Watch Where You’re Going!

This semester, I am taking the class Non-Traditional Modes in Art Photography, in which we examine the myriad possibilities of making and installing art outside commonly accepted venues (galleries and museums). It seems like it will be an interesting and socially oriented class.

One of our first tasks was to read an excerpt of Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places by Harvard professor John Stilgoe. This is my first encounter with Stilgoe; I think his ideas about moving through the world with acuity are empowering for all of us. The sentence from the reading which struck me most forcefully was this one: “Students with no particular interest in schoolroom history involving presidential elections, treaties, and wars often awaken to the richness of spatial or visual history, simply because objects and even landscapes from the past have shaped their lives and shape them still.”

As someone who loves history but reliably misremembers and scrambles the dates of important events, I suddenly understood an alternative, visual approach that comes much more naturally to me. I suddenly appreciated that the built environment I take for granted every day is a physical manifestation of my community’s social, political and economic grappling and decision-making. Roads, buildings, parks, etc. represent, trends, theories, technologies, fears. Was this already obvious to you? It was not obvious to me.

I recalled a time many years ago when, living in Spain, my daily walks began a real conversation with the landscape. Possessing only rudimentary Spanish language skills and shy about my (in)ability to communicate, I was not attempting complicated queries about Spanish society with any of my acquaintances. But in walking, and looking, and noticing, I asked, was answered and learned. I wrote about this experience for my class in response to the Stilgoe reading. It follows.

“I discovered the Spanish housing bubble while walking in the olive groves of Spain; I discovered it with my dog.

In 2005, my husband, children and I embarked on a sabbatical adventure of living in a foreign country. We chose to live in Spain in the Andalucian town of Granada, a town famous for the Alhambra, bullfights, Federico Garcia Lorca and olive groves. My language skills were provisional at best. My conversational goals were modest and practical: How do I locate a grocery store open on Sunday? When is it my turn at the fish counter? Why is my daughter’s teacher unhappy with the shoes she is wearing? At the beginning, my relationship with Spain revolved mostly around providing for the comfort, safety and entertainment of my family. And then, I adopted a dog and I began to walk with her through the olive groves that surrounded the neighborhood where we lived.

One day, after cresting a new hill, I came upon a construction – the infrastructure for a perfect suburban neighborhood, albeit without a single home. There was a beautifully paved road forming an elongated figure eight. The housing for mailboxes marked individual lots, shade trees had been planted to shelter evening paseos (an ritual I was just learning about), the scars of utility lines laid were obvious in the dry soil. What was this place appearing like a mirage in the middle of the orderly rows of olive trees? I started to have a fascinating dialogue with the Spanish landscape about her region’s economic development aspirations and blunders, about her position in the new European Union, about greed and sustainability. The conversation went on for the entire length of my year-long stay in Spain and included: tracking down the source of distant sounds, looking for clues from my passenger perch during car excursions, and, eventually, passionate dinner conversations, with Spaniards in Spanish… ”

Watch how Professor Stilgoe interacts with Harvard’s campus here:

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