Utopioregon

My proposal for Exposing the Archive (a residency and exhibition organized by the Newspace Center for Photography and the Oregon Historical Society) is not a 'real' project (yet), and can't fairly be filed in my portfolio (at the moment), but I wanted to give it a home online regardless. It even has CAD mock-ups.


Utopioregon

Synthetic Pasts, Future Histories

 

From the inexact origins of its name, to the opportunities promised at the end of the Oregon Trail, to the whispered hopes of a white paradise, to the colorful cults and countercultures of the 1960s and ’70s, to its contemporary allure as weird, green, laid-back, and livable -- what’s up with Oregon and utopias?

Oregon, for better and for worse, has been a witness and a host to various embraces of the American tabula rasa -- the fresh starts, intentional communities, social alternatives, and cultural bubbles synthesized upon the nominally blank slate suggested (more generally) by terms like “New World” and “Wild West”, as well as (more specifically) by invented names like “Ecotopia” and “Portlandia”. How have they affected and informed our state’s present -- and future? What can we learn from them? Do they ever live up to their promises? Where have they succeeded and failed? And how do we build upon those successes while also acknowledging, inspecting, and tearing down their failures?

The partnership between the Oregon Historical Society and the Newspace Center for Photography, in asking artists and scholars to ‘expose the archive,’ potentially offers us a glimpse of ways forward. The classic argument for the value of studying the historical (and often photographic) records of our past -- that we are doomed to repeat our mistakes lest we forget, blind ourselves from, or otherwise fail to understand our past mistakes -- holds particularly true at a time when our obsessive consumption and compulsive production of information, especially of digital images, have presented us with a challenge itself uniquely utopian in nature: how to know what is true in the world when each one of our mediated environments is a self-selected, feedback-looped, echo-chambered ideal.

Both Oregon -- with its reputation in the national imagination as an insulated, sweetly eccentric pocket of woodsy simplicity -- and the Internet (which is, arguably, already proving itself to be the dominant medium through which historical materials are now produced and retained) bear traces of utopian impulses and dystopian side effects. Where one may have been popularly construed as a place of destiny, free from the chaos and entanglements of wherever it was one came from, the other frequently sells itself as a kind of ‘site’ for one’s own perpetual self-improvement and reinvention. In either case, the solution we have been presented with is incomplete, or at least in formation, and as such more closely resembles a hypothesis (or leap of faith, depending): a plan for constructing a perfect world from scratch. But the utopian ideal is often premised on a set of conditions designed to preserve, reinforce, and even quarantine one’s preexisting preferences and beliefs, usually at the expense of exposure to worldviews other than one’s own -- which, in so many other words, describes social cohesion and collective identity based not just on homogeneity, but on discrimination and exclusion.

Much of my thinking here comes from my experience as a mixed-race Third Culture Kid -- I was raised overseas in embassies and international schools, themselves utopian microcosms of global demographics -- and as a summertime, and then full-time, Oregonian. What I saw of Oregon during those childhood summers represented some of its exceptional qualities -- and what I’ve come to learn in the 12 years I’ve lived here has complicated that image. The tensions and contradictions I’ve touched on -- utopia/dystopia, expectation/result, inclusion/exclusion, interior/exterior, process/completion, empirical evidence and narrative invention, historical fact and subjective truth -- lie at the center of the project I am proposing: a multimedia installation comprised of physical structures and photographic images. The project employs two of our most familiar architectural elements -- the window and the wall -- as ways of thinking about intentionality in both media and community.

The installation space contains three hexagonal enclosures (a nod to Jorge Luis Borges and his ‘Library of Babel’). Each one is painted differently -- one in earth tones, one in shades of white, and one in a fantastic spectrum of colors -- to signify each enclosure’s historical/utopian theme (which may be refined as the project evolves): early Oregon Trail pioneers, white supremacist groups, and cults and countercultures of the 1960s and ‘70s. Each exterior face of each enclosure has one large reproduction of a historical photograph gleaned from OHS collections; below each of these is a grid of smaller, seemingly related photographs. These images are in fact the results from a Google image search in which the historical photograph has been entered as the ‘search term,’ with Google’s answers representing its ‘best guess’ and ‘visually similar images’ according to its computer vision and machine learning systems. The installation itself offers no accompanying information to clarify whether or not these images are historically relevant.

The interiors of the enclosures are only accessible by ducking down and shuffling through half-height doorways. Once inside, viewers are surrounded by a supposedly immersive scene of an anonymous construction site in a state of incompletion (suggesting urban renewal, demographic displacement, uncertainty about the future). Also in a state of incompletion are the physical walls of each enclosure, with oddly shaped gaps corresponding to the imperfections in the spherical photography software used to stitch the ‘immersive’ scene together. The gaps allow viewers to peer out from, and into, each enclosure.

To a large degree, this project is about access to information, and as such opens itself up to a variety of potential delivery methods or supplementary ‘public programs’: (a) a series of artist talks and Q&A discussions that attempt to unpack much of what I’ve introduced here, (b) traditional print media in the form of booklets or pamphlets, both sincere and satirical in tone, and (c) a mock ‘virtual archive’ of ‘future histories’ (the spherical views of construction sites) and ‘synthetic pasts’ (the undifferentiated mix of actual historical material and Google’s ‘best guesses’). Ultimately, what I hope to draw attention to is the instability of our apparent (utopian?) certainties -- whether it’s online or in real life.