LUBBOCK, Texas - A few landmarks rise above the flatness here - water towers, radio antennae, lonelylooking trees. Mostly, though, there is still “a lot of land but nowhere to go,” as the artist Donald Judd observed of West Texas.
So there may be few better bases of operation for an unusual academic program that has taken root here , in which scholars study and make art in places about as far away from museums and galleries as is possible within the continental United States.
Called Land Arts of the American West, the classes take place in a pair of heavy-duty Ford vans or wherever the vans and the camping gear they carry end up stopping during a 11,000-kilometer , two-month drive throughout the West.
The tangible result of the trip is an annual exhibition of art, writing and other documentary material about the journey (landarts.org for more information).
But the heart of the program exists out on the road. Chris Taylor, a Harvard- trained architecture professor who helped develop the concept, along with an artist named Bill Gilbert, directs the program at Texas Tech University here in Lubbock, which puts him and his students at the eastern edge of the huge swath of territory - southwestern Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Nevada - that he has made his classroom.
Many of the stops on the trip are expected, the legacies of the land-art and Earthworks movement, which transplanted the idea of sculpture to the country’s trackless open spaces beginning in the 1960s: Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty,” off the shore of the Great Salt Lake ; Walter De Maria’s “Lightning Field,” in western New Mexico; Nancy Holt’s “Sun Tunnels,” in northwestern Utah; Michael Heizer’s “Double Negative,” two deep trenches cut into the edge of a mesa in the Nevada desert.
But other stops, some requiring close observation of the odometer in places so remote that GPS maps are of little use, suggest an itinerary drawn up by Rachel Carson and Howard Zinn, with help from Foucault and the Marquis de Sade. Students have spent time near one of the world’s largest open-pit uranium mines, now inactive, on the Laguna Pueblo reservation west of Albuquerque. They have camped on a desolate patch of New Mexico desert land called Cabinetlandia, owned by the art magazine Cabinet, wedged between an active rail line and screaming traffic on Interstate 10, where there is little more in the way of amenities than a mailbox and a filingcabinet community “library” embedded in a concrete-and-soil wall.
The program operates on a small budget of about $30,000, provided by participants’ fees and donations. Mr. Taylor said he planned it to try to be as agnostic about the definition of art as the vast landscape itself is. “I define art as anything people have done on the land,” he said, adding that the West is an ideal place for such an approach. (“Arid lands are unable to hold secrets,” Mr. Taylor once wrote.)
He added: “ Not to take anything away from art history, but this is more broadly about how we’ve shaped the land, and how it has shaped us.”
William L. Fox, a writer and the director of the Center for Art + Environment in Reno, said he believed that these kinds of wildly interdisciplinary art-making and academic activities might be flourishing in the West because artists see it as a place where boundaries are less rigid.
“For me, art is about making metaphors, and to do that you feed on new sources of information,” said Mr. Fox . “In a sense that’s all artists are doing, the same as scientists: ‘What areas can we poke our noses into that give us new information and show us how to make work in a way we’ve never thought of?’”
Rocio Mendoza, an architecture graduate student who traveled with the group in 2010, returned to Lubbock to propose a kind of design idea that at first glance might seem like merely a fantastical conceptual exercise: to erect tens of thousands of small, cheap shelters along the United States’ border with Mexico. But the idea came to her after she walked away from the group one morning in the southern Arizona scrub and ran into two disoriented Mexican men who were crossing illegally into the country and asked her for food.
She made a video about the experience, in which she recalled her mother’s stories of being carried across the Rio Grande many years before, seven months pregnant with Ms. Mendoza. “Meeting those two guys,” she says in the video, looking into the camera, “it all suddenly clicked and became personal and political.”
By RANDY KENNEDY