Making The Weaker Argument The Stronger

Author's picture of barricade
The author's own entry in the genre.

I happened upon Peter Keyes’ excellent “Still Life with Cone, Standpipe, Caution Tape” on Places the other day. For the last 30 years, Keyes has been taking pictures of temporary barricades, charting a change in the marking-off of work spaces in public from varied forms of bricolage to an increasingly invasive orange plastic netting.

This may be, on the face of it, the least consequential subject possible. Accordingly, Keyes, as an architecture professor, is at pains to demonstrate that it is something worth your time (and his). The photographs are scrupulous. The written treatment anticipates doubts: “not so strange a hobby as it once seemed,” “You’d think this […] would be boring, but…” For the reader, he renders the structures as an embryonic architecture by willfully treating them as an embryonic architecture: he classifies by material and form, and demonstrates a historical tendency in the subject. “Here we see a reflection of larger cultural trends…”

Most of all, he gives a copious amount of examples. If each example is inconsiderable, then each must join forces to demonstrate a cumulative presence. This accumulation is its own argument; it doubles Keyes’ care in the form of a set of artifacts, readily readable by the skeptic who wants proof of his distinctions.

This was a timely thing for me to read. Having always preferred to concentrate on inconsequential things, I found myself in a field that regularly joins together the most ephemeral and indefensible pleasures with matters of stupefying largeness and urgency. Landscape architecture is gardening contaminated with pieces of the world beyond its wall, pieces of metal and concrete and ash, and things still stranger than that. This contamination is also the contamination of conscience; a disorder we perceive and want to set right, want to weed out where we find it.

Smallness in landscape is pervasive; not only linden flowers, but stair details, shades of paint, brands of pen. You could easily pursue this smallness to escape the impacts of the outside, of your own bad conscience; or you could continually, dutifully, chart the inevitable tremors and traces as you delve down. If Keyes demonstrates the Blakean world in a grain of sand, he does not do so by the Blakean force of imagination. Nor does he quite do it through a step-by-step translation: here is the grain of sand at 500x magnification, here are its geological properties, here is how it contributes to the emergent properties of the sand we know. See the work of Dr. Gary Greenberg, which made the viral rounds a while ago; looking at Greenberg’s gallery and the reportage of it, you can see an interesting slippage where Greenberg’s arrangement of the most beautiful possible grains of sand from the world is taken to be representative of any sand seen close at hand. Rather, through his rhetoric the small and the large are seen to resemble one another. Both come away refreshed somewhat; the small having gained in dignity, the large having been seen through a few swift strokes. 

A small question: if you are in a room with someone who works on weighty things, how do you defend light things? Lacking the examples of the sciences, it is difficult to argue that a study of minutia, oddities, and theoretical niceties may lead back to some workable masterstroke. You might instead argue that we must  continue to honor such little speculations in the world of work, as the grains of our own fascinations, what we defend from incursion. That is, unavoidably, a weak argument in comparison with the strength that can be demonstrated through by the presence of a little project.

(July 2016)