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Navigating the Site: Interdisciplinary Artists Investigate Ideas of Place, Geography

US-French collaboration challenges students to create site-specific work in Marfa, Texas.

“A change in environment stimulates new ideas,” said Abinadi Meza, director of the Interdisciplinary Initiatives program at the University of Houston Kathrine G. McGovern College of the Arts (KGMCA), when he introduced his new collaboration with École Supérieure des Beaux-Arts de Nantes Metropole (ESBAN) last year. The program, called Desert Unit for Speculative Territories (DUST), brings students from both schools together to explore ideas of time, space and geography. This year’s theme is “Navigating the Site." 

“We’re asking macro questions about spatial practices and site,” he says. “We’re encouraging students to explore the hybrid practices between performance, intervention and installation.”

The partnership is part of Fieldwork:Marfa, a researcher-in-residence program co-founded by ESBAN and HEAD – Geneva University of Art and Design, that includes guest artist lectures, international travel and a residency program in Marfa, Texas. This summer, Meza, ESBAN professor Ida Soulard and their graduate students spent three weeks in the remote West Texas arts destination. The expansive desert landscape, unlike anything most city-dwellers have seen before, provides a truly unique environment for students to question land and space.

“I was completely out of my element,” recalls Jimmy Castillo (MFA Photography ’19). As a native Houstonian used to the bustling of the city, he felt humbled by the natural beauty of the wide-open land. “I was inspired by how vulnerable I felt. At night, it was so dark and so quiet that it seemed every little sound was amplified and it let my imagination run wild.”

Erin Carty (MFA Painting ’19) was especially drawn to the supernatural aura in the region, and found inspiration in things like the mysterious Marfa Lights, an unexplained phenomenon on the outskirts of the town often described as otherworldly. “It felt like the Bermuda Triangle of Texas: time stopped and it didn’t feel like it was part of the same reality as the rest of the state,” she says. 

“Marfa embodies the spirit of a small Texas town with a much larger resonance, especially in the art world,” adds Alton DuLaney (MFA Interdisciplinary Practices and Emerging Forms ’18), describing the landscape as awe-inspiring. “[You’re] in the middle of nowhere and simultaneously surrounded by world-famous art and artists.”

The change of pace – and place – encouraged Castillo, Carty, DuLaney and fellow DUST participants to experiment and break out of their creative comfort zones. During the residency, Castillo developed a multidisciplinary installation, “Canticle in Seven Knots (protection from La Lechuza),” comprised of seven photographs, a video and a small plaster sculpture. Carty worked on a series of five videos, transferring methods she uses in her paintings, such as building texture from transparent layers, to the digital media. DuLaney created “ART Signs,” a series of altered site-specific signage inspired by the road signs drivers see on long stretches of highway. Other works created by UH students Jesus Gonzalez Jr. (MFA Photography ’18), Karen Martinez (MFA Interdisciplinary Practices and Emerging Forms ’19), Alex Naumann (MFA Creative Writing ’18), Charis Ammon (MFA Painting ’18) and Melissa Noble (MFA Interdisciplinary Practices and Emerging Forms ’19), ranged from sculpture and land art to painting and photography.

The residency culminated in an exhibition, “Marfa Sightings,” that opened at Marfa’s Big Bend Coffee’s Roaster’s Gallery, and will be on display at UH during the KGMCA Opening Night Collage before heading to France. “It’s a great opportunity for them to show their work internationally and continue to engage with these communities,” says Meza. 

Meza will begin accepting applications for the third year of DUST this fall. To apply, students are required to submit a project proposal and enroll in a corresponding course next spring. Throughout the spring semester, Meza also invites guest lecturers from diverse disciplines to campus – last year featured a science fiction author, a visual artist and an experimental sound artist, among others. This holistic approach is essential to students’ growth, he says, because introducing new perspectives often sparks curiosity and encourages them to take creative risks.

“I’ve been so impressed with the students’ ability to adapt and discover,” he explains. “They have been open to trying new things, working with materials they haven’t worked with before. They’re present, engaged and dedicated.”

While the program is rigorous and requires long-term commitment, it’s definitely worth the effort, says DuLaney. “It’s the most rewarding, inspiring and thought-provoking academic program I’ve ever been involved with.”

Martinez agrees, crediting the immersive experience for allowing her to branch out into new ways of thinking about her practice. “This program is a gem! It opened my eyes to what it is to make art and shifted the way I view space.”