Texas Tech University

Land Less Traveled

Amanda Bowman

February 6, 2018

Texas Tech University’s Land Arts of the American West program encourages students to explore the horizons of their own backyard.

Jackpile Mine
Visiting Jackpile Mine with geologist and Laguna Pueblo member Curtis Francisco and Texas Tech archeology professor Chris Witmore, Laguna Pueblo, New Mexico. (September 6, 2017) All photos provided by Chris Taylor.

For many students, traveling to an exotic country to study abroad is a bucket list item. Immersing themselves in another culture's food, sights and sounds gives them a deeper appreciation for not only the country they're visiting, but also for how they are able to adapt to new challenges. What many students might not know is that exotic country could actually be the United States.

Texas Tech University's College of Architecture (CoA) offers the Land Arts of the American West program where students are better able to appreciate the North American West by “studying abroad” in their own backyard.

“One of the reasons it's common in universities to have a semester or summer abroad experience is to make the world part of the education and to say, ‘It's one thing to study ideas of the world and the history of the world; it's another thing to put yourself in contact with other cultures and other places and to have a first-person experience,'” said Chris Taylor, director of the Land Arts program and an associate professor in the CoA. “We create and we cultivate that experience through the saturation we attain through camping and the way we travel.”

The Land Arts program started in 2000 at the University of New Mexico (UNM) and was brought to Texas Tech in 2008 when Taylor moved to Lubbock from the University of Texas at Austin (UT).

Kellie Flint and Caroline Carney
Kellie Flint and Caroline Carney working on the Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah. (September 16, 2017)

“Bill Gilbert, who was instrumental in starting the program at UNM, and I were friends,” Taylor said. “In 2001, we began a collaboration between UNM and UT and we ran a joint program until I came to Texas Tech. The version of the program at Texas Tech attracts architects, artists and writers within the college and from far and wide.”

Oh, the places you'll go

The journey taken while in the Land Arts program is profound. The program covers nearly 6,000 miles to experience major land art monuments such as Michael Heizer's “Double Negative,” Robert Smithson's “Spiral Jetty,” Nancy Holt's “Sun Tunnels” and Walter De Maria's “The Lightning Field.”

“There are certain sites on our itinerary that we've always gone to and are pretty stable, either because of their historical significance in the history of land art as a genre or how they activate our ability use land art as an index or lever to open up conversations,” Taylor said. “Works like Smithson's ‘Spiral Jetty' at the top of the Great Salt Lake in Utah are really important to us – partly because of its place in land art history and because that north arm of the Great Salt Lake is such a weird landscape.

“The work was created in 1970 and, shortly thereafter, the lake level rose. So, the work was invisible and underwater for more than 30 years. Now, it's become a landmark of the state. It's a destination. It's celebrated. It stirs literature.”

Bonneville Salt Flats
Exploring the boundary between the Bonneville Salt Flats and the Newfoundland Evaporation Basin, Utah. (September 17, 2017)

There are field guests who meet with the group throughout the trip, offering a different view or context for certain sites and deepening the group's conversations. Sometimes, the field guests are the ones who influence where the trip goes.

“This past season, a well-known and important photographer named Zoe Leonard was a field guest,” Taylor said. “She is working on a project dealing with the Rio Grande in Texas as a border and as a line. One aspect of her work is epic photographic narratives following a question or an idea where it takes her.

“So, we spent four days with her south of Marfa, based out of Presidio, to work a stretch of the river and help her get to places that might be difficult for a lone woman cruising the border by herself.”

Somewhat roughin' it

Students shouldn't sign up for the Land Arts program if they're expecting to go “glamping” and just admire the sites from a distance. The program is designed for them to interact with the art and the landscape in which it's placed.

“We're sleeping on the ground, in tents,” Taylor said. “When we find a river or lake we can swim in, that's bathing. The frequency of those kind of things we take for granted at home start to really become significant.

“We're up early with the sun and through into dark, with a frequency of evening seminars around a campfire, if there's wood to burn. We're a go, go, go operation that doesn't really take days of rest. Time is too precious to take the weekends off when we're in the field.”

Wendover Army Airfield
Test atomic bomb loading pit during tour of the former Wendover Army Airfield, Wendover, Utah. (September 18, 2017)

However, it's not a rough, strictly backpacking experience, either.

“We travel in two vans; one van for people and personal gear, another van for the kitchen and communal gear,” Taylor said. “We put a roof rack on one of the vans for solar panels so we can make our own power from the sun to charge our computers and cameras, and to play the stereo and screen films in the evening, which are parts of the seminar schedule.”

One main point Taylor stresses is the importance the program places on a nice-for-camping kitchen and eating together as a group.

