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;, 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:












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.

TAAK Summer School Marfa Marfa: Second Edition

Posted on by admin1963 Posted in Fall 2014, Pedagogies | Comments Off on TAAK Summer School Marfa Marfa: Second Edition
Photo: Andrea Polli 2014

Photo: Andrea Polli 2014

TAAK Summer School Marfa 2014 finds 20 young artists (17 nationalities) and their instructors in Marfa for a three-week field trip and fieldwork studio. These graduate students study at the Dutch Art Institute and the Sandberg Instituut, both in The Netherlands, and California College of Arts (CCA) in San Francisco. This year’s edition of the annual project is organized by Amsterdam-based cultural platform TAAK, in close collaboration with instructors from each institute: Shaun O’Dell and Lindsey White (CCA), Curdin Tones (SI) and Renee Ridgway (DAI).

Summer School Marfa aims to expand contemporary discourse, social practice and politics in art; to create a unique experience and opportunity for emerging artists to gain an understanding of the dynamics and social impact of art in public spaces. By examining the transformation of Marfa, students are engaging in a critical analysis of the value and use of public art utilizing fieldwork methods.

To learn more visit TAAK Summer School Marfa.

This program is supported as part of the Dutch Culture USA program by the Consulate General of the Netherlands in New York.

Selected projects from TAAK Summer School Marfa 2014 (click link to view):

Julieta Aguinaco: Rear View Mirror or What Happens When We Walk Backwards?

Arnar Asgeirsson: Fly High, a hypnosis

Sarah Demoen: Claim Letter

Anneke Ingwersen: Chasing Shadows of Schlemihl’s Zoo

Sarah Jones and Ben Burtenshaw: Elevating Marfa

See also: Sarah Jones with Julika and Ivan Martinez | Flamin’ Stars

HDTS 2013: Trade Winds Sign Rally | Ellen Babcock

Posted on by admin1963 Posted in Fall 2014, Pedagogies | Comments Off on HDTS 2013: Trade Winds Sign Rally | Ellen Babcock

Roadside visibility and signage along a decaying stretch of Route 66 became a point of departure for an open-ended outdoor public experiment entitled Trade Winds Sign Rally that took place on a barren Albuquerque lot, where the light becomes beautiful at sunset in October. University of New Mexico art students and volunteers held signlike props made from scraps of cloth and repurposed embroidery hoops lined with tiny remote-controlled LED lights. They moved in a loosely choreographed tracing of the floor plan of the once rather fancy Trade Winds Motor Hotel that had stood on the lot for decades, but was razed in 2008 because it had slowly wasted into a haven for drug dealers and prostitutes. Accompanied by a wistful rendition of pep tunes by the rag-tag, street-clothed marching band of the nearby public high school, the dance became an incantation, a revival of the lot’s more festive former spirit. The dancers spelled out the name of the hotel in semaphore, chanting the name in unison after the last letter had been signaled.

I had imagined this event as a way to frame a range of movement from the idiosyncratic and vulnerable to orchestrated shows of strength and pageantry that is evoked by people holding signs in public spaces. On one end are protesters, picketers and the homeless, on the other flag corps, color guards, sports pageantry and military parades. I am interested in how people move with signs when they are holding them, and how this can give rise to deliberations about power, control and impulse. Because signs can increase the volume, range and temporal presence of a person’s message, these objects become extensions or even magnifications of a particular body’s capacity to address the world, often employed by groups and sometimes individuals needing to assert themselves in situations in which they feel disempowered. Sign wavers or spinners, people employed to physically carry or wear a sign advertising the business that pays them sometimes resist what can be a demeaning form of employment, in which personhood is obliterated by the advertising message and simple, dumb repetitive movement is expected. I salute those rare sign spinners who heroically reassert themselves in eye-catching, crazy, free-form median dances.

There was no organized opposition to the Trade Winds Sign Rally, just the inertia of emptiness and the tug of economic decline, no internal force or resistance to express other than the exuberance of dancing across an empty dirt lot to resurrect the spirit of travel and adventure associated with the long-gone motel. Student projects stationed around the edges of the lot riffed on themes of travel, play and the kitsch of Route 66. Bradford Erickson dragged a bed, rug, side table and lamp to the lonely patch of dirt that had once supported a room of the motel. Sarah Diddy stacked handmade oversized alphabet blocks to invite sign games similar to three dimensional Scrabble, and Noel Chilton set up Roadkill Central, a bittersweet mock café where a short-order cook served up live cockroaches. In the midst of this ring of sideshows, the dancers conjured the motel, marching in a tight circle where the driveway had led to the front door of the Trade Winds. In lockstep, they passed two by two through a steel arch placed where the entrance to the pool had been, then exploded in frolicking free-form when they reached the imagined water.

As dusk settled in and the band wound down, the LED lights came on, the dancers in a semaphore incantation called out to the Trade Winds. The rally ended as the dancers placed their sign props, now blinking like taillights, along the lengthy wall of an old carwash on the western edge of the lot. A mural created by the painter KB Jones graces that wall surface with a view of the horizon one might enjoy if the building were to vanish.

The Trade Winds Sign Rally was conceived and directed by Ellen Babcock and Rafael Gallegos, with assistance from: Lindsey Fromm, Nick Shier, Eso Robinson, Aurora Tang and High Desert Test Sites, Black Rock Arts Foundation, Liberty Tax Co. and Santosh Mody. Other contributors include: Jessamyn Lovell, Cortez Lovato, Wae Phonky, Andrea Polli, Kaylee Delfin, Sarah Diddy, Bradford Erickson, Ian Kerstetter, Kayla Wagner, Noel Chilton, Lindsey Schmitt, William Geusz, Sarah Gonzalez, Emily Vosburgh, Andrew Delgado and Josephine Gonzales and the Highland High School Hornet Band.


See also: Interview with Libby Lumpkin

Aqueduct as Muse: Educating Designers for Multifunctional Landscapes | Barry J. Lehrman, Douglas Delgado and Mary E. Alm, Ph.D.

Posted on by admin1963 Posted in Fall 2013, Pedagogies | Comments Off on Aqueduct as Muse: Educating Designers for Multifunctional Landscapes | Barry J. Lehrman, Douglas Delgado and Mary E. Alm, Ph.D.

Aqueduct Futures students at the LA Aqueduct Intake in Owens Valley, CA. © Barry Lehrman 2013.

The ARID editors regret to share that Mary Alm, co-author of this article has passed from complications arising from breast cancer on Tuesday, September 3rd, 2013. Her husband and co-author, Barry Lehrman has dedicated this essay to her memory. ARID Journal offers our thoughts and condolences to the Lehrman/Alm family during this difficult time.


The 233-mile Los Angeles Aqueduct and its 4,800-square-mile watershed on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada mountain range have been critical for the growth and vitality of Southern California.[1] However, forecasted reductions to the Sierra snowpack as a result of climate change will decrease runoff into the Owen’s Valley,[2] potentially jeopardizing the future of Los Angeles’s water supply. An exemplar of early twentieth-century single-purpose engineering, the Aqueduct raises important questions about infrastructural adaptability, resilience, and multi-functional landscapes in the face of twenty-first-century social and environmental changes.

Adaptation to water scarcity requires action on both the supply and demand side. Supply-side innovations, led by engineers and technocrats, have focused primarily on optimizing the efficiency of the existing water system and identifying new sources. On the demand side, education and outreach are proven methods for influencing individual behaviors and societal norms about water. Substantive ongoing efforts promoting conservation have delivered significant reductions to per capita water use in Southern California (from a per capita use of 173 gallons per day in 1990 before basic conservation programs were implemented, to just 117 gallons per day in 2010), so that total water use in Los Angeles has leveled off even as the population continues growing.[3]

What is design’s role in achieving adaptation? The Los Angeles Aqueduct is a potent site for landscape students to engage the performance and function of large-scale technical and ecological systems. Large-scale multifunctional infrastructure and landscape projects constitute an emerging practice area for landscape architecture.[4, 5, 6] In the twenty-first century, multifunctional landscapes are augmenting or replacing single-function engineered urban systems (i.e. oyster reefs and wetlands are replacing levees for flood prevention) with complimentary cultural and ecological uses. Beyond enhanced functionality of supply, the Aqueduct invites us to reconsider design’s role in shaping demand. Evidence suggests that people are more likely to change behavior to reduce consumption when they (and their communities) assign value and meaning to that resource,[7, 8] especially when they hold strong human-exception paradigm beliefs (as did the Aqueduct’s engineer, William Mulholland),[9] or when there is a crisis.

Could reframing the meaning of the Aqueduct with poetic and interpretive landscapes serve as an essential next step in the adaptation process? And if so, how can design education best serve its students to be effective agents of this process?

The Aqueduct Futures project at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona (Cal Poly), challenged design students to look carefully at Southern California’s addiction to imported water, propose resilience and adaptability measures to the existing water supply system, and address lingering social and environmental justice issues related to the Aqueduct. Aqueduct Futures required students to build cross-disciplinary collaborations, and to generate proposals that inform the public and policy makers. This article lays out the challenges and opportunities of an innovative curriculum, and assesses the learning outcomes resulting from particular instructional methods.

Aqueduct Futures:  Curricular Overview

“Learn by doing” is Cal Poly’s motto. With support from Metabolic Studio, Aqueduct Futures leadership developed a one-year course sequence with a culminating exhibit and supporting website to shape a new a narrative about the past, present, and future conditions of the Aqueduct. In all, 130 students from Landscape Architecture, Computer Science, Graphic Arts, Urban and Regional Planning, and Regenerative Studies participated in the project in 2012-2013. Creating an interdisciplinary experience for students was both a tactical and strategic choice: tactical in providing complementary skills needed to pull off the complex project, strategic in preparing students for real-world practice collaborating with other disciplines.

In the fall of 2012, third-year undergraduates focused on key topics and practices related to large-scale multifunctional landscapes and designing interpretive features for the Aqueduct, while fourth-year undergraduates focused on enhancing the eco-technical performance of the Aqueduct and the landscape it inhabits. Both studios followed a typical structure of research, analysis, and a final team project synthesizing their research and analysis into a comprehensive design proposal. An elective seminar delved into the Aqueduct’s history and its surrounding cultures. In the following term, landscape architecture students created the preliminary exhibit and web content in collaboration with exhibition design teams from the Art Department and interactive media teams from the Computer Science Department. Parallel to these undergraduate courses, a team of Master of Landscape candidates successfully crafted a graduate capstone project that resulted in a planning framework for the entire Owens River and Mono Basin Watersheds. Coursework was enriched by assigned readings, group discussions, case study research, site analysis, journaling, and fieldwork, including a community design workshop in Bishop.

Aqueduct Futures students at the Cascades (LA Aqueduct terminus) in Sylmar, CA.  © Jonathan Linkus 2013.

Pedagogical Goals and Innovations

Aqueduct Futures leaders identified five key approaches to forming a balance between the pragmatic and the poetic.


The fourth-year landscape architecture studio divided into four groups, each tasked with mapping the linkages between water and energy.

