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This text is by Timothy van Laar in his capacity and does not, necessarily, reflect the views of different infinite mile contributors, infinite mile co-founders, the authors' employers and/or other affiliations.  

Inspiring Places and Other Anxieties

Timothy van Laar

This past summer I attended a conference at the Burren College of Art, a small school located on the west coast of Ireland in County Clare. The school is in a remote, barren place, famous for its extensive geological features of fissured limestone and thin soil. Much of the area is wild, windswept and filled with flora found nowhere else in Europe—twenty-some varieties of orchid, for example. The human history goes back thousands of years, the land littered with ancient dolmens and holy wells. The art school has a sixteenth-century castle tower as part of its facilities. The conference it hosted was on alternative futures for higher art education.

I sat on a stackable chrome and plastic chair in the school’s gallery as four conferees spoke about their institutions’ approaches to higher art education. The President of the Burren College of Art, Mary Hawkes Greene, went first. Because the site of the BCA is so spectacular and unique, she used that as a dramatic starting point, referring to it as “magical” and “inspiring.” She quoted from the Seamus Heaney poem Postscript (1996) that describes the Burren (the name for this whole area). The poem was cited frequently at the conference. Some of the middle lines vividly represent the rugged landscape:

So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightening of a flock of swans
(Heaney. Postscript. The Spirit Level. Farrar, Straus and Giroux: New York, NY. 1996).

The next two speakers extolled the locations of their institutions. Tracy Meisterheim from the Blekinge Institute of Technology in Karlskrona, Sweden, described a “beautiful” remote sea and forest location, and Brian Butler represented the historic (and defunct) Black Mountain College in North Carolina as “isolated” and as an immersion in nature for its urban East Coast art students. Only Uffe Elbæk the founder of The KaosPilots, a Danish school, neglected to emphasize the physical features of his school’s location.

Through all of this affirmation of scenic splendor I sat somewhat stunned at the thought that a magical location mattered that much. After all, what would this mean for an art school in Detroit? They’ve got Heaney and Yeats, we’ve got Elmore Leonard. In an essay that begins with a vivid litany of Detroit’s desolation, Vince Carducci declares in the first line, “For decades now, Detroit has been one of America’s most notorious clusterfucks” (Carducci, Vince. “To Be or Not to Be in Detroit City”. Motown Review of Art. 6 January 2014). The paragraph lists the painful statistics of Detroit’s physical decay, its 124,000 vacant or abandoned properties for example, before Carducci goes on to mention some perceptions of the place “as a land of opportunity” and that “[a]rtists and other members of . . . the ‘Creative Class’ are said to be hard at work, transforming the troubled city into a postindustrial Elysium.” I brooded over such things for a while—lands of opportunity, magical places, Elysium, and clusterfucks—neglecting a good deal of subsequent conference content.

Location is part of the context of a school. Educational institutions are enmeshed in the qualities of a place, and these qualities deserve some serious attention. I considered how important context is for the meaning of artworks, perhaps the most important component of how meaning is constructed. If that’s true, then, the way we talk and acknowledge location or place probably has some fairly important relationship to the meaning of an education. How do environments and the way we categorize them affect what we do within them? I’m curious about sweeping generalizations of places that use words like beautiful, sublime and dystopian, and that supposedly instill in us things like inspiration, creative energy, contemplation and anxiety. If a place is conceived of as generally motivational, these motivations will interact with everything that happens there, like teaching or learning color theory, making sense out of Lacan, choosing an appropriate hardwood (ash or tree of heaven) or thinking about video installations. Our decisions about what we do are intimately bound up with how we conceive of our environment and how we understand it.

Our names and descriptions play a large role in our understanding of places, but not every place gets an agreed-upon name for its particular qualities. If the Burren is inspirational and magical, and Detroit is post-apocalyptic and dystopian, what is Grand Rapids or Indianapolis? (Boring, some have suggested.) It seems that more extreme or unique environments get named, and other places have to work on their own branding. Of course, some big Foucauldian issues of representation are at play here. But I prefer to think that, in the end, a place’s qualities correspond to their description or else we’re engaged in irony. In much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, for example, when industrial Glasgow touted the meaning of its ancient name, “dear green place,” the descriptive phrase was simply an exercise in cognitive dissonance. In recent years, it finally makes sense, given the city’s drastic cleanup. On the other hand, as advertising shows, in less extreme cases, the assertion of a named quality or description can eventually change the way we perceive and understand something and become a quality. “Pure Michigan” is working on that.

I got the strong impression that at the BCA a sense of the environment permeates everything they think and do. A consciousness of place and its terms seems continuously present. Partly, a constant stream of study abroad students prevents any taking of the place for granted; partly it may be an act of unconscious defensiveness or rationalization—the school is not in the usual kind of prestigious cultural center, and so it emphasizes its own unique appeal. Although a consciousness of its geographical environment is pervasive at the BCA, I’m convinced that educational institutions, including the BCA, don’t think deeply enough about their location and the meaning of the various descriptive categories applied to it. And certainly places with negative appeal (also usually quite conscious of their environment) don’t do much to analyze their location’s signifiers. Places and how we address them, however, are not just casual situations; they’re causal.