“I have an assistant who manages the logistics operation and the kitchen,” he said. “The kitchen is within a modular tent structure we designed and fabricated out of aluminum pipe and fittings that are 10 feet by 40 feet. We use plastic tarps for the roof and can put up walls if need be. If the weather is bad, we can make it into a proto bunker, tie it down and operate in there with the kitchen. We have folding tables to take our meals on that double as a work surfaces.

“It's a fairly cush and elaborate kitchen. Since we're technically car camping, we have the benefit of being able to haul a reasonable amount of support infrastructure. The psychology of people in the field is important to maintain. So, keeping people well-nourished and happy is a vital motivation for the communal aspect of taking meals together.”

Rest and recharge

The camping portion of the program begins in August and ends in the first week of November. Though participants are on the go the entire time, there is a weeklong reprieve in the middle so everyone can rest, recharge and relax.

Double Negative
Base camp at Double Negative, an artwork by Michael Heizer from 1969, Mormon Mesa, Nevada. (September 22, 2017)

“We come back to campus after the first three-and-a-half weeks,” Taylor said. “By then, there's a deep need for a few cycles of laundry, for checking in with the world, paying bills and dealing with correspondence. But, it's also a moment to pull back from the group to reflect and to think about what just happened over the last three weeks. Students touch base with their families, sleep in, rest, retool supplies, whatever it takes. Then, we're back again for another field session.”

Once returning from the second half of the trip, the students spend the remainder of the semester working in the studio, finishing their work. The work then will be critiqued and placed on exhibition the following spring.

“At the end of every semester in Architecture, there are final reviews,” Taylor said. “It's part of our final exams where we present our projects and talk about them with a panel of critics. While we participate in that, it's not the end of the program.

“People aren't in class any longer in the spring when we do the exhibition. That's really the finale, where we share the work with the larger public. Everybody's working toward that goal from day one. To be in an exhibition is a privilege and an opportunity, but it's also a responsibility, to make your work legible to other people. You can't just be over in a corner saying, ‘This is what I like to do and I don't share it with anybody.'”

Glen Canyon Dam
Glen Canyon Dam lunch stop, Page, Arizona.

(September 26, 2017)

Benefiting from the land

The Land Arts program isn't just about seeing pretty sites and learning about the history of the art; it's a way for students to connect to their work and to better appreciate the diversity of the land.

“The big frame of the program is to look at the way humans have shaped the land and are shaped by the land over time, from ancient periods, through the archeological record, into modern and contemporary eras,” Taylor said. “We're learning from those histories, those examples of what people have done on and with the land and how they've been marked and shaped by the land. That's the big, conceptual frame.

“Yet, the two months of camping and being really exposed to, and embedded within, the weather, the travel and the sites, adds other dimensions to the experience. Out of all of this, we gain a greater appreciation of the definition and formation of landscape, what it is and that it's not singular like, ‘Oh, this is prairie; this is desert.' Landscapes are not generalizable. They're dynamic, diverse and usually more complex and multi-layered than for what we give them credit.”

Pueblo Bonito
Inside Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.

(September 27, 2017)

Learning to appreciate the landscape on a deeper level is a wonderful benefit, yet Taylor thinks the way the students learn about themselves is equally important.

“You also learn a lot about yourself during this time,” he said. “There's a huge lesson for individuals in terms of their own confidence, sense of identity, their relationship of themselves to their work and their relationship with others – both the community with which they're traveling and then the larger community of people inhabiting the territories we travel within.

“We'll talk about this from time to time, yet it's not something we focus on directly while being perhaps one of the most pervasive and serious takeaways of participation. The sites and seminar conversations are super important, and there's definitely merit within them, yet what the program does to recalibrate our focus, or open up perspective for individuals in terms of their life trajectory, is pretty big.”

Join the experience

Though the Land Arts program is run through the CoA, any undergraduate or graduate student, no matter their major, can participate.

Lyza Baum
Lyza Baum working her back strap loom, Chiricahua Mountains, Arizona.(October 28, 2017)

“When I arrived, I made a point of saying that the program is a university-wide offering, open to all disciplines, that happens to be housed within Architecture,” Taylor said. “We've been successful with students from the School of Art. We've had a poet from the Department of English, but we haven't had people from the Honors College, Spanish or from any of the sciences yet. I would love to receive applications from students in those, and other, areas.”

The program also accepts students from outside the university who enroll at Texas Tech to participate.

“Over the years, the Land Arts program has included architects, artists, art historians and creative writers from North America, Australia, Chile and Spain,” Taylor said. “They've come to Texas Tech from universities such as Yale University, University of California, Berkeley and the University of Pennsylvania.”

Taylor will begin taking applications for the 2018 program soon. Visit the Land Arts website, or email him at chris.taylor@ttu.edu. You also can watch the documentary, “Through the Repellent Fence: A Land Art Film,” where Taylor is featured speaking about the Land Arts program, for further information on the Land Arts program.

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