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Front matter

Volume 1 | Representation, Materiality, & the Environment

Introduction: Representation, Materiality, & the Environment

react/review is a journal shaped by reactions. To react is to act in response, to reflect and return to a first actor. The term is active and encompasses the spirit of lively discourse and critical engagement. Perhaps it carries a connotation of hastiness, but we contend that this temporal association locates us firmly in the present. We envision this journal as a reaction to research trends and current global events, but we employ the term to also signal the discursive element of this project. In other words, react/review is a responsive journal. Our inaugural volume adopts the symposium’s theme: “Representation, Materiality, & the Environment.” This topic considers the way environments, landscapes, and the natural world have been represented by artists and architects as a means to ritualistic, scientific, political, leisure, or spiritual ends.

Revolution, Renewable: Subsoil Political Ecologies in Rivera’s Song of the Earth

This paper argues that in centering the interior of the earth as crucial to the political goals of the revolution, Diego Rivera contests not only the ownership of subsoil resources, but also capitalist epistemologies of the subsoil and their understanding of the relationship of the subsoil to social and political ecologies. In The Song of the Earth and Those who Till and Liberate It, the liberation of both people and the earth are cast not as linear teleologies with fixed endpoints, but rather as cyclical temporalities of constant renewal. These cycles are depicted not as parallel, but rather as interdependent life cycles of a larger ecology; the resulting deaths of the West wall’s revolution are figured as elemental geneses of the East wall’s cycle of organic life. The Chapingo murals thus reveal an important complexity to Rivera’s revolutionary ideology: a belief in the mutual dependence between environmental sustainability and the equitable distribution and control of resources. Ultimately, these murals reflect the extent to which in post-revolutionary Mexico, the renewability of subsoil resources was not seen as just important to the success of revolutionary goals, but also dependent upon them.

The Future that Lies Beneath

Today, there is wide (though contested) consensus that a materialist vision of nature will likely lead to our collective demise. Without sacrificing historical specificity, Kuipers provides timely insights on Rivera’s animistic approach to geology, which, as she eloquently demonstrates, did more than pay tribute to indigenous myths. The economic practices Rivera depicted on the walls of the chapel at Chapingo’s Autonomous University were, in his mind, not just functional activities, but social actions sustained by interrelations and spiritual significance. By situating the human rapport with nature within a metaphysical stream that irrigate cycles of life and death, he charted possibilities and opportunities that deserve our attention today.

You Can Be Sure of Shell: Oil, Empire, and Landscape in Interwar Britain

During the 1930s, Royal Dutch Shell Oil commissioned a group of prominent artists and designers to create posters for a nationwide advertising campaign in Britain. The slogans ran “To Visit Britain’s Landmarks, You Can Be Sure of Shell”; “Everywhere You Go, You Can Be Sure of Shell”; “See Britain First on Shell”, all of which were set against painted backgrounds of rivers, fields, churches, and castles. Through the latter half of the interwar period, these large posters traversed the nation stuck to the sides of the trucks that delivered Shell oil.The broadsheet images acted as peripatetic windows onto the historic buildings, landscapes, and scenic villages of Britain, encouraging motor travel by reinforcing a sentimental connection to the British landscape. Yet in doing so, the series elided the reality of the landscape as a site of ideological conflict. In the decades following World War I, this space had become disturbed by political upheaval and placed at the center of debates over industrial modernization.

Landscapes of Elision: Nostalgia and Imperial Networks

A striking aspect of Aukland-Peck’s piece is the way it traces a connection between naturalism and environmental exploitation via imperial networks. By grounding the discussion of Shell’s advertising campaign in a discussion of its historical emergence as a company trading in exotic seashells from across the British empire linked to existing domestic interest in seashells and fossils by naturalists, Aukland-Peck establishes naturalism itself as part of the lineage of Shell’s exploitation of imperial networks for later intensified forms of environmental extraction. There is no overstated claim here however: the move from seashells to oil and kerosene is clearly an economic one, with a kind of nostalgia for the oceanic constituting a thread of continuity with Shell’s seashell-trading origins, most obviously in the company name and logo. However, the connection between British domestic interest in the natural landscape through collecting and landscape painting and the growth of a commercial network which ravaged both imperial and domestic environments is striking, not least because of the poetic connection Auckland-Peck makes between the seashell as an exotic product for trade in the first instance, and as part of the substrate from which oil is extracted in the second. While imperial collecting was always extractive, this linkage between a set of practices at least seemingly oriented around an interest in “nature” and the groundwork it laid for later intensive environmental exploitation is an intriguing avenue of inquiry.

The Landscapes & Material Culture of Empire

Tobah Aukland-Peck’s essay offers a fascinating inquiry into empire through posters and seashells, seemingly mundane objects tied to a complex history of travel, advertising, oil, and empire. No longer solely the domain of Romantic painting wistfully imagining the expanses of empire under the guise of a serene landscape, this paper focuses on an aspect of material culture not often studied. Aukland-Peck argues that the “bucolic” domestic landscapes pictured throughout a number of posters advertising Shell’s enterprises neglected to depict the ravages wrought on the landscape by empire and capital in an effort to achieve material and corporate gain at a moment of Britain’s anxiety about its own status. Focusing on posters with their catchy phrases designed to foster interest in Britain, Aukland-Peck shifts our way of thinking about the proliferation of empire towards the innocuous nature of cost-effective, reproducible media. The “visual responses to war within the pastoral nostalgia”, as so poignantly articulated by the author, point towards the dialectical constructions laden within the imperial geography of empire and its visual culture. The presence of a peaceful landscape reveals a dialect of destruction; through visions of the countryside, the absence of imperial geography becomes present; and the relationship between the metropole and colony, as well as urban and rural, continue to be co-constitutive.

