Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Little residency on the prairie

In October I did a residency at Art Farm in Marquette, NE. Art Farm is literally a farm. Or, I suppose, was a farm. Marquette is one of those towns you may drive through and never really see a town, just a collection of farms and maybe a post office.
The piece I made there was brought about by the collision of two narratives. The first began with what was to me a most exciting find at a thrift store last year. I purchased a complete set of the "little house" books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I had read these books as a child, and can remember my mother and I watching the TV show together, which incidentally did vary greatly from the books. But as I began to re-read the books, I noticed that they read like a how-to guide of olden-day techniques of survival. I was intrigued by Pa and Ma’s ability to do what ever they needed done by themselves, or for the big jobs, with the help of an uncle or neighbor. I had been thinking a lot about ideas of environmental sustainability, and have been realizing how we as a culture have slowly lost almost all of our basic survival skills. I knew that if the apocalypse did come, I would be ahead of the curve, as Pa could teach me how to build a log cabin and dig a well. That is assuming all the water tables have not dried up in the apocalyptic future.

The second was an article I had found years ago in a AAA magazine I had received in the mail and inexplicably decided to flip through. There was an article in the magazine about a woman named Alice Ramsey. Alice was the first woman to drive across the country in an automobile, or a “horseless carriage” as I believe they called them. She did this with three of her lady friends, but she generally gets the credit, as she was the only one who actually knew how to drive. They did this in 1909, which was 10 years before women even had the right to vote. So basically, Alice is a pretty cool lady. I had earlier come up with the idea to do what I had loosely termed poetic actions, in which I wanted to reenact an important feminist event. When I began thinking about Alice’s journey, I knew that I did not want to simply recreate this event. I wanted to think about it.

I was also interested in the time of both of these journeys, which was slow. I think that there is a lot of political importance to the philosophy of slowing down, not just in how we think about food, but maybe in the way we think about and live our lives, but I am not quite sure yet.

Alice's trip took her through Nebraska, whose roads at the time consisted only of old wagon trails. Apparently around the Marquette area, in the places where there is no corn, you can still find the tracks of the old wagon trains.
Both of these women’s stories are inherently about journeys, but also about movement and progress. Both were exploring and marking territories that were still wild and unknown, at least in the minds of white people. Their acts of movement, the trails that their vehicles left behind, were like making lines on a map. But I also look at these stories and question the nature of progress. The settlement of the west by white settlers is a problematic and shameful part of American history. And connecting one end of the United States together through roads, ushering in travel of both people and goods and services, has been problematic for the environment, at the very least. Though Laura Ingalls Wilder refused to put up fences, all around her fences would be built, portioning up the land and pointing history in a new direction. In the narrative of progress, when do we get where we are going?
I wanted to take my own journey in a vehicle which is a mix of old car parts and barn wood found around the farm. It is a sort of hybrid of the two vehicles that these women took on their respective journeys. Below is the finished piece as well as the aftermath of my flintstones-style foot powered movement inside of it.

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