Field Work

A four-day field trip (held in the fourth week of fall quarter) enabled students to conduct fieldwork along the length of the Aqueduct, from the San Fernando Valley and the Coso Range to the northern Owens Valley and Mono Basin. Travels were enriched by discussions with local tour guides, Big Pine Paiute’s Environmental Office, and Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) facilities managers.

In a community engagement exercise unusual for undergraduates, fourth-year students, assisted by third-year students, designed and implemented a community workshop in Bishop. Graduate Landscape Architecture chair Professor Lee-Anne Milburn provided instruction on facilitation goals and techniques; undergraduates then generated the workshop’s agenda as a group and implemented it in teams of three, each student team hosting a table with four to eight Owens Valley residents.

Reflective thinking, including intensive journaling

Reflective thinking promoted by writing journal entries is closely aligned with design thinking,[10] and has previously been deployed in landscape architecture studios that are engaged in service-learning or projects aimed at social and environmental justice. Aqueduct Futures leadership first encountered them in 2010 as a co-instructor with Dr. Kristine Miller in the Remix/Streetlife studio project, with Juxtaposition Arts, at the University of Minnesota (first offered in 2005). Xie et al. (2008) make the link between reflective thinking promoted by journals and transformative learning.[11]

For Aqueduct Futures, reflective “experience” journals served as a catalyst for students to engage in metacognition about their design process, about their experiences on the field trip, and about the instructional process itself. Through writing, sketches, and photographs, student journals grappled with the systems, landscapes, projects, people, and places they encountered throughout the research and design process. In addition to enhanced critical inquiry informing student design outcomes, journals also prompted reflection by the instructors, allowing for real-time recalibration of assignments and activities to strengthen learning outcomes.

Quantitative design evaluation

Evidence-based design requires improved numeracy, and the ability to communicate complex systems to the public in fledgling landscape architects. Most Aqueduct Futures students had only performed basic hydrologic calculations for irrigation design and drainage prior to this course sequence. However, as part of their final presentations, students were required to quantify projected impacts suggested by their proposals. Measures included economic costs and benefits (including construction, operating budgets, and potential revenue); technological efficiencies (amounts of energy created, or water conserved/infiltrated); and ecological functioning (carbon sequestration, water purification, biodiversity, and habitat quality indicators).

Interdisciplinary collaboration

The second semester integrated landscape students with computer science and graphic arts collaborators, led by Professor Crystal Lee of the Art Department and Dr. Robert Kerbs of Computer Science. The collaboration was focused on how to best communicate complex graphic analysis to the public, with cross-disciplinary student teams generating custom Google Maps from graphics designed in Adobe Illustrator, by exporting .SVG (scalable vector graphics) files and ArcGIS via .KMZ (keyhole markup language) files. Blogging was used to provide public writing experience in preparation for the final exhibit, and to explore the limits of online media. Computer Science students produced a Critical Stage Analysis as part of a final submittal that may have relevant qualitative data for future evaluation.

Aqueduct Futures students at the Jawbone Siphon in the Mojave Desert. © Barry Lehrman 2013.

Analyzing Results:  Measuring the Effectiveness of Instructional Methods

Even with the yearlong focus on where water for Southern California comes from, final design proposals suggested that students remain locked into the popular cultural habit of treating water as an unlimited resource in their design. Students created projects that for the most part (even with extensive encouragement), did not engage directly with the LAA or use naturally occurring water (precipitation, surface, and ground) in innovative methods for California, compared to the case studies presented from elsewhere in class. It is also worth noting that most of the programming of amenities and landscape features were limited to the students’ own preferences for sorts of places and activities they personally like—the few exceptions were generated by the compelling interactions they had with residents of the Owens Valley.

Beyond the individual, or even collective, value of the resulting student design proposals, the Aqueduct Futures project offered an opportunity for educators to look carefully at instructional methods. What approaches were most effective in producing a transformative learning experience? The Aqueduct Futures leadership team chose to focus on the reflective journaling method in particular, analyzing 317 journal entries generated by the 64 students in the fall landscape architecture studios, in an attempt to measure the method’s impact on the learning experience. The analysis was centered around two main research questions:

  1. To what extent did journaling support landscape architecture students in grasping the interrelated connections between water, energy, and ecology associated with supplying water to Los Angeles through the Aqueduct?
  2. To what extent did journaling support innovative design ideas to address resilience, adaptation, and social and environmental justice?

Qualitative analysis software called Computer Aided Textual Markup and Analysis (CATMA 4.0) was used to assess themes in the students’ reflection journal entries.[12] Themes were analyzed for individual research questions and between the two research questions mentioned above. The software was used to help minimize personal biases when coding and analyzing the entries.

In assessing the first question—to what extent did journaling support comprehension of the water, energy, and ecology of the Aqueduct—four main themes emerged .

1. Evidence indicated student comprehension of the structure and function of the Aqueduct linking the Owens Valley to Los Angeles.

The intake site was one of the most influential sites visited during the field trip. We got the chance to walk over the starting gates of the LA Aqueduct.

Seeing the size of the pipes gave me an idea how much water is being transferred to LA daily.

2. Evidence indicated new awareness of the origins of Los Angeles’ water supply. Students speculated that most residents of Los Angeles are ignorant of where their water comes from, and these comments seemed to originate from personal experiences.

Before this class, I had little or no knowledge of this area as a water source to Los Angeles County.

I think everyone has seen the water come down this slide-like pipe that is off the 5 freeway, but little may know that this is our drinking water that we use everyday in our everyday lives.

3. Evidence suggested that students grasped the impact of the aqueduct system on the source landscape, including noting lower water levels of Owens Lake and Mono Lake from direct observation of the site.

Owens Lake was once a naturally appealing place full of life, but now it is a barren, dried up lakebed with barely any life left to give.

Seeing the water level change with the marks engraved on the edges of the rocks and considering all the salt left behind was a miserable site.

4. Evidence suggested that students were aware of conflict between residents of the Owens Valley and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, and that they were aware of the multiple viewpoints in that conflict

We heard water war stories from the native Indians that inhabited the land, the community that lived and experienced the pumping of Owens Lake, the environmentalists, ecologists, and from LA DWP themselves.

This community seems to be active and aware of the situation they are in but for the most part the 100,000 residents of the valley can’t seem to have the impact that the millions of Los Angeles residents can have.

The second research question—to what extent did journaling inspire innovative design ideas for improving the water supply for Los Angeles and restoring the Owens Valley—yielded three main themes.

1.  The first theme concerned the need to inform Los Angeles residents about water supply issues and the impacts the students observed. In comments that appear to originate from personal experience, and from hearing the concerns of Owens Valley residents and Paiute Indians, students focused on the need to create an interpretive spatial experience for the two million visitors per year who pass through Owens Valley. Students focused, in particular, on opportunities to introduce recreational and educational activities, such as hiking trails in the Owens Valley with educational signs along the path about the Aqueduct and the area’s history, or tourism facilities in the Antelope or San Fernando Valleys.

The trail system can contain educational information about the Aqueduct as you walk the trail.

A visitor’s center could contain tribal history of the Paiute people and tie into the history of the land. We would also incorporate the history of the Aqueduct.

2. The second theme concerned making the Owens Valley more environmentally appealing by restoring the natural habitat, thereby improving its appeal as a tourist destination. More visitors (with most coming from Southern California), students reasoned, would increase the opportunities to inform people about the issues in the Owens Valley, the role of the LA Aqueduct in the development of Los Angeles, and the importance of even greater water conservation. Some students proposed setting aside land for wildlife to flourish and creating gardens of local plants. Others suggested developing recreational activities that give visitors fun and adventure without harming the natural environment. Students also proposed developing eco-communities, promoting sustainable agricultural practices to improve use of renewable energy sources, and a range of habitat restoration practices. While most of the projects focused on appealing to urban visitors to the Owens Valley, many of the projects included specific amenities and features for residents of Eastern California

Gardens could be developed, featuring native landscapes of the valley, which will also serve as buffers between the spaces.

The purpose of having an ATV park is to control the rampant off-roading that occurs in the region but goes unchecked. This damages the surrounding environment and damages habitat. Our thought was that if we wrangled the use of ATV and designated an area for them that was not only close but very fun they would go to the park instead of roaming all over the place.

3. The third theme involved changing Los Angeles’ water policy so there is less reliance on water from sources such as the Owens Valley. Students seemed to comment about this after thinking about the dwindling water supply and the need to conserve water. Some students commented that restoring water levels and the habitat of the Owens Valley might be a complicated and impossible undertaking, so other methods may be more practical. Some of the changes students suggested include water collecting, grey water use, and conservation.

Some of these shifts will include practices such as: permeable surface paving for catching water on site, natural filtration, and restoration of our depleting aquifers; the use of drought tolerant natives which decreases the amount of maintenance (less water and less pollution!); redirecting our storm water to catch basins (in addition to the permeable surfaces); and educating our youth about the importance of conserving the limited resources we have.

Can we honestly say that LA County preserves water? We can’t even capture our rainwater and reuse it. We disregard the fact that our population is increasing and our water is decreasing.

Results of this qualitative investigation suggest that journaling allowed students to integrate new knowledge about the LA Aqueduct and Los Angeles’ water supply gained through mapping, fieldwork, and community dialog, and to use these experiences to generate ideas for improving Los Angeles’ water supply and the Owens Valley region.

Sketch of the Cascades (LA Aqueduct terminus) in student notebook. © Barry Lehrman 2013.


What are the implications of this close examination of our students’ experience? In what way might it inform how design educators approach preparing students to engage large-scale multifunctional landscapes? And in what way does our instructional experience mirror the larger-scale challenges of creating awareness and engagement between the citizens of Los Angeles and their water supply?

The results of this qualitative investigation illustrate the power of direct observation and community participation as transformative learning tools, and how infrastructure like the Los Angeles Aqueduct can serve as a muse for the creative process.  They also illustrate the magnitude of the challenges ahead in creating a new relationship—both functional and poetic—with our infrastructural landscape.

Short of escorting every Angeleno up to the Owens Valley for an audience with Owens Valley residents and Paiute elders, and a first-hand tour of wind-eroded soil and the desiccated Owens Lake bed, our work with students suggests a need to identify local stories about water and conditions around the Los Angeles metropolitan region, that might have a similar transformative impact on an exponentially wider audience.

Beyond the local, the Aqueduct is a significant part of our American heritage worthy of designation as a National Park—like the Erie Canal and other significant transportation corridor. There are precedents for maintaining working infrastructure within an interpretive context – the headwaters of Walker Creek in the Mono Basin are just on the other side of the Blacktop Peak (elevation 12,500’) from the streams feeding Hetch Hetchy (and San Francisco) within Yosemite National Park.

Politically and administratively, there is an inherent conflict of interest in the LADWP’s responsibility for providing as much water and power to Los Angeles as they can, and managing the natural resources of the Owens Valley floor and their urban property holdings. This conflict is a key source of the continued distrust and tension among Owens Valley residents towards Los Angeles.  It is also true that Los Angeles is the largest property tax payer in Inyo County, so any transfers of LADWP property to other agencies or land trusts must safeguard comparable revenue to the County.

