Posts by Jessica Roberts

All photos: Jessica Roberts

It was a friend’s wedding responsible for my return to New York. I hadn’t been back since I moved away 2 years ago, and I was excited to revisit the places I once loved, including a place known as Pioneer Works, a cultural center in the community of Red Hook Brooklyn. It didn’t hurt one of my favorite bars is just around the corner.

Even without knowing which exhibitions would be on display this particular day, I dropped by Pioneer Works to stumble upon an incredibly inspiring collection of work by artist, Anthony McCall. Solid Light Works blocks out over thirty feet of vertical clearance, filling multiple rooms with haze and light installations.

A seminal figure of Expanded Cinema, McCall is well known for his “solid-light works”, a series he began in 1973 with the 16mm film, Line Describing a Cone. A volumetric form composed of a beam of projected light slowly evolves in real, three-dimensional space. McCall regards these works as occupying a place somewhere between sculpture, cinema, and drawing. Sculpture, because the projected volumes must be occupied and explored by a moving spectator. Cinema, because these large-scale objects are not static, but structured to progressively shift and change over time. And drawing, because the genesis of each installation is a two-dimensional line-drawing.

As a landscape designer I was struck by the simplicity of the forms and how successful they defined space. Some areas of the installations defined more intimate spaces. Participants laid on the ground within the projected confines of the light, some taking photos, while others just stared up in contemplation. Other areas were more open and horizontal in their projections. These became more social spaces where participants moved their hands in and out of the light. The installation focusing viewers on the interruption of the figure within space defined only by the projection of light.

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Image: Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Touch Sanitation Performance, 1979-1980. Citywide performance with 8,500 Sanitation workers across all 59 New York City Sanitation districts. Courtesy of Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, photo: Robin Holland.

Maintenance is perpetually on my mind while thinking about design and the landscape practice. Not necessarily in the ways one might imagine initially, like the performative aspects of a landscape. Instead, I often think about the ways design and the labor of maintenance are divided. This division has a long chronic history, and informs how we design and what we value in work.

My Working Will be the Work:” Maintenance Art and Technologies of Change by Anna Reser recently inspired contemplation about some of the underpinning systems supporting this division in contemporary culture. It argues there is a prevailing preoccupation with innovation, a cultural obsession which leaves preservation and the hands that labor in service of maintenance in the shadows.

“Maintenance has been long overlooked in favor of a focus on innovation and design practices; the very beginnings of technology have always been more appealing than their often messy or disappointing longer lives.” -Anna Reser

The article focuses on subversive art practices that reveal the invisible labor of marginalized people whose efforts allow privileged – historically “white able-bodied men” – to focus on fetishized “sexy” innovation (my favorite adjective in the design world).

Mierle Laderman Ukles’s “Transfer: The Maintenance of the Art Object” involved performing the duties of a museum janitor; her decision to call the tools of the trade “Maintenance Art Works” made visible the hidden labor required to maintain the various indispensable urban systems we often take for granted. This disruption was political.

“One important aspect of this ‘turn’ to maintenance histories is that the un-and-underpaid labor of women and marginalized people, who are disproportionately relegated to maintenance work, has again become an important site for articulating the history of technology.”

This discourse investigates maintenance and other forms of hidden labor, which I believe could influence and inform a more sensitive, responsive, and empathetic design practice. What kind of design culture will drive solutions to improve our planet? Perhaps, with enough time, a culture with a deep affection for practices continually shaping, sustaining, and fundamentally changing our design objects, sites, and systems.

What would our practice look like as a culture of maintenance rather than a culture of innovation technology? Reser explains the radical nature of Ukles’ art practice, bringing attention to “this invisible work of cleaning, repairing, cooking, and mending Maintenance Art”, forcing our attention into “spaces that had always privileged the result, not the work that sustains it”. I would add that beyond privileging the result over the work that sustains it, a culture of innovation cannot perform as opportunistically in real time. It does not prioritize the response and actual needs of unforeseen forces in a design’s use and performance over time.

