What is landscape criticism and what can it do?

This is a revised version of a post I made last year. I took it down a few months ago because I was uncomfortable with what seemed in retrospect an overly definitive characterization of my work (and of ‘landscape criticism’, which is barely a thing). When I re-read it, what I had wanted to sound hopeful, came across as both overly earnest and authoritative. But sometimes things make you uncomfortable because they are important, so I am revisiting it, and will probably continue do so over the coming months. Being critical and hopeful at the same time seems to be what is called for these days.

Last year I published an essay on the alternative news website, Rabble. After much thought and with more than a little uncertainty, for my one-line bio, I wrote “Erin Despard is a landscape critic and historian.” These are the two roles that describe what I do in a manner which is the closest to accurate without being obtuse. And landscape historian really is not that much of a stretch: I am currently writing a book of landscape history after all. But ‘landscape critic’–what is that exactly?

Before I sent my bio to the editor, I took a look around, and confirmed that yes, landscape criticism is a thing, but in a pretty limited way. Usually it describes the work of an architectural critic or art historian writing about landscape design. But I write about undesigned as well as designed landscapes, and I draw on a background in media and cultural studies as opposed to art history or architecture. My approach is part interpretative (in a phenomenological sense) and part materialist (in a cultural studies sense).  Ultimately I want to know, what does a given landscape do and how does it work? But I ask these questions less in relation to other landscapes or the history of landscape architecture, and more in terms of the perceptual, practical and social effects that are produced in or by a given landscape, and the socio-political relations that sustain them. In other words, I treat a given piece of land as a work of art, but one that has been produced my multiple actors, through an array of intersecting social, material, and historical processes. Architects and planners make contributions to the appearance and meaning of a given landscape, but so do the media technologies and discourses through which we encounter them, and the everyday practices of cultivation and consumption that shape how we use them.

The essay I published on Rabble is about First Nations resistance to pipeline building via the construction of tiny houses and their placement in the path of the pipeline. Casting this as landscape criticism might seem a bit of a stretch–maybe even somewhat inappropriate in relation to the concerns of those involved. But my intent in doing so is to highlight the role that criticism has, or could have, in opening up alternative viewpoints on a variety of issues relating to land. While criticism is normally understood to provide a disinterested perspective, for me, the idea of being disinterested in our relation to land–that its aesthetic value is somehow separate from its social and political value–is part of the problem. I am explicitly concerned with what we don’t see when we look at land, because that’s where various forms of inequality get naturalized or otherwise disguised.

For me, the point of landscape criticism is not to make an evaluation, but to describe and communicate the importance of elements or qualities that might otherwise go unseen or under-appreciated. Ideally, it enhances the landscape’s ability to make people see or understand something new. I don’t know if members of the Tiny House Warriors would agree with the broader significance I read in those houses, but my intent is to encourage others to see more in those houses than they might otherwise see. I hope that this enables me to contribute to what I believe is a noble and urgent cause.  Can landscape criticism really do that? Stay tuned; I’m going to keep working on it.


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