On the Lost Canals of Vilnius


​​​​​​Vilniaus Dinge Kanalai ​​​​​​​​
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Jau mes senai užmiršome kad XVI-XVIII amžiam, Vilnius buvo vadintas „Šiaures Venecija“ ne tik dėl to kad miestu architektūra būvu panaši bet gi ir Vilnius buvo kanalų miestas lyg kaip Venecija. Po Didžiojo Vilniaus gaisro 1610 metais, Kristupas Radvila Jaunasis liepė rekonstruoti miestą su Venecijos-tipo kanalais kad vėl tokio įvykio nebūtu. Vanduo buvo paimtas iš Vilneles upes. Šitas etapas baigėsi kai Rusai užėmė Vilnių ir bijant choleros, reikalavo gatves atgal atstatyti. Praėjusia savaite buvo malonu užtikti senus paveikslus senai užmirštame muziejaus fonde. ​​​​​​​​Žinoma, tas viskas užtruko daug laiko ir užmirštose kampose kanalai dar egzistavo iki pat pirmojo pasaulinio karo.

The Lost Canals of Vilnius

We have already forgotten that in the XVI-XVIII centuries, Vilnius was called “Venice of the North” not only because the architecture was similar but also because Vilnius was a city of canals, just like Venice. After the Great Fire of 1610, Prince Krzysztof Radziwiłł ordered the city be rebuilt with canals like Venice so that such an event would never happen again. Water was taken from the Vilnele river. This phase of the city’s history ended when Russia took over the city and, fearing cholera, demanded that the streets be put back. Of course, this took quite some time and the infill was not complete until the eve of World War I. The previous week in Vilnius, it was nice to run across old paintings from long-ago forgotten museum storage spaces.


Or so the story goes.

I’ve spent a bit of time this spring exploring Artificial Intelligence-driven image generators like Nightcafe Studio, Midjourney, and most recently Dall-E 2. These engines allow anyone to produce remarkably complicated and realistic (or surrealistic) images easily. These are the early days of image generators and the developments have been rapid. Clearly, the handwriting is on the wall for a variety of practices. Why use stock photography if any image you can want can be yours, royalty free, for a few dollars? Will we ever trust an image again? What will happen to pornography when physical bodies aren’t necessary anymore? Will video game environments be produced by Artificial Intelligences, based on prompts from developers, or will they be dynamically created on the fly? Figurative painting, in particular, seems all too easy to simulate and simulate well, but then I haven’t really understood the purpose of figurative painting for some time now. The sort of fan art and sci-fi fantasy scenes commonly found on DeviantArt and in Hot Topic stores are easily made by Dall-E 2 and its ilk. But quite obviously art, in its highest form—for example, conceptual art—can’t be made by such applications. Or can it?

If we see art as a constant research process exploring the boundaries of the human condition (and I am likely to argue such a thing in the second part of my post on Art and the Universal), we might begin with the observation that although image generators can’t purposefully do anything new conceptually, we can use them in conceptual ways. Returning from a week in Vilnius, I saw a friend tweet an image of London by Canaletto. This got me thinking about Canaletto’s famed capricci, fantastic images of Venice in which many of Andrea Palladio’s works from Vicenza (a town considerably inland from Venice) mysteriously appeared in Venice. Canaletto spent ten years in London, but his student and nephew, Bernardo Bellotto, who was also a painter and—confusingly enough—was also known as Canaletto, was even more itinerant, spending time painting in Dresden, Vienna, Turin, and Warsaw where he was appointed court painter to Stanislaw August Poniatowski, the last King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania. After the massive destruction visited upon Warsaw by the Luftwaffe, Bellotto’s 26 panoramic vedute of the old city were used to help reconstruct the city center as a matter of “national honour.” The socialist government of the Polish People’s Republic argued that by turning back to the eighteenth century, they were reconstructing a pre-capitalist state, hence the reconstruction was not a bourgeois project and could proceed under the regime. By the 1960s, the city historian would claim that “the old town now looks as it used to long ago.” But, like his uncle, the second Canaletto enjoyed taking significant artistic license with his paintings and, compounding this, the authorities made decisions to depart from any previous epoch in Warsaw’s history. The resulting Warsaw center has itself become a built capriccio, a city that never was. In enshrining it in its World Heritage list in 1980, UNESCO called it an “outstanding example of a near-total reconstruction of a span of history covering the 13th to the 20th century.” (see more on Warsaw’s reconstruction here).

