Two papers of mine recently appeared in academic journals. Both have been a long time coming to print, so maybe it is not surprising that they treat very different landscapes from very different places–one a ruined, overgrown estate west of Glasgow, the other a relatively new, highly manicured park in Los Angeles. More interesting I think is the underlying similarity between them.
In the first paper (co-authored with Michael Gallagher), we were trying to grapple with the role of visual processes in histories of plant invasion–that is, how specific visual effects were produced by and with plants that later became invasive, and how that is an under-appreciated dimension, not just of their history, but of their present status as an invasive. We focused on Rhododendron ponticum, a large evergreen shrub that is highly problematic in Western Scotland because of its high rate of success self-propagating under damp conditions. The site of our research was the estate of Kilmahew-St. Peters–a woodland that contains numerous abandoned gardens and several ruins, including a spectacular modernist seminary built in the late 1960s and abandoned in the early 1980s. Our analysis focused on an intensive rhododendron removal that was undertaken there between 2014 and 2017 and which resulted in drastic, sometimes destructive changes in the landscape.
In the second paper, I make a case for how social media photographs can figure in the critical study of designed landscapes. So far, it has been more common for researchers to make use of social media metadata rather than analyze actual content, and to do so in a relatively uncritical manner. I argue that using methods which grapple both with the images and some of the circumstances under which they were produced, is an important avenue for learning about how a given platform works, and for being able to theorize how its use may in turn influence the functioning of designed landscapes.
As an example, I discuss how the pink chairs of Grand Park in Los Angeles figure in Instagram photographs, and suggest that the way they are deployed in the park responds to the role that social media have come to have in animating urban parks. These are chairs that want to be photographed, and when they do, they locate the photograph’s content in a manner that does not need to be explicitly named. As a result, the landscape of Grand Park functions in a manner that is not unlike Instagram and other “networked” photographies, which are both preoccupied with location, and tend to feature photographs produced in a manner that is relatively automatic. As such, Grand park is perfectly suited to a public accustomed to responding to landscape without interpreting it (i.e., using as a backdrop for personal photographs).
So despite the amount of attention that Grand Park has received as a result of its depiction on social media, its landscape is suited to relatively inattentive processes of visual perception. Which is also how I would characterize the landscape at Kilmahew, which was overrun with rhododendrons in large part because their uncontrolled proliferation went unnoticed for so long. R. ponticum takes between 10 and 20 years to set blossoms, which is a relatively long window for control. It is problematic less because of its inherently invasive properties and more because of the way estates like Kilmahew have been neglected or abandoned entirely since the first world war.
All this matters because our dispositions toward land, and especially what we see in it, have a significant influence on, not only our relationship with non-human nature, but also our social relations and–especially where land is treated as public space–the content of collective culture. The fact that we normally fail to pay close attention to land is part of what enables landscape* (that is, the human-shaped or mediated appearance of land in a particular location) to disguise the political projects that inform its use and character.
For example, part of the reason the pink chairs of Grand Park are so photogenic is that they are usually empty. Located in downtown Los Angeles, the park is used mainly over the lunch hour, and for special events. In fact, the park was explicitly designed to animate what has historically been a relatively deserted downtown core. As such, it was also designed to be maximally “secure”. Which is to say, free of homeless people, who frequent nearby Pershing Park instead. To anyone who knows the history of downtown LA, or compares it to other urban parks (like Bryant Park in New York, say) these chairs are conspicuously empty. They speak to a purification and depoliticization of public space that, especially when it is further promoted on social media, hides problems like homelessness and drug addiction from public concern.
Similarly, to the extent that we mistake Kilmahew for an invaded rather than a neglected landscape, we will fail to address the underlying conditions which made it susceptible to colonization by R. ponticum in the first place, and which continue in the present. Those conditions include a capitalist, aesthetically disinterested orientation toward land which does not hold landowners responsible for the long term health of the land they cultivate, and also grossly underestimates the labour required to sustain it.
On the other hand, paying attention to land can be beneficial not just in showing us effects we don’t want or wish to change, but also in offering avenues for more creative political interventions. At Kilmahew, we suggest that, rather than razing the entire forest understory, an experimental collective gardening practice might have provided a gentler means of addressing the problems caused by rhododendrons in certain areas of the estate. It would also have been an avenue for re-mediating the problematic relations to land that helped to create them as invasive in the first place.
In the last couple of years I have spent a lot of time thinking about how my research might be more convincingly for as well as about the real world. What is the point, in other words, of thinking so hard about things like parks and overgrown woodlands? These are precisely the kinds of thing that are given to us–by architects, by rich people, by nature, for God’s sake. The average person can do little to change how they are made, who they are for or how they work. They might also like Grand Park, or appreciate the new vistas that were opened up by the rhodo removal at Kilmahew.
I guess the point for me, the really basic point that I keep looking for new ways to make, is that things don’t have to be the way they are. Things could be different. We could have public spaces that are both safe and inclusive. We could go halfway at least between destroying rhododendrons and everything in their vicinity, and pruning them. And while it is easy to find a host of logistical and economic and sociopolitical difficulties entailed in any one alternative, it is important not to mistake such difficulties as reasons to accept the inequalities and violence of the status quo. In fact, investigating the difficulties that surround alternatives is in itself an important exercise for seeing what else has to change if we want different relations to land.
Landscape is something we put between ourselves, the land, and its multitude of non-human inhabitants. It is a form of mediation that I believe is worth doing carefully. To the extent that it is made of living things, and shaped by natural forces as well as human processes and practices, it is also a form of mediation that regularly exceeds our intentions and sometimes our control. Even when we design it, I don’t think we always know all that it is going to do to or for us. Paying attention to it is both a way of learning something about ourselves and discovering some of the ways in which we could be different.