Kevin Ammons: Welcome to The Preservation Technology Podcast. The show that brings you to people and projects that are advancing the future of America’s heritage. I’m Kevin Ammons with the National Park Services and National Center for Preservation Technology and Training. Today we join NCPTT’s Jason Church as he speaks with Jo Farb Hernández, Director of SPACES. In this episode, Jo Farb talks about SPACES and the organization’s efforts to bring awareness to our environment and their self-taught artist creators to documentation and preservation.
Jason Church: Jo, tell us a little bit about what is SPACES and what you do there?
Jo Farb Hernández: SPACES is a non-profit organization. The acronym stands for Saving and Preserving Arts and Culture Environments and this was a non-profit that although it wasn’t formally incorporated until 1978, it actually began in the late 1950’s with a group of people that bonded together. Just community activists and artists and architects and people that were aficionados of the earth to save the Watts Towers when the city of Los Angeles decided that they were public news and its needed to be take it down.
Originally, it was really centered on the Watts Towers. I think that the people thought that this was an anomaly. The fact that there was this monumental piece of public art. Then, they started realizing that there were some other sites in California and then they thought it wasn’t just the California thing. Then, they realized as people traveled and as information about the Watts Towers grew and other people heard about its stuff that in fact this is an international phenomenon.
Originally, it was interesting because the founder, Seymour Rosen thought that, “They’d be out of business in five years,” because he thought that they would identify the sites, they would advocate for them, everything would be fine, and then they’d be over. As it turns out, we’re discovering more and more sites. I don’t remember exactly how many we have listed right now in the website right now. Probably, close to 1,500 around the world. We discover new ones every week. People come to us with information about new sites, new images, new texts, that kind of thing.
Jason Church: When people contact you about a new site, what’s the approach that SPACES takes?
Jo Farb Hernández: People usually contact us through our website which is www.spacesarchives.org. Sometimes, they contact us at the eleventh hour when the bulldozers are at the other and they’re block practically and they all of a sudden realize that they want to try and save the site.
Depending on what they need at the time and we do try and help them in those kinds of situations. There’s not too much we can do at that point except write letters, make some phone calls and try at least stave off destruction until we can see what the situation is and see what might be negotiated.
Sometimes there were issues like non-payment of taxes or somebody’s has a hold of building permit, those kinds of things. Sometimes those kinds of things could be easily resolved. Sometimes there are other more public health kinds of issues that seem to be a little more difficult to resolve.
One of the reasons that we think SPACES is so important is because it documents all these sites, identifies them, it advocates for them but it documents them. Therefore, if these sites do turn out to be ephemeral, if they do come down and many sites do, at least we have the records of what used to be there.
That’s helpful certainly in preservation if a site has become degraded and people bend together to save it. We have the documentation of what it used to look like so that conservators can look at it and they can form decisions about the procedures that they undertake.
I think the bottom line really between whether something’s going to work or not in terms of saving is whether the local community is behind it. I can come in from afar and send a letter to a congressman or to a city council person saying you have to appreciate what’s in your backyard but if I don’t vote in his district, he is not really going to pay any attention to what I have to say. It really is about getting community support, getting community organized to save their sites that have become part of the identity of the region where they live.
Jason Church: For our listeners who might not be familiar, describe to us what you mean by an art environment.
Jo Farb Hernández: Art environments are sites that are generally monumentalist. Some level, it could be either in terms of their size. It could be a castle or a building or cathedral or something that’s been radically modified or altered or decorated or it could be monumental in number of components. Sometimes we see situations in which a sculpture has created 300 smaller sculptures but they’re all in a small little place and they’ve just become monumental in their impact.
They’re typically created by artists who do not have formal art or architectural engineering training. They typically start in a very modest fashion. Maybe, somebody fashions a birdbath and it’s successful and then they’ll make a little pond next to it and that’s successful and then they’ll go on and on. Typically, they have really no sense of the monumentality that they’re going to achieve until they look around 20 or 30 or 40 years later and see what they’ve done.
I think sometimes, people that really haven’t studied these works as much have a tendency to believe that the intent from the beginning was monumentality. The artist that I’ve studied and spoken to, I think out of the hundreds, maybe there’s one or two that have this overall intense idea of what they’re going to create.
They have success in sculpting, in embellishing, in creating and so they sculpt more, they embellish more, they create more. Success breaths success. As they do it, they learn they developed their technique, they developed their skills. When you’re making art, you’re thinking about making more art. It just kind of keeps going.
Jason Church: If someone contacts you, they didn’t necessarily have a space but maybe they had documentation of one, they visited one when they were young. Maybe they were related to or had some connection. Do you also take documentation and that sort of thing. How does that work?
Jo Farb Hernández: Yeah. Absolutely. We are absolutely thrilled when anybody contacts us with the possibility of providing information of art environments or actually any kind of self-thought art to us but particularly art environments as where our major focus is.
We will give them a good home. We are digitizing as many documents as we can. Legally, some documents are copyrighted and we don’t have the permission to digitize or post them online so those are available in our offices for personal review. But as many as possible, we’re digitizing so that we can get the word out about these materials on its wider basis as possible, a worldwide basis.
Jason Church: Can you tell us about some projects that you’ve worked with, some sites that you’ve worked with? Will you help them in their preservation efforts?
Jo Farb Hernández: Yeah. We’ve had several successes. We don’t always have happy endings given the circumstances of this field in which usually as I said because artists aren’t starting out thinking that they’re going to be making this monumental thing. They don’t pull a permit or they don’t do the right kind of foundation or they don’t do whatever they need but we have had some successes.
