Skip to main content
Open Access Publications from the University of California

fields of force: navigating power in space, place, and landscape


Front Matter

Volume 3 | fields of force

Introduction: fields of force

In a recent zine of short stories, poems, and artwork entitled FORCE/FIELDS published by feminist micropress Perennial Press, the editors asked readers to interrogate the “force fields” that exist around and within us, defining a force field as “a barrier that protects someone or something from attacks or intrusions.” While “force” can be interpreted as a physically tangible or more abstracted form of power at work, “fields” denotes a spatial, geographical, and temporal demarcation of such forces’ claim to authority. These might manifest in visible, concealed, or transitory forms, such as the materiality of architecture that shapes and constrains action, less visible infrastructures of surveillance, or more ephemeral strategies of performance and practice that resist or transform existing spaces. Whether fixed or fleeting, we are attuned to the gaps and malleability of fields of force that offer opportunities to reconstitute how power is embedded in space, place, and landscape.

Skyscraper Churches and Material Disestablishment at the Fifth Churches of Christ Scientist

“What is ‘religion in plain view’ when it doesn’t ‘look like’ ‘religion’?” I propose that both the Canadian Pacific Building and 450 O’Farrell use a strategy I call “material disestablishment,” in reference to Promey’s concept of “material establishment,” to downplay their religious aspects. Although W. L. George may have correctly noted religion’s diminished visual prominence, this need not mean that religion has disappeared from the American city. Urban religious power is sometimes exercised subtly; it is a force field that is often intentionally obscured. I propose that hybrid religious and rental buildings blur the boundaries between sacred and “secular” and lend support to the argument that, despite an immense increase in religious choice, our age is not necessarily irreligious. In this article, I explore and trace the genealogy of this notion, specifically in Christian Science and then extending to an Episcopal church.

Churches in a Secular Skyline: Fields of Force and Urban Change

The editors of the zine-style volume FORCE/FIELDS that inspired the theme of this current issue define a force field as “a barrier that protects someone or something from attacks and intrusions.” They ask “[w]hat are the force fields we hold up? What are the force fields we fight against?” Alexander Luckmann’s “Skyscraper Churches and Material Disestablishment at the Fifth Churches of Christ Scientist” demonstrates that certain New York and San Francisco churches do not fight against, but rather participate in dominant fields of force. They do so through “material disestablishment,” the handing off of real-estate dealings to developers and accepting visual integration into the secular skyline. Far from oxymorons, pitting the incentives of private capital against religious missions, skyscraper churches indicate an alliance. I argue that through this alliance, skyscraper churches uphold fields of force that exacerbate socioeconomic disparity in U.S. cities.

All Along the Bell Tower: An Analysis of Surveillance and Affect on the Johns Hopkins University Homewood Campus

Black and Brown students at JHU were, and continue to be, disproportionately impacted by surveillance architecture and security technology built into the campus environment. Protest messaging including “shut down the plantation, cancel the Hopkins private police!” and “surveillance won’t give us safety” touch on the impact of these small forms of violence experienced by marginalized students, yet frequently disregarded by the perpetrating institution. By exploring affect theory, architectural history, and art-making practices, this project analyzes objects that produce everyday forms of surveillance on JHU’s Homewood campus and the representational objects that can emerge from them. Through the production of mixed media photographs centering the campus’s architectural elements as subjects, I propose an alternative way of seeing without spectacle to work through these weighted affectual experiences.

A Gendered Response to a Watchful Gaze

We are constantly under the rays of the spectator’s eyes, an inevitable consequence of modern urban life with high demand for the rhetoric of safety and security under the disguise of omnipresent surveillance systems. Expanding from contributing author Sophia-Rose Diodati’s spatial analysis of “affect arrays” and surveillance of racialized bodies, this response aims to situate Diodati’s analysis alongside nineteenth-century Iranian palatial towers in order to highlight the intersection of gender politics and power relations in the surveilled body.

Surveillant Movements: Policing and Spatial Production in East German Housing

This paper examines the Stasi’s housing district surveys as a particular genre of East German state surveillance and explores the spatial modes and strategies through which East German state power operated in housing settlements. Analyzing the ways the East German secret police reproduced and used the built environment, I demonstrate that East German architecture both facilitated and complicated methods of state surveillance, ultimately resisting the panoptic aspirations of state power. I thus argue that Michel Foucault’s analysis of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, which continues to be one of the leading models for interrogating the relationship between architecture and surveillance, does not fully elucidate the spatial practice and efficacy of surveillance in the GDR.

