Eve Andree Laramee











































































































SPACE, PLACE AND METAPHOR

A lecture by Eve Andree Laramee at the Keisho Art Association, Nagoya, Japan


I'd like to thank Ryo Kondo, Atsushi Abe and Yukie Noguchi for their kind invitation to Japan to speak to the Keisho Art Association. I am grateful that over the years my work as an artist and teacher has allowed me to travel internationally. I will be speaking today about various ways in which American artists perceive and conceive of space and place, and how that is realized in their work. Like Japan, the U.S. has a rich, although much shorter, history of artists responses to the land, landscape, and natural world. The range of geographic differences as well as myriad cultural, social, political and philosophical varieties of thought, influence the ways in which earth is represented, experienced and transformed. In the 21st century one cannot think of space and place without considering technological digital/virtual spaces, or on the impact that humankind has had on the fragile ecologies of the earthly environment. I've organized my thoughts for you today into six sensibilitiesthat map out the trajectory of American artists interpretations of space: Historical Landscape art; Earthworks/Land Art; Wanderer/Nomad; Mapping; Virtual Space; Environmental Art/Ecological Art.

It is not difficult to see the role in which metaphor has played in 19th century American works dealing with space and place, as the grandeur of nature-as-landscape is unmistakably the predominant metaphor. Later, in the mid-20th century, we see the metaphor of mapping enter into the practices of Earthworks in the U.S. and into the parallel work of the Situationists in Europe. Later in the 20th century with the advent of the ecology movement, and chaos and complexity theories, we see the metaphor shift again, this time to complex dynamical systems, such as those studied in areas previously outside of artistic practice: environmental science, botany, biology, geology, meteorology, and the like. In the late 20th and early 21st century, we see yet another metaphor of space and place emerge, that of the virtual spaces and places within digital practices and cultures. Lastly I will focus on recent work with an ecological perspective -- we might say the inevitable metaphor is that of survival - survival of the biodiversity of life and survival of life on this planet. Because the latter of these artistic practices, that is, of ecological art, by it's very nature involves the impact of the social upon the natural realm, I look towards the writings and theories of post-moderngeographers such as Edward Casey, Edward Soja, and Cindi Katz.

The interest in understanding space and spatiality is evident by observing the wide use of spatial metaphors within social theory and literary criticism - as well as in fields of study in which we would expect such metaphors: environmental design, urban studies, and geography. As an artist working in the area of installation art, I am aware not only of the material transformation of matter into objects that physically occupy space, but also how artists shape space itself - by creating sonic, atmospheric, and social interventions.

Landscape painting came of age in the United States in the mid-19th century during the period of westward expansion. In these decades, American nationalists felt deficient in artistic and literary heritage compared with other countries around the globe. Failing to recognize value in the indigenous Native American Indian culture, 19th century nationalists turned to nature at its most spectacular to compensate for a lack of human achievement. America's blindly pursued westward expansion, fueled by the mythology of manifest destiny, justified the cultural nationalists program - the conquest and subsequent preservation of the grand natural monuments of the West as a contribution to world culture. The dramatic ruggedness of Yosemite, the boiling sulphur cauldrons of Yellowstone, and the polychrome formations of Monument Valley, became familiar symbols of the grandeur with which other nations could not compete. These spectacles of nature satisfied the American desire for a national cultural identity with deep emotional and spiritual values and provoked the creation of the National Park System.

The Parks were originally developed to fulfill cultural needs, not environmental ones, the catalyst being an odd mixture of national pride and cultural insecurity.The National Parks have been describes as our "national museums of American wilderness" and "primeval galleries of American scenery." Thus, it is not surprising that from the beginning, artists contributed their theoretical and practical frameworks toward their development. In 1832, painter George Catlin first proposed "A nation's park, containing man and beast, in all the wild and freshness of their nature's beauty!" The realistic paintings produced as a result of travels by Catlin, Karl Bodmer, George Caleb Bingham, and other artists of the Hudson River School created awareness among easterners, including politicians, of the grandeur to be found in the unspoiled West. Later, the more dramatic interpretations of western scenery by artists like Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran, were not only well known, but gave direct impetus to the establishment of Yosemite and Yellowstone Parks; these works of art were the visual component of cultural nationalism.

