The Art + Environment conference at the Nevada Museum of Art takes place every 3 years. I attended for the first time in 2014 and felt like I was entering a living conversation–one that I would draw from in my art and teaching for years to come. Each of the A+E conferences is accompanied by a primary exhibition, and this year’s show, Unsettled, is a knock out. Conference presenters always include artists from the exhibit, and those doing research projects at museum’s Center for Art + Environment; this gives the event a feeling of intimacy and relevance, and inspires a lively discourse among the diverse group attendees–artists, academics, and environmental activists, who show up to examine the ever-shifting relationship of art to environmental concerns.
One of the goals for the first morning of the conference was to define the Greater West, which was the conceptual frame for the event. William Fox, Director of the Center for Art + Environment, shared a series of maps, which presented, among other insights, the idea of the backside, and outer edge, of the Pangea (the single mass of land that existed more than 250 million years ago). It’s a mind twist to think about the supercontinent from another side, a “dark side” of the globe–one that still lingers in the remaining edges, and to think about what those edges mean to current global identity. The Greater West was the last colonized part of the globe, and includes Australia, Alaska, and the Western U.S., including Nevada. Its dismissal as a desolate no man’s land has led to infiltration by the military industrial complex, and, as would become clear later in the conference, by the rock stars of capitalism, who have taken root in TRIC (Tahoe-Reno Industrial Center), the largest industrial center in the world. Nevada is also a rich center of land art, both historical and contemporary, with works from Walter de Maria’s Lighting Field and Michael Heizer’s Double Negative to Ugo Rondinone’s $3.5 million installation Seven Magic Mountains, as well as the Burning Man event, which had a presence at the conference. Though it’s not my main subject today, I did leave the conference thinking about land art and gender, and how that theme could have been more overtly part of the agenda. Fortunately, Unsettled includes works by important women artists associated with these movements, including a stunning collection of Ana Mendieta images, but I would have liked to see some of that work keynoted in the conference itself.
JoAnne Northrup, the Curatorial Director at the museum, continued the discussion of mapping and the Greater West, noting that it is geographic, not political borders that define us. She asserted that the power to make change in the world exists on these edges–that geographies can provide a locus for radical making and re-thinking. To my mind, this builds on theories from gender and identity politics, where the position of the Other can be a stance of witness, critique, and change-making.
I spent some of the conference sessions in the Skyroom, a high-tech lounge next to a rooftop deck, where the audience could view the main auditorium remotely. Each day concluded with a reception and performance on the roof deck, and at the end of the first day, I was chatting away with a friendly man on the deck, about the museum’s stunning architecture. After 10 minutes of conversation, I introduced myself, only to learn that I was chatting with the building’s architect, Will Bruder! One of the most enjoyable aspects of the conference is the fact that programming is all shared (no concurrent sessions), and at the same time, there are multiple ways to engage; the building is designed to support a fluid experience. There are viewing rooms for study groups (a group of STEAM educators, in this case), the rooftop lounge, with couches and cushioned seats, and then the intimate auditorium itself. The exhibitions are installed on the floors in between, so one can dip in and out, taking in the work over the span of the conference.
As I perused Unsettled, I was surprised to find Chris Burden’s All the Submarines of the United States of America (1987), with its 625 cardboard submarines swimming through the gallery. I attended my first Whitney Biennial in 1989, having just graduated from Skidmore College with an Art History degree. I recall being blown away by Burden’spiece at that show, and in 2017, the work remains dark, poetic, and relevant.
Near Burden’s installation was an interesting work by artist and perfumer, Bruno Fazzolari. The artist created a scent for the show, which was housed in a glowing bottle in the shape of an atomic mushroom cloud.
Given my recent project, Tracking the Border, I was particularly drawn to Ana Teresa Fernandez’s work. The exhibit includes a video
documenting her Erasing the Border performance, in which she paints a segment of the Mexico-U.S. border wall the color of the sky, causing the illusion of a break in the wall. The video is accompanied by a tightly crafted painting, which reads like a video still. To my viewing, the painting is unnecessary, given the power of the video, but perhaps it answered some formal drive for the artist. Fernandez was challenged during the QnA on her choice to wear heels and a tight black dress in the work. For her, the heels are key, she said, in that they reference the influence of tango dancing, as well as her experience in Mexico, where women are silenced at the table, but when they go out on the town, they’re “loud with their bodies.” For her, the tango, heels and all, is a superhero stance, and outfit, that fits her border project.