The process of repositioning the Aqueduct’s meaning and cultural status is just a beginning.  It is a critical step in creating an informed citizenry and an effective design culture, advocating for a multifunctional future—one where urban needs are balanced with those of local communities and the natural systems that are being exploited.

Course syllabi, additional examples of student work, and the 606 Project report are available at

[1] Lehrman, Barry. “Reconstructing the Void: Owens Lake.” The Infrastructural City: Networked Ecologies in Los Angeles. Kazys Varnelis editor. Barcelona: Los Angeles Forum for Architecture/Columbia Networked Urbanism Lab/ACTAR Press, 2007. 20–33.
[2] Costa-Cabral, Mariza, et al. (2013). Snowpack and Runoff Response to Climate Change in Owens Valley and Mono Lake Watersheds. Climatic Change. Volume 116, Issue 1, pp 97-109.
[3] Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. (2010). Urban Water Management Plan. retrieved from Web. 16 July 2013
[4] Bélanger, Pierre. “Landscape As Infrastructure.” Landscape Journal 28.1 (2009), 79 –95. Print.
[5] Strang, Gary. “Infrastructure as Landscape (1996).” Theory in Landscape Architecture. Ed. Simon Swaffield. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002. 220–226.
[6] Wall, Alex. “Programming the Urban Surface.” Recovering Landscape: Essays in Contemporary    Landscape Architecture. Ed. James Corner. Princeton Architectural Press, 1999. 232–249.
[7] McKenzie-Mohr, Doug. “New Ways to Promote Proenvironmental Behavior: Promoting Sustainable Behavior: An Introduction to Community-Based Social Marketing.” Journal of Social Issues 56.3 (2000): 543–554. Wiley Online Library. Web. 16 July 2013.
[8] Vaske, Jerry J., and Katherine C. Kobrin. “Place Attachment and Environmentally Responsible Behavior.” The Journal of Environmental Education 32.4 (2001): 16–21. Taylor and Francis+NEJM. Web. 16 July 2013.
[9] Cook, Stuart W., and Joy L. Berrenberg. “Approaches to Encouraging Conservation Behavior: A Review and Conceptual Framework.” Journal of Social Issues 37.2 (1981): 73–107. Wiley Online Library. Web. 16 July 2013.
[10] Cross, Nigel. “Designerly Ways of Knowing: Design Discipline Versus Design Science.” Design Issues 17.3 (2011): 49–55. MIT Press Journals. Web. 29 Sept. 2011.
[11] Xie, Ying, Fengfeng Ke, and Priya Sharma. “The Effect of Peer Feedback for Blogging on College Students’ Reflective Learning Processes.” The Internet and Higher Education 11.1 (2008): 18–25. ScienceDirect. Web. 16 July 2013.
[12] University of Hamburg. (2013). Computer Aided Textual Markup and Analysis (CATMA 4.0). Retrieved from

Mary E. Alm, PhD (1969-2013) is an expert in clinical health psychology, with a focus on behavior change.  She is a part-time member of the Walden University faculty.

Douglas Delgado, adjunct Assistant Professor at Cal Poly Pomona, has been teaching watershed planning since 2001. He has worked extensively on watershed plans in the Los Angeles, Rio Hondo and San Gabriel River watersheds.

Barry Lehrman is Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture at Cal Poly Pomona, where he leads the Aqueduct Futures program.  He is the author of “Reconstructing the Void: Owens Lake” in The Infrastructural City, Kazys Varnelis, editor (ACTAR, 2008).

genius ingenium: Near Adjacencies to the Owens Lake | Alexander Robinson

Posted on by admin1963 Posted in Fall 2013, Pedagogies | Comments Off on genius ingenium: Near Adjacencies to the Owens Lake | Alexander Robinson

Illustration displaying data of lake wide visual resources field assessment by James Lively, Myvonwynn Hopton, and Adrian Suzuki. Fall 2010.

In 2008, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power was getting ready to roll out a solution to what is perhaps the agency’s most vexing problem. The alkaline Owens Lake, having been depleted by LADWP’s Los Angeles Aqueduct since the 1920s, was now a 100 square mile volatile salt bed, with resulting dust storms that were responsible for over six percent of California’s airborne particulate matter.

The LADWP had demonstrated from full-scale field tests that instead of controlling dust by watering the giant, dry lakebed, they could build berms, fences and ditches. “Moat and Row” was not only cheaper to construct, it was waterless – the holy grail for a utility using 95,000 acre-feet of water to saturate the lakebed and retain dust each year (95,000 acre-feet is roughly equivalent to the amount of water the city of San Francisco consumes each year).

However, this experimental BACM, or Best Available (dust) Control Method, was never implemented. Just as their definitive “master plan” for the Owens Lake has undergone more than eight unanticipated phases, the project did not go as planned. Moat and Row field test plots were erased, watered over with “shallow flood” and other approved BACMs. After a year and a half of review, the LADWP was ultimately unprepared to answer for concerns of “significant impacts to public trust values, including wildlife and visual resources” that the State Lands Commission and others raised.

By the poor impression it made on constituents and regulatory agencies, “Moat and Row” become an unofficial non-starter. Meanwhile, the LADWP had prepared no alternative approaches for this area of the lake and were forced to pay mitigating fines for failing to meet deadlines set by the local Air Pollution Control District.

Designing for Public Trust

By official accounts, the problems with Moat and Row were habitat and visual resources, two of a host of “Public Trust Values” required to be maintained on all navigable bodies of water (the Owens Lake was formerly plied by two steamships carrying bars of silver) in the United States. The plans that the LADWP had prepared showed a lakebed crisscrossed with orthogonal rows of sand fences and berms up to eight-feet-tall with trailing edges—a grid pattern trimmed to fit the contours of the lake. Driven principally by operational efficiency, the proposal diagrammed the most effective arrangement for dust control performance, construction, and maintenance. While reviewers stated they had concerns of the potential impacts that Moat and Row might have on endangered Snowy Plover populations, there appears to have been an unofficial sentiment that the larger problem was how the LADWP had designed and presented their approach. In their final disapproval, State Lands, the lake’s landlord, and others argued for something more  “creative.”

In a region built upon infrastructures engineered for, and measured by, their large-scale operational capacities, failure due to a lack of “creativity” is still a novelty. While Los Angeles’s design community is galvanized by the failure of infrastructures like the Los Angeles River to provide multiple social, cultural, and ecological benefits beyond flood control, most engineering projects remain driven by instrumentality and pragmatics. For example, recent proposals by the Army Corps for restoring L.A. River ecologies are driven by metrics of habitat units and cost. The only viable alternatives considered are so-called “best buy” options, many of which radically de-value improving the concrete channel itself, the impetus for decades of activism.

Multi-performance design is often still seen as a luxury appliqué or secondary mitigation measure, not integral to the design process. Even as noted landscape architects such as Lawrence Halprin attempted to gain agency in their design in the late ‘60s, most large freeway projects only engage designers to pattern sound walls or provide pastoral relief to the infrastructure, rather than become an integral player in the physical form and ecology of the system. In many recent local infrastructure projects, engineers routinely engage landscape architects at late stages of design to aestheticize their interventions with constituent-friendly renderings and add-on features.

In weighing the essential services that infrastructures must provide, and the vast scale at which they must perform, the marginalization of enhanced, multi-purpose landscape design might be considered reasonable. At the Owens Lake, the LADWP needs to provide water-frugal dust control above all else and the Moat and Row scheme reflects this. However, while pragmatic functionality is clearly necessary, it is, as State Lands argued, at times insufficient.

Los Angeles and the West have entered an era in which public agencies are expected to seek and fortify public trust values integral to the sites on which their systems operate. Beyond marginalization in favor of pragmatics, and beyond after-thought appliqué or horse-trade mitigations, design disciplines have an opportunity to integrate effective technical solutions with powerful place-making. The focus of my teaching and research as a landscape architect is at this intersection: where genius locii (locale) meets genius ingenium (engineering).

Lake Bed as Test Bed

In my studios and research within the Landscape Architecture Department at the University of Southern California, I have focused on the Owens Dry Lakebed as a proving ground for developing this approach. Studios and research employ a hybrid process, combining the strengths of engineering and landscape design. Our goal is to create a dialogue between the a-priori rigor of an engineering focus on performance and efficiency, and the ability of landscape design to capitalize on qualitative values embedded on site. Since 2011, I have been immersing students in LADWP’s perpetual Owens Lake dust control project and challenging them to find solutions that hew closely to the established LADWP performance parameters and systems, while providing, and extending the boundaries of, public trust values. Our contention all along has been that landscape design could, in an unlikely twist from it’s outdated perception as a “luxury” service, prove integral to providing the most resource-efficient infrastructural solution.

Humility and Accountability

When approaching this site and the policy frameworks that govern it, my graduate landscape architecture studios start from a place of humility. While there are multiple grounds for challenging the instrumentalist approach of the managing entities, our strategy has been to understand the current working conditions before offering alternative paths for current, possibly troubled, trajectories. Proposals and methods are necessarily shaped by this aikido-like approach to influence, whereby the momentum of current trajectories is understood and carefully re-directed to an alternative outcome.  The product of small adjustments, such outcomes can be considered “near-adjacent” to the existing conditions, even though they can accrue into radical transformations.

In order to re-direct an engineering trajectory (even when it is failing), landscape practice must closely observe engineering modes. Doing so is less a methodological surrender than both a sensible concession to the ultimately collaborative role of our practice in these situations, and a growing interest in our profession becoming more instrumental and performance-based. Far from abandoning the flexible, qualitative interest of landscape practice, we focus on how to hone or adapt our core methods within the dominant, quantitative framework of engineering. The purpose is not to compromise, but rather seek a methodological common ground—a hybrid practice where the highest interests and concerns of each are accommodated.

Viewshed analysis at Red Pond T3NE (detail), Myvonwynn Hopton,  Fall 2010

Quantitative Research

At the Owens Dry Lakebed, initial engineering design was largely driven by compliance with mitigation deadlines, an approach that incidentally created unsustainably high public trust values. The LADWP, having delayed action for years, had to rush the first phases in order to meet a series of benchmarks. While watering the lake has the highest inherent public trust values of any BACM—almost anyway it is applied to the lake creates valuable habitat and improved visual resources—the LADWP chose it as their predominant BACM on the lake due to its ease of implementation and relatively low capital cost. By following the path of least resistance in terms of construction and implementation for most of the lake, they inadvertently set a high bar for public trust values, at great annual expenditure of resources.

After they had achieved major dust mitigation goals on the lake, they began to take a closer look at the efficiency of each BACM—by the square mile—in terms of the cost of construction, water use, and maintenance costs. However, public trust values having been automatically provided by water was not initially measured or integrated into this assessment.

Approaching this situation my studio began to understand that the LADWP, after having soured from “wasting” so much water and failing to limit their obligations by a series of lawsuits, was beginning to see the lake as a long-term and extremely costly expenditure. There has been a tangible shift in their quantitative strategy as they began to weigh annual inputs, both resource use and maintenance operations, above all else. However, as they seek to move away from water intensive dust control, the question of how they integrate and maintain public trust values in ways that match their efficiency goals comes into high relief.

