Hyperjunk: Site Specificity Online

March 2, 2013 · Print This Article

Cube of Forest on the Golden Gate by Superstudio 1970–7

In an exhibition last year at the Geffen Contemporary in Los Angeles entitled Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974 co-curators Phillip Kaiser and Miwon Kwon attempted to create the most comprehensive assessment and categorization Land Art to date. This exhibition was lauded for not merely being comprehensive, but also for challenging the American-centric notions that usually define this movement, thus extending the conversation into a more international discourse. Thinking about this exhibition, and the attempts by the curators to reintroduce site-specific practices into a contemporary conversation has made me question the role of site and of location within digitally produced works.

Kwon herself offers many perspectives on the shifting state of site-specific work in her One Place After Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity. The book examines the emergence of site-specific artworks as a direct response to the stale/domestic/white cube settings that more commonly permeate contemporary art at the time. She notably points to the shift of site-specificity from wilderness sites back into the gallery due to the convenience of re-fabrication processes. This practice is then eventually supplanted by an adoption of institutional critique performance by museums as a way of continuing to support site-specificity work. However, this gesture of support still truncates this work within the confines walls of the institution. As a result of the increased modularity and/or insularity of many site-specific works – an effort to make these pieces more capable of traveling to multiple institutions – Kwon argues that the very nature of a site-specific practice is more mobile as of late.  As a result:

“the specificity of the site in terms of time and space is rendered irrelevant, making it all the easier for autonomy to be smuggled back into the art work… The artwork is newly objectified (and commodified) and site specificity is redescribed as the personal aesthetic choice of an artist’s stylistic preference rather than a structural reorganization of aesthetic experience…. In this way, site-specific art comes to represent criticality rather than performing it.”

This trajectory not only asks artists to take hold of the performative role of a location based work (as famously done by Andrea Fraser) but it also asks artists to take the materiality of mobility as the primary location for criticism. If a work of location-based art is freed from needing specific time and space to discuss locational identity, then how might this serve an artist already working with a medium that embraces mobility? If one were to embrace the spatial and temporal flexibility of location then this site can become decentralized or abstracted in order to speak to the underlying cultural significance of a specific place.

It’s important to note here the importance difference in the two types of locations that artists might engage: space and place. In space, artists are concerned with geography, geometry, and dimensions of distance or volume; however, in place, artists are investigating the culture, history, identity, and politics of a location. This differentiation is important since space is the only location of the two that requires (or at least asks) the artist to be physically present with the site. (Various Marina Abramovic puns can be inserted here).

With place, that physicality is not required. In fact, place does not inherently require any physical manifestation whatsoever. Place can exist in memory, in writing, in oration, or in any variable/ephemeral media. In this way, place is much more akin to Conceptual art of the 1970s, where the idea of a work takes precedence, and the execution of object-making for the purposes of containing that idea are secondary (or at least that is the hope).  If place can then exist within non-physical environments, then it is a ripe location for digital artists to inhabit and work within.

Tantamount St Helens by JK Keller 2009-2010

I feel as though there are already artists dealing with space as a decentralized phenomenon. For instance, in his Tantamount Series, JK Keller flattens various mountain peaks into a unified horizon line. This gesture then visually and metaphorically flattens the rooftops of the world into one single homogenous space. Regardless of Keller’s visually inventive gesture, this work does not necessarily take into account the actual placial relationships these locations might possibly have with one another. The decentrality of these mountaintops marks these locations more as a type of “any-space-whatever” then it does a place with a specific history/identity. This is not to fault Keller by any means, but his work serves as fitting evidence of a continued trepidation to address place within the digital arts.

Some artists seem to be slowly approaching place as it relates to personal history, however. Nicolas Sassoon has made a couple of works – notably Fidji – that address the architectural history of locations from his childhood and how these sites have influenced his amazingly consistent style. Works like Legend by Timur Si-Qin, on the other hand, addresses place not through personal narrative, but through the context of the gallery in which he is shown/invited. The place in this piece (although situated in a specific space) involves the family of one of the gallerists. Si-Qin asks the gallerist to engage with her father’s interest in medieval reenactment through the devices of contemporary warfare. This process then creates a fictional, decentralized place that involves a specific family history and cultural lineage. The catalyst for creating place in this work occurs in the “simulated anachronistic battle [that] double[s] as the act of artistic production.” The physical space of the gallery is then made somewhat irrelevant, and in turn creates a “context-specific project.” (Above quotes taken from the press release of the exhibition at Fluxia in Italy).