Over the thirty years that I have been visiting Vilnius, I have observed the city doing the same thing, albeit in a more piecemeal fashion. One day there is a ruin, a few years later a baroque building appears to have risen on the spot, although behind the façade is a hotel or an Internet startup. Most notable of these is the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania which had been demolished in 1801 but was rebuilt out of reinforced concrete from 2002 to 2018. In fact, Vilnius—like virtually all cities—is hardly static, but rather exists in a constant state of flux. Even now, there are threats to incorporate the city’s main icon—the Gediminas Tower—into a reconstruction of the long gone upper castle. The architect involved claims that since the original tower was only there stories tall, the current structure—rebuilt in 1933—is so inauthentic as to demand the long-gone structure be rebuilt.

Having often heard Vilnius compared to an Italian city and thinking of the nature of the Canalettian capriccio, I decided to produce the lost canals of Vilnius (perhaps also referring to the filled-in canals of Venice, California, or the missing canals of the planet Mars) in Dall-E 2. Hundreds of image generations later, I have a small selection of images for you of a city that only exists in the imagination, but that, given the propensity of cities to be remade to look like images, may yet one day come to pass.

On Art and the Universal, I

In his Theory of the Avant-Garde, Peter Bürger concluded that the avant-garde’s purpose is for art to sublate(assimilate) into life. In opposition to nineteenth century aestheticism that aimed to emphasize the autonomy of art from life, Bürger’s reading of the historical avant-garde—be it Dada, Surrealism, Productivism, Constructivism, or the Bauhaus—was that it aimed to break down the barrier between art and life, allowing the fullness of artistic expression to pass into all aspects of life.

For a large group of people in the developed world, this is now an everyday condition. Members of the creative class curate their lives around aesthetic choices, work and life are inseparable. Our lives are filled with intentional choices that express our individuality: we aspire to cook modernist cuisine, clean up with Marie Kondo, and obsess over the right boots and hat to go gardening in. STEM and maker culture are not opposed but inseparable: who doesn’t make their own jewelry or design their own body art these days, often using 3D modeling software and printers? Tens of thousands of people worldwide sit on Philippe-Starck-designed toilets every day. The workplace is a playground. Even after the recent plague, design festivals and biennales are a dime a dozen now. Go glamping in Marfa, spend an evening at the local sip ‘n paint, bring your friends to the immersive van Gogh. This curated life is thoroughly documented, to be posted on Instagram for the world to see.

In fairness, Bürger believed that by the 1950s, when avant-garde techniques from Dada and Surrealism had been incorporated into advertising and television (think Ernie Kovacs or Ray and Charles Eames’s films here), the aestheticization of everyday life had been complete and the avant-garde had been dealt a fatal blow. For Bürger, this is a false sublation, but I’m twice as old and jaded as I was when I first read the Theory of the Avant Garde and I don’t see how Bürger’s historical avant-garde could have ever been anything but a temporary reconciliation with an ultimate tragic end. The avant-garde was always a historically delimited moment. And if it’s fair to say that contemporary culture is thoroughly spectacularized, you would be right, but when a book on Constant Nieuwenhuys sells for $1,892 on Amazon, what is the spectacle anymore? Writing about Situationism has earned more than one professor tenure at a top university. Pinot Gallizio’s works, once sold by the yard, now sell for tens of thousands of Euros. The practices of Situationism have long since been absorbed by the spectacle. What is Dîner en Blanc® if not a Situationist practice? What is Situationism if not an excellent guerrilla marketing project?

That the Situationists or Fluxus chose to continue on with the neo-avant-garde was merely an after-effect. No doubt there is much truth there. The historical avant-garde is long dead and with it too the promise of art sublating into life.

Much of the art world has long abandoned any pretense of avant-gardism, embracing instead the idea of self-validation and value. Take NFTs, the realm of garish cartoon apes that have escaped from a Hot Topic store to scream “I am rich.” This is no different from the art at the very top of the market, touted as an investment vehicle that cuts out the vicissitudes of corporate ups and downs, skipping price/earnings ratios and dividends for an unabashed belief in inflation and the greater fool theory, but in reality act primarily as a signifier for extreme wealth and good taste (and often a front for money laundering).