Trevor Paglen, a 2017 MacArthur Fellow, presented the keynote on the first day, introducing a collaborative project with the museum. Orbital Reflector, the “least romantic” title Paglen could think of, involves latching his piece onto a satellite and rocketing it into orbit, where it will circle the earth for 2 months in 2018. This “star,” will glitter alongside many other false stars. However, Orbital Reflector, Paglen asserted, will be uniquely detached from military enterprise, which has governed space research and activity through its history. Paglen’s work has long involved illuminating things that are “invisible,” including spy centers in desert and internet cables in the ocean. Similarly, Orbital Reflector will call attention to the other non-natural objects that orbit the earth, from secret satellites to space junk. In his presentation, Paglen mentioned Supremacist artist Kazimir Malevich, and his black “sputnik” paintings, saying that Malevich was the first artist to conceive of art in space. Though there is plenty of talk about “pure” art among the supremacists, Paglen made a distinction against a traditional Modernist interpretation and underlined Malevich’s references to Russian cosmic mythologies, placing his own work in that vein. Though Malevich’s goal was “cosmic oneness,” sputnik was designed more as a weapon. Through Orbital Reflector, Paglen hopes to separate space from war ideology, and in the process, to disrupt the application of frontier thinking on space.
A high point of the conference and exhibit were the contributions by contemporary indigenous Alaskan artists Nicholas Galanin, Da-ka-xeen Mehner, and Allison Warden. As part of the panel, “North: Adaptation and Resistance,” Galanin (Tlingit, Unangax) talked about his culture as living, moving, and free. “Our land is our life,” he said. His piece “Things are looking Native; Native’s Looking Whiter” is a good example of how Galanin’s work combines traditional Native imagery with images from popular culture, in order to underline preconceptions and hidden appropriations.
Artist and Twitter poet, Alison Akootchook Warden (Iñupiaq) offered a power-packed performance, slipping seamlessly from artist’s talk into personas that were radical and contemporary while drawing on traditional cultural vocabularies. The group as a whole made clear the problem of romanticizing or pigeonholing what it is to be indigenous. As Galanin said: “Anthropology has homogenized the culture.”
The culmination of the conference was a presentation by architect Rem Koolhaas, which came with an announcement that he would be working to build an extension of the museum, along with a hotel, on the TRIC site. At this point in the conference, the fund raising component got pretty heavy-handed (I could say a lot more about the disruptive introduction from brothel owner and donor, Lance Gilman). Still, Koolhaas’ brilliance was a contribution to the new framing of the Greater West and how that lives in this particular art historical moment. As Koolhaas said, the current TRIC site is “free of architecture but filled with buildings,” and he feels called to engage with that as a project of architectural problem solving. He went on to frame the country as a critical domain for re-engaging with risk, in contrast to the urban, where there is a “diminishment of appetite for challenge, risk, and adventure.” To underline his point, he compared Richard Serra’s controversial Tilted Arc of the 1980s with Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate of 2006, dismissing the latter as “good for selfies.” The country has the possibility of engaging with site as a means of addressing the global effects of climate change.
As I’ve come to expect, the conference enlivened my thinking, inspired my practice, and connected me with a wide range of thinkers and makers. If there’s a looming question that I take away, it has to do with the relationship of capital to radical artistic thinking. Is there a point where the air becomes so rarefied, so monied, that vision becomes blurred and the audience diminished? How fully can art participate in capital without becoming complicit in the environmental and other degradations that it often implies? There were many side conversations among the conference audience that reflected these concerns. The most important question is, what happens next? Will Koolhaas’ work with the museum intentionally address complex issues of power, voice, and access? Will he problem solve in the arena between the rule of capital and the space of creative risk and invention? Will the work move in that space between power and the outside edge of the Greater West? It will be interesting to see where the project, and the conversation, goes in the intervening 3 years, and how the 2020 conference will move into the difficult space of risk implied by the Greater West as it was defined in 2017.