Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Frontier Technologies: Barbed Wire

[smashing barbed wire between trenches with mortar shells; Europe during the Great War]

From the very beginning the concept of fencing was inverted in the American colonies.  In England the law required that domesticated animals be fenced in and managed on a piece of property- it was a strategy of retention.  In the Americas however, a tradition of common lands and open grazing quickly developed.  Livestock were left to roam free and rounded up at the end of the season for slaughter or overwintering in barns, while farmers were responsible for fencing in their fields or subsistence gardens.  And so they did, developing fence types as a defensive strategy of detention, meant to keep hogs, deer, goats and other livestock or wild animals at bay.  Though the spatial patterns and urbanization regimes varied wildly throughout the Americas, the fencing strategy of enclosed, agricultural production surrounded by expansive open lands for grazing was normalized from the commons of New England to the haciendas of California and Mexico, the estancias of Chile and Argentina, and the fazendas of Brazil. 

The materials at hand influenced the fence types developed.  The Virginia worm fence was especially popular in the English colonies on the Atlantic seaboard.  Despite using massive quantities of wood it needed no metal, leather, mortar, or other valuable materials and could be cannibalized during the winter for firewood when there were no crops to protect.  This policy quickly brought the colonists in the east into conflict with the indigenous people who considered the lands to be their hunting grounds and the roaming pigs to be free game.  Despite the political difficulties, the material demands of this fencing strategy were well suited to the eastern seaboard and the technology began to spread west during the 19th century.
[the Virginia worm fence at Gettysburg, PA]

While the Louisiana Purchase in 1804 opened up the possibility of US expansion westward, it was not until nearly 60 years later with the signing of the Homestead Act by Abraham Lincoln that population pressure began to increase.  With the ending of the civil war, the maturation of canal technologies and rise of steam locomotive engines, Americans began pushing to expand out of the woodland areas of Appalachia and into the plains.  In the Midwest there were few trees, and there certainly weren’t enough to build a house and construct a ridiculous worm-fence around one’s property to protect the farm from the cattle and bison roaming free.

Barbed wire made homestead settlement there possible.  By offering a fence technology that used very little wood and was relatively easy to construct, barbed wire fencing made it possible to farm in the Midwest.  Sales of barbed wire boomed.  The Texas Genealogy and History site notes that in 1875 the Washburn and Moen Wire Company sold 10,000 pounds of barbed wire.  Five years later it sold nearly 51,000,000 pounds in Texas alone.  Railroad right-of-ways were required to be lined with the wire, which proved a useful source to farmers who found themselves in a pinch or without the ability to get to market.

National armies quickly realized that this wire not only hindered livestock but also humans and anything else made of flesh, and it was quickly deployed to demarcate defensive positions.  Coils of the stuff were rolled out between trenches to create thick defensive membranes that offered little resistance to mortars and bullets but were impenetrable to grounded fleshy combatants.  Within a century this temporary strategy had crystallized along contested borders such as the Korean DMZ or parts of the US-Mexico border.  A frontier technology was adapted for the border landscape.
[American GI's put down barbed wire coils on the Korean border; 1962]

 [the Korean Demilitarized Zone, between North and South Korea; barbed wire is used in conjunction with lighting and a patrol regime to ensure the border is not transgressed]

Deploying barbed wire is a land-assault strategy:  it is a measure of control for creating a territory, and it is geographical (just putting a chunk down that one can easily go around does nothing).  And it is perceived as a particularly nasty one, offending our delicate sensibilities because it confronts a most basic weakness- fleshness.  But this was not always the case- there was a time when barbed wire fencing was perceived as a miracle of the American frontier can-do spirit, and as such there are still historical societies and old-timers that travel around collecting special pieces of the stuff. 

