“What is the fate of place?” Edward S. Casey asks in his seminal 2013 book, The Fate of Place: A Philosophical History, which reconsiders the complexity of our physical surroundings. In modernity, that fate seems bleak and is subject to the blankness of location, a word so often linked to the vagaries of real-estate developers and their venal narratives or to another form of narrative—film shoots “on location,” where stories unfold, conceiving place as both tablula rasa and a site for production. In either case, land is always already in a state of erasure to be mapped over. We can think of location, then, as both noun and verb: it describes place, but also holds within it the specific sense of an intentional action that has financial, political, and social consequences.
Location can be understood as the physical formation of capital, and in Casey’s theorizing, the long and varied histories of locations are typically disregarded, replaced by privileged, foreign identities. Before there was a parking lot, a high-rise, a stadium, a pipeline, there was the absolute nothing of capitalist erasure, capitalist amnesia. Yet what can also be argued is that location defined as place is the terraforming of history in all its complexities. Housed within landscapes and architectures are the myriad intersections of geology and histories of all kinds that were first activated and then kept alive by those already in and around that place. As such, there is an ethics of place that reaches far beyond the nothingness of location; an ethics that ultimately illuminates those histories marginalized or suppressed in the process of location-building. Through cultural archaeology and by directly confronting the modernist project of the continuous development of location, we can think anew about ways to overcome these dangers of erasure that touch directly on the curatorial, as the white cube, for example, falls precisely into the production of amnesiac spaces. Of course, institutional critique, including critique of the white cube, as well as curating outside the white cube, have long been performed. But to build on these practices on the landscape level may be of use in conceiving activist artistic and curatorial work that resists narratives of usurpation, whose allegorical model can certainly be found in Melville’s Bartleby (see Steven Henry Madoff’s introduction that discusses Bartleby as property.)
To turn to the modernist project itself, the development of location per se was (and still is) deemed a form of progress, as in so many other areas of modernism. Progress can be written as gentrification, a highly visible process seen all over the world, and in the case of New York City, where I live, includes the practice of redlining that racializes the entire process. Just down my street in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn—currently a largely Latino neighborhood—a building likely built in the 1800s was recently torn down, its history only remaining in family photographs and Google Earth databases of years past. Its replacement? A modern apartment building geared toward young creatives who, though largely liberal, typically play into the modernist ideals of location. Of course, long before contemporary capitalism inhabited Bushwick, it was an area for wealthy Dutch brewers, and before that, part of the indigenous Lenape nation. This is the continuous clearing of history in the name of development, and architectures of the past house myriad stories, each changing with the bodies that move through them.
Recent Black Lives Matter protests, for instance, have taken the traditional route of the streets, but have also gathered in public spaces with more limited histories of protest. In September, 2016, in Charlotte, North Carolina, after the murder of a black man, Keith Lamont Scott, by a police officer, protesters gathered around the Bank of America Stadium, where a football game was underway. Police in riot gear surrounded the stadium while protesters shouted Black Lives Matter slogans. The game continued, but spectators were disrupted and the architecture was activated, not destroyed, in a way wholly other than its ordinary use—a politicization of place that turned the hegemony of location in an entirely different, if temporary, direction. What would it mean to refuse, resist, reconsider a place’s development when curating today? The history of place needs to be considered all the more deeply in curatorial practices, particularly in light of the proliferation of site-specific commissions now produced as part of the global rash of biennials. Every biennial inhabits place, but even if culturally beneficial, biennials are nonetheless a consequent and component of the continuing onslaught of location, whose economic engine is inimically entwined with the politics of marginalization and erasure.
As usual in this regard, artists are leading the way. Take the example of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), set to be built through North Dakota. There are communities, such as the indigenous Standing Rock tribe of the Sioux nation, that are resisting. Their burial sites and sacred grounds will be destroyed if Energy Transfer Partners, LP (the company building the pipeline) sets to work. Police violence has disrupted community protests, yet at the same time, the forms history takes by way of art are strong. The artist collective Winter Count (Cannupa Hanska Luger, Merritt Johnson, Nicholas Galanin, Ginger Dunnill, and Dylan McLaughlin) focuses on the histories surrounding the proposed pipeline and its contentious relationship with indigenous sovereignty. Their 2017 video, We Are in Crisis, shows the contested landscape from a drone’s viewpoint, juxtaposing shots of oil processing plants with the encampments of water protectors at Standing Rock, North Dakota. A lightly distorted voice recounts a mythologized history of industrialization, describing it as a “fearful creature that we have nourished” that “reached out of the killing fields, where its belly remained, and found refuge in our homes.” Reciting this origin story in mythological style, the tale poignantly addresses large-scale processes, mining the present for an alternative history told in the longue durée. The socioeconomic past is intertwined with geological and landscape processes, enabling a conceptualization of place in resistance to hegemonic interpretations of modernity and landscape, and proposing an activist revision of landscape in reaction to the ravages of location.
