The internets have been buzzing about Greg Allen’s bold move to create the Jetty Foundation, a Utah-based NGO dedicated to the local stewardship of Spiral Jetty’s site-specific context, and A Blade of Grass has been listening! We fund artists who make context an explicit aspect of their work. We do so because we love the possibilities that arise when art collides with stuff like local politics, or concepts like ownership, or what something is and how one can own it! Robert Smithson’s work and Spiral Jetty is therefore a cornerstone of our conceptual heritage. We applaud Allen for jumping into the fray of this. We have a hunch that Jetty Foundation is a very good idea that could illuminate how conceptual art functions best in the real world.
Robert Smithson - Spiral Jetty
It’s impossible to understand Jetty Foundation’s mission without outlining a little dramatis personae:
In 1970, Robert Smithson created Spiral Jetty out of materials gathered onsite at Rozel Point, Utah.
Smithson’s estate owns the Jetty as intellectual property.
The Dia Foundation owns the physical work.
But because the work consists of natural materials found onsite, you could argue that Dia also leases the Jetty itself from the state of Utah.
The state of Utah owns the land the work is made out of, and the site on which it exists.
It’s impossible to pin down exactly what the work is or who owns the work, not merely because Smithson’s estate retains the right to it as intellectual property, but because it is a thing made out of the site itself. Dia has done amazing work conserving the Jetty, but do they own the rocks and soil they are conserving or do they own the right to maintain Utah’s materials it this Jetty shape? In this system, does the state of Utah have a responsibility to notify Dia when oil exploration or other mining ventures occur in the vicinity, or is finding out about what’s happening on the lake and within the community Dia’s responsibility? What about stuff like maintaining the road to the Jetty? What about traffic or tourism concerns? Or proactively making sure the local community knows it’s there and knows what it is?
Jetty Foundation would like to provide local stewardship of the site, either as lessee or as an organization that simply advocates when site-related issues come up. And it’s interesting that Felix Salmon, blogging at Reuters, is seeing this as a power grab. He starts from the position that now four entities are holding or attempting to hold various ownership stakes, and wonders how one can see Jetty Foundation in any terms other than Allen attempting to own this singularly iconic work of land art without actually owning it.
Salmon is right to point to the Jetty’s beautiful refusal to concretize, to be somebody’s specific something. It’s why the Jetty is worth all this hubbub, and it’s true that Allen is jumping in to an ownership discussion that the Jetty itself offers again and again because it’s…
…well, because it’s such an idea-based but pervasively material non-thing that’s tied inextricably to its physical site and depends on it for every single ounce of its meaning.
Greg Allen might be perpetrating a coup, or using an NGO as a vehicle for his own conceptual art about the appropriation of the Jetty, or whatever. But he is also rolling up his sleeves to addresses these basic practical concerns that come up whenever a work of art is situated in a public context.
A Blade of Grass funds public art because it poses these amazing problems. Art situated in a community is part of something larger than itself. Spiral Jetty is sitting in a lake that is managed by a governmental agency that has very little context for the wise management of site-specific conceptual land art. It is situated within a larger community that faces mining and other restrictions because of the Jetty’s presence, benefits from Jetty-related tourism, perhaps bitches about Jetty-related traffic, and even bottles Spiral Jetty beer in its local brewery. The economy of Rozel Point and the Jetty are inextricably linked. Is it even possible for Dia, a whole country away, to take responsibility for all that context? Isn’t it beautiful that Greg Allen wants to?