Week 51: 26 August 2012
Artist and writer
The Uncertainty of Land and the Mutability of Art
When I think of a tiny mass of land being hauled across the North Sea, a valiantly futile, utopian, and ultimately elegant gesture, oddly enough I think about Appalachia. I think about my own images of floating land. Yes, I’ve had them and I suspect the intrigue of Nowhereisland is that many others have their own unique imaginings. Perhaps these associations run toward the political, causing us to think about nationhood for example, or perhaps they are adventurously fanciful: what if I were stranded alone on an island?
This very morning, even though I haven’t seen Nowhereisland, because of its very existence as metaphor and as image, I am wondering about the fragility and uncertainty of where and how we stand on the land. The mere act of desiring to witness this strange yet wonderfully wacky concept — wrangling an island from the cold but warming waters of the Far North—prompts reflections on land ownership, class equity and despoiling the public trust. I think about Appalachia across the Atlantic Ocean from Bristol, where mountaintops disappear and homes ride uncertainly on a layer of earth.
For five years I worked in a tiny town in eastern Kentucky, flying from Los Angeles to Lexington and driving four hours east to Elkhorn City, a tiny town-let of 900 in a county next to the one in which my grandmother was born. Along the coal-truck pocked road I passed massive spectacles—locally celebrated construction projects—where great portions of mountains had been removed for highways along which sprouted well-patronized big box retail centers. At night the lights of coal automation beckoned compellingly as black rock was poured down long chutes into railroad cars. I dodged overloaded coal trucks as I passed through strip mining sites and tiny settlements named Coal Run, Shelbiana, and Millard, whose main streets were conglomerations of vacant lots, parked trailers, tobacco stores, pharmacies, and old brick buildings that hinted of lost character underneath boarded windows.
To mine coal in Appalachia, trees, boulders and soil are removed and deep pits are gouged into the exposed surfaces with monstrously huge equipment that surreally resembles Japanese transformer toys. Entire mountaintops are removed—not pulled away to a distant shoreline, but tossed down the mountain to obliterate streams below. When all the coal has been removed, the pits are covered and the flat and barren land “reclaimed” with grass seed sprayed across the top. It takes years for the trees to return. The scars are visible for miles when flying over the places where a mountain once stood. How did this happen to a people so proud and dependent on their land’s history and heritage?
As I contemplate the journey of a tiny island, on its way to becoming “a new country”, I continue reflecting on ownership and self-sufficiency, the founding myths of America, skillfully manipulated by multinational corporations who are considered persons with full citizenship rights of speech. In the 19th century, Appalachian mountain people unwittingly sold their mineral rights to distant corporations for pennies. Thanks to the “Broad Form Deed”, a legal agreement used widely then, what you actually own when you own land is the top few inches of soil and the house that sits upon it. If someone owns these rights to your land you are literally floating on a thin platform of earth, waiting for the discovery of the next extractable product. In a sense the land is co-owned but one of the owners is less concerned with what happens on top of it. Corporate owned mineral rights extend in perpetuity and include the right to destroy the surface of the land in the quest to extract what lies beneath it.
Today a new energy source has become profitable. Natural gas, trapped beneath deeply buried rock shelves, can now be “extracted” in a method perfected by the war-profiteering Halliburton Corporation. Families who have lived here for generations, find themselves in a predicament. Companies are entitled to build roads across their land, set up their extraction mega-tools and run them day and night for years, drilling down to the bedrock for the gas trapped beneath it. When dynamited the rock substrate cracks and often gas seeps into the groundwater. Mitigation for kitchen faucet water that can be lit with a match is often dependent only on the abilities of small landholders to mobilize and seek public attention.
As a working class person whose family is not far out of the Appalachian hills, the act of hauling an island around has complex and contradictory meanings. Until the recent collapse of housing by financial manipulation run amok, land ownership was the investment that protected a family living who lives under a government that provides little social security. For the working class, leaving property to one’s kin is the one sure way a struggling family could stabilize, building over time on the hard work of each generation. It is a fierce though deceptive pride we feel in owning our own property—the illusion of control over at least one aspect of one’s destiny.
For me, the relationship between this land metaphor of Nowhereisland and politics is indisputable and my imaginings are only one of many ways this might be expressed. In another example, the history of African Americans’ continuing oppression can be traced through the history of land. “40 acres and a mule” was the promise after slaves were freed, one that acknowledged the founding constitutional relationship between enfranchisement and land holdings. From forced land takings by rioting whites to mid-twentieth century urban redevelopment that savagely cleaved middle class minority neighborhoods into parts, from bank red-lining neighborhoods along race lines to, in this century, dangling the dream of home ownership for poor first time home owners through illegal or immoral loan agreements, land politics underlies generational poverty.
So those are some of my associations to the image of the Island. A land mass floating along behind a boat is intriguing to me for any number of reasons, all of them related to why I am an artist and to the kind of artist I am. I am often asked when interviewed a question that frankly confounds me— Am I an artist first, or an activist? — repeatedly reminding me that as a profession we have not reconciled these two tropes: how to apply critical analysis to the broad range of political meanings of our work, to assume responsibility for them, especially among diverse audiences, and how to trust an intuitive and completely un-rationalized imaginary. Ever since I have heard about this island, this quixotic idea, I have had a distinct desire to see it. Of course I’ve also wondered, along with others, what it means exactly: in terms of global warming; or as a metaphor in the context of British historic imperialism; or its suggested lack of “utilitarian” value of an act so resplendent with opportunities.
