A Wildness Distant
As Birds Flying
Between the Eye of the Stork and the Eye of the Drone
We Were Lost in Our Country
Sated Like the Memories of the Mountains
in the forest
Entropic Futurity
Of Mountains and Machines
we are opposite like that
For the Reversal of Up and Down
Awd cover 1920px
A Wildness Distant
Organized by the Arthur Ross Architecture Gallery at Columbia GSAPP, A Wildness Distant is an online program that explores landscape as a site of political imagination. It presents a selection of films by contemporary artists alongside new essays that offer fresh, critical readings of each work.

From Arctic glaciers to Alpine slopes, from a tropical forest in Puerto Rico to the wetlands of Egypt to the Australian desert: the constellation of landscapes featured in A Wildness Distant constitutes a filmic journey around the world at a time when a global pandemic has made such an itinerary near impossible. Yet, it is also a moment when climate change is connecting distant parts of the world in previously unimagined ways, producing a chain of environmental effects across continents and oceans that is intensifying the imperative of human migration. Though grounded on a shared earthly surface, the ways that we see, name, negotiate, and dream of its edges are not only radically divergent but also in constant transformation.

Alighting at points scattered across this surface, the films in this program confront the duality of landscapes as sites of memory and of political imagination. In these works, terrains are not cast in picturesque portraits of lands unsullied by human intervention. Nor are they stages for documentary scenes of resource extraction and ecological catastrophe. Instead, the environmental sensorium of varied topographies—icy, rocky, verdant, wet, dry—provides points of entry into the deep histories of landscapes on which the colliding legacies of colonialism, ideologies, and the Anthropocene have been indelibly inscribed. Probing and plunging into the geology, ecosystems, atmospheres, and sublime immeasurability of these sites, the films uncover competing and intertwined realities, both human and non-human, global and local. They engage poetry, music, fiction, interviews, archival material, and humor to nurture new realities, prismatically unearthing multiple pasts and futures.

Contributors to A Wildness Distant include Heba Y. Amin, David Hartt, Lucy Ives, Armin Linke, Shannon Mattern, C.C. McKee, Nat Muller, Tuan Andrew Nguyen, Huhana Smith, and Himali Singh Soin.

“It is in vain to dream of a wildness distant from ourselves. There is none such. It is in the bog in our brains and bowels, the primitive vigour of Nature in us, that inspires that dream. I shall never find in the wilds of Labrador any greater wildness than in some recess of Concord, i.e. than I import into it.”

– Henry David Thoreau, Journal, August 30, 1856
Overview & Schedule
A Wildness Distant unfolded in chapters during Fall 2020. Each chapter included a film, which screened online for a two-week period, and a newly commissioned essay. Following the conclusion of the program, this website features trailers for each film and the accompanying essays.


October 5–18, 2020

FILM: we are opposite like that (2019) by Himali Singh Soin

ESSAY: “For the Reversal of Up and Down” by Lucy Ives

October 19–November 1, 2020

FILM: Alpi (2011) by Armin Linke

ESSAY: “Of Mountains and Machines” by Shannon Mattern

November 9–22, 2020

FILM: in the forest (2017) by David Hartt

ESSAY: “Entropic Futurity” by C.C. McKee

December 7–20, 2020

FILM: As Birds Flying (2016) by Heba Y. Amin

ESSAY: “Between the Eye of the Stork and the Eye of the Drone” by Nat Muller

FILM: We Were Lost In Our Country (2019) by Tuan Andrew Nguyen

ESSAY: “Sated Like the Memories of the Mountains” by Huhana Smith

As Birds Flying
Screened December 7-20, 2020

Heba Y. Amin
As Birds Flying
2016, video 07:11

In a world of political unrest and total surveillance, suspicion and paranoia can become normalized. In 2013, news stories told of a fisherman in Egypt who spotted a migratory stork fitted with an electronic device on its right leg. Fearing foreign tampering, the fisherman reported the bird. The animal was apprehended by the Egyptian authorities on suspicion of espionage. The would-be “spying device” on the stork was later shown to be a scientific tracking device used by Hungarian scientists to follow the stork’s migratory patterns (a follow-up report noted that the stork was released into the wild, captured and eaten).

Heba Y. Amin’s film As Birds Flying (2016) responds to the absurdity of such accusations, which occur in moments of political strain. The short, allegorical film is constructed out of found drone footage of aerial views of savannas and wetlands, including settlements in Galilea—sweeping views that seem to be taken by the “spy” stork in the above story. “Seeing the country from the top is better than seeing it from below,” the soundtrack says, with footage of a bird soaring in the air. Funny, absurd and disconcerting, the video’s suspenseful cinematic soundtrack contains the reconstructed audio sequences of dialogue from Adel Imam’s film Birds of Darkness. In that 1995 film—which tells the story of religious and secular political candidates in Egypt—a toxic mixture of political corruption and religious radicalism is shown to have deleterious effects on society. In the reconstructed dialogue, the characters discuss political sectarianism, censorship, democracy and surveillance. “The law, as it serves the truth, serves the deceit,” says one character.

In its footage of birds flocking or perched alone, the film resonates with contemporary political tensions between individualism and crowds, and questions whether birds of a feather really do flock together. The work also considers what it would look like to take literally the dubious narratives constructed by repressive governments, and the flocks of paranoia and conspiratorial thinking that thus arise.

Text by Pablo Larios; from artist’s website
Camera: Amir Aloni, Heba Amin, Amir Balaban, Yuval Dax, OrangeHD
Audio: The Birds of Darkness – ‫طيور الظلام ‬

Between the Eye of the Stork and the Eye of the Drone
As birds flying, so will the Lord of hosts defend Jerusalem; defending also he will deliver it; and passing over he will preserve it.

– Isaiah 31:5
A lone stork soars in the sky to sentimental music. “Seeing the country from the top, is not like seeing it from below,” a man’s voice muses in Egyptian dialect. The dialogue is taken from Egyptian director Sherif Arafa’s film Birds of Darkness (1995), a comedy addressing ideology, corruption, abuse of power, and social injustice in contemporary Egypt. This image and audio constitute the opening sequence of As Birds Flying (2016) by artist Heba Y. Amin, who in just a few seconds brings together birds, visual hierarchies, national boundaries, and socio-political power structures. The video treats us to spectacular vistas of wetlands, savannahs, and deserts, much of it filmed from a bird’s-eye view through drone technology. It is an instance of cyborgian filmmaking in which bird biology and human technology merge, but equally point to something far more ominous and complex. Storks are migratory birds, wintering in Africa and summering in Europe. They do not care about territorial borders, nation states, and immigration policies as they traverse half the globe to reach their breeding grounds. But humans do: the history of (military) aviation and aerial photography demonstrate that the bird’s-eye view of the ground holds extraordinary political power.1 In fact, it is the staged collapse of animal perspective and human perspective—particularly how landscape is experienced—that makes As Birds Flying so unsettling. As scholar Lina Khatib succinctly puts it: “Much of the political debate in the Middle East revolves around space. Space, both physical and imagined, is not only part of the identity of people, but also a dynamic tool often utilized to define the identity of nations.”2 In other words, national or imperial aspirations are not only tied to how territory is perceived but also to how it can be seen. That is, the idea of mastery from above through aerial imagery equally propels its imaginary. And a controlling, panoptic view from the top —whether from a bird, plane, or drone—enables such a shift.

The erosion of animal/human boundaries produces further anxieties of alterity that national borders and other anthropocentric regulations cannot protect. After all, As Birds Flying is a video devoid of humans in which storks speak and, when taken literally, discuss pecking order and flock behavior. As much as it is a commentary on Egyptian politics, the antagonism between individual and group, and specifically the depletion of political agency after the 2011 uprising, we should also read this work beyond its allegorical implications. As Birds Flying holds a speculative promise if we wilfully abandon animal/human dichotomies. What if we strive “to put ourselves in the place of the animal other and experience the world from an estranged point of view,”3 whether it be from above or from below? Could the dissolve between animal/human/Other lead to a way of seeing that is different—more inclusive, less based on binaries? Could it inaugurate one of the stork protagonist’s wishes that “[f]rom now on there is a new world”? The video transports us into an animal ecology and yet keeps us firmly anchored in the realm of the human. The rub, and at times confusion, between these two worlds, between bird-as-bird and bird-as-metaphor, between the eye of the stork and the eye of the drone, destabilizes ways of being and ways of knowing the world. In Egypt, since the mass demonstrations toppled Mubarak’s 30-year rule in February 2011, the short-lived presidency of Mohamed Morsi, and the coup d’état and ruthless ascendancy to power by General Abdul Fatah al-Sisi in 2014, making sense of the world has become befuddling indeed. In this political climate, opposition to and dissent from the regime is often blamed on foreign conspiracies and the intervention of enemy agents that in this context could even be interspecies.

In 2013 Egyptian and international newspapers ran the story of a stork detained by the authorities and held on suspicion of espionage in the Upper-Egypt city of Qena.4 The bird was fitted with a tracking device, which was the cause of security concerns, though it was later confirmed to have been placed by Hungarian researchers studying migration. However, amidst increasing xenophobia, deliberately cultivated and whipped up by the regime, the animal was a prime example of radical alterity, being neither Egyptian nor human. There have been other accounts of zoological espionage in the region. Often believed to be sent by the Israeli Mossad, dolphins, sharks, vultures, and even squirrels have been suspected of secret surveillance missions.5 The weaponization of animals in counterintelligence and warfare is not novel, as Amin’s research for a related project, The General’s Stork (2016-ongoing), shows.6 But in As Birds Flying, with its absence of human commanders, it is unclear at whose behest the birds operate. In one scene we see a phalanx of storks lined up as if they were in a platoon, ready for combat. It is no accident that the collective noun for a group of storks refers to a body of troops standing in close formation. A voice barks: “Soldiers, gather at the tent! Good, take your place!” The threat of avian invasion is palpable enough, yet whether these animals intend to assist humans or plot to disrupt animal-human hierarchies remains to be seen. Since the advent of human aviation and its use in warfare the skies are no longer innocent. As Birds Flying suggests that perhaps they have never been.

Moreover, the biblical quote that opens this essay, from which the video borrows its title, underlines that winged combat as a means to conquer territory has a long history in the region. This ranges from divine intervention to the more profane business of military conflict. Lord Edmund Allenby, a British General and the High Commissioner of Egypt, captured Jerusalem from the Ottoman army in 1917 and put an end to 400-years of Ottoman rule over the city. Allenby, whose name in Arabic sounds like Al-Nabi (the prophet), was regarded by the city’s inhabitants as a “son of god” who liberated Jerusalem from the Turks. He was also known to keep a pet marabou stork that frequently appears at his side in photographs. There are several possible readings of this ostentatious human-bird alliance. Foremost it establishes Allenby as a colonial overlord who can show off this domesticated wild bird as a trophy of empire. The bird’s subjugation to Allenby for food and shelter places it in a relationship echoing the treatment of colonial subjects, stripped of subjectivity and at the mercy of its colonial masters.7 In addition, marabou storks are not indigenous to Egypt; their habitat lies in Africa, south of the Sahara. As such, the bird would have been perceived as exotic and foreign. Its domestication was an embodiment of British imperial prowess over foreign lands and a motive to drive further imperialist expansion. As Sherryl Vint confirms: “Animals were among the main resources taken from the colonies during the period of imperial conquest.”8 In this colonial setting, difference and power between white British privileged man and displaced captured African bird is reproduced incessantly. But what if we flip the narrative to the stork’s perspective and imagine that it is instead an animal infiltrating the world of humans, masquerading as a bestial companion, attempting to glean intelligence. What new light do those avian machinations cast on human-animal relations? What if the bird is ingeniously playing the longue durée of history and imperceptibly disrupting human intent?