Other forms of art and architecture use politics as a form of branding, taking a page from Debord’s idea of the Spectacle. Take the hyper-branded architecture of Rem Koolhaas, Bjarke Ingels, Diller, Scofidio + Renfro and their ilk, often presented by academic “critics” as somehow serving to liberate people (which I suppose means from architectural convention) or progressive (which is just baffling). 

These two positions—the idea of self-validation and branding—come together in art that espouses a political position or identity politics. Now key strategy of the avant-garde had been to communicate political ideas and, especially after the Black Lives Matter and #metoo movements, there has been a burst of interest in the art world in such art. Yet, nobody has ever gone to an art gallery and come out a communist. Hedge fund manager Daniel Loeb collects art by Jean-Michael Basquait, Richard Prince, Mike Kelley, and Cindy Sherman, all of whom have been political art darlings of Leftist art critics and yet is a major donor to Right-wing causes as well as a supporter of the neo-fascist menace that occupied the White House from 2017 to 2021. He is merely one egregious illustration; ultimately one’s political position hardly matters. What does it mean to have an El Lissitzky on one wall and a Frida Kahlo on another? It signifies wealth and aesthetic appreciation, not political allegiance. What does it mean to demonstrate solidarity with an identity group? Why is one lauded for affirming one’s sexuality loudly in art, even if Mapplethorpean transgression can no longer demonstrate the shock of the new? All this merely demonstrates one’s virtue.

Many members of the bourgeoisie, unable to escape the deeply engrained notions of Protestantism, but questioning its superstitions, have replaced the delusion of original sin with the notion of “privilege.” Surrounding oneself with art that trumpets the identity of its maker is a way of assuaging this guilt, even if—as the notorious Whitney “Collective Actions” show demonstrated—political art’s functional purpose isn’t to change the structural condition that it critiques but rather to underscore and cement those very structural conditions. Nor is this new, notwithstanding the newness of the phrase “virtue signaling,” virtue and art have long been linked, initially through religion, later on through connoiseurship. And, of course, for many artists, the idea that art needs to be socially relevant assuages their own guilty consciousnesses for producing useless things for the rich.

And yet, as Peter Sloterdijk explained in his Critique of Cynical Reason, it’s the habit of such guilty consciousnesses to turn to cynical. The cynic (in the sense that Sloterdijk and I always speak of) is someone with an enlightened false consciousness, someone who knows that something is wrong but goes on doing it anyway. Having read critical theory in university, the modern cynic knows that what she or he is doing is wrong, but they do it anyway. Sloterdijk writes that this makes them “borderline melancholics, who can keep their symptoms of depression under control and can remain more or less able to work.” For Sloterdijk, once an individual has become cynical, his or her hope has been lost, abandoned for expediency. Take for example, the Marxist professor (a figure I met all too often in the university) who realizes that with Revolution endlessly deferred, the best thing they can do is to defend their academic position at all costs so they can continue preaching Adorno and Benjamin, even if that defense comes at the cost of cutting down rising faculty, avoiding any political activities outside the university, or looking upon staff as human beings worthy of consideration. Fascism—both interwar and present-day American and European fascism—is the ultimate result, of course, a politics based on brutal expediency, in which democracy must ultimately give way to a “politics of pure violence.”

There is, however, a choice that avoids the cynical, the choice of embracing the most degraded of all ideas in art today, that of “the universal,” and it may not be what many of you will think or find acceptable (although in private conversations, many of you have said that this is precisely what is necessary…). That possibility is the subject of Part II, which will come next week, after an interregnum in which I get some work out there.