Perhaps our studio, through analysis and design, could find other, more resource-efficient ways to provide public trust values than making a dry-lake lake-like with thousands of acres of potable water? Might landscape architecture provide an acceptable way to reduce resource inputs that theoretically could continue for thousands of years?

OWENSdry LAKEbed, Christopher Arntz, Fall 2010

Perceptual Fieldwork

Even when fiascos such as “Moat and Row” demonstrate that resource and maintenance metrics cannot serve as the only measures of a successful design solution, there is no clear roadmap of how to combine the quantitative efficiency of engineering with the relatively fuzzy qualitative interests and inspirations of landscape architecture, or even the “visual resources” mandated by Public Trust doctrine. Our studios explore several possible avenues for integrating the quantitative with the qualitative.

The vast, flat space of the lakebed offers a fertile ground for exploring issues of perception and experience. Endless pools of shallow water give way to meadows to pink salt flats to neat rows of vegetation, each foreground experience changing with the kind of ground cover or dust control in place. The lakebed confronts us with the limits of our perception and what we can access. How do we capture and capitalize on these perceptions? If we want to match, or extend, the necessary efficiency of engineering interventions, how do we assess the impact and value of interventions in terms of experiential performance? How do we supplement our subjective understanding of landscapes with additional models and data? How do we calibrate perceptual conditions to utilitarian needs?

In the spirit of John Wesley Powell’s famous exploration of the Colorado River, we saw field surveying techniques as a means to map and value personal, immersive explorations of perception and experience, as well as for data collection. The first year we visited the lake, we conducted a survey of existing visual resources, altered as they were by the approximately $1 billion worth of dust control interventions already in place. To coordinate our efforts, we employed a modified version of the 1995 United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service Landscape Aesthetics, Handbook of Scenery Management.

Equipped with custom programmed GPS devices, student groups spread out across the lake’s access roads in vehicles with clipboards and cameras, making regular measurements of “Landscape Character” and “Scenic Integrity” re-conceptualized for the lake’s unusual environment. In addition to helping navigate, the GPSs monitored the groups, measuring number and duration of visits to particular locations made by student surveyors and diverse tours thus surreptitiously assessing the visibility and popularity of specific spots. These studies resulted in the first maps to recognize the scenic value of engineered sites, normally disregarded for lacking “integrity.”

Students also mapped and valued a variety of perceptual conditions. The lakebed is situated in one of the deepest valleys in the country, flanked by mountain ranges on both sides, with some peaks above 14,000 feet. At any point on the lakebed, both spectacular mountain ranges are visible, yet gaps appear in the perception of middle and foreground, depending on the dust control system framing the vantage point. Some of these studies were the first to reveal the peculiar conditions that create disorientation on the flat lakebed.

Building on these studies and inspired by Edgar Payne’s Sierra-based work on outdoor painting composition principles (Composition of Outdoor Painting, 1941), students analyzed a single vista point in greater detail, to the extent that they altered it based on their understanding of its framework and effect. These studies initiated a more precise understanding of scenic values, particularly of the built landscapes. One student, intrigued by the surreal color gradients of saline pools, inventoried a remarkable diversity of chromatic effects. Others studied views ranging from sinuously picturesque to radically orthogonal arrangements, resembling city-sized petroglyphs.

In response to this re-survey of visual resources, students were required to produce a “postcard” of the Owens Lake that epitomized their understanding of its appeal as a recreation and site-seeing destination, two important public trust values identified by local constituents. The postcards challenged students to produce a minimally modified vista that could be self-consciously hawked to the general public in a nearby gas station. One student, altering course slightly, visualized a billboard on the lake edge taunting us with contrasting views of the lake before and after the LADWP’s interventions.

Postcard Proposal, Myvonwynn Hopton, Fall 2010

Subsequent visual resource studies of the lake benefited from testing concepts and techniques developed by Tadahiko Higuchi in his seminal The Visual and Spatial Structure of Landscapes, a qualitative/quantitative study of Japanese shrines and their surrounding landscapes. Students measured “foreground,” “middle-ground,” and “background” within the different dust control methods. By establishing measured thresholds for detail perception, landscape reflections, and other sensory and feeling perceptions, sense perception and experience could be calibrated as carefully as dust control or habitat performance.

Cumulatively, the perceptual documentation, analysis, and response generated through fieldwork led design students to re-frame the category of “visual resources” to include the altered, infrastructural landscape itself. By inventorying and valuing the manmade as well as the natural, students located themselves as curators within a concrete manifestation of genius ingenium.

Choreography of Place

With the emphasis on understanding extent, quality, and principles of perception and experience, the development of designs proceeded in a different direction, borrowing a playbook from neither engineering nor landscape design.

Rather than developing a discrete site or technology, students began by choreographing an idealized experience on the lake, akin to a cinema storyboard. Informed by their field studies and equipped with this “experiential score,” students proposed intervening into the site only to the degree necessary to support this experience. The goal was to minimize investment in experiential performance to the extent that it would be valued—a significant departure from the typical landscape architecture impetus to control the entire site, an approach that while seductive, can, un-abetted, easily overwhelm budgets and resources and can diminish the perceived value of the profession.

In subsequent studios, we honed the experiential score, with a particular focus on a “capstone” experience—a heightened moment, inspired by the annual “firefalls” in Yosemite Valley, that may be very specific and temporal. For example, a student oriented reflections and experiences based on which mountains were best lit at different times of day. These studies sharpened the design process to the conscious minimalist creation of a human interface with the lake.

Critical Values

While some may argue that the visual and experiential qualities of the lake are bit players in a landscape dominated by concerns of water supply, dust control, and bird habitat, what distinguishes the students’ work was an understanding of how “aesthetics” and “recreation” can be used to leverage technology to help us better cherish and protect a place. Students successfully made the case that minimal investment in the qualitative and perceptual could enhance resource use and transform the dry lakebed into an asset with public support.

By some indications the LADWP has learned from this process. Representatives who attended our final reviews of student work claimed to be inspired by the student designs. Not long after, LADWP hired three landscape architecture firms to design the next phase of the project. By all accounts a challenging collaboration, progress was delayed by the discovery of an archaeological site indicating a Native American massacre… the process that may come to an indefinite halt.

While potential benefits are manifest, it is clear that even in the best of circumstances, developing solutions that can bridge between the divergent priorities of the managing engineering entities and landscape architect consultants, is difficult work—a task that neither profession is especially equipped to engage in. There is a need for improved techniques and approaches, not only in the design classroom, but in experimental practice as well. At the Landscape Morphologies Lab (LML), we are developing design tools that provide professionals with a hybrid set of representational and feedback technologies that enable a more rigorous exploration of the design space defined by the project’s complex parameters. For the Los Angeles River, the lab fabricated and employed a scaled physical hydraulic model, employing an engineering methodology that is also appealing to non-professionals. For the Owens Lake, LML is developing a multimedia system that includes a robotic sand modeler, a 3D scanner, projection, and a custom software interface. The systems are designed to support a working environment that respects critical constraints, but still allows a free and impassioned study of potentially enriching outcomes. The first phase of the Los Angeles River studio will be exhibited in August 2013 at Los Angeles City Hall. An interactive exhibit of the Owens Lake research is expected in Lone Pine, California in early 2014.

Alex Robinson directs the Landscape Morphologies lab at the University of Southern California and is principal of the landscaped design and planning practice, Office of Outdoor Research.

Co-Evolving Pedagogies | Szu-Han Ho and Joseph A. Cook

Posted on by admin1963 Posted in Pedagogies, Spring 2013 | Comments Off on Co-Evolving Pedagogies | Szu-Han Ho and Joseph A. Cook

Our motivation for creating this course is to rethink traditional pedagogies in both science and art as wholly distinct from one another. We are interested in creating an environment for the exchange of ideas from both contemporary art and the biological sciences—to combine scientific methods of rigorous inquiry and analysis with artistic invention, criticism, and expansive thinking. Our aim is to encourage active inquiry and engagement with material that is both intellectually demanding and socially relevant.

As collaboration and communication between fields becomes increasingly essential within both scientific research and artistic practice, we see a greater need for interdisciplinary exchange between biologists, artists, historians, anthropologists, and other thinkers to share resources and methods for building collective knowledge. This form of collaboration enables researchers to explore the intersections between cultural history and natural history, to pose new questions, and to address these questions in a way that connects their diverse histories. This course aims to examine how education might begin to bridge the gap between disciplines that are traditionally segregated within academic institutions.

The course is offered to advanced undergraduates and graduate students in biology, studio art, and students from other disciplines. By learning to converse and work closely with peers in other fields, we are tasked to find a common language and thereby to articulate our own ideas more clearly. We hope to promote engagement through discussion, critique, peer presentation, experiential learning, and production through collaboration. These activities take place at various sites: in the field, in the lab, on the web, and in the wider public sphere. We work with the resources surrounding us, including the expertise and facilities of UNM and local field sites. The Museum of Southwestern Biology at UNM is one of the foremost natural history collections worldwide, a dynamic teaching and research museum that houses the largest mammal collection at a university globally.

Image 1: Felisa Smith gives a talk on paleobiogeography in the Museum of Southwestern Biology at UNM

A major theme of the course relates to the use of natural history collections to explore morphology and geographic variation, which can be understood as the relationship of form to place. Collection specimens offer the opportunity to work directly with the visual and tactile senses to understand natural history, evolution, and ecology; this is one of the great advantages of the use of a museum collection in pedagogy. CO-EVOLUTION is part of an effort led by faculty from both UNM Biology and Art & Ecology to connect students to their surrounding bio-geographical, historical, and cultural context through place-based, experiential learning. The state of New Mexico is a confluence of multiple ecological regions and cultural identities, providing important sites for the study of arid ecology, as well as for the layers of cultural production throughout its long history of human inhabitation. As a designated minority-serving and research-extensive institution, UNM has very active faculty and research facilities, and the course offers the chance for students to become familiar with the scope and activity of the UNM research community in areas outside their own field of study.

CO-EVOLUTION is connected and largely supported through a National Science Foundation Research Coordination Network in Undergraduate Biology Education called AIM-UP! (Advancing Integration of Museums into Undergraduate Programs), an international group representing multiple higher education institutions that are working to integrate natural history museum collections and associated web-accessible databases into undergraduate education as a means of rethinking science education. AIM-UP! also supports development of innovative curricula through annual meetings, working groups, and a growing number of teaching (or “dispersion”) modules developed by educators worldwide.