Humans are absent in As Birds Flying and markers of human habitation are scant, except for footage that captures storks flying over settlements in the Galilee in northern Israel. This harks back to Lord Allenby’s military campaign in Palestine against the Ottoman Empire in 1917, the year of the Balfour Declaration in which the British government supported the establishment of a national homeland for the Jewish people in Palestine; it is a historical document that continues to impact the region to this day. In the video it is impossible to discern if the footage is taken from within Israel’s Green Line or filmed in the occupied Golan Heights. However, the architecture echoes the type of predatory bird’s-eye view layout of Israeli settlements on the hilltops of the Palestinian West Bank. Eyal Weizmann and Rafi Segal have detailed how the “optical-planning” of Israeli settlements combine security concerns, tactical strength, and a panoramic view to exercise maximum surveillance and control.9 But now the birds have returned, and they have the highest vantage point over the landscape. For them, this is not a contested piece of land wrapped up in a protracted conflict over territory, resources, ownership, origin, and identity. To birds, this is just a stretch of land to fly over. But is the matter that simple? The video sows enough doubt to challenge this. The sequence of the flock of birds crowding the screen, hovering over the settlements below, resembles a squadron of fighter jets locked on target, a menace to the human habitat. With human life dwarfed, does the allegory of the video collapse here, after all? Is the attack of the birds merely a fight for survival in a rough neighborhood, threatened by climate change and irreversible environmental damage, or does it allude to something else? The video leaves ample ambiguity to grapple with, as it veers between vertical and horizontal axes, between zoological image and anthropocentric dialogue, and between nature and artifice. As Birds Flying interrogates power and agency, but does not define a priori whose. The work asks us to rethink relations of justice between self and Others of diverse flock and feather, whether human or avian. If birds and humans are to inhabit both the earth and the sky, then it is high time to negotiate a new multispecies pact. The words to the closing scene offer an opportunity to that end: “The window is open. The agreement must be out in the open.”

  1. For an insightful discussion relating to Amin’s work, see: Heba Y. Amin and Anthony Downey, “Contesting Post‑Digital Futures: Drone Warfare and the Geo‑Politics of Aerial Surveillance in the Middle East,” Digital War, 2020.
  2. Lina Khatib, Filming the Modern Middle East. Politics in the Cinemas of Hollywood and the Arab World (London: I.B. Tauris, 2006), 15.
  3. Sherryl Vint, Animal Alterity: Science Fiction and the Question of the Animal (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2010), 15.
  4. See Patrick Kingsley, “Eyes on storks? Egyptian fisherman thought bird was foreign spy, The Guardian, September 2, 2013.
  5. See Austin Federa, “Are these animals spies? This one was behind bars.The World, January 28, 2016.
  6. See Anthony Downey, ed., Research/Practice 02: Heba Y. Amin. The General’s Stork (Berlin: Sternberg Press/M.I.T. Press, 2020).
  7. Vint, Animal Alterity: Science Fiction and the Question of the Animal, 113.
  8. Vint, 112.
  9. See Rafi Segal and Eyal Weizman, “The Mountain. Principles of Building in Heights,” in A Civilian Occupation: The Politics of Israeli Architecture, ed. Rafi Segal and Eyal Weizman (London: Verso Books, 2003), 78–96.

We Were Lost in Our Country
Screened December 7-20, 2020

Tuan Andrew Nguyen
We Were Lost In Our Country
2019, 3-channel video installation, 32 min, color, 5.1 surround sound

The Ngurrara Canvas II is many things to many people. But to the Ngurrara people it is a map, made from memory, of a place where their ancestors lived for over 60,000 years. It is a direct connection to their land—a country where kartiya (non-Aboriginal people) could not live in, because the desert is an impossible environment without knowledge of how to hunt, gather, and find water. The canvas is a strong symbol of solidarity, and of resistance to the colonial project that attempted to decimate the Ngurrara’s connection to their land—now known generically as the Great Sandy Desert.

The film explores the complex mechanisms and traces of memory, over twenty years after the Ngurrara Canvas II was painted at Pirnini. With the gradual passing of the elders, some of whom were painters of the canvas, younger generations—who already suffer from intergenerational trauma for events they have not directly experienced or are not always aware of—are at risk of further disconnection. (In 2011, Australian Aboriginal youth accounted for eighty percent of total suicides in Australia. To this day, the Kimberley region has the highest suicide rate in the world.) However, the post-Native Title context also opens up new ways for those who come in the aftermath of the Ngurrara Canvas’ achievements and legacy to relate, understand, and create country, culture, and identity.

We Were Lost in Our Country explores questions of personal agency, inherited trauma, and intergenerational transmission, through a conversation among ancestors and descendants. As the voices of the young find their bearings and make their mark on the words of their ancestors, Tuan Andrew Nguyen accesses a past-and-present history of the canvas—a history of displaced memory and of its recreation.

Text from artist’s website.

Co-comissioned by Sharjah Architecture Triennial and the School of Architecture, University of Technology Sydney
Courtesy the artist and James Cohan Gallery, NY

Made in collaboration with the Ngurrara People of the Great Sandy Desert, Western Australia
Production Coordinator/Location Sound: Jane Pujols
Cinematography: Andrew Yuyi Truong
First Assistant camera: Allison Nakamura
Voice Talent: Ainsley Bent O’Connor, Jamin Bent, Annette Puruta Wayawu Kogolo
Sound Design and Mixing: Vick Vo Hoang, Wallsound

Sated Like the Memories of the Mountains
The title of this essay draws from an email that chimed into my inbox as I was re-watching We Were Lost in Our Country (2019), a poignant and reverberating film about the monumental Ngurrara Canvas II (1996).1 The film, by artist Tuan Andrew Nguyen, weaves together archival and recently shot footage of the Great Sandy Desert in Western Australia. It brings together its indigenous residents—the Walmajarri, Wangkajunga, Mangala and Juwaliny, distinct language groups who are the original “owners” and past/present/future custodians of their lands. The film traces the history of this extraordinary, collaborative painting: a cognitive map created to assert and preserve their native title rights and to protect a legacy for future generations.

The email I refer to came from a fellow academic colleague, Warren Maxwell, who is completing his Master’s degree through our College of Creative Arts at Massey University in Te Whanganui a Tara (Wellington); I am his second supervisor. He addressed both his first supervisor and me from a distinctly Māori worldview perspective. His salutation expressed his hope that we were both “sated like the memories of mountains.” It was a highly relevant message that has helped me contextualize my reading of this most significant film. Slipping effortlessly into my inbox across cyberspace, over the Rimutaka mountain range that demarcates Warren’s home of residence for the last fourteen years in Paetūmōkai, to this Te Ātiawa tribal place upon which the city of Te Whanganui a Tara stands, his message acknowledged interrelationships and interdependencies that indigenous people share with their natural world: their geological landmarks and waterbodies, their related biodiversity or resources of place—all are regarded as kin to humankind. There is also no separation between material and spiritual realms, an understanding that those with whakapapa Māori, or Māori genealogies, recognize immediately.

Allow me to elaborate further. Warren Maxwell (Ngāti Whare, Ngāi Te Reu, Ngāti Rakaipaaka, Ngāi Te Rangi, Scottish)2 is an esteemed contemporary Māori musician who has had a considerable influence upon the contemporary blues/roots music scene of Aotearoa (New Zealand). His first supervisor, Hemi Macgregor (Ngāti Rakaipaaka, Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāi Tūhoe) is also a leading Māori visual artist and academic who works across sculpture, painting, installation, video, marae3 , and public art. Warren wished us both comfort in the knowledge that each of our distinct mountains within Aoteaora satisfy us as memorialization to our ancestral kin, and as continuously revered in a kei mua/kei muri time continuum.4 In this simple but poignant way, he accentuated each of our personal turangawaewae, or places to stand. He indirectly invoked Māori ways of introducing oneself to others by announcing peoples and locations within place. For those listening, reciting pepeha can further deepen other interconnections to other peoples and to place through past encounters or engagements. Pepeha signify that we are not alone but belong to iwi, hapū and whanau (Māori tribal groupings) and to key natural features like rivers, seas, and mountains. Our connection to place is also reiterated via significant kōrero tuku iho, or stories of place, that have been generated and passed on over many generations—from the time our ancestors translocated from islands across Te Moana nui a Kiwa (Pacific Ocean) to Aotearoa today. Each narrative of place emphasizes that our islands of Aotearoa are a distinct grounding from which to exercise mana whenua, or authority over land, as embedded tangata whenua, or people of the land, with indigenous rights. These rights are enacted through the Treaty of Waitangi5 and contemporary claims and processes that aim to overcome past injustices, with adequate redress to ensure that Māori can thrive again into the future.

With all this in mind, and as someone engaging with the story of the Ngurrara Canvas II and its indigenous peoples of the desert, it is therefore important to me that I introduce myself to the reader and my connections to my own people and place. If I was asked “Nō hea koe?” (“Where are you from?”)6 , I would reply in this way:

Taku turanga ake ki runga ki ngā maunga titohea o te takiwā nei, ko Tararua, Ōtararere, ko Poroporo, ko Pukeātua, ki ngā wai ora, ki ngā wai puna, ki ngā wai tuku kiri o te iwi, ko Ōhau, Ko Waikōkopu, ko Kuku, ko Tikorangi, ko Mangananao, ko Te Mateawa, ko Te Rangitāwhia, ko Ngāti Manu, ko Patumākuku, ko Ngāti Kapumanawawhiti o te rohe ki te iwi nei o Ngāti Tūkorehe.
Ko Tainui te waka
Ko Tararua te pae maunga
Ko Ōhau te awa
Ko Ngāti Tukorehe te iwi
Ko Ngāti Tukorehe te marae
Ko Te Mateawa, ko Te Rangitāwhia, ko Kapumanawawhiti ōku hapū
Ko Āni rāua ko Rameka Wehipeihana ōku mātua tupuna, nō Kuku, Horowhenua.
Ko Parewai Wehipeihana rāua ko Arthur Holder ōku kaumātua, nō Kuku, Horowhenua hoki
Ko Netta (nō Kuku, Horowhenua) rāua ko Adrian Smith (nō Savernake, Ahitereiria) ōku mātua
Ko Huhana Smith taku ingoa.

