Elevating Marfa | Ben Burtenshaw and Sarah Jones

We stand at the highest point in town. That point from which in every direction you can still see the tops of the mountains. Tiny disconnected black triangles at midday that turn a dusty purple as the sun drops in the evenings. We remember when we could see the bases of those mountains. The space between the Davis Mountains and the foot of Emory Peak. When every ridged stripe bled a different shade of lilac against orange, toward the floor of the original plain. When every crevice was a different blue, yellowed in contrast by the evening light, Oligocene and Eocene; undivided. The sheer magnitude of those mountains dwarfed our will to leave. Our lust for height filled us with the kind of satisfaction that can only come from the illusion of presiding over the grandeur of a landscape that one did not invent, and has not yet destroyed.

There was a comfort in that fortress ring of mountains around the town—we lived inside of the mountain’s crown, kings and queens of the railway track that severed the town.[1] Waving to the tourists who came for the sculptures, the coffee, the ice-cream, the desert. But now the landscape is blind and featureless but for the tower and the uncanny peaks. The small black hillocks, like a trail of insect bites on the endlessly flat ground, are the ruins of the small town’s mountain fortress. They lock us here in a present that we could never have imagined as our future. There are no more tourists, there is nothing left to see. The coffee, the ice cream and the sculptures are underground. Petrified. Everything has risen to flatness and the train tracks are fossils deep below the tower. Our town is only the tower now.

Long before the fall the tower stood taller than the town hall. Taller than the courthouse, the neon signs on the gas stations. Dwarfed only by the distant ring of mountains, it shone endlessly in the desert. It shone with the silver of a star, ignored and distant. Holding our water but not our imaginations; a monument to the benign. It still shines, but it shines here on the new ground, the risen ground. The glittering sunspot is our obsession. We stare into its blinding light and tell it over and over again of our tragedy. We tell the shining tower, with a virulent regret, of how we gave it our train, our trees and our mountains. We feed the tower the ghosts of everything it has already swallowed. And the shining tower, in whose shadow we kneel, the shining tower who took our town, is all we have left. It casts its shadow inside of us and out, it is our only shade. We sit in its darkness now and the sounds we make are echoed and reuttered for us by our tower.[2] We whistle into its darkness. It masters our voices as we retell its story. Everything is smaller now. One hundred miles between lilac and silver,[3] reduced to a diameter of 40 feet of steel.

Since we lost the things we loved to see, we have started to listen. Sound is something else without the amphitheatre of the lost mountains. It’s something close to us that lives with hot breath in the empty silver belly of our tower. We empty ourselves into the tower; confessionally we flood its emptiness, as it flooded ours. We talk about events that preceded the flood but the time lines have fallen apart, our memories collide and collapse into one another. We can no longer date the sculptures or the storms. We remember the explosion and we remember the flood. Everything else is evaporating history and we know that as our stories dissolve, our past straightens out into a fine line. First the explosion, then the fall. The tower holds these things for us. Nature eats everything else.

Some people say that the explosion was our unheeded warning, that had we heardreally heard the explosion, we could have predicted the fall.[4]They say it was a warning sign, an omen. Others say that it was the explosion that caused the fall. That the explosion scared the tower. That the shock of the echoing bang, the kind that you feel in your chest before the crack racks your ears, striking backwards into your jaw, terrified the fragile tower. The tower flinched. It took a short sharp breath in panic and its spine spiked upwards an imperceptible fraction and it hit its silver head on the perfect blue sky above the town. And the bleeding began. The tower wept for the explosion, for the ruptured monument. And the crown of the desert began to fill with what should have been soft warm tears. But wasn’t.

It’s possible that the last of the water was what caused the explosion, perhaps in this way, it was a sign. The last water that I remember was from the rainstorm, the freak storm that rained down from here to Colorado Springs. Ten inches of pouring rain in the first hour, twenty-two inches in the second hour.[5] That was where the last of the water came from. And the sculptures were soaking up the water, and the tower wasn’t. The last of the rainwater moved into the sculptures. It permeated the imperceptible imperfections in their concrete faces. The rising damp bruised the edges of the pale grey. Blossoming black, unfurling its fragile dark petals. An inversion of our desert nights; black stars in a silver sky. The monumental sculptures seeped toward the beginning of ruin. Nature crept inside. We watched as the water disappeared, but we didn’t listen, we just let it go. We were concerned for the sculptures and not for the water.

