Red Legacy is a collection of notes on the possible intersections between commune building, land use, and art practice.
Aug 12, 2009
I have been to Project:Unknown and it has changed me forever. On July 23, my sister and I stopped through Taos to visit some acquaintances from San Francisco, Steve McFarland and Izumi Yokoyama. We'd heard a tiny bit about their endeavors on the Taos mesa, something called Project:Unknown. With a balance of curiosity and trepidation, we showed up with plans to spend 24 hours or so. I ended up staying 2 weeks.
Izumi is an incredible installation artist whose consideration of the world is influenced by her childhood in Japan. She went to the San Francisco Art Institute with my sister and although they were not (yet) close friends, they shared a love of New Mexico. Check her out at: http://web.mac.com/itsuizumi
Izumi's boyfriend, Steve, studied sustainability in college and has been trying for years to "reconfigure the standards of living." He came to Taos several years ago and quickly snatched up a few acres of land for cheap. He immediately set about building his dream -- a retreat center for artists and musicians that is not only a refuge from society but a testing grounds for experimental building practices and a think tank for like-minded folks who strive to live outside the norm. With a few structures on the land including an abandoned schoolbus, an artist studio, an outdoor kitchen, an airstream trailer, a sleeping cabin and a defunct storage container, this outpost is beginning to take shape.
Unknown is situated on Taos's far west mesa amidst sage brush and chamisa. I've never seen a bigger sky nor as many rainbows. It's raw there. The weather is intense; the wind and sun can be oppressive. The surrounding hardscrabble community is comprised of outlaws, hippies, renegade homesteaders, experimental builders, addicts, crazies, recluses, and red necks. People talk about how to find water, where the gooseberries are ripe, who stole whose firewood, the days when people wove houses out of river willows and the summer of vengeful arsons. They help each other move dirt, build fences, wrangle horses, get high, sing songs. It's a challenging place where the measure of someone's character is based on their ability to survive and survive well.
I intended to spend only a night at Unknown but ended up spending two of the best weeks of my life there. Something shifted in me. I helped build a fence and an outhouse. I harvested water from a spring. I got really, really dirty and acquired many tiny splinters. I shat in the ground. I woke up early. I learned to identify wild asparagus. I rode on the handlebars of an old cruiser bike down a rutted dirt road in the dark of night. I started a large and dangerous fire. I felt free. One of the best things about my experience at Unknown is how I was invited into the mesa way of life without needing to leave behind my intellect or criticality. In fact, there was even more space for thinking clearly, for imagining bigly, because the intention of our hosts was to enter into each of these survivalist moments with artistic inquiry. They fostered a situation that was real, raw, thought-provoking, open, and genuinely fun.
Project:Unknown is such a vibrant and important experiment. It left me with a lot of questions and convictions (as well as a piece of land on which to begin building answers with actions). How can we create places that put us in touch with the raw elements of life? What emerges from experiences that mesh intimate survival with creative amplification? How can we provide places for artists, musicians, and thinkers to encounter a different way of being in the world, a refuge from the need to make money; how can we provide a support structure for people thinking outside the box? How can simply being in a place also help to build it? How can artists help sustain an outsider lifestyle and culture, one that supports and interacts with the local old-timers and preserves freedom? How might local skills and stories be harnessed to fuel a new generation of homesteading artists? Who are the people that crave this kind of experience? How do we do all that we'd really like to do; is it even possible? I suppose that continuing this endeavor -- that which is the impetus for Project Unknown and also for Red Legacy -- is the same as building an outhouse or starting a fire. You just make it happen as you go.