Hands across the water
Santa Fe Art Institute addresses issues through art
Issues around water rights have always been of supreme importance in the arid West — and probably always will be. The quandaries and challenges swirling around equitable access to water pose a fitting fulcrum for the deliberators at the Santa Fe Art Institute, where the topic is now being explored in its 2016-2017 thematic residency program.
How do we describe and define the contested space around water? How can cultural activities result in greater models of equity in our water systems? How can diverse practices, from poetic to practical to political, create greater access to these and other parallel resources? These are some of the questions being investigated by an array of artists at SFAI — many of whom will participate in the next SFAI 140 event on Friday, Nov. 18.
“These are so fun,” said Jamie Blosser, executive director of SFAI. “We have 20 presenters. It’s a combination of our artists in residence and people from the Institute of American Indian Arts and community leaders, and the focus is on water rights.” The free event, held several times each year and open to the public, is called SFAI 140 because each person only has 140 seconds to show seven slides of their work and speak. “It’s a way for people to explore their work in a different way and distill it.”
SFAI is quartered in a dramatic Ricardo Legorretadesigned building at the west end of the Santa Fe University of Art & Design campus. Blosser, who assumed her post at the art institute 13 months ago, was an intern architect working with Lloyd & Tryk Architects on the construction phase of the SFAI project back in 1998. She first came to New Mexico after earning her master’s in architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. For three months, she volunteered at Zuni Pueblo, helping to develop an archive for the A:shiwi A:wan Museum & Heritage Center.
Beginning in 1999, Blosser worked with the Ohkay Owingeh Housing Authority to create a master landuse plan for the tribe, and she was project manager for Tsigo Bugeh Village, a new rental townhouse project on the pueblo. From 2005 to 2015, she was director of the Santa Fe office of Atkin Olshin Schade Architects; the firm’s significant projects included the Muñoz Waxman Gallery at the Center for Contemporary Arts and the Public Safety Complex at Santo Domingo Pueblo.
The 20-year Santa Fe resident is a New Mexicolicensed architect and a member of the American Institute of Architects. “The reason for that is that I’ve been on a national committee for housing and community development, and I think it’s very important to have the voices of architects who are practicing in many different ways that aren’t necessarily all traditional,” she said. “The way I’ve practiced architecture my entire career is to look at the larger issues and use design and design interventions to tackle them. In looking at Native communities, for example, there may be an urgent need for housing, but what really comes up when you talk with community members are the concept of sovereignty and health issues and ways to be part of a larger political and social system and not be marginalized. Those are much bigger issues that we can then use design to tackle. So it’s interesting to be here with our thematic programming, because we can have a year or two of a theme like immigration or water rights or equal justice, and it just allows us to bring together people with many different perspectives.”
Blosser does not consider herself an artist, although she believes artists make crucial contributions. She recalled that when she was an undergraduate student, she was exposed to a program called Design of the Environment, founded by landscape architect Laurie Olin and others. “Their goal was to not silo disciplines but rather to integrate architecture, landscape architecture, and fine art. I think of architecture and art as being disrupters of status quo. Looking at things and questioning things and being critical are so important, and that’s why I’m here at SFAI.”
She works at the institute with four other staff members. There are currently 14 resident artists, including some from Istanbul, Taiwan, Canada, the Santa Fe area, and around the United States. “We also have fellowships with the Rasmuson Foundation, an exchange program here and in Alaska; the Canada Council for the Arts; and the Taiwan Ministry of Culture; and we just finished an agreement — and there’s an open call right now — with the Greek Fulbright Foundation.”
The first SFAI thematic residency, in 2014-2015, was centered on food justice. In 2015-2016, it was immigration/emigration. The current session is all about water rights. From September 2017 to July 2018, residents will explore issues surrounding justice equity. (Applications are due by Jan. 6, 2017; for information and to apply, see www.sfai.org/residencies.) “We encourage residents to be here from one to three months, and local residents can participate if they just need studio space.”
With the inception of thematic programming, the institute has seen a shift from people who want to work very discretely, on a specific body of work, to those who engage in their work more collaboratively. That change was also streamlined by an architectural adjustment: The facility’s kitchen space was opened up via a successful crowd-funding campaign. “It’s a more convivial space now, and speaking as an architect, it works well to force those interactions and synergies.”
Blosser spoke of a new partnership with the University of New Mexico’s Land Arts of the American West program, which will be featured in an SFAI exhibit in mid-December. Program participants “go out in the field for two weeks at a time, deeply engaging with issues around land and resources,” she said. “They’ve taken some of our residents out. One of the trips was looking at oil and gas and fracking issues in the Four Corners area and speaking with Diné groups and activists.
“We have a couple of artists right now who are going to go up to Standing Rock, which I highly commend them doing.” At Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in the Dakotas, protesters are challenging the completion of an oil pipeline they say would threaten local water supplies and harm important tribal sites. “I think we will all be interested to
hear from them when they come back and learn from them how we can help protect our water resources and how we can protect the protectors.”
Among the director’s goals are to disintegrate the perception that the institute exists in a rarified space. “I want us to be more of a center for the community, and to get out more into the community. We do a very cool program in the summers called Design Workshop, and we partnered with the Sustainable Native Communities Collaborative [founded by Blosser] to offer introductory design and building skills for high-school and early-college-age students. This year we were so pleased that the architecture and construction community really supported the program by offering the students paid internships when they were done.”
Blosser emphasizes that the Santa Fe Art Institute is not just about art and design and architecture but is also about participatory discourse. “What I think we saw in the middle of the 20th century were the sort of grand ideas from a heroic master architect or urban planner about how the world should be — according to some new principles that for the most part disregarded existing communities — and that I think resulted in some awful urban planning.” She recently returned from the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III) in Quito, Ecuador. “There’s a real sense of the need to enact a new urban agenda in cities around the world that very much relies on decolonizing and an emphasis on indigenous rights and women’s rights.”
Sometimes — especially in the milieu of the overall Santa Fe art scene — the institute’s priorities and activities can seem more about theory than artmaking. To that suggestion, Blosser responded, “What’s fascinating to me is how much theory and research goes into the making of art. I’m constantly blown away by the rigor the artists that we host here bring to their art practice. It doesn’t stay in a theoretical realm for long — and that’s the beauty of it.”
▼ SFAI 140: Water Rights (20 presenters, 140 seconds each)
▼ 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 18
▼ Santa Fe Art Institute, 1600 St. Michael’s Drive (on the campus of Santa Fe University of Art & Design); 505-424-5050
▼ No charge
Dilara Akay: ARK200, 2016, spice and water installation; opposite page, top, Andrew Williams: Lake Oroville, 2016, photograph; bottom, Joerael Elliott: A Cup Holds Water, So Do We, 2016, mural
James Luna in a 2015 SFAI 140 performance