Can the Landscape be Liminal? Experimenting with Land Art Experiences Across New, Unexpected Environments

Lilah R Doris. Anthropology + Design Final Project. Fall 2020.

Over the last few months, I have been thinking about my relationship with the outside world, and how that has changed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It seems like over the course of about 3 days back in March 2020, everything swiftly became a site-out-of-place. My cubicle became my living room, drinks with friends became drinks in Zoom squares- also in my living room, restaurants became bags dropped off at my door, museums became flashy “support our collection” buttons on websites linked to donation portals, art became locked away, and travel became something to simply dream of; the outside world became a space of fear, restriction, harm, and uncertainty.

I have always been interested in the 1960s-70s Land Art movement, and how people have engaged with it. The artists of this movement created artworks that are designed to help humans understand and contemplate their relationships with nature.[1] These works pose lofty metaphysical questions such as: do we make nature, or does nature make us?[2] What is the landscape and how do I, the individual, relate to it or exist within it? These works are often site-specific; encounters with the work are designed to help viewers register their own existence in the world. This is often done by utilizing “natural” materials[3] (typically understood as organic materials or materials found in the landscape without human intervention) across large scales to evoke a perceptive reflexivity of placing yourself in a landscape while simultaneously feeling that landscape acts back on you. Many of these works are dependent on the participation of a viewer or an audience to “activate the experience” (Kanouse, 2015, p.44) because the relational approach to the landscape is what works to amplify “understandings of the complexities of human–environment” relationship (Grauer, 2020)

Land Art is a direct response to artworks typically being isolated from the outside world, and the inaccessibility of art housed only in museums or galleries (even though many of these works were usually documented either through photographs and maps which the artist could exhibit in a gallery, or through bringing in material from the landscape and using it to create installations within the gallery walls… but I digress). (Tate) however due to the COVID- 19 pandemic, the landscape itself, and the travel required to get there, has also become isolated from the so-called outside world. So how can we recreate, or even, translate these experiences, when the experience itself is unreachable? Is it possible to translate experiences from one site to another given limitations? Is it possible to use what I have[4] in a relatively micro-environment to re-create a macro-scale experience? Is the attempt at translation valuable on its own as a process of self-reflection and conceptualization of space? Or is it just not that simple?

In his essay, Experimental Geography: From Cultural Production to the Production of Space, American artist, geographer, and author Trevor Paglen introduced the term “experimental geography” (Paglen, 2015, p. 38) He explains that “Experimental geography means practices that take on the production of space in a self-reflexive way, practices that recognize that cultural production and the production of space cannot be separated from each another, and that cultural and intellectual production is a spatial practice. Moreover, experimental geography means not only seeing the production of space as an ontological condition, but actively experimenting with the production of space as an integral part of one’s own practice. If human activities are inextricably spatial, then new forms of freedom and democracy can only emerge in dialectical relation to the production of new spaces.” (Paglen, 2015, p. 39) I wanted to take this idea of inquiry without guarantee and try to experiment with creating new spaces, new ways of being within a space, into a landscape, that that I already exist in- my bedroom. Paglen writes that “the task of experimental geography, then, is to seize the opportunities that present themselves in the spatial practices of culture.” (Paglen, 2015, p. 38) To me, the opportunity is the new reordering and re-conceptualizing of space I must undergo due to best COVID-19 safety practices.

For purposes of this experiment my landscape consists of my bedroom. This includes all furniture, décor, clutter, walls, windows, doors, floor space, mirrors, and all electronics. I wanted to engage with art-out-of-place through both my physical landscape, and my virtual landscape, which exists as an extension of my physical landscape. Is it possible to translate a spatial experience across these worlds? And if so, is it possible to set up a framework for future site-out-of-place translations and engagements?