And then the fall. The tower began to spill. Its small tin hat cracked from its silver body and the dust began to pour. What should have been waterfalls were instead snakes of desert dust. They languidly split their own skins as they burst from the sky. They raced and slithered without end, downwards from the perfect blue sky. The choking dry earth, dragged from the long emptied aquifer, flowed hot like lava, dry like sickness.[6]Bloody, rasping clouds exploded from the earth like snakes as they smashed their lithe bodies against the railway tracks, the buildings, the bushes, the streets and the trucks. Wallowing, the town was choked and suffocated.[7]

The sculptures appeared as if they were sinking into the earth, slowly interred, cutting a deep diagonal against the sky, dust pulling down on their thick sides. We watched the burial in horror, the erupting silver tower’s burning breath on the backs of our necks. The fall was flattening out the creases in history where doubt hides in darkness. The dust raced in its murderous embrace. Its smothering came with heavy breath and a rhythmic pushing on our chests. It wished the sculptures deathwards as it climbed their faces. The dust wept dissolution.

We ran for higher ground, we stood atop the sculptures, we climbed on to our burning tin roofs. The amassing dust swirled beneath us, pushing us upwards. We made our way, eyes burning, skin stinging, to the tops of our mountains. The tower, tapped into the burning dry earth, spewed out dust for forever. Thick like ash. A blinding cloud. We couldn’t see, we were forced skywards. The screaming of silent dust ringing in our ignorant ears. Our consumption consumes us now. Enacting a dual cannibalism, out of time, the snakes swallow us, as we swallowed them.

I know we were the cause of the swallowing fall. I know that it was our greed and our disinterest that covered our mountains and our train tracks. If we hadn’t stolen the water, the fall might have been a flood. If we had paid heed to our tower, our monument to our everyday, instead of to our sculptures, our monuments to moments, we would not walk 3,000 feet above the ruins of what we had. If we had elevated the status of the water, the tower would not have filled to bursting with the ashes of our greed. I know that it was our deaf theft that has left us with only dust and small black triangles. And the tower; our ruin.

And we stay beside the tower now, anchored to its hollowed belly and the waxing, waning circle of shadow. The silver tower waves the sky on without us, telling it not to wait, and leaving us here as weight. We drag as mass about the body of our monument, trapped in its orbit, becoming ignorant of our own. Turning towards it and away from ourselves. Does the moon know the pull of the sun in the embrace of the earth. Could it know a turning, beyond tidal locking, in the arms of its lover?[8]

The tower lies on its side. It seems to exert a downward force. Not into the ground as if to be subsumed, but away from the sky. It is as if neither the swallowing earth nor the open sky wants this ruin. The tower cannot run away with us and into the sky. It no longer reaches upwards in the dark, trying to match its silver with the desert stars. The tower can only ground us in its authored form.

I whistle into the throat of the tower as I recount this part of the story. I lean into the lion’s mouth, sucking in the tower’s stale breath. I whistle to the tower and not to you. I enter a third turn; to the other, through the tower.[9]

The small slice of sound is hot as it skates off the backs of my teeth. Alive, it sings forward and lays like a string of insults into the toppled tower. It hits the tin walls with all of the force of hurt, and the angle of incidence prepares to double itself. The hollow tower refuses to heed to a thin whistle, to something lean in its living, given, pleading. The cylinder steals something before the sound can angle back in a perfect reflection. It turns the sound on itself. Hurt echoes off the tin as bitterness and returns cruel. What should have returned as it left, a desperate pitched call, remains unavowed as if screamed into shadow. The sound touches death and comes back ringing dead. It razors my nape and I no longer recognize what left my chest.

I whistle because I know that when we did not listen, we traded all of our sight for these echoed sounds. The sounds of our own voices, the voices I hear now as I tell the story of the fall, once again, into the empty tower. I know that I whistle, in the most futile way, into a darkness that I complicity let fall.


[1] In 1882, “Marfa, Texas, like most of the towns out here, was founded on a single thought: get the railroad through” (Browne). Through Marfa’s various economic and social transformations, the train passing through has been a consistent and powerful line running across the desert town.

Browne, Byron. Driving Southwest Texas: On the Road in Big Bend Country. The History Press, 2011. Print.

[2] Monuments and ruins act as “sentinel[s] of historicism” (Sadek) within society, keeping the process of history making on a linear trajectory. They intervene in the process of remembering and forgetting. However, only monuments utilise a remembering-forgetting in order to sustain a perpetual forward motion regardless of the ramifications. They do not implore an amnesia but instead, an assignment of the present to the past, or a putting on record. This is manifested in the use of commemoration over memory that removes the wound of the event, but maintains honour or potential for revenge.

