What we talk about when we talk about place

Earlier this year, Colin and I were invited to join a new collaborative called Healing Place. Led by indigenous artists, Healing Place asks how the area surrounding the Mississippi River can be both a source of healing, and a place in need of healing.

That question — which is really many questions woven together, and still forming — intersects all of our work in different ways. Whether we connect primarily with healing as a process, with place, with the river and water, or with all of these elements, the collaborative deepens our understandings and relationships while furthering the possibilities for creative confluence.

As artists who develop public projects that engage with ecologies of place, our interest in joining Healing Place is in deepening our understanding of where we are and who we are with. This means building our relationships with indigenous artists and other collaborative members, and together, questioning what this place means and what it can become.

We also hope to deepen our understanding of who we are, which means reflecting on our own identities and experiences, and challenging our assumptions about place and the people who inhabit it.

How do our foundational understandings of place, and of this place in particular—many of which come from the Eurocentric and capitalist frameworks we’ve been steeped in — impact the ways we work and live? What is the value of resisting these frameworks and striving for reorientation?

Over the past few years, Works Progress has developed a number of collaborative public art and design projects that are rooted in place, or that engage and connect people with the places they live, as well as particular social or environmental issues. Some people have oriented our work within the broad field of creative placemaking, a relatively new term now ubiquitous in conversations about public art and creative community development, although placemaking has been a familiar concept in the fields of design and planning for quite awhile.

We’ve always been ambivalent about placemaking, and about the role of artists in placemaking projects, especially those projects whose organizing frameworks were not developed by artists or by the people they seek to impact — even if they do engage artists and community members — but were developed instead by organizations, institutions and funders to achieve (among other things) their own goals. These frameworks have their own internal logic, and importantly, pre-conceived ideas about what a place is and might become. The assumptions and overarching goals that guide these frameworks are not always explicitly stated — but if you listen closely to the language used to name and describe place-based projects, a lot is revealed.

How we understand what place is — what elements comprise a place, and how those relate to its past, present, and future — really matters. Where, and when, does a place begin? Who tells the stories of that place, and what stories are absent? As artists and designers working in place, how do we imagine our role in relationship to others who are actively involved with shaping what a place becomes? How do we approach power, build power, or cede power? How do we resist it?

One of the core partners of Healing Place, dancemaker Emily Johnson, writes:

“I think about place, how it holds us. How the actual, physical ground holds us — and everything we make up. For me, noticing is a start and a constant. I try to notice where I am. And then, there is a rooting that happens, a connecting between where I physically am and everywhere I have ever been. Memories come. New stories are made. I recognize the little bit of ground I am on as specific and unique and connected to every single other bit of ground in the world. Know who you are and who you are with. Or, at the very least, pay attention. To me, this is the most important part of dancemaking and living.” (Silent Story)

This approach to place — beginning slowly, turning our attention first to who we are, where we are, and who we’re with — is something I’ve come to associate with Healing Place, and in particular, with the indigenous artists who are leading our collaborative conversation. From the beginning, this way of engaging place has resonated with me. It guides the kind of public art and design work I hope that Works Progress can be part of creating in the future.

How can we create public art and design projects that encourage participants to experience place as a sum of relationships — physical, temporal, spiritual — rather than as a mere affect of our built environment, our economic or political systems, or of the ideas, symbolism and creative power of our dominant culture? How can this work be part of a broader healing process that impacts our relationships, our environment, and our ability to respond to urgent calls for social and spatial justice? What kinds of projects and engagement with place does this encourage?

One thing our indigenous Healing Place collaborators continue to point out, which distinguishes indigenous understandings of place from Eurocentric approaches: Place is relative, it is relation. Which is another way of saying that relationships matter.

We are in relationship — to each other, to place, to power — whether we recognize it or not. Proceeding with that in mind, how can we live and work — as artists and designers, as organizers, as relatives and neighbors — in ways that embody the ideals and values of healthy and equitable relationships? How can we live in place, and not just make it?

We continue to ask these questions, not as an intellectual exercise, or to be the ones with the right answers. For us (and I imagine for other Healing Place partners) the process of forming and participating in a collaborative is fundamentally about finding our place, together. It’s an active and ongoing process that generates more questions than answers or solutions.

Colin and I are both grateful for the opportunity to learn from and with indigenous artists, scholars, and organizers — because we know that substantive or systemic changes will require different frameworks. And not all of these frameworks will be new, innovative, or even attractive to funders. Some of the most important frameworks will be very old, and will come from this place, rather than to it.

