ONGOING RESEARCH, ETHNOGRAPHIC INTERVIEWS AND DOCUMENTATION
1999 - current
The American Midwest is a geographical area largely untouched by contemporary artists. Urban Americans often think of Midwesterners as caricatures: poorly educated, obese trailer dwellers who vote Republican. Perhaps this can explain why contemporary art and film has largely ignored these middle states.
Convinced that the endless miles of cornfields and prairies must yield some mystery to a careful observer, I began researching the history of Southwestern Illinois along the Mississippi River. This area was once the frontier - both for French explorers coming up the river, as well as colonialists moving westward. For this project, I was not interested in textbook history but in specific events and locations that are critical to human or social history. Some examples: unmarked underground railroad houses, Mississippi River pirate hideouts, former prisons, early execution sites, to name a few. Essentially, geographical locations whose significance isn't recorded in textbooks and is therefore easily forgotten, paved over, built upon, annexed, or appropriated by contemporary societies.
I am ultimately interested in documenting the historical site in it's contemporary existence. I am interested in the empty lot that was once an abolitionist's meeting place, or the McDonald's that sits on the site of a former prison.
In August, I traveled to Illinois to do some preliminary research and photography. Some of the questions that came up during my explorations: How do geographical locations develop when their history is cloaked? Is there an aura lingering over these socially and sometimes politically charged places? Can we trust our eyes to tell us the truth about what we see? Can we trust history textbooks? Can we trust folklore or oral histories? How do we know what we know?
That Illinois is the subject of this artwork is almost incidental. Practically any location can provoke these questions. For this artwork, it was important to me that the sites be almost anonymous, which magnifies the irony or sadness that lie beneath.
This is a three-channel video installation. The three channels are shown in separate rooms so that only one screen may be seen at any given moment.
_screen one: a sequence of still photographs
_screen two: psychics describing what they "know" from seeing at the images on screen one
_screen three: texts that explain the images on screen one
It sounds simple, but the sites shown in
the images are multi-layered and deceitful. These locations bear no
historical markers - I specifically chose sites that had been overlooked
(for various reasons) by historical societies. This project focuses
in a rural area in the
Midwest because it is
important that the landscapes are unrecognizable to most people.
Imagine this sage-like gentleman on video, looking off camera, describing his thoughts, feelings, and understandings of an image we cannot see.
my personal interest in Illinois
I was born and raised in Illinois and have a touch of obsession for the state's history. My research for 'historical amnesia en masse' began with my interest in the death penalty, specifically the first state execution. I was expecting to find your standard execution info - so-and-so was hung for coveting thy neighbors something etc, etc - but I was surprised to find the opposite. The first Illinois execution occurred when Illinois was still a territory, the year is arguable. The first person executed was a slave (probably owned by French settlers who arrived via Mississippi River) and was burnt at the stake for witchcraft. (Witchcraft?! Illinois?!) His name was recorded as Manuel and also as Moreau, records of this time are quite irregular.
Illinois has a muddy history - much of it enabled by the Mississippi River and other sludgy waterways in the southernmost part of the state. Bandits, counterfeiters, underground railroad sites, reverse underground railroad sites, ancient mounds made by indigenous peoples, the suspicious death of Mormon Joseph Smith, Smallpox Island, to name a few. Oh yes, the Prairie State has more to offer than one might think.