Home PageArchivesVolume no. 2Issue 1Interview: Graves

As if it Were the Most Natural
Thing in the World: Jen Graves

Cameron Turner

Page through most American alt weeklies—think The Village Voice, Westword, The Austin Chronicle, The San Francisco Bay Guardian—and you generally know what to expect. Colorful, opinionated reporting on local politics, usually left-of-center. A celebration (and occasional savaging) of all things local. Underground comics. Baroque reviews of local restaurants, music, theater, and film. Va-va-voom strip club ads. And, yes, the occasional muckraking piece, hallucinogen-fueled literary exercise, nostalgic tirade, or whacked-out libertarian diatribe.

What you wouldn’t expect is a brilliant 7,500-word critique arguing for a total conceptual overhaul in the (relatively) insular world of land art. Enter Jen Graves, Visual Art Editor for The Stranger, Seattle’s preternaturally saucy alt weekly founded in the nineties by Tim Keck (of The Onion fame) and cartoonist James Sturm. Recently, Newfound caught up with Graves to talk about her experience burning rubber across the West while researching her article “This Land is False Land,” and to make the case for why your new favorite earthwork might be under your feet.

“I think it’s hard to create something that intends to be connective without being driven either mad or being driven into isolation.” –Jen Graves

CAMERON TURNER: I’m curious how you tackled the primary source research for the article and how you decided which earthworks to visit. You’ve mentioned your rationale for skipping Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” in a Slog post, for example, but I wondered if you’d had the time, what other sites you would’ve visited and pulled into your discussion?

JEN GRAVES: Ah! I am so glad you’re asking this, since I do intend to continue my research. I’d eagerly like to do a book, but I’m still struggling to draw its outlines.

A little background: I badly wanted to visit [famed earth artist Michael Heizer’s] “City,” but thought that had the potential to turn into a cops-n-robbers-like situation wherein I’d be running for my life away from an armed Heizer. While that seemed like it’d make great copy, it seemed distracting. (I am still considering it, though.) After I wrote about “Double Negative” on Slog, Heizer’s ex-wife emailed me; I can’t remember why, I think just to say she’d seen I’d visited. We went back and forth amicably a couple of times, but when I asked if she could help put me in touch with him, she didn’t respond.

I also wanted to visit Roden Crater. The president of the foundation that supports the project is the former director of Seattle’s contemporary art museum (the Henry Art Gallery at UW), and the current PR director of that same museum is the foundation’s web master. I thought for sure I could talk my way in, and I tried like hell. But no go; Turrell’s studio turned me down flat. I’d have loved to hear from Turrell a (possibly) renewed rhetoric about land art from the time when he began the project to now. And Turrell and Heizer are such polarized figures in my mind, but is the experience of their masterworks such a polar difference? I’d like to perform that experiment. All I know now is that they have something in common: Both shut me out—ha! So those are places I’d still like to go, and perhaps I’ll get the gumption and/or access soon.

I’d love to do a study of Marfa against something like the Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle, the free public park owned and operated by Seattle Art Museum downtown. The whole idea of campuses fascinates me—what about a study of Marfa, OSP, and Microsoft?—since they’re self-contained universes that attempt to express or enforce an ideal or an ethic. The only reason I didn’t go to Marfa was limited time and budget. I’m hoping to take a trip there with a colleague later this year.

The single work I feel was glaringly missing from the writing is De Maria’s “Earth Room” in New York—an obvious choice for taking a look at urban works as well as ideas of unearthing. Another I’m planning to visit this spring!

One other factor: It wasn’t just time and money that led me to my choices; in some ways it was also the general audience for my piece that dictated the way I structured it. Many things were left out, because they’d have been too down-in-the-weeds. (And while the original draft was 10,000 words, we could only squeeze in about 7,500—which, still, for an American weekly newspaper is pretty terrific.) For instance, there’s an entire cultural preserve in Duwamish country that I explored and intended to include, but just didn’t have the space to get into it. Other expansions, parallelisms, and mental flights into theories, histories, and other writings were left out for the same reason.

TURNER: It’s funny you bring up Marfa. On a trip out to West Texas in May last year, I spent a sleepy afternoon in town and was struck by what an odd place it is, since so much of its built character insists—even stubbornly—on the constructedness and idiosyncrasy of the area (the transplanted Brooklynite pizzeria downtown, Elmgreen and Dragset’s Prada installation, the Judd Foundation handing out free breakfast burritos to the community on Sundays, etc.). Clearly, this aspect of Marfa’s really popular, and I’m tempted to gripe about the Condé Nast sensibility that’s run roughshod over the town. For instance, we visited the Marfa and Presidio County Museum—we were the only ones there on a Saturday afternoon—and the docent, an elderly Hispanic woman, talked for nearly an hour about the town’s difficult racial history in the 40s and 50s, and how Judd coming to town both arguably “ruined” and “saved” the town. I’m curious what you think about the large amount of capital required for many of land art installations, and how the artists you studied dealt with their sites’ economic and cultural entanglements in their surrounding places, regardless of whether not they wanted to.

