This chapter provides a careful account of the artistic practices of the German artist Mirja Busch during a project trip through the American South-West, in which she engaged with different sites of the historical land art, as well as with the surrounding desert landscape. Taking into account the studio/site opposition shaping artistic discourses, it describes how Busch’s practice involves performing key studio operations, such as manipulation and storage, under the precarious conditions of a road trip. The chapter concludes speculating about the figure of the hunter as a means to capture the specific relationship between process and event shaping her work on-site.
In May 2013, I embarked on a 4‑week road trip with the German artist Mirja Busch through the American Southwest. The trip was the key juncture an artistic project she worked on for about two years, and which, at some point, we began to call the Tracing Land Art project. Each day we spent many hours working at different outdoor locations in Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, making temporary interventions with different objects and documenting these in various media. An inordinate part of our time, however, was spent driving a recreational vehicle (RV) along a 8,600 kilometres route whilst engaging in all sort of domestic and mundane activities: cooking, cleaning, buying groceries, moving stuff around, finding the way, taking pictures, silently looking through the window, engaging in long conversations: about the places we’d visited, about our relationship, about where to stop next, about my upcoming ethnography of a video game company, about the concepts behind the Tracing Land Art project, about the activities of the day before, about the exhibition resulting from the trip, about follow up projects, and so on. We also profusely discussed the practical difficulties and challenges resulting from working on-site and on-route, especially when contrasted with Mirja’s work in the studio. We spent long hours talking about the romanticized ways in which Land Art artists established an opposition between the studio and the site and began to think about the various continuities and similarities between studio-based and site-specific work.
It is important to note that at practically no point during, before or after the trip could my role be accurately described as involving participant observation or observing participation. These notions are misleading here as they often imply the application by a researcher of a research agenda that is not shared with the research subjects. In fact, if there was a research agenda shaping the trip, then it would concern the affordances of sites of historical land art and contemporary experiences of landscape; an agenda in which we were collaboratively engaging. Collaboration certainly does not involve taking a different role — an STS scholar trying to act as a visual artist — but rather bringing in one’s own capacities and skills to a collective project. Writing scholarly articles, however, was certainly not on the agenda. If writing was to be part of the project, we imagined it would involve texts for some kind of travel-log art book. For this purpose we kept an audio diary, which recorded our ongoing discussion of daily events. How, then, to write and understand a scholarly account of Mirja Busch’s artistic practice of working on-site on a road trip in the US?
To begin addressing this question, it is helpful to consider Tim Ingold’s (2008) distinction between ethnography and anthropology as two very different ways of engaging and producing accounts of the world. Ethnography, he argues, is the art of describing “the lives of people other than ourselves” (ibid., p. 69). This would involve writing about Mirja Busch’s artistic practice, producing an account based on, firstly, having accessed a different world and, secondly, turning away from it to write about it. Anthropological writing, certainly informed by ethnographic records, involves instead a form of thinking with someone based on the experience of being with someone, in the same common world. Shaped as a collaborative dialogue, the anthropological challenge would then be one of corresponding, that is, not writing about others or from their point of view, but for them. Writing for someone involves ‘speaking well’ of someone’s practice, in the sense proposed by Isabelle Stengers, which involves an ethico-political commitment with its becoming (López 2012). The issue then is not whether our accounts are descriptive or explanatory, empirical or theoretical, qualitative or quantitative, but whether they add or subtract reality to the objects of research. Accordingly, as Maria Puig de la Bellacasa (2011) has observed, writing thus becomes shaped by a speculative commitment towards producing scientific accounts capable of articulating and thickening the reality of a practice.
This chapter explores and unfolds this commitment in three steps. First, it addresses and discusses the art-historical account of the studio/site bifurcation in contemporary art discourses. This is not introduced as a template or as a context, against which to understand Mirja Busch’s practice, but as one key art historical articulation reconfigured in and by her practice. Secondly, it describes the efforts by both Mirja Busch and myself to perform two key studio operations in desert landscapes, namely, the manipulation of the objects and conditions affecting visual interventions and the careful storage and transportation of a heterogeneous collection of things. Rather than analytically unpacking the sociomaterial assemblages shaping her practice, this section focuses on the care invested in performing these operations. Finally, this chapter provides a speculative account about the specific temporalities shaping her work on-site, exploring the figure of the hunter to capture the relationship between process and event.