In this answer I do not diminish my Irish, English, or Scottish heritages, however I locate myself comfortably amongst my Māori relations and my place to stand with a mountain-to-sea perspective, from which we name each waterway that flows to the sea according to the feats of ancestors, or the fish or fiber resources within and beside them. Thus I also draw myself together with the ancestral migrating waka, or double-hulled ocean-voyaging canoe, from Pacific Islands, the exploits of my Māori ancestors, to my iwi and hapū who have been the occupying people of place for over 800 years. I acknowledge my whanau, or family, and then highlight individuals like my great grandparents (Māori and Māori-Scottish), my grandparents (English and Māori-Scottish), and my own mother (Māori-Scottish-English) and my father (Irish/English). Additionally, my Māori pepeha honors this customary context of whakapapa as an essential expression of whanaungatanga: a process of making sense of complex, intricate familial relationships within a broader cosmology in which Papatūānuku and Ranginui are the ultimate parents of Māori, their offspring are environmental entities and properties, and where all peoples, their lands, and entities therein are all related as kin. As esoteric knowledge leader Reverend Māori Marsden has stated, “Papatūānuku is our mother and deserves our love and respect. She is a living organism with her own biological systems for all her children whether man, animal, bird, tree, grass, microbes or insects.”8

Māori whakapapa, or intricate kinship systems, can illuminate tangible and intangible relationships between one’s tupuna, or ancestors; related iwi, hapū and whānau, or family groups; lands, waterways, and the natural world. While the protagonists within We Were Lost in Our Country have a different ancestry than mine, we share similar deep kinship relationships. While I acknowledge their distinctness to a Māori world, they too are also anchored by a highly complex framework of knowing the world. We see examples of this in the film through the artists’ emphasis on the shared importance of jila, or sustaining waterholes, and how these support peoples’ livelihoods within the rich biodiversity of the desert lands. The forty artists involved in the making of the Ngurrara Canvas II spanned four different language groups, each ascertaining upon the collaborative painting their presence and existence with and within lands. Their shared focus manifests through intricate visuals, language, and waterhole songs that invite others to understand that presence and existence. This is where I consider that deeper notions and intimate knowledges of place might have been somewhat “lost” on those who have never been on their country; despite this, the canvas most powerfully achieved its ultimate purpose. Yet as the film also shows, current generations do still feel the impacts of loss and trauma created by disassociation from place, as Crown laws, as well as highly competitive pastoralist and mining interests, have exacerbated complexities and tensions that obstruct indigenous obligations to place. It is in this way also that the film resonates with me.

Born and raised in Australia, I returned “home” to Aotearoa in the summer of 1992-93 and later came to live in Kuku, Horowhenua in 1997. I arrived in Kuku at a moment when peoples from my generation were renewing and accelerating their obligations and responsibilities to place. We actively addressed the disjuncture many of us had experienced when we, as genealogically related peoples, became disconnected from the cultural significance of our ancestral landscapes. This was due to a combination of factors: the legacy of colonial regimes and imposition of law9 ; the alienation of lands; migrations of our families to cities or other countries; revised, exclusionary histories by dominating forces; and a range of ongoing disturbances that arose from competing economic interests—in agriculture, horticulture, forestry, development, among others—and were exacted by central, regional, and local governments. When I first arrived back in Aotearoa from Melbourne, the Mabo deliberations overturned terra nullius and activated Native Title processes. Our collective intergenerational action was set in motion in 1995, in the midst of all my concurrent and ongoing research. And a year later, elsewhere, the phenomenal Ngurrara Canvas II came into being. These were critical times, indeed. Members of my generation were being led by elders and healers who asked us to act concertedly to overcome decline in mauri, or the environmental health of our ancestral landholdings. To this end, we have since managed to prevail over many of the sources of manifested dysfunction that beset us as related peoples (a little like the grog that was killing the sons of one of the canvas painters who appears in the film). Now more than ever, with climate change underway, we are incumbent to take on the work of elders no longer with us.

We act strongly to protect our ancestral and cultural landscape, our resources and natural environment remaining in Māori land tenure. We tackle the ongoing ill-effects that arise from waterway pollution, contamination, and desecration of mauri, the life vitality of revered places, and of our taonga, the treasured species within our natural environments. For our communities who were once highly reliant upon lands and waterways, abject agricultural pollution over the last forty years led to disquiet, disunity, and fragmentation. In one generation we were divorced from safe food-gathering activities. In many ways, we witnessed similar realities to those relayed in the film’s portrayal of the Ngurrara peoples. Many a time we, too, felt lost or overwhelmed by economic objectives or other pressures that belied any inherent sacredness of known places, or failed to maintain cultural integrity in the midst of economic growth.10 Since 1997 (when the Ngurrara submitted the painting to the Native Title Tribunal as active kaitiaki, or environmental guardians) we have navigated considerable complexity to ensure our remaining cultural and spiritual values are now recognized, reconciled with, respected, and protected today. We have developed local Māori knowledge and how it might contribute to improving the environmental conditions for lands and waterways, all the while re-enhancing iwi and hapū interrelationships that re-nurture community wellbeing, restore fragmented ecological systems, and heal our communities.

In helping to contextualize my reactions to We Were Lost in Our Country within a Māori experience of peoples, place, space, and time, Warren’s email serendipitously aligns with the many themes within the film. We know our people occupied and generated an intimacy with the environment and shaped the landscape through their human actions and influences over time. Our people lived, procreated, died, and sustained themselves by their seafaring, fishing, gardening, and housing skills using natural resources, consistent with Pacific island living adapted over generations to suit the temperate climates of Aotearoa. We entreated spiritual entities and their associated environmental properties. We supported ourselves with knowledge systems based on generations of understanding, brought about from talking about place, observing place, and developing place in a detailed way.11

But if I was to look into the experiences of each of us—Warren, Hemi, or myself—we might all personally relate similar kinds of experiences to those of the protagonists in the film. We were ones who grew up away from ancestral places to stand. I imagine we might share stories of intergenerational dysfunction; a reliance on non-Māori ways of existing; perhaps an experience of depression as inherited trauma; or conversely, we might have relied on substances for a time that numbed the impact of not knowing one’s true self—especially in relation to our rights to access Māori indigenous knowledge systems or worldviews. Each of us has negotiated complex returns to place, relying on the observational memories and testimonies of others, particularly parent(s) or grandparents, or other relations who were raised on their country. We took on their stories or memories of place, which then become the bases for us to develop new stories of place. Now residing in Kuku, observing Kuku, and being connected to Kuku by whakapapa, I have a similar experience to Hemi and Warren: all in our own home bases, we are able to carry within us the capacity to remember futures by recalling the past.12 Thankfully, today we are more greatly aligned to our ancestral contexts, to each of our wā kainga as our primary or secondary home places; we are able to take part in language revitalization for everyday use; to live better according to tikanga, or protocols, and to roles within our Māori home or adopted home communities.

I feel deeply for the younger generations who appear in We Were Lost in Our Country and reveal how disassociation has affected them. They yearn to know more about their lands, their stories, and songs of place. They want to engage more meaningfully with their rightful place as the true custodians of their lands. The Ngurrara Canvas II is a bold and vibrant cognitive map of their particular ecosystems, which highlights how deeply indigenous, customary, or traditional knowledges are rooted in local culture, where knowledge generated is a source of “knowing” cosmology that is inseparable from the “multiple tasks of living well in a specific place over a long period of time.”13 Similarly, the canvas carries compelling indigenous ideas on ecological and sustainable systems that are location-specific—locations where the peoples’ experiences of place are based on unique relationships between particular social, cultural, and intricate ecological bonds. In advocating their elders’ interpretations of place according to what had been transposed to them or garnered from their own cognitive maps of reasoning, intuition, and perception over time, this cultural and artistic collective spanning four language groups have created a most tangible reconnection to country based on the life-sustaining jila, or waterholes. A deep valuing of place must underpin new and innovative approaches to ensure meaningful returns to country, to reconnect younger generations to ancestral place, and to overcome histories of dispossession and injustice.

In 1996 the 80-square-meter Ngurrara Canvas II was laid out upon the land so that the living presence of country—with its interwoven details, memories, waterholes, and accompanying stories of spirit—could be collated. Then in 1997 it was “laid at the feet of the Native Title Tribunal.”14 Today, this canvas map continues to reverberate resoundingly. It links viewers with stories and details of intimate relationships to country—including even fragile relationships, since at the time of its making some of the artists had only just returned to the ancestral place from which they were taken as children. Now with its making and history documented within the film We Were Lost in Our County, future generations can hold fast to this highly treasured canvas, particularly as they negotiate the complexity of sustaining integral tribal relationships to land in the present and into a precarious future.

The creation of the Ngurrara Canvas II harnessed indigenous artmaking according to deep cultural context and protocol in order to ensure that a vast tract of country is officially recognized as belonging to its original peoples; reciprocally, and crucially, it also reaffirmed that they belong to country. Even so, perhaps one is left with only a limited understanding of this intimate relationship. What does it truly mean to ask the water snake how to live? How might water recognize you? Where do family boundaries end and people are able to safely pass? Did the adjudicators know that jila people are the rainmakers? Close associations to place, built up over 40,000 years, have been eroded away across generations or thwarted by the compounding effects of the State; indeed, it is critical to acknowledge and never understate the extent and scope of State damage. And yet, profound indigenous processes of knowing, as so ably laid down in the Ngurrara Canvas II via vivid acrylic color, cannot be entirely unraveled by State structures and methods. Rather than pursue a lengthy (State-designed) Native Title legal case, instead the Ngurrara Canvas II artists corralled their creative potential as an ultimate act of indigenous artistic resistance and self-determination to create a living document of being on and with country, always.

