Left: Cover of Lucy R. Lippard's Undermining: A Wild Ride Through Land Use, Politics, and Art in the Changing West (2014). Right: Lucy R. Lippard. Photo: Peter Woodruff.


Lucy R. Lippard’s latest book, Undermining: A Wild Ride Through Land Use, Politics, and Art in the Changing West, pinpoints vexing environmental issues, such as gravel pits and fracking, and contextualizes them within a spectrum of larger problems, while also considering histories of the West, photography, adobe buildings, ruins, Land art, and more. Here she speaks about the origins and inspirations of her book—which was published recently by the New Press—and she reflects on the leftover questions that arose from the project.

THIS BOOK began when the Tate Modern asked me to speak at a symposium on cities and I said I didn’t know from cities any more. They said, Well, talk about whatever you like. An exchange about gravel pits that I’d just had with a local developer from my community had popped into my mind, so I said, OK, gravel pits. There was a silence…

But the talk was fairly well received, and afterward I realized there was much more there, connecting urban and rural. I published a brief piece on a local gravel pit in New Observations and after a while just forgot about it. Then I resurrected the idea for a related talk years later in San Antonio; Chris Taylor, from Land Arts of the American West, was there and said it would make a good book, which had been occurring to me too. One thing leads to another!

In terms of influences, J. B. Jackson is a longtime inspiration, but I didn’t go back to him much in this book, which is really just a rant about what’s happening right now in the West. The influences were mainly local activism: articles in High Country News and my local paper, and our battle in 2008 to keep oil drilling and fracking for natural gas out of the Galisteo Basin. Another influence was artists’ books. I wanted to do a small book for a change—an extended essay with a lot of images, a parallel visual/verbal narrative. (I notice some readers are getting that and some aren’t.) The Center for Land Use Interpretation’s take on the world—and its work on gravel pits—is an ongoing influence. Native American art in the Southwest is another. A lot of younger native artists are activists around land use issues, for obvious reasons, given the way Indian lands have been trashed. They helped me tie to the present to the past.

One problem is that as I was writing, and even since I saw the last proofs in December, the “facts” have been constantly changing. Corporations bought out other corporations. Lawsuits were initiated or settled or not. Statistics changed. This book should not be read as a factual textbook. I just hope it raises awareness of what’s going down, and encourages readers and artists to follow some of these stories on the Internet, or wherever, and act on their own. For instance, since I stopped writing, the dangers of fracking—earthquakes, methane gas release, etc.—have become more widely known, and they are direr than we thought before. The mainstream media is finally, grudgingly, acknowledging them to some extent. And climate change is obviously the big one.

Right now the most pressing local issue—which came up after the book was out of my hands—is a plan to take crude oil in tanker trucks and offload them into railroad cars at Lamy, another tiny village that is five miles from Galisteo, with a dead-end road. If there were a spill, no one would be able to get in or out. And nationally, spills and pipeline leaks have wildly increased since I stopped writing. Everything is getting worse.

Obviously everything isn’t local and I’m not recommending blinders. But the message of my 1997 book The Lure of the Local was that everybody, artists included, should take responsibility for wherever they find themselves, as long as they’re living there. Once you know the local you realize how connected it is to global capitalism; its tentacles are everywhere. It’s multinational corporations that are buying up local resources—just as my friend said years ago about gravel pits. CLUI tells us that the aggregate industry may be the largest in the US. And it’s all interrelated—gravel, development, water, tourism, adobe architecture, Land art, rock art, and so on.

After finishing the book, I was left with a million questions—mainly about where the hell we’re headed. I offered very few answers. But one of the obvious questions is the role of art in coming environmental catastrophes. Photographers, and “high” artists using photographic media, obviously have the best access to communicating information about these endless crises. For better or worse, people “believe” photographic imagery more than paintings and sculpture. Activist DIY groups are also doing their part. But it’s difficult to concentrate on the causes, and the causers, because the art world doesn’t like naming names. Hans Haacke is the rare artist who’s more or less gotten away with it. And of course the indomitable Yes Men and their growing cadres. More power to them.

— As told to Lauren O’Neill-Butler