I wanted to treat the production/ transformation of my space into a production of knowledge about my own experience in different landscapes. Following the Center for Land Use Interpretation –“a research and education organization interested in understanding the nature and extent of human interaction with the surface of the earth, and in finding new meanings in the intentional and incidental forms that we individually and collectively create.” (CFLUI) – “we believe that the manmade landscape is a cultural inscription that can be read to better understand who we are and what we are doing” (Scott, 2015, p.6)

To try and see if this were possible, I designed two experiences that follow a similar framework to grapple with these questions of connection to, interpretation, production, and translation of landscape experiences using Walter De Maria’s The Lightning Field (1977) and Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970) as case studies. I designed a materials-dependent, physically representative experience where I find materials in my own landscape that I can use to attempt to translate the physical/scalar experiences that these artworks create, and a virtual exploration that took me through the Dia Art Foundation, Google Maps, Google Images, The Center for Land Use Interpretation’s Land Use Database, Twitter, and Instagram to try and best engage with the works. Here is how it went!

The Lightning Field

“The Lightning Field (1977), by the American sculptor Walter De Maria, is a work of Land Art situated in a remote area of the high desert of western New Mexico. It is comprised of 400 polished stainless-steel poles installed in a grid array measuring one mile by one kilometer and six meters. The poles — two inches in diameter and averaging 20 feet and 7½ inches in height — are spaced 220 feet apart and have solid pointed tips that define a horizontal plane. A sculpture to be walked in as well as viewed, The Lightning Field is intended to be experienced over an extended period of time. A full experience of The Lightning Field does not depend upon the occurrence of lightning, and visitors are encouraged to spend as much time as possible in the field, especially during sunset and sunrise. In order to provide this opportunity, Dia offers overnight visits during the months of May through October.” (Dia)

For this experiment in landscape translation and spatial/knowledge production, I wanted to try to recreate the experience of seeing lightning, walking with some kind of scalar relationship to a geometric structure, and a reconceptualization of myself in my room-my landscape. I wanted to use De Maria’s artistic and ontological practice and see how it would read across both the computer screen and what I like to call my “at-home landscape laboratory”.

I used the following materials: Lifesavers brand Wint O Green mints (ingredients: sugar, corn syrup, artificial flavor, stearic acid…. Charming!), my iPhone XR camera.

When I asked my brother, who is an electrical engineering: photonics PhD candidate at Princeton University, if he knew of a way that I could create lightning in my bedroom, he told me that if I aggressively chomp on Wint O Green Lifesavers in complete darkness, I would see sparks in my mouth- ok, sure, let’s try it! He did warn me, however, that seeing the between-the-teeth lightning strikes was challenging, and he’d only ever seen it work by coincidence through the reflection in a rearview mirror from the back seat of an Uber. This seemed just elusive (and safe) enough to work when thinking through how to bring the lightning aspect of The Lightning Field into my bedroom. This is how it went:

Lightning Field Video #1
Lightning Field Video #2
Lightning Field Video #3

Observations from this experiment:

  • I was physically involved in the creation of lighting, and it was uncomfortable and painful at times. The first bite was very intimidating.
  • It was very bizarre to see sparks in my mouth from simply chewing up mints. 
  • This experiment ended up being a total inversion of scale, making me feel like a giant even though I’m only 5’5’’ and do not generally see myself as a person who occupies a significant amount of physical space.  
  • Lightning is very hard to capture on camera. The technology isn’t as equipped to focus on more than one thing at a time, like the human eye is. I was not able to capture my experience with lightning on camera, but I was permitted to try because I was the one who made the rules for this project. However, my camera lens wasn’t permitted to see the lightning because of its specs- not that if my phone had feelings it wouldn’t have wanted to.
  • Although strange, minty, loud, and at times painful, it was so exciting and cool to see that my body could create this all while standing in front of a mirror in my bedroom landscape.
  • This experience was multi-sensory: taste, sight, sound, and spatial awareness.
  • I was aware of my surroundings, and my body in a new way. 

When reflecting on the idea of translation of landscape during this process, I noticed that this experiment ended up being almost a complete inversion of the intended experience of encountering the Lightning Filed. For one, the Field is intended to make you feel small in a vast, expansive landscape. It uses the New Mexican landscape to provide a seemingly endless field of vision, with large poles arranged in a uniform, identifiable grid within that seemingly infinite space. The allure of seeing lightning strike one of the poles that make up that grid becomes elusive, desirable, dangerous, and site specific.