In 2012, CO-EVOLUTION included a weekly seminar web-broadcast to three other institutions with major natural history museums led by associate private investigators: Eileen Lacey at UC Berkeley, Steffi Ickert-Bond at UA Fairbanks, and Scott Edwards at Harvard University. Students from these institutions exchanged ideas through discussion and a digital learning environment. Students at UNM, UCB, and UAF worked on semester-long projects, in which they researched a topic related to one of two themes in the course, drawing on the resources of the natural history collection: “Climate Change” or “Morphology and Geographic Variation.” The projects, called “dispersion modules,” were developed in small collaborative groups with a mix of students from biology, art studio, and other fields and they were intended to enable students to explore and communicate content in a visually engaging, inquiry-driven manner. The final projects took the form of e-books, interactive digital publications designed for online dissemination. Within the parameters of a digital publication, students formulated their investigations utilizing the resources of databases or collections of natural history museums, addressing the following topics: “The Relationship Between Geographic Barriers and Divergence,” “Using Natural History Collections and Art to Communicate about Climate Change,” “The Rock Pocket Mouse Adaption by Natural Selection,” and “Specialized Plant Pollination Systems.” Students at UCB, UAF, and UNM presented ideas, drafts, and feedback to one another throughout the semester. Projects can be viewed on the course blog, under Dispersion Modules:

CO-EVOLUTION also included three intensive workshops led by renowned artists Brandon Ballengée, Suzanne Anker, and Brian Conley. All three visiting artists were invited based on their work integrating biology with themes and practices in contemporary art, ranging from investigations in the history of science to collaborations with biologists in field-based research projects. These artists explore the intersection of the sciences and the arts in highly inventive ways that are compelling and relevant to interdisciplinary education and research. These collaborative workshops created access, dialogue, and artistic production around the role of natural history collections within scientific and cultural debate.

Each visiting artist delivered a lecture at UNM that was free and open to the public and then led a two-day workshop. Students met for twelve to fourteen hours over the course of two days with each artist to explore issues related to art and natural history. The workshops addressed each of the following themes:

  1.  Cataloguing Wonder: recapturing sense-experience in the empirical method
  2. Fluid Taxonomy: on the dynamic practice of classification and the politics of naming
  3. Morphology and Evolution: investigating change in nature and culture

Image 2: Brandon Ballengée leads students in amphibian development lab

Workshop 1: Cataloguing Wonder with Brandon Ballengée

Artist and biologist Brandon Ballengée led the first CO-EVOLUTION workshop in February 2012. Engaging communities with biological science and generating public interest in local biodiversity has been an integral part of Ballengée’s work as both a researcher and an artist. For day one, Ballengée gave a presentation of his work around bio-indicator species, specifically regarding European and North American amphibians. Ballengée, along with Tomas Giermakowski (Museum of Southwestern Biology Collection Manager of Amphibians and Reptiles), led the group in a lab to learn about amphibian development and observation by using museum specimens, dissecting scopes, and taxonomic keys. We learned a method of identifying amphibian development called Gosner staging, which differentiates metamorphic stages through close anatomic study. We also explored methods of observation through drawing, photography, and description.

On day two, we traveled to sites in Albuquerque and Los Lunas, New Mexico; the Los Lunas site has garnered national media attention in recent years for the large number of amphibian specimens found with deformities such as missing or super numeric limbs. With the help of UNM Biology doctoral student Mason Ryan, Ballengée led the group in a morning of collecting specimens from ponds, with the aim of introducing students to the biodiversity in their local environment. Upon returning to the lab, we discussed the ethics of collecting, looked at the collected specimens under microscopes, and debated possible hypotheses for the amphibian deformities. The workshop introduced students to ways of understanding food web relationships and their human impacts on the habitat.

Image 3: Collecting specimens at Talin Supermarket

Workshop 2: Fluid Taxonomy with Suzanne Anker

In March 2012, Suzanne Anker led a workshop on “supermarket DNA,” in which we traveled to an international food market in Albuquerque to discover the diversity of locally available fungi specimens and subsequently learned how to sequence the DNA of those specimens. In both her writing and art practice, Anker’s work has examined the relationship between scientific developments in genetic research and the artistic sphere of production since Modernism. On day one, we took a bus to Talin Market, where we purchased a sample of each type of fresh fungi available. We returned to the mycology lab at UNM to learn about DNA using PCR (polymerase chain reaction) and Sanger sequencing methods from Don Natvig, Professor of Biology at UNM. Professor Natvig provided a detailed lecture on the structure of DNA, how PCR works to amplify particular genes, and how to sequence the DNA of fungi. The students, many of whom had never stepped foot in a biology lab, had the opportunity to practice the laboratory procedures required for DNA-based investigations.

On day two, Professor Natvig lectured on the sometimes surprising exchanges between mycology and human cultural production, including the history of the appearance of mushrooms in art imagery. We then returned to the DNA lab to discover that the group had an over 60% success rate in sequencing the different species of supermarket fungi. We learned how to read, access, and interpret nucleotide sequences on GenBank, a massive, publicly accessible online database of DNA sequences contributed to by researchers around the world. In the afternoon, Anker gave a presentation on a history of modern and contemporary artists working with the “cut and paste” methods of collage that parallel or presage current practices in genetic engineering. Students presented their collages and discussed the implications of overlapping practices in art and science.

Image 4: Jon Dunnum uses mammal specimens to highlight evolutionary processes

Workshop 3: Morphology and Evolution with Brian Conley

Artist and educator Brian Conley arrived in April 2012 to lead the third workshop of the CO-EVOLUTION series. Throughout his teaching and artistic practice, Conley has been investigating the overlapping space of scientific episteme, artistic agency, and social communication structures. This workshop was organized around a series of interdisciplinary presentations and short student projects that involved the collections at the Museum of Southwestern Biology (MSB). The workshop explored ideas from complexity theory that examines interrelated sets of chemical, biological, mathematical, spatial, technological, and social phenomenon. Each of the presentations addressed pattern formation in complex systems, whose elements are in dynamic interaction. On day one, Luis Bettencourt from the Santa Fe Institute gave an introduction to complex systems and patterns with examples from neuroscience, material science, plant anatomy, and urban growth. Felisa Smith, Professor of Biology at UNM, discussed her research in paleobiogeography and using the museum collections to investigate the relationship between climate change and morphological change in mammals. Jon Dunnum, Collection Manager of Mammals at the MSB, showed specimens from the mammal collection to highlight visible evolutionary patterns and relationships found among taxonomic groups. Each student then spent time with the specimens to conceive and develop an art project that might draw from the ideas discussed during the day.

Image 5: Brian Conley and CO-EV students discuss the complex systems in art and biology

On day two, Conley gave a presentation on the diverse approaches by modern and contemporary artists toward engaging scientific content. The talk included selected examples of works by Marcel Duchamp, Dan Zeller, Natalie Jeremijenko, Critical Art Ensemble, the Center for Land Use Interpretation, and Brian Conley. Students continued working on their pieces before gathering for a roundtable discussion of their works and further possibilities related to thinking through art and biological systems. Conley closed the session with a lecture on potentially applying principles of complexity and self-organizing systems to art production.

As the creators of the CO-EVOLUTION course, our approach to these workshops has been open-ended, allowing for each visiting artist to develop the program according to their own interests and available resources. In many cases, the artists have used the workshop as an opportunity to push their own means of inquiry with the students, in turn affording the students the experience of being a participant in the artists’ own learning process. Being positioned in the midst of this process—rather than as the recipient of already-articulated knowledge in the form of textbooks, published papers, and lectures—has been an important part of representing the research process in art and biology as active, present, and in a continuous state of redefinition. The workshops have created an opportunity to work closely with artists who have developed an in-depth dialogue and engagement with other disciplines, and who are able to reformulate these practices into new questions through art production. The distinct approach of each artist provides an introduction to the many ways that art and biological sciences can inform one another. Students and researchers in science coming into the course have reported being unfamiliar with the ways that contemporary artists engage scientific content; likewise, art students have found themselves in new territories within the lab, field, and scientific discourse. Participants from these diverse backgrounds are part of a mutual process of investigation and experimentation. One of the main challenges of the course has been to develop a common vocabulary amongst a diverse group. Terminology used in both fields commonly carried wide-ranging meanings, e.g. the meanings of site, specimen, data, collection, and research range widely amongst the students and researchers. At the same time, the possibility for one meaning to inform another provides the basis for spirited dialogue, shared knowledge, and productive friction.

Image 6: Project by CO-EVOLUTION student Julia Anderson

We have been committed to allow the discussion of ethical issues, which are often overlooked or given anemic attention in science education, to be addressed as they emerged. The ethics of genetic modification, specimen collection, and anthropogenic climate change were amongst some of the concerns that have surfaced through the workshops and the seminar. These are concerns that scientists, who must carry the mantle of objectivity, often face difficulty in addressing through the given modes of scientific practice. Artistic discourse and practice, while varying widely, contains the space for calling attention to ethical and socio-political urgency, in direct or indirect ways. Throughout the course, the question of audience has surfaced in conversation between both disciplines. While scientific literature for non-specialist audiences does exist, professional literature tends to be specialized and highly opaque to lay readers. Works of art and exhibitions, on the other hand, have the potential to address a more inclusive audience. Of course, the question of who constitutes the audience always exists and is malleable for the artist. For scientists, the social consequences of technological development, urgent environmental crises, and the struggle with political will to confront these crises create a demand for greater public awareness and the dissemination of accurate information. The scientific community is currently under greater pressure by federal granting agencies to make research data more widely available to the public. In the case of natural history museums, this is accomplished through online digital images and databases such as GenBank, VertNet, and Arctos. Artists, not constrained by the formal guidelines of science, can address content armed with the possibility of communicating, questioning, and expanding on scientific knowledge. At the same time, accountability remains vital, and the rigor and precision required by scientists finds its unique translation in art.

Negotiating formal outcomes has been yet another significant and interesting challenge of the course. Scientists, who follow strict guidelines for publishing and communicating the results of their research, often cannot afford to question the form of a product, whether a peer-reviewed paper, a raw data set, or a conference presentation. These guidelines are an integral part of the discourse of science within a global community that produces and shares new knowledge. Artists work to bring new forms of mediation and representation into being. They are tasked to invent their own processes and forms by establishing parameters and by using or ignoring given constraints. Rather than dictating one process as more creative or rigorous than another, we are interested in confronting the challenge of incorporating aspects of form, content, and method from both disciplines in order to ask what each field can contribute to the other. To deny the fact that real differences between these fields exist would be to ignore their divergent histories, objectives, language, and methods. Our aim is to mine the significance behind those differences and to refashion distinctions between forms of knowledge, forms of experience, and forms of inquiry.

Banner image:  Sequencing DNA with Suzanne Anker and Don Natvig in the UNM Mycology Lab

Between Ecological Art and Design: Infrastructural Intervention | Catherine Page Harris

Posted on by admin1963 Posted in Pedagogies, Spring 2013 | Comments Off on Between Ecological Art and Design: Infrastructural Intervention | Catherine Page Harris

Sculptural Infrastructure, 2010

This spring, for the second time, I am teaching a course called Sculptural Infrastructure at the University of New Mexico.  The class tends to be small and this year has attracted exactly the mix of students I hoped for.  There are three graduate students in design fields (landscape architecture and planning), three undergraduate seniors majoring in art, and one older student who works in the theater department.  The course exists in a conceptual juncture—an interstice—defined by an observation I have made in teaching for several years in both art and design. In a general way, I can count on art students to imagine what they can make and design students to imagine what they can’t. Art students are obliged by a specific medium, despite its limitations.  Design students have rarely had the experiences to imagine whether a piece of tube steel or a solid rod is a better choice for this particular application.  The result is artists limited to a physical practice and not exercising their conceptual muscles while designers rely on off-the-shelf products or other people’s expertise to imagine material possibility.