Levi Bryant’s ontic principle suggest to us that a whole new range of fence types might be developed and deployed, and that especially in frontier landscapes- those defined by ambiguous and overlapping jurisdictions, perceived dangers, and latent potentiality- fencing might be particularly apt as a strategy for respecting difference.  Everyone has seen if not noticed the weeds and trees that spring up along guardrails and fence lines that can’t be easily mowed.  Robert Irwin’s “Two Running Violet V Forms” showed that fences can create difference without limiting human movement, and Brett Milligan’s “Goats on Belmont” project is an example of a fence generating the conditions for a recreational landscape [granted, it’s a stupid chain link fence and it’s the project that is smart. nonetheless the project couldn’t happen without the fence].
[Robert Irwin's "Two Running Violet V Forms" weaves chain link fence fabric between Eucalyptus trees]

  [combinations of banal materials and forms like jersey barriers and chain link fencing might be used to separate in unexpected ways and generate new possibilities for use and experience]

[construction fencing, here used to simply demarcate a swath of trees to be cleared, also serves to register topographic change and plays against the tree trunks and vegetation; this might be used not only to showcase formal variation but also to create the conditions for new plant ecologies, goat parks, or play areas]

We’d like to see more ASLA awards go to landscape projects laced with flesh-tearing wire, keeping out voracious yuppy whiners like ourselves and sharing its secrets only with the lunatics, chimney swifts, and mycorrhizae that respect the de/militarized landscape.  That may be a bridge to far for now, but by considering seemingly mundane, offensive, or inappropriate technologies in the context of the frontier landscape that is endemic to the Americas, we might develop some new possibilities for program, form and construction of a real public space.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Lunatic Landscape

["Knives, Daggers, and Forks Made by Lunatics", a piece in the "Madmen's Museum", described in fascinating detail in Cassell's Magazine in 1903; image source]

Brooklyn Bridge Park is lit by metal halide lamps strapped to telephone poles*, creating what you might call a “parking lot aesthetic”.  It’s true that the wood pole-with-cobra-head-lamp is a ubiquitous object along most city streets, often coupled with telephone cables and electric power lines.  And it’s also true that most people consider a good park light to be the pedestrian-scale glowing object descended from the old gas lamps lining the promenades of European capitals.  But this misses an important precedent:  the old moon light towers of the 19th century

Between 10 and 20 stories high, these towers were meant to light great swaths of the city and seem to have been particularly useful in sprawling industrial towns with big working and recreational spaces that would have been too costly to light with pedestrian lamps.  The moonlight towers, an arc light on top of a truss tower, were an American adaptation of a trend begun in Paris where efficient arc lamps began to be used at the top of buildings in place of oil and gas lamps.  Though extremely efficient and relatively easy to operate, arc lights burgn bright and extremely hot and so were not suitable for indoor use.  However, when placed on top of a giant tower they had the ability to light entire city blocks using far less labor and energy than gas lamps.  
[lighting in Brooklyn Bridge park; as the trees grow over time the differences in light and shadow will become more pronounced]

In 1885, this New York Times report of the Convention of the National Electric Light Association reported that Detroit was using 90 of these towers in a triangulated pattern to light an area 10 1/2 square miles at a price that was slightly cheaper than naphta or gas lights.  The result was such that "the entire city was lighted as if by an artificial moon and the rear yards and alleys were made as light as the street."  Judging by the trusses and cables in the below picture the effect was likely that of an elegant scaffold erected over the city.
[Throughout the last part of the 19th century Detroit maintained an extensive network of moonlight towers that set the standard in municipal lighting until buildings grew taller in the 1890's.  The scale of the towers create big open space, ground planes not articulated by paths of light posts]

[Austin, Texas still has approximately 17 moonlight towers operating in the town; they have been preserved throughout the 20th century despite the shift away from tower lights in municipal systems]

Of course, that report, being from the Electric lighting commission, was biased.  It did light up streets and alleys and yards, but only those blocked by buildings and trees.  Despite the tower’s ability to light up entire city blocks with the power of a moon, they fell out of favor because they created large shadows.  The ever higher buildings of the 19th and early 20th century often resulted in one half of the street being well-lit while the other half was in total darkness.  The large territories of shadow-and-light created zones beyond the control of the city manager; creeping grins leered at the upstanding citizens on evening strolls from across the road, and hideous creole cackles rang through the darkened half-streets of industrial towns up and down the Mississippi Valley. 

