Art that Walks in the World: A Conversation with William L. Fox

February 26, 2014
by Eric Magrane

William FoxAltered landscapes, geologic time, lightning, watershed remediation, and more: a Proximities conversation with William L. Fox, director of the Center for Art + Environment at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno. The center is a world-renowned archive, research center, and instigator of creative interactions between people and their environments. Fox will be at the University of Arizona to give a talk, The Art of the Anthropocene, on Tuesday, March 4, at 7 pm at the Center for Creative Photography.

EM: Your bio notes that you’ve been variously called an art critic, science writer, cultural geographer, and poet. Is there one of these labels with which you most identify?

WF: There are other titles not in that bio. Someone recently called me an activist archivist, which I thought was another new way to look at myself. It’s interesting because I’m not a scientist and I’m actually not an archivist. I’m not trained to do those things. But I like writing about them and working with them. I’m not a photographer, but I really like traveling with photographers. That way, my view of the world isn’t being mediated by optics. A participant observer is a good way to put it. None of the terms, except for poet—I actually am a poet—sit easily. That one I trained for and I have done my entire life.

EM: The idea of landscape is key to a lot of your work and I know that you collaborated with the geographer Denis Cosgrove. Cosgrove described landscape as “a way of seeing the world” and as a “visual ideology.” Cultural geographer John Wylie has formulated the conception of landscape as that “with which” one sees. It’s interesting to me that these different approaches to landscape reflect a move to collapse some of the distance between the human as observer of landscape object, and to place the human as a part of the landscape. Is that something that you think about when you talk about artists going from “picturing” or “representing” nature to intervening in nature itself?

River Fork Ranch

WF: We know a little bit more now about how we construct landscape because we know a little more about neuroscience. Different kinds of national and philosophical stances come into play. There are national—ideologies is not quite the right word—but national frameworks through which landscape is constructed, disassembled, and put back together again.

I’ve been working in Norway. Their tourism board commissioned some of the best artists and architects in the world to make projects at the ends of far roads. You can’t drive much of the coastline of Norway continually because it’s just too very fractal. So what you have is a spine and you turn right or left off of the spine to go down to a fjord or a town. Pulling people down there to increase tourism—scenery is a sustainable resource, right, they know that oil’s going to run out someday but scenery won’t go away—they asked how can we keep people traveling to these towns and increase the amount of time they stay? One way to do that is having things they want to look at—the juxtaposition of culture and nature that reflects upon each other.

People like that. In a workshop recently we talked about the Norwegian view of nature—the idea that nature looks really good if there’s a small house at the bottom of the picture in front of it. Americans would prefer there not be a house there. We have these different national frameworks of what looks good in landscape.

This group of people funded by tourism, working at the University of Tromsø in northern Norway, brings together psychologists, neuroscientists, and cultural geographers to talk about how you evaluate the experience of landscape and how you can manipulate that experience to some degree. So we’ve got neuroscientists talking about the ratio of what you know before you see something and then what you don’t know once you see it. What is the element of surprise?

EM: There’s a tension in a piece of artwork that’s providing a message but is also trying to be this intervention or surprising thing. One of the recurring questions is how much context is given so people have some guidance into what to do with the art or how to understand it. On the other hand, how much is left open for the observer or the tourists who run into it to make their own world or understanding of it?

WF: You want to give them just enough knowledge that they want to go down the road to see it. Then when they get there they see something they didn’t know about beforehand so the experience is even richer. And they’re doing that—that’s a nationally government-funded effort using art and architecture in combination with nature to create landscape in order to create economic activity. I don’t know of any other country that is doing that. This is partially because Norway is a very rich per capita country now because of oil and gas, and they’ve got some of the most gorgeous scenery in the world. It’s predicated on neuroscience. That’s fascinating. The conversation would be at turns philosophical and political. It’s a very interesting conversation, unlike any conversation I’ve ever had about landscape.