Reser’s critique ultimately invites discussion about the design process and social justice. Who innovates? Who maintains? And what actions will promote positive change, as well as preserve it? It’s all up for negotiation. The potential for influence in technologies and labors of maintenance is as much about change as it is about preservation, whether we chose to value it or not.

 

As 2017 year comes to a close, the AHBE LAB contributors are taking time to look back at our year’s worth of posts. We are each identifying the most memorable post and sharing what we found interesting, informative, and inspiring. Enjoy the flashback, and let us know which post you thought was most memorable.

After looking back at our vast collection of posts from this year, it was this photo from Katherine Montgomery’s Rabbit Routes: A Photo Essay that stuck most in my mind. Something about the simplicity of the image and its sensitivity to perspective speaks so poignantly to the kind of empathy I believe is needed to help define and expand ecological thinking.

Not only does this image reinforce how important our urban parks are for animal habitat, but also how important they are for humans in an urban context to form relationships with nonhumans. Katherine’s photograph reminds me to leave room when defining space for others, and inspires me to be sensitive while spending time in the wild in the city. These images help me shift focus when thinking about how to instigate change in how we define ecological design by engaging with, and relating to, existing communities.

The original post here: Rabbit Routes: A Photo Essay

Detail of Teardrop Park; Creative Commons photo by: PROSalim Virji (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Lately, I’ve been looking to re-immerse myself back into the ideas, places, and people that have inspired me in the past.

Being a designer can mean a lot of things. It’s a bit of a roller coaster. Sometimes it’s a large idea that drives my motivation to create. Other times, it might be a tiny detail of where two materials meet one another that inspires me. As convenient and concise as an elevator pitch might be to describe my voice as a designer, my perspective is admittedly rather shifty and loose. My hope is to gain an understanding about how I might shape and translate this looseness without losing the benefits attributed to it in a way that can inform my designs and guide my overall approach.

An essay that helped me understand this urge to create is Warren Seelig’s, “Discovery through Materials” [Seelig, Warren, January 2000, Surface Design Journal;Winter2000, Vol. 24 Issue 2, p22, Trade Publication, Article]. The article focuses on the definition of constructing surface, specifically within the context of contemporary fiber and textile art. Seelig speaks of “artists who construct surface out of a profound need to materialize, to build and to fabricate a visual and psychological field or atmosphere which is tangible and sensational”. The essay focuses on making surfaces by hand, something that ultimately brings a landscape architect’s ideas to life, but through the hands of others. When it comes down to it, we are creating a set of documents choreographing how materials and life are to be shaped. How our ideas emerge during the in-between state is the pursuit.

Seelig writes about how “the most convincing form which comes to us through constructed surface is not related to rendering a picture or three-dimensional form based on a conscious idea.” For Seelig, and perhaps also myself, “it is a more direct expression , where the intellect is short circuited in favor of allowing instinctive behavior rather than rationality to influence decision making”. When you experience a place it is the materiality that you engage with, and it is the expressiveness of that materiality that makes the place memorable and rich.

“It is a phenomenon by which we are drawn to work in reaction to a culture submerged in a glut of text and images, and to an existence where our use of technology (not technology itself) is further distancing us from materiality, from the physical and the sensual”.

Taking cues from art theory can get sticky. Seelig notes that artists can be criticized or be at risk when making something beautiful or emotionally expressive. I would argue that while designers are expected to make something beautiful, the emotionally expressive can be borderline scary, and an endeavor best left to the world of art.  This challenge and expectation complicates the goals of meeting a client and end user’s needs. Seelig’s inclination that “meaning comes through the potency of the materialized surface” strikes me as true, and evokes a plethora of exemplary landscape architecture works that managed to articulate emotions through materiality.

Creative Commons photo: sharon_k (CC BY-SA 2.0)

A project that comes to mind is Michael Van Valkenburg’s Teardrop Park in New York City. The weight given to the materiality of the stone and the desire to bring rural upstate New York into the city enriches the space in ways that only a sensitivity to materials can.

