In early 2009, Erin Elder found herself at a land auction in northern New Mexico, handing over only $1,200 for an acre and a quarter in Tres Piedras, right near the Colorado border.
For years, Elder had talked about buying land. “We should start a commune!” she would say. “We should start a farm! A school! A laboratory!” The ideas were there, but she had never owned property, let alone purchased it herself. She didn’t even know how to purchase land. But she brought her enthusiasm with her wherever she went. The idea of owning land intrigued Elder because she could do whatever she wanted with it—she could share it and create a community removed from the pitfalls of living as an artist and curator in conventional contexts. She hoped it would provide a space in which people could create for themselves and each other, not for money or because somebody told them to.
Finally, a friend confronted her. “At some point, you’re going to have the chance to pull the trigger. Are you going to be ready?”
Born in 1979, Elder is a native of Colorado Springs—she has a “classic Colorado Springs genealogy,” as she puts it. Her mother is a Colorado College graduate, and her father was in the Air Force. As a child, she attended the Bemis School of Art. As an undergraduate, she attended Prescott College. She double-majored in studio art and “peace studies.” Her senior project combined the two, creating the most public kind of art project—two billboards that featured art from over 40 artists around the world.
“It was my first time working as a collaborative organizer,” says Elder. The process catalyzed her desire to make cooperative, political art. It was then that she realized she wanted to work with artists rather than as the artist. With the conclusion of her senior project, she moved to New York City to work with Creative Time, a public arts organization. There, she worked on what she calls “mega, mega big public art projects.”
After New York, Elder worked at an art center and a gallery in Albuquerque, then in California as a curator and teaching assistant. She eventually decided to pursue a graduate degree at the California School of Arts, where she received an M.A. in curatorial practice in 2007. After graduation, she started working as an independent curator, curating collaborative projects and workshops for other artists.
When Elder began pursuing the path of an artist and curator, she found herself having to hold back on some of her aspirations due to the restrictive nature of museums and academic institutions—or, less euphemistically, due to working under people rather than with people. This is when her interest in communes took hold. In 2008, she curated an exhibition about an experimental Bay Area commune featuring 29 international artists. That same year, she worked with the Institute for Social Research and the Discovery of Art God, another commune, in Stuttgart, Germany. These communes gave her a taste of anarchy, and her ideology began to take shape.
Now, Elder calls herself “an accidental anarchist.” To most of us, anarchy connotes little more than chaos, but to Elder, anarchy is a change in order, not a destruction of order. Anarchy is community-based order, a “Do-It-Yourself” mentality, where power is flattened. Elder feels that capitalism establishes a spectrum of winners and losers, and that it’s possible to escape some of that influence.
“I don’t believe the world should be anarchist in every way,” says Elder, “but I think it’s a great model for small-scale projects to explore an art. And for community organizing. But I absolutely think power should be decentralized.”
It’s true that, Elder doesn’t believe in complete anarchy. Although she claims that her personality “isn’t institutional,” her career has often led her to work with institutions. If you’re trying to make a name for yourself, or just trying to achieve some level of financial security, it’s hard to work outside of the system. But in such contexts, the freedom to create without the restrictions of hierarchy and other influences of capitalism can’t exist. Thus, Elder looked for opportunities outside these contexts—or created her own.
“Capitalism,” explains Elder, “wants us to work harder, to make more, to be productive. In capitalism, we get busy. It’s this escalating growth and people are running themselves ragged just trying to keep up. When you’re stressed out and busy, you aren’t noticing the color of the sky. Or how the air feels against your skin. You aren’t noticing the simple things in life. It’s hard to make art if you aren’t being exposed to the elemental.”
So naturally, it didn’t take long for Elder to jump on the opportunity to create a commune herself. Less than a year after her time in Frankfurt, she purchased the land in New Mexico. Lucky for her, she wasn’t alone—her sister Nina and her close friend, Nancy Zastudil, purchased the land with her. Elder had always been looking for a space free of all institutional influence, and now, she had it.
As would be any anarchist, even an “accidental” one, Elder was conflicted over purchasing property at all. “I’m really skeptical of ownership,” she says, a little ironically. She had always wanted to buy the land, but she was more concerned about how she would use the land than about being a landowner herself. She needed to share the land because for her, the concept of owning land is inextricably tied to domination. Who can own the land? And what can be owned?
