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 and Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men. 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, exits along the road are revealed to lead to county, state and federal prisons, nuclear energy and waste plants, missile launch sites, open air mines, the site of the first atomic bomb test, industrial agriculture and cattle ranching, military bases, border patrol stations, a gigantic air force plane graveyard, and several counties in multiple states that lay claim to harboring a corridor of death; arid border regions where undocumented migrants cross, and walk through the desert for days in triple degree temperatures without adequate resources, leading to hundreds of deaths a year. This land has a trail of tears in every direction.
At El Paso, TX, the road skirts its sister city of Ciudad de Juarez, a murder capital of the world (8.5 murders a day in 2010), divided by a borderline drawn by the Rio Grande, where the Mexican cell phone towers overpower those of my service with AT&T, my own private little first world problem for which they do immediately text me to warn of international roaming fees if no immediate action is taken. While driving, never having left the country; itcanwait.com, indeed.
The poo-poo choo-choo payload
Before taking a right at Van Horn, TX, for the last hour ride across a stretch of ‘authentic’ American prairie to my final destination of Marfa, there is a full stop to be made for the Border Patrol at the Checkpoint of the Stars in Sierra Blanca –a dusty town 16 miles from the Mexican border that, despite international treaties forbidding it, is home to the nation’s largest open air sewage sludge dump, where daily from 1992 to 2001 45 sludge train cars dubbed by the Texas Observer ”the poo-poo choo-choo” completed a 2,065-mile journey by dumping 250 ton of New York City sewage cake on the West Texas land, earlier in the 20th century already the scene of the Dust Bowl. The known list of toxins the sludge cake contains counts over 68,000, from cyanide to dioxin to e-coli, left to dry and fly of as dust over Texas and Mexico, a crime against the environment and humanity a long line of governors like GW Bush still encourage as good business, public health be damned. Long train caravans accompany one throughout the ride through the southwest, their horns and rumblings part of the scenery, the industrial arteries of our civilization, its payload the price we pay.
Checkpoint of the Stars
During the ‘citizen check’ the Border Patrol agent eyes my foreign passport and permanent resident Green Card suspiciously and is borderline rude, part of his training to take charge and keep control, entitled by an absolute power to fuck with my destiny if shown just the slightest contempt. I learn later, a Belgian shepherd dog is nearby sniffing vehicles specifically for hidden aliens, but also for that medical marijuana from California or the recently legalized product from Colorado and Oregon. Possession is still a federal crime, especially not to be messed with here in Texas. Ask Willie Nelson, Fiona Apple and Snoop Dogg, the stars arrested at this checkpoint and finding themselves up against federal charges of felony-level drug possession. Thank good old west coast space age innovation for its vacuum sealed, chocolate brownie, thc-laced edibles, however a liberty ignorantly taken once but too intimidated by the ruthless consequences to dare to repeat, a restriction on my personal choices and freedom enforced by this loony lone star state that thumps its chest for being the most freedom loving of them all, yet limits mine as it has its for-profit private prisons to fill. In this militarized border zone my good fortune of course is that I am white and citizen of a nation that is part of the favorable equation.
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 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.
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 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.
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 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).
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
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
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
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.
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.’ 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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 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.’Prairie dogs are a keystone species, with a 150 other animals and birds counting on them for their livelihood. In 1899 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.
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, an animal I have only encountered along the way as road kill.
Project site: www.taak.me