I designed this course with infrastructure as its central spine—the theme around which we would all work.  Infrastructure encompasses function, social practice, sculptural form, and is oddly ever present and yet, often invisible.  In class, when we talk about water and energy, using concepts of energy literacy[1] and water consumption world wide, inevitably, it seems there is a sense of newness to the world we take for granted.  Quantifying the privilege of our birth in the United States shifts our understanding of resources.  How resources are engaged with, whether we use them wisely, how we develop change—these all become topics of discussion.

This course, like many I teach, hovers on the edge of conversation, rather than discussion.  If discussion is the structured analysis of a text and conversation is the sharing of ideas, perhaps oft aired but not inspected in light of these readings before, then we err closer to conversation.  I seek to intervene with my readings, my design ideas, my experiences, and then sometimes I listen and take notes on the spinning of a conversational juggernaut launched by an assertion.  “Invisible infrastructure” floated two weeks ago—which the class determined to be mind control, based on media’s domination of popular culture and then shifted to minds sharing resources like the Jung’s collective unconscious or Sheldrake’s rats[2] who learn to run mazes even if they are not experiencing the maze themselves.

The course is structured so that instead of a competition, we have collaboration.  The students propose projects and one of the often most onerous requirements I levy is to involve the class in building the piece.  Students are largely accustomed to working on their own and the amplification of effort is hard for them to imagine.  With eight of us, we can make much more in three hours than any single pair of hands can, but it involves a letting go of control.  It is also a challenge to the individual process of “making” as we talk about the project proposals and students talk about each project’s conceptual framework and offer alternative ways we might build them.

This week we are at the tricky juncture, when we move from discussing readings and looking at proposals, to actually building the projects students have outlined.  I am concerned, as usual, about losing the students into the chaos of building. I can no longer rely on some fun visual aids and interesting readings to generate conversation that I structure.  We have readings scheduled throughout the semester, but they will lag as we bury ourselves into each project’s parameters.  The engagement of hands and minds on the practical aspects of building will silence our cerebration.  Our learning will be on a Wendell Berry model of letting the work teach us.[3]  And, my role shifts.  I’m still in charge of keeping the course on track, but I am not in control of the content and from now on I am a pair of hands and a mind to be directed by the students.  At first I have helped to organize their projects into buildable pieces and we are now awash in the sea of making them.

As pedagogy, this course involves a hybrid of conventional educational methods —presentation, reading, discussion—and uses some more recent arrivals: collaborative community, collaborative “making”, check-ins before class.  I think the most valuable piece of the pedagogy, however, is the offering of agency.  Much of my definition of education is the effort to define parameters of a field and then to encourage a student to become steeped enough in the field to add to it and stretch those parameters.  This course stumbles, as all human approximations of what we imagine do, but it succeeds most, I think, in offering a direct experience, agency, in change.  In a basic sense, the course structure is to define an infrastructural function and then think of ways to change it.  For some students, the challenge is imagining how to change what they know.  For some students, the challenge is reining in their design for change, not based in knowledge.  For other students, the challenge is maintaining the mental position that change is possible in a world rendered so drear by the ever present darkness of climate change, terrorism, war, disease, water shortage, peak oil. And the value of the course comes in providing a place where we investigate, without prejudice, but also without ignorance, what does it mean to end the domination of the car, or the flush toilet, or the electrical grid, or or or?  How would that be built?  What changes would it take?

Image: From Sculptural Infrastructure, published in the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest, Fall 2010:

[1] Saul Griffith,
[2] Rupert Sheldrake, “morphic resonance,” from interview in The Sun, January 2013
[3] Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry, 2003

The Desert Studies Project: More From Less Than Zero | Dick Hebdige

Posted on by admin1963 Posted in Fall 2012, Pedagogies | 1 Comment


“In a landscape where nothing officially exists (otherwise it would not be ‘desert’), absolutely anything becomes thinkable, and may consequently happen…”

—Reyner Banham, Scenes from America Deserta [1]

One weekend in March 2010, students from seven University of California campuses (UC Davis, UC Irvine, UCLA, UC Merced, UC Riverside, UC Santa Barbara, UC San Diego) gathered in Wonder Valley with friends and collaborators from outside the UC system in the shadow of Joshua Tree National Park between the Pinto and Bullion Mountains adjacent to the 925 square mile Twentynine Palms Marine Base on the eastern edge of the Mojave desert to install artworks guerilla-style in the abandoned jackrabbit shacks and surrounding terrain for an audience that comprised local community members, regional media and other interested parties, many of whom had traveled hundreds of miles to participate. The weekend event which included screenings and performances at the nearby Palms Bar and Restaurant and which ended with the opening of an exhibition of wall works at UC Riverside’s Palm Desert Graduate Center eighty miles to the west on Frank Sinatra Drive, a world away from the rough and ready Palms, in the golf-and-condo world of Palm Desert, was the last of three roving workshops (what we call “Dry Immersions”) that together represent the culmination of the first phase of the Desert Studies project organized by the University of California Institute for Research in the Arts (UCIRA).


The Wonder Valley site looked like an outtake from a Weather Channel special on tornados. Sculptural installations mounted on exposed foundation slabs or stuck directly in the dirt in the empty spaces between the shells of long vacated homesteads found a temporary foothold in a landscape strewn with construction debris—the shrapnel of exploded, unsustainable domestic arrangements.

A piece by Elcin Joyner (UCSB) concretized this feeling of precariousness: 16 cinderblocks each with four caster wheels glued to its base were stacked to form a “Mobile Ziggurat” – a diminutive echo of the first pyramid at Ur in the Sumerian desert in what is now Iraq. Erected in the shadow of the nearby US Marine Base, the modular, mobile, easy-to-assemble structure appeared to stymie any fantasy of precedence or permanence (the Ozymandias effect: Empires come and go).

Other works engaged head on with the institutionalized framing of the desert as spectator sport – In “Desert Die” (The Unmanned Minerals Collective: Jared Stanley [UC Merced], Matthew Herbert [San Diego State] and Gabie Strong [UCI]), we were offered a discombobulating alternative to the educational interpretive displays available in national parks. When visitors lifted and replaced the metal cube housed within a replica park trashcan, a mechanism was activated which triggered pre-recorded commentary on everything from  mirages to military history.

Other pieces used technology to explore and expose hidden features of the landscape. “Trace: Resonance Field,” a sound installation by David Wicks, Peter Hawkes and Elaine Hu (UCLA) used a device concealed beneath ceramic plates reminiscent of desert tortoise shells to translate the constant thrum of low level seismic activity deep under the earth’s surface into audible form.

Meanwhile Masha Lifshin (UCSB), positioned at a table next to a sunk-in-upon-itself pitched roof equipped with a brand new U.S. flag, dispensed freshly squeezed orange juice and handouts detailing a local 1950s scam that had realtors tying fruit to Joshua trees to draw in gullible aspiring citrus farmer pioneers.

The permeability of fact and fancy also drove “The Deuce Nine is a Ghetto,” a docu-fiction video installation by Claire Zitow, Elizabeth Chaney and Ash Eliza Smith (UCSD) screened on laptops inside a ruined cabin strewn with costumes, stills and props. Part ethnographic document, part improvised communal performance, the video featured escapist fantasies acted out by local residents, most notably by Chris Nelson, a sixteen-year-old with shoulder length hair, marooned in family quarters on the Marine base, assisted by his skate park posse. Tropes of entrapment and arrested motion – at one point Nelson’s crew annex an old wooden speed boat sunk into the sand – alternate with scenes of break out and magical transcendence as the idea of elsewhere merges with the mirage of anywhere but here.

As the sun began to set on the Saturday evening, with a late winter storm blowing in from the west, the screech and throb of improvised noise accompanied spectral images projected onto the three sided remains of what had once been someone’s (second?) home in recent UCI grad, Gabie Strong’s “UR Rituals”. As night fell, the lit up walls of the dilapidated structure at the center of the circle formed by the ten participating artists and musicians appeared suddenly animated, brought back from the dead  thanks to the rickety 16 mm projectors in a profane or holy resurrection – Dracula or Jesus? – feedback-heavy Second Coming shack attack.[2]


Desert 101: (Re)Boot Camp

The Desert Studies project is an ongoing pilot program in interdisciplinary, California-embedded, arts-centered research, experimental pedagogy, immersive curriculum design and process —curating organized by UCIRA. The idea is to articulate remote location immersive fieldwork to issues of contemporary concern via research-based art works, exhibitions and performances.

So what’s the project about and why deserts? ARID subscribers don’t need reminding that deserts are significant environments in terms of their character, variety and sheer planetary stretch.  But our students are subjected to a Desert 101 resume that includes the following facts and figures: There are deserts on every continent except Europe, the majority, contrary to the popular stereotype, composed of dirt and rock not sand. The Sahara at 350,000 square miles is the world’s largest sand desert though it’s dwarfed beside the 5.5 million square mile Arctic and 4.5 million square mile Antarctic, both of which are classified as cold deserts. California alone has 25,000 square miles of desert terrain straddling two distinct systems—the Mojave and the Colorado. In addition to the almost 3,000 square mile Death Valley National Park, located east of the Sierra range, and the 1,234 square mile expanse of Joshua Tree National Park in the state’s southeastern corner, California’s protected desert lands include the 2,500 square mile Mojave National Preserve, wedged between Interstates 15 and 40, and  California’s  largest State Park, the 500 square mile Anza-Borrego spread across San Diego, Imperial and Riverside counties. Introduced by Senator Dianne Feinstein in 1994, the California Desert Protection Act protects 7.7 million acres of the state’s arid BLM and National Park land. With this much designated desert wilderness on their doorsteps, even metropolitan Californians should need little introduction to what a desert looks like and how much of it there is though beyond the park boundaries California’s deserts host sizeable urban populations of their own, most conspicuously in the unbroken line of development yoking LA to “Indio and Other Desert Cities“ (as the freeway signage has it) along the 1-10 corridor.

Depending on the criteria used, deserts take up between one fifth and one third of the earth’s surface and are home to between 500 million and one billion people – between eight and fifteen percent of the world’s population. The wide variation in these figures derives from competing criteria on what constitutes a desert though there’s general agreement that a desert is any place that gets less than ten inches of rain per year or where more moisture is lost through evaporation than falls as precipitation.  The word ‘desert’ meaning “empty, barren place” is then fundamentally misleading: the Desert capital ‘D’- as opposed to actually existing lower case deserts in the plural – is an ideological category or non-category: an imaginary non-place against which actual places get to define themselves. This discrepancy between actual and imagined deserts is what gives the ultra arid landscape its peculiar strategic value and significance for us as artists and teachers because the D/desert can serve as a conceptual as well as an actual place to retreat to, regroup, rethink everything we take for granted: a place where we are always challenged to start again from scratch. The Desert capital ‘D’, when approached bi-focally in tandem with the actually existing lower-case deserts we study and immerse ourselves in, serves as a conceptual and practical boot camp (or re-boot camp) where we get a refresher course in basic social, survival  and what the Disney people call ‘imagineering’ skills.  So while we want to get beyond the ‘Desert’ to see how complex, fragile and resilient actual deserts are, we also want to take advantage in this project of the ‘Back to Square One’ factor – to use the d/Desert as an opportunity to review and revise fundamental principles and modes of operation.