In her own words, Elder is trying to “understand the land as mother. That it’s not an ownable thing that can be cut up into pieces and sold off.” But of course, Elder herself bought a “cut-up” piece of land. Paradoxically, she uded it to challenge the very principles that allowed her to own it in the first place.
Elder describes the property in Tres Piedras as entirely desolate: “Undeveloped. Expansive views. No trees, no water. Just sagebrush.” But that was the point, and it wasn’t so much about what the land was like as where it was. Tres Piedras is an “unincorporated community” 30 minutes outside of Taos with no electricity, no running water, and no cellphone service. Completely removed from society, it was exactly what Elder, her sister, and Zastudil wanted. Their little plot of land would become what Elder had talked about for so many years: not just a commune, but also an art residency program. They called it PLAND—Practicing Liberating Art through Necessary Dislocation.
In Elder’s words, the commune was a “hands-on, exploratory approach to Do-It-Yourself, alternative living,” an escape from the constant rush of capitalism. The lot rested just over the Rio Grande Gorge, a snaking canyon running 50 miles through northern New Mexico. Elder recalls the view of the mountains, the huge sky shows: the clouds, stars, and the rainbows.
“I remember when I first realized the moon actually does shift seasonally,” she says. “I could watch it move throughout the year. And that was deeply educational.”
The plan for PLAND was, in the beginning, simple: It would only be open from June to September, due to intense winter weather in the region. Residents would stay for one month at a time and receive a stipend of anywhere between $400 to $1,200. The program was originally funded by the Idea Fund, an early-stage venture investor, then through a Kickstarter campaign and dozens of local sponsors. Once she created a website for PLAND, Elder held an open “casting call” for resident artists.
The residents worked for themselves and for the community, building on and shaping the land around them. The “Main House,” a 24-by-16 foot post-and-beam structure, underwent constant renovation. The artists built a sauna, a water filtration system to make the rain water drinkable, a structure for shade. The constraints of the environment forced artists to create out of necessity what they never would have made otherwise. But they weren’t making actual paintings, Elder says. “They are now, but [back then] they were really just responding to the situation at hand.”
You might wonder whether or not the artists in this artist-residency program were even making art. For Elder, what people usually mean by “is it art?” is “does it mean anything?” And what matters to meaning is not the definition of art, but what the artist is responding to: “If you’re not exposing yourself to anything interesting or unusual,” says Elder, “you’re probably not going to make anything interesting or unusual.”
“If you are an artist and you’re figuring out how to bathe with a cup of water in the middle of nowhere, it becomes an opportunity to make meaning,” she explains. “To make a meaningful bath. A beautiful bath. To think constructively about it. It’s not a task to be done, but an opportunity to engage with in a certain way. And what I love about artists is their ability to put on the ‘art goggles’ and have more interesting moments. To have inspiration to happen at any time, from anything.”
Ask yourself: When was the last time you had a meaningful bath? Actually, when was the last time you had a bath at all? Can you make a list of everything you did today? Then think about what you remember about those things. Were they memorable? Enjoyable?
The goal of a place like PLAND wasn’t to force artists to suffer. The idea was that by limiting your experience to radical simplicity, you may find yourself in situations so detached from habit that new, inspiring meanings can arise. PLAND offered this to some, though the experience was only temporary. The goal was not to live there forever, but to change artists’ perspectives once they returned to where they came from.
It wasn’t just the radical simplicity that changed artists’ perspectives. PLAND also stripped away the endless lists of to-dos, the daily responsibilities, and most importantly, the necessity to make money. Working as an artist under capitalism, your contributions to society are inevitably monetized. Monetization can muddle the inspiration for a piece of art by requiring that it be attractive on the market.
At PLAND, artists no longer had to sell art in order to make rent, so they no longer had to make art for anyone at all. The property Elder purchased provided the “Necessary Dislocation” from monetization. “Liberating Art” was the consequence.
From 2009 to 2014, PLAND had 14 residents from all over the country. One even came from France, and one from Mexico. Elder developed an international network to which she is still connected. The residents have all returned to the “real world,” but they have taken those lessons about art and power back with them.
Some residents are now building their own homes; one even started her own successful chicken coop-building business. Before PLAND, that resident had never built anything, Elder says. After leaving, the residents all kept creating—though maybe not in the same way they created before.