It takes work to understand an image’s potential as it enters a diverse and complex public sphere, and to co-invent, with spectators and participants, a field of associative possibilities. Aware of this, Alex Hartley asked Claire Doherty and her organization Situations, to help realize the potential of the conceptual dimensions of the work. Hartley recognized he needed creative partners to figure out how to build those relationships, expand the conceptual rigor of the work and make some of those ideas live beyond the object itself. Particularly relevant was how the central metaphor of the island might stimulate a discourse on citizenship. This they have done admirably: one needs only to peruse the website to get a sense of the breadth of this contextualization and the extent to which questions are raised, connections are made, experiences are expanded and learning takes place.
An interesting question to me is whether this contextualizing work itself should be read as part of the artwork itself. This is not a casual question but a speculation based on changing definitions of art. In the past three or so decades increased resources dedicated to programs that explain and “educate” audiences have recruited larger audiences for visual art. At the same time, there has been a steady progression toward the inclusion of audience reception as part of the artwork. In terms of artists’ practice, the fusion of social and political intentions played out in spatial and temporal combinations include the materiality of visual media and the immateriality of conceptual and performance art. The politics of representation, the intentions behind the artists work, the impact of the work on multiple audiences – these are carefully scrutinized as social, engaged and/or relational practices make an appearance.
Here we have a two-fold image: a ship with island in tow, and an enacted engagement with the public around notions of citizenship. Which comes first, the art or the politics? There is a gendered quality of the two images: in the one, laying claim to and transporting a solitary island as a grand (and perhaps even ironic) gesture and in the other the contextual, relational and complicated set of gestures that make up everything else about the work, extending its scope and breadth. When visiting the website one sees evidence of an abundance of this second “image,” a massive effort to engage various audiences as a piece of inventive social sculpting. I’ve taken the position that manipulating time, space, social process and intimate relationship is in fact performative – a piece of performance art — if framed by an artist as such.
Where would our associations of the Island take us without second image, that created by participation? What does the context add to our experience of the actual island? In my mind, Doherty is operating as an artistic collaborator with Alex Hartley. She is making images out of time, duration, and social process, and taken together (rather than program by program) this contextualizing work is integral to the reception of the work on multiple levels and is part of the art. The roles people actually assume – curator, critic, artist – are immaterial to my point of questioning authorship and form. Where does the art in this collection of endeavors lie? Is this work to be read solely in the tradition of conceptual or performance art (the heroic metaphoric and quixotic act) or in the more recent reading of social and relational visual arts practices?
The possibility that one makes the other possible is intriguing and helps overcome perceived dichotomies between activism and art. It also helps answer the question of the role of the assertive visual/conceptual image that is the island. When an artwork moves outside the art world it has to operate on more than one level, teaching diverse audiences how to “read” particular images. At the center of that process, and what separates such work from other kinds of campaigns, is what I would call a charismatic image – one that can engage a variety of people (educated or not to art theories and practices) in imaginative journeys. There is an Island on its way to being an artwork, and since I first heard of this I have been fascinated with not simply its meaning, but also and quite apart from that, with the potential of its visual presence. Because I am an artist, I trust that this desire to witness is important in the scheme of things. No matter how I appreciate the rich engagement as essential to this project, I also want to see that little piece of alien land squatting s in the waters off the British Coast. I want to see Nowhereisland because seeing causes me to think, to remember, to associate, and to look at things in a different way.
“Powerful ways of acting spring from powerful ways of seeing.”Yes, of course, visual images can be manipulative, biased and ultimately, harmful, but they are also charismatic, compelling, and transforming in ways we don’t always immediately understand. The image teaches us this; attending to the temporal rhythms and shapes of its making and reception teaches us that this is important. An image becomes a learning platform and social practice includes the process that provides points of access that allows the audience to make meaning within and to challenge their own referents. Sometimes images have rough edges, their meanings difficult to control. As artists we trust the image and, at least in my case, “engagement” involves a lengthy reconciliation process to match this product of my imagination with the political realities in the community. The reconciliation process is as central to making as is my attention to the perfection of material productions.
This morning when I sat down to ponder my relationship to Nowhereisland, I was transported to Kentucky, to the topic of land ownership, to my own heritage and to the meaning of citizenship and its rights. Others might find themselves musing on issues of ecology or citizenship or the nature of travel. One resident thinker quotes a patriotic song and another sings one. Our musings are akin to child’s play. (Perusing the website it is interesting to consider the vigor with which children engage with the new land.) My imaginative journey is uniquely mine, and I believe it has worth to others, or I would not make art. Pulling a land mass behind a ship from one continent to another allows us to mine our own imaginations; and it is the social and public context that the ship/image enters that allows others to participate in that process.
 Ference Marton, Ulla Runesson and Amy Tsui, Classroom Discovery and the Space of Learning, 2004.
Suzanne Lacy is an internationally known American artist whose work includes installations, video, and large-scale performances on social themes and urban issues. Also known for her writing, Lacy edited the influential Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art, published in 1995 by Bay Press, a book that prefigures current writing on politically relevant performance art. She has published over 60 articles on public art.
Lacy is the Chair of Fine Arts at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles. Active in Oakland cultural politics, Lacy was a member of Mayor Jerry Brown’s education cabinet and an Arts Commissioner for the City of Oakland.
For more information www.suzannelacy.com