The studio/site bifurcation
We are confronted with an apparent paradox: while the possibility of studio studies is based on the analytical extrapolation of the artist’s studio as the prototypical site of creative production, since the late 1960s the artist’s studio has been the subject of radical critiques by influential visual artists in Europe and especially the US. The timing of this critique is worth considering, as its articulation broadly coincided with the spread and mobilization of an idealized vision of artistic work in management texts as a means to criticize industrial modes of organizing work (Boltanski and Chiapello 2006). Taking into account this ‘artistic critique’ of industrial capitalism, the inflationary use of the notion of the studio can’t come as a surprise especially in regards to designating a variety of sites dedicated to cultural production, reimagining workshops, ateliers, offices as spaces for individual self-realization, creativity, and imagination. In The Invention of Creativity, Andreas Reckwitz (2012) describes the late modern process by which the arts, once a differentiated system of cultural practices and semantics, became unbounded, rendering the production of affective attachments into the model for the most various fields of activity, especially the cultural industries and the creative economy. The N‑Gram visualization of the spread of the terms ‘studio’ and ‘creativity’ can be interpreted along these lines: the graphic shows, over the course of three and a half centuries, the slow institutionalization of the studio as the ideal workspace of visual artists. Since the 1960s, there is a significant increase in the use of the term, which coincides with the invention and expansion of ‘creativity’. Seen from this perspective, the dissemination of the studio as a workplace model can be seen as part of a more general trend towards, what might be called, not without a critical undertone, the ‘creativization’ of work practices (cf. Osborne 2003).
Figure 12.1. Use of terms ‘studio’, ‘creativity’ and ‘laboratory’ in English books (smoothing: 3 years), Source: Google NGram
Interestingly, as this ‘artistic critique of industrial work’ became articulated and the studio emerged as an alternative workplace ideal, the exact opposite movement occurred in the visual arts leading to what, following Jones (1996), one could call an ‘industrial critique of the artist studio’. It is important to keep in mind that this was by no means the first time that the studio was displaced as the fundamental space of artistic creation. In the late 19th century, for example, various developments, but especially photography, compelled painters to work outside the studio: “Cézanne and his contemporaries were forced out of their studio by the photograph. They were in actual competition with photography, so they went to sites” (Smithson 1996, p. 188). In that historical moment, the move out of the studio was also enabled by new mobile painting technologies, such as portable tube colours and specially outfitted studio boats (cf. Jones 1996, p. 16). The industrial critique of the artist’s studio, as we will see, was also based on the exploration of new modes of work, but perhaps more strongly than before it was also based on a radical critique of the artist studio.
Following Jones (1996), whom I read closely here, the specificity of this critique needs to be first sought in the North-American post-war romance with the studio. The key development had been the success of abstract expressionism, which performed the studio as the space of an isolated genius. In the 1950s, the artist studio in the big city, especially in New York, was not yet a locus from where to discover and join an artistic scene or even community, but rather an austere isolated space in an unwelcoming environment. But isolation was more fundamentally connected with the act of painting as a pre-individual process. As the painter Philip Guston put it: “when you start working, everybody is in your studio — the past, your friends, enemies, the art world, and above all, your own ideas — all are here. But as you continue painting, they start leaving, one by one, and you are left completely alone. Then, if you are lucky, even you leave” (cited by Jones 1996, p. 11). Connecting with the early 19th century European romanticism, which imagined the ‘spontaneous brushstroke’ not as labour, but as a gratuitous, expressive, and playful activity, abstract expressionism reconfigured the artist’s studio as place of affective creation rather than one of organized production. This involved in turn a radical depoliticization of artistic expression, as the preference for abstract pictorial languages made evident, as well as the capacity of the studio to establish a clear demarcation between the private world of the artist and the public world of political life. Accordingly, the studio was reconfigured as the conduit for the sublime, which “is located entirely within the artist” (Lawrence Alloway, quoted by Jones 1996, p. 53).