To create the National Parks in the 1860's and 70's, the federal government recruited landscape architects who in turn used landscape painting (the sign for nature) as the blueprint for their earth projects. They constructed their designs for viewing the scenery by studying such European Romantic landscape painters as Claude Lorrain and Nicholas Poussin. Rather than immersing themselves in the land itself they studied artists interpretations of nature. Frederick Law Olmstead lobbied for the National Park Act, which was passed in 1864. In the following years, he designed Yosemite Valley's roads and trails, composing the situations in which visitors view the scenery. The National Parks are, in one sense, drive-through museums of nature, as most visitors in the US enjoy the scenery from their automobiles. Tourism and the open spaces of the natural environment become intertwined in these landscapes that thousands of auto-tourists carried away from the parks." In the years following, the National Park idea evolved to include wildlife conservation, wilderness preservation, use-limits on mining and logging, and the practice of setting aside part of the surrounding environment for the protection of the ecosystem. The notion of a park is changing from monument to ecosystem, from spectacle to process.

Thirty years ago Robert Smithson redefined the landscape for subsequent generations of artists. He taught us about the confluence of the natural and the industrial. All sculpture after Smithson can be viewed as site/non-site because he forced us to look at the origins of our materials, and the socio-political history of the sites we chose in which to situate our work. Earth Art exists in a place between the immediate and the mediated. A work such as the Spiral Jetty, while revered for it's remote site, it is mainly known through the photographs that exist of it. These images serve not only to document this pivotal work of the 20th century, they also serve as a framing and editing device. They sever the work from it's larger context within the Great Salt Lake. In October 2005, I visited the Spiral Jetty with a small group of students from the Maryland Institute College of Art, and my colleagues, Suzanne Garrigues and Brian Kain. I was struck by how easy it was to get to the Jetty, as in my mind I had imagined traveling for hours along rutted dirt roads to get there. Upon arriving at the shore, the lake opens up in an expanse of fluid with no distinct demarcation of a horizon dividing water from sky. The bowl of the surrounding low hills frames the lake. Following modest signage, our vehicle reached the lake, turning right, the road parallels the shoreline towards the north west. We pass a derelict oil jetty, much larger, and more complex in form than Smithson's work which is located another half-mile up the road. We traveled on to the Spiral Jetty, and at first appearance it seems diminutive in size in comparison to the oil jetty, like a tiny flourish on the shoreline: perfectly formed, pure, pristine, almost as though it was always there like a natural geological formation. We got out of the car, and my immediate impulse was to return to the oil jetty, so that I could have a deeper understanding of these two objects in relation to one another. I walked the half mile back to the oil jetty, and out the main arm. One imagines its form as a many-headed hydra. To the left there were black pools of tar bubbling up through the glistening white salt. These pools were encrusted with a delicate topography of concentric rings. To the right of the oil jetty were dozens of dead migratory birds - it was a toxic graveyard. Onward I walked along the jetty, until I came to the remains of an old oil pumping station, the long pipelines, now broken and rusted lay on the surface of the salt, abandoned machinery long ago stripped of it's useful parts scattered in pools of oil.

No matter what kind of art we make, we take nature and turn it into art. Whether that nature is material substance such as silicon or salt or immaterial idea, it is really only a question of the magnitude of transformation. It is an issue of how much it has been changed. Nothing is stable; things fall apart. Whatever configuration an artist gives to matter eventually erodes a way, from spectacle to process. One of the unintentional beauties of the Spiral Jetty is that as the level of the lake rises or recedes due to rain or draught conditions, the jetty is revealed or concealed by the lake. Its vulnerability to the forces of nature rescues it from its own monumentality. The process Smithson began by creating what he imagined would be a subversive, non-commercial piece was finished by nature. Its subversion is in its submersion, and in its proximity to the industrial remains of the collapsing oil industry. The burgeoning ecology movement in the early 1970's undoubtedly shaped the last years of Smithson's life, as we see from several of his later works dealing with reclamation issues: his proposal for the Bingham Copper Mining pit in Utah, and his proposal for reclaiming the tailings pond of the Minerals Engineering Company in Creede, Colorado. That he died on July 20th, 1973, two months before the first U.S. "oil crisis" began on October 17, of the same year, when members of OPEC, in response to the Arab-Israeli conflict in the Middle East, quadrupled oil prices,creating a panic among American car commuters and politicians alike. It is not surprising that Smithson's last works before his death began to address issues of ecology.

