California (2010) – California artists and arts institutions are adjusting to downsizing in all sectors of state public programs. Scarcity can trigger unimaginative belt-tightening, but it also opens a liberal space for those on the margins to enter stage left with different propositions. In the face of economic and social instability, a new creative force is leading the charge to reimagine the future. Such exploratory models of arts practice are percolating from within the nine University of California (UC) campuses with arts programs, positioning artists to lead in California’s uncertain future.

Since its inception in 1987, the UC Institute for Research (UCIRA) has served as an intercampus granting agency and think tank for innovative arts research in the UC system. In 2005, under a new administration, the institute expanded its mission. After an extensive tour of UC’s arts programs, leaders at UCIRA were struck by the degree of duplication in self-perception, efforts, facilities, and programs, as each campus aspired to be a self-contained research environment. In response, UCIRA aimed new programs toward cooperation and launched funding of experimental projects in visual, performing, and new media arts (see www.ucira.ucsb.edu).

Recently, UCIRA announced three new initiatives to foster partnerships among UC researchers and broader sectors of the arts and its publics. As part of this seeding effort, UCIRA is commissioning artists both within and outside the university to serve as consultants to the university, with their “study” focused on the UC system itself as a site for critical self-reflection in this time of crisis and transition. The new initiatives are Social Ecologies, Social Technologies, and Integrative Methodologies.

Social Ecologies

The Social Ecologies initiative provides opportunities for artists to investigate the diverse physical terrains belonging to the state, as well as the contested relationships between natural and developed spaces. Embedding artists in various fields encourages a wide range of research related to the state’s development, use, and interpretation of land.

One program in Social Ecologies, “Mapping the Desert/Deserting the Map,” in its third year of partnership with UC–Riverside Sweeney Art Gallery and Palm Desert Graduate Center, is an arts-centered investigation of California’s Mojave and Colorado deserts and of current visualization and mapping technologies. “The need to grapple with the multiple complexities and challenges contained within the actual deserts of the world—and within the no less complex idea of the ‘desert’—is more urgent now than ever,” says Dick Hebdige, UCIRA Desert Studies director.

The most recent desert immersion drew students and scholars from seven UC campuses, along with other participants, to Joshua Tree National Park for three days of exchange. The group explored a vast array of ecologies during site visits to the Twenty-Nine Palms Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center—a complex that includes faux Iraq/Afghanistan training facilities, “Pioneertown” (a Hollywood movie set–turned village), an ecological preserve, and a desert oasis. The participants created 24 temporary site-embedded installations that activated the land and connected with local year-round residents.

UC–Riverside lecturer and artist Ken Ehrlich, “was inspired by the idea of how to facilitate future research and art projects in the desert.” He developed a set of conceptual drawings for a roving desert vehicle that would become an on-site field-teaching environment suitable for a range of off-the-grid mobile dwellers. Artist Gabie Strong, from UC–Irvine, co-organized a collaborative visual-sound performance, UR Rituals. This one-time media event, located in and around an abandoned homestead, produced a contradictory set of associations between the landscape and its history of human occupation.