Here & There - 12.04.20

Let's talk about the monolith.

Here & There is a weekly email from Kyle Frost about design, travel, photography, and other stuff. If you’ve been enjoying these updates, please forward it to a friend, or share with your network. If you’re reading it for the first time, consider subscribing (it’s free!).

It’s been a wild few weeks for monoliths. This whole fiasco started on Nov 23, when a few folks doing sheep-counting via helicopter saw something shiny in the desert. They found an unmarked, ~10 ft tall metal structure in a desert amphitheater. Media picked up the story, flooding headlines with 2001: A Space Odyssey references and other clickbait. Here’s what happened next.

Within 24 hours, folks on Reddit had identified the helicopter’s flight path, cross referenced it with Google Earth, and found the exact location of the structure on BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land just outside of Moab. You can imagine the result of this info going public. Moab is already a popular spot this time of year, and overnight the spot was swarmed with photographers and folks looking to check out the “mysterious” monolith. As the nearest access is a 4x4 road, this resulted in unprepared visitors having to get towed out, as well as the destruction of the nearby desert environment (there is no “parking” area nearby).

Then, last Friday a couple of unidentified folks went in and removed the monolith overnight, citing LNT. This wasn’t an official action from the BLM, but a guerrilla act by a group of local climbers. Copycat monoliths have since emerged in Romania and California.

During this whole debacle, I posted the following tweet on @theoutbound.

I got a variety of interesting responses. Many folks agreed, but I was surprised by the number of people who though I was being too uptight. A few opinions:

“weird way to spell art”

“uh, it’s way better than graffiti”

“Ok Karen”

“This was clearly installed by someone who put thought into it. It's not just a piece of trash or a trashed campsite left behind by some scumbag”

I’ll acknowledge that “graffiti” was maybe not the most appropriate term (I used it because Utah already has a huge problem with graffiti in National Parks), but it’s this last take that is honestly the most problematic for me. I’ve seen it quite a bit, most recently, by an Outside Magazine contributor.

“I think we can establish that this slab of steel is not “trash.” It’s a gorgeous piece, thoughtfully composed in-line with a dry waterfall in a shallow amphitheater…They took no credit, held no gala opening, posted nothing online. It feels like the purest artistic vision: a perfectly executed work without any of the acclaim or ego or money that drives the rarified gallery world.”

Sorry, but this just reads wrong to me. There’s a case to be made that it is art. But, it is *also* trash in this scenario. The elevation and fetishization of something that flagrantly violates Leave No Trace principles because it fits into a concept of what some folks consider “fine art” is troublesome. It was illegally installed on public land, and it sets a pretty poor precedent to say that it's ok to ignore LNT as long as something "looks cool". Whether you find it “gorgeous” or of the “purest artistic vision”, the illegal installation of *anything* on public lands shouldn’t be normalized behavior. I don’t care if the artist never intended it to be found, *it shouldn’t have been there in the first place*. Trash is trash, whether it’s a 10ft tall metal structure or leaving trash at a campsite.

/end rant

To be clear, this doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for art in nature. But, there’s a right way to do it. For example, the late Christo and Jeanne-Claude are famous for their large-scale impermanent artworks. They typically went through *years* of permitting and self-funded environmental analysis. Their project “Running Fence”, which wound 24.5 miles through Sonoma County was largely seen as a triumph in combining art with the democratic process — the project involved 17 public hearings, easement agreements with sixty owners, and various environmental approvals.

TLDR; Art in nature can be cool, but respect the process and keep your guerrilla art out of our public lands.


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