Jones’ thesis asserts that the disenchantment of this romantic studio configuration was shaped by the entering of the machinic in the visual arts foregrounding a new ‘technological sublime’; a fascination with the capacities of technology to reinvent aesthetic registers and modify what is to be a human, a collective, what is to think and to create. Jones underscores two displacements resulting from this new technological sublime. First of all, an iconic displacement took place, by which the machinic and the technological were rendered into subject and media of new art forms (cf. Century 1999). A good example of this, to which I will return in the next section, is the Center for Advanced Visual Studies (CAVS) founded at MIT in 1967 by artist Gyorgy Kepes and dedicated to artistic research and experimentation in large scale collaborative projects at the boundaries of art and technology. Especially with artist Otto Piene as its director, the CAVS became known for art experiments with robots, sky art performances, laser light installations etc. Secondly, the technological sublime had performative effects, as it involved a redefinition of artistic practices to resemble more complex industrial processes. The isolated genius in the studio was radically challenged by a new figuration of the artist as “manager and worker in a social space, or engineer of a decentred and dispersed ‘post-studio’ production” (Jones 1996, p. 9). Two key examples here are Frank Stella and Andy Warhol, who invoked the industrial in different ways. In Frank Stella’s case there is a celebration of delegation: a figuration of the artist as an office manager capable of organizing, coördinating and controlling a distributed process of production. In the case of Andy Warhol, the studio is refigured as a mechanized space referred to as a proletarian ‘factory’, as an executive management office focused on ‘business art business’, as well as a social space for cultural happenings and distributed creativity curated by the artist.
Arguably, the most radical case is the practice of Robert Smithson, who attempted to overcome the studio altogether, “dispersing artistic production into multiple sites and producers that could no longer be easily unified into a central, ‘authorizing’ source” (Jones 1996, p. 345). For Smithson, “the studio – even if it was mechanized, managerial or proletarian- was still centralized, and thus still linked to modernism” (ibid., p. 355). Warhol’s factory and Stella’s office were “confined to unitary objects made in an interior, centralized space” (ibid.). With Smithson the industrial critique of the studio also becomes a postmodern one, a critique of the idea of the author and of the studio as the centre of synthesis (cf. Wilkie and Michael in this volume). The displacement was however not literal, as Smithson maintained working spaces that he would even call his studio. The ‘nonstudio’ was rather a theoretical statement, “indicating that the studio would be denied sole importance as the site of creation or meaning” (Jones 1996, p. 271). Instead of the modern topology of the studio and the gallery, Smithson proposes a different alternative topological system, based on the distinction of the site and the non-site: “The site, in a sense, is the physical, raw reality – the earth or the ground that we are really not aware of when we are in an interior room or studio or something like that […] I decided it would be interesting to transfer the land indoors, to the nonsite, which is an abstract container.” (Smithson 1996, p. 178). The distinction site and non-site is, however, asymmetrical, for the artworks that Smithson call ‘nonsites’ refer to and stand for the site, which in the context of the gallery is the absent source of authenticity and meaning of the nonsite artwork. In Smithson’s words: “The site is the place where a piece should be but isn’t” (cited by Kaye 2000, p. 91).
With Smithson site-specificity becomes a key quality of a post-studio model of artistic work. The key principle is that the identity and meaning of an artwork lies in the relationship with the place or situation where it was created, so that “to move the work is to destroy the work”, as the American sculptor Richard Serra put it (ibid., p. 2). This proposition does not just question the ‘white cube’ as an ideal exhibition space in which artworks unfold in an autonomous system of references, but also the studio as the workplace of an isolated genius. For the French artist Daniel Buren (1979÷1971), author of foundational writings for site-specific art, the fundamental problem of the modern art system was that artworks would only move between these two places, the studio and the white cube, so that studio artists had to either adapt their work to the sterility of the white cube or accept that when artworks leave the studio and are presented in the gallery or the museum, they lose their truth and authenticity. Only site-specific works could then truly unfold, making apparent their connection to the complex spaces of inception. Beyond this, site-specificity has been also a crucial principle in the rise of a relational aesthetics during the 1990s, where the site is increasingly imagined as shaped by human encounters and social participation (Bourriaud 2002). Artistic work increasingly takes place in social settings or rather interstices and becomes a strategy for intervening and even inventing socio-political relationships. In all these cases, “site specificity arises precisely in uncertainties over the borders and limits of work and site” (Kaye 2000, p. 216). More importantly, site is about questioning the modernist idea of a single author, who conceives, creates, is in control, and eventually authorizes an artwork.
