By Anna Reser
Art historian Robert Bailey is working at the boundaries of his field by doing fieldwork. Bailey and photographer Todd Stewart have been touring the American west visiting land art, eating in roadside diners, perusing museum gift shops, and inspecting nuclear test sites. They are looking for traces of human agency scattered across the landscape, sometimes as diffuse as an abandoned steel washer on a desolate mesa, sometimes as concentrated as the deep wound of Michael Heizer’s earthwork Double Negative.
Bailey and Stewart are documenting, collecting, and cataloging these traces of agency, and Bailey is developing a framework for writing the art history of the natural world. I spoke to him about the project, the methodology of his writing and fieldwork practices, and the importance of studying human agency amidst ongoing climate change. Erratic Fieldwork: Doing Art and Art History in the Anthropocene, an exhibition that draws on Bailey's work with Stewart, runs from April 22 to May 15 at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art in Norman, Oklahoma. Bailey and Stewart will host a public panel discussion April 28 at 6:00pm in the museum auditorium.
Anna Reser: You’re writing historical analysis of things like mountains and bristlecone pine trees, but also drained lakes and nuclear test sites. Is there a precedent for this kind of work, and why art history instead of something like natural history?
Robert Bailey: I began doing fieldwork very intuitively, perhaps a little naïvely (and perhaps I’m still naïve about it all). My colleague, photographer Todd Stewart, invited me out into the desert along with a group of students. I was on board as a full collaborator, but I figured that I would mostly serve as a tour guide. I’d just taught a course on land art of the 1960s and 1970s, and we planned to visit Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels, and Michael Heizer’s Double Negative. Our students had lots of questions about these sites, but they also had lots of questions about the Salton Sea, or Prometheus, a 5,000-year old bristlecone pine tree in what is now Great Basin National Park, cut down in 1964 by a graduate student in geography. And I realized that in answering the students’ questions I was not speaking about these “non-art” sites any differently than I was speaking about the “art” sites.
This experience led me to think that it might be worth seeing the extent to which an art historian can deploy his or her training on objects other than our usual fare. This has led to more fieldwork, which is an unusual thing for an art historian to do, excepting those of us who work in a more archaeological or anthropological manner. Still, those kinds of art historians don’t find themselves staring at the shoreline of the Salton Sea, wondering if they might do art history about it. Could worthwhile knowledge get produced through this sort of encounter? I’ve been working to answer this question in what’s become a bit of a distraction from my day job, in which I write about conceptual art.
After discovering both that I enjoyed doing fieldwork and that I thought it had some possible merit, I went looking for my predecessors. I’d say that there are two precedents for what I’m doing. One is simply the foundational work done on art-historical method by important scholars of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. What I’m doing doesn’t deviate that much from what art historians always do, so I rely on all of the usual suspects. People like Alois Riegl, who, if you go back and read the opening paragraphs of his Historical Grammar of the Visual Arts, writes about the work of art as a disclosure of natural creation’s formal laws. Art history occurs against a tacit background of knowledge about nature that art historians tend to disregard but still rely upon to examine paintings, sculptures, and decorative objects. What if we draw that knowledge out and cultivate it more actively?
The other major precedent for my work in the desert, one more particular to its specific patterns and rhythms, is the small but surprisingly cogent body of work that art historians have done on the deserts of the western United States. The foundational text is John C. Van Dyke’s The Desert (1901), which makes no mention of art, though the author founded the art history department at Rutgers, and he relies on the descriptive and evaluative skills that make for good art-historical writing as he talks about the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts in California, Arizona, and Sonora, Mexico. The architectural historian Reyner Banham wrote an excellent and very personal book on the desert, Scenes in America Deserta (1982), which draws on his expertise in modern architecture to think about his own experiences of the desert. And Lucy R. Lippard, an art critic, curator, and art historian, has recently published a terrific book with an activist tone, Undermining: A Wild Ride through Land Use, Politics, and Art in the Changing West (2014), focused on the dynamics of large-scale systems and infrastructure, mostly in New Mexico. Each of these books has been instrumental for me as I think about what art historians can write about what humans do in and to the natural world.
In addition, I’ve been reading a lot of work by natural historians — Michael P. Cohen’s A Garden of Bristlecones: Tales of Change in the Great Basin, which considers human responses to bristlecone pine trees, is a good example — and cultural geographers such as John Brinckerhoff Jackson have helped me to get the lay of the land. At the moment I’m thinking of my discipline less in terms of its object (“art”) than in terms of its methods, which are distinct from those of these other disciplines. If what I actually produce, whether it’s writing or an exhibition or something else, doesn’t register as art history, then that is entirely fine with me. The process by which it got there was art-historical, but the result doesn’t have to make that evident to produce or convey knowledge about human agency successfully, and that’s what I’m really trying to do.
AR: What does the fieldwork consist of in practical terms? What do you do, where do you go, what do you collect?