The lights were phased out and the streets more evenly lit by pedestrian poles topped with new electrical incandescent lamps.  Nonetheless, it is encouraging that these effects are being brought back into public spaces.  Not every place needs to be domesticated by a pedestrian scale lamp, bathed in light and scaled to the human body.  While landscape architects have traditionally been consumed with the creation of the perception of safety and control, we like to think there is room for the lunatics who roam the shadows, ebbing and flowing with the light of the moon [1, 2].  Because landscape practice not only establishes a territory and formalizes methods of control, it also generates the conditions for deterritorialization, speculating on ways that those boundaries might be transgressed and how one might embrace the bigness and wildness of it all.
[New Orleans used a moonlight tower in the 1880s and 90s along the levee at Canal Street.  The all night light and shadow enabled industry, commerce, and recreation to continue throughout the night in the French Quarter. 

* it appears that they are metal halide from a brief on the ground inspection; in fact they may be another type of lamp for all we know

1- the term "lunatic" can be traced back to the latin "luna" for moon, from the belief that periods of insanity were related to the cycles of the moon.

2- we don't mean to imply too strongly that MVVA is very concerned with the lunatics and operations of deterritorialization.  In fact, they are one of the best at gentrifying derelict urban zones through landscape design, working almost exclusively for the bourgeioise.  But they also do some interesting work that transgresses their own control mechanisms, and the lighting in Brooklyn Bridge Park may prove to be an example of this.  Regardless, it is far superior and more apt to use tall lights at the waters edge in NYC than it is to put those ridiculous pedestrian poles that line the riverfront promenades on the west side.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Darien Gap

The American frontier is sharply distinguished from the European frontier- a fortified boundary line running through dense populations.  The most significant thing about the American frontier is that it lies at the hither edge of free land. 
- Frederick Jackson Turner, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.”  1893.

[the Pan American Highway running through the Peruvian desert]

The Pan American Highway is a sprawling infrastructural remnant of the independence revolutions, American hegemonic sentiment, and World War defense logistics.  It is a continuous road connecting the southern tip of Patagonia to the far northern reaches of Alaska save one exception- the Darién Gap

The Pan-American Highway began in earnest in 1923, spurred on by the construction of the Panama Canal in 1914.  The segment of the highway connecting the Canal to North America was a defensive strategy to protect North American commercial interests from German U-boats.  It aimed to connect the commercial shipping centers in the US with Mexico City, capital cities in Central America and the Panama Canal.  To the south, the Darién Gap stayed on the periphery and the Pan-American Highway remained incomplete.  Since that time significant efforts have been made to complete the road in support of commercial interests and increased the mobility of regional populations.
[the Inter American Highway connecting the Panama Canal, the capital cities of Central America, and Interstate 35 in Laredo, Texas]

[the construction of the locks of the Panama Canal; image source]

The Darién Gap exists between the Panamanian settlement of Aviza and the Colombian town of Cúcuta.  It is 87 kilometers of jungle highlands and swampy delta along the border of Panama and Colombia and is purportedly a haven to the biodiversity of the isthmus, the indigenous Kuna people, and FARC operatives.  Despite its strategic location at the crossroads of North and South America and the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, the geography of the Gap has defied attempts at European settlement owing to the difficulty of the terrain.