The studio/site bifurcation has been extremely productive for the invention of new artistic languages, repertoires and imaginaries (cf. Davidts and Paice 2009), but can be misleading if understood as describing two opposing spatio-temporal configurations of art making. Especially problematic is the suggestion that site-specific art is more authentic, original and ultimately better than studio-based art. Instead, the critique of the studio can be understood as part of the institutional critique of the museum and gallery system (O’Doherty 1976), and as a tool of mainly critical thought and reflection about authorship and commoditization rather than a practical rejection of the studio as a workplace. One could even argue that since the 2000s the studio has again gained centrality in artistic discourses and imaginaries that portray it as a kind of laboratory in which to conduct ‘experimental’ artistic research.
In Berlin this trend has become particularly apparent as successful artists cannot only afford large studios, but also buy and convert old industrial buildings, as well as get vacant land in the city centre to build tailor-made studios. The most famous example is perhaps Olafur Eliasson’s large multidisciplinary studio at a former brewery in which studio members also work independently on ideas for commissions, which are then presented to and negotiated with the artist, as though he were a client for whom they work (see Ursprung 2008). Remarkably, when rejecting my request to conduct ethnographic research, Eliasson’s studio director wrote: “As you will probably understand, we are happy to have [the] studio continuously balancing between measures of demystification and re-mystification” (Email exchange, 13 January 2009). There are, indeed, many other examples of this re-mystification and reconfiguration of the studio. One is Katharina Grosse’s tailor-made painting studio, featured in a book about new relationships between studio and painting. Others could include artists as diverse as Jonathan Messe, who has a series of videos that portray him working in the studio performing painting as a playful and divine act of creation (Ullrich 2009), Elmgreen and Dragset, who converted an old pump station into what they call a ‘thinking space’ (Wenk und Wiese Architekten 2011), or Reynold Reynolds, who in the last years has been exhibiting in galleries and museums his own film making studio process (Farías 2012).
Be that as it may, the key point is that the studio/site bifurcation is rather limiting when it comes to understand the situated practices of art making, deviating our analytical attention from the key operations shaping those practices to the spatial containers within which they supposedly unfold. A good set of lessons on how to avoid a false opposition between the studio and the site can be taken from science studies, where laboratory-based science is not construed as the opposite of field-site science, but as a configuration within a continuüm shaped by similar type of epistemic operations. In an important article about botanists’ research on the Amazonian forest/savannah border and the intermixing of both ecosystems, Bruno Latour presents an important argument about how knowledge making is based on the rendering of the research site into an open-air laboratory. Pushing the argument to the extreme, Latour suggested that ‘For the world to become knowable, it must become a laboratory’ (Latour 1999, p. 43). More recently, other authors have put forward more nuanced versions of this claim by grasping the continuities and discontinuities between labs and field-sites. A major contribution in this regard is Thomas Gieryn’s (2006) discussion of the Chicago school of urban studies as constantly going back and forth from an understanding of Chicago as lab and field, and thus moving back and forth between detached and immersed modes of knowing epistemic objects, which are seen as either made in the neutral space of the lab or found in unique places. Fabian Muniesa and Michel Callon (2007) discuss a somewhat similar distinction between laboratory and in vivo experiments in economics, stressing that even if they involve different forms of experimentation, they differ along the same parameters: the material display of the sites, the nature of the manipulations imposed on the object of experimentations, and the forms of demonstration. In this manner, Muniesa and Callon (2007) offer a symmetrical analysis of laboratory and in vivo experiments, in the sense that they avoid mobilizing different conceptual repertoires for each form of experimentation.
Inspired by such developments in science studies, the following section attempts to go beyond the studio/site bifurcation and demonstrate how key studio operations are performed in site-specific artistic engagements. Given this, I propose an alternative definition of the studio, one that does not figure it as an architectural type or as a built space, but as an interiority resulting from the execution of specific operations. Hence the key empirical question is not what is a studio, but when, that is, in relation to which practices, does a spatial configuration — be within four walls or in the open air — become a studio.
