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Friday, June 9 • 4:30pm - 4:50pm
Arts at Burns Piñon: Institutional Hacking in the Desert

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Since early 2022, over twenty University of California, Irvine (UCI) graduate students and their faculty advisors have been co-creating a new institutional ecosystem at the Burns Piñon Ridge Reserve in the western Mojave desert. Bruce Burns, an aerospace engineer, built two mid-century modern structures on the property in 1955. Donated to UCI in 1998, one building now operates as a field station from which ecologists conduct experiments. The other, a workshop, has fallen into disrepair, which presented an opportunity: its transformation into a nexus for research and creation across university disciplines.

Following a cleanup, Professor Jesse Colin Jackson and Art MFA Candidate Liz Stringer designed an interdisciplinary framework in which students from across campus are being invited to help rehabilitate the workshop and develop research-creation projects that take advantage of this repurposed space. Visual Studies PhD Student Zachary Korol Gold joined the organizing team in the fall, helping participants to conceptualize their individual and collaborative creative projects, which ranged from choreographing a dance duet with a scavenged window, to playing the metal beams of the workshop as an instrument, to reimagining Wilhelm Reich’s Orgonon, complete with a “cloudbuster” machine made from found materials.

With this project, we are providing a space for experimentation across disciplinary boundaries and beyond the confines of the university proper. Previous ecological arts education models have frequently focused on illustrating science or conveying environmentalist activism. Through shared use of the field site, Arts at Burns Piñon seeks to expand scientists’ perceptions of the possibilities of artmaking beyond didactic utility, and provide a space for artists to interface with ecology in a way that is not predetermined.

Our paper and presentation documents and analyzes Arts at Burns Piñon from our position as participant-organizers, through interviews with each participant, documentation of their processes, and representations of the dynamics of the group as a whole. This framework is ethnographic, observing and cataloging different ways in which the participants produce reciprocal relationships between the site and their practices. As these open-ended relationships unfold, our guiding questions include: How are artists engaging with the material ecology of the site? What role does the science of ecology play in their investigations? How does the institution of the university both facilitate and foreclose creative expression? Can the arts transform a science field station into a space of self-reflexive criticality?
We are also engaging the creative structures and productions of the group through formal analysis and art criticism, drawing comparisons with other transgressive arts communities in the California desert, from Andrea Zittel’s “High Desert Test Sites” to Aidan Koch’s “Institute for Interspecies Art and Relations.” Ultimately, while the frameworks for analysis and the criteria for success remain malleable, our motivation remains stable: asking how we can productively hack an institutional commons as a creative opportunity, through both individual facilitation and as a collective enterprise.

Finally, we seek to provide a bridge to the broader context of the Burns Piñon site within the colonial history of California. Not only were the Yuhaaviatam/Maarenga’yam (Serrano) people dispossessed of the land that became Burns Piñon, but its use continues a colonial history of Western science, excluding the possibilities of traditional or embodied knowledges and resisting critical or creative engagement from the arts and humanities. This project exposes a specific instance of an oppressive institutional regime, and attempts to open a space for creative expression might contribute to restorative justice.

avatar for Zachary Korol Gold

Zachary Korol Gold

PhD Student, University of California, Irvine
avatar for Liz Stringer

Liz Stringer

MFA Graduate Student, University of California, Irvine, United States of America
avatar for Jesse Colin Jackson

Jesse Colin Jackson

University of California, Irvine, United States of America

Friday June 9, 2023 4:30pm - 4:50pm EDT
ARC E-13