Born and raised in Tucson, Arizona, Lucy Raven has engaged the Southwest as a subject in multiple mediums in various ways. Among her most notable recent works are Ready Mix (2021), an immersive film installation featuring earthy and abstract footage from a concrete plant in Bellevue, Idaho, and Demolition of a Wall (Album 1 and 2), a pair of related films from this year focused on blast waves captured via high-speed camera technology at an explosives range in Socorro, New Mexico. Other works related to the region include China Town (2009), an animated projection piece drawing on thousands of photographs that trace the production of copper wire, beginning with the mining of ore in Nevada. Ready Mix was made on commission for the Dia Art Foundation, whose connection to the Southwest involves overseeing Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field, Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, and Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels. Demolition of a Wall (Album 1) was shown as part of the 2022 Whitney Biennial. During a discussion at her studio in New York, where she is currently based, Raven talked about her upbringing, the evolution of recent artworks, and how she came to know more—and less—about the Southwest from afar.
ANDY BATTAGLIA When did you first become conscious of the fact that you lived in the Southwest?
LUCY RAVEN My dad is from New York, and we would visit now and then when I was a kid. My first visit was when I was 5. We went to MoMA. We went to the Bronx, where my grandma lived. It made a big impact on me, and that was the first time I was conscious of where we lived as being really “other.” There was a kind of grounding, another pole, one being Arizona and the other New York.
BATTAGLIA What do you remember first feeling was distinctive about Arizona?
RAVEN One part of it is sensation-based and the other is visual. I still have a physical memory of the feeling of getting into a car on a 110-degree day, when you breathe in and everything around you is hotter than your body temperature. That feels very Tucson-summer to me. It’s hard to place if this came later or not, but visually I remember the horizon. Everywhere you looked would be a horizon, because Tucson is in a basin and there are very few multistory buildings. But it’s not a flat horizon like in Montana or Wyoming—there are mountains all around, so as a kid I had the sense that I was bound by a square. The horizon didn’t feel infinite. There was also something about the way that the streets go through the entire flat city, and then certain of them end and a handful become viaducts into the surrounding desert. I remember traveling through that while looking through a backseat window.
BATTAGLIA Do you remember when you first thought of Arizona as a distinct place within the region as a whole?
RAVEN Growing up, I was conscious of it as a very conservative state. Tucson is a Democratic island in the middle of it, and there’s a rivalry between Tucson and Phoenix, part of which has to do with politics, part with sports. I was aware of our proximity to the border with Mexico and spent time around it on both sides. I knew that Arizona was thought of as conservative, but I didn’t realize to what extent until I moved to New York [in 2001, after graduating from the University of Arizona] and saw people’s reactions when I said I was from there. Until this year, I thought the political situation might be changing, but the tide seems to be turning back again, hard.
BATTAGLIA How would you characterize Arizona’s status within the region itself? In what way is it most unique?
RAVEN This is an area that feels tricky, because it’s hard not to essentialize. I’m interested in the notion of regionalism, but I’m also skeptical of it. Coming up with the core sentiment or property or whatever it is that is Arizona … I don’t know. It’s like I never knew, and I almost know less now. The more I’ve worked out West and also read about it and watched and talked to people, the less I feel like I know. But I do have an immovable relationship to the landscape. It’s embedded in how I look at the world and my relationship to space.
BATTAGLIA When did you first engage with Land art? How far back does that go?
RAVEN I didn’t know much about it in high school, but when I was in college I got really interested in geography and photography, and then the history of large-format and landscape photography. I wrote for a history of photography class on the Central Arizona Project Photographic Survey, which documented the massive aqueduct that brings water from the Colorado River to Tucson. Later, I encountered the work of artists associated with Land art—Robert Smithson, Nancy Holt, Michael Heizer, Walter De Maria—and then more process-oriented stuff like work by Robert Morris. One early memory I have is taking off from the Tucson airport and seeing the sewage treatment plants as brightly gradated shapes. I can see now that I first encountered those aspects of industry as an abstraction.
