Tuesday, February 27, 2007

On Formal Autonomy

On Formal Autonomy, originally uploaded by sevensixfive.

I thought for a long time before putting this photo up, but it illustrates something that's been bothering me for a few months now:

Everywhere I go looking for aesthetics, I find politics, too.

I was checking out an old (1926) map of Baltimore at the library, geeking out at the abstract textures and hand drawn detail, shooting macro photos, as is my habit. I kept coming back to Druid Hill Park, I liked the swoopy lines and dotted grass. It had a kind of picturesque, formal curviness that struck an interesting contrast with the more operational, material sweeps of the Clinton St. Piers, my other favorite spot on this map. Frederick Law Olmsted vs. the engineers of the Pennsylvania Railroad, right?

Only later, when I was editing the photos at home, did I see the hidden detail in this shot, revealing the social, political and economic dimensions that link these material and formal landcapes. The normalization of racism in America allowed the exploitation of an underclass that built the railroads, the same underclass that sustained the source of Olmsted's nostalgaic pastoralism.

I can't figure out what it means, but this keeps happening. In old maps, aerial photographs, industrial archeaology, suburban exploration, aerodynamics ... all the things that keep drawing me in for their looks keep me interested for their meaning, and where I keep hoping to find an object of closed, innocent, autonomous aesthetics, I keep finding open, complicit, contaminated, dirty old politics. And it's always more interesting.

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