GRAVES: Making visible those “entanglements,” as you so aptly describe them, was a major backdrop of this whole project for me. It came up most pointedly in my travels in the little town of Quemado, New Mexico, where I interviewed the woman selling wares by the side of the road who had formerly been the housekeeper at “The Lightning Field.” I was very aware that I was giving her something like two quarters for a dress she was selling, while I was paying $150 to stay a single night at “The Lightning Field,” where she still has never spent a night (the artist has said that the true experience of the piece needs 24 hours, so no housekeeper has, in fact, ever had the “true” or full experience of the piece).

It’s a little bit of that doubleness thing that many artists practice, or basically that all of art takes part in — the wealth that underpins the entire enterprise of art is a continuous problem, and land art brings up an awareness of this contradiction in a tangible way that I really love. Unlike gallery art, which has a double economy (you don’t pay to look at it, or at a museum, you pay minimally; essentially, you are the renter of the piece for the time you see it, and you are protected from the high-priced purchase and all its attendant conditions). With classic land art, you have to lay down considerable money to see it.

“Unlike gallery art, which has a double economy (you … are the renter of the piece for the time you see it, and you are protected from the high-priced purchase and all its attendant conditions), with classic land art, you have to lay down considerable money to see it.” –Jen Graves

TURNER: You quote Walter De Maria’s dictum that “isolation is the essence of Land Art.” Then you put that slogan to the test by choosing not to be alone when visiting “The Lightning Field” and other “isolationist” installations in the Southwestern hinterlands. Quarantine seems to give something like Michael Heizer’s City its power, since it neatly aligns with the frontier mythos that there’s plenty of space for each of us to carve out our own niche on a blank, pliant, Western land—just come on out! I can see that that’s potentially a limiting approach, with obvious environmental and historical baggage. I’m curious, though, what role you think solitude plays in land art-making or land art-viewing in built environments like Seattle? How do the artists you’ve met and write about in your article—especially Seattle artists who frequently work collaboratively—approach the fine line between isolated self-reflection and isolationism?

GRAVES: Wow: that’s beautifully put. It is, it’s true, an incredibly fine line. And sometimes the work that goes into creating a piece of land art is enough to drive even a staunchly non-isolationist artist back into the hermetic space of the locked studio! For instance, SuttonBeresCuller have spent the last several years tangled up in bureaucratic meetings. In their creation of “Mini Mart City Park,” they first found themselves scouting for sites and meeting with property owners. Then they found themselves negotiating with the (sometimes reactionary) community groups in the neighborhood of the site they settled on. Because the land is so severely contaminated, they quickly found themselves in meetings with county workers, then the EPA. I’ve been at some of these meetings, and they are the opposite of creative. I think it’s hard to create something that intends to be connective without being driven either mad or being driven into isolation. John Sutton says he’s sometimes tempted to move out into the middle of nowhere and answer to nobody.

Architects and collaborative teams both figure prominently in Seattle’s art scene, and obviously that lends a certain flavor. Non-isolationism was a key theme of the 40-mile “Long Walk” of summer 2010 by Susan Robb and Stokely Towles—and even saying “by” Susan Robb and Stokely Towles feels a little out of line with their own ethos. Like architects, they designed the experience, but others built it. And in some ways, the function of the “Long Walk” was to recognize that Seattle’s natural environments are built (the whole trails system), and Seattle’s built environments are not clearly delineated from those that came before buildings (there are layers of time under every blade of “native” grass). (Not to mention the over-determination joke of starting at a Starbucks parking lot.)