As a growing global consensus around paradigms of environmental crisis combines with mounting evidence of human geological agency to highlight the finite nature of planetary resources, the desert biome has shifted from the margins to the center of attention. Concerns with conservation, bio-diversity, resource management and the impact of expanding populations on sensitive wilderness areas pull deserts everywhere into focus as dynamic but fragile eco-systems that need to be studied not just in terms of what and where they are right now but symptomatically, in terms of what may or may not be coming down the pike in the future. While scarcity and epidemic drought ensure that water will soon rival crude as the benchmark commodity, conflicts in oil-rich desert regions continue to constitute many of  today’s political hot spots. Closer to home the arid Southwest serves as the rehearsal site for the US contribution to some of those militarized encounters in other deserts while the sealing and securitization of the southern border around Tijuana has pushed the war fought between illegal immigrants, the Border Patrol, professional ‘coyotes’ and vigilante groups farther and farther east into the Sonoran desert with increasingly deadly consequences.

As currently constituted Desert Studies as an interdisciplinary endeavor has tended to be weighted towards the environmental and agricultural sciences with major input from geography and engineering, with sociology, anthropology and history generally taking a back seat and very little space reserved for the arts beyond the usual minor decorative or alarm bell sounding ‘consciousness raising’ functions. The arts haven’t generally been integrated at a substantive level into the research process. It is that exclusion we’re seeking to redress.

Historically, of course, deserts have played a major role in the big culture and civilization narratives, as the starting points where the major monotheistic religions and cuneiform writing were first introduced. In a more complicated way, the desert has figured for millennia not just as home to diverse nomadic and urban civilizations, but as a screen for contradictory human projections. The desert is pictured variously as:

  • • starting point (‘natural’ home to paleontology) and End Game (Armageddon)
  • • sanctuary and dumping ground
  • • next frontier of leisure and refuge of last resort
  • • unspoiled wilderness and irradiated hinterland
  • • existential, spiritual, military, technological and artistic test-site
  • • precious irreplaceable resource and dirt-cheap real estate development opportunity

As such, the desert is as much a jarring cluster of contradictory metaphors, myths and images as it is a set of distinctive eco-systems or social systems. The need for an expanded interdisciplinary and collaborative effort to grapple with the multiple complexities and challenges contained within the actual deserts of the world and within the no less complex idea of the ‘Desert’ – one capable of incorporating insights from as many stakeholders and relevant fields of expertise as possible is more urgent now than ever.  This drive towards spirited and inclusive convocation is what animates the Desert Studies project.

Dry Immersions 1 and 2

The installation and performance event in Wonder Valley and Palm Desert described at the beginning of this report was preceded by two earlier roving workshops. Dry Immersion 1, co-organized by UCIRA, the Palm Desert Graduate Center and Luminous Green, a European-based arts and media collective, took place over three days in February 2009 in the Boyd Deep Canyon Reserve, a UC Riverside-owned research facility adjacent to Palm Desert, primarily devoted to longitudinal studies of the impact of real estate development on the indigenous flora and fauna. Faculty and students from four UC campuses (Davis, Riverside, Santa Barbara and San Diego) together with UCIRA staff and visiting activists, and tactical media artists from Europe and California held a series of workshops over the three days on various topics including GPS-based art work, Native plant lore and sustainable design. Before dispersing, the group adjourned to the shores of the Salton Sea forty miles east of Palm Desert for a swim-dive performance by Long Beach-based endurance eco-artist, Sierra Brown. Brown’s piece titled Honolulu Club drew attention to the history of failed utopian aspirations which led in 1908 to the inadvertent creation of the ultra-saline thirty-five mile long inland sea and to its subsequent development as a now desolate and largely abandoned resort community.[3]

In 2009, Tyler Stallings, Director of UCR’s Sweeney Art Gallery in Riverside received a $10,000 UCIRA grant in partial funding for his proposal to mount a year-long series of public events, readings and screenings to be staged across Riverside County and the Coachella Valley. Tyler’s program was a response to the Institute’s Desert Studies proposal document circulated earlier that year. The initial call invited faculty and students from the nine UC campuses with arts programs to submit proposals for works engaging issues ”related to actual deserts and to the no less contentious bundle of historical projections made onto the idea of the Desert.”

The program was originally planned to culminate in a symposium organized in tandem with the exhibition of solicited art works on land adjacent to the Palm Desert Graduate Center.  However, issues of land use and a competing and previously approved plan for a sustainable garden on the undeveloped site forced us to jettison our initial idea and in effect, to reverse the order of events so that the symposium would now precede by several months a more de-territorialized (at least multiply-sited) exhibition.  As often happens, unforeseen circumstances forced us to rethink our founding premises and to come up with a creative solution more in keeping with UCIRA’s stated commitment both to research-based embedded artworks and to innovative exhibition and conference/symposium formats than the original plan.

The symposium now scheduled for four days in October, 2010 and centered around a rental property in Wonder Valley was reframed as a research and networking opportunity for potential art makers from across the system and beyond with focused discussion groups, presentations by a range of invited speakers and side trips to local points of interest including:

  • • Joshua Tree National Park
  • • Pioneertown, a community  northwest of Yucca Valley based around a 1950’s TV Western stage set
  • • Noah Purifoy’s sculpture garden in Joshua Tree
  • • local architectural non-profit, Eco Shack
  • • a privately owned museum of retired motel signs in Twentynine Palms
  • • the Integraton geodesic dome in Landers
  • • a guided tour of the nearby Twentynine Palms Marine Base (including a simulated  Iraqi city constructed out of shipping containers) organized by Lisa Tucker

More than sixty participants, including students and faculty from seven UC campuses attended this Dry Immersion 2 which ended with a guided tour by UCR- affiliated conservation biologist, Dr. Cameron Barrows of protected dune and oasis systems in the lower Colorado desert. Attendees were invited to submit proposals, together with requests for limited expansion funding to cover materials and installation/performance costs to the Sweeney and UCIRA and the resulting art works were exhibited and staged the following March in Dry Immersion 3. Comprehensive documentation of this process and work produced including photographs, podcasts and media coverage is available on-line at the Sweeney Gallery web-site:[4]

While the guerilla installations in Wonder Valley were dismantled and removed the following day, the exhibition at the Palm Desert Center stayed up into the spring. Works included 30″ x 30″ abstract canvases by Flora Kao (Otis College of Art and Design) based on frottage data collected at various sites in the upper and lower deserts; designs for fantasy prototype all terrain desert vehicles by Ken Ehrlich (UC Riverside/CalArts); and a series of photographs by Christopher Woodcock (UC Davis) of the simulated Iraqi city on the Marine base taken with a wide format camera.

“Scrap Matters”, an inventory/archive of the deteriorated texts found stuck to desert brush  collected by Desiree d’Allessandro (UCSB) and J.R.Venezuela (UCLA) during excursions to Wonder Valley delivers the Last Word in and on this summary of works produced for Dry Immersion 3.  Blown up to epic scale and digitally enhanced, the arbitrary pages torn from random books (including in one instance, a page from the Old Testament) form part of an archive composed by desert winds in collaboration with the cacti of half-filled out forms, supermarket receipts, foreclosure notices, incidental jottings, fragments of maps and newspaper ads: a geo-graphic testament to the brevity of history and to our fleeting purchase on the planet: a statement from the dry mouth of the Valley.

To return to the opening quotation, as desert denizens everywhere, human and non-human, know full well, the dictionary definition of the desert as a landscape where nothing exists is palpably false and misleading. Nonetheless we believe as the late Reyner Banham put it, that the desert is a space in which “anything is thinkable and may consequently happen.” The openness of that consequential horizon between what we can, in hope or dread, imagine and what may actually come to pass is in itself, to say the least, forbidding. Our task is to facilitate the varieties of thinking that may help to move us forward beyond the current impasse where we stand as a collective at a crossroads, poised between inertia and apocalypse.

Postscript: Get Lost

As the launching of this journal amply illustrates, UCIRA’s Desert Studies project does not stand alone. Instead it forms part of that more general geographical turn within the arts, humanities and social sciences which is driven by a worldly concern for the planet and the places we inhabit and a more considered assessment of our modus operandi as a species. The mapping trend evident across the spectrum from surveillance studies to the new low impact land art is facilitated in turn by the GPS and digital technologies, which are themselves transforming our experience of space and place. More locally, Desert Studies takes its inspiration and its cue from well established arts-based programs like High Desert Test Sites (now incorporated into the LA Biennial) and the exemplary research, open-source archiving, exhibition, publication and teaching initiatives sponsored by the Culver City-based Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI). It continues to evolve through the emphasis on an ethos of immersion and committed indirection signaled in the very terms we use i.e. ‘dry immersion’ and ‘roaming workshop’. Both phrases reflect our commitment to the idea of moving art students out of the studio, the library and the familiar rehearsal areas into ‘real world’ field-trip settings not simply to install but to undergo a potentially transformative experience. The stress on immersion comes from our belief that art and arts-centered research needs to be immersive as well as discursive – that new work and new ideas can be seeded through a mix of programmed content (the presentations/lectures/guided tours/site-visits, etc.) and un-programmed encounters with friends, colleagues, strangers and ourselves in the stunning if unfamiliar settings that the desert can uniquely provide. We believe that students can learn valuable lessons not just from dialogues with credentialed desert experts or from launching water-powered rockets made out of recycled pens equipped with ‘nose cones’ mounted with discarded cell phone cameras into the vast uncluttered horizon visible from Iron Age Road east of Wonder Valley as Misha Lifshin did one afternoon on Dry Immersion 2 but from talking, and more importantly listening to the veteran desert rats who frequent the Palms Bar and Restaurant way out there on the Amboy Road who live on the just about habitable outer fringes of the Mojave, who know the desert inside out and who on a daily basis make something viable and valuable (i.e. a culture) out of next to nothing. The education is, in other words, socially immersive too – designed to take the subject in every sense beyond itself in a return to criticality defined as the necessary crisis through which practice has to pass.

The phrase ‘roaming workshop’ refers to the resolutely nomadic questing nature of the project. It also refers indirectly to the new communications infrastructure in which we’re all enmeshed. Even in the desert we carry our laptops and cell phones most of the time and whether consciously or otherwise we end up witnessing the endless procession of the satellites that enable them to function as we gaze up in wonder at the star-clogged night sky even in the farthest reaches of the wilderness. On our field trips we move across the landscape like a cell phone in roaming mode – waiting to pick up whatever signals are available in the remote locations we find (and lose) ourselves in.  And on this latter point it is no coincidence that the course I teach at UCSB in Desert Studies is titled “Mapping the Desert, Deserting the Map.” At a moment when technology and hubris may tempt us to imagine that we know exactly where we are at all times, getting lost becomes an essential,  i.e. a vital, part of the exercise.