As a counterpoint to Smithson, the work of Walter De Maria, while relevant to the gallery or museum site, fails to live up to its intentions as environmental art. What I mean to say is that De Maria works, such as the New York Earth Room, and the Lightning Field, while they function beautifully as formal, sculptural works that refer to the natural world of earthly phenomenon, these works fail to understand, and thus transform, the complex systems that govern the composition of "earth" and the meteorological and electrical forces that govern such phenomenon as lightning. The New York Earth Room had two installments: first 280,000 pounds of ordinary "earth" was brought in and distributed in the 3600 sq. foot loft space at 141 Wooster Street in New York City. The first installment unintentionally included natural systems and organisms that were not in alignment with the artist's minimalist aesthetics and idealizations about nature. Hiding within this common earth were a copious array of hundreds of bugs and insects, thousands of weed seeds and millions mold and fungus spores. Within weeks the Earth Room had sprouted weeds, chirping crickets, crawling centipedes and worms. Mold grew up the walls and mushrooms sprouted throughout the formerly pristine, white gallery space. The 280,000 pounds of earth was removed, and fumigated - essentially all the life held within it was killed - and it was reinstalled in the newly repainted loft. It was now a room of dead earth, and not surprisingly, dead earth does not have the same loamy fragrance of live earth filled with living organisms. Humidifiers were then installed in the space to keep the soil moist, and release some of the scent of the dirt. Why this fascinating history has been written out of the "official" history of the New York Earth Room, is perplexing, as it sheds light on the process, and clarifies De Maria's project of superimposing order onto the messy-ness of nature. Had the artist embraced entropy, these works would have gone beyond their formal/conceptual constraints to enter into a socio-political discourse on the environment and urbanism.

In 1982, I made a trip to De Maria's, Lightning Field, the 1 mile by 1 kilometer field of 400 stainless steel poles installed in a grid in a valley surrounded by mountains, one of the most beautiful works of art I have experienced. As a young artist just out of graduate school, I was captivated by the work from photographs that I had seen of it, and from De Maria's "Notes, Data, Information"; on the Lightning Field published in Artforum magazine. Upon arriving at the Dia Art Foundation's office/showroom in Quemado, New Mexico, I was asked to sign a waiver stating that I would not hold the artist nor Dia responsible should I be struck by lightning while viewing the artwork over the next three days when I would be at the field. My question to the attendant was, "How often does lightning strike the field?" He looked at me quizzically and stated, "very seldom, maybe once a year." I mentioned that the information published about the piece stated that De Maria chose this site to build the piece because it had one of the highest frequency of electrical storms in the country. The attendant replied, "The piece is about contemplating the sunlight reflecting off the poles, not about lightning." Then it dawned on me, that lightning strikes the highest point in an area, and that although the poles were as high as 20 feet tall, they were nowhere as tall as the surrounding mountains. Was this an oversight on De Maria's part? Had he mistakenly assumed that lightning would strike the poles simply because they were lighting rods? Did he think his artwork would actually attract lightning? I mention these things not to discredit the work, but to use it as an example, harkening back to the 19th century, of the way in which many American artists deal with land and landscape in ways that do not include the complex, often entropic processes and phenomenon of the natural environment.

Early proponents of the Ecological Art movement are Helen and Newton Harrison, whose work and teaching influenced a generation of subsequent artists. Working on the large scale of the watershed of a specific place, their work explores biodiversity and its relation to cultural diversity. They examine these spaces/places through narratives of the land that are created by human belief and value systems. They map the social, political and economic onto the biological in their landscape art, and in doing so, arrive at a methodology for environmental problem solving.

Mel Chin is an artist who has collaborated with botanists and environmental scientists on issues involving land reclamation. His on-going project, Revival Field, begun in 1990, in collaboration with Rufus Chaney, a research scientist, involves the growth and harvesting of plant species that accumulate toxins in the earth at a landfill in Minnesota. His art is the process of green remediation using six species of hyperaccumulator plants to clean-up toxic waste such as heavy metals in the soil.