Modernism in Montclair

I will be speaking about the modern architecture in Montclair, New Jersey and the surrounding areas tonight for the Montclair History Center, 2 June at 7pm. The talk will be recorded and shown on Youtube a few weeks from now at the Montclair History Center’s channel. I will be covering the period from 1900 to 1985, including “the Hollywood Hills of New Jersey” (Highland Avenue) and will briefly talk about the Deck House corporation.

https://us06web.zoom.us/j/92938168537?pwd=T0pGbVgxVUMwVjV0WDBMZlFkbUI0Zz09
Meeting ID: 929 3816 8537
Passcode: 818319

On the Wastelands of Northern New Jersey

My photographic essay, Wastelands: An Analysis of the Early Anthropocene Swamps of Glacial Lake Passaic is now up on this site. The photographs were exhibited at El Palacio de la Madraza in Granada, Spain as part of the show Vernacular. Diálogos entre micropolíticas del paisaje, curated by Carlos Gor Gómez. A brief abstract below:

In his 1961 book, Megalopolis: the Urbanized Northeastern Seaboard of the United States, geographer Jean Gottman adopted the Greek term “megalopolis” to refer to vast conurbations such as the northeastern seaboard of the United States, from Washington DC to Boston. This megalopolis, he observed, would not have a uniform population density but rather would be composed of multiple urban centers and the interstitial spaces between them.

Even as megalopolitan territories have developed across the globe and the price of land in their boundaries has skyrocketed, interstitial spaces within them persist in terms of what Ignasi de Sola-Morarles called terrain vague, leftover spaces that have been abandoned for some reason. Understanding the potential of such sites—not to develop them, as is the vogue for too many architects, but to leave them as is or to allow damaged ecological systems to be restored—is a critical task for urban researchers today.

In this photo essay, I look at a group of such areas in Essex County, New Jersey, the densest and most urbanized county of the densest and most urbanist state in the United States, specifically at huge swamps remaining from the draining of Glacial Lake Passaic that comprise roughly ¼ of the county’s acreage. My interest is in both the history and conflicts over these areas and the tenuous relationship individuals have with the borders of such areas, especially now that extreme weather events have become annual occurrences.

Wastelands on Exhibit

 

I have put up a gallery of images from a photographic project that I did this spring and summer: Wastelands: An Analysis of the Early Anthropocene Swamps of Glacial Lake Passaic

 

Photographs from this project are on display in Carlos Gor’s exhibit “Vernacular. Diálogos Entre Micropolíticas Del Paisaje” at La Madraza, Centro de Cultura Contemporanea in Granada, Spain. There are many more images at the gallery above and I will eventually put up the full text of the essay as it going into the accompanying catalog.

 

In his 1961 book, Megalopolis: the Urbanized Northeastern Seaboard of the United States, geographer Jean Gottman adopted the Greek term “megalopolis” to refer to vast conurbations such as the northeastern seaboard of the United States, from Washington DC to Boston. This megalopolis, he observed, would not have a uniform population density but rather would be composed of multiple urban centers and the interstitial spaces between them.

Even as megalopolitan territories have developed across the globe and the price of land in their boundaries has skyrocketed, interstitial spaces within them persist in terms of what Ignasi de Sola-Morarles called terrain vague, leftover spaces that have been abandoned for some reason. Understanding the potential of such sites—not to develop them, as is the vogue for too many architects, but to leave them as is or to allow damaged ecological systems to be restored—is a critical task for urban researchers today.

In this photo essay, I look at a group of such areas in Essex County, New Jersey, the densest and most urbanized county of the densest and most urbanist state in the United States, specifically at huge swamps remaining from the draining of Glacial Lake Passaic that comprise roughly ¼ of the county’s acreage. My interest is in both the history and conflicts over these areas and the tenuous relationship individuals have with the borders of such areas, especially now that extreme weather events have become annual occurrences.

Against Facebook

Perhaps you are here because Facebook is down. Good. This site isn’t. Stay here, then visit some other web sites and don’t go back.

This is going to be an unpopular post. If this makes you upset or hurts your feelings, sorry, it’s said with love and concern for my dearest friends and family. If you aren’t on Facebook, good for you!  Pat yourself on the back and convince anyone you can to follow your example.

Facebook is a terrible company and awful thing for democracy. It pretends to offer belonging when all it really is out to do is to exploit it’s members. I am thoroughly disappointed by my friends who use it all the time and should know better (ahem, if you are an academic, this means YOU… ). By 2016, the average Facebook user spent a staggering fifty minutes a day on that site chock full ‘o nuts. Want to find out how crazy it is? Go visit r/hermancainaward on Reddit and ask yourself what site are the contributors posting excerpts from? No, it’s not Twitter. Facebook is toxic. Get off it.

