Posts tagged with "American Landscape":

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Decoding the colonial history behind Blue Origin's space settlements

In May 2019, Jeff Bezos made his case for why and how humans will occupy space, in a presentation titled “Going to Space to Benefit Earth.” The original presentation was made to a relatively small audience but is also viewable on the website of Blue Origin, the Bezos-owned spaceflight and rocketry company. In little less than an hour, he made the argument that for humans to continue to evolve and improve their living standards, we will need access to more resources and environments than the earth has to offer us. As part of the presentation, Bezos described his vision for what the off-planet colonies will look like and the short-term goals required to make them a reality. While most of the emphasis was placed on those short-term goals, which are to colonize and extract resources from the moon, the more compelling section of the presentation focused his long term goal for off-planet environments. Using a series of illustrative animations, Bezos explained how humans could inhabit space using O’Neil cylinders. This is technology initially imagined in the 1970s by Princeton University physics professor Gerard O’Neil. There are plenty of other people, such as Fred Scharmen, who have already written about the history behind extraterrestrial colonies and their cultural impacts, so instead, I would like to focus on the even older representational techniques that influenced Blue Origin's vision of the future. Bezos used four images to illustrate and emphasize a set of important points that he makes to re-enforce his vision. The first of these points is that Blue Origin's space habitats would not be made up of larger versions of the international space stations but of manmade environments capable of supporting populations that are the equivalent of small to medium-sized cities. The second is that these orbital landscapes could vary in use (and simulated gravity through the adjustment of their rotational speeds), including recreational, farming, and technical purposes. The third is, that despite being removed from the surface of the Earth, the architecture could be made to be both visionary and familiar, allowing colonizers to maintain their cultural and spatial references while experimenting with novel landscapes. Despite being new natures, the landscapes and ecologies presented by Blue Origin were highly familiar places. This was an important part of the presentation because it allowed the audience to imagine themselves as potentially occupying these places. The representational devices used in the renderings are part of a long tradition of landscape painting: most notably, passive cues that make the occupation of unfamiliar landscapes imaginable and palatable. For comparison, Thomas Cole and other artists of the Hudson River School created paintings that normalized the 19th-century expansion into the Northeastern United States. They celebrated agriculture and other methods of organizing nature to the benefit of European colonizers, "taming" what they saw as a wild place. Nature has been historically used as an adversary to be conquered in the form of weather and difficult-to-traverse topography. An example of this can be seen in the painting View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow by Thomas Cole. The painting illustrates an artist on a hill facing storm clouds and farmland in the distance. The use of perspective and distance used in the Blu Origin images echo the rules used by Cole, with the only significant difference being the threat that the environment poses. One of the animations places a stag on a mountain in the center foreground of the rendering. In the background, there is an expanse of artificial wilderness with a city in the distance. To the right of the stag, an eagle or other large bird of prey flies effortlessly through the cylinder. Adjacent to the settlement in the image, the earth slowly rotates into view from behind the wilderness section. Instead of the thunder clouds seen in Cole's work, the sky has been replaced with the dark void beyond the structure's enclosure and stars, with the explicit understanding that this is an off-planet landscape surrounded by a vacuum. In another animation, a city is present in the background and passenger cars moved along a light rail. The presence of rain seen in Thomas Cole's painting has been replaced with a drone watering crops as it drifts over land designated for agricultural use. Weather in these spaceborne enclosures, specifically rain events, would be fabricated and controlled by necessity. However, using drones to create rain events also speaks towards a need to experience weather to simulate “nature” to the highest degree possible. The drones provide a service, but they also normalize an extremely artificial landscape. The final two animations illustrated two forms of off-world urbanism. In one of the images, the "city" was created by collaging together a series of important architectural constructions and streetscape seen across the world. From one vantage point, a resident would see a blend of Swiss, Italian, and Chinese architecture. Architecture would work as a comforting set of references for the residents, tying them back to the Earth-bound cultural environments perceived as being valuable. This vision was a more densely populated habitat of tall buildings, parks, and athletic fields. As is the case with the landscapes, the city animations sampled a narrow segment of the Earth, and were meant to attract interest from a narrow segment of people. The primary audience is the people that were present in the auditorium, sharing privileged worldviews and experiences, who would recognize the imagery being referenced. The animations shared by Blue Origin represent a complex set of ideas and allowances. They presented a chance to revisit the romantic mythologies that the adults in the audience saw in their college art history courses. At the same time, those renderings validate their commitment to a future where technology is the best means to advance humanity. Like the Cole painting, they justify the presence of people in space habitats through the use of positive pastoral imagery. This leads to what is arguably the real goal of the presentation—building enthusiasm for resource extraction on the moon. Jeff Bezos makes it clear that the moon would need to be mined for the resources that would make these space habitats economically viable. He also stated that space would provide a limitless amount of resources for expansion. This is an argument of expansion and capitalism, one that edges out conservation on Earth. There is an implicit assumption that increased exploration will make the materials cheaper. This is an argument that has been made many times before, including in 1492 when Columbus lobbied for the investments that would allow him to reach the Bahamas. Marc Miller is currently an assistant professor at the Penn State Landscape Architecture Stuckeman School.
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New exhibition at the Arkansas Art Center highlights the early works of Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams: Early Works, the first exhibition of Ansel Adams’s photography hosted by the Arkansas Arts Center, will showcase 41 prints done by Adams from the 1920s through the 1950s, highlighting his small-scale images. Adams was known for his photography of natural sites such as Yosemite National Park, Sequoia National Park, and the Sierra Nevadas, and this exhibition will tie into the completion of the 100th anniversary of the National Park System. According to the Arkansas Arts Center, Adams wasb a “photographer, musician, naturalist, explorer, critic, and teacher, was a giant in the field of American landscape photography. His work can be viewed as the end of an arc of American art concerned with capturing the ‘sublime’ in the unspoiled Western landscape.”