My installation, The Eroded Terrain of Memory, 1990, referred to a geological fault on the East coast of the United States. Rocks on one side of the fault are two-hundred million years older than rocks on the the other side of the fault. The older rock is believed by geologists, as per plate tectonic theory, to be a fragment of the African continent, as the stones match those in Morocco. I collaborated with a geologist, Jelle de Boer, and a cartographer/geologist, Sidney Quarrier. The work was made from metamorphic rock: mica, quartz and feldspar, gathered from mines and quarries along the fault line. I placed one ton of this rock on suspended glass panels in the main gallery space. The Eroded Terrain of Memory draws attention to the arbitrariness of boundaries, as rock is shared by all the continents. It questions cultural attitudes towards land such as ownership of property, mineral rights and international borders. In the North Gallery I constructed an inclined plane of wood which was covered with mica, a reflective stone. During the course of the day, light from a circular skylight passed over the mica creating ever-changing light patterns on the walls of the space. The piece became an Axis Mundi, a still, quiet place on the turning earth creating an index for observing the passage of time.

The relationship between sea water and human blood forms the conceptual foundation of my installation, Cellular Memories. These two watery mediums are similar not only in chemical make-up, but in physiological function, serving as as sources of life. Even more significant is the idea that these teaming, aqueous substances also share metaphorical meanings. The rhythm of the tides can be equated to the circulation of blood, as saline fluid pulses across more than two-thirds of the globe and throughout the human body. And while human beings are creatures evolved from the sea, the human body contains the ocean in its blood.Over a mile of vinyl tubing filled with red wine cascade across the floor of the gallery on a modulating surface of crystallized sea-salt, suggesting a vascular system. The scale of the work is both micro and macro-cosmic, denoting the insides of a body and a landscape. The piece includes an ambient sound component, mixing the beat of the human heart with the sound of ocean waves creating a primal, unrecognizable rhythm.

Fluid Geographies is a work currently in progress that investigates the environmental legacy of the research and development of atomic weapons in Northern New Mexico. High atop the Pajarito Plateau, nestled within its many canyons, lies Los Alamos National Laboratories, nineteen miles from Santa Fe. During the Manhattan Project and the following Cold War years, approximately seventeen million cubic feet of radioactive and other toxic wastes were buried in the ground and in arroyos surrounding the labs, in containers ranging from cardboard boxes to steel drums. Following the disclosure in the year, 2000, that strontium-90 was detected in Northern New Mexico water, the recent discovery of tritium seepage is of deep concern to the local communities. In 2001 the Cerro Grande fires denuded the land and erosion patterns shifted. By August 2002, elevated levels of tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen, were detected in the drinking water, ground water and deep aquifer water in Los Alamos. Los Alamos National Lab confirmed this fact in the press and stated that the tritium is a byproduct of the Lab's weapons-related activities. The indigenous Native American Cochiti Pueblo and San Ildelfonso Pueblo lands lie directly downstream from the Pajarito Plateau, as do the Buckman Wells, which supply water to the city of Santa Fe. Tritium emits beta particles that do not penetrate the dead outer layer of the skin, however, tritium is an internal hazard, not an external one. Tritium tends to move like water. When ingested, the blood distributes tritiated water throughout all of the bodily fluids, as though it were normal water. The majority of one's body weight is made up of soft tissues, all of which can be irradiated by the decaying tritium. The result of any tritium ingestion results in a whole body equivalent dose. The rate of brain and nervous system and thyroid cancers is considerably higher in this region than in other state and national reference populations.

Art that is errant, that continually searches, that wanders around in the miasma of uncertainty is generative of fertile territory. it risks its very stature as art. It risks the danger of invisibility. Being more like nature itself, it cannot be used to underscore a fixed point of view. The artist, Andrea Zittel, and the artist collective, the Center for Land Use Interpretation, falls under the sensibility of "the wanderer."

