PRINT May 2006

US News

“Interstate: The American Road Trip”

DRIVING HOME THE IDEA THAT a summertime cross-country excursion is as American as apple pie, NASCAR, and breakfast at Stuckey’s, the upcoming exhibition “Interstate: The American Road Trip” will make an ambitious attempt to chart what its curators call “the vast psychological expanse” between the eastern and western edges of the US. Co-organized by Alyson Baker, executive director of New York’s Socrates Sculpture Park, and artist Andrea Zittel, the show begins at a two-day festival heralding Zittel’s fifth annual High Desert Test Sites (HDTS) project in the Southern California desert on May 6 and 7 and concludes at Socrates, where it will run from May 21 to August 13. For the intervening two weeks and three thousand miles, “Interstate” will unfold on highways and byways throughout the expansive American heartland.

With its disposition toward cultural and spatial decentralization, “Interstate” seems a logical extension of HDTS, an ongoing series of frequently ephemeral works created by various artists in and around the desert communities near Zittel’s home in Joshua Tree, California. “The context in the high desert has changed radically since the first High Desert Test Sites,” observes Zittel, who spearheads HDTS with artist Lisa Anne Auerbach. In an American West in which sublime “landscape” is rapidly becoming quotidian “real estate” (and thence Wal-Marts, golf courses, etc.), Zittel notes that “land is now a very expensive commodity. We are no longer able to add to our holdings of desert parcels for artists to do their projects on. This has actually created a very interesting situation because it is forcing us to become much more innovative in seeking new ways to realize our projects, sometimes even squatting land or staging fleeting performances or events. The idea of an exhibition that literally travels feels like a great expansion in this direction, and my hope is that this will start to evolve new kinds of situations and experiences for the artists and our audience.”

This notion resonates beyond the context of the High Desert. Zittel’s aspiration to “new kinds of situations” seems to parallel a broader trend: As Baker observes, the proposals she receives at Socrates—for “Interstate” as well as for other exhibitions—increasingly reflect “a notion of public art that is not monumental but rather changing and ephemeral.” For one “Interstate” project that exemplifies this shift, artist Katie Grinnan plans to present a two-sided float—suggesting, says the artist, “a modernist building on one side and a bombed-out building on the other”—constructed from photographs, Sintra, and rebar. (This is the second version of a float initially created for Aspen, Colorado’s 2005 Fourth of July parade.) At HDTS Grinnan will stage what she calls a “cinematic . . . inverse parade” in which she’ll “animate” the float by driving spectators past its disassembled and dispersed parts. Afterward, Grinnan and several companions (wearing costumes designed by the artist) will tow the float behind their van as they head for their East Coast destination, spontaneously exploiting opportunities to put the work on display along a route that includes Death Valley, Las Vegas, Flagstaff, Crawford, and New Orleans. Taking the concept of a fragmented, mobile public artwork even further, New York–based artist Allison Smith is going to travel to a number of significant historical sites throughout the country—from the American West Heritage Center in Wellsville, Utah, to George Ranch Historical Park in Richmond, Texas—to attend workshops at these “living history” museums before devising her own workshop at Socrates.

Other “Interstate” artists may or may not deploy similarly peripatetic strategies: The show’s itinerary, so to speak, is open-ended, its audience necessarily indeterminate, and its final shape predicated not on curatorial directives but on the proposals of the participants (in addition to Grinnan and Smith, the roster comprises Auerbach, Chris Hanson and Hendrika Sonnenberg, Mark Klassen, Melissa Brown, R. Scott Mitchell, and the Los Angeles Urban Rangers collective). In keeping with this conceptual flexibility, Baker suggests that the exhibition, as the compound word interstate connotes, is about “a state of transition. I’m interested in the psychology of the individual as they make the trip and in the internal transformation that takes place during the external process of travel, way-finding, and gaining information.” For some artists, this process will not be physical at all. Auerbach, for instance, will take her preferred vehicle—a bicycle—apart and ask other travelers, some affiliated with the exhibition and some not, to transport the pieces across the country. The bike—or however much of it makes it to Long Island—will be put back together, sort of, around a flagpole at Socrates.

Although projects like Grinnan’s, Smith’s, and Auerbach’s indicate that “Interstate” is a freewheeling enterprise, the show also has some high-stakes implications. In this color-coded era, the idea of mostly New York– and Los Angeles–based artists traversing America’s red-state interior is unavoidably freighted. Still, as Baker implies, the show explores imaginative terrain as much as any physical territory, and the psychogeographical downshift from outer to inner state could happen anywhere between the left and right coasts—maybe even over breakfast at Stuckey’s.

Michael Ned Holte is a writer based in Los Angeles.