27 desert days: performing an itinerant open-air studio
The Tracing Land Art project was a more or less a logical development in Mirja Busch’s continued sculptural engagement with landscapes since 2008, as land art was one of the most influential sculptural movements from the late 1960s, foregrounding a new topology in the art world beyond the studio and the gallery. Interestingly, while the most important land art works were known for involving spectacular landscape interventions, they were mostly conceived as “impermanent antimonuments” (Wallis 2010, p. 26) made to remain isolated in deserts and abandoned areas of difficult access. The result was a quite powerful tension between huge material interventions and a constant sense of absence, as these were works that could not be exhibited and condemned, as it were, to a temporary existence or to a slow but unavoidable transformation, or even destruction, by natural forces and geological processes. Taking this into account, Mirja’s Tracing Land Art project involved, on the one hand, visiting key sites of the historical land art and making in situ artistic interventions that critically engage with the spectacular way these sites are represented in the art world, as well as with the the strict physical and legal policing of these works. Apart from this, the project involved searching for sites where to make visual interventions and compositions with both self-made and found objects. Some of the resulting works, shown in a solo show entitled 27 desert days at the Berlin gallery L’Atelier-ksr, included the photographic work A Highway Performance that shows an incomplete geometrical pattern made with found rocks, which fails to be completed by the moving trucks in the horizon, and addresses the deep entanglement of landscape experiences and transport infrastructures, as well as the audio installation Sound Sites, which features recordings of the ambient sound, mostly wind, of well-known earth works. As these examples make apparent, Mirja’s practice outside the studio offers a fitting example of how artists typically work on site, while making ironic references to the romantic imagination of sites in land art discourses.
Figure 12.2: A Highway Performance, Source: © Mirja Busch
Notably, the Tracing Land Art project didn’t just unfold in the approximately fifty sites along the 8,600 kilometres route, where interventions or performances were tried out, made and documented. Two other spaces were also of extreme importance for the project. The first was the archive of the former Center of Advanced Visual Studies (CAVS) at MIT, the institution where, from the late 1960s onwards, environmental art developed. Just before the trip, Mirja spent three-months in the archive, researching the common origins of Land and Environmental Art, as well as about different documentation strategies used to make present otherwise absent works. In a public talk, reflecting on this archival research, Mirja explained that “visiting the archive was like going to a place that establishes connections to many sites out there in the desert; sites that I was looking for and could connect with through records and documents. The archive was thus a site containing all these other sites in a virtual form.” (08 March 2014). The second key spaces were Mirja Busch’s studios. In Cambridge, she transformed the living room of a small flat into a place for cutting, pasting, building and painting various elements for the trip. In her studio in Berlin, processes of reviewing, ordering, selecting, and further transforming the visual materials collected during the road trip took place; processes that involved writing texts, building objects, preparing a solo show, etc. In the same talk mentioned earlier, Mirja reflected upon her practice in both the archive and the studio as off-site work constituted by reference and in continuity to the on-site work that occurred during the trip.
The distinction between working on-site/off-site is interesting here as it emphasizes the continuity between the different locales in which the works were realized. Instead of taking ‘site’ to determine the way in which an artistic practice unfolds, and opposing this to studio practice, the ‘site’ appears here as the subject and material the artist works with either directly or at a distance. Distinct from the studio/site bifurcation, which refers to the spatial contexts within which artistic practices unfold, the on-site/off-site distinction highlights different ways of working with sites. Accordingly, it provides a good starting point to think about the spaces of artistic practice not as physical and neutral containers, but as active relational configurations. As I will show in what follows, this approach allows me to explore studio-like configurations and operations calibrated and attuned to the manipulation, storage and hunting in and of desert landscapes.
The Tracing Land Art project is the most recent of a number of project trips made by Mirja to what might be classified as extreme or inhospitable landscapes, such as high altitude landscapes in the Andes and the Alps, or salt deserts and other desert regions of the Americas, North and South. In all these places, Mirja’s work has mainly consisted in making interventions with materials and objects, experimenting with perspective, spatiality and optical illusions, such as the two-dimensional flattening of space. Landscapes are thus carefully chosen and explored with regard to their capacity to enable the controlled manipulation of visual compositions.