The most successful projects allow for expression to emerge. Constructed surface and form reveals the idea we’ve promised and hope to deliver – not only as a way to indulge our own desire to create, but to create meaningful and impactful spaces for people to experience. In a way, Seelig describes a way for looseness to guide me as a designer: “It is a survival mode, absolutely necessary in that it allows us to remain in touch with the mystery inherent in the world of the physical”.

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I recently finished Latitudes: An Angeleno’s Atlas, a collection of essays and maps describing a plethora of topics related to the City of Angels – from the gridding of the city, ugly buildings, and old cattle trails, to the various locations across LA that inspired famous songs throughout the city’s history. The editor’s excerpt cited below reminded me how much of Los Angeles I’ve imagined through its rich history of music.

Maps of cities usually include streets, freeways, neighborhoods, parks, and other landmarks. But what if the city – like Los Angeles in the dreams of essayist Josh Kun – is made of songs? Listen, figuratively, to Southern California mapped as a conurbation of songs that mirror accents, attitudes, and cultural styles of the people of the region. Only a tiny fraction of the songs written about LA are here, more than enough to get you from Patti Smith’s “Redondo Beach to Bing Crosby’s “San Fernando Valley” without getting lost.

As Sophie Arkette noted, music is capable of altering how we experience the city – the “phenomenological city, the corporeal, sensual, and psychological one we plan ourselves with the music we listen to and make”. Imagining a quick brainstorm of songs, one could guide themselves musically down the length of Sunset Blvd. down to Santa Monica Beach and Malibu, over to nearby Compton. The list of songs to locales stretches across our expansive metropolis.

Map graphic from “LAtitudes: An Angeleno’s Atlas” by Patricia Wakida; from the essay by Josh Kun, “Los Angeles is Singing”.

My original journey to Los Angeles began with a road trip to Chicago from New York City. I was joined by one of my best friends for the leg to LA; she had put together a playlist entitled, “I Love LA”, one that kicked off our journey with Randy Newman’s appropriately spirited, “I Love LA”. I had honestly never heard the song before then (I couldn’t help but laugh the first time I exited a Dodgers game serenaded by the city’s unofficial theme song). We listened to the playlist during our road trip, all the while imagining the places I’d eventually encounter once I became a resident of LA. I had only visited the city once before, and without consciously realizing it, I had already assigned numerous thoughts and opinions about places to these various places I had never been to, but had heard about in songs. From NWA to Joni Mitchel, MacArthur Park to Mulholland Drive, I had already created a musical map.

 

Music about Los Angeles imparts a weight to certain places. I remember spotting the mural portrait of Motorhead’s Ian Fraser “Lemmy” Kilmister  emblazoned across the wall of the Rainbow Bar and Grill on Sunset Blvd in West Hollywood – a bar, street, and neighborhood all referenced in countless songs throughout the city’s history.

I also remember skating at World on Wheels in Mid-City, a spot made famous by Snoop Dogg’s “The Way Life Used to Be”. The storied roller rink once served as the broadcast home for the legendary hip-hop station, KDAY. Rapper Nipsey Hussle referred to World on Wheels with fond reverence, describing it “like the Coliseum, the Forum, like Crenshaw High School, like the Hollywood Sign, you know what I mean?”.

During my first CicLAvia, I remember cruising down Wilshire Blvd. and witnessing a man with an impressively decked out ride blasting Ronnie Hudson and The Street People’s 1982 jam, “West Coast Poplock“. At that moment I knew I liked it here. A song can connect a person to a place, just as effectively as any building or the landscape itself. Music saturates and paints our emotional memories often without us ever realizing it, affecting how we experience a city and forever remember it.

Which songs would you say represent your experiences of the people and places of Los Angeles?

Out on the Weekend – Neil Young
Think I’ll pack it in
and buy a pick-up
Take it down to L.A.
Find a place to call my own
and try to fix up.
Start a brand new day.

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