DENVER — Artist Steven Yazzie (Diné/Laguna Pueblo) began early in life thoroughly learning about a city as part of his art practice. Working as a bike courier while living in Portland, Oregon, and San Francisco, exploring the land and surrounding environment inevitably became part of the continued evolution of his work.
Yazzie, who is also a United States Marine veteran of the Gulf War, currently resides in Denver and has situated his outdoor art installation “Gold King & Associates” in The Yard in Colorado Springs (through September 4) with the intention of sharing numerous voices, perspectives, and stories from Indigenous and non-Indigenous people concerning human impact on the land. The project name refers to the 2015 Gold King Mine wastewater spill from 2015 which contaminated the Animas River watershed.
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With “Gold King & Associates,” Yazzie continues his exploration with real estate-inspired installations. The artwork includes a printed sign, designed to look like a real estate sign, that reads “Gold King & Associates, Reality Group, Land and Resource Speculation” and includes the phone number 720-281-9199. The sign is situated on a property just as a real estate sign would be, implying that the property might be for sale or lease.
When someone calls the phone number, instead of hearing property sales information, they are instead greeted with “a poem, quote or excerpt from a story, book or personal writing addressing environmental concerns around urbanization, land use, over development, colonization, or any range of expressions related to our human impacts in the land,” as the project is described on Yazzie’s website.
At the end of the reading, the caller can leave a message of their own which is then archived as part of “Gold King & Associates.” The environmental advocacy project brings people together as a community around ideas of decolonization, real estate inequities, and the history of ownership, topics they connect to while activating the work spontaneously.
“Gold King & Associates” extends Yazzie’s similar project “J.W. Powell & Associates,” inspired by well-known Western documentarian and Civil War veteran John Wesley Powell. The artist created “J.W. Powell & Associates” (2013) in reference to Major Powell “who had a deep understanding of the arid American West.” The work, originally installed in the Phoenix area, near where Yazzie grew up on the Navajo Reservation at Black Mesa and LeChee, included a reading by writer Edward Abbey known for his advocacy for environmental issues in the 1960s and ’70s.
During an interview with Hyperallergic, Yazzie reflected on his earlier work-life as a bike courier, and how he began to see himself as a world courier in his art life. He felt the impacts of overdevelopment and expansion and the overuse of natural resources, surrounded by the unpredictable real estate market of the desert city, fortifying what he refers to as the “colonizing imagination.”
Yazzie explained, “I was looking at real estate signs all over the place, and I’m like, oh, I’m just gonna make my own. And the first ones were made on wood and I put ’em in the ground. They weren’t completely legitimate looking … but it was more of just an idea, a conceptual idea I was playing with. And I put ’em into the land, places that were contested territories or land, places near the Salt River basin, borders of Indigenous land, and some of the communities in the Phoenix area.”
During the housing market collapse of 2008, Yazzie — inspired creatively yet frustrated with the impact of the unstable real estate market — continued to protest the colonized imagination of land ownership as he placed signs near contested Indigenous reservations and state land. He and his wife survived the collapse, selling their home in 2016 and relocating to Denver in December 2017.
“Gold King & Associates,” a public installation, lives in response to the extreme impacts of the 2008 collapse and invites six native voices and six non-native voices, artists, filmmakers, thought leaders, photographers, friends, and educators to collaborate with Yazzie using decolonizing perspectives to address issues surrounding the ever-evolving economic environment (the participants and their recordings are listed on the project site).
The project’s intended audience is anyone who is actually interested in purchasing, leasing, or owning property. One caller says, “I was just calling to buy a house, now I’m terrified. Thank you.”
As the 2021–22 Native Arts Artist-in-Residence at the Denver Museum of Art, Yazzie’s interests in the exploration of land, environment, and socially engaged artworks can also be seen in his two-phase data-driven community film project “Knowing you Denver.”
He mentioned, “I’ve had our series of questions and prompts in the gallery on a wall and next to the artist studio for a couple months. And there’s 12 different questions. Some of them are sensory related, some are asking more poignant questions about issues related to Denver.” For example, “What is the best time of day to experience Denver?” and “What is the most important landmark in Denver and why?”
Each question is designed to not only give insight into neighborhoods and what people are thinking, but Yazzie categorizes and collects these conversations as useful communal data. He said, “This is not only a way of bringing community and conversation together, but it also allows us all to learn and share different perspectives.”
Yazzie’s intentionality brings together people who may or may not know each other well, and at times he deliberately gathers those who do not know each other at all, creating space for respectful discourse around issues like homelessness, affordable housing, climate change, religion, and politics. The intended outcome of these sometimes heated debates is an investment in Denver’s diverse communities learning how to actively listen to one another.
As Yazzie continues to consider an idea through multiple extensions of experimental films, documentary, sound, and land installation, the medium in which his discoveries are found evolves with each narrative he brings to his practice, priding himself as somebody who works on behalf of the public “as a civic employee, or maybe a contractor, a teacher, a student.”