With the compelling film We Were Lost in Our Country, Nguyen has created another type of living document with the Walmajarri, Wangkajunga, Mangala and Juwaliny peoples, whose words, voices and faces, expressions and exchanges become interconnected. Their map encapsulates the aspirations of ancestors—the indigenous artists who have passed—but also highlights the potential responsibilities for next generations. So, along with the map, the film demonstrates another significant form of artmaking that also has the potential to fortify these generational bonds.15 It emphasizes the temerity and strength of current custodial leaders, who see “talking to young generations, as like talking to unborn plants and animals,” whilst simultaneously rebuilding relationships between peoples and country. To this end, the Walmajarri, Wangkajunga, Mangala and Juwaliny peoples will become sated with the memories of their mountains, their waterholes, and their everything within their country, for all their future generations’ benefit. They can thus reimagine their past/present/future, their lands, mountains, foothills, waterholes, and rivers in the knowledge that their country is truly, only and utterly theirs—always was and always will be—where they are not lost anymore in this knowing, only buoyed by the obligations to reconnect their current and future generations to home place.
  1. David Neustein, “A traditional landscape: The UAE hosts a rare public exhibition for the colossal native title painting Ngurrara Canvas II,” The Monthly, October 2019.
  2. Whakapapa is a genealogical reference system that is fundamental to proclaiming Māori identity, places of origin, and links to lands (even former Pacific island homelands), tribal groupings, and to the mana, or authority of place. Whakapapa remains the essential expression of whanaungatanga, or intricate kin relationships between the wider cosmology, peoples, environmental properties, lands and waterways, and all within them.
  3. Māori communal complex based on the ancestral ties to marae or sacred atea (ritualized spaces) from the islands of the Pacific.
  4. The word mua means “the front,” as in kei mua / i te whare (“at the front, or in front / of the house”) – but it can also mean “the past.” This is a Māori worldview inherent in te reo, or Māori language. In English it is usual to think of “the past” as being “behind” oneself. In te reo, however, “the past” is considered “in front of” oneself, because it has preceded or “gone before” the present. In a similar, manner kei muri / i te whare can mean “at the back / of the house” (or “behind the house”) but muri can also refer to “the future,” or that which is yet to come. Hence the Māori concept of time relates to “walking backwards into the future.”
  5. The Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840 between Māori tribal leaders and colonial agents with key promises enshrined between the parties. The aim was to ensure recognition, understanding, and respect for the mana and rangatiratanga as autonomy and customary authority of iwi, hapū and whānau, as guaranteed and confirmed particularly under Article II of the signed covenant. See https://teara.govt.nz/en/treaty-of-waitangi for greater detail. Today, final claims research is being conducted through the Crown Forest Rental Trust and Waitangi Tribunal, as set up by the Treaty of Waitangi Act 1975 and its expansion of purpose in 1985. The Waitangi Tribunal is a permanent commission of inquiry that makes recommendations on claims brought by Māori relating to Crown actions, which breached the promises made in the articles of the Treaty of Waitangi. The Tribunal seeks to redress the adverse actions of Crown agencies. Any redress aims to uphold our guarantee of maintaining rangatiratanga as hapū and iwi over our waterways and lands. Despite the context of these historic Crown failures and ongoing legacies for today, Treaty Claims research provides a strong basis for re-valuing and prioritizing actions over our waterbodies and associated freshwater resources into the marine environment as contemporary acts of rangatiratanga and active kaitiakitanga.
  6. This is a Māori way of seeking knowledge of the whereabouts of a person and their ancestors in regard to where upon the islands of Aotearoa they originated from. It is a premise upon which to build further connections to others.
  7. My standing place is upon the mountains of this area named Tararua, Ōtararere, Poroporo, Pukeātua, before the healing waters, springs, and waters that refresh the skin of my tribe named Ōhau River (after an ancestor Haunuiananaia) Waikōkopu (after native trout), Kuku, Tikorangi, Mangananao (to capture fish with your hands) Streams, and which all benefit my hapū known as Te Mateawa, Te Rangitāwhia, Ngāti Manu, Patumākuku and Ngāti Kapumanawawhiti (collectives of family group kin) of this region, and to my eponymous tribe, Ngāti Tūkorehe. Tainui is the name of our migratory canoe, Tararua is our mountain range, Ōhau is my river, Ngāti Tukorehe the tribe, Ngāti Tukorehe the marae or communal home, Te Mateawa, Te Rangitāwhia and Kapumanawawhiti are my hapū, with Āni and Rameka Wehipeihana my great grandparents of Kuku, Horowhenua. Parewai Wehipeihana and Arthur Holder are my grandparents who are also from Kuku, Horowhenua. Netta my mother is from Kuku, Horowhenua too and Adrian Smith my father is from Savernake, New South Wales in Australia. They are my parents. My name is Huhana Smith.
  8. Reverend Māori Marsden, The Woven Universe: Selected writings of Reverend Maori Marsden, ed. Te Ahukaramu Charles Royal, Estate of Reverend Māori Marsden (Te Wānanga o Raukawa: Ōtaki, 2003), 45.
  9. See Adrian Lahoud and Andrea Bagnato, eds., Rights of Future Generations: Conditions (Sharjah: Sharjah Archictecture Triennial; Berlin: Hatje Cantz; Beirut: Arab Institute for Research and Publishing, 2019).
  10. S.M. Smith, “Hei whenua ora: hapū and iwi approaches for reinstating valued ecosystems within cultural landscape,” unpublished PhD thesis, Te Pūtahi ā Toi, School of Māori Studies, Massey University, Palmerston North (2007), 13.
  11. Tove Skutnabb-Kangas, Linguistic Genocide in Education: or Worldwide Diversity and Human Rights? (Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Inc., 2000), 94.
  12. Smith, “Hei whenua ora: hapū and iwi approaches for reinstating valued ecosystems within cultural landscape,” unpublished PhD thesis.
  13. Madhu Suri Prakash, 1999, “Indigenous Knowledge Systems: Ecological Literacy through Initiation into People’s Science,” in L.M. Semali and J.L. Kincheloe, eds., What is Indigenous Knowledge? Voices from the Academy, Indigenous Knowledge and Schooling Series (New York: Falmer Press), 166.
  14. Neustein, “A traditional landscape.”
  15. An important comment that arose via personal email communication with Irene Sunwoo during the development of this essay.
in the forest
Screened November 9–22, 2020

David Hartt
in the forest
2017, HD video, 20:01

David Hartt’s film in the forest revisits Habitat Puerto Rico, an unfinished project conceived by Moshe Safdie in 1968. Launched just one year after Safdie completed Habitat ‘67—a model housing development created for Expo 67 in Montreal—Habitat Puerto Rico was one of several iterations of that visionary project that the architect developed for New York, Israel, and Singapore, among other cities. For San Juan, Puerto Rico, Safdie adapted Habitat’s architectural system of prefabricated concrete modules in a design that would have provided 800 low-cost dwelling units for moderate-income families, each with a private garden and views of the city. A number of significant constraints, however, hindered its realization. Unlike in Montreal, it was not possible to build a factory in close proximity to the sites—a setback that informed the size and hexagonal form of the modular units, which were consequently designed for transport by highway or barge. Additionally, early on, political and economic forces complicated and ultimately halted the project, which was financed by American developers through a federal housing subsidy.

Nearly fifty years after Habitat Puerto Rico was launched, in the forest returns to its sites: the wooded hillside of the Bosque Urbano de San Patricio; an alternate site at Berwyn Farm in the Carolina municipality, just east of San Juan (where construction started after the hillside was deemed untenable); as well as a number of remote locations around the island where modules have been abandoned or repurposed. Investigating the relationship between ideology, architecture, and the environment, Hartt’s meditative film—its title borrowed from a chapter of Claude Lévi-Strauss’ 1955 memoir Tristes Tropiques—captures the remains of Safdie’s project. Featuring long takes of the weathered modules surrounded by the encroaching jungle, and environmental recordings layered with an original composition by electronic musician Karl Fousek, in the forest offers a pensive study of this unrealized architectural experiment, recontextualized within the political and economic struggles of contemporary Puerto Rico.
in the forest was commissioned by the Graham Foundation, with additional support from Oakville Galleries.

Entropic Futurity
Variegated shades of green and brown foliage dominate the camera frame, a stark and muted contrast to the sapphire blue of the cloud-dappled sky. A forested hill topped with a radio tower marks this place—the Bosque Urbano de San Patricio, an urban nature preserve in San Juan, Puerto Rico—and interrupts the transition from a green suburb to the capital’s dense center, visible on the horizon. But where are we in the frame? We are not yet in the forest, the title of David Hartt’s 2017 film, which announces our destination. Rather, we hover above it, inhabiting the roving eye of a drone camera surveying one site of Habitat Puerto Rico, an unfinished edition of Moshe Safdie’s iconic modular urban housing development that the Canadian architect debuted at Expo 67 in Montreal and subsequently envisioned for other cities around the world. Begun in 1968, the project was abandoned in 1973, and the 30 modules produced (ten percent of the estimated total) were distributed throughout the island. Before we encounter the sites of these architectural remnants in the film, a sense of static impermanence unfolds as a series of establishing shots capture the threshold where nature abuts culture. Trees and foliage take on a lively presence when set against bi-level homes and rival the commanding Borinquen Towers, Puerto Rico’s first completed high-rise development. A lack of embodied human presence makes its residue—in lawns, asphalt, and the voyeuristic glance into a backyard pool—feel intrusive and ephemeral, a palpable tension heightened when the movement of roofers, a jet, or a semi-truck find their way into the frame. This juxtaposition stages an important contrast that develops over the course of the film: the opening frame relegates quotidian urban life to an outline on the margins, and subsequently homes in on the forest’s vibrant forms of non-human animacy that cohabitate and reinvigorate its concrete architectural relics.

With its assemblage of panning aerial footage and closeup shots of Habitat’s various terrains, Hartt’s in the forest stills and quiets the imbrication of architectural decay and environmental florescence to meditate on the Puerto Rican landscape as a site of generative, recursive chaos rippling out from the Caribbean island ecology. Chaos, in the sense I ascribe it here, refutes the enduring colonialist vision of the Antilles as either a site of touristic leisure and plenitude or of recurring social and environmental disaster. Rather, following the Cuban novelist and theorist Antonio Benítez-Rojo, “Chaos looks toward everything that repeats, reproduces, grows, decays, unfolds, flows, spins, vibrates, seethes.” In Benítez-Rojo’s formulation chaos does not imply disorder as a macroscopic telos of degeneration on island scale. Instead, it manifests as a distinctly ordered entropic orientation in the Caribbean, a cyclical striving toward “where every repetition is a practice that necessarily entails a difference and a step toward nothingness.”1 Hartt’s essayistic approach to the dispersed ruins of Safdie’s unrealized Habitat offers a lens to scrutinize the temporal relationships between past and present in the Puerto Rican landscape. Attuned to the other-than-human agencies that assert themselves between and within the built environment, in the forest invites the viewer to contemplatively tarry in the entropic futurity specific to contemporary ecological politics in “the world’s oldest colony.”

While ecological cycles were not necessarily front-of-mind when Habitat Puerto Rico was conceptualized in the 1960s, its modular adaptability lends itself to an interrogation of the relationship between the built and natural environment. At Canada’s 1967 Universal Exposition, Safdie’s utopian mixed-use construction exemplified contemporary architectural experiments in both prefabrication and communal urban living. Commissioned by American developers the following year, Safdie developed Habitat Puerto Rico as an extension of a project that, he argued, could thrive in any national context, and recast the housing development as an innovative integration of modular architecture into an archipelagic Caribbean ecosystem. A factory was built on Puerto Rico and construction of the hexagonal concrete units began, with the ultimate aim of “shipping modules to all parts of Puerto Rico and by barge to the Virgin Islands and, eventually, to islands further away.”2 This brief account of the architect’s rationalist perspective on distribution gestures toward the imposition of a hypothetically infinite architectural system meant to order the chaotic fecundity of the Caribbean landscape.

Produced during the fiftieth anniversary of Habitat ’67, Hartt’s in the forest shifts our view away from Safdie’s success in the settler-colonial North to linger in the tropical-colonial South that thwarted the architect’s model for global modular building practices. Habitat Puerto Rico was plagued by financial and bureaucratic obstacles that proved insurmountable.3 Hartt’s opening shots of the San Patricio hill unravel the utopic tropical transliteration of Habitat as imagined in a model photograph produced by Safdie’s studio [fig. 1]. The orderly honeycomb joins the slope of the hill; reminiscent of a ziggurat, its imposing presence juts into the sky. Bathed in raking eastern light, the photograph images the concrete units at dawn. This temporality of progress and spatiality of architectural order, however, was an artifice that could only manifest in the studio.

A 1969 cartoon titled Ja…ja…bitat by Puerto Rican illustrator Enver Azizi turns the cool aestheticism of Safdie’s photograph on its head [fig. 2]. Habitat is neither isolated nor integrated into its site—a stark opposition to Safdie’s photographic fantasy of modernist architecture’s triumphant cohabitation with the tropical landscape.4 Rather, Habitat’s angular units protrude onto a street corner frenetic with throngs of pedestrians, cars spewing exhaust, and even a herd of cows blocking an intersection. Most striking is the cacophony of disembodied speech bubbles that complain of the labyrinthine plan of the “Yankee experiment,” compare modular units to coffins, and decry the deformation of the skyline accomplished by this “mountain of cement.” A completed Habitat is presented as an eye-sore in Puerto Rico’s island ecology, where the relationship between urban and rural development was significant; in 1969 over half of the population lived in urban centers.5 Azizi’s Ja…ja…bitat provides satirical connective tissue between Safdie’s unrealized vision of the project and Hartt’s emphasis on the other lives it has led after abandonment. A fantasy spoken by someone waiting for the bus anticipates the concrete modules’ subjection to Puerto Rico’s ecological chaos by way of bovine ingestion: “It’s a pity ‘Habitat’ isn’t painted green so that the cows would eat it.”

