James Crump’s latest film, Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art, focuses on the lives and works of Michael Heizer, Walter De Maria, and Robert Smithson between 1968 and 1973. Here, the filmmaker and art historian talks about the process of making the film. The documentary premieres in Los Angeles at the Theatre at Ace Hotel (copresented with LA MoCA) on September 29, 2015, and will then play the New York Film Festival on October 1 and 4, 2015.
I HAD BEEN THINKING ABOUT THIS FILM for more than ten years, but the actual production took only thirteen months. The title comes from a comment Germano Celant made about the Land artists: “They were troublemakers, confusing the marketing. In fact, they didn’t have any market. Not only because they were difficult, but also because people were not able to grasp them.”
A lot of the principal characters are sadly no longer around. I wanted to focus on artists who were supported by Virginia Dwan and Heiner Friedrich. At one point I was interested in going beyond the formative period and telling the story of the construction of Michael Heizer’s City, 1972–, but I quickly realized that might be too antagonizing to Heizer. If you’re an artist trying to complete a work, the last thing you want is to reveal it prematurely. I chose not to interview so-called experts, as I wanted to make it a film about the people who were present then and doing the heavy lifting—Dwan, Carl Andre, Lawrence Weiner. I met with Friedrich twice but he would never agree to go on camera or to even have a microphone. I would have interviewed Willoughby Sharp had he been around. Dennis Oppenheim and Nancy Holt play a role in the film as well. These three artists who ended up coming across most forcefully were indeed the true titans of this new genre.
I wanted it to be a cinematic journey, using original 16-mm and 8-mm footage, early Portapak video, and stills, but also recasting some of the works with technology available to us today. We used vintage footage of [Smithson’s] Spiral Jetty and we did a principal shoot of [Heizer’s] Double Negative. Both bring in the notion of photography’s role in Land art. Smithson embraced photography more than other Land artists, and he used it to disseminate his work. Heizer and De Maria were more in favor of having people experience the works by walking through them and negotiating the scale of the body in the open landscape. Double Negative is an extraordinary maze. Our new footage shows that you can actually make an immersive and experiential recording of that site. Smithson had a relatively negative view of museums. In 1967 he said, “The whole idea of the museum seems to be tending more towards a specialized kind of entertainment.” Heizer remarked in 1969: “The museums and collections are stuffed, the floors are sagging. But real space still exists.” These are things one could still say about museums today, within the hyperspeculative, highly commodified art world.
There’s a connection to Europe that I wanted to put forth, as there were intellectual affinities. Some of the Land artists were more or less adopted by influential curators like Germano and Harald Szeemann. There was also a rebellion there against bourgeois culture and postindustrial capitalism. The body counts that were delivered on television during the Vietnam War were likewise part of the zeitgeist, which is why I included footage of that. You can’t say they are what the Land artists were responding to, but it’s part of the oppressive system they were rejecting, as Oppenheim mentions. Andre talks about Smithson’s fascination with science fiction, books like Brian Aldiss’s Earthworks from 1965. There’s this interest in decay, entropy, the ruin, and how that connects to the apocalypse, although not so much to ecological disaster.
Some of these sites are overlooked, and that was part of my interest. Double Negative, near Overton, Nevada, is an important early Heizer work about which a lot will be written and said in the future. LA MoCA owns it and never paid any attention to it until the recent hire of director Philippe Vergne. I believe that the museum will eventually see it as a kind of satellite, much like how Dia views Spiral Jetty and The Lightning Field as part of its mission. If the film contributes to this, I will be very pleased.