BATTAGLIA When did you begin to think of making artwork related to the Southwest as a subject?
RAVEN I met someone who turned me on to Matthew Coolidge and his Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI). I ended up doing a residency there on and off for three years, out of which came several works, including China Town. It was really from New York that I began to think more critically about “the West” as such. The residency was pretty much a trailer on the airstrip of a decommissioned military air base in Wendover, Utah, right on the border of Nevada. When I first got there, Matthew met me, showed me around, took me for lunch at a casino, and told me, “Have a good month.” It was totally independent. There was a map with points of interest, with Spiral Jetty, Sun Tunnels, and other things that were within driving distance. I explored all that stuff from there, but I hadn’t been to any of them before. I just went to The Lightning Field a couple years ago, which was fantastic, interesting, weird.
BATTAGLIA What did you work on during your CLUI residency?
RAVEN My original idea was to make a piece at the Bingham Canyon Mine, which is a massive pit that Smithson wrote about in an essay, describing a proposal for a piece he never made. If you fly into Salt Lake City, you can see it as you’re landing—you see the Great Salt Lake from one side of the airplane and the Bingham pit on the other. You can see it from the moon. It’s one of the biggest holes in the world. It was started and owned by the Guggenheim family. The money that came from their smelting company went into making the museum in New York. It’s an interesting history. But it was tricky to film there to the extent that I wanted, so I ended up making a different project about a real estate development that the current mining company was building atop the old tailings ponds.
China Town started at a different mine, not too far away in Nevada. Where I was staying, in Wendover, a very loud truck would barrel down the otherwise rarely used road every hour, 24 hours a day. It looked like it was carrying ore. I followed one of them one day, and it led me to another mine where they were excavating copper ore, processing it partially on-site, then sending that material to China to be smelted, refined, and sold there. I didn’t set out to make a work about the West. China Town started with questions about a source that was also a giant void—the excavation of a resource that would get broken down and reformed into a conduit of connection through an extremely discontinuous, globalized production process. The recent work I’m thinking of much more as a kind of riff on the genre of the Western.
BATTAGLIA When did you first see Walter De Maria’s 1969 film Hard Core?
RAVEN I saw that in the context of making an “Artists on Artists” piece for Dia with Deantoni Parks. I’d known for a number of years that De Maria was a drummer for the Primitives, a rock band that prefigured the Velvet Underground with members also including Lou Reed and John Cale—who, coincidentally, Deantoni now drums for. The fact that De Maria was a drummer inflected how I thought about his work—the rhythms he set up within individual pieces—and seemed like a way into the relationships in his work between violence, abstraction, and materiality, which I was also thinking about. I was surprised to see Hard Core because it was connected to other structural film that I’m interested in but hadn’t associated with De Maria. It’s really homemade in a way that his sculpture isn’t—you get the sense that he and Michael Heizer are just handing a camera back and forth while doing their shootout scene at the end. There’s a humor to it, despite the long-duration shots and the genre violence. It’s a kind of droll Western.
BATTAGLIA What was the genesis of the idea for Ready Mix?
RAVEN It started in some ways with a residency I did in the Philippines. The location where I found myself was in the lowlands below Mount Pinatubo, which is a massive volcano and the site of one of the largest volcanic eruptions in the 20th century, in 1991. I landed at Clark Air Force Base, the largest base outside the United States. I had been taught in school that the Philippines was a Spanish colony—but not what happened after, when the US purchased it from Spain, along with Puerto Rico and Guam, in 1898, and ruled it as a colonizing power for the next 48 years. There were protests over the presence of Clark for decades after the Philippines gained independence, but the US refused to leave. When Mount Pinatubo erupted, it was so powerful that it extruded lahars, a kind of ashy pyroclastic flow. They’re brutal because they flow like lava and can engulf entire towns and then harden. They call it “wet concrete.” Entire areas were destroyed. The event and its aftermath are what finally pushed the US off the Air Force Base, though it left a Superfund site behind.