RB: I — or I and my travelling companions, who might be a colleague like Todd or a group of students — depart Oklahoma, where I live and work, by car, van, or airplane and go west. We work our way through an itinerary of sites that often changes because of weather or other contingencies. The travel involves a mix of camping and hotels and couch surfing. We eat a lot of Mexican food. In addition to our destination sites, we visit museums, occasionally meet with other scholars, and sometimes chat with locals. We rarely stay in the same place for long, though recently we have thought about focusing on smaller patches of terrain for more sustained periods of time. We do return to sites on different trips to draw upon their changes over time. Most of the fieldwork I’ve done has been for about a week or two at a time. At some point, I’d like to get enough time off from my usual responsibilities to settle down somewhere for a year or so and immerse myself more fully in a place. It’s probably time for less surveying and more steeping.
Often a theme or set of themes helps to shape our itineraries, but it’s not exactly a topic for rigorous study. I’m in the process, for instance, of carrying out a sequence of trips through the Chihuahuan Desert in Texas and New Mexico organized loosely by the theme of space. This work begins, intellectually at least, in Marfa, Texas withDonald Judd’s work and the Chinati Foundation, as good a place as there is to think about space. It also covers a variety of what we tend to think of as natural spaces: the Rio Grande, which is the project’s backbone, the basin and range topography of Big Bend National Park, the caves in Carlsbad Caverns National Park, the dunes at White Sands National Monument, the malpais near Carrizozo. Each of these places has a distinctive and remarkable spatiality to it that humans had to transform in order to access or use. But spaces that are more obviously demarcated by human activity are also a key part of the mix: the border region, the chile farms in Hatch, the historical El Camino Real as it traverses the Jornada del Muerto, Elephant Butte Reservoir, Trinity Site, pueblos, and so on. As I do this work, I’m thinking especially about the layered qualities of spaces, for example, how diverse Native, Hispanic, and Anglo histories coexist and share (or contest) space in this region.
What I or my collaborators and I might do at a site varies. Sometimes, we are more or less indistinguishable from tourists excepting our greater proclivity for sketching or writing in notebooks. At other times, we undertake more organized activities. We have a camera attached to a drone that we have flown over certain sites to capture aerial footage. We make field recordings, which Brent Goddard, one of my collaborators, has made into a specialty. We’re doing a lot of gathering of things in anticipation of returning to them later in Oklahoma: images, objects, texts, artifacts, ephemera, and so forth. Once we’re back in Norman, we mix that material with other research materials to form an archive that serves as the basis for further research, exhibitions, and publications. I actively maintain a database that keeps track of all the things that we find and make and use in our work, and that metadata helps us to conceptualize and organize what we are putting out into the world as a result of our fieldwork. In the case of our upcoming exhibition, a selection of that information is actually part of the exhibition alongside various things from the desert and our ongoing work as artists and art historians.
AR: When you generate all these data, how do you determine what to “measure” and how do you use that data to work with your archive?
RB: That word — “data” — is sometimes an uncomfortable one for an art historian or any humanist to use. It’s a word that implies science, mathematics, and so on, and we’re supposed to be separated from disciplines that work quantitatively with data. We’re supposed to be hermeneutic to justify our existence. We’re also supposed to be at odds with our current information age and the way that it reduces the complexity of experience to zeroes and ones. And I am, or I’m at least deeply skeptical of the idea that having a bunch of data means that you have knowledge.
One way to think about information is as something that reduces uncertainty, but I’ve found that, in producing information about the things we have found or made in the desert, I often create more uncertainty than I reduce. I discovered, for instance, that an athletic mouthguard, found by someone else on a trip to the Mojave, is mint flavored and that its manufacturer invented the flavored mouthguard for athletes. So I learned something about this nasty thing retrieved from the desert floor when I looked up the company name online. But that search for information didn’t reduce the amount of uncertainty I felt. The information I acquired only raised confusion where there hadn’t really been any before: how do they get the flavor in there?
Things are inexhaustible and no collection of data ever completely explains its objects, as any librarian or information scientist will tell you. But having some data around will show you things about its objects, and that’s useful. Working with these ideas in mind has led me to recognize that data isn’t owned by the sciences or mathematics at all. Information is all about significance, meaning, audience, communication: things that artists and those who study the arts know a lot about and also know how to subvert.
This has led me to conceive of a poetics of data that guides my approach to building our metadata set. I make a lot of “objective” measurements of every object, but even these admit looseness that keeps open other possibilities dormant in the objects. I keep a tape measure handy to measure the size of things, but size is an inconsistent category. A book may have a thickness of two inches, and that’s its size, but it may also have 326 pages or eight chapters, and these are also measures of its size. So I like to play with the abundance of possible information and the inherently subjective aspects involved in managing a data set. It helps me to understand things and leads to knowledge even if it doesn’t reduce uncertainty.
