Oct 29, 2009

What's in a Name? What is PLAND?

We've done it! We've given the land in Taos a name and some intention. It's called PLAND. Within this odd word is a plan but also land. It may also be read as Plan D -- not Plan A or B, not even C, but sort of a last resort. We tend not to like misspelled words nor acronyms, yet PLAND emerged as both. We enjoy the ambiguity of it as well as the awkwardness; surely this is the sensation of starting a project without end, without specific expectations, without money, water, electricity or shelter. What we do feel certain about is that PLAND will be an opportunity to test a lot of ideas, to share space and expansive possibility with a range of amazing people. PLAND will be a think-tank, a laboratory, an outpost that is defined by its challenges as well as its incredible beauty.

PLAND stands for Practice Liberating Art through Necessary Dislocation and through this land-based residency experiment, we aim to do just that. For me, there is potency in each of these words and linked together (especially in the context of the Taos mesa) there is thundering power.

Other developments: my spring semester Special Topics class at UCCS will be a practicum for developing the basic support structure for PLAND. Students will research the legacy of artist colonies, particularly in the southwest. They'll build a website, create a library, research relevant artists and models, solicit proposals, and undoubtedly visit the land to make something happen. Nina will be on site in Taos learning to salvage, scavenge and collect building materials while getting involved with the local community. Nancy will undoubtedly keep plugging away in Houston; she's writing some grants and talking collaboration with all sorts of fascinating people.

We aim to produce a 2-week long work party with friends and collaborators next summer. This will not only address the current lack of physical infrustructure but will also be an opportunity for incubated conversation around the future of PLAND. The work party is a very important form of cultural and community production, one we will employ as a staple of life at PLAND. All of this is sure to evolve and change, but for now:

PLAND: Practice Liberating Art through Necessary Dislocation is an off-the-grid residency program that supports the development of experimental and research-based projects in the context of the Taos mesa.

Stay tuned!

Oct 7, 2009

Barn Raising Revisited

In early American rural life, communities shared the labor involved in erecting large buildings, particularly barns. In sparsely populated areas and on the edge of the frontier, it was not possible to hire carpenters or other tradesmen to build a barn. Many hands were needed to get the work done in a timely fashion.

Barns were raised by might, a strong social framework, and a survivalist interdependence. All able-bodied community members were expected to attend and work hard during barn raisings, yet no one was paid regular wages. Food, camaraderie, a celebration of completion, and a communal labor pool were the main incentives for these events. The barn raisings were a means of getting large buildings constructed, but they were also an important aspect of community life.

Sometimes barn-raisings resulted in disastrous disagreements, like this scene from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

Nevertheless, I'm pretty excited about the notion of barn raising as a method and a metaphor. I’ll help you build your dream then you can help build mine, okay?

Oct 6, 2009

More (Than) Building

I've been building structures with groups of people and it has been an amazing experience.

Last month I took a group of students from University of Colorado at Colorado Springs (UCCS) to New Mexico and part of our field trip involved a visit to Project:Unknown on the Taos mesa. Project:Unknown is an off-the-grid artist hideaway-in-the-making. After an involved tour with Steve McFarland, the students were given an assignment: build a shade structure before nightfall. Two sturdy posts had been erected equidistant from a fence line. A pile of discarded lumber lay on the ground. Tools were brought out of the storage container. Total freedom was bestowed upon their design; the only rule being that the work be a collective endeavor. Work began.

The skies darkened as the shelter took form. Storms fumed in the north and south and rainbows appeared against the mountains. At one moment, raindrops fell and gusts blew. "Should we go inside?" the students asked. "Where will we go? There isn't really an 'inside.'" The momentary bluster slowed work, but only for a moment. A collective awareness of time's preciousness and also the desperate need for shelter hoisted beams into place, drill holes into beams, screws into holes. The group worked hurriedly, with only a rough idea of the construction plan.

What happened that afternoon was nothing new; this is how the world has been made, by need and by might. But for us it was extraordinary.

As we stood atop the shade structure that (miraculously supported our weight and) sported a stylish helix curve, a raw, varied edge, and plenty of shade, we felt a sense of awe.

It's incredible what can happen when a group of people work together. Building doesn't have to be a giant project, a long-term plan, an impossible group effort. A weirdly beautiful thing can be built fairly easily in a blustery afternoon.

Just days after being in New Mexico with my students, I went to the Bay Area for a set of events entitled Becoming Commons. The event took place in two parts: first, a discussion and dinner at the Headlands Center for the Arts; then, an experimental retreat/camp-out at a communal house in Bolinas. Jana Blankenship and I collaboratively organized the retreat (which I promise to post about soon) and one of my favorite activities of the weekend involved building an ad hoc structure on the beach. After talking briefly about the unique hand-built history of Bolinas and its legacy of informal communities made from driftwood, we journeyed to the beach to build our own driftwood fort.

The group was not a student group. They were sophisticated adults, renowned artists and curators, famous musicians, superstars, hipsters. I couldn't just tell them to build a structure; it had to come about in a different way. And so I merely started.

I began by dragging logs to a location that was decided appropriate and people slowly started participating. It was fascinating to see the fort evolve. Joseph erected the essential support beam, then walked away. Jana gathered materials continously. Amy crafted a woven roof that supported Stephanie's instrumental plank roof. Once it was started, the momentum carried and a sort of collective intuition (or was it daring, faith, experimentation?) took over and the debris grew into a beautiful shelter.

Olivia and Brook and others began to decorate the structure and that's when the fort transformed into a sort of monument, a veritable sanctuary. And then, at some indescribable moment, it was finished. We backed away from our work with curiosity and pride, fascinated to see what came out of the smallest intention, the littlest effort, the most meager of materials.

I'm reminded of a quote from one of the hard-working folks who helped to build Drop City, the first of the artist communes in the '60s, who said,
“The hardest time in a commune, particularly Drop City, is the time after the building gets done. While everyone is working together on actual construction the energy is centered, there is fantastic high spirit, everyone knows what he is doing all the time. But after the building is done comes a time of dissolution. There’s no focus for the group energy, and most hippies don’t have anything to do with their individual energy.” (Voyd, Bill, “Funk Architecture,” in Paul Oliver, ed., Shelter and Society. New York: Praeger, 1969, p. 158)
It's a different world now and we're not building a Drop City. We aren't building a commune or even functional living structures, but what strikes me about these words in this context is the notion that building can and does mobilize groups of people. Building is an incredibly potent practice. It keeps the world in motion, keeps people in motion. It gives meaning to time and resources. It's a source of agency, collectivity, and functionality.

I continue to learn from these group experiments in building and besides all the esoteric observations, I have fun too. There's nothing that satisfies, fortifies, and unifies quite like the act of building.

Oct 5, 2009

Meaningless Work

Meaningless work is obviously the most important and significant art form today. The aesthetic feeling given by meaningless work cannot be described exactly because it varies with each individual doing the work. Meaningless work is honest. Meaningless work will be enjoyed and hated by intellectuals - though they should understand it. Meaningless work cannot be sold in art galleries or win prizes in museums - though old fashion records of meaningless work (most all paintings) do partake in these indignities. Like ordinary work, meaningless work can make you sweat if you do it long enough. By meaningless work I simply mean work which does not make money or accomplish a conventional purpose. Meaningless work is potentially the most abstract, concrete, individual, foolish, indeterminate, exactly determined, varied, important art-action-experience one can undertake today. This concept is not a joke. - Walter De Maria, March, 1960