Friday, October 7, 2011

A Trip to the Idea Factory

gluesticks and coffee cups: where and how art happens

Sometimes when doing in-class lessons the students and I write papers together, and as we talk it through, I type the paragraphs up on a classroom computer and project the results.  In doing this we might bang out several assignment versions in a row --- pro, con, and anywhere in between.  If things are really cooking, I might write three or four papers in front of them, lickity split, maybe four fairly complete essays in fifteen minutes.

This usually gets at least one anxious comment --- "But where do you get your ideas from?  How can you come up with so many new topics so fast?"  That's usually part of a larger anxiety, along the lines of "Ideas might run out soon, and I don't have mine yet.  Where do ideas COME from?"  I almost am accused of cheating, as if I have illegally broken into the Gringotts bank of goblin ideas.

Well hmm, to be honest, the answer is that (drum roll, please) ideas come coffee.  Oops, no, sorry.  Starbucks ain't bad for working on ideas once you have some, but if you want to go the premium source of all, the best of the best of the best, then I have to confess that ideas come from Reno.  There's a building there, and they keep ideas in a box, and, for a very modest amount of money, you can go inside the building and help yourself.  Sure, go on, be a pig --- use all your pockets and both hands, too.  Shove some under your shirt.  There's plenty more where that came from.

The magic idea place goes by the rather unassuming name of the Nevada Museum of Art.  Here's the sign, out front.

I was there recently for a conference, my second visit in six months, and I must say, they really know how to do things right.  Before we can get into how they generate, steward, and disseminate ideas, we do have one small point of business.  I did say they are in Reno, and just as many people think that all we do in the Antelope Valley is cook meth and drive around looking for the best dirt road to leave our sofas on, so too does Reno too often get a bad rap.

Are there casinos?  Yes.  I don't gamble (unless you count my marriages), so for me, these buildings are just interesting ways to squander electricity.  Yes, there are casinos in Reno; yes, they are gorgeous at night; no, they do not define the city.  Here is the view from my 15th floor hotel window, looking north.  (You can see my casino reflected in the windows of this blue one, outlined by the dotted pink lights.  I am the one waving, fourth pink reflection from the left.)

One of the surprises about Reno is that it inhabits an ecological reality in ways many other cities do not, and so, for example, right in downtown Reno one can fly-fish or doodlebug in a kayak.  (Denver has something like this too.  Perhaps the Mayor of Lancaster should take a fact-finding trip to Reno, get ideas for how to continue his revival of Lancaster Blvd.  We could use some kayaking there, and maybe a skate park, too.  How about a climbing wall?)

There also is a commitment to public art in Reno, including sculptures on loan from the famous (notorious?) Burning Man Festival  -- well, who knows what Turner might have painted if he had been turned on by some E and surrounded by topless women.  I do think Turner might have enjoyed this red and blue bench below, tiled to resemble a koi pond.  This was just the right size to rest on, and is on the main street in downtown.

Back though to the Nevada Museum of Art, aka the Idea Factory.

While I had come to attend a conference and to see the adroitly curated "Altered Landscapes" exhibition --- about which more in a moment --- a lovely bonus  was the chance to fall in love with a newly-restored and utterly-fabulous Titian, and while I am not sure if the banner ads are her talking to me, or we in the audience talking to her, it did not matter since she was transcendentally splendid.  Hello, beautiful indeed.

I am afraid no photography was allowed in her gallery, so all I can show you is the wall wrap, above.  A few things though from the museum did manage to sneak themselves into my camera, such as these two interesting (and in some ways, very parallel) sculptural pieces.

The primary occasion of my visit was the 2011 Art + Environment Conference.  Here's the interesting part: they really wanted people to walk out smarter than when they had walked in.  From the program brochure (called a "Field Guide," and designed as sharply as anything I have seen recently), comes this introductory statement:

"Art museums can be temples to culture or cultural catalysts.  They can be passive and predictable or unpredictably idea-driven.  Museums can watch the world pass them by, or they can shaped the trajectory of its course.  Art and ideas matter here.  We see art that challenges minds, melds environments and cultures, and responds to the uncertainties of the future."

