Omar Abdul-Rahim / Sun Staff Photographer

September 18, 2016

Fumbling With History: American Spoila

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American Spolia gashes itself out into space like an inverse wound. It spans an unbent and unwavering 140 feet across Libe Slope’s midsection, resting, at its highest, westernmost point, several feet above my head. At each end it terminates bluntly and abruptly. Its thin metal beams are sparse and rudimentary, almost purely utilitarian. Numbering about a dozen, they support, as if extollingly, an imbricated miscellany of wooden panels, each one of its own faded hue. Across these, stretching the structure’s flank, is etched a harrowing command from our own country’s first president to General John Sullivan:

“Sir, the expedition which you are appointed to command is to be directed against the hostile tribes of the Six Nations of Indians, with their associates and adherents. The immediate objects are the total destruction and devastation of their settlements and the capture of as many of every age and sex as possible.”

It is with this nauseating side of history that American Spolia: Crossing the Line attempts to grapple. But rather than truly engaging the inherent multiplicity of issues, past and present, which it presents, it instead inserts itself into a narrative in which it seems only to serve as a pedantic reminder of the events for which it, by its very existence, stands. It wrenches itself into history with the intention of spurring some vague change, but with a more powerful and selfish desire for its own visibility. Its lumbering permanence, its unrelenting span, its sheer and uncompromising presence at our campus’s center is proof that American Spolia is concerned with few histories other than its own.

This, however, despite its creator’s deep engagement with this area’s past. The project sprang from Prof. Aleksandr Mergold’s, B. Arch ’00, architecture, interest in, quite simply, a bunch of lines that were casually drawn more than two centuries ago.

In 1792, Simeon De Witt created a map, scaled at the ratio of one inch:one mile, of central New York. It was on this piece of paper, rather small considering its historical magnitude, that De Witt separated what would eventually become Ithaca and its environs into 20 townships. The dividing lines, according to Mergold, “are fairly casually drawn with a quill pen on the parchment. It’s in a very small scale, but it shapes so much of the way we live here in this area now, for better or for worse.” The better, it can be assumed, might include our bustling town, our respected university, the beautiful landscape which we all, as Cornellians or Ithacans, can claim as our own. The worse, however, is what the flank of Mergold’s structure calls graphically to mind: Requisite for these townships to have been created, for those lines to have been drawn, for us all to enjoy “the better,” was the systematic displacement and extermination of the Native Peoples who had occupied this area for thousands of years prior.

Libe Slope’s giant structure represents the width, were it scaled up from its original size on the map, of one of the lines which De Witt drew and which, as Spolia calls to mind, cuts through our current reality in a far more literal way than many of us would ever care to consider. But the project’s failure lies not in its engagement with history, or in this presence of the past which it makes us consider; rather, it fails because of the boundary which Spolia sets on that consideration, because of the way it engages with its history.

American Spolia communicates with its audience through a series of conflations: it conflates the past (the line that was drawn) with the present (what that mark continues to mean); the linguistic (the words on its side, the narrative it tells) with the spatial (you must walk from end to end to read those words, to hear its story); the drawn (a lifeless map) with the lived (the people existing on either side of that “for better” and “for worse”). But its most important conflation — the one through which it engages with history and which forces each of us to consider the implications of such a project — is its conflation which falls the flattest: That of the two sides of the process of “empathy,” not coincidentally the theme of the 2016 Biennial of which American Spolia is a part.

Spolia’s intention seems to have been to bring the empathizer (the white person whose ancestors were complicit in Washington’s quote) into direct contact with the empathizee (the American Indian whose ancestors it affected). Spolia was created from pieces of wood plundered (Latin: spoliatus) from 200 years of houses built by white settlers. The deplorable quote on its side, then, has been quite literally carved into the spoils of colonization. But in this empathetic relationship, the party empathized with — the Native Peoples on whose land these houses were built, whose life and livelihood were the victims of Washington’s command — is presented as a remnant peering out of the cracks of that quotation. Spolia’s role as empathizer takes center stage; it touts its capacity for feeling and its ability to admit — or rather, brandish on its side — the foibles of its past. But in this bombastic display of apparent empathy (that is, in building an enormous structure which makes no reference to American Indians other than as a group which was conquered some 200 years ago), what is lost is the role of the empathizee in the process of empathy. American Spolia fails not because it attempts to empathize, or because it attempts to bring the empathizer and the empathizee structurally together within one towering installation. It fails because it looks at history as finite and definite, a thing with ascribed and unchangeable winners and losers, conquerors and conquered. What it does is attempt to empathize with a subject that doesn’t exist: A conquered, distant, long-ago erased Native American who fell along with Washington’s command. What it should have done is forced its viewer, whoever that might have been, to empathize not only with the Native Peoples “conquered” in some dark, distant past, but also with those thriving in the present moment, even within the bounds of that line drawn by De Witt’s casual hand.

The Sun: How did this project begin? Were you enlisted to contribute to the biennial or did you undertake making this happen?

Aleksandr Mergold: The biennial was soliciting calls for proposals, so I proposed this project.

Sun: Had you been thinking about this project at all beforehand, or was this something that had its inception in the biennial.