Doorway to Dissidence: The 1979 Doors Exhibition in the GDR

In October of 1979, a group of eight German Democratic Republic (GDR) artists in their twenties organized an exhibition designed to reflect the sentiments of their generation. It took place on a year that would mark the 30th anniversary since the formation of the GDR. Held at the Leonhardi-Museum in Dresden from October 27- November 11, the Doors Exhibition [Türen-Ausstellung] overwhelmingly represented experiences of being caught at a threshold—enclosed, separated, and alienated, yet on the edge of possibility, openness, and connection—as metaphorized through the everyday structure of the door. How was it that the symbol of the door came to hold such significance and potential at the time?

At Home in the Wild: Race, Power, and Domesticity in the Transatlantic Wallpapers of Zuber & Co.

On July 24, 1833, French painter Jean-Julien Deltil (1791–1863) sent a letter to wallpaper manufacturer Jean Zuber (1773–1852) of Rixheim, Alsace. The two men were working on a new project together: wallpaper featuring landscapes of the United States, with which Zuber intended to bolster his company’s sales in the latter country. For this design, Deltil planned four scenes focused on New York, West Point, Boston and Niagara Falls. The descriptions of the scenes, which were to be composed of physical landmarks, forms of transport, and various groups of people, betray Deltil’s intention to use spaces and visual signifiers easily associable with the American continent from a European perspective, even if such designs implied taking liberties with geographic and scientific accuracy. Despite Deltil’s single written mention of Black figures, the actual designs also reveal the artist’s determination to use Black figures as props in his compositions. Engaged in social interactions, these characters appear in all four scenes, sometimes alongside Indigenous figures. The present article argues that these figures can be seen as an illustration of internalized ideas about race on both sides of the Euro-American Atlantic, which influenced the imagery of visual products like wallpaper.

Views of a United Nation

In this issue of react/review, Thomas Busciglio-Ritter addresses the production and distribution of wallpapers such as “Views of North American” in the nineteenth century, arguing that they are intertwined with a history “of racially charged representation” that constructs and validates a white aristocratic identity. I shift viewpoints to consider elements of this wallpaper that construct and attempt to validate the identity of a nation. From this vantage point, I argue that the Zuber & Co. wallpaper “Views of North America” is representative of a strategic fragmentation of conflict in pursuit of establishing a heritage for the newer nation, the United States. The wallpaper’s eventual installation in the White House in the 1960s showcases a political technique that uses representations of technological and social landscapes to obscure conflicts of exploitation and dispossession. This technique is related to the pursuit of constructing a shared heritage that undergirds a sense of community.

In/Visibility: Beijing Queer Film Festival and Alternative Queer Space

Founded in 2001 by Chinese film director Cui Zi’en and students from Beijing University, the Beijing Queer Film Festival (BQFF) is China's longest-running independent film festival centered on queer media and visual culture. In this article, I approach the BQFF by focusing on the issue of queer visibility, a particular mode of queer self-manifestation that fluctuates between the states of concealment and disclosure—a contingent condition of existence that undergirds how sexual minorities in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) negotiate and navigate power despite their culturally and politically constricted existence. I explore how the Festival contributes to disrupting state power without using overtly aggressive tactics. I argue that the astonishing longevity achieved by the BQFF organizers necessitates further scholarly attention to the cultural and political efficacy of an ambiguous queer visibility as enacted by the Festival tactics.

Alternative Modes of Mapping

Nathan Shui’s essay on the 2013 Beijing Queer Film Festival considers a new geography for queer spatial tactics of interpolation. A documentary still-frame included in the author’s essay displays a collage of photographs, blue lines, and other symbols affixed to what seems to be a typical road map of Beijing and surrounding areas. These annotations serve to make queer space visible while simultaneously obscuring official or government-approved modes of interacting with the city. For me, this brings critical attention to any map’s discursive obstruction. Maps are not neutral depictions of fact: like any representation they are selective and rhetorical.

Confection and the Aesthetic of Collapse: Luis Vasquez La Roche’s Sugar Cane Field Performances

Contextualizing Luis Vasquez La Roche’s work through a now-rusting refinery perimetric to his interventions, I argue that reading his performances through an aesthetic of collapse can reframe decay as a productive and promising force. In her review of Brian Meeks’ text on political revolution in the Caribbean, Maziki Thame has suggested, “there is potential in collapse, in hegemonic dissolution, in disorder.” Following Meeks’ recognition of the “implicit potential for a democratic renewal” amid political tumult, Thame suggests that crisis and collapse can herald equitable Caribbean futures rooted in revolutions that impel “radical change, the actual turning of things upside down.” Taking seriously this potential, I propose that an accompanying aesthetic of collapse, defined through Vasquez La Roche’s practice, allows us to embrace the inevitable literal collapses of colonial and capitalist infrastructures and envision through conceptual collapse the potential for post-decay renewal.