This continues, with one of the most refreshing claims of all: "Art has a point of view and it deserves a voice at the table."

Right on.

These ideals were manifested in the opening night's main act, musician and thought-provocateur DJ Spooky.  Backed by live performers from the Reno Symphony, he used video, scratching, narration, and layers of electronica to build up a whole new art form, sort of what I guess we have to call Hip-Hop Mozart or maybe Moon Landing Jazz Fusion.

I was very excited to meet him, since he and I overlap in two curious ways.  We both have been recently to Antarctica, sponsored by the National Science Foundation, and we both have been almost all the way to the North Pole, sailing north of Svalbard aboard the schooner Noorderlicht.  (The only way to have gotten the rest of the way to the North Pole would have been to have enlisted in the US Navy and to have gone there aboard a nuclear submarine.  I liked our way better.) Here is the ship he and I both sailed on, in my photo from mid-summer in the high arctic.

Not only did our trajectories follow one another's, but I think we even took pictures of the same slabs of pack ice.

In their commitment to dialogue and cross-pollination, the Nevada Museum of Art has designed this event to be small, verging on intimate.  The program guide had QR codes (those square barcode maze squiggles that allow smart phones to link directly to website conversations), while at the breaks you could talk to just about everybody, from the curatorial staff to the tech support guys to world-famous artists.  In this kind of social design the content thus flows not just from main speaker to audience, but person to person, coffee cup to coffee cup.

The main auditorium couldn't quite fit everybody who needed to be present, though, so in the Founder's Room on an upper level, an overflow lounge let the graduate students and late arrivals participate as well.  I ended up here because I just wanted more leg room.  This was where the laptop users hung out too (and as is typical at art events, there were a lot of Macs on hand, mine included).

Talks included issues of intelligent design, how do we define wilderness, ways of including indigenous cultures in discussions of land use, what is the relationship between "ecological" photography and social justice, and, in Antarctica, what is a pee flag and why does one need one.

One shared assumption was that even waste areas and conventionally "un-scenic" landscapes (including Llano, which appears in one of the show's photographs) have a tremendous potential for visual and intellectual content; broadly speaking, I don't think there was an artist present who doesn't find deserts thrilling.  I think several artists present could proudly say that they had never met a pile of used tires they didn't like.  Of course, if so, these are my peeps.  Once at the USGS lab in Denver I shot some core samples (geological specimens, being housed like library reference books in a stable, well-managed archive).  I liked the history and science of them, but also just the aesthetic pleasures they offered, as minimalist sculpture.

So where do ideas come from, to return to the original question.  Answer, everywhere and nowhere.  In the field of large-scale works usually called (reluctantly so, by curators and artists equally) "land art," one famous piece is Lighting Field.

It is installed in New Mexico and consists of a one mile x one kilometer grid of steel rods.  Right time of year, they attract lightning.  The precision of the man-made objects contrasts with the stark beauty of the environmental setting, but the main thrill (even an imagined one, as few people have been here) is the lightning itself.  Here's a less-than-perfect scan, from a special issue of Time magazine edited by art historian Robert Hughes.

Where did the idea for this come from?  Thanks to the archives housed with the Museum's Center for Art and Environment, we can follow the idea's progress.  It started out as a sketch on a napkin in a Las Vegas coffee shop.

From there the proposal needed a budget.  How old-school this all is --- look, ma, real typewritten pages.

George Lucas's classic coming of age story American Graffiti supposedly offers history's best return on an investment in a Hollywood movie.  Produced for $100,000, it has gone on to make 100 million dollars.  Well, hang on to your Wookie, George, because the de la Maria Lightning Field is a close runner-up.  Proposed budget according to these archived notes is a just a few thousand dollars.  I'm no expert at appraisal but as a wild guess, what's this idea and its site worth, combined?  I don't know, $20,000,000?  Half that?  Three times that?  And unlike a Blu-Ray player, doomed to be obsolete in five or ten years, thunderstorms won't be going out of fashion any time soon.  "Lightning --- give the gift that keeps on giving."