Interestingly, the landscapes chosen are predominantly white or monochrome flat landscapes, in which experiments with light, colour and three-dimensionality are possible under more or less stable conditions. Considering some of the resulting works (see Figure 12.2.), it is possible to describe her exploration of white landscapes as a strategy to recreate a white cube, work with its affordances, while breaking with its artificiality. But this displacement of the white cube is only an aesthetic operation performed by accomplished works. Paying attention to the actual practices of making them, it becomes evident that these landscapes are performed as laboratories, that is, as settings for not just visual experimentation, but also for the repetition of experiments and manipulation of the materials involved.
Figure 12.3. Working on the Uyuni Salt Desert. Source: © Mirja Busch.
Different landscape materials, however, place considerable constraints on both the reproducibility and manipulability of visual experiments. Consider, for example, the case of snow landscapes. One of the main problems is the fact that every single intervention leaves indelible traces on the landscape, be it footsteps or marks made by the installed artefacts, so that in most cases corrections cannot be made at the exactly same location, but a few meters away, introducing slight but often consequential changes in the visual compositions, as framing, horizon, perspective and other atmospheric conditions can vary. In other places, such as the Uyuni salt desert in Bolivia, the manipulability of visual compositions was constrained by material properties and processes that significantly change the appearance of the salt desert over the year. When we visited it, almost its entire surface was made up of geometrical salt formations produced by erosion. Instead of a stable white landscape, in which experiments under neutral conditions are possible, these geometrical formations dominated every possible framing. During the various days working at the salt desert, different strategies were tried out to manipulate these salt formations, from simply stepping on them to flatten them to using a broom to sweep them from the ground. When such interventions into the site were insufficient to achieve the desired conditions, the location was literally changed. Indeed, what it started as a days-long travel to the Uyuni salt desert became a number of hours-long travels within the salt desert, searching for spots where erosion advanced at a different pace and where salt formations would be less salient or more malleable.
As this suggests, Mirja’s practice working on-site can hardly be interpreted along the lines of the studio/site bifurcation discussed above. Rather, her practices resonate with the 17th century pre-romantic formatting of the artist studio as a house of experiment. Its history has been wonderfully reconstructed by Svetlana Alpers (1998), who demonstrates how the painter’s studio was born out of the same experimentalist spirit that led to the invention of the laboratory. The N‑Gram shown above (see Figure 12.1.) suggests that during the 17th century, the studio had even more currency than the laboratory, which became highly prominent only in the late 19th century. In the 17th century, however, painters such as Velazquez or Jan Vermeer, influenced by the camera obscura, configured the studio as a key instrument or setting for experimenting with light as a medium, and where light effects could not be just better perceived, but also controlled, manipulated and artificially created. In Alpers’ account, this particular disposition and application of the studio would shape the historical evolution of the artist’s studio more generally.
Accordingly, the studio needs then to be conceived as a space created for and through the operation of manipulating both objects and environmental conditions. Etymologically the term studio does not refer primarily to a type of place, but to the activity of studying or inquiring. The first appearances of the term in early modern Italy designated indeed radically different places, such as the “social spaces of educational establishments (Pisa University was known as lo studio, for example)” (Hughes 1990, p. 34) or “a small room set aside for solitary reading or writing, an ancestor of the study found in a modern middle-class home” (ibid: 35). This diversity suggests that the studio configuration, rather than the necessary effect of an architectural typology, involves the execution of certain practices. Whether this occurs between four walls or out in the open is indeed of secondary importance. Instead of the studio/site bifurcation, our understanding of the studio as the result of operations of inquiry through manipulation allows to clearly distinguish it from the master’s workshop, which, as Sennett (2008) has suggested (see also O’Connor in this volume), is a place of collective learning oriented towards skilful, quality craftsmanship. In contrast, the studio is not a place of learning and implicit knowledge, but of study and experimentation via a targeted attempt at arranging, maintaining and transforming the sociotechnical and atmospheric factors influencing the material process of inquiry taking place. It is important to notice that these arrangements also include mundane activities, such as cleaning up or ordering tables and objects as work on a particular project occurs. This is, to a certain extent, a matter of course for practitioners, but these apparently meaningless and non-creative practices are crucial in making the studio or the site function as an ‘experimental’ setting (see Farías & Wilkie in this volume).