As Benítez-Rojo reminds us, Caribbean chaos is a generative disordering force—rather than an economic, social, or cultural deficiency, as colonial discourse would have it. Lingering in the entropic disorder of the Caribbean ecology, Hartt’s film captures the concrete vestiges of Safdie’s unrealized dream, evincing the Puerto Rican landscape’s evasion of colonial control. Canadian composer Karl Fousek’s subdued yet pervasive soundtrack signals our movement from the hill at San Patricio to Habitat’s second proposed site in the eastern San Juan borough of Carolina. From the rippling sound of a gong and bird calls that accompany a juxtaposition of overgrown concrete, rebar, and felled trees, the scene shifts to ambient traffic noise and looping chirps as we see the stepped white wrought-iron gate of the Hogar CREA drug treatment facility.6 What remains of the stacked Habitat structures nearly disappears into the woods in the background. Only the angular shadows of sunlight on aging concrete gives away these ruins hiding in plain sight as the camera moves from a long to medium shot. Deep extradiagetic plinks and plunks—amid the fluttering of birds, bugs, and leaves—permeate a series of inquisitive vignettes that dissolve the distinction between built environment and nature: a shift from deep focus on the structure to shallow focus on a verdant branch poetically signals ecological actancy. The ruins themselves interrogate their own porosity, like a Matta-Clark “cut piece” tempered by spray-painted graffiti—“Felo estubo aquí” (Felo was here)—indexing human presence. The camera-as-eye conduces the forest itself to take presence as Puerto Rico’s flora and fauna embrace the porous grid. Ecology’s slowed temporal degradation, captured by in the forest, enacts what theorist Rudolf Arnheim calls the catabolic effect of entropy, which functions “directly by the fortuitous destruction of patterns that are unlikely to be rebuilt by mere chance; indirectly by removing constraints and thus enlarging the range of tension reduction, which increases entropy by simplifying the order of a system.”7 The forest entangles concrete in its cyclical processes, destroying the rationalist patterns of engineering and nudging Habitat’s futurity away from a consummate state of ruination and toward an unfettered proliferation of chaos.

Yet, the entropic futurity of the film is not simply linear or strictly forward-thinking; rather it holds space for futures imaged through a backward glance. In this sense, the deliberately slow pace of the film invites reflection on the island’s architectural history as one inflected in Habitat and inextricably linked to coloniality. Safdie intimated that some adaptations to the module design of Habitat Puerto Rico were based on his observation of Spanish colonial architecture in San Juan.8 The United States’ domination of Puerto Rico following its transfer after the Spanish-American War lurks within this layered rapport between the colonial pasts, the late modernism of the 1960s, and Hartt’s film shot in the months preceding Hurricane Maria.

When Hartt leads us to the Habitat units scattered across the island in the final third of the film, in the forest evokes the rural swaths that were so critical in the “modernization” of Puerto Rico, synchronous with its American colonization, around the turn of the twentieth century. Hartt’s cinematic coupling of architecture and the rural environment can be understood through the significant role landscape painting played in defining Puerto Rican identity during the American occupation. Francisco Oller (1833-1917), a grand homme of Puerto Rican painting during the period, figures these environmental politics through the typology of the hacienda—or the ingenios azucareros, sugar mills that drove the colonial economy from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries [fig. 3]. Consider the painting Hacienda Aurora, executed in 1899 just as the island was transferred to the United States. Oller and his family weathered the invasion near the hacienda in the northern coastal town of Corozal in late July 1898, imbuing this particular mill with a personal and national significance.9 Art historian Enrique García Gutiérrez characterized the painting as “an icon in the search for, and definition of, national and cultural identity.”10 A temporal paradox in this assertion should not be overlooked: imagining Borinquen modernity entails retrospection on the architectural emblems of plantation agriculture.

Oller’s representation of the hacienda uses scale and perspective to articulate a prescient vision of a modern future through a historicizing view of the Puerto Rican landscape.11 Hacienda Aurora is divided between an expansive sky and green, rolling hills that lead from the dirt road and hacienda to Monte Choca on the horizon. The natural environment swells in plenitude under Oller’s exacting brushwork, dwarfing architecture in ways visually consonant with, yet ideologically distinct from, the architectural photograph. Safdie endeavored to naturalize his architectural philosophy in the Caribbean, an unrealized dream that Hartt attentively investigates in its beautifully overgrown present. Oller, by contrast, ponders the ramifications of American occupation by fixing his gaze on the specious reciprocity between Puerto Rico’s landscape and sugar architecture. Only the rose-tinted boiling house furnace—one volatile node in the dangerous slave-driven machinery of sugar refining—interrupts the mountainous horizon line, a manmade icon imbued with a forlorn hope for what lay ahead. Yet, the composition undermines its own anthropocentrism. Like Hartt’s opening shots, the spectator rests on uncertain ground. We are detached from the hacienda by the fence that nearly spans the canvas; even the two black women who walk along the road seem out of earshot. But Oller does one better. He constrains the viewer to an even narrower patch of grass as the foreground field tilts up‚ reducing the depth of field and distorting the picture plane. Hacienda Aurora seeks to order chaos when it befell the island at the close of the nineteenth century. The natural rhythms of mountain peaks and fence posts speak a past that might temper the Caribbean’s entropic force, whereas in the forest summons a zephyr ambling about Habitat’s dilapidated units living out their afterlives on a seaside cliff.

For all its delicate attention to architectural ruin, landscape, and their inhabitants of myriad animacies, the camera’s dispassionate eye and the film’s ambient soundscape install a distance between viewer and the ecological politics of contemporary Puerto Rico. This deliberate lacuna occasionally announces itself—for example, when Hartt’s drone camera, seemingly caught in the wind, vertiginously swirls around a set of abandoned Habitat units in a field. As the camera perambulates disintegrating and overgrown units located on the southern coast in Guayama, the soundtrack shifts to a foreboding low-pitched thrumming and strident whistle. This incongruity between the sonic and visual unfolds against quiet measurements of time. Forgotten unions (“Wanda y P____76”) and the inscrutable record of an incomplete hebdomad coated in animal accretions (“martes—10, miércoles—13, jueves—8, viernes—”) are inscribed on the slabs, laying a course toward an ecological chaos that unravels the insufficiency of humanity’s linear temporality and favors the cycles of brush and the ocean beyond.

Filmed in late summer 2017, in the midst of Puerto Rico’s ongoing debt crisis and in the months preceding Hurricane Maria’s devastation in September of that year, the penultimate chapter of in the forest would appear to be a prescient resignation to the commonwealth’s perennial colonial neglect. But I find it impossible to leave the contemplative mise-en-scène of Hartt’s video here, as I write about Puerto Rico from the perspective of a white American on the precipice of an election and in the midst of heated debates surrounding a 2020 referendum on statehood for the territory.

The camera’s airy mobility in in the forest compels me to consider what might constitute an entropic futurity from another orientation: a plumbed depth of stagnant air, cavernous darkness, and the palimpsest of pasts one may find there.12 An interdisciplinary project by the Puerto Rican artist Ramón Miranda Beltrán centers on architecture to engage just this spatiality through the non-linear temporalities evoked by the conditions of the cave. Beltrán occupied an abandoned building representative of mid-twentieth century vernacular architecture, transforming a structure in disrepair into a studio and dwelling [fig. 4]. Begun in May 2017, Beltrán’s ongoing project is contemporary to Hartt’s in the forest and stands as a potent antipode to it. By breaking into, occupying, curating and making work in this derelict property, he turns catabolic entropy inward toward the reflexive and obscurely reflective space of the cave.13 In his definitional writings on the project, called “Antro” (evoking the cave, the den, and the dive bar or flophouse) and “Subsuelo” (the subsoil or basement), Beltrán takes the disorder intrinsic to forgetting as an aesthetic material for an externalized introspection. He first converted the ground floor to a studio where he created a series of sculptures, silk screens, and photographs that were then exhibited in the space.14 Puerto Rican architecture, the studio, and the cave converge in simil, an artwork comprised of a 35mm slide projection that cycles through images of the building before and after Beltrán’s intervention, interspersed with images of a cave found in the woods [fig. 5]. By way of narrative “apophenia,” to evoke artist Javier Fresneda’s description of the project, simil, like in the forest, proposes deanthropocentrized ontological categories informed by a perceptual framework capacious enough to encompass tropical ecologies.15

In a forthcoming essay, Fresneda theorizes the cave, vis-à-vis Beltrán’s project, as a space of limited sight. If the Enlightenment cast visual apprehension as an existential cornerstone, enabling the subject to distinguish itself from the environment, in its stead hallucinatory vision affords the body thrown into cave-being the possibility of seeing Puerto Rico’s landscape beyond its colonial present and past. Here, the imagined, dreamed, and hallucinated become material: “Sometimes, this itinerary becomes radicalized, and from reverie we pass into the entoptic phenomenon —in which the eyes produce their own images or phosphenes, and to hallucination.”16 Taino petroglyphs, cave paintings, and graffiti are productive apophenia for thinking with chaos as a propulsive reciprocity rather than a limiting obstacle. As Puerto Rico votes again on its desire for or rejection of American statehood, Beltrán and Fresneda implicitly affirm the position of young climate change activists who denounce the vote in favor of sustainability initiatives, seeing clearly the connection between colonial recognition, environmental destruction, and ecological stewardship as a decolonial act.17

A complementary entropic futurity flourishes in both Beltrán’s intervention in Puerto Rico’s urban environment and Hartt’s final shots of Habitat’s dispersed units. Whether at a hallucinatory proximity or contemplative remove, these artworks grapple with Puerto Rico’s “clashing structures in states of disorder,” to return to Arnheim’s theory of art and entropy, wherein the convergence of the built and natural environment creates “tensions directed toward the realization of a potential order.”18 This potential would seem to emerge from the foreboding desolation of Guayama, finding realization with in the forest’s note of seemingly hopeful conclusion. The camera centers on three of the units stacked to form a cow shed. The soundtrack is at its most present, nudging the affect toward a contented resolution with a melody line. Although these units are still subject to the forces of the tropical environment and human intervention, this final series of shots looks up and out through cobwebs affixed to the porous structure, toward a clear blue sky and entropy’s potential to order. Nevertheless, an irresolute and pullulating chaos vegetates under the sun’s warmth. The units’ rebar skeleton is still exposed, now home to a colony of ants traversing the rocky concrete. Even when Habitat’s units are presented at their most orderly, insofar as they function in the ecosystem as a manmade structure, entropy’s potential order is diverted toward other, more unexpected means in the Caribbean.