In recent years environmental interest groups have joined forces with indigenous peoples and the powerful Panamanian beef lobby to argue against the completion of the road.  Panamanian ranchers maintain that the Gap provides a biological buffer preventing the spread of hoof-and-mouth disease from Colombia in to Central and North America.  This confluence of immense potentiality, bigness of the terrain, contested commercial interests, and difficulty in establishing new settlements is a historical fact dating back at least to the beginning of European colonization.
[the Isthmus of Panama, the Darien Gap is at the very southern edge of Panama]

[an admittedly ambiguous close up of the Darien Gap; the Atrato River creates a massive swampy delta in the Darien lowlands before pouring in to the Caledonia Bay to the North; the swampy conditions made North European agricultural practices impossible and bred sickness that undid the Caledonia Colony]

In the late 17th century the major European powers had established important colonies, trade routes and treaties throughout the Americas.  During the frothy expansion of European colonialism Scotland was inspired by entrepreneur William Patterson to try and establish a commercial colony on the Isthmus of Panama from where they could control trade between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.  The area was a de facto Spanish domain but uncontested as its difficult geography, low indigenous populations, and lack of mineral wealth left it outside of the imperial regime, a situation the Scots hoped to take advantage of.

In 1698 they marshaled most of the capital in the country through public stock offerings and the Darién Company launched a settlement expedition with the intent to establish the Colony of Caledonia.  It was known that the region of Caledonia offered a natural harbor with the promise of shelter and a chance at success.  Their demise was immediate, at one point dying at a rate of 10 per day due to sickness and the unsuitability of the land to Northern European agricultural practices.  By 1700 the colony was done and the survivors were ushered out by a cluster of armed Spanish ships.  The loss of most of the Scotland’s capital was an important factor in Scotland’s union with England in 1707.  As part of the union England agreed to repay Scotland’s wealthy citizens the money they had lost on the venture plus 5% interest.  It proved enough to buy them off.  The modern day Darién Gap is still inhabited by the Kuna people, explored by intrepid adventurers and tourists, exploration expeditions are occasionally mounted, and the FARC slides in and out remaining out of reach of Colombian authorities. 
[the Darian Gap on the Panama Isthmus connecting North and South America, the object of Scotland's colonial desires]

Frederick Jackson Turner’s characterization of the frontier was important in recognizing its importance in shaping American societies.  We would extend this to all of the Americas, arguing that the frontier condition existed throughout the continent.  The frontier was also non-directional.  It was a heterogeneous and uneven agglomeration of difficult and contested territories where myriad indigenous and divergent colonial interests- Scotch, Spanish, English, French, Dutch, and Portuguese- were smashing into one another over and over.  That is, the land wasn’t totally open as Turner suggested, but rather the jurisdictional administration was ambiguous, and this generated the potentiality which the Scottish recognized in the Darien Gap, the United States recognized in the Southwest, and the French saw in the Mississippi Valley.  The frontier was endemic to the American landscape, marked by difficult terrain, a tantalizing mix of potential commercial success and imminent disaster, and overlapping and ambiguous jurisdictions.  The Darién Gap, in short.
 [the 1960 Trans Darien Expedition:  134 days to cross, 500 kms of trails, 180 river crossings, 125 log bridges built, 3 automobile rollovers, malaria, 544 kilos in cargo, 1 capstain winch per vehicle, 52 HP engine, 104 liters of gas; image source] 

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Housekeeping on the Frontier

After taking a month break we are back here at FASLANYC headquarters and it’s only fair to take care of some housekeeping first.  Of note in the last month, Places has been running a series on fiction, and Mammoth is wrapping up one of the longest blog series of all time on floods and the Mississippi River.  We’ve forgotten why it started, but it is definitely worth perusing, especially now as it wraps up.  Brett Milligan of F.A.D. has been documenting the second edition of the “Goats on Belmont” project in Portland, Oregan. 

In NYC related news, Geoff Manaugh and Nicola Twilley are moving to town to run Studio-X and will presumably be crossing swords with the Friends of the Pleistocene, who just released their “Field Guide to the Geoarchitecture of New York.”  Julie Bargmann is moving D.I.R.T. Studio to Brooklyn and that only seems fair.  D.I.R.T. in Charlottesville always felt like a polar bear in a municipal zoo in Mobile, Alabama- it sounds like a cool idea and it can live, but it is just sad, covered in mud, and not even the visitors are happy that it is there.  She’ll be part of the “Second Wave of Modernism” conference at the MoMA in November with a lineup that is what you might call heavy.  Also coming to NYC are our favorite philosophers Graham Harman, Levi Bryant, as well as the prolific Timothy Morton for the Object Oriented Ontology symposium.  Read these guys, and if you are in the city drop by on Wednesday, September 14th.
[D.I.R.T. Studio's webpage announcement; it is unclear whether Bargmann is Kong or the damsel, but it's awesome]