I’ve spent about the same time on Facebook over the last few years as off and I periodically shut down my account. The only two reasons I’m still on Facebook are that (most of you) people are too lazy to visit this site without it being spoon fed to you via a post on Facebook. I can see this clearly in my logs and, frankly, it’s pathetic. Facebook is not ok. Have we not learned anything yet? Just yesterday, Frances Haughen the brave Facebook whistleblower on 60 Minutes revealed just how bad things were. An internal Facebook document baldly stated: “We have evidence from a variety of sources that hate speech, divisive political speech and misinformation on Facebook and the family of apps are affecting societies around the world.” The company, Haughen explains, is hiding this information from the public. Facebook is like Purdue Pharma, which heavily marketed its opiods even though they knew how addictive they are. Facebook is no different. Walk away from it. If you can’t visit people in real life, get an RSS reader, visit Reddit, go to Twitter. Stay away from Facebook, it’s evil.

Facebook was created by wealthy Harvard undergraduates whose goal was to find young women to sexually exploit, as the film the Social Network makes amply clear. If that wasn’t enough, Russian oligarchs with close ties to Vladimir Putin (as well as Jared Kushner) have invested heavily in Facebook (I have heard rumors that Putin himself heavily invested in it)and speaking of Kushner, Facebook was happy to work with Cambridge Analytica to get the most divisive and incompetent President in US history elected. The January 6 insurrection was organized, in large part, on Facebook. Facebook livestreamed a massacre in New Zealand. A recent study identified over 20 million cases of “child sexual abuse material” on Facebook. According to an undercover investigation by the BBC, women are sold on Facebook as slaves. Lynchings in Sri Lanka, Mexico, and Indonesia have all been traced directly back to Facebook. Perhaps worst of all, genocide in Myanmar was organized onFacebook.

People claim that Facebook brings people closer together. No, it does not. It replaces lived relationships with relationships mediated by clicks and likes. Facebook’s algorithms choose what you see. Facebook monitors your communications for keywords so that it can market to you. People over 40 may remember the days when we used to call each other for an hour on the phone or write letters to each other, even emails. What happened to that? There was genuine communication there. Think of all of the books of letters that have been published over the years. Nobody wants to see their shitty Facebook posts.

Over the last fifteen years, I’ve watched as social interaction has died out and formerly lively internet forums have died while Facebook has taken over their purposes. If you maintain a forum on Facebook, shut it down. It’s bad for everyone involved. Read a book or a magazine, listen to some music, visit the Internet if you must, don’t visit Facebook. When Facebook is back (I hope never), I will be reducing my presence there still further. Do your part. Don’t promote Facebook, fight it tooth and nail.

 

On Tourism Today

This is a personal reflection. I’m not sure anybody else on Earth feels this way, but if you do, or if you have found ways to keep travel alive for yourself, do leave me a note.

I don’t understand the point of tourism anymore.

Call it the existential problem of tourism. Whether Mickey Mouse hat and fanny pack wearing tourist or avant-garde academic, we would leave home to find stimulus in the unfamiliar. But how does that apply today anymore?

Overtourism together with the migration of merchandising and social behavior to online venues has undone difference between places. Will an Irish pub in Ireland be better than an Irish pub in a random town in the US? I’ve been to dozens upon dozens of Irish pubs in Ireland on my many Hibernian trips and quite a few in the US and it’s not clear. If I go into a random restaurant in Rome, will the person next to me be a Roman, an American, or a German?

Residents of city centers worldwide have left in favor of short term rentals and with them, stores have left to be replaced by tourist restaurants and tsotchke vendors. Rents have generally skyrocketed as well. I have observed that the quality of restaurants peaked around 2000, maybe a little after that. It may that when one is young the world is new, but just as much, I suspect, rising rents have priced out quality. If you have to spend your money on rent, how much is there to spend on good labor or on good ingredients? Rising rents have squashed not only innovation, but also old classics. Ideally, a city would have a balance of both. Energetic young bars and restaurants are easy to admire, and it’s easy to say that old bars and restaurants are stuffy and boring, but old they also have distinct character, full of the memories of the city, often providing an experience of going back in time like in Madrid’s La Venencia. That’s hard to do now and La Venencia is one of the few places to guard its status carefully.*

