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.

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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.

3 comments:

  1. An American Landscape in opposition to the sort of imagined Western advancing cultural frontier a la Turner, makes me think of a book a read a few years ago when i was finishing up my graduate degree in history.

    Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America, explores the pre and post- first contact -landscape of American. Arguing that pre contact America was defined by a "decentralized and diverse, but not disconnected" common experience.
    I should caution that the book focuses exclusively on North America but have seen similar treatise of South and Central American cultures.
    Either way the idea of a pre-European, American frontier is at the forefront.

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  2. thanks for that tip, Nam. Im interested in this because the practice of landscape architecture in the US seems to have fully incorporated the anglo-centric Turner version of the frontier, which I obviously think is a misstep (not surprising, given Olmsted's anglophilia).

    I'll try to check into this book too. Let me know if others cross your mind.

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