset.

Field Studies classes are highly supported at Georgia State University. With some tweaks to the curriculum, I will return with a new group in 2016.


Nancy Floyd has been an exhibiting artist for over thirty years. She holds an MFA from the California Institute of the Arts and lives in Atlanta where she serves as Professor of Photography in the Ernest G. Welch School of Art & Design, Georgia State University.