The most recent one that I’ve been really proud of about has been the site in Spain, Joseph Codulla, who has been working for 45 years on this site that unfortunately the land wasn’t his. He was actually forced to demolish the site three full times. He had to demolish it. He was grumpy for about a minute and then started over, build it all up again and then have to demolish it again and it happened the third time. Finally, the community got involved and really, really banned together because they realized that it had become part of the identity of their village.
Last fall, the county designated to local heritage site which means that there will be some money and some thought at the very least about how to protect the site and how to provide some public access without having a potential for public safety issues.
That was really super because we did a worldwide petition to get people to sign that. They were able to go in with look, we got thousands of international supporters as well as your local community. You need to pay attention at the fact that this is important.
There have been other circumstances that have just been kind of smaller successes. There was another site in Spain that a guy had built. Full size dinosaurs, Tyrannosaurus Rex and some other dinosaurs. They got after him because he did not pull a building permit. It’s like, “Really. You have building permits for building dinosaurs? Who knew that?” They want to come and take them down. These guys get so energized by building. Once somebody makes them start, they lose a lot of the drive, they lose a lot of inertia of building stuffs as well.
So, I wrote to the mayor and explain to him. A lot of times if we can point them to the SPACES website and so that they can see that there’s the genre of work of people that have built monumental things in their backyards and it can become a draft for their villages rather than something that they need to be confronting and fighting against. They got back off. They rescind the penalties and now they are off just happily building again.
Those are really important steps I think in terms of expanding the definition of art especially in situations where there hasn’t been formal art education. People have the sense of the only thing that’s artist, what’s on the museum and it’s usually in a frame and usually has a picture of Madonna or something on it.
Just to wrap their minds around the idea that people can be creative in these different kinds of ways using different kinds of materials is a leap for a lot of people. We feel that as much as possible, they get the information about the fact that there are hundreds of these, thousands of these around the world. It will help to support all of the artists.
Just in general, we are actively soliciting images for the website. We are actively soliciting texts if people know about a certain site. If they’ve visited the site, they like to write a small text on the site, we’re thrilled because we’re trying to populate the website as much as possible. There’s so many site, there’s so many environments that we’re just raising to keep up. Any help that anybody wants to volunteer, we’re thrilled to take anybody’s documentation, images, etc. Of course, if somebody writes or let us post photos at the website, we apply full credit to the artist or to the writer and photographer.
Also, we don’t give the exact address on the website if that’s a problem because sometimes either the artist doesn’t want visitors or the site may not be secured or stable enough to have visitors come by. We would like to maintain the database as closely as possible to the reality of the world situation so we can keep the information in our archives yet just post the general information on the website so people know it exists that they can’t quite figure out how to get there.
We’ve been working with people all over the world to do this. We’re really very excited to find major sites in all kinds of places and really encourage people to keep their eyes open. If they find a site or if they have questions about the site to contact us and all our contact information is on the website.
Jason Church: Now you work for sites all over the world, do you see any major commonalities with the artists all over the world?
Jo Farb Hernández: I tried to look at singularities rather than things in common because these aren’t like a group of artists that all went to school together or are all working at the same time and all had the same kind of influences and all were responding in a certain like the artisms of history.
I try not draw too many threads between them. In general, you can say they’re men. As I said they don’t have formal art or architectural engineering training, in general they’re self-taught and use the tools of the trade that they had prior to retiring which is another one. Generally, they’re older when they start.
Of course, there are exceptions to every statement that I just made. I think that the only thing that really is something that we can in general say even to much greater extent that those other caveats is that they often face existential issues. The house they’re building doesn’t look like the house next door, or the house across the street and the neighbors get upset or whatever or they’re building a 15-foot high dinosaur or they’re ornamenting a tomb in a way that seems unseemly to their neighbors. It could just be that they weren’t very good crafts people and they didn’t build in a way that would enable the material to survive. It could be that they used material itself that was ephemeral.
There are existential issues for most of these sites. That’s again why documentation at all levels are so important. One of the things that people do ask me this, “Well, you know, I have documentation of site but I see you already have photographs of it.” I say, “No, no, no. Any photograph, all photograph, we’re happy to have.” Every photographer of course has a different eye. They see it on a different day. They see it on a different time of the year. They see it in a different year. All of those documents and photos, we’re thrilled to add to the archives.
Jason Church: And, I know that most sites are constantly changing.
Jo Farb Hernández: Constantly changing. Right. Absolutely. We really encourage people if they’re going to go specifically to document a site that they be really clear about the exact date that they took it because if it’s looking like this on Wednesday, it may not look like that on Thursday.
Try to get the artist’s name for the different components of the site if that exists. Try to make sure that you get large wide shot views as well as detail shots. A lot of times, people are so taken with the details that they focus on those and then we don’t really have an overall sense of the site as a whole.
Any documentation. Of course, we can suggestion people do site plans and full inventories and that kind of thing but that comes later. If people are just passing something or on a Sunday outing or whatever, we’re happy to take any kind of shots. You don’t have to be a professional photographer.
Jason Church: Thank you so much, Jo, for talking with us. I hope listeners will go check out the SPACES website. I know I’ve donated things to it and I think it’s so fantastic mission that you guys do.
Jo Farb Hernández: Thank you, Jason. Thank you so much. We really appreciate your support.
Jason Church: We hope to talk to you again about future projects.
Jo Farb Hernández: Looking forward to it.
Kevin Ammons: Thank you for listening to today’s show. If you would like more information, check out our podcast show notes. That’s ncptt.nps.gov. Until next time. Goodbye, everybody.