ON THE GEOGRAPHY
On the Geography employs photography and the visual representation of data to interrogate the gaze from which the canonical history of landscape representation has been constructed. The project takes the form of a geographical treatise, consisting of large-format photographic works that juxtapose photographs of landscapes with tables of data about the area, bringing the two together to describe the physical and human reality of the territory.
The first series, On the Geography of Green, through its focus on abandoned drive-in theaters in the southern United States, explores landscape from a decolonized, gender-informed perspective. It was made in the states of Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana between 2014 and 2019, years in which I lived in the south of the United States with the Fulbright scholarship, doing a doctoral thesis, which linked ruin with capitalism. The production of the works has been made possible thanks to the Aid for Creation and Promotion of the Spanish Ministry of Culture.
ON THE GEOGRAPHY OF GREEN
During my time living in the southern US working on a doctoral thesis that linked the ruin to capitalism , and on the visits I made from Madrid up until 2019, I travelled around abandoned drive-in cinemas in the states of Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana. Moving closer with each outing to the American landscape and culture.
During these trips, the planning and precautions needed to manage atmospheric conditions and risks related to working in places located in the outskirts of cities, sometimes quite remote, converged with wonder at the incredible forces of nature that had come to reign triumphant over this cultural product derived from the automobile industry.
My previous work in the deindustrialized spaces of European cities was informed by an understanding of decay as the transformation of productive spaces into a natural state of “non-productivity.” In these new American spaces, the vegetation’s conquest over the drive-in theaters brought me face to face with a much older sense of the ruin. In this earlier conception, present in photographs and engravings of the American continent that were created through the colonial gaze of nineteenth-century expeditions, decay was understood as a return to nature, away from culture.
The word Green contained in the title of this series is a reference to the plant kingdom that rises triumphant over the ruins of the drive-in cinemas; but it could also be a reference to the guidebook, The Negro Motorist Green Book. The Green Book, as the guidebook was popularly known, was published from 1936 to 1966, approximately the same time-period in which the photographed theaters were in operation. The book offered recommendations for hotels and restaurants that accepted African-American travelers, making it possible to avoid the dangers of the segregated South. As I traveled through Arkansas in the time leading up to the presidential election of 2016, the presence of numerous Confederate flags warned me of the imminent victory of Donald Trump and of a dangerous global shift to the extreme right, all of which made this seemingly anachronistic book present throughout the series.
So that several geographies converge in this work – geographies of risk related to being “other,” to climate (rains, flooding and hurricanes), and to fauna (in the southern US there is an abundance of rattlesnakes); and the geography of amenities necessary to maintain and entertain the members of my family who travelled with me.
Two of these data points – those related to the “otherness” of the traveler and to “family care” – were not present, to my eyes, in the illustrations created by the famous geographers and botanists who travelled through- out America in the nineteenth century. Such was the case for the work of Alexander Von Humboldt, whose esthetic of the “data table” is the basis of this project. Neither was this experience reflected in the images and texts of famous photographers who captured the American landscape in the twentieth century, like Ansel Adams. With these absences in mind, I include specific data in the present project in a gesture that seeks to revise the gaze through which landscape is illustrated and photographed, offering instead a decolonial per- spective that is informed by gender.
The pieces use the same tables of data distribution that Alexander Von Humboldt created on his travels to the Americas from 1799 to 1804. Anne Buttimer explains that the approach to landscape and phenomena in these tables reflects not only Humboldt’s ideas, but also those of his contemporary, Goethe. She writes, “Humblodtian science emphasized objectivity and rigour in measurement and eventual generalization of results, while Goethe’s way emphasized careful attunement to the observation process in itself, and the inevitable subjectivity in human perception and understanding.” So that, for both Goethe and Humboldt, as well as in the project On the Geography, the aesthetic dimension informs the manner in which landscape representation is conceived. The geographic coordinates of the location appear beneath the images of the drive-in theaters. The left side displays data compiled during the planning of the photos – information relevant to the photographer’s trade, such as the duration of daylight, the moment of twilight, solar noon, details related to the viability of the shot, and the grade of luminosity of the screen. Beside this information, continuing with the description of atmospheric conditions, we find the “aspect of blue of the sky and green of the plants, in Pan- tone scale.” This data point is a contemporary evocation of the Cyanometer, the small wheel of distinct satu- rations of blue that Alexander Von Humboldt used to measure the blue of the sky. These data, more pictorial than scientific, also appeared among the data from Von Humboldt’s travels in the Americas.
Adjacent to the Pantone blues, and continuing the movement toward culture, we see the most popular films of the years in which the drive-in was operating, classified in order of popularity. Next to these, we find other data related to the calculation of natural and human risk in the locales, including the presence or absence of places indicated in The Green Book.
To the right of the image, mirroring the left, information about the vegetation appears; this is the “green”. This information includes the names of the botanical species of the county (the counties often carry names of native tribes, Ouachita, Quitaque, which recalls the racial and cultural diversity of the land) along with a few characteristics. For example, they might be an invasive or a climbing species, making it possible to climb up the screens with more or less ease.
Other data – neither scientific nor heroic – were gathered to respond to the needs of “family care” during these sessions: hotel chains, restaurants, supermarkets, and a list of kid-friendly activities to entertain the youngest of the group.
By juxtaposing the visual representation of these data with the photographs of drive-in cinemas, On the Geography of Green visualizes the exploration of the landscape through an alternative lens. It presents the gaze of subjects and identities that differ in gender and race from those we are used to encountering in the official history of the representation of a territory’s exploration. From the nineteenth century on, this history has employed a romantic, white, patriarchal, and illustrated gaze that conformed to the idea of the aseptic hero, a subject working alone in a territory free of humans, affect, and alterity. It is this vision that would justify, via the sterilization of the landscape, the later exploitation of these territories.