Seán O Sullivan is a writer and curator whose work focuses on the politics and preservation of localities. He has curated projects and written critical texts dealing with subjects such as architecture, ecology and the bonds between people and places. He is a former chairman of Black Church Print Studio, Dublin. He holds an MA in Curation and a BA in Fine Art from IADT, Dún Laoghaire. He is currently Visual Arts Adviser to the Arts Council of Ireland / An Comhairle Ealaíon.

This page: The Dig where you stand publication accompanied an exhibition and a series of reading groups in South Tipperary throughout 2012.

Dig where you stand

“In this book you will learn … what an infinity transmitter is.”1

In 1968, Robert Smithson published a written tour of the monuments of Passaic, New Jersey in the winter edition of Artforum. The magazine’s readers took a daylong trip through the concrete sprawl of his native city, learning about the modern monuments that had recently risen from the earth. Smithson complemented the journey with six grey photographs that he had captured on his Instamatic, as well as a small triangular map of the area surrounding the Passaic River. He wrote about signposts, derricks and pipes, about Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodge and a 1968 wide track Pontiac. He wrote about as many things as he could see, and gave each the status of a New Jersey monument that would be recognised across the ages.

These monuments are entirely different to those of Rome’s eternal city; in the olden days, sculptors and architects captured representations of Pax Romana that tried to quantify the spirit of the country, or even the spirit of the age. The marble mediums were then handed off to the caretaker of history and transmitted through the centuries, for all of us to see on our holidays. Roman architecture is quickly recognised, and the era’s statues are instantly identifiable; their tendency to sculpt eyeballs without pupils lends a certain otherworldliness to even the lowliest Caesar. Consequent to all of this, the long-dead empire carries a pungent air of survival.

According to Smithson, Passaic holds no such ambitions; its senators are too humble to imagine themselves in marble. New Jerseyans have generously furnished their countryside with concrete smokestacks, regurgitating pools of wastewater, and place names as well considered as “River Drive”. Smithson takes great care in describing each detail of these future-bound monuments: the smokestack is no mere utilitarian assembly; it is a spectacular sceptre that challenges the sky. It was easiest that I imagine the city as a place of extraordinary humility, carrying no airs of being historically permanent, and fully resigned to its own stammering place in the world’s cultural architecture. Why else would it so purposely adapt its landscape to the insipid trappings of modernist sludge?

I had Smithson in mind while travelling down the M7. It was the first day of the project, and the artist’s estate had just granted us permission to publicly read and disseminate his monumental tour. I remember thinking that it was a shame that he thought his city had built nothing that was worth carrying into the future. I was carrying a stack of his ‘tours’ in my lap, so I suppose Passaic can at least be congratulated for building Robert Smithson.

The inside pages of the Dig where you stand book.
The inside pages of the Dig where you stand book.

The first Dig where you stand reading event took place in the Workmen’s Boat Club, Clonmel. The boat club has the feeling of a farmhouse about it, albeit one in the middle of town. There’s sheds on the lower floors stacked with one-man vessels, and a workshop on the main floor with most of its space devoted to the restoration of a wooden canoe. The top floor overlooks the Suir, and a few rough hills on its far side that decorate the skyline. The club was built along the water’s edge, close enough that you could singlehandedly lift a craft from the shed and carry it out to the river for launch. From the top floor, and looking east down the river, the water gives way to a slight passage of muddiness, with spots of rushes wherever the riverbed comes close to the air.

Towns and cities tend to be particularly finite at the core, they can grow outwards and upwards, but can rarely squeeze more habitable spaces into their already populous stomachs. In Newark, near to where Smithson grew up, the Passaic River’s central embankments tempted a group of developers during the early twentieth century. The men designed concrete foundations to buttress an enamelware factory, and then a collection of factories wherever the water allowed. It was possible to achieve an effect where the buildings would stand up, but less considered was the impact of burying concrete into the city’s flood plains. The Atlantic’s rainy freshets broke the river’s banks in due course, almost causing the factories to capitulate to their landscape. Newark’s local government financed a set of ramparts to stifle the problem, putting a thin veil of concrete between the land and the length of its riverside. The ramparts were assembled from pre-fabricated blocks, and seemed twice their twelve feet where they divided the harbour from the water. Visiting New Jersey these days, it might seem incongruous to have a concrete barrier separating a harbour from its water. Or, difficult to put the flatulent appendage out of mind when admiring the way the floodplain factories so deftly encapsulate man’s contempt for nature. But there it is, circling off Passaic like a stupid-looking girdle. It would be too trite to call it a shame, and too sarcastic to say it ‘revitalised’ the area. I will merely say, “it is an example of an American monument”.

