Ellen Babcock showed me the video from the small screen of her cellphone. Sparklers flared along the edges of a six-foot spaceship in an empty lot turned dusty launchpad, the hands that held them obscured by the digitally printed craft. At the top of the spaceship, an astronaut stood before an illuminated door, facing Lomas, waving. This is Holdraketa, the most recent installation in a rotating series of works presented through a project called Off Lomas, which puts art in the public sphere by way of an empty lot on Lomas and 13th Street. The video is from Holdraketa's opening in February, though the piece—created by Babcock based on a vintage Hungarian spaceship toy—is slated to stay up until summer. Off Lomas is hosted on a small piece of property leftover after zoning that was acquired by local artists and curators Candice Hopkins and Raven Chacon with the intention to make the highly-visible, albeit overgrown, lot into a site for public art.
“Part of my intention was to put something out there that was ambiguous so that you can approach it from different angles,” Babcock explained slowly, thoughtfully unpacking the process that led her to Off Lomas and the creation of Holdraketa. “I think in glancing, it’s humorous, it’s not imposing, so it has the appeal of a toy. … But I hope upon closer inspection it is more nuanced and … that some people have the response that I did when I came across the image [of the Holdraketa] online—which is that the waving of the astronaut felt a little sad.” Poised before the mysterious door radiating light—going where, exactly?—Babcock wondered aloud if the space traveler was waving hello or goodbye.
For Babcock, the image has many implications. “Thinking about rockets was a way to think about the changes I've experienced in my lifetime about ideas of public and private,” she unpacked, naming as a reference Spaceport America near Las Cruces, billed as the country's first commercial spaceport, meant to “democratize space travel.” Yet, as Babcock sees it, it is another experience to add to the list of those that “privileges people who have money.” And then, it smacks a bit of colonization, too. “At one point I was thinking of having three rockets and naming them the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria,” she added slyly. On top of all of that, the idea of withdrawing from our planet in search of another must necessarily make us consider the degradation of our first home. “There's this sense that the planet is in a state of distress and the image of leaving it on a rocket has a certain appeal,” Babcock admitted, though we both, almost simultaneously follow that thought with a question: To what end?
“I'm talking about this as a very serious thing, but there is a real lightheartedness to it,” Babcock laughed—adding that the image perhaps bears some personal weight, too. After all, Babcock was born in the year the first rocket was sent into orbit. In the years since, Babcock has explored a multitude of ideas in her work, in a slew of different mediums. “I have a lot of different aspects to my life, my personality and my interests,” she explained of her canon. “And I follow each project to its conclusion, so it doesn't always connect in obvious ways to the project that I did before or after.” There's a long, thoughtful pause on the recording of our interview, wherein I vividly recall Babcock looking past me, mentally synthesizing her diverse interests and works. “It has something to do with history,” she said finally. “The history of objects. The history of places. My own personal history. It has to do with a preference for the overlooked. An interest in repair.”
From those interests sprung projects like Friends of the Orphan Signs, a public arts project that reclaims empty signs on vacant lots, which Babcock founded. She also creates sculptures and watercolor paintings, devises performance pieces and much more; frequently these works are designed for public display. “Part of my interest is … thinking about ways to intervene in public space in ways that are inclusive, that target under-recognized or ignored or unnoticed areas,” she said. “I'm drawn to putting art in public places because of the challenge of it. There's so little consensus about what is valued in a public space, and I think artists can negotiate that terrain and declare for themselves [what's valuable].”
The effect of the work is that it clicks you back into the landscape. Even if you've driven down Lomas a thousand times, suddenly, you see it anew. That outcome is invaluable. “That's part of it, too,” Babcock added to that thought. “To ask for a certain presence.” And access to Holdraketa is unrestricted—no admission, no bag check, no gallery doors to swing open—making that presence and the space to consider the nuance of the work all the more free and self-determined. All you have to do is head down Lomas.
This project was made possible by Off Lomas, the Fulcrum Fund, UNM’s grant for creative and scholarly research, and generous donations by Roxanna Meyers and Century Sign Builders, and Stanley Mount and Mount Corp.