During my experiment, placing this grid of mints on my floor made me feel huge. There is nothing unknown or vast about the bedroom that I rent in my Brooklyn apartment. I know what is on the other side of all four walls, I know how long it will take me to walk from one side to the other, I am aware of my relationship- both spatial and emotional- to each piece of furniture or wall art that occupies space, etc. I know the block I live on; I know what is around the corner from every corner. However, placing a grid of small mints on the floor of my at home landscape lab made me feel very aware that this candy was intruding upon the floor space that I usually keep cleared for walking I placed it along the route I usually walk so that I would be hyper-aware of stepping on the mints. I created an intrusion of space, rather than seeking out a space that was designed to feel separate from “the rest of the world.” Unlike the field, I was in my bedroom, so it was easier-than-easy to get to (I was/am already here) and a space I am situated in every day. Due to COVID, I do everything from in here- work, eat, sleep, watch tv, work out, dance, scream, sing, cry, study, attend zoom after zoom, scheme, organize, schedule, think, create, destroy, dress up, listen to music, feel every single moment and emotion, etc. This is a private space I don’t need hours of travel via train, plane, and Dia Art Foundation owned van, a significant amount of money (for me), and a lot of time off to experience. 

Lightning Field in my Virtual Environment

Lightning Field Video #4

Additional Observations/Conclusions from Virtual Engagement:

  • Finding the site was essentially just as challenging as capturing lightning on camera
  • This dual excitement and disappointment about the mint chomping producing a spark but to my eyes only resonated across the Doris family. I guess my mirror and that random Uber rearview mirror now share something sacred.
  • Unlike with the Jetty (see below), I found it challenging to size myself up in relation to the installation. It was challenging to visualize what the experience would have felt like in terms of my scalar relationship to the work and the environment. It was helpful that the experiment turned into such an obvious inversion, because my perception skills could work outward from there.
Reaction text exchange between my brother, Eli, and I

Spiral Jetty

“Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, located at Rozel Point on the northeastern shore of Great Salt Lake in Utah, is one of the most remarkable examples of Land art. In 1970, assisted by a crew operating dump trucks, a tractor, and a front loader, Smithson displaced some 6,000 tons of black basalt rock and earth from the adjacent shore to form a coil 1,500 feet long and approximately 15 feet wide, winding counterclockwise into the lake. Created at a time when water levels were particularly low, Spiral Jetty was submerged in 1972. Droughts caused the lake to recede in 2002, and the sculpture has remained visible ever since.

The fractured landscape, fluctuating water levels, and the water’s salinity also speak of the artist’s preoccupation with the concept of entropy. Smithson envisioned an artwork in a state of constant transformation whose form is never fixed and undergoes decay from the moment of its creation. His thinking was equally shaped by his understanding of the third law of thermodynamics as well as a fascination in science fiction and popular science.

As a path for walking and looking, Spiral Jetty is a sculpture to be experienced. The act of traversing the earthwork is a prominent image in the eponymous film completed months after Smithson built the sculpture. Along with aerial shots of Spiral Jetty is a sequence of images of the artist running on the sculpture. Reaching the innermost point, Smithson gazes out at the spiral path, lake, and mountains. Spiral Jetty serves as a site from which to view the surroundings—the prehistoric environment that Smithson selected for it.” (Dia)

For this part of my experiment, I wanted to try and recreate a spiral out of mud, salt crystals, rocks, and water to create an experience of spiral formation, awareness of scale, and of interacting with materials in my landscape. I also set out to create a representative triptych of this experience- the original Spiral Jetty work exists in a triptych of site, video, and essay, so for translation purposes I also made one. My triptych consisted of the experiment of making salt crystals on my bedroom floor, the Spiral Jetty playlist I made on Spotify to listen to while making the crystals and the small-scale spiral, and the video footage I recorded documenting the process- my invitation to you, the viewer, into my landscape.