A.M.: I hadn’t been thinking about this specific situation, but I had been thinking a lot about the map of central New York which Simeon Dewitt drew in 1792. I had been studying it for about a year after I got a New York State Council for the Arts grant to produce essentially an atlas of the 20 townships that Dewitt’s map prescribed. There are two copies of the map, one here in Kroch Library and one in Albany. It’s a pretty small piece of paper, and the lines are fairly casually drawn with a quill pen on the parchment. It’s in a very small scale, but it shapes so much of the way we live here in this area now, for better or for worse. It’s pretty fascinating: How can a drawing — and not a particularly big one — shape such a huge tract of land. My initial study looked into how the original townships, which were essentially a grid, transformed over the last 220 years. That was an interesting part of the project, interviewing New York state historians and these kinds of things. This project sort of came up as a byproduct of that. Preceding the creation of Dewitt’s map, there was a series of events that shaped shaped the way it was drawn. I thought it would be interesting to try to visualize all of it.

Sun: So it seems as if, rather than a social critique, this project sprung more out of an interest in the history of this area’s regional planning?

A.M.: I wouldn’t even say “planning”: it’s specifically about “drawing.” It came from an interest in drawing as an instrument of other things — as an instrument of power, as an instrument of colonization, any of these things. But drawing being an act of putting a line down on paper means more than just putting down some line.

Sun: The name of the piece is American Spolia: Crossing the Line. Obviously that title is wrought with a lot of implications on both sides of the colon. What made you consider this project specifically in relation to Ancient Roman spoliae?

A.M.: Well, that was actually something I had been thinking about before the biennial as well. When we all come to Ithaca, one of the most striking features of the local landscape is all of these Greek and Roman town names, which actually came about as a part of Dewitt’s map. There is a question as to whether Simeon Dewitt himself came up with the names or somebody else, but that’s not really the point. The point is that there is definitely a perceived legacy of the past in this area. When I first learned about Sullivan’s Raid — the quote here on the side of the piece is from George Washington instructing Sullivan to essentially “clear out” the local population — I thought, “It’s interesting that these events aren’t particularly well known.” I’ve been working on this project for a week, and people come up to me asking about it, but they don’t know about the dark side of this area’s history. I thought that, as an art piece, it would be interesting to create something like the Romans would have done after their conquests: A temporary arch made up of spolia, which is basically what this is. Except the difference is that this is made up of spolia not of the Native American civilization, but of our own. This is 200 years of old houses that white settlers built here; it’s the remnants of those things. That’s where we get the “American Spolia” of the title. And it’s “Crossing the Line” because we are literally crossing the line of history right here. We’re standing here now in a 140 foot wide line [that, scaled down, would have been the thickness of Dewitt’s pen on the map he made of this area]. The map was scaled 1 inch: 1 mile.

Sun: A few years ago there was an exhibition at the Johnson [Lines of Control] which deals with border lines in a similar way.

A.M.: Yes, there was an exhibition in 2012 which I was actually inspired by. There was a piece [DAAR’s The Red Castle and the Lawless Line] by an Israeli/Palestinian collective which dealt with a line passing through a building.

Sun: Yes, it dealt with the thickness of a border line when it is drawn on a piece of paper, and how when that map is scaled up to actual size the area that that line’s thickness represents can become problematic.

A.M.There was another piece from that show which I also thought was really important. It was by Jolene Rickard, who is the director of American Indian and Indigenous Studies program here at Cornell. You’ve probably seen a lot of the historical signs in the area; they were put up during the WPA, blue and yellow on the edges. They usually commemorate the white settlement of this area. Jolene’s piece was about the presence of the Cayuga tribe in this area, and [she recreated versions of these WPA maps] in the Cayuga language: it kind of infiltrated the whole system. That was also an inspiring piece for me. When I started thinking about this project I remembered both of those works, the thickness of the line and the WPA signs in the Cayuga language.

Sun: In the planning and construction of this piece, were there any Native American peoples or parties involved?

A.M.: I did reach out to the American Indian and Indigenous Studies department here before this thing was constructed. Prof. Jolene Rickard and the other faculty members were aware that this thing was going on, and they were quite supportive of the project.

I don’t necessarily see this as a piece that tells a Native American story. I see it as a piece that essentially can become a platform for all sorts of stories to be told. I see it as literally visualizing the particular drawing which happened in this particular place and which spawned a lot of different stories. I’m an architect, so I don’t necessarily tell stories; I create things out of nuts and bolts. So this is my part, and I see this project as a platform for various other stories to come from and be told by anybody who, in one way or another, has a presence here. To me that’s the whole point.

Sun: So for you, this piece is meant to reflect less on any one specific implication of the line that was drawn, and more on the many implications of the drawing of that line?

A.M.: The implications are certainly many. I’m not a historian and I don’t know any exact numbers; all I know is that this map and consequently this one single line had a lot of influence on this area starting back then, and it is still exuding its influence now. For me, visualizing that and making it tangible by making it very present is the beginning of a conversation which will hopefully continue on. I guess it’s already begun.

Troy Sherman is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at 

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