Lately, I have been thinking a lot about the stories landscapes tell about who has been there, how the land has changed, who or what drove those changes. As a geoscientist, I am inclined to lean on maps and satellite imagery to capture landscape evolution. Studies of place and people (uhm, geography?) have explored the different ways that landscapes have shaped our experiences, we develop emotional ties with some spaces more than others- a theory called place-attachment. However, there is little work that explores how places might remember us. If places had the same intricate emotional capacity as us and bear witness to our lived experiences and those of our predecessors, how would they remember us?
Interdisciplinary artists (Juan deGado- Altered Landscapes (2016) ) explore these questions beautifully- capturing altered landscapes in photographs and mixed media, building fragmented installations to explore displacement, dislocation, and trauma. Photography allows for a static archive of a place and captures the state of the place in-situ. Photos can trigger memories of familiar places as well as emotions of unfamiliar but stirring landscapes. Ruins, memorial sites, and monuments serve as memory aids much like photos do- places haunted by past catastrophic events continue to actively affect emotional responses from patrons and visitors despite the absence of personal memories to those locations.
Places carry biographies, stitched across generations that even in the absence of human occupation can be emotionally perceived. We build monuments and memorials to focus, archive and prolong social memory of historical events to sites. A bench, name plaque, or a white man on a horse serve to materialize memory and reinfuse meaning and history into designed spaces and objects. We build monuments to remember, to preserve, maybe more so to empower artifacts that can allow us to continue to retrieve specific social memories. Memorialization expedites the visceral response one might have to an unbuilt but charged landscape through tactile and visual stimuli. Monuments concentrate place-based meaning and memories; they serve as gateways to the past. But looking is not seeing. Visual triggers might even diminish, simplify, and homogenize the complex stories contained in landscapes. Spectatorship can also diminish historical complexity and reinforce passivity.
The built environment especially monuments and memorials evoke memories and histories of conquers, joys and traumas. It’s challenging to think of ways of tapping into social and ecological memories without the aids of statues, monuments and memorials despite the obvious limitations-memorialization and remembering through material culture often centers a single story and it takes power from the land and infuses it into a structure (the Washington monument becomes both the piece of land the monument lies on and the monument itself). Memorialization’s are modern-day shrines.
Today historical monuments are becoming the focus of controversy (critic). In landscapes that belong to all of us, whose histories are centered and whose remain in the shadows or become wholly erased? Who gets to be remembered? Should we remove, add to or recontextualize these artifacts? There is a lack of dialogue around the significance of place and land in collective historical memory. How can memorials be better designed to engage us with the land and all the characters in the story-the conqueror, the native populations, and the ecosystems and natural resources usurped, traded, and pillaged? How do we especially account for the active participation of unbuilt landscapes in social interactions and their archives of past events? Land and territory acknowledgement (which has been a part of many indigenous cultures for years) is a good example of how engaging the unbuilt environment might look like. Acknowledging the histories and past occupants of the land we stand on reduces the erasure of the stories that do not make it to plaques and monuments and shifts our focus to the unbuilt environment.