Fall 2015 Education Program Perspective — Instructor Brian Conley
In what way(s) did you incorporate the site into the structure of and inspiration for your class?
The class was titled “Non-Site For-Site,” using Robert Smithson’s important neologism (more on this below). The premise was to look at landscape as being deeply inscribed with diverse social and cultural events. These inscribed histories “live” in the land as traces: physical scars, passed-on memories, artifacts, records of various kinds. In this sense, to understand a site with some measure of specificity, one must “read” the land for these embedded histories. For this class, we focused on three histories that shaped the FOR-SITE land in Nevada City, California. The first, “Deep Time,” considered the geological formation of the Nevada City region, the Sierra Nevada mountains, the western United States, and the movement of the continent more than 65 million years ago. This story can be read in existing geological features. The second history, “The Gold Rush,” examined the Gold Rush of 1849. When President James Polk announced the discovery of gold on the Sutter farm near Nevada City, an epic migration was triggered that eventually brought 300,000 people to California from North and South America, Europe, and Asia. The third history explored by the class was “The Nisenan,” focusing on the native peoples living on the land before, during, and after the cataclysmic events of the Gold Rush. An estimated 150,000 Nisenan inhabited the region prior to 1849. Today there are around 100 registered members of the Nevada City Rancheria.
Why are you interested in creating work in response to a place/site?
If landscape is inscribed with historical traces, then the site becomes an infinitely complex location for the collision of materials, people, ideas, and events. In this way, the site is not representable in any complete sense. And this is where Smithson’s idea of the non-site comes in. Smithson argues that, because a site cannot be represented visually (not even photographically), one can do no more than put forth a relatively arbitrary stand-in for the site. The non-site foregrounds its artificiality and inability to do the job of representation. Thus, to represent the site of Franklin, New Jersey, in 1968, Smithson exhibited a set of stones from the region placed in a metal bin, accompanied by a map and a bluntly descriptive text. Such collections of materials comprise what he calls the non-site. A non-site has a semiotic relation to the site; the visual and the linguistic/informational are held in tension, and neither emerges as a privileged source of accuracy, “reality,” or truth. This understanding of site is freeing for the artist, I think, because it requires that the artist range over representational forms and use them in combination while simultaneously signifying their inadequacy. This richness of media is what interests me in creating work—and in teaching—in response to given sites.
In what way has this experience affected or complemented your practice?
The experience with this class in some ways has complemented my most recent project. In the spring of 2014, I was a visiting artist at the American University in Cairo. I had been traveling to Egypt for eight years, but this last visit was like no other. The revolution was over; Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood had been elected President and then deposed by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. I arrived in Cairo a few weeks after the Rabaa massacre, in which over a thousand Muslim Brotherhood members protesting Morsi’s ouster were killed in the street in one evening by the military. 20,000 people had been jailed since the revolution began, and a security state was in place. I was warned by artist friends that I could not use camera equipment in public without risking arrest.
Eventually, out of frustration and a compulsion to make images no matter what, I started photographing the city surreptitiously, with an iPhone, while riding in buses and taxis. I could not aim the camera deliberately nor decide what exactly to shoot. Instead the photos were shot randomly without looking in the viewfinder or even in the direction in which the iPhone was aimed. By the time I left Cairo, I had 7000 photos. These are now being organized into a project. One way to think about this project is that it destabilizes ideas of mastery in regard to photographic representation. The photographs in fact foreground their faults in the form of blurring, misframing, and a variety of digital distortions. In this sense, the photographs are non-sites which inadequately point to the condition of Cairo between the failure of the revolution and the re-establishment of an authoritarian state by Sisi.
What were the benefits of working in the land as opposed to the classroom?
The benefits of working at a site are considerable. It’s a matter of impact. The confrontation with and absorption of inscribed histories is transformative, even overwhelming. The encounter with the land; meeting and speaking with people directly involved in historical events; having conversations with experts who have devoted their lives to studying aspects of these histories; and researching local archives, provide a dense set of events to navigate and potentially respond to. For example, our class made a trip to the Yuba Goldfields. This is a ten-thousand acre field of gravel and boulders washed out by hydraulic gold mining in the nineteenth century. Few experiences could suggest more about the scale of natural and social disruption wrought by the Gold Rush than to walk across whole mountain tops that have been crushed and sluiced into the Yuba River.
Were there any unexpected challenges?
Sometimes the process of unlocking histories of place can unlock events that are disturbing to face. This happened with our class. To inform ourselves about the Nisenan, we invited the current Chairman of the Nevada City Rancheria, Richard B. Johnson, to speak with us. He brought an array of tribal artifacts—from baskets to tools to objects used in religious practices. He also presented historical photographs of the aboriginal tribe prior to its most devastating contact with gold-seekers and the U.S. government. We listened to his story of the tribe while handling these artifacts and seeing these photos.
Chairman Johnson was generous with his time. He started by presenting the culture and practices of the Nisenan. This led to a passionate presentation of how the tribe was systematically decimated before, during, and after the Gold Rush, through a combination of diseases brought by contact with foreigners, mortal attacks by gold miners, enslavement of surviving tribe members, and racist laws enforced by the nascent state of California. Chairman Johnson also described the ongoing racism he and members of his tribe have experienced in their own lives. These stories were heart-wrenching.
Learn more about Brian Conley:
Learn more about Brian Conley’s involvement with Sada (Echo) for Contemporary Iraqi Art: