The Dumptruck Interface:
Earthworks and Interactive Environments

by D. Scott Hessels


As we struggle for a clear definition of 'interactive', we settle for its characteristics and goals.   It is art that senses, responsive work.   It has no closure, it has no middle'.   It is a world unfolding where the subject, the audience, and the characteristics of the piece are all in flux.   If there is a narrative, it originates   from the visitor as he experiences the work, and not from the work is art constructed as a context for experience.   It is not a thing but a state bounced around by changing influences.   Its authorship has been passed from the artist to the user...and by doing so, it reinterprets imagination.   Interactive art's creative achievement is to organize and present abstract orders sensually, so that the user performs the imagination act.   It is mobile, dynamic, temporary, and unique in that it is recreated every moment of perception.  

While these are impressive (and arguable) goals, it is not the first time that we've heard them.   In the late 1960's, a messy group of sculptors created a movement that produced a body of art that considered each of these points. The characteristics of interactivity were the characteristics of the Earthworks movement...the comprehensive range of Land Art and Environmental Art that began in 1966 and continues today.   This paper will present background and consider themes in the movement before closing with a closer look at one of the most gifted sculptors and writers of the movement--Robert Smithson.   As media artists, we should investigate works that share our goals in other mediums--even if those mediums include soil and dumptrucks.


The Earthworks movement celebrated art as a spatial event, precluding interactivity with space.   Sculpture was viewed as malleable, changing, entropic, participatory, and embracing "the concept that individual consciousness and the directed perception of the viewer were the essential inextricable elements" (Ross).    However, it was a concept that was already being explored in art at the time.   In the 1950's, the fluxus movement was experimenting with art in 3-D space through happenings which were designed to create a network of surprises without climax or consummation.   All through the 1960's, art, theatre, and music included audience participation in an effort to let the viewer into the work and shape it.   When John Cage rejected that music was entertainment,   he was arguing that the audience must realize that they are creating the music, it's not something being done to them.  

The rise of conceptualism also contributed to movement.   Sculptor Tony Smith realized on a now infamous night ride along an abandoned New Jersey turnpike that the aesthetic experience can occur with no object present.   There does not need to be an art 'thing', space and environment   can also provide the aesthetic charge.   Throw in a healthy dose of minimalist sculpture and it's clear where the Earthworks artists fit in contemporary art history.   Although at the time it seemed little more than an accidental, unordered, unpretentious group of exhibitions, it's now also clear that these artists created   a sculptural sensibility independent of the previous dominant modes. It was new.

It seems that we keep recognizing moments in the late 60's as somehow applicable to the new media themes of today.   We heard the word 'cyber' for the first time, we saw Expo '67 explode media, we first viewed art as participatory. Quoting Robert Morris, one of the first to experiment, "What art now has in its hands is mutable stuff which need not arrive at a point of being finalized with respect to time or space.   The notion that work is an irreversible process ending in a static icon-object no longer has much relevance." (Morris)

Types of Interactivity

Although the earthworks artists used words like 'participatory', 'systems,' and 'viewer responsive', it was interactive work.   We have to look at synonyms for our high-tech lingo to avoid becoming myopic in our new media art.   Paul Willemen puts it almost bitterly,   "To refer to interactivity as a new feature characteristic of 'new tech' discursive forms is, again, nonsense.   Indeed, in many respects, the digitalization of information has rendered interaction between reader/viewer and text-production more restricted in that the protocols governing interactivity have become tighter, narrower, more inflexible, and more policed.   The expansion of opportunities for interaction has become accompanied by reductions in the scope for action." (Willemen).   Part of that 'scope of action' is limited by our view that interactivity must occur with machines.    

Mark Rosenthal created the best index for the earthworks artworks and defined them in terms of gestures --strong evidence of interactivity.

  • Masculine gestures (Heizer, Smithson, Turrell) included the massive earthworks that were fairly permanent, site specific, and that showed a dynamic relationship between time and space.  
  • Ephemeral gestures (Goldsworthy, Long) were the gentler, small alterations to a natural scene that would quickly revert back to the former condition.   These works were intentionally sensitive to their natural surroundings in an effort to appropriate nature.
  • Performance works (Medieta, Shiraga) used the environment as a stage for a performance and, like the other works, was both temporary and heavily interactive with nature and space.
  • Landscapes and proto gardens (Sonfist, The Harrisons) included the artworks with an ecological bent that were cultivated over time and utilized living, growing materials.   
  • The Functional sites (Ukeles, Ngo) were artworks as systems...often processes of cleaning or repairing damaged nature.   These artists were focused on provisionality and had to adopt alternate professional roles to complete their work.   It was ecology as a political action.
  • Travel as Site (Muller, Fulton) involved a multiplicity of sites and was more interested in the movement of the artist...crossing borders, taking walks.

In each of these cases, the relationship with the artwork is the emphasis.   These sculptors were performing a type of cultural work, through their art, that considered the relation to the systemic characteristics of human, plant, and animal interactions within space and environment.

Recurring Themes

Several themes course through these artworks.   Part of the rebellion was directed towards breaking down the object--cutting, decaying, replacing, dispersing, growing, harvesting, decomposing.   This emphasis on time and process forced viewers to look at the dynamics of the elements in the environment.   One must experience different stages of the system to experience the whole work...which   has its own life span.   "I began to question version seriously the whole notion of Gestalt, the thing in itself, specific objects.   I began to see the world in a more relational way." (Smithson)

But impermanence as it relates to site.   These artists sought to resituate the site of the aesthetic epiphany from the object to the beholder and his surroundings...not as an observer of nature but participant.   The sculptures were "paradoxical in that the spectator's experience could be simultaneously intimate and distant...a kind of communal intimacy." (Novak)   Suddenly there was no pedestal, no physical support for the art--it was 'grounded' in environment either indoors or out and in the theoretical framework   created by the artist.   The result is an unframed experience with no one correct perspective or focus.

The riot of thematic color that was the 1960's also influenced the works.   To fight the creeping technology, they took to the deserts to use modern tools on old materials.   They embraced the ecological sensibility and the concern for a man-nature interaction. Stewardship became an aesthetic matter. They fought the consumerism of the gallery system and they fought through the political activism of the time--decentralized, grassroots.    The feminism movement is paralleled in earthworks in that it had a large percentage of women working in the medium for the first time.  

Nature wasn't so picturesque anymore.   We now saw a dialectical landscape, a process of ongoing relationships existing in a physical region.   The work revealed   the landscape to be dynamic natural systems in which humans play a part.

This invasion into the static art of sculpture with duration and temporality was interactive through contextuality.   The artist interacted with the landscape, the user interacted with the artwork as a space, the environment interacted with the work through entropy.   It was "a programmatic approach to the work and advocates sculpture which experiences, reacts to its environment, changes, is non-stable...which lives in time and makes the 'spectator' experience time." (Sharp)  Sociology, science, history, and art were all mixed into a messy, exuberant postmodernism.    Systems could be art, destination could be suspended.   Quoting Sharp again, "Art can no longer be viewed primarily as a self-sufficient entity.   The iconic content of the work has been eliminated, and art is gradually entering into a more significant relationship with the viewer and the component parts of his environment." (Sharp)

Robert Smithson

Robert Smithson was initially noticed as a minimalist sculptor in 1964 but later "utilized non-traditional art materials such as language, mirrors, maps, dump trucks, abandoned quarries, hotels, contractors, and earth to produce his radical sculptures. His complex ideas took root in many forms: drawings, projects and proposals, sculpture, earthworks, films and critical writings." ( .    Smithson's artworks are provocative and seminal, redefining the language of sculpture. He investigated entropy, mapping, paradox, language, landscape, popular culture, anthropology, and natural history...and in doing so he reformulated our ideas of art in relationship to the land, people, and time.   He died in 1973 at the age of 35 in a plane crash as he was overseeing an earthwork near Amarillo, Texas but left a catalogue of work that is still influential today.

Three of these works have been selected for consideration:

Asphalt Rundown (1969)

       Smithson's interest in the second law of thermodynamics completely dominated his life and work. Much of his art is associated with the concept of entropy: the law that states that molecular disorder can only increase, and as such the universe will eventually run down (a law that has since been discredited).   In this piece, liquid asphalt slides from the dump truck and runs down the eroded hill forming an abstract expressionist canvas.    However,   the work cannot only be considered aesthetically --we're forced to consider the ecology (What is the damage being done?   Who will clean this up?   How will the earth recover?).   By performing an act with the weapon of urban sprawl--asphalt--we are forced to look at the effects of industrialization on the landscape under a hard light.

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Spiral Jetty (1970)

Smithson's most famous earthwork   is located on the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Using black basalt rocks and earth from the site, he created a 15 foot wide,1500 foot coil that stretches out into the translucent red water (a color created by high salinity and a rare algae-- the effect of an industrial causeway that now blocked freshwater sources).   The artwork disappeared in 3 years but reappeared in 1999. Originally black rock against ruddy water, it is now largely white against pink due to salt encrustation and lower water levels. An article   in the January 2004 New York Times covered the controversy arising over whether anything should be done to restore Spiral Jetty.  

The current owners are considering adding more rocks and rebuilding the sculpture, and this introduces yet another form of interactivity--should an artwork that was created to decay be restored against the artist's wishes?   What is the part of interactivity that considers system repair?

Partially Buried Woodshed (1970)

When Smithson was given a dilapidated woodshed on the Kent State University campus, he piled 20 dumptruck loads of dirt onto it until the central support beam collapsed...seeking that irreversible moment.   The sound of the beam cracking was crucial to the piece, it was a dialogue between internal and external spaces.   Weeks later, four students were shot while attending a rally protesting the U.S. invasion of Cambodia and "May 4, 1970" was painted on the shed--giving the artwork a radically new meaning.   In 1975, half the structure was burnt and its meaning changed again.   Finally, the remains were removed by the university in 1984.    "Woodshed" was controversial, problematic, enigmatic, and poignant for its entire existence that began with its 'death'.


Robert Smithson's first earthworks signaled a human/space interaction that is now becoming considered in terms of the web as well.   In 1968 he pioneered the sculptural concept of 'non-sites'.   These pieces consisted of materials gathered from several sites, usually rocks or minerals, that he then regrouped in geometric containers and displayed.   The interaction with site and gallery included the visitor by presenting aerial photographs or maps of the original site.  "I created a dialectic of site and nonsite. The nonsite exists as a kind of deep three-dimensional abstract map that points to a specific site on the surface of the earth...designated by a kind of mapping procedure" (Smithson).   The nonsite becomes an abstraction, a mapping source, which references the real/actual site from which materials are taken. Beardsley called them "indoor evocations of outdoor locations, establishing what Smithson termed a dialectic between site--the outdoor source of the earth material--and nonsite--the sculpture in its dissociated setting, serving as a signifier of the absent site." (Beardsley)   When he left the galleries to create his works in the open deserts and quarries,   he carried this manifesto with him.   We affect the work, we make the connections.

In The Language of New Media , Manovich suggests that "along with different architectural traditions, designers of navigable spaces can find a wealth of relevant ideas in modern art.   They may consider, for instance, the works of modern artists situated between art and architecture which...display a spatial imagination freed from the questions of utility and economy." (Manovich)   I completely agree.   The earthworks movement provides a wealth of information useful in considering interactive environments today. New media needs to take a walk in the woods.


Beardsley, John (1984).   Earthworks and Beyond   (Cross River Press: New York).

Manovich, Lev   (2001). The Language of New Media .   (MIT Press: Cambridge).

Morris, Robert (1969). "Notes on Sculpture Part 4: Beyond Objects".   Originally published in ArtForum, New York, April 1969.   Quoted here from Land And Environmental Art (1998 Phaidon: London)

Novak, Barbara (1988).   "Excerpts from Nature and Culture", American Landscape Video , (The Carnegie Museum of Art: Pittsburg)

Ross, David A. (1988) "PostModern Station Break" American Landscape Video ,   (TheCarnegie Museum of Art: Pittsburg).

Sanford, Melissa (2004). "The Salt of the Earth Sculpture: Debating Intervention as Nature Does Its Work."   Arts and Cultural Section, The New York Times, January 13, 2004.   Retrieved February 15, 2004 from the world wide web:

Sharp, Willoughby (1970). "Notes Towards an Understanding of Earth Art" firstpublished in "Earth", the catalogue from the Andrew Dickson White Museum, Cornell University in 1970.   Quoted here from from Land And Environmental Art (1998 Phaidon: London)

Smithson, Robert (1967).   "The Monuments of Passaic: Has Passaic Replaced Rome asthe Eternal City" first published in ArtForum, New York 1967 quoted here from Land And Environmental Art (1998 Phaidon: London)

Unknown, (2004).   "Biography of Robert Smithson", "Earthworks".   Retrieved February 20, 2004 from the world wide web:

Unknown, (2004).   "Overview"   Retrieved February 18, 2004 from the world wide web:  http://www.spiral

Wallis, Brian (1998).   "Survey" from Land And Environmental Art (1998 Phaidon: London)

Willemen, Paul (2002).   "Reflections on Digital Imagery: Of Mice and Men", New Screen Media (British Film Institute: London)