One of Elder’s early mentors said to her, “You won’t get rich working the arts, but you’ll have a very rich life.” That’s all well and good, but at the end of the day, it’s nice to have more than a cup of water for a bath. And PLAND was never supposed to last forever.
“It was very challenging to make money,” she says, and “to work 30 minutes off-site but live outside of town without electricity and water.” Originally, Elder was splitting her time between Tres Piedras and Taos, where she was
working. And though she was living outside of civilization, paradoxically, her reputation continued to grow. She kept working as an independent curator and eventually had to move into Taos for work, while still spending as much time at PLAND as she could.
In 2012, the Center for Contemporary Art in Santa Fe offered Elder the position of Visual Arts Director. “It was a ‘real world job,’” she says. And she couldn’t pass it up. But then the commute became two hours, and the distance between her and PLAND grew even larger. At the same time, prospects away from Tres Piedras also opened up for Nina Elder and Zastudil.
“We started [PLAND] because we wanted to make something for ourselves,” Elder says. “And then it became known, and we started getting all these other opportunities that started pulling us away. It became complicated. We had this lessening relationship to the land, and that’s one of the reasons we decided to close [PLAND]. We were losing our connectivity. And that was what the whole thing was about.”
Elder, her sister, and Zastudil decided to dissolve PLAND at the end of 2014, eventually selling the lot two years after that. Elder left the Center for Contemporary Art in 2015, the same year she founded her own business, Gibbous, a consulting service for other artists. She now has about 40 clients with Gibbous, consulting across the world: giving career advice, helping to write grants, and offering “general therapy” (because being an artist “isn’t always easy,” she laughs).
Now that she’s sending invoices and charging by the hour, Elder is still conflicted about how money plays into her career and the art world. But it’s different. She’s learning to “value herself,” which she says is a necessary evolution. “I’d rather make up my own thing and learn how to monetize it than work at Starbucks,” she explains. Back in society, certain sacrifices are inevitable. Projects cost money, and the artist has to navigate that restriction, whether with grants or working for a paycheck.
“Outside of any political agenda,” Elder says, “I just want things to happen. I want people to do things.” With Gibbous, she is able to help people “do things,” support herself, and still stay true to what she believes in. Sure, she’s sacrificing some ethical purity to work within the system. But Elder’s more recent success indicates that her current projects might be working toward more widespread, systematic change. She’s just finished teaching her first course at Colorado College—Museum Studies. She says she had complete freedom to teach the class in whatever way she wanted.
“If I can brag a little bit, I’m finally getting to a point where I’m getting paid to be myself.” Elder says. “I’m not having to make my own realms; I’m being invited into other people’s playgrounds. I’m finally getting to the point where I don’t have to fundraise for every damn thing that I do. Somebody else is doing the fundraising and giving me a budget. That just means I can be more creative; I can express myself more deeply.” She taps her knuckles on the table mid-conversation. “That’s fake wood,” she smirks, “but I really hope it continues.”
Elder has lived hand-to-mouth for 20 years, but that’s not the case any longer. She’s now the “anti-institutionalist” working within the institution. “There are people throughout my life that have told me ‘Get a job! Climb the ladder!’ And I just haven’t done that.”
I finish my interview with Elder as the sun sets over Pikes Peak, back in Colorado Springs. It isn’t quite Tres Piedras, but it still has some of the mountains, the huge clouds, the sky show. We take a moment to enjoy it.
I think back to what Elder said earlier. Art is about making meaning.
“Are we making art right now?” I ask her, only half sarcastically.
Again, she smiles and hits the question right back at me. “I don’t know, are we?”
“I’ll have to get back to you on that,” I laugh.
“Well, you’re just getting started,” she says with another excited smile, looking at me right in the eye, almost mischievously. When she was my age, she was already working with 40 different artists across the world for her senior project. I’m glad she doesn’t ask whether I have some kind of large-scale, collaborative project in the works (I don’t).
Instead, I ask her if she has any advice for an aspiring artist like me.
“Don’t wait for somebody to invite you,” Elder says. “Don’t wait for somebody to pick you up. Don’t wait for the gallery to seek you out. Do stuff, and find the people who are interested in doing things too. And just get going.”
Elder leaves, and I spend a few more minutes watching the sunset, thinking.
I open up my laptop and type, “Taos Land Auction” into Google. I click on the first result.
1.25 acres. Tres Piedras, Taos County, NM. $7,000.