Outside of Architecture: Between Mediating and Navigating the Air

This paper unpacks the changing logics of flight, from the hot air balloon to the 1969 moon landing, which mirror the larger transition to narratives of control during the modern industrial era. Then, it explores a blind spot in architectural historiography that left inflatable forms out of architectural scholarship since the 1980s, despite their being prominent in the decade before. Finally, the project deploys recent insights from media studies, a discipline that evolved from critical theory to address communications media and technologies in the 1960s, and more recently focuses on the materiality of such media, to trouble architecture’s disciplinary limits and to demonstrate how the logics of the flying balloon illuminate the inflatable anew. Along the way, the work of artists and architects like Graham Stevens, whose texts and structures deploy scientific principles to reveal and embody a human entanglement with elemental forces, grounds the exercise.

Flux: The Ontological Status of Inflatable Forms

The formulaic “reveal, make manifest, extend, relate” encapsulates the simultaneous material and immaterial ontological status of inflatable architectures investigated by Katarzyna Balug in “Outside of Architecture: Between Mediating and Navigating the Air.” What does it mean to reveal the environment and how does this disrupt and contribute to our experience of spaces? With Balug’s discussion of Graham Stevens’ architecture—alongside correlating moments in the history of science, technology, space travel and flight—it becomes clear that at the core of this examination is the embodied, sensory experience of entering and inhabiting these inflatable structures. The phenomenological is intrinsic: how our relationships with the tangible materials framing the bubbled construction is enmeshed and mediated by the invisible properties providing the form constituting the contained architecture.

Improvising Field Research in COVID-era Hackerspaces

Hackerspaces and makerspaces are community-oriented technology and art workshops facilitating new forms of public life and filling infrastructural gaps in cities (but for the sake of brevity, I refer to both as hackerspaces here). My dissertation project aims at understanding how hackerspaces relate to the built environment and how they create new imaginaries of citizenship in U.S. cities like San Francisco and Detroit. Here I reflect on some of the challenges I faced researching these spaces as they constantly adapted to unaccommodating city environments before and during the pandemic. During my field research, I had to learn to follow them through their various improvisational strategies.

Crafting Environmental Citizens

I never intended to devote my doctoral studies toward the environment. When I began my Ph.D. in California in 2015, my research interests pertained to questions of materiality, queerness, sexual futures, and craft. For me, the process of a dissertation continues to be an endless lesson in the art of letting go and allowing for change and the unexpected. During the summer of 2018, I embarked on a three-week research trip across the southwestern United States. At the Ceramic Research Center (CRC) on the campus of Arizona State University and the archives of the New Mexico Museum of Art, I hoped to find a few gems that would bolster my project on queer craftspeople in the American West, AIDS, and the potentiality of tactility and the surface of an object as a site for sexual expression. I found nothing. During the 937-mile drive through deserts and red rock mountains from Santa Fe to Santa Barbara, I agonized over what to tell my advisor.

BOOK REVIEW: Christopher P. Heuer, Into the White: The Renaissance Arctic and the End of the Image

Christopher Heuer's Into the White attends to phenomena that so often mark conclusions or dead ends in art history rather than beginnings: absence, loss, disintegration, the unseen, and the unknown. Opening with Martin Frobisher's ill-fated 1578 voyage from England in search of a northwest passage to Asia, Heuer introduces readers to chronicler Thomas Ellis' attempts to illustrate an iceberg. The resulting images of this "great and monstruous peece of yce" near abstraction, and deftly exemplify the core concerns that thread through the rest of the book. As Europeans explored, documented, weathered and succumbed to the Arctic, the resulting images and texts spoke back to European crises of the day: Protestant iconoclasm, the epistemological limits of the image, and the relationship between the unseen and the unknown. The project of visualizing the non- or poorly-visible, Heuer argues, resonated with Protestant arguments about the dangers of the image, the reification of "whiteness" as purity, and open questions about how and what objects mean.

EXHIBITION REVIEW: Toward Our Digital Futures, a review of @socialdistancegallery

Our engagement with art has fundamentally shifted during the COVID-19 pandemic. As museums and galleries shut down or severely reduced the number of visitors to contain the spread of the virus, the in-person viewing experience of art was but another halted aspect of daily life. Increasingly, the art-viewing public turned toward Instagram and other visual social media platforms. Long used by artists for networking and to reach a wider audience for their work, Instagram has emerged as a pivotal resource (especially for young artists) to connect in a time of limited in-person interaction. For graduating BFA and MFA art students, this has meant the loss of their thesis exhibition. This event is a rite of passage in one’s career, and the culmination of years of work. To alleviate this loss, Professor Benjamin Cook of the Art Academy of Cincinnati created the Instagram account @socialdistancegallery. Boasting over eighteen thousand followers, the Social Distance Gallery has hosted hundreds of BFA and MFA thesis exhibitions from institutions around the globe during the pandemic.