The conference coincided with a major exhibit, which in turn has been documented in a gorgeous and informative book, Altered Landscape, the cover of which appears below:

One of the artists featured in the exhibit and the book is San Francisco aerialist Michael Light.  He was generous enough once to let me use one of his images on the cover of my third book, the Enola Gay survey titled Half-Life of Salt.  (The Enola Gay of course was the B-29 that dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima; many people do not know it, but the plane's name came from the pilot's mother.  Her thoughts on being included in this process went unrecorded.)

Michael Light received international attention for a project that salvaged NASA lunar archives (a body of art collected as Full Moon), but more recent work involves deliciously complex "takes" on the American landscape.  Consider this image, in both the Nevada show and the exhibit catalogue:

The blog cannot do it justice, since it is a very large negative and so makes a very large print: scale, here, is part of the conversation, both the scale of the image (you can fall into it) and the scale of the subject matter being shot.  What looks like a cross-section of the Grand Canyon or perhaps terraced Inca farmland in the Andes is in fact a copper mine outside of Salt Lake City, shot from a helicopter.  We have reached a stage of so-called advancement in our culture where we now can not only fly to the moon (as his earlier work documented), but we now can make the Earth look like the moon.  (Another of Michael Light's projects --- and also included in the show --- involves archival photographs of hydrogen bomb testing in the Nevada deserts.)  In this case, the photo above has formal qualities that Ansel Adams would admire, a political message about man and our relationship to nature, a comment on god-like points of view (helicopter as the ultimate vista point), a nod to the monumental wet-plate photographs from 19th c surveys, and a sly comment on land art too, since after all, isn't this mine pit now an even bigger art piece than Robert Smithson ever dreamed up?

My reference here is to a piece from 1970, Spiral Jetty.
(Just a note on photo credits.  Most images in this blog are Hood's or else clearly can be sourced to the book under discussion, but this image above comes from a Tate publication, Land Art: a 2011 Calendar. The image is copyrighted by the Estate of Robert Smithson.)

Extending out from the margins of the Great Salt Lake, one idea behind Smithson's artwork was scale, of course, but another was color: the water trapped in the inner parts of the coil turned progressively redder as algae and silt became more concentrated.  That is, it did so until some El Nino winters flooded Utah with extravagant runoff, and so rising lake levels hid the art work from view for many years.  Later, droughts revealed it again, the embankment intact and yet salted and transformed by its time off-exhibit.  (In the time it was below surface level, could scuba divers claim to have "seen it" if they had gropingly carried out underwater tours?)  This is a lovely, iconic piece, and many artists pay homage to it.  One of my favorite riffs is Mark Tansey's, in his 1982 painting, Purity Test.

Tansey was the son of art historians, and even the title of his piece alludes to 1950s art criticism.  What I like about a museum such as the Nevada Museum of Art is that they are not snobs: anybody can join into these conversations.  I happened to be talking to Matt Coolidge, the Director for the Center for Land Use Interpretation, and I was saying that I was a bit troubled, a bit puzzled.  In my own recent aerial work, I felt as if I had both achieved a goal and yet missed something.  Here is my image that I was trying to talk about:

Printed three feet wide by two feet tall, this photo recently was on display in the campus art gallery in our faculty show.  In the print (though not here) small white snowflake-sized specks are visible, California Gulls in flight.  (Footnote: the California Gull is the state bird of Utah, due to their help in predating anti-Mormon crickets.)  Left to right we have black lava, white sand, and shallow water, in my Frank Stella protractor homage.  I was leaning out of Michael Light's plane (a plane whose doors had been taken off), shooting straight down.  This is exactly the kind of photograph I have been trying for years to get, and yet, in Nevada, at the museum, seeing other artists' aerial work, there still felt like there was something missing.

We were talking between sessions, and Matt Coolidge said some things about an image's context and presentation, and his insights made the proverbial light bulb go ding, ding, ding.  For me, one of the things any landscape does is manifest itself not just visually, but through language: what explorers wrote in their journals, or even what I myself have written and published.  For my own future practice, it seems I should be finding a way to integrate visual presentations with textual ones, but in denser ways (more linguistically saturated) than the one-word slogans of, say, Ed Ruscha.  How this will work, exactly, I am not sure, but it will be great fun to find out.