I suppose I was lucky when I travelled in my academic career. As a historian of architecture and network culture, I usually had an excuse to go somewhere: Istanbul, Rotterdam, Valparaiso (Chile), Stockholm, Knoxville, Berlin, Madrid, Auckland, Munich, New Orleans and on and on. Generally, I’d be going somewhere because I’d be delivering a lecture or teaching a course. This would often result in less than ideal conditions for tourism since it’d inevitably take place in the academic year and I’d only have a day or two before I had to head back to teach, sometimes less (I once went to Vancouver for 90 minutes, although in fairness I had already been there for a few days before). Sometimes I’d have specific works of architecture or urban conditions to see. But that too would bring up the central problem of tourism, which is that it is voyeuristic.

As my followers well know, unlike many contemporary academics, I don’t subscribe to the naïve notion that cultural appropriation is inherently bad. On the contrary, it’s at the very heart of the human condition and without it, we would not only be much poorer, much more xenophobic and racist, less likely to see the other side. That said, I find it uncomfortable to walk into a church these days, even the Vatican or the Duomo in Florence. Who are these people? Why are they practicing these strange, superstitious customs? It’s 2021. I went to a Catholic elementary school for a few years but my parents always stressed that they were European Catholics and didn’t practice. As time has worn on, I simply don’t understand them. A stone circle or a sacred altar from pagan Lithuania makes infinitely more sense. Similarly, I couldn’t bring myself to visit the Blue Mosque in Istanbul and I doubt I’ll go back to the Hagia Sofia when it becomes a mosque again. Going to see Buddhist temples only reinforces that most forms of Buddhism are incomprehensible to the largely twentieth century practice of Western Buddhism. It all seems very voyeuristic and as a practice voyeurism is only acceptable when it is a game played with an exhibitionist aware of their practices. Otherwise, it is uncomfortable at best and a form of violence at worst.

And what else does one do when abroad besides look at buildings? You can go see some museums, but a corollary to overtourism is that one has seen too much. There are too many museums today and most are disappointing. Even the storied ones in wealthy cities frequently disappoint. The lighting of Las Meninas at the Prado is a great example. It’s impossible to take in the painting because of the reflections on the surface. I’ve been to many museums in wealthy European cities and been really disappointed. American museums are no different. Going to MoMA is a horrible experience. The new Whitney is deeply unpleasant. These are not good places to see art. The modern and contemporary sections at the Art Institute of Chicago are tragic, victims of short-sighted decisions (notably the third-rate Edlis/Neeson collection which is inexplicably in public display for a stunning fifty years, at which point the whole thing can be properly binned). Dia: Beacon, which used to be one of the best museums in the world, has stumbled dramatically under recent curatorship: two shows of Charlotte Posenske’s oeuvre? One is by far enough. Sometimes I get lucky, the show of Constant’s work that I stumbled upon at the Reina Sofia was a stunning surprise. The Akron Museum of Art has a remarkable collection of postwar art, much more interesting that than at the Art Institute of Chicago. But I find such experiences rarer these days as museums pander to the woke and their similarly privileged friends, oligarchs seeking to launder money.

So why tourism? Modern tourism dates itself back to the 18th century practice of the Grand Tour, when nobles and wealthy British men would go abroad to France and Italy as a rite of passage during which they would radically unsettle their sensorium by seeing cultures quite unlike theirs, together with the great works from the Roman era to the Baroque. The idea was that embodied knowledge was even more important than book knowledge. But what to make of it now? Can one really be invigorated by travel in such a manner except maybe by, as has become the vogue lately, flying into orbit around the Earth? There is no question I would do that, but the cost of space travel is still ridiculously high.

Visiting natural areas is no different. The “wild” places that provided the antidote to civilization have now been thoroughly trampled. Our state parks are full of botanical escapees from home gardens. The selfie stick is as hard to avoid in front of Yosemite Falls as it is in the Colosseum. I suppose that gardens and botanical centers are still worth going to, but I am not terribly interested in formal ones or ones driven by landscaper architecture as they remind me of the damage we have done to the environment.

