Briefly summarize your current research.
I am researching what I call ruderal aesthetics, and to do that, I am focusing right now on three sites—an aggregate quarry with a range of habitats, a former rail yard that features road salt stockpile, and the Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park, site of a dam failure and flood in 2006. These sites provide me with a physical and mental reference for developing and testing my approach to landscape intervention, which straddles the disciplines of landscape architecture, process and eco-art, and ecological restoration.
Which areas do you feel occupy the borders of your discipline? What lies just beyond those limits? How does considering those divisions impact your research practice?
Landscape architecture as a discipline has a lot of surface area, and currently my work interfaces with ecological restoration and art. I am looking critically at the history of ecological art and locating the blind spots and assumptions in that genre that are shared in ecological restoration. Basically, they share these ideas about how abject landscapes or ecologically different landscapes need to be repaired to a certain naturalistic aesthetic ideal. I am countering that thinking in a number of ways, for example by examining the “Devastated Landscapes” genre contemporary art, those sublime images of industrial manipulation of landscapes, and finding a way between these opposing ways of picturing and intervening in landscapes. I am critical of how the artifice involved in ecological restoration practices are downplayed or hidden—the prosthetics and props that are intended to disappear as the landscape returns to a more “natural” state. I’m at the edges of my discipline in that I’m looking in particular at this moment right after an ecological disturbance, where the landscape is just starting to reorganize itself after a big shock, like a flood. I am interested in the kind of latent intelligence that emerges at that moment, and what happens when you intervene in that moment and change those processes. I’m designing various kinds of armatures or scaffolds—very visible, and not naturalistic—that guide or manipulate the self-organizing tendencies of vegetation. I look at the work of Barry LeVa, Heringa Van Kasbleek, Robert Morris, Mel Bochner, and, of course Robert Smithson, when considering how such armatures might function and simultaneously provide narratives that are legible but still open to interpretation.
Where do you position your research in relation to others within your discipline? Do you see those lines of demarcation at times becoming blurred?
I am assembling a symposium this year on a new idea of the garden which is a way to capture the ways my colleagues are currently working on site-based research—those working in the margins of the discipline who work in the margins of the landscape. The work can be physical such as actual interventions and experiments on-site, or representational/projective, which includes visual research methods like analytical drawings, films, or models. The gardens are loosely organized into three categories—the test plot, the prototype, and the reference site. It’s a way to capture the creativity and imagination that doesn’t get acknowledged by more orthodox means of production and dissemination in landscape architecture—by that I mean people with clients who have land they have a specific agenda for. There’s a lot of competition for landscape architecture projects and they are high-risk endeavors, so they generally go to more established firms—emerging practitioners aren’t welcome. There aren’t many outlets for emerging practitioners. Most of us in the periphery may also be practicing in a more orthodox way in a day job but then on the weekends are conducting experiments after-hours. In this symposium we’re inviting both camps to participate and submit work relating to test plots, prototypes and reference sites.
What research topics are you interested in exploring when you are not doing ‘work-related’ research?
I have a sense of urgency about capturing or formalizing the ruderal aesthetics work, but the summers are devoted to research on the health landscapes of the Republic of Georgia. I’ve spent the past two summers living on the Borjomi Plateau and hiking around looking at abandoned health sanitaria, discovering mineral springs, and informally interviewing people who grew up in the area when it was a major destination for R & R in the Soviet Union. It’s really a dramatic and restorative landscape, with really fresh mountain air, and each spring is known for curing this or that—this one’s good for your eyes, that one for your skin, the other one for your hangover. Some are more sulphurous and others really metallic and iron-rich. There’s a rigor to my wandering there: chasing the rumor of a dismantled water conveyance system for example, or just getting the lay of the land and then sharing my discoveries with friends when they visit. The area I live in on the plateau, Tsemi, and the surroundings were dedicated to children’s health. All that infrastructure is gone except for a tiny narrow gauge train that links the towns together—the train is right out of a children’s book, they call it by its Russian name: Kukushka. It’s also an essential lifeline for families living in the remote villages. Every day they bring water, bread, groceries to seniors who are living a really spartan lifestyle. Their children and grandchildren all moved to the capital for work. I think the reason I would call this “non work-related research” is that there’s the pressure to get tenure and to be known for “one thing” which is frustrating. There are links, though, in that the whole plateau is something of a “post disturbance” landscape: there are trees growing of the old hotels and cows walking in the halls. I also do post-mine landscape planning with Heidelberg Cement in Georgia with my colleague Jesse Vogler, and that work feeds back into my work in the states.