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Paths of Desire
Lia Gangitano

A found photograph titled Excavated Tree shows an uprooted tree suspended in space within a large shed, revealing its roots and branches for examination. It seems, as well, to be suspended in time. From this black and white archival document, originally intended for scientific use, Katie Holten draws a myriad of resonant references—fast-forwarding this image, perhaps previously frozen, into an increasingly resolute present. She does so through direct means, namely, by emulating the tree’s color as it appears in the photograph: black; as well as its form: roots elevated and displaced from the possibility of holding ground. As the centerpiece of her site-responsive exhibition at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, Holten constructs, to scale, the entire structure of a Flowering Dogwood, a native Missouri tree, made from materials gathered from refuse generated by the museum, including recycled cardboard, wire, PVC, paper, and tape.

Designed to draw one in, much like the extreme gravitational pull of a black hole in space, Holten’s tree also shares some of the black hole’s more abstract properties, such as inescapability (particularly as it pertains to the obliteration of light); an ability to warp paths towards its center; and certain loss due to inevitable collapse, if encountered. In Stanley Kubrick’s landmark sci-fi film of 1968, 2001: A Space Odyssey, what appears to be a black rectangle in space, “a shrieking monolith,” is the catalyst for the end of one evolutionary cycle and the beginning of another. When touched, this void gives way to new forms of life but is, perhaps, a cautionary vehicle as well—a warning symbol that points to the possible dissolution of the present. Within the wilderness of outer space, Kubrick mined more localized fears, positioning advanced technologies as a sinister influence, forcing the advancement of human evolution at the hands of an overly sensitive robot (HAL-9000), leading humanity to the verge of a black hole. . .
However eclipsed in time, Kubrick’s vision of the future, as expressed through the perils of space travel and fear of alien intelligence, also referenced the untamed wildernesses of the past and remains a prescient implication as progress threatens to annihilate what was previously considered a boundless reserve, nature.

“In America, Ralph Waldo Emerson confronted the abhorrence of wilderness within frontier culture, asserting both the beauty and the goodness of the wild. Henry David Thoreau is associated with discourses of nature as unspoiled, wild, and distinct from the built environment of the urban. Changing urban imperatives continue to shift the construction of nature. In recent times, nature is more than ever being commoditized, either for resource extraction (logging, privatized water) or as recreation (ecotourism). These views are firmly rooted in a modern dualism in which nature is seen as external to society: its other.”

An interest in black holes and society’s other (its absence) may also point to their opposite, a concern for “the mathematics of presence,” that Holten intuitively maps in the research, notes, and drawings that proliferate her installations and accompany large-scale works. Considered by the artist to be a ‘‘drawn object,’’ like much of her recent work that deploys various reconfigurations of recycled material, Excavated Tree: Missouri Native (pages 26-27), manifests Holten’s belief that our experience of ‘‘nature’’ is inherently social and equally defined by the detritus, networks, and boundaries of the urban environment. “Desire Paths,” the architectural term that provides the title of her exhibition, emphasizes the fact that in rural and urban spaces, informal human patterns against the grain of “official” or planned pathways can alter pavement, sidewalks, and fields of grass alike. As well, Holten’s approach to site-specificity is informed by an understanding that the demarcation of sanctioned routes can be rendered invisible even when one’s daily choices are influenced, if not engineered, by such spatial margins. Meaning, that paths of desire can also designate possibilities beyond, or resistance to, the formal separations indicated by ubiquitous fences, trees, or planters that delineate neighborhoods along lines of segregation, for example.

“Like ‘identity,’ definitions of ‘nature’ and ‘the natural environment’ are complex and contested. The predominant meaning has traditionally been ‘our nonhuman surroundings,’ with an understood dichotomy between what is a result of the human influence and what remains untouched. The dichotomy between the natural and the manufactured is, of course, artificial. Nature has long been subject to human influence through what is planted, supported, or tolerated. . . ”