Unlike the monument, the ruin dutifully retreats to allow an object to act as “aestheticized dilapidation” (Sadek). This object holds “two opposing tendencies of ruination and edification, of life and death” from here we can either enter into the commemoration of past events, mechanised through nostalgic formalism, or we can “stand outside nostalgic formalism and recognize in the ruin the synthesis which overcomes the terms of a false and ancient enmity.” In order for the ruin to convince us to commemorate, it is fundamental that it is not current. Being in the past removes the ruin from a heightened state of urgency. “In this form [the ruin], we thus feel the vitality of those opposing tendencies and, instinctively sensing these antitheses in ourselves, we notice, beyond everything merely formal and aesthetic, the significance of the configuration in whose serene unity they have their synthesis” (Simmel 381). Like the monument, the ruin, stepped back from urgency, is capable of commemoration over memory, which is fundamental in the maintenance of a linear history.

“Ruins perform their historicist role most fully when employed to expedite the withdrawal of the negative from the present. In other words, the catastrophe that may inhabit the present and bind it tight to the crushing weight of its own unyielding presentness must be swiftly evicted and efficiently framed as a ruin, lest our resident belief in a planned and better future be hindered and jeopardized” (Sadek 1). Here, Sadek describes how the ruin expedites the negative from the present and into the past by masking the ramifications of past events.

Reza Negarestani’s analysis of a ramification in relation to a commitment to human can be used here to explain the nature of a ramification on the present from the past: “By eroding the anchoring link between present commitments and their past, and by seeing present commitments from the perspective of their ramifications, revision forces the updating of present commitments in a cascading fashion that spreads globally over the entire system. The rational structure of a commitment, or more specifically, of commitment to humanity, constructs the opportunities of the present by cultivating the positive trends of the past through the revisionary forces of the future” (Negarestani). If one compares this orientation of the ramification—here through reason, rather than through the disregard that takes place within Sadek’s definition of a monument or ruin—the anti-revisionary potential that Sadek sets out above is exposed by Negarestani’s commitment to human. The present is “cultivated” through its connection to the past, rather than through commemoration, which masks the past and in turn the ramifications of the present.

Negarestani, Reza. “The Labor of the Inhuman.” E-Flux Feb. 2014. Web. June 2014.

Sadek, Walid. “The Ruin to Come.” The Labour of Ruin. Brussels: erg. 18 Oct. 2013. Reading.

Simmel, Georg. “The Ruin.” The Hudson Review Vol. 11, No. 3 Autumn (1958). Print.

[3] Between 1883 and 1942 the Shafter mines near Marfa produced 30,290,556 troy ounces of silver [U.S. Geological Survey Geographic Names Information System: Shafter, Texas]. But between 1946 and 1947 minimal production was recorded due to “increased production costs, a shortage of miners and an attempt to unionize those who were employed, [so] the American Metal Company simply shut down the operation.”

“Shafter, Texas.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation 06 June 2014. Web. 08 June 2014.

Smith, Julia Cauble. “Shafter, TX.” Handbook of Texas Online. Texas State Historical Association. Print.

[4] Francesca Esmay was the Chinati Museum’s Conservator between 2001 and 2006, overseeing the conservation of 15 untitled works in concrete, 1980-1984. The conservation process saw the concrete works lifted from the ground and restored to the state that Donald Judd intended for them. Esmay describes “inherent flaws such as cracks and losses throughout” (Esmay) the works as well as “horizontal dark bands” and “lift lines” on several of the panels. They were initially amended by the first fabricator CRS, by casting the panels vertically and “since it was not possible to fill an entire mold up with one pour, it was done in stages or ‘lifts.’ There are also numerous instances where the reinforcing steel was too close to the surface of the concrete, leading to immediate cracking,” (Esmay 27) that caused imperfections in the concrete faces.

In October of 2001, Esmay “learned of a violent explosion that took place in the field at one of the corners of the concrete works, piece No. 3. The cause of the damage was not immediately apparent, but it was clear that an enormous force was exerted given the displacement of large pieces of concrete, which were scattered up to 20 feet away” (Esmay 29). Furthermore, some of the blocks were found to be sinking into the desert soil beneath them.

The earth pulling down on these once-were-monuments, the point at which nature begins to take control or become the master over man, is the fundamental point at which the maker is met with an equal weight of assertion; the assertion to respond to the landscape is challenged by the landscape. But when the conservator’s hand reaches down to lift the monument from being swallowed by the earth, the reclamation is a slight to the earth that pushes down. A heavy-handed pushing down of nature in the pulling up of the monument.