Now I’m going to Switzerland in September where they’re starting to do the same thing. They commissioned Michael Heizer to make a piece in the Alps. At the end of the road by a dam, way up into the mountains they put this fantastic land art piece on the ground. Why on earth are you doing that? They want people to go up there and take a look at it.

EM: I’m curious how you curate or mark something like that at the Center for Art + Environment.

WF: We collect archival materials about those projects. For example, we have Walter de Maria’s first drawing of The Lightning Field. It was drawn on a cocktail napkin at the Stardust Coffee Shop in Las Vegas in 1972.

EM: The stories underneath these projects.

WF: Yes. People say The Lightning Field’s not about lightning. It’s about the 400 stainless steel poles creating a plane in the air 20 feet above your head, it’s about the play of light on the stainless steel… that lightning is part of it but it’s not really the point. Well, Walter de Maria asked Guido Deiro, who was the “fixer” for Michael Heizer and Walter de Maria for a while, to find him a place where there was a lot of lightning.

EM: All artists should have fixers.

WF: Yeah, many of them do. Well, now they call them studio managers. Anyway, he tells Guido, “Here’s what I want to do”—he makes this drawing of these poles standing up in a rectangle—and he says, “Go find me a place where there’s a lot of lightning.” We want those firsthand stories, we want that kind of knowledge that is surrounding the creation of these works of art. Scholars will come here to look at these things. That’s what we’re curating. Archival work is the primary thing we do. Collecting materials from around the world about humans who are creating creative interactions between themselves and natural and built and virtual environments. What they’re doing is investigating and playing with the ways we relate emotionally, physically, and mentally to space. That’s how we make it into place.

This gets at some of what I’ll talk about in The Art of the Anthropocene talk. If you look at Church’s Heart of the Andes, there’s this grand narrative, but it’s also an encyclopedic representation of a landscape. That’s the mid-19th century. A couple of decades later, Timothy Sullivan joined Clarence King on the 40th parallel survey. King told Sullivan to photograph evidence of geologic processes, but he also said, “I want you to photograph this stamp mill over here because that’s the human footprint in the land and that is a facility that is also chewing up literal landscape and changing it into something else.” It’s taking ore and stamping it down into something of monetary value. You know, they were conscious of that change already in the 19th century, and you see an increasing amount of artistic activity documenting the spread of the human footprint. That still goes on today. We have the altered landscape collection at the Center for Art + Environment, which is one of the largest photographic collections of the anthropic process in the world.

But then you get artists who actually want to move land itself. They ask, “Well, if we’re moving all the earth around for a city, what would it be like to turn that into an art project?” Then you get artists saying, “If we’re going to move dirt around, let’s actually do it so it helps keep water clean or it lowers atmospheric pollution.” So one of the things that the work that we do here and that the archives prove is that C.P. Snow’s fears that we would devolve into two cultures were wrong, or were never true. That was a wonderful thought experiment, a powerful thing to say, and it was a legitimate worry, but it wasn’t happening in the way he thought it was happening.

New & grown thicketEM: It seems there’s a shift from what could be considered the heyday of land art in the western U.S. in the 1970s, which was taking artwork outside of a gallery and moving a lot of raw earth into this aesthetic thing, to some of what’s happening now, where artists might use their artwork for stormwater remediation, or something like that. A lot of artists are working on art as a collaborative process within a community, within a specific environment. The shift between art as an object and art as a practice point toward the role of art in the realm of adaptation or resilience, even. This is something that’s happening now.

Especially in the context of climate change and biodiversity loss, I find it interesting that physical scientists—and I don’t want to move into the two cultures thing here, I understand the critique of Snow—are really consciously working on how to connect research with the public and policymakers and pushing open the distinction between a pure and objective science and an applied science that’s useful and relevant for policymakers and the public. Doing so takes into account the realms of the social, political, and the economic.

This is where it comes back around to art. You use the phrase “art that walks in the world.”

WF: That’s a phrase I coined that we use to describe our work at the center.

EM: It strikes me that may be responding to some of the same impulses of scientists working on connecting their research to challenges. I’d be curious to hear a little more of your take on that. How does art walk in the world? How does that happen?