My Spiral Jetty Playlist

I used the following materials in my physical landscape: Epsom salt, water, plant-based food coloring, an old cotton t-shirt, jars, metal spoons, a wooden spatula, a wooden cutting board, potting soil and rocks I scooped out of an aloe plant, cups, water, time, and my iPhone XR camera. Here’s how it went:

Spiral Jetty Video #1
Spiral Jetty Video #2
Spiral Jetty Video #3

Observations from this experiment:

  • Much like the actual jetty, too much water made it disappear. It pretty much fully disintegrated into a wet salty mess. 
  • Entropy had its way.
  • The salt crystals came out very cool. I wish I had made double the amount for a more dramatic effect, but it was exciting that I was able to successfully create this material in my at home landscape lab.
  • I was extremely aware of how much space in my landscape lab this making process took up, the salt spilled out all over my floor, and the water and mud created a mess- I was ridiculously conscious of how close all of these materials were to my other furniture, etc. At one point my roommate’s cat, Carlos, got into my room and stuck his head in the bag of Epsom salt to take a curious sniff, but other than that, I was the only person involved in making. 

When reflecting on the idea of translation of landscape during this process I noticed that it felt very indoor (of course, I was indoors… but stay with me) The spiral jetty is subject to change from atmospheric conditions and weather and time, this creation/experiment/project is only contingent on the final deadline and the conditions of the inside of my home. This spiral will never see rain, feel waves, erode, have people walk on it, or probably even exist in this form for very long. So that there is something that is lost in translation here, however, basic entropy and designed messiness did take part. I created floods of water, I put the salt crystals under different temperatures, I didn’t build a sound wall of rocks to stop the water flow (that I also controlled). While I created conditions that allowed simulated atmospheric and environmental entropy to occur, I knew what was going to happen. Sure, I didn’t know what it would feel like, look like, or what space it would ultimately occupy, but I used my knowledge of weather, elemental interactions, and the space I was in to simulate these conditions. Does controlled entropy count as entropy?

Something that does translate, and is worth noting, is the interaction between the site and the nonsite- which is an integral part of much of Smithson’s work. The “nonsite” is abstract, representational form of a site. It is a “two-dimensional analogy or metaphor” (Smithson, 1968) The site here is my at home landscape; it exists in the form of the salt crystals I made, the mud I spilled, and the experience I had. The project exists on a small scale, in a residential space that only I, the artist and researcher, have access to. The non-site is the video, and it is you, the reader and the viewer. 

Spiral Jetty in my Virtual Environment

Spiral Jetty Video #4

Travel visuals and information:

Flying from JFK to Salt Lake City
Map

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Driving From Salt Lake City to Spiral Jetty
Driving From NSSR to Spiral Jetty
Map

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Biking from NSSR to Spiral Jetty

Additional Observations/Conclusions from Virtual Engagement:

  • Felt more like going on a virtual tour of the work
  • There were enough captured perspectives where it felt easy to situate myself/size myself up to what this experience might feel like for me.
  • The scale of the work came through the screen in a readable way; seeing images of people interacting with it in a variety of ways helped write that story for me.

Concluding Analyses and Thoughts

This project allowed me to think about design, as well as design different ways for myself to think.

Regardless of the shape it took, how long it lasted, what it felt like, or what it tasted like, one thing that rang true to this entire experiment was the deeply personal connection I felt to materials and space. I was able to draw connections between experiences across scales, interfaces, and materials, and I was able to invite in an audience by recording video footage of the making, searching, and thinking process. I was able to engage in a self-reflective practice in relation to the form and content (Kanouse, 2015, p.46) of what I was working with, surrounded by, touching, and thinking about.

While thinking about my own relationship to space and place, I found myself thinking back to Sarah Kanouse’s essay Critical Day Trips: Tourism and Land-Based Practice, where she writes about the pressures of these specific sites where large-scale, earthen, participatory works find themselves simultaneously being reinvented as destinations (Kanouse, 2015, p.45) In this essay she references Zygmunt Bauman’s thoughts on tourism- “The tourists want to immerse themselves in a strange and bizarre element… on condition, though, that it will not stick to the skin… In the tourist’s world the strange is tame, domesticated, and no longer frightens; shock comes in a package deal with safety.” (Bauman, 1996, pp. 29-30) Experiences with sites traveled to become isolated experiences that often exist in another world- an ontology outside of the participant’s (tourist’s) ordinary world. My at-home-landscape acts of making and virtual engagement alleviated some of that pressure of destination; I was not concerned on whether I was getting the most out of the intended experience. No threat of Paris syndrome from my bedroom floor- if you can imagine! If anything, this left me feeling freer to engage with the work I was doing, and the questions I was trying to think through. While disappointing that I couldn’t hop on a plane[5] to Utah and drive out to the Great Salt Lake, it was way less pressure to open my refrigerator and see that my Epsom salt had crystallized. Because this experiment was simple and local, I am likely to do it again with other sites simply just to try it out.