One difference between Christine Mugnolo in the AVC art department (or me, on my side of campus) and our students is that Christine or I give ourselves permission to be ready to capture ideas any time they zing past.  I keep journals with me almost all the time, and even in a meeting or while driving, if an idea is kind enough to offer itself to me, like an Inuit hunter I try to bow and immediately thank the Great Spirit.  Recently in Reno, I think I added about twenty pages to my journals.  In a small shoulder bag, I most often have a soft-sided sketchbook, with pages that look like this:

Let's ignore for now the benefits that OCD medication might have for me and just notice the watercolored pink rectangle on top of the MOPA handout.  My note to myself says, "Next thing, Kevin will be scrumping apples."  I love this British phrase (to collect, often illicitly, windfall fruit), and want to do something with it, perhaps as a character study for a profile of eccentric people I have met.  The phrase though had been lost to me (no wonder, with pages like that!) until when at the conference a speaker was talking about responsible ways to think, to draw, to be alive on the planet, at the same time that I looked over at a floral arrangement inside the Founder's Room.

Those sparks helped me to remember not just the journal pages, but some other notes I had, back home, about portrayals of gleaning in 19th century art.  I can't wait to get started working with these.

Another connection that came for me has to do with a book project.  Roughly speaking, I am working on six books right now; one of those is a collaboration being organized by poet Nicelle Davis, called just "Bodie."  As many of us remember, Bodie was the 1880s boom town that was later abandoned in the 1920s, and which is now a time-capsule California State Park.  Two recent pictures:

Yes, that's an outhouse (as expected), but yes, below that, that's a child's coffin, propped up inside the parlor of the undertaker's house.  You can't go in: I took this picture through the window.  Note though the vintage wallpaper, the hat rack, the still-in-place art on the wall.  It's creepy and exciting, all at once, like finding a rare coin in the dirt of an abandoned homestead.

The book though struggles to find direction and voice, and bully that I am, I keep trying to lobby the head editor for changes that I think need to be made.  My case might be easier to make if I could articulate my thoughts better; coming back from Reno on the scenic but long trip back down 395, some of the stray ideas came together, and I transcribed my notes into a prose-poem slash essay that now is in another journal, one that I keep in a spiral-bound artist's book of 9 x 12 inch pages.

We have in this two-page spread a painting by Dutch artist Koen van den Broek, an aerial photo of the Colorado River Delta in Mexico, an explorer in the snow whose goggles reveal that he is (apparently) on Mars, a man walking on the top of a wall in Venice, a napkin holder wrapper from Carl's Jr that has had a word swapped out, and my Bodie poem, top right.  These images are my way of making shorthand notes for ideas or projects I want to come back to later, or, in the case of the Dutch painter, just work that I like and want to see more of.  Will all of these little visual memo notes end up in produced, finished work?  Of course not.  I can't speak for others, but I know that for me, interesting ideas are too rare, too ephemeral for me to treat casually, and by golly, if something crosses my path, I will do my best to honor it by remembering it any way I can, from a ballpoint pen note on my left hand to inclusion in a 13 x 18 inch journal page.

I have "written" about Mono Lake before, at least in terms of visual notes, and this page (below) did end up resulting in an essay, a nicely received piece in an anthology by Red Hen Press titled Devil's Punchbowl: A Cultural & Geographic Map of California Today.  The Mono Lake landscape in the background is not one of my shots --- as I recall, it came from a Patagonia clothing catalog.

Thank you Frieda Kahlo, for helping me with my essay for Red Hen Press.  (And thank you to Red Hen Press, for creating a venue for work like that to appear.)  Where do ideas come from?  From journal pages and long drives, from the left half of our brains getting into a barroom fight with the right half, from random flower arrangements and chance conversations in the restroom, from tufa spires and the Nevada Museum of Art.  I am not sure when their next conference will be held, but I do plan to make sure that I stay at the top of their mailing list.

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