[1] P. Reyner Banham, Scenes in America Deserta (MIT Press, 1989)

[2] Shack Attack was a federally-funded program (1998-2005) administered by San Bernardino County that provided funds for demolition of derelict homestead cabins originally built to satisfy dwelling requirements for the Small Tract Act of 1938. For more info visit:

[3] For “Honolulu Club,”  artist, ‘Hotshot’ wildfire fighter and lobster boat captain, Sierra Brown waded into the sea in a vintage 1960’s wet suit and did a series of dives during which she surreptitiously exchanged the empty net she’d been carrying with a previously planted net containing seven live lobsters (the recreational bag limit in California) as workshop participants sat eating a lobster bisque lunch shore-side.  After removing the lobsters one-by-one and measuring each animal to establish that it met the minimum size limit (3 and a quarter inches) she declared the catch legal. A CBS 2 Local TV crew recorded the performance and interviewed workshop participants and the artist for a segment broadcast later that day on local news program, Eye on the Desert. During the course of the segment the presenter identified the principal ingredient of the bisque as “lobsters from the Salton Sea” though Sierra had at no point made that claim. I rang CBS the next day to rectify the error and a correction was broadcast at the end of that evening’s show.  The performance was triggered by the incongruous spectacle of live lobsters in a tank at an upscale supermarket in Palm Desert during a research trip the artist had made to the area some months earlier. Honolulu Club forms part of a series  of works made by the artist dealing with the environmental, ethical and political implications of global maritime trade and (over)consumption. For more information and documentation of other works see

[4] I would like to  take this opportunity to thank the entire team at the Sweeney especially Tyler Stallings, Director and Shane Shukis, Assistant Director who in addition to providing a solid institutional framework to work within, spent incalculable hours brainstorming/shepherding the project to completion and Georg Burwick, the Sweeney web designer who did a great job with the documentation and archive. I would also direct interested readers to Steven Biller’s review of Dry Immersion 3 in the July, 2010 issue of “Palm Springs Life.” My own account of the work presented owes a lot to Steve’s observant and insightful essay.

Ur Rituals was an immersive site-specific performance created by Gabie Strong, featuring artists Ted Byrnes (drums), Kelly Coats (flute), Helga Fassonaki (pedal steel, effects), Steve Kim (bass, effects, violin), Gregory Lenczycki (keyboards, electronics), Jorge Martin (turntable, trogotronics), Albert Ortega (resonant electronics), Ron Russell (bass, effects), Andrew Scott (guitar, stylophone), Jonathan Silberman (soprano saxophone) and Strong (bass, effects, films). Co-sponsored by UCIRA/UCR Sweeney Art Gallery for the exhibition Mapping the Desert/Deserting the Map: Dry Immersion 3.

Banner image: “Ur Rituals” (performance), Gabie Strong, 2010. Photograph by Christopher Woodcock. © 2010 Gabie Strong.

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Inside ALI: Slow Reveals, GIS Trajectories, and Watercourse Urbanism | Jennifer Bonner

Posted on by admin1963 Posted in Fall 2012, Pedagogies | 1 Comment

Slow Reveal

The political, geographical, and ecological acts inscribed in the desert landscape by the land artists of the 1960s – a key historical precedent for Arid Lands Institute’s curriculum – ask students of architecture participating today in the desert west questions about visibly staging the forms and processes of occupying dry lands.

The Arid Lands Institute (ALI) is an applied research center of Woodbury University School of Architecture, dedicated to issues of aridity, climate change and the design of the built environment. Based out of Los Angeles, ALI and its Summer Field Station use the 500,000-square-mile interior west as classroom and test-bed for design innovation.

Beyond the physical artifacts left behind at these earthen works – piled basalt rock (Smithson), carved sandstone (Heizer) and formed concrete (Holt) – the land artists also documented the construction (and deterioration) process as a performance. Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty”, a time-based film, recorded the sequence of dump trucks as the landform evolved over time. Likewise, works like Heizer’s “Double Negative” are designed as observatories for their own slow processes of transformation, decay and disappearance.

This slow reveal combined with an ecological proposition is the basis for a project by Stepan Andreasian entitled “Toxic Island”.  What Andreasian proposes to reveal is both the (slow) construction process and the (slow) process of ecological restoration it is designed to accomplish.

In Andreasian’s proposal, there is a strong desire to promote public participation within a civic park during the staging of a fifteen-year remediation strategy for a post-industrial site in the City of Burbank. Initial mapping research by ALI charts a territory of migratory toxic plumes in Burbank’s ground water – the legacy of Lockheed Martin “Skunk Works” facility and the aerospace industry – and a depleted aquifer. Andreasian chose a challenging remediation site – a concrete-capped ‘island’ land-locked by freeways in the heart of Burbank.

Three large site plans labeled “Years 1-5, Years 5-10, and Years 10-15” illustrate Andreasian’s manipulation of a new public ground. By calling attention to the subterranean plumes otherwise “out-of-sight” and allowing opportunities to witness remediation, public space manifests in the form of drive-thru inflatables during Years 1-5 when toxicity is at its height on the construction site. During Years 10-15, the inflatables are removed and recreational spaces are implemented, slowly allowing the public to re-occupy a larger portion of the site. A visual, time-based proposal emphasizes water scarcity yet also fits into the arid West’s heritage of infrastructure as art form and art form as infrastructure. This slow reveal or unfolding of the past (Lockheed Martin’s occupation of the site), present (derelict concrete plinth deemed a Superfund site by the EPA) and future (a re-constructed landscape) found in Andreasian’s work differs from Land Art as a mark about time as subject. Rather time is part of the medium – a requirement of the architecture and landscape design itself.

Andreasian’s proposal arranges space into an appropriate sequence of processes and public occupation while also cleaning and recharging the aquifer. The project claims to not be merely a technical fix to the water contamination, but promises more out of its performative landscape. However, I’m not sure we are convinced. Architects would benefit from a stronger marking of a similarly symbolic territory that Heizer, Smithson and Holt accomplish so elementally. This generation of students, those that were coming-of-age during 9/11 might also benefit from using more politics and agency in their work, or else we are slowly left with piles of pragmatic, appropriate and polite productions of architecture and landscapes. Yes, they are “functioning” and “fixing problems” (as observed in the architect-as-landscape-urbanist projects), but they are lacking the confrontational potency that the Land Artists still own.

Beginning with a different historical precedent, the following project suggests how ALI might further develop a pedagogical position within a GIS-based (Geographic Information Systems) trajectory.

GIS Trajectories

Drawn by visionary surveyor of the American West, John Wesley Powell, the map of “The Arid Region of the United States, Showing Drainage Districts” (1890) boldly envisions the settlement of municipalities and agricultural zones to fit within hydrographic basins. Powell’s watershed map represents an ideological framework with traces of a “meta-project” (Jeffersonian grid) but most importantly advocates for a “meta-particular-project” (proto-GIS) – one that is hyper-local and with specificity.[1]

This map is a strategic starting point for much of ALI’s messaging – be it to a public audience or in the classroom. By understanding the limits and possibilities of human inhabitation given changing hydrologic conditions, a water and climate GIS trajectory allows ALI teams to rethink capacity, scale, processes and forms of inhabitation.

Taking clues from Powell’s provocation, graduate researcher Cesia Lopez proposes her own version of a meta-particular-trajectory regarding the role of water infrastructure and public architecture in the city of Los Angeles.

Lopez’s thesis work began by charting a vast regional scale – the California State Water Project and the Colorado River Basin – combining specific variables such as water and energy, water and climate, and water and topography. Next, through a series of tightly-focused methodologies, Lopez mapped water and gravity, water and public space, and water and culture. She looked at historical precedents in Rome and Istanbul, and at three disparate sites in Los Angeles: Pershing Square, Dodger Stadium, and the headwaters of the LA Aqueduct.

This combinatory act of placing hydrological data, topographic elevations and civic space together into a singular drawing challenges the way we might view a city, thus alluding to Powell’s radical re-survey of the arid west. The potential in a GIS trajectory lies in the curatorial decision of the author to combine variables or data sets otherwise separated and studied in isolation. In Lopez’s proposal, she recognizes a semi-arid Mediterranean climate within the city (and hydrography) of Los Angeles and encourages gravity fed water systems to fulfill a larger role in the public realm, noted in a series of large urban geographical sections.

Critical to Lopez’s proposition is a subset of drawings that count, sort and catalogue less desirable points, lines and surfaces of the city’s infrastructure including maintenance holes, storm water pipes and catch basins. These offer a visual taxonomy of specific and local sites in the urban fabric where water infrastructure and public architecture might co-exist. Meta and particular, this body of work understands the full range – from the regional scale to the overlooked storm drain – of a large gravity-based infrastructure.

Using Powell’s map as a throw-down, ALI has developed a pedagogical position enabling a variety of water and climate trajectories amongst its participants and through academic outreach. I believe this position is already well underway within the Institute; studio by studio, the GIS research is forming a territory for designers to express their Powellian voice, curiously and innovatively.

Watercourse Urbanism

Seventy miles south of Paolo Soleri’s Arcosanti community (1970), Jesus De Anda gets to work on envisioning a post-sprawl, post-foreclosure Phoenix and constantly struggles with the historical baggage that is associated with such tabula rasa projects. De Anda proposes to raze Phoenix and its poor housing stock completely, but carefully embraces the historic and modern day canal infrastructure.

At first glance, the project entitled “Canal Adjacencies” resembles a bad version of Arcosanti, but a more careful reading of the proposal reveals the contemporary relevance of a watercourse urbanism. Similar to the landscape urbanists, there is a direct correlation between the performance of landscape and the organizational quality of infrastructure, which in this case yields a potentially productive urbanism.

De Anda does this by repositioning the role of waterway. Stepping away from the historic role of waterway as idyllic, scenographic or industrialized-utilitarian, the canals some perennial, some ephemeral, some natural, some manmade – are accepted as the basic fabric of desert urbanism: both sustenance and civic space. By adopting a ground-zero scenario of nothing-but-the-canals-remains, De Anda then generates a set of rules for desert city- and building-design. The project contends that architecture must behave, above all, as a topography shaped, like soil itself, by hydrography. Housing topography is a series of surfaces shaped to control, direct and collect water. Exaggerated extrusions of space in section create deep shade and cooling air flows. In the context of De Anda’s selective tabula rasa conceit, architecture is re-drawn to serve water rather than water drawn to serve architecture: a reversal of industrialized urban production in arid lands.

De Anda mined a singular history (canals) yet disregarded context (the existing city). This risk he took put aside the political, economic and cultural implications of erasure in favor of conducting a thought-experiment. It is important that drylands pedagogies leave room for experimentation that just might result in these fundamental reversals.

These notes taken from Inside ALI suggest there are multiple positions percolating within the framework of the Institute.

[1] For further clarification, the Jeffersonian grid is used as an example of a meta-project, one that is totalizing and operates regardless of changes in climate. Respectively, GIS exemplified here as a meta-particular-project places emphasis on local specificity and case-by-case scenarios.

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