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Desert Datascapes

Desert Datascapes

These days, when people think about borders, fences and the American West, they can hardly help but think about the polarizing debate over illegal immigration.

These days, when people think about borders, fences and the American West, they can hardly help but think about the polarizing debate over illegal immigration.

But for Mitchell Marti 96 PR, the dividing lines that mark the region he calls home are infinitely more subtle, often running deep underground. From a printing press in the desert hills of Cerrillos, NM, he is creating mixed-media landscapes of the western states that mine vast networks of data – from geological surveys to mineral rights to census tracts and flight paths – while also referencing the sweeping romanticism of 19th-century painting that glorified the American West.

“There’s a lot of history around myth-building and reinventing the West through image,” says Marti, who spoke at RISD last spring at the invitation of the Printmaking and Alumni Relations departments. “Albert Bierstadt was kind of the poster boy for going into the West and in this mythic, over-the-top style taking a montage of a bunch of different places and presenting them to an Eastern audience as truth.”

“That act of making prints that directly addresses the land/datascape is my attempt to contribute to a lineage of works that have explored the West,” Marti says.  “A lot of the work I do also has a montage element to it – with that looseness to it – but is also reinventing all these mountains of data, and at the same time showing how easily this data can be manipulated, too.”

Middle-of-nowhere press

When Marti visited RISD, he spoke about buildingInterbang Press from the ground up, and talked about his plans to launch a Wintersession internship program for RISD students there next year. His press, and his wide-ranging expertise with traditional and digital printmaking techniques, has drawn a number of American and international artists to his isolated outpost. They include filmmaker, choreographer and performance artistJo Andres, who created a series of cyanotypes under Marti’s tutelage; watercolorist and monotype artistRichard Segalman, whose labor-intensive collaboration with Marti in 2008 resulted in Coney Island, a limited-edition print commissioned by the Print Club of New York; and John Robert Craft, a rancher and artist from the Texas panhandle who has worked with Marti to make copperplate etchings.

“To make it work out here in the middle of nowhere, I had to be really broad in my approach, so it’s a very diverse shop,” says Marti, who also teaches printmaking at the University of New Mexico. “We’re doing everything from lithography to digital printing, which I also included.”

Guttural landscapes

Meanwhile, in his own work, Marti has begun harvesting vast amounts of data that relate to the West and synthesizing them into visual datascapes using an open-source program calledProcessing. He calls these data sets “invisible fences” built from GPS data, RSS feeds, air traffic patterns and subdivision parcels, as well as physical boundaries like highways, railways, power lines and water compacts. Marti is also generating his own mapping data. Recently, to help him in drawing the land around him, he outfitted four cattle owned by a local rancher with Bluetooth GPS units strapped to neck harnesses.

“[The conceptual artist] John Baldessari noted that a whole new generation of artists ‘uses video like a pencil,’” Marti says. “In my case, data is like the pencil. As the cattle and I both walk the land, I’m reminded that the longitude, latitude and altitude entries . . . are not too distant from the action of making a rubbing with a piece of paper and charcoal.”

The resulting landscapes that emerge, Marti says, are “guttural, Dada-esque kickbacks,” richly bit-mapped prints that draw on logic as well as lore. In palettes that are at turns muted and loud, Marti recalls past aesthetic traditions in cartography while raising questions about how much further that land – and its resources – can be sliced and diced going forward.

“The more that I produce images from data, the more I see the images as counter-arguments to the widely accepted yet narrow use of data,” Marti says. In some ways, data sets such as mineral rights maps are landscapes in and of themselves, he says. “But the flat, bright colors are capable of a chilling effect…. They reveal themselves as memento moris of the land, cloaked in representational logic.”

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