How we describe a place is an indicator of its motivational sources, what its relationship will be to our productivity. The descriptive language of places is full of intellectual shorthand, tropes that have a long cultural history, sometimes deeply problematic, and whose terms are rarely questioned. For example, consider the importance placed on beautiful places, that it’s an advantage for an art school to inhabit a beautiful place. There is a clear prejudice that the beautiful place is conducive to thinking, to clarity of thought, to balanced judgment and stress-free creativity. This idea, of course, has ancient, classical roots in the locus amoenus, an idealized, idyllic space of lawns, ponds, and woodland that is a refuge from death. It is the heart of Virgil’s pastoral works and Dante’s paradise (“Here spring is endless, here all fruits are, here / The nectar is,”).  In other words, it’s Elysium. Quite a few art schools and a thousand college quads have cultivated this environment, not to mention any number of artist residencies like Yaddo, Ragdale, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. But the argument against the locus amoenus is precisely that it doesn’t have any tension, that it is comfortable and complacent, that its beauty will support the status quo, that its pleasures are self-indulgent and that it is not relevant to the way life is lived.

Ancient literature has a counter-location, the fearsome, awesome place, the locus terribilis. This term incorporates both the rugged Burren area of County Clare and the desolate streets of Jefferson Chalmers in Detroit, but in very separate ways. The Burren classically exemplifies the sublime place. Its expanses of raw, empty wildness, its harsh, uncultivated sweep of rocky ground, its shortage of trees and streams produce the anxiety at the heart of the sublime. The sublime is a dangerous encounter where one can get lost in a vast space. A simultaneous experience of pleasure and danger or even terror held together in a dichotomous tension that produces anxiety mixed with astonishment, the sublime is an anxious pleasure. Edmund Burke wrote that “the sublime is an idea belonging to self-preservation,” something like peering over the edge of an abyss, hoping not to fall in. Within the sublime space, we find splendor while equally aware of the precariousness of our existence, quite a different thing from Elysium.

The sublime is more common than we realize, but the term is rarely used; more often its pleasures are conflated with beauty, a term that is much less aggrandizing, but inaccurately applied to these anxious places. The BCA is in a sublime location. The artist residency, Ucross, in Wyoming is an example of the sublime place. Sometimes the sublime goes unnoticed. The University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, often castigated for its boring location, has features of the sublime—the vast skies that cover a hundred miles of treeless, absolutely flat earth. A kind of pleasure is available in its uncompromising, even fierce, reductionism, provoking a surprising anxiety; beauty, not so much.

The sublime sounds very grand and epic, trading the comforts of the beautiful place for an anxious one. Sublime places avoid the complacency of beauty. Anxiety can strongly motivate creativity and comports well with many modernist ideas of art as heroic, individual struggle, but the tradeoff has its own downside. Even though sublime anxiety, its danger, becomes quite formalized as an experience (we’re not really in danger), sublime places are still psychologically uncomfortable. The sublime place is also not a very social space; the sublime experience is not a social experience. The sublime is isolating—its physical environments are typically isolated, and the sublime experience focuses on individuals and their potential loss of self through a transcendent experience.

The locus terribilis can go another way; there is a Western literary tradition of equating the locus terribilis with urban space. And rather than the sublime, we can talk about the dangers of the abject, another category with anxiety at its core. The abject urban space has loads of synonyms that are frequently applied. This is the dystopian, post-apocalyptic description of post-industrialism. Highland Park, Michigan, Gary, Indiana, and numerous other rustbelt wastelands come to mind. The abject location is a space characterized by decay, waste, entropy, filth and the disgusting. It is a place of loss.

If the sublime was heavily theorized in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the abject has been equally theorized for the past hundred years, from Jean Genet to Julia Kristeva. The theory ultimately posits that the abject is formed through anxiety about the excretions of our bodies and anxiety about our deaths. And this, of course, is a more serious condition than either the beautiful or the sublime, and probably accounts for the way that as a location the abject becomes a marked category. Consequently, abjection has been theorized as a category of the marginalized.

I can see the decay of at least five abandoned auto plants from my fourth floor classroom. If I look the other direction in the same classroom, I am staring at the marble walls of the Detroit Institute of Arts. The dissonance in this location is stunning. An awareness of time and change are continuously present. An abject environment can be debilitating, exhausting, or energizing, but it’s certainly not comfortable and not a place for transcendent experience. It is particularly social as locations go, because the abject space creates shared anxiety, a social experience of marginalization, unlike the personal anxiety of the sublime experience.

This is just a small, starter taxonomy of location (What about the ordinary place? What about online institutions and the space they inhabit?), but I think it’s obvious that these sample categories have serious implications for educational institutions whose spaces are defined by such terms. The beautiful, sublime, and abject as places strongly affect how we work and think, and what we choose to do in them. However, apart from individual artist’s works, an institution’s community engagement programs, and scattered courses in subjects such as social practice or site-specificity, consideration of location is typically superficial, and the implications of location are rarely thought about in a coherent, integrated way within such institutions.

One particular kind of place is certainly no better for creative activity than any other place; they’re just different. And geography is not destiny. Prepositions are probably important here; we don’t just work in places but against or with them (among others). But more clarity about places would be a productive analysis and starts by recognizing our location in its descriptive terms. Then, we can interact with such terms, struggle, challenge and play with them. This past month, Tom Phardel created the closest thing to Elysium that I’ve seen in Detroit, an exhibition of his Bonsai at Trinosophes. (Tom Phardel: Bonsai 22 August-10 September 2014). These plants, with their knots of roots and their graceful branches, rest on custom-built tables of steel and wood. The ceramic pots are the perfect shapes for the individual trees. Scattered on the floor are simple arrangements of stone objects. With window views of a bleak section of Gratiot Avenue behind them, the Bonsai display a harmony of controlled and thoughtful arrangement. Lost in the disorienting scale of these plants, I experienced a brief moment of synthesis as categories of location merged.

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link - issue 09: September 2014