"The easiest way to grasp what we do and to understand our mission is that we're a contemporary art museum without walls," explained Laura Hyatt, development director of the Los Angeles Nomadic Division (LAND), an LA-based organization dedicated to facilitating public art projects. After celebrating their fifth anniversary last year, LAND is settling into its role as a major force in redefining the relationship between contemporary art and its context.
"A lot of people, especially over the first few years, had difficulty grasping what LAND is," Hyatt told me as we sat in their headquarters, a small office perched on the corner of a strip mall at the bustling intersection of Santa Monica Blvd. and Highland Ave. According to Hyatt, the space was one of several factors that has helped the organization to become more recognizable. It's the outside, rather than the inside of LAND's office, that serves as an exhibition space. Appropriate for an organization determined to activate urban space, it's the outside, rather than the inside of LAND's office, that serves as an exhibition space, currently for a colorful mural by the artist Sarah Cain. When they first moved into the space two years ago, LAND's only art-world neighbors were Regen Projects and Redling Gallery. Now, the Hollywood area is shaping up to be one of the major art hubs of the city, boasting a slew of other galleries and art spaces, including LAXART, Hannah Hoffman Gallery, and Various Small Fires. "It's really incredible to see the energy that has come through the neighborhood," said Hyatt.
LAND was founded by Shamim Momin, who earned her chops working for almost a decade as a curator at the Whitney Museum in New York. While working on the 2008 Biennial, Momin spent a lot of time researching Los Angeles-based artists, many of whose work constituted an "expanded practice," which is to say, artworks that are not designed for a typical gallery or museum context. "There wasn't an organization committed to these types of practices, specifically in Los Angeles," Hyatt explained. Launching with an ambitious exhibition of seven site-specific projects by Mexico City and Guadalajara-based artists, LAND has since facilitated a slew of diverse art projects and cultural programming, much of which involves thoughtful – and thought-provoking – considerations of the urban environment and how we experience it.
One of their most noteworthy projects so far has been Wildflowering LA, a collaborative effort between LAND, the LA-based artist (and former architecture student) Fritz Haeg, the city of L.A., and dozens of other individuals and organizations in Southern California. Haeg approached the organization with "this crazy, wild, hugely ambitious idea in transforming the urban landscape of Los Angeles" by planting native wildflower gardens across the county. LAND issued a public solicitation for sites and then Haeg met one-on-one with around 150 applicants before settling on 50 sites, chosen based off of a variety of criteria including size and public visibility. Partnering with the Theodore Payne Foundation for Wild Flowers and Native Plants, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving California’s native flora, LAND then distributed tools and information (in the form of a website) to participants.
"It wasn't an easy feat," explained Hyatt. "A lot of these people had traditional grass lawns and they had to employ a team of people to help them rip them out." In some cases, LAND was able to partner with the city government, which maintains a program that pays landowners to remove grass and plant more sustainable native landscapes. It was just incredible to see so many participants across the city become so invested in this large-scale public art project. "It was just incredible to see so many participants across the city become so invested in this large-scale public art project," said Hyatt. She told me an anecdote about a third-grade class that linked arms to form a human shield to protect their wildflower garden from destruction at the hands of uninformed gardeners.
Not every project by LAND has been met with such enthusiasm. A recent iteration of their on-going project Manifest Destiny provoked a slew of controversy in the New Mexico community where it is sited. Art blog Hyperallergic posted an article that collected Facebook responses to billboards by the artist Daniel Small, commissioned by LAND and consisting of cryptic black and red writing over stark desert landscapes. One commenter, Jonathan Avalos, wrote: "When I see that billboard I'm like Wtf was the artist drunk and made terrorist words." Another local resident, Craig Melton, told the Las Cruces Sun News, "I was beginning to wonder if it was some kind of threat or warning. You never know, we're close to the border and you think that ISIS or some other subversives might be trying to get at us."
