Cara Despain is an artist working in film and video, sculpture, photography and installation addressing issues of land use, the desert, climate change, visualizing the Anthropocene, land ownership and the problematics of frontierism. She was born in Salt Lake City, Utah (1983) and currently lives in Miami, Florida and works between the two. She holds a BFA from the University of Utah (2006). In 2012, she was selected for the Salt Lake City Mayor's Award in the visual arts, and in 2016 she was selected for the South Florida Consortium Fellowship. Her work is included in Rubell Family Collection and the Scholl Collection, as well as the State of Utah and Salt Lake County art collections. Recent exhibitions include FROM DUST at the Southern Utah Museum of Art, it doesn’t look like paradise anymore at Southern Oregon University; FREE!. at Brickell City Center, Miami; Cryin’ Out Loud at the Center for Contemporary Arts Santa Fe, Fringe Projects, Miami, Slow Burn at Spinello Projects, Miami; and No Man's Land at Rubell Family Collection, Miami. She was the Art Director for the feature length film The Strongest Man that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival (2015), as well as A Name Without a Place which premiered at the Miami International Film Festival (2019). A short documentary about her and her work aired on Art Loft, WPBT and PBS and screened at the Miami International Film Festival (2016). She was selected for a 2018 Ellie's Award through Oolite Arts to produce her own first feature film and video installation hybrid, and this year will be completing a public art commission for the Underline with Miami-Dade County Art in Public Places. Writing and research play a major role in all of her creative work, and she often works very site-specifically— researching, casting objects, or writing in the field. Recent residencies include Anderson Ranch in Snowmass Colorado, Feminist Summer Camp at Birch Creek Ranch in central Utah (which she co-facilitates), and Signal Fire Wide Open Studios field research program in the four corners area.
She is represented by Spinello Projects (US).
Land ownership tells the story of the United States in its entirety, and the American Frontier is both an icon and a case-study interpreted the world over as a successful “conquering” or “taming” of the wild, settlement and resource acquisition. It changed the landscape and displaced many peoples, replacing an entire notion of and relationship to home with a new one. The story of who lays claim to what territory and how it was secured/stolen/extracted is wrought with violence, oppression and achievement pageantry. National pride and the idea of ‘homeland’ is a constructed mosaic that has destroyed many preexisting notions of the same. I've been working through the issues of land use as it relates historically to settlement, expansion, resource exploitation, and the development of the military-industrial complex in the North American frontier for some time. I now feel a new urgency toward scrutinizing lineages of obscured truth and how they are impacting both the landscape and climate and our collective psyche. As I’ve been sorting through what it means to perpetuate iconic images of the American west as an artist, I’ve had to critically examine my own proximity to them and how I can strategically use familiarity and that sense of ownership to reveal harder truths. From the Romantics to the Hudson River School to John Ford, landscape has been a repository for fantasy, identity, narrative and epic. As an aesthetic endeavor, it has often served as somewhat of an advertisement or propaganda—for expansionism, industry, and homesteading. I often use nostalgic, romantic tactics and depictions of land that are fueled by tourism and national pride—borrowing from the language of Western cinema, Warner Bros. cartoons, sculptural portraiture and monuments, postcards and calendars to tap into a sense of the familiar. These are things that reinforce notions of Manifest Destiny and instill a sense of desire and entitlement. Yet who exactly feels claim to national treasures’ or the spoils of westward expansion? Much of any country’s cultural disposition can be attributed to the acquisition of land and ultimately, wealth and at whose expense and on whose backs those assets came. How the western territories were settled, tamed, stolen, mined, parceled and managed contain often conflicting narratives of prosperity, hope, faith, disappointment, and decimation wrought with racism, classism, and sexism that persist in our national cultural identity still. It’s amazing how easily they are lost in the panoramic vistas and splendor of the frontier.
For the last several years I have lived in Miami, Florida and used a longer lens to view the consequences of industrialization and extraction of western resources by way of observable sea level rise. The cause and effect relationship I see between my two split locales has incited for a challenge to communicate and translate across regions and connect the dots between actions and outcomes through time. As I watch the water level during King Tides rise up to peoples’ waists on Miami Beach and swallow roads whole, and see the infrastructural [temporary] solutions and whom they benefit, I think about uranium and coal mining, fracking in my home state, the Nevada Test Site, the oil boom in Vernal, Utah, and the L.A. Aqueduct and who they affect—and importantly, how they are all related. Capitalism and development, and all the problematic things that sustain them including subjugation of certain disempowered peoples, and destruction of the environment in the name of progress have been a part of the country’s disposition since the beginning. And often, they are hiding in plain sight.