Smithson ended his tour on a short explanation of entropy. He described a sandbox bisected by an invisible line; with one half of its sand turned white and the other turned black. A child runs in circles through the border many hundreds of times, complicating the sand into a grey heap. Running an equal number of times in the opposite direction will not return the border to its former separation. Any attempted reversal only intensifies the disorder.2

The natural world ignores our notion of reversibility, it tends to trundle on no matter how cleanly we hew dysfunction from perfection. Five years ago, I spent a long train journey reading Alan Weisman’s book The World Without Us. It keeps to a fine tradition of speculative fiction, asking that we accept a resounding lie in service of haphazardly tripping into a few new truths. Weisman imagines that one morning, for no reason worth concretising, mankind simply ceased to be. This isn’t due to the onset of a virus, an asteroid or the bomb. It is simply a proposition that for no reason in particular, tomorrow’s people are simply not. That is our resounding lie, and having taken it to heart, Weisman asks what will happen in the world that day, and then the next. He moves on to the following three years: the growing disuse and dilapidation of our prized smokestacks, and of Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodge. Soon, we have read of their state after twenty years, two hundred, and an order of magnitude more. We know who will prevail in the survival contest between Pax Romana and the M7.

We read Weisman’s text in the Excel Arts Centre in Tipperary town. This was an earlier and concise article he had written, rather than excerpts from his eventual book. The reading took place in the Excel’s cinema, which screened Uriel Orlow’s Remnants of the Future at the end of the evening. Orlow’s film shows the spine of an unfinished building sitting alone in the middle of an endless desert. It is a real place: the sort of enormous concrete plateau that occasions its way into my most mundane nightmares. A few bored pilgrims sit in the building’s shade, tapping at the copper they’ve managed to strip out of the walls. It was helpful to think about Weisman’s stolid future while watching them. His world captures the consequences of today’s constructive fervour, and he hands those consequences over to a timeline that preserves nothing—a world left to its own devices. Not the moping sphere of ill tidings that comes preloaded with any use of the word ‘environment’, but a way of thinking about ourselves in relation to the things we make. A way of seeing pumps, pylons and pesticides without imagining that those very things might yet make our lives unliveable.

In Cashel, the Bolton Library’s ground floor has a set of vitrines containing books by Dante and Machiavelli that date from the sixteenth Century. A similarly aged map of the Virginia territories caught my attention, it had an etching of the commonwealth’s governor on its right side and tentative place names filled in across an astoundingly broad spread of forest. It seemed improbable that places like Cape Charles, Cape Henry or Jamestown are still so named. Weisman explained that the Manhattan of the day was home to forty variously converging rivers and streams.

We sat in the library reading a short paragraph where Walter Benjamin explained a painting called Angelus Novus by Paul Klee—its title translates into ‘the angel of history’. The spirit of the evening asked that we maintain our fidelity to Benjamin’s descriptions, even if this meant not imagining what Klee’s angel might look like; we had no reproduction to hand. Truthfully, it only occurred to me later that the ‘painting’ Benjamin described was actually a physical thing, rather than an allegorical linchpin. He composed an utterly striking account of this angel, claiming that it had been awoken from a slumberous concentration, but wished to stay lodged in the past and make alive what had been shattered by time. However, the angel cannot stay in the past, reversibility is no friend to the vague ramblings of the ages. Angelus Novus is beaten by the skyward climb of historical debris, which he is responsible for, but did not cause. Benjamin elaborated: “Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.”3 The angel pronounces the simplicity of entropic progress: its reductive, unlovable, chaotic glee. Its unlimited possibility. I couldn’t imagine what to expect from the real painting.

It is somewhat concerning to imagine that history is constantly touching off the present. As time advances, we become more and more culpable for the parsing of our past. Not merely responsible for smothering our ancestors’ mistakes, but less able to manoeuvre their old maxims into a form fit for the stormy present. Today is on the hook for a yesterday whose voice is permanently becoming more amplified. This immovable communication is an infinity transmitter.

For its part, the written word lives on a downward slope; a constantly live phoneline from the era of Benjamin and Smithson, which leads to here but cannot lead back to them. After the line arrives, it captures what it can and is irresistibly propelled into the future in a “storm we call progress”.4 Presumably it will travel far, perhaps reaching the point that Alan Weisman claims is definitive: a glacier runs through Manhattan, grinding up the tire yards and readying the ground for forty new streams and rivers. They’ll stretch their limbs and serve as the new monuments, or the new wilderness.