Holten’s initial proposal for the Contemporary in 2005—to plant an urban prairie in a vacant lot in the city center of St.Louis—resides, like many examples of persistent utopian models, in the form of documentation. The unrealized proposal and subsequent conversations about the transgressive potential of the obsolete, the unfamiliar, the unrecognizable, also become integral parts of her work, taking forms such as research, plans, and imaginative sketches that, when collected, certify this potential. Holten’s methodology insists that nothing is wasted. Her longstanding practice of transplanting weeds is similarly pro-active, constituting an “ephemeral action” that questions “the direction life has taken” by particularly humble means, such as moving weeds from outside to inside, to neglected spaces, or to places soon to be uprooted by high-end development. These small gestures may redirect one’s attention, or inspire the taking of a walk. . . While in residence in St. Louis, Holten plans to take walks around the city, using the museum, which is located in Grand Center, as the starting point for excursions north, south, east, and west, charting modest paths to instigate questions regarding a larger history of place, for example, the locus of Lewis and Clark’s journey toward the Pacific. Part social investigation in the Situationist tradition of the “derive,” and part homage to historic works such as Richard Long’s Path Made While Walking, Holten’s walks insist on the importance of social engagement in the natural world, that is, the urban environment.

Holten’s social engagement, as evidenced by public works, cross-disciplinary collaborations, and community organizing, is also manifested in various printed matter, ranging from handmade zines and flyers to publications incorporating the work of herself and others. In the spirit of such publications as Avalanche (1970-76), a magazine that sought to provide a platform for evolving art forms (Earthworks, Conceptual art, performance, video, etc.) and their social imperatives, Holten’s publications serve as subtle agents of a defiant worldview. It has been said of Avalanche that “ . . .the studied informality of the interviews [. . . ] corresponded to the countercultural politics and grassroots ethos embodied by the publication, with its ad hoc feel and modest circulation. Its frank presentation of artists and their words—not to mention their art—was vital to the politicization of the alternative art scene in the ‘70s.” In its first issue, co-editor (with Liza Béar) Willoughby Sharp asked Robert Smithson to comment on his notion of documentation, which the artist referred to as “non-site,” and he noted:
“There’s a central focus point which is the non-site; the site is the unfocused fringe where your mind loses its boundaries and a sense of the oceanic pervades. . . The interesting thing about the site is that, unlike the non-site, it throws you out on the fringes. . . One might even say that the place is absconded or been lost. . This is a map that will take you somewhere, but when you get there you won’t really know where you are. In a sense the non-site is the center of the system, and the site itself is the fringe or the edge.”

With a proliferation of research, documentation, correspondence, and books traveling with her, Holten’s working methodology is cumulative and expanding, and seeks to restructure “non-sites” that respond to specific, local concerns and, like her drawn and crocheted works that radiate outwards, spread from there. Such practices are mirrored, as well, in related curatorial enterprises, such as her ongoing traveling exhibition, CLUSTER (pages 82-83), which has grown from a one-night event at a pub in Dublin, to a flyer distributed at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London, to its present residence in a FreshDirect box that recently traveled from New York to Mexico City. It’s still growing. Containing works by over sixty artists, writers, small publishers, environmental activists, as well as an astrophysicist, an architect, and a horticulturalist, it represents a range of research, concerns, and thoughts shared by Holten and her myriad colleagues and friends. Occasions to unpack the box are inevitably social, and, like the gathering of works themselves (via emails, special delivery, packages and correspondence sent in the mail), they tend to encourage digressions, unexpected arrivals, and the continuing proliferation of contents.

As is the case with Holten’s diversity of work, certain logics become legible amid seeming disarray—an interconnectedness shaped by the artist’s embrace of the fragmented, the tangential, and the communal. A founding member of several interdisciplinary art collectives, perhaps Holten’s Laboratorio della Vigna, a project for the 50th Venice Biennale in 2003 (pages 76-81), provides a microcosm of her evolving process-based anthropologies. Amid the prescribed hierarchy of nationalities, pavilions, and disciplines, Holten structured a temporary headquarters for a variety of collaborative and individual research, spawning works (and non-works) in sound, performance, and the accumulated proposals of others, showing “the whole process of the researched failures and successes like the detritus of a frenzied stream of thought positioned beside its distilled, crystal-clear idea.”