Can one undo this with alternative spatial practices? I don’t think they are so productive anymore. Debord’s dérive, the “technique of urban passage through spatial ambiances” was meant as an antidote to both urban boredom and to the planned, scheduled tourism of the day, but take a dérive through the city today. Will you really feel that different in Brooklyn or Manhattan? In Queens? I don’t think so. It’s all more of the same. Behind the windows are people watching the same Netflix shows you are.

Mind you, there are places of genuine difference these days, but should we really travel to them? I mean COVID aside, which makes it virtually impossible to travel to Asia these days, do the Japanese really want Americans or Europeans there anymore? They are much less interested in studying abroad these days. Do the Chinese? Rates of English language instruction are falling there. Afghanistan is certainly different, but it’s definitely not a good idea to go there.

COVID may change the nature of tourism. I dearly hope it does. The migration of jobs out of the city may free up space for residents to flock back in, or for more Airbnbs. Cities such as Venice, Amsterdam, and Rome are actively looking for more sustainable ways forward, culturally and ecologically. I certainly hope so. We all need it if we are to find actual meaning in travel again.

*The last time I was at La Venencia a tourist was literally shown the door for trying to order a beer. You’ll also be shown the door if you are dumb enough to try to take a selfie (there are signs on the wall about this), although this is as much resistance to tourism as it is a holdover from the Franco days when it was a Communist hangout and photos could mean the death of patrons.

Signal Culture Residency

In February 2020 I had the opportunity to spend a week in Owego, New York for a residency at Signal:Culture. This was a purely research-based residency working on a software tool. For my 2016 project Perkūnas, I developed a Python back end for indexing the number of smartphones (and other WiFi-operated devices) on Eurorack modular synthesis equipment with reasonable precision. During this residency, I refined this back end, optimizing it for video synthesis with LZX modules. There was never any goal of producing anything finished that could be displayed in an art gallery, but the following coarse feedback video displays an instance of how this worked. During one of the many dinners we enjoyed together, I talked to my colleague Martin Back about many things, and during one, we discussed the new plague emerging in China. In one of the dumbest statements I ever made, I said that I thought the Chinese would contain it and it would blow over quickly.

 

A Spring Tour of our Forest Garden

The dense mat of herbacious perennials at the front of my house was inspired by James Golden’s Federal Twist although the height of his garden is measured in feet while this section is merely inches tall.

I am honored to be hosting my first garden tour from 9am to 3pm on Friday, May 7 and Saturday, May 8 at my house (and now Saturday, May 15 from 10 to 2), 265 Highland Avenue in Montclair, New Jersey as one of two tours held by the Essex County chapter of the New Jersey Native Plant Society (more at the society’s site here). As chronicled on this blog, the landscape is a work in progress, begun in earnest only three years ago. It is far from done (whatever that means in gardening), but I have bold ambitions to make it a place that people can come to and see what a native garden can be like. It has been raining today, but because this is a garden designed for all weather and all seasons, I thought photographing it in the rain would be an effective way to convey that message.

Polygonatum biflorum, Smooth Solomon’s Seal, nestles in boulders while native Onoclea sensibilis, Sensitive Fern, opportunistically colonizes the area below.

My goal is to create a landscape to complement our house, not primarily an ecological restoration or wildlife habitat. Ecology is an ethical imperative for me, but initially I set out to create emotional impact. In opposition to the degraded condition of the suburban landscape—as gardener Pat Sutton says “neat as a pin, ugly as sin?”—I hoped to recapture the magic of finding trilliums and ferns, milkweed and coneflowers in the forest and meadows behind my parents’ house by the Ice Glen in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

A Trillium Grandifolium, White Trillium, peaks out from amidst Podophyllum Peltatum, Mayapple.

After some four years of work, the garden is getting there, maybe one quarter finished. While I have conceived of the garden as having year-round interest, from the spring into the early summer, the focus during this tour will be on the woodland ephemerals which bloom profusely in the spring. Later on, during the summer, fall, and winter, patches of meadow will remind us of the great interior of the continent and all it symbolizes. This could be seen as a journey from the Northeast into the interior, echoing the journey that early American settlers took in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Or maybe, as the garden of an exile of Lithuania, the last country in Europe to be forced to stop its earth-centric religious practices, it could be seen as a passage of seasons, from spring to summer, from fern to grain.