Carrying Paglen’s idea of “production without guarantee” (Paglen, 2015, p. 38) with me throughout the process also added another layer of freedom to the experience. I was able to (mostly… I drew the line at letting mud flow across my entire floor) surrender to my space, the artworks, and the materials, and allow myself to see what happened, both mental[6] and physically. Curiosity about site-out-of-place experiences, engagements across scales, concerns about access, restrictions due to COVID-19, and a desire to eventually be able to break down some of these barriers (echoing on of the initial motivations of Land Art- to break down the barrier between the human and the environment) lead me through an exciting self-reflective practice in spatial and knowledge production.

This framework of setting up both a physical and virtual engagement with artwork that is inaccessible due to travel, financial, temporal, or health constraints could be valuable in thinking through a variety of works-out-of-place. If this project were to continue, and become a more full-on ethnography project, I would like to both do this experiment with more artworks AND involve other people to see how their experience compares to mine when working through the framework I’ve designed in order to generate some more exhaustive and comparative data and field notes. This is just a curious first step! Hopefully simply reading about my experience and watching the process as it happened is able to encourage you, the reader, to start to re-conceptualize your own space and individual relationship with landscapes, environments, and materials. I see exciting potential to develop this into a larger project in the future.

While I don’t know that I can necessarily sculpt something appropriately representative of a Bernini or paint something as in depth as Fredrich Edwin Church, this practice, and process, in taking ideas, philosophies, and ontologies behind participant-activated, earthen artwork felt successful. Two summers ago, I took a trip to Venice, Italy to catch the 2019 Biennale, and in the Turkish pavilion there was a video playing on a loop that featured a masked person wrapped in a striped cloth/pants situation rolling around in an egg-like fashion whilst loudly screaming to a soundtrack of industrial clanging, maybe I should try that next!

Still image of the video installation at the Turkish Pavilion, Venice 2019

Works Cited

Bauman, Z. (1996). From Pilgrim to Tourist. In Questions of Cultural Identity, ed. Stuart Hall and Paul du Gay. (pp. 29-30) London: Sage Publications

Dia. (n.d.). Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty | Exhibitions & Projects | Exhibitions | Dia. (n.d.). Retrieved December 2, 2020, from https://www.diaart.org/exhibition/exhibitions-projects/robert-smithson-spiral-jetty-site

Dia. (n.d.). Walter De Maria, The Lightning Field | Visit Our Locations & Sites | Visit | Dia. (n.d.). Retrieved December 2, 2020, from https://www.diaart.org/visit/visit-our-locations-sites/walter-de-maria-the-lightning-field

The Center for Land Use Interpretation. (n.d.). Retrieved December 3, 2020, from https://clui.org/section/about-center

Grauer, K. C. (2020). Active environments: Relational ontologies of landscape at the ancient Maya city of Aventura, Belize. Journal of Social Archaeology20(1), 74–94. https://doi.org/10.1177/1469605319871362

Gilmore, R. W. (2017). Abolition Geography and the Problem of Innocence. In A. Lubin & G. T. Johnson (Eds.), Futures of Black radicalism (pp. 10–17). Verso.

HENI Talks. (2019, November 12). What is: Land Art?

Kalb, P. R. (2014). Art since 1980: Charting the contemporary (1st edition). Pearson.

Kanouse, S. (2015). Critical Day Trips: Tourism and Land Based Practice. In E. E. Scott & K. Swenson (Eds.), Critical landscapes: Art, space, politics (pp. 43–56). University of California Press.