Si-Qin combats falling into the trappings of a more typical context-driven methodology that takes cues from the spatial concerns presented by a physical gallery or institution. This more standard way of working, however, is what most artists I know would identify as site-specific work (or what I too have identified in the past for invitational projects). It goes something like: a gallery asks to do a show with an artist, and the artist seeks to make a new body of work in response to such a request. This process is still grounded in issues of space, and rarely addresses the place of the gallery or site.  As a result of this trend the gallery itself becomes a no-place, and merely serves as a spatial vessel for transporting (or manifesting) the consumable goods that Kwon had initially argued against. However, because digital art does not require spatial presentation of a work (although some would argue this abandonment is naïve), artists in this medium should take the opportunity to create work that investigates the nuances of place.

Legend by Timur Si-Qin 2011

Legend by Timur Si-Qin 2011

I could be asking for too much, since the lure and attraction of showing in a gallery poses artists with an opportunity to sell work or to recoup production/education costs. I suppose it’s more than a lure, it’s a real/physical possibility that digital artists are rarely afforded. But in my mind artists should already be working on projects or ideas regardless of representation and/or exhibition opportunities. Due to the accessibility – and I use that term lightly – of the net, the potential for emphasizing placial concerns should be unavoidable. This is particularly the case since the space of the Internet is much more decentralized.  So why is there still reservations in discussing the potential of a decentralized place?

It might be that the conceptual project of a decentralized place is much more of a challenge to those already comfortable with the idea of working within decentralized space. How does one talk about the specifics of a culture or history in such a way that is not predicated on a particular geography? One recent project that I feel is attempting to approach this conundrum is a kickstarter initiative by Lance Wakeling entitled Field Visits for Bradley Manning. In his description of the project Wakeling outlines a particular methodology for tackling the task of decentralized place through looking at multiple spaces:

“despite the title, Field Visits is not a straight-up documentary about Bradley Manning. Instead, the video explores the peripheral histories and landscapes of the surrounding areas. The case of Manning and the fight for open information become one tile in the larger mosaic of an internet impatient to assume the world.”

By stitching together histories, sites, and spaces, Wakeling is attempting to create a place – an imagined and decentralized location – to discuss the implications of free information in a heavily surveiled society. In doing so, the space of these locations – Kuwait, Virginia, Kansas, and Maryland – becomes subservient to the place in which these locations come to represent. Thus the place of this work is situated in a decentralized location.

In looking back at the strategies of Land Artists included in Kwon’s exhibition one can observe how desire to relocate art outside of the minimalist influenced “neutral” interiors of the gallery was an act of rebellion against the sterility of that aesthetic. The organic forms of Land Art, in and of themselves, serve as an oppositional stance against the geometric rigidity and spatial obsessiveness of minimalism. Artists working with digital technology have certainly taken it upon themselves to investigate how the ephemeral material of their medium challenges traditional notions of space. However, artists of this ilk must also take advantage of that ephemeral materiality as a way to challenge traditional notions of place. In this way, I wonder how the potential for a new form of decentralized or actively mobile site-specificity might in turn serve as a reaction against the rapid commercialization and institutionalization of art online.

Get A Free E-Book of “Spiral Jetta: A Road Trip Through the Land Art of the American West” from Chicago University Press!

August 1, 2011 · Print This Article

An email just popped into my inbox announcing that during the month of August, the University of Chicago Press is giving away free e-books of Spiral Jetta: A Road Trip Through the Land Art of the American West, the terrific road trip/memoir hybrid written by Erin Hogan (yes, the same Erin Hogan who’s a PR honcho at The Art Institute). Spiral Jetta is a first-person account of Hogan’s “pilgrimage” to see the masterworks of earth art: Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels, Michael Heizer’s Double Negative, James Turrell’s Roden Crater, and Walter de Maria’s Lightening Field (she also makes a stop in Marfa).

I don’t always plug the U of C Press’ freebie selections (though they’re always worth checking out) but this one…this one you gotta take advantage of, if you haven’t already purchased Hogan’s book (you should! you should!). At the risk of coming off as if I’m trying to kiss some Art Institute ass,  I can’t recommend this book strongly enough. It’s really in a category all its own–part memoir, part art history lesson, part field guide.

I read the book several years ago, not long after it first came out, and I remember feeling a sense of trepidation starting out because a) I am not into memoirs and b) I don’t read art books for pleasure. But I decided to give this particular one a try because the premise was intriguing–let’s face it, not many of us have the chance to see so many famous works of land art in person, and I thought it might be interesting to at least do so second-hand, by riding around in someone else’s eyes. And Erin Hogan’s eyes, as well as her narrative voice, turned out to be wonderful company. She’s intelligent, has a wry sense of humor, and seems completely unpretentious. She’s just a really swell literary companion; reading Spiral Jetta felt like I was making a new best friend. There’s an intimacy that comes with reading first-person memoirs, and I liked Hogan’s companionship so much I found myself wanting that road trip to go on forever.  I actually felt sad and even a bit lost when I finished reading the book, because I knew that Erin and I wouldn’t be hanging out anymore. (Don’t worry, I have resisted the temptation to stalk Ms. Hogan and convince her to be my new best friend IRL. I think literary fantasies should remain literary fantasies, no?).