WF: This is part of being an activist artist, and I’ll talk about that in my talk. We’ve helped to broker a collaboration between two artists from California who make watershed sculptures, Daniel McCormick and Mary O’Brien, and the Nature Conservancy in western Nevada. The Nature Conservancy is busy undoing the work of the Army Corps of Engineers, who came in and channelized the Truckee River, which flows out of Lake Tahoe, through Reno, and out into the desert. The COE channelized it downstream from Reno to prevent flooding in Reno. They removed the ability of the river to create meanders, and that almost killed the river.

The Nature Conservancy is busy restoring the ability of the river to create meanders. They do that by undoing the channelizing, by meandering the river, and by not saying, “This is where the river will flow forever more,” but by opening up the possibility for the river to carve its own future. The artists were curious—you guys are moving all this dirt, and you want people to understand what you’re doing and you have a low visitation rate to this site that’s basically turned into a natural history process park. If you allowed us into this process, that would bring more people to see what’s going on.

So Daniel and Mary weave berms out of local plant material. They go out to the river and look at where there’s a cut that’s caused an erosion problem and they’ll create a sculpture out of woven materials. They’ll design it and get the community to help them weave it. They’ll live-stake it to that bank. So what they’ve done is they’ve created a woven structure that will slow the flow of the water, that will trap sediment, and that will create habitat. By live-staking it, it means that you go there and in the first year you see a sculpture that’s tied to the bank and it’s really beautiful and interesting and it’s been made by a lot of people. You go back the next year and it’s starting to sprout. You go back the third year and it’s not visible, it’s just a bank of willows that are growing there.

Silt trap

That’s one way of art walking in the world, where you’re actually making a direct intervention like that. But there are other projects you can do that aren’t necessarily that direct, that are more concerned with putting form in the landscape, and that can be part of the process of education toward climate change or environmental issues, as well. Artists work all across these different spectra. The scientists know a little bit about it. They don’t necessarily know a lot about contemporary art, but when they’re exposed to it they get excited and interested. They want to play too. That’s a healthy process.

EM: This brings us back around to the recent coining of the Anthropocene, the idea that we’re in a new geologic epoch beginning roughly around the Industrial Revolution. The idea that the human footprint is now in the geologic strata is one that strikes a chord in many ways. How it intersects with this play between artists making a mark on the Earth and altering it versus artists designing projects that work as remediation, like with the Truckee River example, is fascinating.

WF: This is what I’ve been writing about for the last 12 years—the art of the Anthropocene—since I first read about it in 2002. I should sit down and actually write a book about it. The most I’ve done so far is write a 5,000-word essay that tracks this change. And that’s the lecture I’m going to give.

We had a workshop we convened with the American Museum of Natural History, the Deutsches Museum in Munich, and the Australian National Museum. We got together to talk about collecting the future. How do museums collect and present the Anthropocene? It was very interesting to sit down and watch how everyone in their own field addresses this. The Deutsches Museum is one of the biggest technology museums in the world, and they take things in their collections and repurpose them to map the change—how has technology responded? The American Museum of Natural History does it with natural history. The Australia National Museum does it in terms of history and culture. We’re the art museum that does that. It’s very interesting to watch how all of these different sites that construct culture address the Anthropocene.

To hear more about the art of the Anthropocene, come to Fox’s talk at the Center for Creative Photography on Tuesday, March 4, at 7 pm. The event is co-sponsored by the UA’s Institute of the Environment, the School of Art, Department of English, School of Geography and Development, and Water, Environment, and Energy Solutions.



River Fork Ranch, a property of the Nature Conservancy south of Carson City, Nevada, where artists Daniel McCormick and Mary O'Brien are designing watershed sculptures. Photo credit: Simon Williams

Thicket, New & Grown, by Daniel McCormick and Mary O'Brien. Photo credit: Mary O'Brien

Silt Trap Woven Wall, by Daniel McCormick and Mary O'Brien. Photo credit: Pamela Cobb