In fact, Small's billboards consist of writing appropriated from the Los Lunas Decalogue Stone, which contains the text of the Ten Commandments in a form of Paleo-Hebrew. The possibly-forged and controversial landmark is sometimes cited as evidence of early Semitic contact with the Americas. This text is superimposed over photos of the site where Cecil B. DeMille shot his 1923 film The Ten Commandments in Guadalupe, California. I think [a project is] successful when there's a conversation that comes out of it. On Small's website, a quote from DeMille accompanies images from his related work, Excavation II: “If a thousand years from now archaeologists happen to dig beneath the sands of Guadalupe, I hope that they will not rush into print with the amazing news that Egyptian civilization, far from being confined to the valley of the Nile, extended all the way to the Pacific Coast of North America." In his billboards, Small overlaps these constructed histories to cross-examine the production of meaning more generally. Taking this into account, it’s all the more interesting that the response the billboards provoked was one of conflicted interpretation, notably centering on the same region – the Middle East – that Small considers from afar (temporally and geographically). As far as Hyatt is concerned, "I think it's successful when there's a conversation that comes out of it."
And the Manifest Destiny project as a whole, which includes nine other sets of artist-designed billboards stretching across the United States following the I-10, certainly has generated many conversations (and even a change.org petition calling for an apology from the organization for using "the name of a genocide to promote itself"). Curated by the artist Zoe Crosher and LAND director Shamim Momin, the group of artists includes John Baldessari and launched with works by Shana Lutker in Jacksonville, Florida. On her project’s webpage, Crosher writes, "The intention is to give a physicalized reminder of this extraordinarily influential (and often times destructive) 19th century belief which unabashedly dictated the expansion west, that still dictates our movement west, and to gently place/implicate/remind the people unknowingly participating in that landscape along the way.” LAND accompanies each launch with a series of programmed "activations." With each phase of the project – and with all their other projects – LAND accompanies the launch with a series of programmed "activations." These take the form of panels, artist talks, performances, video screenings, or something else "tangible" that helps the local community access the work of art. Samantha Frank, LAND’s Curatorial Manager, mentioned one such activation where LAND installed a lending library in a truck stop outside of Houston, to accompany billboards designed by Eve Fowler that feature excerpts from Gertrude Stein’s Bee Time Vine and Tender Buttons. Frank related the local community’s enthusiasm for the library, which contained books by authors that "subtly [explore] gender identity," such as Virginia Woolf and Oscar Wilde. Another enthusiastic response greeted Jeremy Shaw's billboard in El Paso, which was plastered with the face of the singer Marty Robbins who helped put the town on the map with his 1959 hit song "El Paso." As LAND was installing Shaw's piece, it inspired a group of nearby workers into a rousing rendition of the classic country song and the project ended up on the local news.
Manifest Destiny, like LAND’s other projects, facilitates art that critically interrogates our relation to our urban and regional environments. Their 2010 collaboration with Mexico City-based artist José León Cerrillo and the MAK Center for Art and Architecture (housed in Schindler’s Fitzpatrick-Leland House) included "a series of posters riffing on the graphic programs of a variety of sources – from the familiar Art and Architecture portfolio of 'lifestyle' modernism, to Schindler’s and other LA-based architects’ bodies of work, to the present-day print material offered by the MAK Center itself." An upcoming project by the artist Jose Dávila will also involve the legacy of California's mid-century modern project as part of LAND's work for the Getty-initiative Pacific Standard Time. It's a real moment of opportunity for the city to get behind its artist community, which is so vibrant.
Outside of the series of LA-based events that will mark the culmination of Manifest Destiny in the upcoming months, Hyatt could only hint at what LAND has up its proverbial sleeve. One thing's for certain: LAND is thinking big and hoping to greatly expand its reach, working with more artists and across a greater geographic area (including some international projects). At the same time, LAND remains dedicated to the city that serves as its home. Hyatt explained, "I think it's a real moment of opportunity for the city to get behind its artist community, which is so vibrant." And, if their short but rich history is any indicator, LAND will be at the forefront.
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