Looking down from above onto a mere four square feet we can see the delicate blue flowers of Polemonium reptans, Jacob’s Ladder, together with the white blooms ofTiarella cordifolia, Allegheny Foamflower, next to Heuchera americana, Alumroot. The fernlike leaves are not ferns but rather Dicentra canadensis, Squirrel Corn. A Maianthemum racemosum punctuates the scene at top right and Geranium maculatum, Wild Geranium encroaches on the right edge of the photo.

For architects, limitations are a frame to react against. I have planted plants native to New Jersey—and largely eschewed cultivars as well…these are usually tacky and don’t thrive well—to produce the effect I want while fulfilling the ethical imperative we have to be stewards to the land. Even so, the palette I have to work with is huge. Our state has over 2,000 native plant species as compared to 1,022 in Ireland, 1,625 in England and 1,460 in the Netherlands. Thus far, I have only planted some two hundred species of native plants here.

Cercis Canadensis, Eastern Redbud by the roadside. The yellow flowers are Packera Aurea, Golden Ragwort.

With all this variety, why bother with the tired, ugly, and often invasive solutions offered up by big box stores and worn-out garden centers? Why bother with any lawn that doesn’t have a function (our patch of lawn is used for outdoor parties and is slowly shrinking)? Nor is it necessary to resort to a weedy look. In Planting in a Post-Wild World, Thomas Rainer and Claudia West write: “If it is true that the next renaissance of human culture will be the reconstruction of the natural world in our cities and suburbs, then it will be the designers, not the politicians, who will lead this revolution. And plants will be at the center of it all.”

Uvularia sessifolia, Spreading Bellwort, admidst Fragraria Virginiana, Wild Strawberry

The two most remarkable American public gardens of the last twenty years, Piet Oudolf’s Lurie Garden in Chicago and High Line in New York are largely made with native plants. Garden designers in Great Britain, the Netherlands, and Germany eagerly make gardens exclusively with plants native to the United States because of the richness and wildness of what we have. What sort of madness is it that Europeans import American native plants for their gardens while we ignore gardening in favor of ugly, unused lawns, pincushion bushes, and have workers blow leaves out of woods with their infernal gas-powered leaf blowers, thus depriving trees of the mulch they need to thrive and dooming the ecosystem of the place?

Azure Bluets, Houstonia Cerulia, peak out from a rock retaining wall that we built last year.

Unlike the Lurie Garden or the Highline, this project is done entirely without hired help. It has required both money (although a fraction of what it would take to have landscapers involved) and time (but this has been a joy, especially during our plague year). There are still plenty of remnants of the original contractor landscaping that accompanied the construction of the house. I don’t have the heart to cut down the dwarf Japanese red maple in front of the house or the larger Japanese red maple, Enkianthus and the two Kousa dogwoods in the back. Those can remain as specimen plants but I won’t plant any more non-natives. Invasive and overused groundcovers Vinca minor and Pachysandra terminalis still dominate much of the hill above the driveway, even as I slowly replace them with native plants.

A birdfeeder (mounted on a pole from an old rooftop car rack) from “https://www.etsy.com/listing/1004294603/modern-bird-feeder-gray-birdhouse-bird”>Ironbrain amidst native plants such as Aquilegia canadensis, Wild Columbine, with some non-native Chaenomeles speciosa, Flowering Quince, to the right that came with the house.

With a half-acre of steeply sloped property rising fifty feet, it proves unfeasible to undertake total eradication and restoration overnight, so while keeping an overall vision for the entirety in mind, I have focused on individual areas. In these areas, I have tried to take an approach borrowed from Rainer and West, from Oudolf’s designs, and from James Golden’s groundbreaking garden at Federal Twist, which I visited a couple of years ago. Instead of the “plop a plant” approach, in which a plant is buried in mulch, I am out to create areas in which plants themselves are the mulch, preventing weeds from getting through by their sheer exuberance. Let them climb atop one another, let them compete. I want a riot of life. I’d rather edit out plants than add mulch, even when the plants are six inches tall instead of six feet tall (as at Federal Twist). Imported specimen plants plopped in mulch, surrounded by lawn nobody ever uses are a lazy aesthetic. Surely we can do better.

Tiarella cordifolia, Allegheny Foamflower, is probably my most common native now. Why bother with exotics that are less interesting and have little benefit to our ecosystem?