The practical continuüm of working off-site and on-site can also be explored by following the objects, materials, tools, sketches, notes and inscriptions transported back and forth between the studio and the sites. In the case of the Tracing Land Art project, archival research at MIT did not just involve learning about the common origins of Land and Environmental Art and about different documentation techniques. More importantly, the engagement with archived projects was oriented to the generation of ideas and visual concepts for Mirja’s own work. Sketches, concepts, diagrams, maps, project titles, long lists of possible interventions at a particular site, etc. filled a bulging yellow notebook, while many of these ideas were prototyped and built, mostly with cardboard and other light materials, in her improvised home-studio. This was also the place, where a wide range of material artefacts, ranging from bought or found industrially manufactured objects to self-made visual elements that seemed necessary for the trip, were accumulated and stored. Mirja’s practice of working off-site involved building a heterogeneous collection of visual and textual inscriptions, tools, artefacts and materials which, properly packed, joined us in our trip to yet unknown sites. This was certainly not the first time Mirja would take with her such heterogeneous materials on her travels, including those made under the most precarious conditions.
Figure 12.4. Storage space in RV. Source: © Mirja Busch
During the trip, some of these elements influence the selection of the sites, where visual interventions and compositions were to be tried out. However, rather than searching for an imagined site, where one of such element would be installed, Mirja, and increasingly also me, let the landscape to afford interventions with some of the transported items; a process with varying success. Beyond this, many sites elicited ideas for interventions and compositions with found materials, such as rocks (see Figure 12.2.) or industrial garbage, and with other visual elements self-made in situ or rapidly obtained at the next town store. Interestingly, almost half of the elements carefully transported along the 8,600 kilometers route were never used. Some of them didn’t leave their boxes within the RV, others were taken out of the boxes, but didn’t leave the RV and, finally, others that, at a given site, made it outside the RV were not installed or tried out. One quick conclusion that can be drawn here is that this shows the difficulty to anticipate off-site the terms of the on-site engagement with properties and capacities of the landscape. This, however, wouldn’t take into account the fact that from begin on, when these things start to be made and accumulated, Mirja knows very well that many of them will never be used. This has been the case in many other art-project trips, and yet, they are made and cared for during a long and difficult route. Thus, rather than pointing to the impossibility of complete anticipation, it is crucial to understand the function played by materials, objects, tools, models and references, even if they are not used for any particular site intervention.
One way of addressing this is taking seriously the more quotidian interactions with these elements. During the trip they were stored in the back of the RV, a space that each day had to be reorganized to enable different activities, such as cooking, eating and sleeping. Each time, the small interior needed to be tidied and rearranged, inevitably leading to constant interactions with the materials. Whether they had already been used, lost their currency or their usefulness remained uncertain was not relevant in such domestic rearrangements of the RV space, which required taking equally into account each stored element. Each was thus a constituent of a domestic ecology or background within or against which experiments were conducted, interventions documented, works made. As such, these elements acquired important capacities to affect Mirja’s work. First, they functioned as a material memory, a mobile archive, whose sheer presence reminded of possibly forgotten possibilities, ideas and concepts. Second, the simultaneous presence of the stored elements relativized the distinction between the old and the new. Thirdly, their material proximity and intermingling made fluid the boundaries between different concepts, ideas or works.
Seen from this perspective, it becomes evident that storing stuff is a key operating configuring the settings of art production, as it produces (somewhat excessive) heterogeneous material ecologies capable of opening up unexpected possibilities. Indeed, if there is anything that characterizes most architectural spaces called studios, it is that they are full of stuff: materials, tools, sketches, models, works, old and new, well maintained and deteriorated, etc. The studio is not only as an experimental space, but also, and crucially, a repository (Jacob and Grabner 2010). Taking seriously the huge effort made by Mirja to maintain a storage resource while working on-site and on-route provides an important way to further undo the studio/site bifurcation. Indeed, working on site is not seen as an opportunity to escape, but rather as a practice that requires reassembling the studio as a reservoir and inventive archive, even if only in reduced and provisional form.