Linear temporality and narrative finality collapse in the film’s final shot, favoring nature’s storytelling in ever-mutating cycles of chaos and order. From below we see the Habitat cow shed perched atop a hill. With this gesture, in the forest concresces with the myths and histories enveloped by Beltrán’s tenebrous cave. Where the cave’s hallucinations manifest in the dark’s inchoate multiplicity, Hartt’s framing of Habitat’s reclaimed units conjures the apparition of the film’s opening shot in Bosque Urbano de San Patricio and Safdie’s model photograph of Habitat on that site. This fixed shot remains on the screen for twenty seconds, a gravid moment that compels us to ephemerally inhabit the atmospheric hope of Safdie’s photograph and the foreshortened field of Oller’s Hacienda Aurora. in the forest daydreams futures through the past. Isn’t it fitting that the cows who were called to devour Habitat in Azizi’s cartoon now call it home?19 In their ruin, Habitat’s built and natural environments quietly suggest new ways of seeing the forest for the trees. Puerto Rico’s entropic futurity rebukes the neoliberal progress narrative proffered by the nation state in favor of a cyclical turning inward to the forest, stretching outward into the clouds, and with a global scope beyond the island’s boundedness to the sea.
  1. Antonio Benítez-Rojo, The Repeating Island: The Caribbean and the Postmodern Perspective, second edition, James Maraniss trans. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), 3.
  2. Moshe Safdie, Beyond Habitat (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1970), 195.
  3. Peter Blake, Form Follows Fiasco: Why Modern Architecture Hasn’t Worked (Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1977), 55-56.
  4. María Isabel Olivier and Andrés Mignucci, “Experimental Housing in Puerto Rico and Cuba: Crossings between form innovation and traditional habitation,” Crossings between the Proximate and Remote (Marfa, TX: ACSA Fall conference, 2017), 1-11. To be clear, Safdie’s project was by no means the only instance of modern architecture in the Caribbean. As Olivier and Mignucci demonstrate a number of modernist architectural projects were executed in the Spanish Caribbean during the late 1960s. In the context of Cuba exemplary are the Edificio Girón in Hevana, designed by Antonio Quintana and Alberto Rodrígues, and Fernando Salinas’ award-winning Multiflex Prefabricated System developed at the School of Architecture at the University of Havana.
  5. The World Bank, “Urban Population (% of total population) Puerto Rico,” accessed 31 October 2020.
  6. David Hartt, interviewed by author, Philadelphia, October 22, 2020. I thank Hartt for his engagement while I wrote this essay, and for generously expanding on some of its underlying motivations during our interview.
  7. Rudolf Arnheim, Entropy and Art: An Essay on Disorder and Order (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971), 27.
  8. Safdie, Beyond Habitat, 195-96.
  9. Edward J. Sullivan, From San Juan to Paris and Back: Francisco Oller and Caribbean Art in the Era of Impressionism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014), 71.
  10. Enrique García Gutiérrez, “Puerto Rico,” in Sullivan, Latin American Art of the Twentieth Century (London: Phaidon, 1996), 120.
  11. My historicizing glance toward Oller’s Hacienda Aurora alludes to the fact that Spanish colonialism is synonymous with chattel slavery, abolished in 1873. Due to the scope of this essay, however, an adequate treatment of the dynamics between a history of slavery on Puerto Rico, Safdie’s Habitat, and Hartt’s in the forest must wait until a longer forum. For further information see: Louis A. Figueroa, Sugar, Slavery and Freedom in Nineteenth-Century Puerto Rico (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005).
  12. Javier Fresneda, “Feoría General de las Cuevas,” (unpublished manuscript, 2020). Already I have shown my hand. This vocabulary of caves comes from a forthcoming artist book accompanying Puerto Rican artist Ramón Miranda Beltrán’s interdisciplinary project discussed in this essay. I express my gratitude to Beltrán for sharing these unpublished texts.
  13. Ramón Miranda Beltrán, email to C.C. McKee, 20 October 2020.
  14. Ramón Miranda Beltrán, “Antro” and “Subsuelo” (unpublished manuscript, 2020).
  15. Javier Fresneda, “Feoría General de las Cuevas.”
  16. Fresneda. “En ocasiones, este itinerario se radicaliza, y del ensueño pasamos al fenómeno entópico, en donde los ojos producen sus propias imágenes o fosfenos, y a la alucinacíon.” I thank Fresneda for providing a translation of this citation.
  17. Ivette Feliciano, “Puerto Rico gears up to vote in statehood referendum this November,” PBS Newshour, 27 September 2020.
  18. Arnheim, Art and Entropy, 26.
  19. David Hartt, “Forest Habitat: Moshe Safdie’s failed Puerto Rican adventure as told by David Hartt,” Pin-Up: Magazine for Architectural Entertainment 22 (Summer 2017), 149. This perpetual return to Habitat’s bovine interlocutors is no coincidence. Hartt notes that the architecture critic Martin Pawley documented the remains of Habitat and in one photograph “a cow stands stubbornly in the foreground, the stacked concrete units continuing out beyond the boundary of the frame.”


Screened October 19–November 1, 2020

Armin Linke
2011, 16mm, transferred digital file
stereo sound, 16:9, color, 60:00

based on a research project by
Piero Zanini, Renato Rinaldi
and Armin Linke

Alpi is the result of seven years of research on contemporary perceptions of the landscape of the Alps, juxtaposing places and situations across all eight bordering nations and spanning the territories of four languages. In the film, the Alps are encountered like an island that is connected to various global transformations. We undertook many journeys in the alpine region, which, ironically, led us as far as Dubai. The film shows the Alps as a key location, owing to its delicacy and environmental importance, where one can observe and study the complexity of social, economic, and political relationships. In the Europe of today, the Alps are a hotbed for modernity and its illusions.

– Armin Linke, 2010

Going to the Alps? Thinking of trekking outdoors? Dreaming of skiing in Switzerland? Watch Armin Linke′s film first. Beware. You will always be inside, deep inside laboratories, factories, ski resorts, or Swiss bunkers hidden in the mountains. Armin Linke has succeeded in doing with film what he has been doing for years with photography: situate the envelopes inside which our existence unfolds. This is the most uncritical film ever made about the utter artificiality of the modern world. But “uncritical” has to be taken just as positively as “artificial.”

– Bruno Latour, 2011


Camera: Armin Linke
Sound: Renato Rinaldi
Editing: Giuseppe Ielasi

Editing consultant: Jan Ralske, Kal Karman
Sound editing: Giuseppe Ielasi, Renato Rinaldi
Sound Postproduction: Frank Halbig, Christian Heck, Giuseppe Ielasi, David Loscher
Title sequence, poster and packaging: Cornel Windlin & Gregor Huber
Of Mountains and Machines
Sitting behind a desk is a middle-aged white man in a light grey button-down shirt and lanyard that identifies him as “Phil.” Phil, we infer, is a property manager with the Majid Al Futtaim Group, developers of Ski Dubai, an indoor ski resort in an arid city-state that rarely sees temperatures below 70°F. The resort is one of many locations scrutinized in Armin Linke’s film Alpi (2011), but it’s the farthest from the film’s title site. Inside the aggressively engineered facility, snow guns and fans distribute a light mist of powder amidst a cavernous roar. Skiers in identical red, blue, and black rental snowsuits dangle from a chairlift, watching their breaths condense in the chilled air. Vaguely Alpine facades, donning wooden lintels and balconies, surround the slopes, housing warmly lit shops and restaurants.

“We choose the landscape,” Phil tells us in British-accented English, by “studying other landscapes.” Eschewing a space that was “specifically Swiss or French or Austrian,” Phil and his colleagues instead imagined Ski Dubai as “a platform we could add decoration to—add food, add smells, add music, add theming on top.” The cold and snow and fir trees and white reflective light, discernable through Linke’s lingering interior shots, are all “decoration.” While its engineered slope does bear some abstract topographic resemblance to Alpine terrain, Ski Dubai is more of a multisensorial surround that evokes the Alps as theme, as ambience, as idea. Its landscape is a platform for a post-nationalist myth, both magical and machinic.

“We can create nature that is made just like it is in nature,” Phil explains with a seeming tautology. Ski Dubai’s “artificial” snow is indeed made of frozen water, just as it is on Alpine slopes, but there’s more to Phil’s simile. Nature, in Phil’s domain, is “made”: designed, staged, and painstakingly constructed. Emirati snow might feel “like magic,” but behind it all, Phil reveals, is “an army of technicians and engineers.” Indeed, the same is true outside the facility’s walls, in the terraformed landscapes—the sculpted islands and irrigated farmlands—of Dubai and the Gulf states. And even 6000 miles away, in the Alpine region that constitutes the resort’s topographic muse, a similar “army” is at work en plein air. The pristine wilderness of the much-mythologized Alps might exude magic, too, yet Linke’s Alpi shows us that these limestone and granite mountains are themselves both a hotbed for and a product of engineering.

The quiet, contemplative 60-minute film offers a montage of vignettes that collectively demonstrate how the Alpine myth is aggregated through multiple perspectives and scales of activity, from institutional operations to the work of human hands. Linke takes us to the University Centre for Advanced Studies on Hydrological Risk in Mountain Areas, in Trento, Italy, whose research is applied in water resource planning, risk prevention, the evaluation of protective infrastructures, and the “exploitation” of renewable resources. Throughout the film, we visit a few such infrastructures, including the Grande Dixence Dam in Sion, Switzerland and, a few hours away, the Pitztaler Glacier, where we see workers—outside in T-shirts on a sunny day—wrap the ice in massive sheets of white fleece to prevent further melting. Researchers at the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) simulate relevant climatic effects on a scale model of the region, which is bathed in mist to replicate meteorological forces. The full-scale rocky analogues of those miniature mountains yield mineralogical riches, while their extraction exacerbates climatic transformation, necessitating new models at the EPFL.

Other stops on Linke’s tour include an iron mine in Erzberg, Austria, and a poryphyry mine, back near Trento, whose stones are often deployed in sidewalk and roadway paving—perhaps even the roads in Davos, where we watch fancy cars deposit business and political leaders at the World Economic Forum. In Turin, meanwhile, No TAV (No Treno Alta Velocità) protesters fight, as they have for decades, the construction of a high-speed railway that would connect them to Lyon and ostensibly reduce the time and environmental costs of freight delivery. Such contestation over border-crossings echoes long-standing debates over the borders themselves. In A Moving Border: Alpine Cartographies of Climate Change, Marco Ferrari, Elisa Pasqual, and Andrea Bagnato describe how the borders between several Alpine nations, commonly demarcated along watershed drainage lines, are themselves shifting as a consequence of anthropogenic climate change. Alpine political geographies—shaped by both solid and liquid forces—are adapting to new climatological realities.1

The mountains’ very geological materiality is harvested and engineered to facilitate the flows of resources and capital. Yet throughout Alpi our engagement with the Alps as image or experience happens not amidst the powdery snow and alpenglow—whether “natural” or manmade, as in Dubai—but indoors, mediated by screens and scaffoldings and servants. The Alps are modeled and mapped and captioned. We find ourselves on tour buses where human guides and screens provide multilingual commentary on the world outside. We gaze over the shoulders of visitors to the Segantini Museum, in St. Moritz, as they take in the landscape paintings. We follow crowds of tourists as they circumnavigate, and are enveloped by, a cyclorama painting in Innsbruck. Trains circle around us in Luzerne, but the tinny sounds and wiry trees soon clue us into the fact that these are mere model railroads at the Swiss Museum of Transport. We’re continually vacillating between miniature model and majestic sublime—and, over the course of the film, appreciating their mutual constitution.

Similarly, individual laborers emblematize how their trades and industries are engaging with larger political-economic, geologic, and climatological forces. We meet a dolorous Italian farmer, trapped by his “traditional” agrarian lifestyle, carrying a heavy load of hay on his back. His home is dark, unlike those artificially illuminated and animated touristic interiors. But as he tells us of his own compulsory rootedness in this place, a slice of light cuts across a slope before him. His hands pour water and wash bowls, they gesticulate and sit in pockets. They, too, engineer the earth, but gently. We contrast the farmer’s languid gestures with those of a mason whose body dances animatedly in sync with a contraption that splits stones—stones blasted from the quarries we visited earlier—into tiny slivers. Throughout the film, bodies serve as extensions of the models and machines that fashion the Alps.

Those mountains are, in turn, manipulated and extracted to promote the pride, security, and health of particular privileged bodies. The Swiss people, sociologist Gérald Berthoud explains, have historically held the Alps as a “patriotic symbol.” The Alpine population, he suggests, is “magnified and elevated to the position of the collective guardian of a sacred place for a culturally heterogeneous country.”2 Some late nineteenth and early twentieth century anthropologists regarded the Alpines as a superior Caucasian sub-race.3 Even after the decline of such spurious science, the region’s topography was thought to serve as both a purifying and protective force. As Berhoud explains, “The Alpine myth is a symbol for a Swiss nation as a retreat.”

