Last weekend, Unmanned Minerals presented two of our embodied books at the &Now Festival of New Writing at UC San Diego. It was an insanely busy weekend for us. I flew in on Wednesday evening, and Gabie drove down from Los Angeles that night. We met as SDSU, where Matt had recently completely rewired and rebuilt The Desert Die’s internal circuitry. One of the texts, A Canal Makes a Face Upon the Land, needed a bit of editing, so I used my minimal music editing skills to chop off the last four or so sentences. We had some trouble converting the files properly, and after a few hours of screwing around, we figured out that it wasn’t going to work at all. We used the old track.
When Gabie arrived, we did some last minute work gluing some parts onto the Transgressing in a Ribbon banners.
What is Transgressing in a Ribbon, I hear all your alveoli mutter? Transgressing in a Ribbon is the new project we debuted at the conference. Transgressing is an outgrownth of our LACE/Elysian Park Museum of Art installation, Eucalyptus Carvers. It continues our fascination with the Eucalyptus as this kind of emblem of the unsteady nature of Californian-ness as inscribed in the landscape. Are they “Native” plants? No. Are they “Californian” plants? Yes.
If you’ve ever been to UCSD, you know that it is positively overrun with a very particular species of eucalyptus, the Sugar Gum (Eucalyptus Cladocalyx). And further, you know that UCSD has a world-class sculpture collection, The Stuart Collection. What you may not know is that the eucalyptus on campus are vestiges of a commercial eucalyptus orchard which doubled as a penal farm. Add to this the fact that wilting sugar gum leaves give off cyanide (one of the reasons that the eucalyptus groves are nearly mono-cultural) and you begin to get a sense of why we were interested in this space, idea, natural history, and aesthetics of the place.
In one section of the eucalyptus groves, the “Light and Space” artist Robert Irwin produced a sculpture called Two Running Violet V Forms. The sculpture is composed of “two fencelike structures in V-forms amidst the trees. The “fences” are blue-violet, plastic-coated, small gauge chain-link fencing supported by stainless steel poles which average twenty-five feet in height. The structure maintains a constant elevation as the hillside terrain drops gently beneath it. Purple flowering iceplant, echoing but not matching the color of the chain link, is planted under the fence. At no point is the fence an obstacle; rather it acts as a screen reflecting the changes in light throughout the day and the year, the moment and the season.” (From the Stuart Collection website).
Irwin is among a generation of LA artists whose primary medium was light. Irwin in particular drew from contemporaneous ideas about phenomenology and presence, and his writing about the Forms belies a terrific sense of California Zen:
“lovely changes of light and mood made it possible to do something very gentle here…The natural confrontation is that rare occasion with the unsuspecting potential for letting us ‘see again.’ Not art per se, or ritual, but perceptual interaction with ‘phenomena’ unattended or overly habituated—an art that calls us to attend to the pure potential in our circumstances as a whole piece. Here, the references of our knowing are not art history or the prior oeuvre of the artist, but rather the actual qualities of the situation and our ‘being’ in it.”
I tend to agree with everything that Irwin wrote here. But our (Unmanned Minerals) prior projects had given me a much more jaundiced sense of the relative “natural-ness” of eucalyptus (I was in high school during the 1991 Oakland Fire, and the stories of exploding eucalyptus are legendary). Further, the actual history of the site made my interest directly historical. What was it that could allow an artist to elide natural and political history and say “lovely changes of light and mood made it possible to do something very gentle here”?
Walking through the grove, it is very hard to argue the point – if you are looking at the light, looking up at the crowns of the trees, listening to the wind in the leaves, engaging with the contrasts in light that the oncoming and receding of the fog made possible, and were ‘in the moment’ as it were. However, the bustle of the campus, the fighter jets from nearby Miramar Naval Air Station (see Top Gun) flying overhead, and the absence of any plant and animal life (save eucalyptus and crows) complicates Irwin’s ideas.
Transgressing in a Ribbon is a set of 13 banners, wrapped around 13 of the Sugar Gums in the same grove as Two Running Violet V Forms. The banners are made out of a black industrial waterproofing material, 1 foot high, and, laser cut with one line of text. The length of this line of text is determined by the diameter of the tree, which serves as a natural constraint. The banners are tied to trees in a broad arc pattern, which bisects Two Running Violet V Forms, both interacting with the sculpture and “cutting across it,” as it were. During the Festival, visitors were provided with a map, which gave a broad sense of where to look for the next banners. Once installed, the banners were meant to resemble black armbands, signifying mourning. In order to read the poem, one must walk the grove. Further, in order to read each line of text, the reader walker must circumambulate the tree, both focusing the attention on the text as well as giving rise to an embodied experience of the tree and the space.
The text was written with two competing ideas: to create a complete 13 line poem, as well as to write a text that described or interacted with the immediate environment of the tree upon which it appeared. For example, one of the trees leans, at a very acute angle, over an asphalt path through the grove. The text on this tree’s banner “arc in my dead zone” both describes the angle of this particular tree, and also contributes to the overall text of the poem, which goes a little something like this:
C’mon psychopomp, let’s go
confuse death with saplings
or map the inflorescing
soul, a rip in my look
point a fluttering weed at
a point fluttering a weed
a helix of cross-purposes
bend through the orderly
arc in my dead zone
alone by the culvert
our balding copse
breaks out in shapes
your human mockingbird’s face
([Rock On] refers to some graffiti carved into the first tree.)
The text is very loosely based on Canto XIII of The Divine Comedy, the Wood of the Suicides, one of the most powerful and affecting moments in that whole powerful and affecting book. Here’s an accessible primer on that Canto, if you’re interested.
Getting back to the conference, I did get to about on panel on the first day – we spent most of the day mounting the banners to the trees, and thanks to M ‘n’ G, they looked really fantastic and strange. We decided to hang the banners at a consistent height, so that, as the viewer is looking for the next one, they are at consistent height, and therefore easier to see off in the distance.
Additionally we originally sited the Desert Die in this fantastic glass canyon behind the Geisel Library (you can see it way down in there, if you look closely. It looked fabulous, as if a relict desert in a biosphere that needed a little interpreting.
We got those hung, got The Desert Die working, and Gabie and I decamped to Scott’s hotel room (Matt had to teach), where we watched Christine, and worked on the map to the site. Actually, Gabie worked on the map. She is a wiz. I think this was the day where Bhanu said “I am a witch.”
The next day, we got a bit of a late start. This was gonna be a grueling one, because we needed to record our “Innovation in a Box” performance, lead an artist talk/walk-through of the Ribbon, and, for me, participate in Scott’s play, How to Be Intimate With a Narcissist. So we got there, set up the Die, ran over to the recording place…got it all done.
I waited outside the main hall to lead the 3pm walk and talk (Amar, an old friend of Matt’s turns out to be a writer, and he came along). When Amar and I got to the first tree, all was good. Then, I look for the second tree. The banner’s gone. So’s the next one. And the next one. All of the texts that bisect Irwin’s sculpture, as well as all the text which are in that particular grove, are gone. The first one, as well as the final four banners, are intact. The whole middle of the ribbon is missing!