Ansel Adams: Early Works Arkansas Arts Center 501 East 9th Street, Little Rock, Arkansas Through April 16, 2017

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A new book delves into the unique personality and prolific work of artist J. B. Jackson

John Brinckerhoff Jackson, perhaps the father of American landscape studies, was an autodidact whose unique perspective on the world was shaped by travels through Europe, several short stints at elite schools, military service during World War II, and, ultimately, ranching in the Southwest. Jackson initially spread his ideas through the periodical Landscape, which he self-published (and, as it was later discovered, wrote all the early articles under pseudonyms) from 1951 through 1968. As his acclaim grew, he turned the reins of the magazine over to trusted colleagues and split time between the east and west coasts, teaching at Harvard and UC Berkeley. Through these venues, Jackson forcefully argued for an understanding of the American landscape that incorporated both the natural and the human, the architectural and the everyday. While they are now truisms—that the landscape includes human-made forms like roads and buildings or that banal signage and vernacular architecture provide insight into contemporary culture—these were revolutionary ideas when Jackson forced his way into the discourse of cultural studies. Indeed, it was Jackson’s influence, directly or indirectly, that gave way to everything from Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour’s Learning from Las Vegas, to Bernard Rudofsky’s Architecture Without Architects, to Reyner Banham’s Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, to John Chase, Margaret Crawford, and John Kaliski’s Everyday Urbanism.

Recently published is Drawn to Landscape, an edited volume that revisits Jackson’s life and work. While the book will certainly give readers a sense of Jackson’s intellectual importance, it focuses on two areas which would seem to be secondary to his ideas: his flamboyant personality and his visual art—sketches, magazine covers, and photographs. Given the rich body of Jackson’s published work, however, and the strength of an earlier volume from many of the same contributors, Everyday America, which is perhaps a better survey of the impact of Jackson’s ideas, the lighter fare of this book is welcomed. In fact, the lone essay that attempts to catalogue the various intellectual endeavors which owe lineage to Jackson, “Passing the Torch” by Timothy Davis, stands out as the weakest and least interesting to read, listing off subfields related to landscape studies without noting Jackson’s influence and leaning heavily on interdisciplinary jargon. It does, however, deserve credit for providing the sole mention of anything related to gender and sexuality in the book, a topic which is curiously absent given the politics of everyday existence which one would expect to find in a book so intimately biographical. While Jackson’s personality is fondly remembered at length, his identity—and with it, issues of gender, race, and sexuality, among other things—is left as something unspoken or, at the very least, left without definition.

Despite this, the remainder of the book is a delight to read largely because the personality of John Brinckerhoff “Brinck” Jackson was so multifaceted—to some he was Brinck, the erudite scholar; to others he was Mr. Jackson, the professor without a graduate degree; and to others still, he was John, the church janitor. Like the titular character of Citizen Kane, Jackson revealed very different sides of his personality and history to the various people in his life, and in the end one can only imagine the depths to his character which will remain a mystery. He performed the roles of blue-blooded heir and worldly traveler, at the same time he was the hardscrabble pragmatist who learned with his hands, an evangelical Catholic, a raconteur par excellence, and a motorbike gang aficionado. Unlike the film, however, this book stays in the safe area of fond remembrance, leaving so much of Jackson an enigma.

While we never see Rosebud, the book makes a move, which comes close. Earlier books on Jackson’s influence have reproduced his sketches, magazine covers, or photographs, but they have done so only in the singular. Here, the book presents three “portfolios” of 15 to 60 images each, which were surely painstakingly curated given Jackson’s prolific production.

The images rarely stand on their own as anything close to art—and Jackson likely would have agreed, given his penchant for casually discarding so much of his work. The sketches are quick and messy, while the photographs are competent yet prosaic. When presented in multiple, the images begin to demonstrate the consistency of Jackson’s eye, show what he paid attention to, and in a strange, mute sort of way, reveal even more about who he was as a person. In his sketches, the shapes of architecture just as easily give way to plant life or geography, or the physicality of the bodies of men in his photographs, as they stood without guile near cars or grouped together in a public landscape.

In the end, the greatest success of the book is that it continues Jackson’s mission of imploring everyone to pay attention to the incredible landscape around them, to see value in the overlooked and apparently mundane. While it does so in part through strong texts and a well-curated set of Jackson’s visual output, it does so most potently simply by invoking the inspiring yet inscrutable figure of Jackson, himself.