In Alpi, we are told by a spokesman gesticulating toward a topographic model that the “recent exploitation of Davos goes back about 130 years,” when it was discovered that the local air was beneficial for tuberculosis patients, and clinics began to treat “mostly rich people, who came from around the world” to be cleansed and cured. Many of them stayed, and thus a community of “clever, innovative people” established itself, “bringing economic development to Davos” and the region. Their disposable income has undoubtedly played a large role in sustaining the Alpine wellness economy. Linke takes us to the thermal baths at Garniga, where visitors lie in beds of hay and grass to treat a variety of musculoskeletal ailments. In Aprica, we watch sinewy bodies cling to plastic grips on artificial mountains at the Climbing World Cup. And at Innsbruck, we stand behind a sveltely body-suited skier as he slides out onto a narrow rail and carefully slots his skis into tracks before zipping down the inrun, flying into the air, and landing on a grassy slope below. Again, we see terrain engineered to choreograph human experience and enjoyment. Both the Bergisel Ski Jump, designed by London-based Zaha Hadid Architects, and the slopes in Dubai, designed by Pasadena-based F+A Architects, are expressions of topography—or, rather, attempts to model the propulsive physics of Alpine topography—translated into structural engineering.

As we watch a skier shoot off a ramp like a rocket, we are reminded that the military, too, plays a role in preserving the Alps as a space of leisure, wellness, and retreat. The same fleece that blankets glaciers is also used to drape chain-link fences in Davos, allowing these security apparatae to blend into the wintry landscape. Armed guards patrol the World Economic Forum’s points of entry. We see throughout Linke’s film various emblems of defense and containment: portals and dams, barbed wire and police shields, tarps and wraps, blankets and barricades—all of which work collectively to secure the land, control movement within it, and protect the very idea of the Alps.

In this age of pandemics, populism, and protest, the idea of a protected, pristine wilderness holds particular appeal. As COVID-19 took its toll, many of my fellow New Yorkers decamped for weekend homes and summer shares in the Catskills or the North Shore, leaving behind the singularly-housed (or un-housed), essential workers, and communities of color, who bore the brunt of the infection. We came to learn—although some always knew—that even this “natural” pathogen follows engineered patterns of inequity, exacerbating disparities in access to health care and space to spread out and proper ventilation. In the United States, in particular, it was our non-“Alpine” populations who were forced to use public transportation to reach service jobs that required in-person interaction—in hospitals and grocery stores and post offices. Similar viral disparities were apparent in the Alpine region. In Switzerland, The Atlantic reported, a French-speaking Swiss with COVID-19 was 1.6 times more likely to die than a German-speaking peer, and an Italian-speaking Swiss was 2.4 times more likely to die than the German-speaker.4 There was no singular Alpine pandemic experience—for the same reasons that there is no universal “Alps.” Despite scientists’ attempts to model transmission, the virus and its geographic disparities suggested that there’s a wilderness—a wild, unpredictable place—living within each of us and in our own cities and countries.

For the past several months the world has lived in accordance with a topographic telos: to “flatten the curve,” to reduce the number of infections and deaths. The “curve” itself acquired mythical status. The Governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, even made a model mountain that materialized the state’s graph of coronavirus cases. As Holly Jean Buck explains, the curve is an epistemology, an ontology: “It can provide a frame, an instruction set, a kind of prescription for what governance is needed. Policy is then set out in order to bring reality into conformance with the curve.”5 The curve, in a sense, engineers the future.

We see the curve again, Buck notes, in the rising and falling action of narrative form. While Linke’s portrait of the Alps eschews a traditional story arc, it adopts instead a topographic model: one following the mountains’ peaks and troughs. We begin the film by watching a motorcycle ascend a hill: a machine-aided climb. And we end with a wide shot: a ribbon of white flowing across a landscape, not unlike a river. The sounds of a trickling stream gradually mix with the tinkling of hundreds of bells. That river of white, meandering down a rocky slope, is composed of sheep traversing the Similaun Glacier, on the Austrian-Italian border, in their seasonal transhumance. The fleece has returned in animate form.

These herders are driving their animals between slopes and valleys, following seasonal peaks in pasture productivity. The ancient practice has played a profound role in shaping the mountainous landscape, creating heterogeneity in the habitat, promoting biodiversity, and preparing agrarian societies to adapt to climate change.6 This, we might say, is a form of geoengineering, too—one reliant not on snow guns or dynamite or dams, but on shepherds’ staffs and sheep bells and generationally ingrained ecological knowledge about the landscape. As the sheep and their human guides recede into the distance, what we are left with is a gentle tintinnabulation: the sound of a light footprint, of judicious intervention, of principled stewardship, of traditions and knowledges resonating across the ages and between the species, resounding off the rocks and through the valleys.
  1. Marco Ferrari, Elisa Pasqual, and Andrea Bagnato, A Moving Border: Alpine Cartographies of Climate Change (New York: Columbia Books on Architecture and the City; Karlsruhe: ZKM Center for Art and Media, 2019).
  2. Gérald Berthoud, “The ‘Spirit of the Alps’ and the Making of Political and Economic Modernity in Switzerland,” Social Anthropology 9, no. 1 (February 2001): 89, 91.
  3. Griffith Taylor, “The Nordic and Alpine Races and Their Kin: A Study of Ethnological Trends,” American Journal of Sociology 37, no. 1 (July 1931): 67-81.
  4. Graeme Wood, “What’s Behind COVID-19’s Racial Disparity?The Atlantic (May 27, 2020).
  5. Holly Jean Buck, “The Tragic Omissions of Governance by Curve,” Strelka Mag (May 15, 2020).
  6. Elisa Oteros-Rozas, Ricardo Ontillera-Sánchez, Pau Sanosa, Erik Gómez Baggethun, Victoria Reyes-García, and José A. González, “Traditional Ecological Knowledge Among Transhumant Pastoralists in Mediterranean Spain,” Ecology and Society 18, no. 3 (September 2013); Anna Sidiropoulou, Maria Karatassiou, Georgia Galidaki, and Paraskevi Sklavou, “Landscape Pattern Changes in Response to Transhumance Abandonment on Mountain Vermio,” Sustainability 7, no. 11 (November 2015).

we are opposite like that
Screened October 5–18, 2020

Himali Singh Soin
we are opposite like that
2019, video, 11:35

we are opposite like that is an ongoing series of interdisciplinary works that comprises fictional mythologies for the poles, told from the non-human perspective of an elder that has witnessed deep time: the ice.

Pairing poetry and archival material, the video recounts the tale of the omnipresent anxiety in Victorian England of an imminent glacial epoch. The disorienting fear of an invasive periphery sent shudders through the colonial enterprise, the tremors of which can be felt in contemporary times. Here, an alien figure traverses the blank, oblivious whiteness, and undergoes an Ovidian transformation into glimmering ice.

This imagery floats above an endangered, soon to be mythical, soundscape: Inspired by field recordings, an original score for string quartet makes audible the sheets of Pancake Ice smashing into each other, the long drone of a boat, the hard timbre of the wind. The tempo is controlled by her shifting latitudes, the dynamics by the temperature variances between the late nineteenth century and her recent expedition. Melodic fragments of Victorian composer Edward Elgar’s The Snow (1895) encroach upon the image. The string quartet becomes a chamber of resonances, playing the polarity of a potential, post-human future, sounding an un-orientable, topological alarm.

we are opposite like that beckons the ghosts hidden in landscapes and turns them into echoes, listening in on the resonances of potential futures.


Original score for string quartet: David Soin Tappeser
Science history: Alexis Rider
Animation: Tiziana Mangiaratti
Strings played: Krystallos Quartet
Commissioned by Frieze London, Forma Arts and Channel 4 Random Acts.
Curated by Diana Campbell Betancourt for the Frieze Artist Award.

For the Reversal of Up and Down
Would you know how to look at the Antarctic, if you were lucky enough to travel there someday? What would you expect to see? Probably you, like me, anticipate a frigid landscape of snow and ice (endless ice), dotted with penguins at its coasts. We may well imagine the North Pole—that non-place taxed by its incorporation into the modern consumer rite called Christmas—doubling it, attaching it to the other side of the globe, a twin, striped post opposite or upside down, as it were. Of course, whether you and I are aware of this, language has already invited us into this fantasy of symmetry: we are thinking of the anti-arctic, that which is opposite “the bear,” i.e., Ursa Major, the prominent constellation of the northern celestial sphere; we are thinking, too, thus, of the arctic, from the Greek arktos, “bear” and, via the magic of metonymy, “north,” from which the more familiar Latin ursus comes. But would we know how to look at the Arctic, either? I vaguely remember (likely this is apocryphal) a moment from grade school, right before a geography test, someone hissing, “Which is the one with bears, again?”

I know few people who have been to the North Pole—not a spot on land, we will recall. Fewer still have been to Antarctica—the one with land, no bears. When I was 23, I traveled by train between Sweden and Finland, stopping overnight in Kiruna, a Swedish town north of the Arctic Circle and home to one of the deepest iron ore mines in the world. It was July and remained light out seemingly at all hours. With some advance arrangement, a tourist could pay to travel down into the mine, but I am afraid of heights and had no wish to do this. A year later, I learned that the local government had decided to relocate the town.1 Human intervention had irrevocably altered the state of the ground; Kiruna had begun to sink. As of 2020, the movement of buildings and persons two miles to the east of Kiruna’s former inner city is ongoing and will continue for another two decades. In May of this year, the largest seismic event ever caused by mining, a 4.9 magnitude earthquake, was reported at the Kiruna mine of Swedish company LKAB. The scale and risks of this now more-than-a-century-old project, along with the sums of money involved, are dizzying, staggering, disorienting. Which way is up? I think. According to Wikipedia, in 2012 the depth of the mine attained some 4,478 feet, which is to say, around the height of many peaks in the North American White Mountains, some of which I can perceive from a window in the room where I am currently sitting, typing.2 I also think, losing my bearings for a moment: Am I above or am I below?

The artist Himali Singh Soin has created a lens and a language for seeing in such states—which may also be landscapes—of disorientation, where up and down cease to be opposed and commonplace direction founders. Her ongoing project, we are opposite like that, which is comprised of videos, an artist’s book, as well as a musical composition and performance, partly documents travel she undertook to uninhabited parts of the Arctic’s Svalbard archipelago and the Antarctic Peninsula. It is additionally a reading of the fantastically disoriented and disorienting way of regarding these parts of the world that grew up during the so-called ages of polar exploration, the periods of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when European men set off in boats and heavy woolen clothes, hoping to access frozen reaches where they would prove their autonomy and valor by planting flags in shimmering patches of snow and ice, which were then to belong to the nations from which they came. They went in quest of efficient global circulation, pursuing a Northwest Passage, also engaging in the industrial harvesting of ice—a project that may seem quite strange to us, given contemporary refrigeration technology.

Significantly, as Soin shows in her most recent video, produced in 2019, those who remained at home were not immune to the spectral lure of these otherworldly realms, where hallucinations, disappearances, and cannibalism on the part of Europeans who sought to stake a claim or find a passage were not unknown. A negative fantasy arose in Victorian England alongside scientific research into prehistoric glaciers: when the world ended, it would end in ice. As if persecuted at long range by the very recalcitrant icescape that had consumed Captain Sir John Franklin’s mission of 1845 to discover a Northwest Passage, Victorians pictured themselves as threatened interglacial beings in popular prints and culture. They imagined the ice appearing at their doors, polar bears menacing them on the weekends at their parks, their cities enveloped by a genocidal crystalline substance. In one 1868 print by caricaturist Gustave Doré, featured in Soin’s video, a “southern savage,” who is somehow unaffected by the collapse of civilization so-called, gazes out at an empty London whose inhabitants have not survived a freeze or other apocalyptic catastrophe.