For Eyal Weizman’s research initiative of forensic architecture, the goal is not to excavate remains, but to keep them in the ground. Instead, landscape use and political activism are joined with the goal of claiming stakes. The most appropriate term for this is “political archaeogeography,” a combination of archaeology and geography that activates historical sites in the political realm. By focusing resistance against the violence of erasure and considering the long-term history associated with the land as well as a landscape’s current use (or potential for use), curators can work with artists in addressing development as a project for archaeogeography, interrogating location toward a layered understanding of all forms of economic, social, geological, and geographic stratification—the landscape tout court.
Artist study of balloon installed near the border fence, 2015. Image courtesy of Postcommodity.
Of course, another line driven through the landscape by political and economic forces is the borderline, and this is the subject of the collective Postcommodity (Raven Chacon, Cristóbal Martínez, and Kade L. Twist). Their work titled Repellent Fence (2015), for example, engages the realpolitik of the border as an archaeogeographical allegory. Stretching two miles, the “fence” is formed by a line of gigantic PVC balloons that crosses the Mexican-American border along an ancient indigenous trade route. By memorializing the trade route, Postcommodity exposes an intersectional history that refuses broad simplifications of nationalization and globalization, and ultimately asks: globalization for whom?
The history of the border might begin to answer this question. In the sixteenth century, the discovery of silver in what is now Mexico drew some colonial settlers to the land, then a territory of Spain. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the ambitions of the United States and its doctrine of Manifest Destiny to grab land “from sea to shining sea” led to war with Mexico and eventually the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that gave more than 960,000 square miles of territory to the U.S. Manifest Destiny, with its violent marginalization and destruction of the pasts embodied by indigenous populations, is the precursor to location, and Postcommodity’s Repellent Fence reinscribes these histories in a contemporary political context, performing the political archaeogeography so crucial to the visibility and discourse of resistance movements today.
This artistic mode has important implications in the curatorial realm, as we can use this mode of thought to urge public/landscape art curators to research and create contexts in which these intersectional histories override the erosive forces of location, working with artists whose works address the destruction of memory in this way or invite artists to do so. Without this reparative curatorial task, there is the possibility of falling into the trap of the land as a blank canvas for the artist-developer. Richard Serra’s infamous sculptural installation, Tilted Arc (1981), for instance, is often referred to as a public failure. Its lack of consideration for the public’s use of the space is a small example of a lack of consideration of spatial history and stakeholders. On this note, an active curatorial methodology beginning with “in place” rather than “on location” can be carried back to the city in a forensics that is not necessarily focused on violence, but rather on extended histories well beyond the developments of ten, fifty, or even one hundred years prior. By making visible the histories of place past their present valuations, projects then become politically active, as history lurks behind the present in ways that have direct political implications.
This is a way in which curatorial projects can have direct activist-oriented activity without necessarily relying on existing visual cultures of activism. To return to Edward S. Casey, the histories of place are in more and more precarious positions, as “this century [...] in its capacity to eliminate all perceptible places from a given region […] heightens awareness of the unreplaceability of these places, their singular configuration and unrepeatable history.” By giving form to what Giorgio Agamben has called the “unlived element in everything that is lived” (the long and varied histories behind the present day), curators can expand the realm of activism to include the purview of cultural production I have described. Objects, bodies, and exhibitionary and discursive projects are the basis and platforms of this curatorial archaeogeographical forensics to bring darkened histories to light and declare, “I would prefer not to” in the face of presumed sovereign spaces of development that do nothing but extinguish memory, history, and the vibrancy of an engaged cultural and political life.
Patrick Jaojoco is a Brooklyn-based curator and writer. His research focuses on political ecology and intersections of radically nonlinear histories and temporalities. He is part of the curatorial collective Frontview, which is currently working on a project on decolonization and cartography. He has assisted with numerous institutional exhibitions, including Danilo Correale: At Work's End and Zach Blas: Contra-Internet, both curated by Laurel Ptak at Art in General, NY; and Brand New: Art and Commodity in the 1980s curated by Gianni Jetzer at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, DC. Independently, he has curated shows across New York including con•tin•u•ums (time beyond lifetimes); Low-Grade Euphoria, both at the Pfizer Building, Brooklyn; DRIIPP, an intensive collaborative project with four artists and two curators presented at the 2016 SPRING/BREAK Art Show; and humanimalands, an exhibition investigating the fluid ontologies of humans, animals, and landscapes in the Anthropocene presented at CP Projects Space. Jaojoco received his MA in Curatorial Practice from the School of Visual Arts and his BA in English Literature and Environmental Studies from New York University.
2 Redlining in New York City and elsewhere is a Depression-era policy, coming out of a newly minted Federal Housing Administration, of encouraging new development and investment in some areas of the city while actively discouraging investment in others. The policy was and is blatantly racist, defining “green zones” for investment as “lacking ‘a single foreigner or Negro’” by some appraisers, as pointed out by Ta-Nehisi Coates in his essay “The Case for Reparations” in the June 2014 issue of The Atlantic.
3 Winter Count, We Are in Crisis, 2017. Video, color, sound. 3:02 minutes. Accessed 3.08.2017. www.cannupahanska.com/wintercount.
4 Mid-century historian Fernand Braudel and the Annales School of historians developed this term to describe a mode of history told in large-scale and long-term structural changes as opposed to the reduction of history to a string of connected events (histoire événementielle).
6 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. www.ourdocuments.gov. 1848. Accessed 3.4.2017.