During the 1990's, in my neighborhood in Brooklyn, I would periodically experience an Andrea Zittel sighting. It was a perception somewhat akin to spotting a rare species of flora or fauna in the wild. Out of the corner of my eye I would spy a calm, thin figure usually dressed simply in grey or black clothing with clean, architectural lines, walking in measured steps down North 7th or 8th street in Williamsburg. Her "project" in New York, involved the transformation of all aspects of her life, from her clothing to her home furnishings into a simple, efficient design. She called her artistic endeavor, both the site as well as the practice, A-Z. In the year, 2000, she returned to her homeland, California, to develop another operational base in the Mojave Desert town of Twentynine Palms, just outside of Joshua Tree National Park. She bought twenty-five acres and a homesteader’s shack in this extreme climate, and developed it into her A-Z West studio complex. Her focus, in addition to producing works for galleries and museums, was to develop a "testing ground" for her A-Z designs for living. Her decision to decentralize was at once an idealistic experiment in utopian living, as well as a confrontation with the extremes of nature found in the harsh climate and remoteness of the western American desert.

Two projects she helps to organize, that bring together people to realize projects in the desert, are the annual event High Desert Test Site, and the Interloper's Hiking Club that meets periodically. Visitors to the High Desert Test Site events literally wander through the desert in cars and on foot to view various projects installed in the landscape, many of which are nomadic or portable. The Interloper Hiking Club combines art, fashion, design and recreation and consists of a loosely formed collective of artists who hike together wearing innovative and often outrageous clothing.

Another collective of artists, working under the name of The Center for Land Use Interpretation, with Matt Coolidge as the mastermind, gives tours, mounts exhibitions and has assembled an amazing online searchable database of land use in the United States. CLUI defines itself as a research organization involved in exploring, examining, and understanding land and landscape issues. From their Land Use Database, visitors to the website can research files, photographs and descriptions from thousands of sites. Their purpose is to provide a free informational resource to the public, as an educational tool for accessing information about the "national landscape, a terrestrial system that has been altered to accommodate the complex demands of our society. In addition to cultural works such as Land Art and Native American sites, it includes the Department of Energy, Bureau of Reclamation, Army Corps of Engineers, and the Department of Defense. They also have constructed several educational/experiential exhibit halls: their storefront space in Culver City, California, their Desert Research Station in Hinkley, California, and their Wendover Site in Utah. Their inclusiveness is what distinguishes them from previous artists working with the transformed landscape - the very fact that they link earthworks to large government works and industrially altered landscapes is key to understanding the complex relationship between human kind and the environment in the U.S., and the impact of these land uses on the environment and it's delicate ecologies.

Last year, two MICA students and myself visited CLUI's Wendover site to visit a MICA alum, Olivia Robinson, that I had known 10 years earlier. Olivia was on a residency there at the sustainable-living, solar-powered living unit designed in an old Quonset hut by the artist/architect collaborative, Simparch. There we visited various artists installations, as well as drove the CLUI experimental Smart Car, a 1970s muscle car out fitted with a GPS unit, with an interactive touch-screen computer in the dashboard, designed by CLUI artists, Igor Vamos and Richard Pell. As users drive the vehicle around an old, abandoned airbase, a map on the screen indicates ones location, and a recorded sound and video description of the history of place plays through speakers. CLUI purchased a long-term lease on this property, which, among other interesting facts, is where the Enola Gay was built. The project and the artists residencies provide an opportunity for artists to not only examine the physical landscape of the American West, but also to reexamine the ethical and moral dimensions of American military operations and their impact on cultures around the world. In these times of the Bush presidency, with its eagerness to wage war without regard for human life, artistic projects that raise awareness of the horrors of war, and to support the international peace, and nuclear non-proliferation movements.

Chris Taylor is an architect, who along with the artist, Bill Gilbert, has conducted a studio-based field-study project, involving students from the University of New Mexico and the University of Texas, Austin. They visit Land Art sites from pre-contact Native American cultures and historical places, as well as contemporary Earthworks. For three months each fall, fourteen students live a nomadic lifestyle, learning from and working directly in the environment. They visit, among other places, the Moonhouse ruin in Utah; the Bisti Badlands, Chaco Canyon, Very Large Array radio telescopes, and Lightning Fieldin New Mexico; the Grand Canyon and Michael Heizer's Double Negative in Nevada; James Turrell's Rodin Crater in Arizona, and the Marfa complex, in Texas.