Lastly, we managed to slip an essay into Kerb 19- Paradigms of Nature:  Post Natural Futures alongside some impressive contributors including Paisajes Emergentes, Scape Studio, Liam Young, David Gissen, and several others.  Our piece is about mushrooms.  We’re also excited that another of our favorites, Camilo Restrepo of Medellin, Colombia will be landing in Virginia in a couple of weeks to discuss recent work.  If you're in Charlottesville drop by, and if you want to get a drink, send an email.

Let the games begin.


One of our interests here at FASLANYC is to develop a theory and practice of the American Landscape.  It’s a topic we’ve discussed before and will be exploring more in the coming months.  The idea springs from the belief that the Americas are horrible and awesome and should be understood as an exceptional landscape condition.  Our main approach for a while will be through a study of frontiers and borders.  Whereas in Europe the words "frontier" and "border" are synonymous, they hold vastly different meanings in the Americas.

[the San Gabriel Jesuit mission in Los Angeles County, 1818; the missions in california and throughout the borderlands of the Spanish colonial empire are testament to the fact that the creation of the American landscape was not an east-to-west phenomenon, but occurred from multiple directions at different times and under the influence of various imperial and indigenous regimes]
[the ruins of the San Juan Capistrano mission in California; image source]

Historian Walter Prescott Webb noted in the 1940's that in the Americas a frontier was “not a line to stop at, but an area inviting entrance. Instead of having one dimension, length, as in Europe, the American frontier has two dimensions, length and breadth.”  It gets particularly interesting when you combine this concept with the realization of another historian of the American West- Herbert Eugene Bolton.  He argued that the story of the Americas can’t be understood simply as an inexorable, anglo-centric march west, as famously characterized by Frederick Jackson Turner and Webb.  Bolton’s contribution was to simply and emphatically point out that the United States may have largely expanded west but the story of the American landscape itself was not one of westward expansion.

The American West was not an undifferentiated, untamed wilderness waiting to be harnessed by the new American nation.  It was a land already claimed and inhabited by the Spanish, Portuguese, Mexicans, English, French, minor European nations, and the hundreds of indigenous tribes and nations that in no way considered themselves a homogeneous block.  Each of these societies relied on different regimes and created unique forms and patterns of settlement, trade, and defense enmeshed in overlapping and contested claims of authority.  It was a landscape of violence, smashing, and bigness with its own emphases and necessities, and this landscape condition was endemic throughout all the Americas.

The frontier in the American landscape is not just Webb’s thick zone at the settled edge having both depth and length, but it is also defined by overlapping and ambiguous administrative jurisdictions- it is not always clear who is in charge, and that creates a unique set of problems and possibilities.  By understanding this we might be able to recover and further develop an American landscape approach.  We would argue this approach has been largely lost since the European Turn, when the design academy in the United States decided that we needed to align ourselves closely with Western Europe (not a bad idea) to the exclusion of continued dialogue throughout the Americas (a very limiting idea).  We argue that we should be studying the Americas as a hemisphere:  a post-colonial, modern landscape defined by overlapping and ambiguous jurisdictions.
[a ladder leading to a border tunnel access along the US-Mexico border; the tactics and strategies used to destabilize authoritarian power in these zones constructs a kind of contemporary American frontier; image from the New York Times]

To that end, we’ll be zooming around the Americas, looking at frontier and border landscapes, historical and contemporary, and offering some thoughts on them.  We’ll likely be changing our thinking about some of the concepts as they develop, and invite you to offer any thoughts that might push that process along.  We’ll continue posting on other topics occasionally, and of course we should just admit that this effort is also a chance to mix stories of cowboys and South America.  And so we shall.