I make a lot of arbitrarily derived but no less informative measurements concerning the things in the archive, tagging them with qualities, concepts, moods, or anecdotes that, for whatever reason, they suggest to me. Sometimes I let someone else, even someone with little or no experience navigating the dataset, do a bit of free associating and make entries. I can go back through the data set and pull out everything that brought up the concept of aridity, for instance, which might range from an empty sarsaparilla bottle from Death Valley to photographs of the Owens Valley, to a jar of dried ink that I found in an abandoned homestead and keep near my desk when I write, to a page from a notebook on which I scribbled some observation about water rights. Something worth knowing — or a way to know — might arise if I make connections between those things, or they might lead me elsewhere altogether. My way of working with this stuff and this data is a kind of intellectual wandering.
AR: You plan to exhibit objects and documentation from this archive. What is the significance of bringing these pieces of the environment into the museum space?
RB: We’re trying to understand our impacts on the land and what they mean. One way of producing knowledge about this is to have an exhibition that juxtaposes things that have been decontextualized and then brought together by us in a new configuration. Building an exhibition is, in other words, part of our larger research process and part of our exploration of the desert. What is most helpful to me as someone trying to understand the things that humans do in the world is that a feature of one object, once recognized, can then inform a number of other objects, and this is a process facilitated by bringing together an exhibition and planning its installation.
For example, I recently noticed the “greenishness” of lots of things in our archive. These are things that are not fully green but sort of green, like a shard of glass that is transparent but has a faint green hue to it or an agglomeration of melted plastic fragments found in a dumpsite that for whatever reason are a bit green. The desert bleaches the color out of things exposed to the sun for long enough. Our abandonment of things — an instance of our agency in action — here results in a qualitative diminishment of those things, at least of certain qualities such as color.
This makes me wonder what other qualities have been bleached out of things and how prolonged interpretation — what art historians might call slow looking — can restore them or at least recognize their absence. That these qualities, once recognized, can then be traced across the diverse array of material comprising the total archive provides us with an approach to seeing and then exhibiting what we see by playing up associations between items or muting those features to let other aspects of the items surface.
We can, through the ways that we install things we have found or made or used, suggest certain things, and by exhibiting our data as well as the things themselves, we can imply further ways of interpreting that will aid or direct or guide a viewer’s encounter with what we present. Often, the connections we imply are obviously a bit absurd, like greenishness, but maintaining in the exhibition the same sense of bewilderment that I myself feel in the desert is important if I want to remain truthful to the experience of doing fieldwork.
What I’m most interested in doing by exhibiting, and this is probably different for me than it is for an artist like Todd for whom an exhibition is a normal enough outcome, is structuring a different sort of experience from the sort that art historians generally structure. We mostly use written and spoken words to say things about art and its histories. Those things said have a certain structure implicit within them: we like to make arguments, for instance, propose theses, review the literature, marshal evidence, formulate conclusions, and so on. We like to tell stories or describe people, places, and things. We like to do work that is maybe more theoretically or more critically or more historically inclined, more fact-based or more speculative in tone. But in an exhibition, it is harder to stick to one’s default modes because you are trying to figure out what you are doing as you do it. On unfamiliar ground, you get to reassess your habits and invite others to do the same.
Art historians are often involved with exhibitions, but usually as curators or authors of catalog essays. Rarely are we ourselves exhibitors, and rarely are the products of our work among the items exhibited. Seeing my notebooks in an exhibition provides a chance to reassess what I do, which I enjoy. Rather than try to convince someone of something, I find myself shaping an experience of looking and thinking that will help anyone, myself included, acquire a kind of worldly know-how, an ability to attend to the material consequences of what we as a species do. The ways that this happens in and through exhibition cannot be translated directly into words, and that’s what most excites me about producing knowledge in a museum setting.
AR: Do you see this work as activist? Do you make or suggest any conclusions about the way that humans use the environment and the potentially negative consequences of that use?
RB: I am advocating for a deep rethinking of my own practice as an art historian and offering that up to whomever is interested in it as a model for a reassessment of their practices. I don’t think that we should give up the sort of art history we normally do and all run to the desert, but I do think that as art historians we, like everyone else, should think about what we do, stretch ourselves, doubt ourselves, and so on. Obviously, we humans are doing a lot of things wrong, and in a sense that’s what I’m setting out to study by rooting around in our leftovers, our excess, our waste.
It’s rare to find something in the desert that is a model of ecologically sound or sustainable practice, though I suppose that’s rare just about anywhere. About the closest I’ve come is a small group of anarchists running an off-the-grid library in Slab City, California. Mostly, what you find instead is evidence of disaster, struggle, pillage, ego, irresponsibility, and expenditure: the byproducts of our false satisfactions.
I don’t want to prescribe (or proscribe) a path, but I think that the scope of our inquiry has to be fairly total, which is to say that even art historians need to take a good hard look at their activities. Maybe we’re doing things wrong. Maybe we’re doing things right but at a small scale that could be expanded if only we noticed and shared. It’s hard to say until we look.
Robert Bailey is Assistant Professor of Art History at the University of Oklahoma. Bailey’s research has been supported by a grant from the OU Humanities Forum. He is the author of Art & Language International: Conceptual Art between Art Worlds (2016, Duke University Press).