Like a transient footnote that continues to take temporary residence, the migration of CLUSTER and the format of Laboratorio della Vigna in Venice reflect the artist’s travels and find shape through Holten’s research in the natural world. From botany to the science of networks, her work touches upon notions of displacement and transplantation—issues that she considers in forms ranging from the re-location of indigenous plant-life to various diagrams for parallel universes, drawn on paper or in space. Holten’s “forceful collapsing of distinctions between nature and culture, between ‘high’ art and lowly plant life, between aesthetic beauty and the botanically unbeautiful, between timeless art object and the transient weed, between the elevated and the everyday, is as salutary as it is momentarily disconcerting.” Drawing equally from the ubiquitous and the remote, the minute and the infinite, Holten’s practice renders connections via models of scientific as well as social networking.

Traveling with her, CLUSTER is a project that is at once transient and at home. Its contents represent a long study—alone and together with others—of mounting ecological concerns through such lenses as recycling, collectivity, and sociability. Living in the US for a while, it has been noted that Holten’s “current investigations incorporate scientific theories of parallel universes and place her practice in polemical opposition to prevailing US policies increasingly underpinned by notions of ‘intelligent design’ and creationism.” Linking political imperatives with strategies associated with Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics, Holten has perhaps adapted what could be described as “strategies of existence.”

Like her walks, CLUSTER, spreads through acquaintances, stories, and sites that become available. Readings, performances, radio broadcasts, and a tiny sculpture living in an interior corner of the box—solicited and collected by Holten over time—all come out at the opening. A number of pieces employ the form of books, zines, and documentation of collaborative projects taking place in numerous cities. “Works included can expand and grow over the long-term, and the resemblance to an organic, living structure is intentional. [. . . ] Some works are invisible, or inhabit other spaces such as rumors, posters, rooftops, holes, instructions, stories, objects, t-shirts, pubs, and gardens.”

With her relocation to a temporary studio in New York in 2004, Holten inherited hundreds of FreshDirect boxes. “FreshDirect delivers [. . . ] keeps the house and office-bound fed and watered. The left over boxes pile up.” Holten made use of one box to house this special collection that she intended to deploy as instigation for a winter gathering. “It is no coincidence that CLUSTER resembles the refuge of a ramshackle community. . . ”

In addition, she began re-fashioning the boxes into numerous receptacles for plants, which led to the making of other objects from discarded materials. As the artist has noted in a recent interview: “I’ve been using the word ‘object’ while thinking of it as a noun, referring to material ‘things,’ things that cast shadows. But it’s nice that you’ve thrown in this question, as the first objects I started making (containers for plants made from FreshDirect cardboard boxes) were definitely ‘objecting to’ something. I was interested in questioning the ideology, the waste, the state of things, the piles and piles of boxes accumulating. . . ” Similarly, her repetitive renderings of maps of the world drawn from memory have since taken shape on globes made from shredded newspapers—a transformative practice the artist quietly enjoys. Holten continues to note: “. . . the ‘globes’ are useless. The maps of the world are drawn from memory—whole countries are forgotten, obliterated, while others are drawn too large, or too small. For me personally these globes object to lots of things.”

In Holten’s work, such objections form and mount quietly, and may emanate from mundane everyday experiences: yarn webs crocheted on the subway or on airplanes; a topographic drawing instigated by a phrase heard on the radio, Trembling on the Edge of Reprisal (pages 62-63); or her numerous drawings of Found Continents (pages 102-104) and Reconstituted Lands (pages 108 and 109) that began from observations of the shapes formed by her chipped black fingernail polish. At times resembling bruises or stains, the process of these markings, as well, starts small and, over time, begins to cast a certain darkness, which is more formally outlined in botanic renderings such as Bush (shadow) (page 60), (or Ghost Forest (page 20) showing the spread of roots, branches, and shadows. And, like all her trees and objects, these drawings are black, existing in states of potential obsolescence. Holten’s persistence, however, as demonstrated in these drawn works, sketches, and texts, also seems to imply that systems and connections exist, even when they go unnoticed. Through her social manifestations of these ideas (such as CLUSTER), Holten instigates real life engagements that incorporate disparate interests, follow lines of tangents, and insist upon presence. Like her unrelenting weeds, such unexpected gatherings demonstrate the mutability and tenacity of ideas, and sometimes, as is the case with Excavated Tree, unite to transform the seemingly insignificant and redundant into necessary, monumental action.


Lia Gangitano, published in Paths of Desire, 2007



Katie Holten Excavated Tree
Excavated Tree, 2005 © Katie Holten