This past weekend, at the encouragement of Healing Place partners, and to further articulate these questions, I joined a Bdote Field Trip* offered by theMinnesota Humanities Center. This day-long trip was led by indigenous scholars Ethan Neerdaels, Ramona Kitto Stately and Mona Smith, one of the leaders of Healing Place and the originator of the Bdote Memory Map. This field trip took us to five Bdote sites and introduced us to Dakota stories and perspectives that surround the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers.

On this field trip, we were encouraged to approach place not only with our heads — thinking about what a place appears to be, or what it might mean — but also with our hearts, letting ourselves experience being in place, feeling the range of emotions that such an intentional encounter might provoke.

Before we all boarded the bus for the day-long trip, Mona gave us a short introduction to the Bodte memory mapping projectIf you haven’t taken the time to look at this map, I highly recommend it. It’s a tremendous resource for anyone interested in place, and particularly those who seek indigenous perspectives on this place and its past, present, and future.

Mona reminded us that although the Bdote map and field trip might look like a series of discrete sites and occurrences across a map, any approach to recording and communicating place this way — dots on a map, fixed names — can never really encapsulate the indigenous way, which is much more fluid, both in space and time. The map is itself a very western construct. The Bdote memory map incorporates interviews with indigenous people, so although it takes the form of a map, it really is a non-linear narrative project. It’s one way to begin conversations about place from an indigenous perspective.

This fundamental difference in approach to place — the map of territories and events versus the more fluid and relational memory map — is so important to understand, because it illustrates some of the ways that this place has been systematically exploited, and that indigenous places have been overwritten by colonizers, historically and on an ongoing basis.

Place as a resource to be mapped, acquired, named, described, utilized, improved, and sold, is something many of us have internalized as just the way things are. As a result, we continue to inscribe this way of thinking upon the places we inhabit. As artists and designers, we also inscribe this way of thinking upon and through many of the projects we create.

This is an oversimplification, of course — and there are many great projects that directly challenge this paradigm —but it is still something worth considering: How do our tendencies to see place as external to us, something to be mapped and made, influence what we imagine to be our role and responsibility in shaping it? How does our colonial imagination influence our placemaking?

The language we use to describe our place-based projects says a lot about the frameworks and assumptions that underly our thinking. When we name projects or describe the ways we work, what are we really saying — and more importantly, doing — about place? What does it mean when creative assets are mapped by those who also claim the power to define them? When artists and communities are mobilized as a force for change? When underutilized spaces are developed, or when the economic return or commercial success of a project or place is one of the primary ways we measure its value? Who counts in these conceptions and calculations? Who benefits from them?

This is not to say that artistic or community-oriented design and planning projects intend the kind violence or displacement we associate with colonialism, but when we rely so heavily upon these frameworks, both for naming and for conceptualizing our processes of engagement with place and the people who inhabit it, it’s hard not to see how it continues in the same vein. When we start from here, it’s difficult not to feel limited in our ability to create a true alternative.

To that end, does it matter whether the organizing framework for a project comes from within a community or through artistic process, versus when it comes as part of an initiative that a government agency, organization, or funder has conceived and designed? To what extent does the support we are able to gather for our projects also define the paradigms we work within?

On the Bdote Field Trip, we spent a lot of time talking about the systematic ways that European colonizers erased (and continue to erase) indigenous people and stories from this place. This has been done by mobilizing the U.S. Military, by stealing land, by creating deceptive treaty agreements and establishing laws that concentrate power with few, and also by naming places and effectively over-writing their histories.

By now, most of us (should) know this story, but the particular ways that it has shaped our experience of place is still surprisingly absent from our conversations about the past, and also about the present and future.

On the Bdote field trip we heard the personal experiences and family stories of indigenous men and women while standing in the very places where so many terrible and important things have happened. It’s an encounter with place that has been erased from our collective memory, but not from the land or from the bodies of the people who still live here. Confronting these truths is painful, but necessary. As one of the field trip leaders said, we can’t heal from trauma if we don’t acknowledge that it occurred. If we don’t acknowledge our past, how can we address the ways it continues to influence our present and future?

The Bdote field trip really drove home for me the urgency of healing, and not just for indigenous people and places. Healing means addressing our varied relationships to place — who we are, where we are, and who we are with. It requires an honest reconciliation with the ways this place has (and that we have) been shaped by violence and trauma — even the ways we have perpetuated or benefited from it — and what this continues to mean for our lives and relationships.

We can start slowly, and close to home. Language is powerful. So is our ability to use language to shape reality, or at the very least, to pay attention.

How do our ideas and assumptions — about land and property, about the management of natural resources, about the efficacy of personal or political power — influence how we talk about place? And how is this talk part of a longer history of colonialism and displacement? Can we resist these tendencies? What would that mean, in practice?

Originally posted on Medium.

Shanai Matteson

Shanai Matteson is a public artist, writer, and cultural organizer based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.