"Parks on Trucks: Project for the City of Aachen," a project in collaboration with the bio-geographer, Duane Griffin, consisted of a series of parks on a fleet of three large, commercial, Mercedes-Benz flat-bed trucks, that circulated through the city of Aachen Germany and were parked in different places on a weekly basis. The project highlights the complex and contradictory relationships between nature and culture in a way that delights the mind and the eye while provoking serious consideration of place, landscape, and the role of historical aesthetic and geographic contingency in the natural world and in the meanings we attribute to it. Parks represent some of the most natural elements in our landscapes, yet they are designed and cultivated, controlled and aestheticized using methods that are clearly unnatural and sometimes extremely so. Parks are particularly interesting because we tend to see them as sacred spaces, luxurious romanticizations and fetishizations of nature that are only possible because modern industrial economies buffer us from the worst of nature's hazards and discomforts. This security and comfort, however, frequently imposes high environmental costs that make it necessary to rescue nature from culture by designating and producing more parks.

We used art and science to deploy nature (plants, soil, water, and biochemical processes) and culture (topiary forms, sculpture, agricultural crops), mediated and transported by political economy (trucks, road networks) to blur polarities, to engage in discourses, to dissolve and refigure boundaries. A ten meter long truck was planted with a topiary garden as a reference to artificial nature. Another truck is planted with medicinal and poisonous plants. The third truck, planted with a small crop of corn, pollutes the environment and cleans the air at the same rate. By equating carbon dioxide removed from the atmosphere by the corn plants growing on the back of the truck with the amount of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere as exhaust as the truck moves from location to location around the city. Dr. Griffin monitored the growth of the plants and calculated the distance the truck was driven in order to balance the carbon dioxide inputs and outputs: one third of a kilometer in three months. This truck focused attention on the nature of biogeochemical cycles, issues related to global warming, and the complexity of human impacts on the environment.

Damon Zucconi is an emerging artist at the Maryland Institute College of Art, working in new media and sculpture. His project, Zenith Alignments, utilizes global positioning system (GPS) technology, and star tracking software, to create new metaphors for space and place that focus on the area between the between natural and supernatural worlds. Using star tracking software, minor zenith alignments with celestial bodies were identified that were found to occur at multiple intervals through out the course of a day over various locations in a wooded area of rural Maryland. These precise places were located by the use of a GPS device. Three-point areas were located at sites of the zenith alignments. These areas were highlighted and clearings were made to coincide with the alignments. At the moment of the alignment, Damon exposed the ground by clearing accumulated matter such as fallen leaves, twigs and rock, and simultaneously aligning himself with the line that extends to the star. These specific alignments were unique to these specific locations, occurring once in a given annual cycle. The performative aspect of his sculptural project can be seen as the process of integrating his own body with ninety-degree angles that demarcated larger phenomenological alignments and relations: the body mapped onto the land onto the heavens above.

New Media artist, Jeremy Hight's early training was as a meteorologist, and weather systems and other vast atmospheric and geologic phenomena are paralleled in his artwork in relation to human emotions and interactions. He defines himself not as a scientist, but as a new media artist, writer and locative artist - an artist who works with the subtleties of locating oneself in space and place. His project, 34 north 118 west, an experiential, locative narrative project, was one of the first works to utilize GPS technology. His new media project, Carrizo Parkfield Diaries, incorporated hourly seismic data from various tracking stations located on earthquake fault zones, combined with text and images. The project uses 30,000 sources of seismic data, recorded live, micro-seismic measurements of peak ground velocity, and peak ground acceleration and spectral response. The website complies hourly updates into number sequences that in turn "crash" into an archived seismic database from a recent earthquake. This data is collected from seismically active zones along the San Andreas Fault running through the state of California from the Carrizo Pains to Parkfield. The piece functions as random pages from a diary, as well as cinematic fragments in which "sound, text, and visual narratives put the intangible, intimate and local sense of place, up against the sublime big data reality of the continuous seismic activity in California, imagined as a darker take on the romantic American western landscape. Layers of fiction and poetry are triggered and erupt from the disturbances in the geomorphology, in a way that recalls human memory recovering from trauma. The narrative poetics of Jeremy Hight collide with the indistinct landscape of flickering images: earthquake energy in the ground is chaotic, and yet has structure, movement...then it ends and the ground and landscape has to adjust, show damage, continuous resonating for a time in aftershocks, and in a sense has physical memory.