A matter of time
One reason why the studio/site bifurcation misses the specificity of working on-site is that it asserts difference to be grounded in the spatial container of practice. In the previous sections I have argued that the key operations shaping spaces of art making are not fundamentally different when working on-site or off-site. In both engagements, it is possible to encounter the more or less controlled manipulation of the environmental conditions of experimental practices, as well as the storage of stuff. One could also point to practices of boundary-making oriented at protecting artistic practices from unwanted exposure, premature critique or distracting stimuli. Whereas the four walls of a studio enable a precise control over which and when impulses come in and which and when works come out, the long detours made by Mirja and me to avoid touristic and other crowded places can also be understood as attempts at performing an isolated protected workspace. Certainly, all these various operations can be realised in the ‘secluded’ space of the studio more radically and consistently than in the context of a road trip through the desert, although this is a relative, not a categorical difference.
In order to better grasp the specificity of Mirja’s practices working on-site, it seems thus crucial to pay more attention to the temporalities of different artistic practices (see Born and Wilkie in this volume), foregrounding the eventful temporality of working on-site. A productive entry point to think about time is the metaphor of the prey used by Mirja from time to time during the Tracing Land Art project, for instance at the end of a day of work when suggesting to have a look at the “day’s prey”. Interestingly, she has never used this metaphor to talk about her work in the studio: a spatial setting, where the creation of artworks is less defined by single events than by slow and subtle processes of growth — or where artworks can also cease to grow, and slowly, but very slowly, die (see also Farías 2012). Accordingly, one could think the temporality of her studio-based practice as rather equivalent to that of organic or agricultural processes, where change can be observed only over long stretches of time. Eventually a product can also be harvested, but the process involves a slow maturation. Slowing down decision-making processes becomes thus an important principle of her studio practice, even if momentarily exhibitions or other deadlines can lead to an acceleration of things.
The metaphor of the prey, figuring the artist as a hunter, who needs to learn to see the environment and respond skilfully to unpredictable events, points to a process with very different temporalities. As the exhibition title 27 desert days suggested, the project involved a long-term immersion in the landscape, a process of becoming attuned with its changing colours, forms, lights, affordances and opportunities, as well as “acquiring the skills for direct perceptual engagement with its constituents” (Ingold 2000, p. 54). The metaphor of the prey speaks of long hours on the hunt, attentive to the slightest differences in the environment, even though nothing seems to happen. But this is precisely what hunting is all about, as it is based, as Ingold (2000) observes, on a fundamental trust in the occurrence of an encounter with the prey. This trust is not equivalent to being confident that something will happen, confidence that is based on knowledge about certain systemic or structural regularities and, thus, requires no personal engagement. Trusting the environment is rather an active and personal act of being in the presence and engaging with it. Being on the road searching for punctual opportunities to realize visual interventions is thus very different from the processes of cultivation and growth shaping her studio practice. It involves rather a process shaped by unpredictable encounters, in which the hunter needs to act with the prey. The project faced Mirja several times a day with such sudden encounters, moments in which specific visual compositions reveal themselves as possible and which required her to react quickly, making punctual decisions over whether and how to intervene in the landscape, while knowing that there is no turning back, no second chance under exactly the same conditions. Working on-site involved thus a succession of unique encounters with the landscape, which at the same time are embedded in a quite different temporality, moments “in the unfolding of a continuing — even lifelong — relationship between the hunter and the [prey]” (ibid., p. 71).
I would like to thank Mirja Busch for having first drawn my attention to contemporary practices of art making and the possibility of studio studies. I would also like to especially say thank you to Alex Wilkie for supporting the writing of this chapter from beginning to end and to Noortje Marres and Nina Wakeford for her enthusing and challenging comments on a previous version.
 Of course, in scientific laboratories the repetition of experiments also confronts the problem of difference resulting, for example, from the ‘aging’ of technical devices, as Knorr-Cetina (1999) has discussed it for particle sensors.
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