The biggest news this season is of the teaching variety: Nicholas Brown and I are co-leading a summer study trip to Tbilisi, Georgia to learn about how grassroots practices in art, architecture, and design contribute to democratic public life in this post-Soviet country. We fell in love with Georgia during a brief trip to the country right before the pandemic, and we’ve been working with our longtime fellow traveler, Jesse Vogler, to develop this program for more than two and a half years. It’s been beyond exciting to learn about this fascinating country, and we have met countless generous, committed, and resourceful artist-activists who will be sharing their work with our students. If on the off-chance you’ll be in Tbilisi between June 30 and August 9, drop me a line. Or you can follow along with our journey starting June 28 at https://www.instagram.com/tbilisidialogue/.
Nicholas Brown and I continue to collaborate creatively, not just in the classroom. We have two projects in the works focusing on the transformation of Indigenous land into settler property in Massachusett territory.
The first piece is a multi-channel video and zine project looking at the Weld tract, a 1643 land grant to Joseph Weld in recognition for his role in brokering the brutal treaty that ended the equally brutal, so-called Pequot War of 1637. The land grant built the wealth of a famous Boston Brahmin family and eventually became one of the most beloved public spaces in the city: the Arnold Arboretum.
The second piece, undertaken in collaboration with members of the Massachusett Tribe, uses audio to narrate Indigenous landscapes, speaking back to the original deed that legally transformed, according to settler law, the land from the Native village of Naumkeag to the settler town of Salem in 1686. Both projects surface Indigenous voices that have not been erased by colonization and ask the non-Native public what knowledge of the violent histories of the landscape calls on us to do in the present. These are both somewhat slow-burning, relationship-driven projects, but we hope to have more to share by fall. Until then, enjoy this work-in-progress sketch frame from a potential two-channel presentation of the Weld work.
The Long Read
What does spatial justice look like, affirmatively – not just as the absence of injustice?
This question has been ever-present for me in the past year as I’ve developed the summer program, pursued creative projects, and facilitated a reading group on spatial justice for faculty across art, architecture, and law. The question asks for a grounded definition of spatial justice, one rooted in practice as well as theory, in vision as well as critique. It asks for a utopian mode, one that academics are generally disinclined to indulge. Our reading group usually demurred from offering an affirmative vision of justice, preferring to sculpt in relief–chiseling out the injustice–rather than build with clay, shaping the moist, resistant stuff of the world into something between vision, affordance, and capability. I use these sculptural metaphors intentionally: a year’s worth of meetings on spatial justice has convinced me that art has a lot to offer in both envisioning and pursuing spatial justice.
The concept of spatial justice has intellectual roots in a particular academic tradition: Marxism as adopted since the 1960s by mostly British and American academic geographers trying to make sense of the radically uneven development evident in both the cities of the metropole and between the metropole and its (post-) colonies under conditions of “late” capitalism. A younger generation of Indigenous activist geographers have both used and critiqued this tradition to speak to the settler colonial dimensions of capitalist spatiality, but academic conversations around spatial justice often implicitly assume the existence of the settler state even as they critique it. Indigenous and settler colonial studies teach that the foundational injustice of the Anglophone settler colonies stems from the unjust occupation and expropriation of land–an occupation underwritten by the presence of non-Native people, including those who may themselves be oppressed, exploited, or historically denied personhood to begin with. Seen from this standpoint, even the most hard-won advances for distributive, expressive, or procedural justice under conditions of settler governance risk legitimizing continued colonial occupation of the land. True spatial justice cannot be achieved without the restoration of governance by enduring Indigenous principles, with the leadership of Indigenous people.
Beyond such general statements, a decolonial vision of spatial justice is hard to articulate and even harder to achieve. Five hundred years of colonization cannot be simply rolled back like a soiled carpet to reveal an intact “Indigenous system of governance” ready for a quick sand-and-polish. Such a unified system never existed–and wanting to implement one “at scale” may be just another way of “seeing like a [settler] state,” to channel James C. Scott. Moreover, settler colonialism and racial capitalism are world-making and subject-making enterprises: there is no outside, or above, or below. They have done such incalculable and intentional damage to the existence of other ways of feeling, sensing, thinking, and being that many of the concepts available to organize against them are entangled to some degree. But because they are encoded, however ambivalently, in who we understand ourselves to be, the tools by which subjectivity is sculpted and expressed – art, music, literature, ritual – are indispensable to both the articulation and pursuit of spatial justice. By both training and orientation, artists consider how the tools used to pursue a goal also shape how the goal is defined. We often take an improvisational approach to methods, approaching them as another material that can be sculpted. Of course, these tendencies toward reflexivity and improvisation are conventionally deployed in the service of individual acts of creative vision – a definition of art well in line with liberalism and settler capitalism (and also one in which I continue to participate to some degree). But this is not all art is or all artistic approaches can do – particularly when individualistic impulses are tempered through relational accountability to a collective endeavor that includes active engagement with Indigenous leadership. I’ve been trying to steer some of my own work in this direction for the last few years, and I imagine it to be a lifelong process.
Two research images georeferenced historic maps of Salem, Massachusetts with contemporary digital maps.