Five years ago, I began work on “Position Vector Salton Sea,” (2017-ongoing) a site-specific art installation created in partnership with the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indian (TMDCI) tribal government. Developed through community-led workshops and a youth internship program, the project reflects upon the rapid disappearance of the Salton Sea from the tribe’s lands in Southern California.
At present, public interest in decolonial initiatives appears robust, and my partnership with TMDCI has enjoyed a broad spectrum of support that is — on the surface — encouraging. Funding from the NEA and other arts organizations materialized without hesitation, staff from the Institute of Contemporary Art San Diego made genuine efforts to build a relationship with TMDCI leadership prior to exhibiting our project last September, and the tribe and I continue to be invited to various symposia to speak about our creative collaboration.
And yet, even within the framework of this highly supportive ecosystem, “Position Vector Salton Sea” remains unfinished. There are many ways to explain this, but I would like to suggest that — if the arts community is indeed committed to decolonization as a long-term project — arts institutions, funders, and educators must better engage with the constraints imposed upon Indigenous communities.
Ecological collapse is inherently destabilizing, but it is especially destructive to tribal communities whose cultural practices are grounded in the land. By 2030, the Salton Sea is projected to lose one-third of its surface area, destroying migratory bird habitats and leaving behind a dried, contaminated lakebed that will dramatically impact human health throughout the California borderlands. According to TMDCI Tribal Chairman Thomas Tortez:
“We no longer see it [the Salton Sea] as a form of life that the Creator allowed us to have every few hundred years … the kids don’t have the chance to see it the way I once saw it, the way my grandfather saw it. They see it as a catastrophe, they see it as a toxic event. They don’t want to go out there.”
Instead of supporting the TMDCI community, opportunistic politicians and business interests in the greater Palm Springs area exploit this situation further, for example, using public money to “relocate” migrant workers living on tribal lands, sponsoring legislation that erodes tribal sovereignty, and promoting the construction of luxury vacation developments throughout the region. Local cultural programming does little better, with the Desert X and Bombay Beach Biennials representing wildly different approaches to a similar endpoint: art as detached, touristic spectacle.
Even if we can imagine a future in which institutions adjust their programming to reflect Indigenous concerns, we might question whether artists are being prepared to accomplish such work. To what degree does arts education introduce students to the socio-political histories embedded in American land? Should artists be able to quantify the financial benefits that collaboration might generate for tribal communities? Are ecological thinking and decolonial practice merely genres, or are they being used to transform all aspects of arts discourse? If the latter, what courses and content would be omitted to account for such a pivot? Answering these questions likely means confronting art’s long-standing role in enforcing cultural hierarchies, and it may require us to regard art making as something far more proletarian and immediate.
I say this because under-resourced staff in low-income communities cannot dedicate their time toward applying for highly competitive arts grants, and as more artists and institutions look to develop relationships with tribal communities, well-intentioned outreach can become burdensome. Absent practical skills, artists risk exhausting Indigenous allies. Likewise, arts funders are aware that their awards often have a high barrier to entry, and many organizations have begun to “streamline” applications or collect comprehensive demographic information from applicants. However, in removing some barriers and erecting others, they are merely speculating that their (limited) funds will be directed toward transformative work.
A more viable strategy — one employed at the Lannan Foundation —is to proactively build relationships with communities and provide them with direct support over a sustained period of time. Doing so not only liberates projects from monolithic performance periods — as if all work can be accomplished within a one- to three-year timeframe — it also attunes arts funders to the counterproductive assumptions that preclude certain activities. For example, in my work with the TMDCI community, we hire tribal members to cook at project workshops, not only because food is an expression of culture, but because hunger is a dehumanizing condition. And although food has been a more effective promotional tool than printed flyers, websites or social media campaigns (all grant-eligible expenses), the majority of our grant funds do not recognize food as a legitimate expense.
When I began my work with TMDCI, a mentor of mine remarked that I was embarking on a decade-long project. I recall laughing at this implausibly long timeline, but — five years into this project with no endpoint in sight — his words now appear prescient.
The decolonization of Western cultural institutions is largely without precedent, and those of us engaging in this work should feel privileged to take part in it. And although I want to frame these conversations as generative, we might also acknowledge that they are likely to be challenging, nonlinear, and occur on a timeline that does not reflect my own expectations and cannot be accelerated. Whether in my work with the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians or with other tribal peoples, one phrase repeats itself: “We will always be here.” Can we say the same for our commitment to decolonization?