Land Use Database: The Center for Land Use Interpretation. (n.d.). Retrieved December 3, 2020, from https://clui.org/ludb

Paglen, T. (2015). Experimental Geography: From Cultural Production to the Production of Space. In E. E. Scott & K. Swenson (Eds.), Critical landscapes: Art, space, politics (pp. 34–42). University of California Press.

Scott, E. E., & Swenson, K. (Eds.). (2015). Critical landscapes: Art, space, politics. University of California Press.

SMITHSON, ROBERT. “A PROVISIONAL THEORY OF NONSITES.” IN ROBERT SMITHSON: THE COLLECTED WRITINGS,  JACK FLAM. UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS, 1996.

Tate. (n.d.). Land art – Art Term. Tate. Retrieved December 2, 2020, from https://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/l/land-art

The Art Assignment. (2017, June 15). The Case for Land Art | The Art Assignment | PBS Digital Studios.

Williams, R. (1980). Ideas of Nature. In Problems of Materialism and Culture. London: Verso.

Willis, A.-M. (2006). Ontological designing. Design Philosophy Papers.

Additional Inspiration:

Jordan H. Carver, “Land Art in the Age of Remote Sensing or: Google Mapping the Spiral Jetty” in the Avery Review 19 (November 2016), http:// averyreview.com/issues/issue-19/google-mappingthe-spiral-jetty.

Gottschalk, M. (2017, April 18). This Agoraphobic Photographer Uses Google Street View to Travel the World. Artsy. https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-agoraphobic-photographer-google-street-view-travel

Latour, B. (1993). We have never been modern. Harvard University Press.

Steinhauer, J. (2014, April 2). A Google Earth Perspective on Land Art. Hyperallergic. https://hyperallergic.com/118058/a-google-earth-perspective-on-land-art/

  1. Nature equated with anything elemental, pre-historical, organic, pure, unchanged by human impact, etc.

  2. Thinking here about Anne-Marie Willis’ Ontological Designing, in which she asserts that “we design our world, while our world acts back on us and designs us.” (Willis, 2016, p. 80)

  3. Many land artists turned towards a “renewed focus on the material rather than the primarily visual aspects of land” (Scott, 2015, p. 4) For purposes of this project and write up, I chose not to focus too much on material, however, I did chose to also utilize materials found in my home- though some were not organic, and some were packaged in plastic or manufactured to serve a human desire or function, they were found in my landscape, so they got to be a part of the project! In his 1980 essay “Ideas of Nature,” Raymond Williams acknowledges a divide between those who view the landscape as a sort of pure product of earth/nature versus a product of human involvement: “a considerable part of what we call the natural landscape… is the product of human design and human labour, and in admiring it as natural it matters very much whether we suppress that fact of labour or acknowledge it.” (Scott, 2015, p. 4) I am acknowledging the products that I have in this space that are a result of my own human involvement, and those involved in the networks (extracting, manufacturing, transporting, collaborating, etc.) responsible for making that possible.

  4. Referencing Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s work on abolitionist geography that inspired some of my classmate, Dani Castillo’s- with whom I was lucky enough to collaborate with for this semester’s student-lead presentation – work towards her final project on worldmaking through mutual aid projects. I’m specifically referencing the quote: “people make abolition geographies from what they have, changing awareness can radically revise understanding of what can be done with available materials.” (Gilmore, 2017) This relates to my work in spatial production across different ontologies to help individuals reconceptualize their understanding of landscape, and their relationship to the different landscapes they interact with. I am doing my project solely with what I have access to- materials, space, information, etc.- in order to explore how I can re-interpret myself and re-interpret a known landscape in a new way.

  5. Air travel is one of the big barriers to accessing these artworks for me. Both because of COVID -19 related travel restrictions and CDC guidelines, but also because of money and time. I know I talk about that a bit in the recordings but doing this project has left me thinking a lot about access to art in general. A lot of Land Art artworks are practices in institutional critique, the name given to art that is “designed to examine the conditions of its own existence, from the museums that show it to the groups that value it.” (Kalb, 2014, p. 30) Land Art is a direct response to artworks typically being isolated from the outside world, however due to COVID, the landscape itself has also become isolated from the so-called outside world; Where can, and where will the Art world go from here?

  6. Not opening the can of worms that is “mental” landscape… not this semester at least!

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