At any rate, your experience of the book will certainly be different from mine, but I promise reading Spiral Jetta will be worth it – and it’s a relatively short read, at about 176 pages. (You can read an online excerpt here, and an interview with Erin Hogan here). And for all of August, it’s free, goddammit! So go download it already. It may even inspire you to make Hogan’s journey across the landmark land art of the American West your own.

Land Art: Here Today, Gone Tomorrow?

October 27, 2008 · Print This Article

Michael Heizer, Double Negative, 1969

via The Art Newspaper:

Green issues are now high up the political agenda, from worries about global warming to research into sustainable fuels. One related topic that is galvanising conservationists is the fate of a number of iconic works of Land Art which are under threat from energy and real estate development.

The use of nature as a medium to create monumental works of art emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s as a protest against the materialism of the art world. Artists such as Robert Smithson, Michael Heizer and Walter De Maria sought to create works that could not be contained by a museum or placed in a collector’s home.

Arguably the most iconic intervention in the US landscape is Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, 1970, a spiral constructed from basalt rock and earth which juts into the Great Salt Lake in Utah from its northeastern shore.

This summer, conservationists won a reprieve from the Canadian oil company Pearl Montana Exploration, which wants to conduct exploratory drilling into the lake bed. In co-operation with Smithson’s widow Nancy Holt, also a land artist, and the public policy group Friends of the Great Salt Lake, the Dia Art Foundation, which owns and has maintained Spiral Jetty since 1999, started a petition against the drilling. The state of Utah received thousands of complaints. “What we particularly object to is the potential visual impact that drilling might have on the work, as well as the equally important environmental impact it could have on the lake itself and its delicate ecosystem,” says Laura Raicovich, deputy director of Dia. “An oil spill could be disastrous for the lake, and therefore, the jetty.”

On 13 August, Utah’s Division of Oil, Gas and Mining returned Pearl Montana’s application for a permit to drill on the land near Spiral Jetty, stating that the company’s responses to questions on the project were “inadequate”. Although the company is allowed to refile its application, the state has said it must first “make the necessary investment and professional effort necessary to match the challenges presented ahead by this project”. Ms Raicovich says Dia is working with the state to negotiate the long-term preservation of the work and that the state is conducting an analysis to establish what the visual impact of drilling would be, among other considerations.

Still at risk

Other works remain at risk. On the opposite side of the Great Salt Lake from Spiral Jetty is Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels, 1976, four massive concrete cylinders which the artist aligned to frame the rising and setting sun during solstices. In May 2007, the oil and gas rights on a parcel of land directly adjacent to the work were offered for sale by the state of Utah, which said in a press release that it had researched the site, in consultation with the Utah State Historic Preservation Office, and found “no historic properties affected”. As we went to press, no bids had yet been made on the land.

Meanwhile in Nevada, Michael Heizer’s City, a massive complex of sculptures and earthen forms built by the artist next to his ranch in Lincoln County, is not yet finished but already threatened by development. Stretching one and a quarter miles across the desert, City is one of the largest works of art ever undertaken, and has occupied the artist for over 30 years. Recently, the US Department of Energy (DOE) revealed plans to build a railway running across Garden Valley, next to the work and the artist’s home. This would transport nuclear waste to a storage facility at Yucca Mountain in southern Nevada. First proposed in the 1980s, the Yucca Mountain project has been repeatedly stalled by legal challenges. Last month, the DOE’s application was processed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and it now has up to four years to complete safety studies and hold public hearings before the site can open. Around $9 billion has already been spent on the project. The DOE estimates that the railway will cost over $2 billion to build.

In-built destruction

Despite the developers, the most consistent threat to Land Art is nature itself. Many early examples are eroding as exposure to the elements slowly takes its toll. For most artists, this is part of the works’ natural evolution.

One of the first monumental sculptures is Michael Heizer’s Double Negative, 1969, two perfectly aligned trenches cut into the Mormon Mesa in Nevada. Around 240,000 tons of sandstone was displaced to create the ravines which span 1,500 feet and are each 50 feet deep.

The work was donated to the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) in Los Angeles by dealer Virginia Dwan. According to the artist’s wishes, MoCA does not perform any conservation on the piece. Meanwhile, the walls of the man-made canyon are slowly crumbling.