Collapsing Autopia: Feliza Bursztyn’s Chatarras

In “Confection and the Aesthetic of Collapse,” Ashleigh Deosaran situates Vasquez La Roche’s multimedia artwork within Trinidadian history by setting the farcically conciliatory colonial discourse about the region’s sugar plantations and its workers, found in prints and postcards dated from the nineteenth to the early twentieth century, against Vasquez La Roche’s prescient performance. The artist’s engagement with an aesthetic of collapse is described as threefold by Deosaran: a physical collapse of sculptures that melt and become undone; a temporal collapse, as he substantiates the continuities between the colonial archive and contemporary culture and its biases; and a conceptual collapse, conceiving aesthetics for a decolonial, post-capitalist future where the rusting ruins of historical violence attest to the failure of ideologies of empire. Deosaran’s aesthetic of collapse is a productive framework in observing the work of another Latin American artist, sculptor Feliza Bursztyn (1933-1982), known for her junk metal assemblages and kinetic sculptures. Assemblages Flor (Flower, 1974) and Chatarra de Automóvil (Automobile Junk, 1980-81), analyzed here, provide insight into her artistic praxis—saturated, as it shall be demonstrated, with collapse.

Black Magnolia: Counter-Narrating a Plantation Tourist Site

How did Magnolia’s former slaves and those workers who were born after abolition face tourism’s exploitative conditions through life-affirming acts of resilience and resistance? The paucity of surviving testimonials from these subjects makes answering this question rather difficult, as does the contrasting abundance of archival evidence attesting to the brutality of slavery and its afterlives. With due caution, I counter-narrate Magnolia from the perspectives of its Black workers, approximating their lived realities from records and research on other enslaved and freed subjects, and projecting their subjective experiences back into period accounts and historical images of the estate. I pay particular attention to how they inhabited the landscape to their benefit, managed interactions with tourists, and created bonds of support amongst one another. With the site’s workers as my guides, I endeavor to uncover Black Magnolia.

The Lure of the Lash: Spectacular Violence and White Ethnonationalism at an Australian Convict Site

Like the transformation of a rice plantation and site of Black enslavement into an English-style garden discussed by Connor Hamm in this volume, the Port Arthur Penal Settlement in southeastern lutruwita/Tasmania has navigated the process of reinventing a site of involuntary and often brutal labor as a tourist destination, a transformation already underway at its closure in the late-nineteenth century. However, while U.S. plantations suppress their violent histories through reinvention, Australian penal settlements instead offer up their brutality as spectacle. If Hamm’s exploration of the Black history of Magnolia Gardens troubles romanticizing it as a space of white leisure—as surely it must—how can such revelry in spectacularized violence against convict bodies coexist with the meticulous unearthing of their stories? I suggest that the answer lies partly in the historically specific form of white ethnonationalism that has grown up around convict narratives in Australia, in which white tourists identify themselves with convicts rather than their masters.

Un-Mapping Water Labor: Quantitative Slippages in Occupied Cairo

Like any doctoral student, I wanted to write a compelling dissertation with meticulous archival research. The archive is often defined as the state’s official depository of administrative documents. In my case, the National Archives in Egypt has somewhat mythic status: an object of perennial desire that can prove frustratingly difficult to access. And yet, there is a frequently expressed fear among students that a dissertation written without this experience is insufficient. I had plans to use the National Archives to reconstruct a history of urban water. Instead, things turned out differently. When Covid-19 hit in 2020 I had a two-year-old son, and my daughter was born in July of that same year. Caring for young children among myriad covid restrictions foreclosed a return to Egypt, official security clearances in hand or otherwise. It was imperative at that stage to make new plans.

“From Palestine with Art”: Dreams of Sovereignty and Acts of Resistance at the 2022 Venice Biennale

For the 59th Venice Biennale, curator Nancy Nesvet and the Palestine Museum US in Woodbridge, Connecticut, organized the Collateral Event “From Palestine with Art” at the Palazzo Mora (European Cultural Center). “From Palestine with Art” presents the work of nineteen contemporary Palestinian artists who invite audiences to imagine a new landscape and way of life in a liberated Palestine. The exhibition interweaves moments of joy with themes of struggle, resistance, and injustice. The artists and curators turn away from gratuitous images of suffering and violence to embrace creative forms of fighting and solidarity where happiness and presence is a radical act of resistance. As Israel continues to occupy Palestinian land and execute unprovoked military actions against unarmed civilians, the exhibition shows that Palestinians are still here. Their presence, even if far from the Biennale’s main events, is a visual argument for liberation, while its physical distance is indicative of the ways that many aim to neglect the current situation.