At the center of Soin’s work is a figure portrayed by the artist herself. Dressed—and sometimes seeming to nest—in a cloud of silver emergency heat blankets, this being emerges from frozen masses or walks slowly across tundra, her reflective garments shimmering and loosening in the wind. She is ice, personified. She is still here. Her movements, focused gaze, and undulating attire act as stand-ins for what the art historian Maggie Cao, an expert in landscape painting of the nineteenth century, has termed ice’s “ever-present liquidity,” its liability to “fracturing, restructuring, and, of course, melting,” its “material contradictions.”3 We watch as ice, solid and slow and never not in motion, departs. Soin’s figure also harbors contradictions of political history: for the Victorian sailor or imperial captain ice was at once a living adversary and cherished lifeless property; ice was a place where nothing was, into which one was compelled to travel; it was a void to be filled, a glamorous screen, a phantasmagoria at once colorless and containing every imaginable color; a killer of and magnet for fantasies; nothing and too many things. It was feminine, other. We need, it seems, some way of looking at ice. We need a language—possibly multiple languages—to address her. We are already too late.

In 1895, the year of the earliest confirmed European landing on Antarctica by the Norwegian steamship Antarctic, a Swedish physicist named Svante Arrhenius was devising the first mathematical model of what we now call global warming, showing by 1896 that increased CO2 levels in the atmosphere could lead to dramatic heating of the planet. In spite of the appetite for coal in his industrializing time, Arrhenius was unalarmed and viewed his discovery as predictive of a relatively slow process of climate change, by way of which it would take thirty centuries for CO2 levels to grow by 50 percent, his marker for a planetary temperature uptick of five to six degrees Celsius. As we know, it has in fact taken a single century for CO2 levels to increase by 30 percent.4

In an email, Soin tells me, “When I finally traveled to both antipodes, they weren’t spaces, but places of loss that needed to quickly be written in order to be preserved in some way.” This sentence produces a vicarious immediacy for me: I realize that I cannot go to the North Pole, even if I do someday and somehow travel to the point in the Northern Hemisphere where, to employ the technical definition, the Earth’s axis of rotation meets its surface. Who knows how I might get there but, beyond this, who knows what sort of solidity I would be likely to encounter, what will remain of the ice in this place predicted to be passable by ship within the coming decade?

Thus I turn to the canvas-bound book that accompanies Soin’s video, hoping to orient myself in time and space via writing (a long habit with me). The book is also titled we are opposite like that, and it is taller along its spine than it is long across its pages, giving it the air and heft of a log book of some sort, a portable item that might fit in a large pocket.5 I think, speaking of writing and pockets, of the titular coat fabricated by Herman Melville’s narrator in his 1850 novel, White-Jacket; or, The World in a Man-of-War. This allegorical outer garment is a palimpsest, reinforced with whatever fabric comes to hand in an urgent situation aboard a ship headed for Cape Horn, “bedarned and bequilted” by the wearer “with many odds and ends of patches—old socks, old trowser-legs, and the like.”6 The jacket is a bound object, a sort of book with pages gathered from various sources but lacking writing: like the pale whale set to appear in Melville’s subsequent novel, the jacket is blank. It has, unfortunately for its wearer, not been waterproofed with tar—a foreshadowing of challenges to come—but, and moreover, its whiteness bespeaks the uncertainty and radical ignorance of the young sailor, who may himself be inscribed by events at sea. In book form, Soin’s we are opposite like that is also a palimpsest, but it overflows with writing from many sources and in varied genres and styles, from calligraphic poem to brief play to chart to litany to history. In one extraordinary essay, Soin makes an argument for thinking of the aurora as “a form of art writing,” for example; elsewhere, she provides a guide that may be used to “FOUND YOUR OWN LANGUAGE.” “Bequilted” into the center of the book, which may be read beginning from either cover, is a rectangular fragment cut from an emergency blanket.7 A reader familiar with Soin’s video might, coming to this silver page, have the sense of brushing the hem of ice’s raiment. The character, if not ice, is abruptly, materially present.

Maggie Cao advises us to read the history of ice as “reveal[ing] the intersection of environmental and political imperialisms that have long fueled our dreams and fears of entropy.”8 I think about this history as a force for reorientation; for replacing, rescaling the grid, much like the crossing, telescoping, turning lines I read in Soin’s book. I am learning some ways to look and read. I am learning that my own disorientation has language in it—for opposites, like hallucinations and distortions, come with, and from, language. And disorientation, like any language, must have a history.
The title of this essay borrows from that of a 2006 artwork by Tavares Strachan, Chamber with Ice: Elevator for the Reversal of Up and Down, an installation including ice harvested from Alaska, a refrigeration unit, solar panels, fans, flags, and a battery system, exhibited in Nassau, Bahamas. Strachan’s work is discussed in both of the essays by Maggie Cao I cite in the writing above.
  1. The relocation of the city is the subject the exhibition Kiruna Forever, currently on view at ArkDes, the Swedish Centre for Architecture and Design in Stockholm.
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kiruna_Mine.
  3. Maggie Cao, “Icescapes,” vol. 31, no. 2, American Art (Summer 2017): 48.
  4. Clive Thompson, “How 19th Century Scientists Predicted Global Warming,” JSTOR Daily, December 17, 2019.
  5. Himali Singh Soin, we are opposite like that (n.p.: subcontinentment press, 2020).
  6. Herman Melville, White Jacket; or, the World on a Man-of-War(New York: Harper & Brothers, 1850), from Chapter 1, “The Jacket,” https://www.gutenberg.org/files/10712/10712-h/10712-h.htm#chap01.
  7. I use the metaphor of quilting loosely here, as the silver page is not in fact bound into the book but is held in place by static electricity and the weight of the other pages.
  8. Maggie Cao, “The Entropic History of Ice,” in Ecologies, Agents, Terrains, edited by Christopher P. Heuer and Rebecca Zorach (New Haven and London: The Clark Art Institute and Yale UP, 2018), 267.

Artist & Author Bios
Heba Y. Amin is a Berlin-based multi-media artist, researcher and lecturer who looks at the convergence of politics, technology, and architecture. Her works and interventions have been covered by the New York Times, Guardian, Intercept, and CNN, among others. She is a current Field of Vision fellow (NYC) and a 2019 Anni and Heinrich Sussmann prize winner for artists committed to the ideal of democracy and antifascism. Heba Y. Amin: The General’s Stork (2020), edited by Anthony Downey, is published as part of Sternberg Press’s “Research/Practice” series. Her solo exhibition When I see the future, I close my eyes, at The Mosaic Rooms, London, UK, is on view until 28 March 2021. She lives in Berlin, Germany.

David Hartt lives and works in Philadelphia where he is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Fine Arts at the University of Pennsylvania. His work explores how historic ideas and ideals persist or transform over time. Recent and upcoming exhibitions include The Histories (Old Black Joe) at Corbett vs. Dempsey Chicago and Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America at the Museum of Modern Art New York in the Spring of 2021. Hartt is represented by Corbett vs. Dempsey, Chicago; David Nolan Gallery, New York; and Galerie Thomas Schulte, Berlin.

Lucy Ives is the author of the novels Impossible Views of the World and Loudermilk: Or, The Real Poet; Or, The Origin of the World, as well as editor of The Saddest Thing Is That I Have Had to Use Words: A Madeline Gins Reader. She is a frequent contributor to Art in America and frieze, among other publications. Her first short-story collection, Cosmogony, is forthcoming in March 2021.

Armin Linke is a photographer and filmmaker. For over twenty years he has explored the question of how humanity uses technologies and knowledge in order to transform the surface of the earth and adapt it to its needs. His films and photographs document human-made changes on land, at sea, and throughout the entire biosphere. Currently, he is guest professor at ISIA, Urbino, Italy and artist-in-residence at the Kunsthistorishes Institut in Florenz. In 2021, the Arthur Ross Architecture Gallery will host his exhibition Prospecting Ocean.

Shannon Mattern is Professor at The New School for Social Research. Her writing and teaching focus on media architectures and infrastructures and spatial epistemologies. She has written books about libraries, maps, and the history of urban intelligence, and she contributes a column about urban data and mediated spaces to Places Journal. You can find her at wordsinspace.net.

C.C. McKee is an assistant professor of modern art in the Department of History of Art at Bryn Mawr College. They specialize in the art, visual, and material culture of the modern and contemporary Atlantic World with an emphasis on the French empire, African Diaspora, and colonial Caribbean. In their current monographic project, McKee uses painting and scientific imagery to trace the coeval developments in colonial race and environmental sciences in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century francophone Atlantic World. In addition, McKee has written various pieces of art criticism in ArtForum, published articles in Art Journal and CASVA Seminar Papers, and curated exhibitions in Chicago and Haiti.

Nat Muller is an independent curator and writer with an expertise in contemporary art from the Middle East. Recent projects include: the Danish Pavilion, Heirloom, with Palestinian artist Larissa Sansour for the 58th Venice Biennale in 2019 and Kurdish-Iraqi artist Walid Siti’s first monograph, published by Kehrer Verlag in 2020. She is researching an AHRC-funded PhD on science fiction in contemporary visual practices from the Middle East at Birmingham City University. Her latest exhibition Trembling Landscapes: between Reality and Fiction is currently on view at Amsterdam’s Eye Filmmuseum.

Tuan Andrew Nguyen is an artist based in Ho Chi Minh City, Viet Nam. Nguyen’s practice explores strategies of political resistance enacted through counter-memory and post-memory. Extracting and re-working narratives via history and supernaturalisms is an essential part of Nguyen’s video works and sculptures where fact and fiction are both held accountable. Nguyen has received several awards in both film and visual arts, including best feature film at VietFilmFest in 2018 for his film, The Island. His work has been included in several international exhibitions, including the Whitney Biennial (2017), the Sharjah Biennial (2019), and Manifesta 13 (2020). Nguyen founded The Propeller Group in 2006, a platform for collectivity that situates itself between an art collective and an advertising company.

Dr. Huhana Smith is a visual artist, curator and principle investigator in research who engages in major environmental, trans-disciplinary, kaupapa Māori and action-research projects. She is co-principle investigator for research that includes mātauranga Māori methods with sciences to actively address climate change concerns for coastal Māori lands in Horowhenua-Kāpiti. Huhana actively encourages the use of art and design’s visual systems combined in exhibitions, to expand how solutions might integrate complex issues and make solutions more accessible for local communities.

Himali Singh Soin is a writer and artist based between London and Delhi. She uses metaphors from outer space and the natural environment to construct imaginary cosmologies of interferences, entanglements, deep voids, debris, leakages, alienation, distance and intimacy. In doing this, she thinks through ecological loss, and the loss of home, seeking shelter somewhere in the healing power of performance and the radicality of love. Her speculations are performed in audio-visual, immersive environments.
Project Team
A Wildness Distant is organized by the Arthur Ross Architecture Gallery at Columbia GSAPP.

Curator and Editor
Irene Sunwoo, Curator of the Arthur Ross Architecture Gallery and Director of Exhibitions at Columbia GSAPP

Web coordination
Shannon Werle, GSAPP Online Editor

Graphic identity
Estudio Herrera

Web development
Linked by Air

Special thanks
Andrea Bagnato, Cooking Sections, and Sarah Herda