Manila is also largely a concrete city, and the master plan in its city center was designed by Daniel Burnham, the grandfather of city planning in the United States. I got interested in that moment in US history when the Gold Rush had ended in California—and with it, some idea of the frontier myth—and the concept of Manifest Destiny was projected farther west. From the Pacific Coast at that time, the Philippines could be seen as an extension of the Western frontier.
BATTAGLIA How do these ideas relate to the form that Ready Mix took?
RAVEN I spend a lot of time in Idaho and knew someone with a concrete plant, so I visited that to see what it was like. One of the things I felt was important to me while thinking through these questions was the material state change that was an element of the lahars. When I went to the concrete plant and saw what could happen there, I started doing some camera experiments, with drones and with different kinds of close-up camerawork. Then Dia got involved.
BATTAGLIA How did that change or inflect your thinking, given Dia’s history?
RAVEN Many of the artists Dia has worked with are part of my personal art history, so a lot of affinities were there already. What was transformative was the support, in every way—production support, but also the legacy of how Dia had worked in decades past supporting ideas for longer-term projects, allowing the scale to take shape in a way that didn’t feel restricted.
BATTAGLIA What was the genesis of the idea for your Demolition of a Wall works?
RAVEN I had been researching various imaging techniques through which you can arrive at an image without an object—without a subject, essentially—while still capturing movement. I had been looking at several 19th-century techniques that can register changes in light’s movement, through heat or pressure, as a density gradient. In some ways my interest in this dates back to the initial CLUI residency in 2005, because that airport in Wendover is where the Enola Gay took off from to drop the atomic bomb. I became very interested in Harold Edgerton’s work and the images he made of the early stages of atomic bomb detonation: those images look cellular. They were made with a rapatronic camera that Edgerton developed as a commission from the military to understand what the bomb looked like before a mushroom cloud formed. The kind of camera I used for Demolition of a Wall is a different system, but comes out of an evolution of those ideas. I spent some time in Berlin and did research in Ernst Mach’s photographic archives there. He was the first person to photograph shock waves; we got “Mach speed” from him.
BATTAGLIA Why did you choose New Mexico as a setting for the Demolition works?
RAVEN I knew I wanted the landscape to be primary to the piece, which meant shooting outside. The techniques I used are more often employed in an interior lab context, but in pursuing what might be possible on an outdoor explosives range, I was introduced to an engineering professor specializing in optics, Michael Hargather, at New Mexico Tech, a mining college in Socorro that’s connected to a blast site. I think of the Demolition works as series of short films, rather than one longer narrative film. It’s more in the tradition of what Tom Gunning called the “cinema of attractions,” very early pre-narrative cinema where just one thing happens and makes up a film—one gag, one spectacle, one gesture. Shock waves from one explosion pass across the screen, that’s the movie.
BATTAGLIA You’ve talked about Ready Mix and Demolition of a Wall as two parts of a trilogy of Westerns. What does that mean to you exactly?
RAVEN My focus, rather than being based on narrative or characters, is on material and material state change. I think of Ready Mix as something to do with solids moving into a granular form and then into sludge before being reformed back into a solid. Demolition of a Wall has to do with air, pressure, force, extreme speed, histories of speed tests, and legacies of nuclear radiation and fallout. The third part of the trilogy will have to do more with fluid dynamics and water.
We all have an idea of what a “Western” is in our minds, and, with that as a baseline, I like thinking about it as a genre category. There are other genres I’m thinking about too, most specifically horror. But there’s a way to think of Westerns as horror too, if a Western is the telling of the genocidal fighting-it-out for property and land ownership.
This interview also appears in the November 2022 print issue of Art in America, pp. 62-65, along with a pull-out print by the artist.