My project, "Misplaced Data," 2005/2006, is a sonic mapping project based on gravity anomalies measured in the United States and China. I first began researching gravity anomalies, electromagnetic receivers and the earth's magnetosphere for my 1982 project, Antarctica: Inertial Residue,and have continued my interest over the years. Gravity anomalies are geophysical and geodetic information that track the differences between observed gravity and its theoretical value, recording slight fluctuations or disturbances in the gravitational field of the earth. My project maps the gravity anomalies of a remote area of the Mojave Desert onto the gravity anomalies in the area surrounding Shanghai, China. I created a composite digital map - or matrix of anomalies - that were then presented as a visual score to be interpreted by an ensemble of musicians on electronic and traditional instruments. Each of the symbols on the map, as well as the underlying and overlaying geological and topographical data was assigned a specific instrument, pitch or tone, to be interpreted by the musicians. The piece will never be played the same way twice, and form a fluctuating sonic landscape of the spaces in the East and the West.

Another project which dealt with ways of digitally imagining the landscape was my installation, Sugar Mud, which looks at the Hudson River upside-down and sideways through scientific imaging of the benthos or bottom of the river. Sugar Mud features a room-sized mound of crystallized sugar tinted an opulent shade of golden yellow. This jewel-like sugar dune deleriously slopes halfway to the ceiling, sweeping over two windowsills and into the fireplace in an elegant room of the gallery in a former mansion overlooking the river. An unearthly golden light spills through the windows, the result of theater gels covering the windows, enhancing the super-saturated sacharine-sweet golden glow, furthering the room's evocation of New York's Gilded Age. But there is something perverse about this spectacular, subversive collision of architecture and a seemingly geological formation of this dazzling mass of sugar, which appears to have surged into the gallery with the force of an earthquake.

Presented with the sugar mound are five documentary images, one of which is a photograph of the 150-year-old American Sugar Refining Company's factory on the Hudson at Yonkers, just north of Wave Hill. A superimposed text explains that 80,000 tons of sediment from the river bottom in front of the factory were dredged by the Army Corps of Engineers and dumped downstream at the Historic Area Remediation Site near Sandy Hook, New Jersey, an area also known as Mud Dump Site. I was struck by the fact that the government's terminology for the reburial of sugar mud remediation, since the sludge, however sweet, is toxic. It contains an array of toxins, including PCBs that flowed downstream from the GE plant over the years.

I collaborated with two environmental scientists from SUNY Stony Brook, marine geologists, Roger Flood, and Vicki Lynn Ferrini. On-board their research boat, the Sea Wolf, I observed them mapping the Yonkers area of the river using sonar and ground-penetrating radar scans. These readings and digital analyses produce vivid topographic maps depicting the river from underneath, re-envisioned not only spatially but also in terms of color, which represent both the floor's depth and its density. Presented along side these digital maps were reproductions of a pair of paintings depicting the river from the proximity of Yonkers. One, from 1850, is an idyllic Hudson River School landscape by John Bunyon Bristol. Buttery yellow sunlight emerges from misty clouds, and bathes the water in its golden glow; it was this admittedly saccharine feature that most appealed to me, along with the dune-like palisade on the Jersey shore. The second painting, from 1915 by the equally obscure Modernist painter Daniel Putnam Brinley, is of the sugar factory at Yonkers. Brinley's rendering celebrates the bustle of industry, and again suggests how picture-making supports ideology, which in turn changes the very nature of the landscape it depicts.

Lastly, my project, Netherzone, maps the mind onto the land, and the land onto the mind. The Netherzone my term for an area between Los Angeles, the Mojave Desert and the border of Mexico which demarcates a geographical region and psychological space cannot be fully comprehended through representation or conceptualization, it must also be lived; it must be experienced somatically, perceptually, temporally. The center of the Netherzone is the Salton Sea, the largest lake in California, created 100 years ago by an engineering disaster: a land developer's wet dream become a dystopic field of abandonment and ecological imbalance. The Salton Sea is situated in the Valle de la Muerta, the Valley of the Dead, now called the Imperial Valley. This is the nether region of California in the far southeastern corner, where the Mojave meets the Sonoran, Yuha and Anza Borrego Deserts. In 1901, American developers constructed a canal to divert the flow of the Colorado River to transform this remote land into an agricultural paradise. Their scheme captured 90% of the flow of the river for their own economic purposes, preventing the water from flowing into Mexico. This rerouting of the river desertified the agriculturally rich delta lands in Mexico. In 1905 the river breached its canal and ruptured its control gates, and for nearly two years it surged out of control towards the lowest point in the the land, 273 feet below sea level, following a phantom channel, an ancient watercourse; inundating homes, fields and indigenous peoples' lands in its wake, creating a lake 10 miles by 35 miles.

