“Mediascape” and Landscape: Thinking About Gendered Spaces in Contemporary and Past Populations

The following is my first blog post for the Broad Art Museum Writing Residency program. We were given articles on “mediascape” and landscape and instructed to consider these works in conversation with Trevor Paglen’s artwork (referenced in my intro blog post about the residency) and our own research projects:

As a Biological Anthropology student interested in the prehistoric and recent past, I spend a lot of time thinking about how physical bodies (e.g. burials, ancestors, modern peoples) fit into a geographic and cultural landscape that persists through time. Paglen’s “experimental geography” (in addition to the assigned readings) has galvanized me to think about both archaeology and views of landscape in more sophisticated and creative ways.

Paglen has discussed his interest in “the line that separates vision from knowledge,’ acknowledging that material evidence does not often come to the forefront of his work (a particularly bold admission for this data-loving science student to read!). Rather, his images provide the foundation for a conversation, a questioning of the limits of knowledge, and an examination of how and why those limits came to be drawn. How can I, a student studying the prehistoric and recent past, apply these ideas to other cultures and peoples?

From an archaeologist’s perspective, these themes are present in prehistory in every complex hierarchical culture. However, the issue of material evidence is a very real and pressing concern; in fact, it is the end goal. I cannot imagine a field season in which I came home with no artifacts (no “evidence”). Jonathon Crary, writing in Techniques of the Observer (1990:32), stated that, “by the beginning of the nineteenth century the camera obscura is no longer synonymous with the production of truth and with an observer positioned to see truthfully.” Further, Crary wrote, “Vision can be privileged at different historic moments in ways that simply are not continuous with one another” (57).

Both Crary and Paglen touch on the reproduction of vision and its (potential) disassociation with truth and linear time; that is a truly revolutionary idea to me at this moment in my graduate program! Paglen’s work has made me begin to question how I operate as a scientist and how I envision research projects. Can I too explore the “line that separates vision from knowledge”? Perhaps. What I find most appealing is that Paglen does not provide us with a full story, but instead baits us and lets us debate, deconstruct, and deny or accept the photograph or installation.

Surveillance of, rather than documentation of, the landscape appears to be a main thrust of Paglen’s work. Access to the landscape (who gets it and how) is a resonant theme across time, geography, and culture; access and restriction are themes that crop up constantly in my archaeological research. The names, places, and cultures may change but the architecture of constraint occurs through time and space. Paglen seems interested in those structures and operations that are essentially hidden in plain sight; that is, their existence is not shrouded but their details are. This idea of conspicuous invisibility evokes a power dynamic that one is hard-pressed not to take personally: there are spaces in the country that, no matter your position, you do not have the right to physically access.

This residency program has made me reconsider the ways in which I think about studying landscape, especially at the historical level here on campus where we have written records and access to archaeological materials. While restriction and constraint have always been at the front of my mind in considering this gender research, I concede that I have thought often about these themes from only one perspective or dimension. Drawing on contemporary art and “experimental geography” to critically think about the organization of campus, in addition to the archaeological and historical materials available through CAP and University Archives, will help me to better form an anthropological inquiry into the female experience in the years past at Michigan State University.


Author: Amy Michael

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