In terms of how Seattle artists respond to that fine line between isolated self-reflection (which in some ways seems one of the natural purviews of art) and isolationism, I guess it’s only appropriate to look for the ways in which Seattle artists see themselves as part of a larger context. This is why I’m often interested in artists who are knowledgeable about or who use history in their works. (The Native American aphorism that actions must be justifiable to seven generations may have some influence here; I’m a person who came west myself, looking for what I’m not sure, and I’m still looking, though mostly just looking around.) These are artists who are aware of certain contexts, including: What does it mean to be a latter-day pioneer in the country that seems to be getting left behind the most quickly in the world? Seattle’s place in the context of the fall of Americanism is especially interesting, particularly when you consider the multiethnic beginnings of this place—before it was effectively federalized. That is a historical context; there are geographical contexts, too—Seattle relates to Asia (you see its influence in much of the art and thinking here), to Canada (you don’t see it almost anywhere!), to Portland (the two are locked in a sibling-like relationship), and to Los Angeles. These, I think, are all influences on such works as “The Long Walk,” “Make Believe” (Denny Park’s current design mimics an LA park and is landscaped for flatness, whereas here in Seattle the design is executed on a hill, to the great misfortune of our park denizens), “Maryhill Double” (right at the Washington/Oregon border), as well as Lead Pencil’s work at the US/Canadian border, and also “Mini Mart City Park,” configured to face off with the history of the second World War, which in these parts raises the memory of Japanese internment. I guess it’s fair to say that there are plenty of artists in Seattle who are perfectly isolationist, and that works well for them and serves their work. But they’re not the ones I was most interested in writing about for this project, and in some ways they’re not the ones I personally can relate to, speaking generally.

“Seattle is an incredible … installation. Now, the redevelopment of the waterfront … includes the artist Mark Dion, whose “Neukom Vivarium” in the Olympic Sculpture Park is a nurse log lying on its side inside a glass house—will it burst out when it grows? The future is always there, threatening and promising change.” –Jen Graves

TURNER: In a lecture he gave at Yale in 1983, Donald Judd notes that “[t]he distinction between scientific knowledge and artistic knowledge is very important. For two hundred years or so art has been freeing itself from being obliged to say things about the world that are properly in the area of science. Some recent artists, Robert Smithson for one, have revived this dying anthropomorphism by incorporating scientific ideas and terms into their work. This is an anthropomorphic sentimentalism as gross as Landseer’s dogs.” His argument—that Science and the Arts are Very Different and Ne’er The Twain Shall Meet—has prompted the demise of countless rainforest acres, harvested for dissertation pulp. How does the contemporary land/earth art in Seattle that you’ve championed incorporate scientific discourse into its approach, or attempt to create a “third culture” that straddles the humanities and the sciences? Or should it?

GRAVES: Hmm. This being Seattle, where more people climb mountains than go to churches, there is proper respect paid to science, relative to other regions, perhaps. But I don’t see that there’s too much crossover there in the life sciences (except in a cursory or topical way), and I’m not sure there needs to be. There’s more crossover or blending in the area of technology. UW has a technology-and-art MFA and PhD called DXArts, and that’s something I’ve wanted to look into more closely for some time (you get your doctorate in mechatronics and sculpture, for instance). Unfortunately they’re oddly secretive, and the work that does come out has not been, on the whole, thrilling. But the seeds are there and I’m always curious to see what they do.

On top of all of that, I say boo to Judd on this one. He’s kidding himself if he doesn’t think he’s also an anthropomorphist! He’s just a non-sentimental, non-spiritualist breed. Same animal!

TURNER: If Seattle is one big art installation, has your interpretation of it changed since your first impression?

GRAVES: Oh my goodness, it changes constantly. I walk a lot. In fact, one of the earliest reasons I wanted to do this piece is that Seattle is a place where the land imprints itself very powerfully on your body. The hills are incredibly steep, despite the re-grades, and because of the re-grades, we don’t have fixed transit through the city, so walking these streets makes itself known on your muscles. There’s a place where this is explored very well: Lawrence Halprin’s “Freeway Park,” where a series of steps lead down to the base of an artificial waterfall—it’s a little like scaling a mountain that extends into subterranean space rather than toward the sky—where you can view the traffic flowing by on the freeway as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Seattle is full of moments like this one, some created intentionally and some not, and I’m constantly watching them. Another great “installation” is the way the skeins of snow settle on the Olympic Mountains across from downtown; from atop the hills of downtown, a view of those skeins intersects with a view of the white Gothic arches over Pacific Science Center, which were created by the same Seattle-born Japanese architect who designed the World Trade Center towers in New York (these arches got the attention of Port Authority to begin with). Seattle is an incredible, incredible installation. Now, the redevelopment of the waterfront is taking place, and the team of designers includes the artist Mark Dion, whose “Neukom Vivarium” in the Olympic Sculpture Park is a nurse log lying on its side inside a glass house—will it burst out when it grows? The future is always there, threatening and promising change.

Jen Graves is the Visual Art Editor for The Stranger. Follow her blog posts on Slog and on Twitter.

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