Esmay, Francesca. Chinati Newsletter 15 2010: p. 26-31. Web.

[5] In May of 1935, ten inches of rain fell in an hour at Woodward Ranch near Marfa, Texas. The water was reported as being “chocolate brown.” During the resultant floods, 21 people died.

“What Is the Most Rain to Ever Fall in One Minute or One Hour?” Weather Underground. N.p., 02 June 2013. Web. 08 June 2014.

[6] “From August 2010 to June 2011, Texas received its lowest rainfall in 117 years.” Marfa depends heavily on groundwater from an igneous aquifer that is recharged by rain. “It’s not an underground river but a slow-moving part of the hydrological cycle,” explained Kevin Urbanczyk, from the Rio Grande Research Center.

Butcher, Sterry. “Marfa, Presidio fare better than some amid drought.” 28 July 2011.

[7] “The 1930s were times of tremendous hardship on the Great Plains. Settlers dealt not only with the Great Depression, but also with years of drought that plunged an already-suffering society into an onslaught of relentless dust storms for days and months on end. They were known as dirt storms, sand storms, black blizzards, and ‘dusters.’ On Sunday, the 14th of April (‘Black Sunday’), a mountain of blackness swept across the High Plains and instantly turned a warm, sunny afternoon into a horrible blackness that was darker than the darkest night.”

“The Black Sunday Dust Storm of April 14, 1935.” National Weather Service Weather Forecast Office. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 June 2014.

[8] Roger Caillois explains acts of mimicry performed by certain organisms as moving beyond the biological (or magical) intermediate steps of the mimicry of a surrounding milieu. In the final stages of this process of assimilation, the organism itself must activate the process, be it by pure automatism or “temptation by space.” This extreme temptation he designates as “legendary psychasthenia.”

Caillois positions psychasthenia as a tropism (a turning in only one direction towards a stimulus). However, if we consider the milieu as the “body” towards which the mimetic “body” turns, and if the milieu is darkness, then the darkness that consumes is also the darkness that is consumed. If we are to acknowledge the perspective of the organism, it is also possible that within a “temptation by space” there could conceivably be “desire.” As in the affective event, both bodies, in the coming of the two together, act upon one another. Darkness is what one turns towards, as it turns to consume. Darkness is not only space or milieu, darkness is body, force and movement. Darkness is the space between bodies in which the actioning of the third takes place, and in being so, darkness is an active body itself. It does not simply make space for the turn, it is the turn.

Caillois, Roger. “Mimicry and Legendary Psychasthenia.” Trans. John Shepley. October Winter 1984.

[9] Jan Verwoert posits the “witness” to art as someone who “must dare to be targeted, affected or moved by the feelings and thoughts of others” (Verwoert). Witnessing involves the externalisation of an unresolvable emotion, whereby the witness is called upon from “outside” of the process of transference. This third person can be asked to bear witness, and it is this gratuitous witness through which reality (and art) can be experienced. This invitation for another to bear witness takes place in the “zone of sentience” where “art and writing come into their own” (Verwoert).

It is from the threshold of the zone sentience, upon which art and writing are created that they must also be cast. This is the space of affect; the space of feelings and emotions that leave no quantifiable or tangible trace of the act of witnessing, regardless of one’s perception of it as reality. Verwoert writes, “When it relates to occurrences in the sphere of sheer emotion, there is no answer to the haunting question: ‘Can I believe that what I saw that night was real and not just fantasy?’ If the occurrence witnessed remains disavowed or disappears, the one who witnessed it will always lack—and therefore compulsively be in search of further witnesses to confirm their account” (Verwoert).

Since there can be no real witness upon whom all of the joy and sorrow of another can be cast, there is always the potential that a witness account may be perceived as fallacious. Verwoert suggests the ghost as the perfect witness. Unseen and unavowed, the ghost who lives in darkness (in the affective space of the zone of sentience) is the perfect recipient to whom we (artists) whistle, as “whistling in the dark is a way of relating to something out there like it was there and not there” (Verwoert).

Verwoert, Jan, and Vanessa Ohlraun. Tell Me What You Want, What You Really, Really Want. Rotterdam: Piet Zwart Institute, Willem De Kooning Academy, Rotterdam U, 2010. Print: p. 268-269.


Posted on by admin1963 Posted in Fall 2014, TAAK

Comments are closed.