In the Netherzone, nature and culture are stirred into a cloudy mixture in this place where human error has resulted in an unnatural natural phenomenon. During the 1950's a new generation of land speculators sought to create a recreational wonderland at Salton Sea for wandering Los Angelenos and Vegas Rat Packers. Entire communities were designed, miles of labyrinthian palm-tree-lined roads built, concrete foundation slabs poured, street signs installed, sewer systems and other infrastructures engineered, but few pioneers of the paradisiacal outback actually settled there. It is a modern ghost town, simultaneously established and abandoned. This Southwestern brand of extractionary cowboy economics resulted in a strange landscape featuring abandoned yacht clubs and golf courses, derelict subdivisions, and ramshackle motels. I am drawn to this vertiginous mix of these incoherent things. Utopian dreams and dystopic disasters coexist in this terrain, comprising a natural history of discontinuities.

The lower half of the Salton Sea region includes the Chocolate Mountains Aerial Gunnery Range to the east, and the Salton Sea Naval Weapons Test Base to the west. Now abandoned, the test range is located on 7,945 acres of land and 13,462 acres of water. Used as a bombing range since 1939 it was transferred to the Manhattan Engineering District of Los Alamos National Laboratory for high altitude aeroballistic tests of inert atomic weapon units. Some 150 drops per year were made with a peak of 223 in 1952, according to the Regional Water Quality Control Board of the State of California Department of Toxic Substance Control. Until recently, the labs would not publicly disclose that they had ever occupied the site. The test base boundaries overlap with the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge. Named after the late pop icon of -I Got You Babe- Sonny & Cher fame, Bono like other California entertainers, pursued a political career, first as a congressman and then as mayor of Palms Springs. His catalytic Bono Vision --a strange choice of words that seems to describe a porno film rather than an environmental outlook--called for founding a wildlife refuge at the Salton Sea. This would preserve a critically important migration stop-over and wintering habitat for millions of birds who migrate from across North and South America. His Bono Vision also called for extensive commercial development on tribal and private lands. Bono's vision preserves not only the wetland habitat but also the dreams of earlier land developers.

In the 1990s catastrophic fish and bird die-offs began to occur, triggered by environmental stresses from agricultural pollutants, bacterial infections, increasing salinity (25% saltier than the Pacific Ocean), algae blooms and overcrowding (non-indigenous fish introduced for sport fishing have no natural predators). Millions of fish die each summer in a matter of days or weeks, and birds eat these fish resulting in hundreds of thousands of bird mortalities. As an example, on a single day in August 1999, 7.6 million fish died; their carcasses created a floating raft three miles wide by ten miles long. In some months, avian mortality rates are so high that an incinerator runs day and night to dispose of their remains. Discussion and debate about the future of the sea and its possible remediation has drawn national attention, and proposals run the range of desalinization schemas, dividing the sea into two lakes, constructing new canals and do-nothing plans. Can this confounding history of an accidental lake be brought into alignment with the systems of real life that use it?

Every stretch of land has a narrative folded into it: geological, historcal, morphological, or social. The story of the Salton Sea collides in some backhanded way with my own story. The Netherzone is the place where the realm of fact and the conceits of fiction come together. Past, present and future collide. The creative challenge in addressing this elusive place is how to map it out in my work. The geographic components are straightforward: a place of origin, areas of effects, connections to other places, changes over time, etc. The task is no longer the sorting out of fact and fiction, as it was in the first three chapters of Secret History; the task is now the sorting out of tenses: past, present and future. But my project is not simply how to superimpose these components--these maps--there is another layer to be considered: a base map, of a completely different scale and intensity. Its topography is filled with events and perplexing discontinuities of infinitely complex shades and patterns. This is the map of lived experience, and my challenge is to find a visual resolution with some inkling of legibility. Not a solution, a resolution, as in clarity, for some problems in art never have a solution, they are always in a state of transformation and renegotiation.


Copyright 2006 Eve Andree Laramee

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