No Unsacred Places by Peter Hiatt

No Unsacred Places by Peter Hiatt

May 5 - June 30, 2017

Reception: May 5, 2017; 6 - 9pm

“There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places.” – Wendell Berry

In the vast stretches of suburbia in which many Americans live, retail centers are a common feature of the landscape. They are built next to houses, office buildings, and restaurants. They are a regular feature in everyday life, because of their proximity and proliferation, and because they are the subject of frequent, required visits for groceries, clothes, and other goods. For many people in contemporary society, their daily lives consist primarily of visits to their home, their workplace, and retail centers. Throughout all of these experiences, their interaction with the land they inhabit is interrupted by a sheet of concrete.

Retail centers are an example of what Marc Augé calls Non-places. In his book Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity, Augé describes Non-places as places that have no connection to history, culture, or identity [1]. They are spaces designed for people to move through, such as an airport, highway, or supermarket. In a retail store, a customer is instructed, through text, spatial cues, and learned societal behavior, to move through the space, collect goods, and exit the space after paying. This direction of movement is a core part of the power structure that allows a retail center to exist. By cooperating in this directed movement, users of a retail store enter into a social contract, implicitly agreeing to its rules for their own perceived benefit. This directing of movement extends to the parking lot around a retail store. Many of these retail centers have a ditch along their perimeter that directs the flow of water, while simultaneously acting as an implied barrier. Trees grow dense and high, signifying that they are not to be breached; that this is the edge of the designated space for people and vehicles. Without necessarily realizing it, most people understand and agree to these terms. These ditches, and the retail centers they border, have become so familiar that people do not notice them, or think critically about the implications of their existence. I decided to break the social contract of the retail park, and enter into these ditches.

Inside these ditches is a fascinating world. There is usually a slow-moving stream of water, surrounded by dense foliage. The trees form a canopy, which, combined with the density of the brush, completely encloses one in the space. These places house the refuse of a consumer society, carried there by the flow of water. Plastic bags and bottles, aluminum cans, and pieces of concrete are strewn about. The most striking objects are shopping carts, which become fascinating objects in this setting. Jutting out of the ground at odd angles, the bright color of their plastic baskets and logos create a strong contrast to the natural mud and brambles that surround them. They are in the midst of being swallowed by the earth; slowly being re-absorbed and disintegrated. Although signs of decomposition can be seen in the rusted metal of the carts, their bright plastic baskets look almost brand new. People dig these ditches and manage the growth around them, but what happens inside of them, away from human eyes, is random, messy nature. Evidence of society is present in the form of garbage, but these objects are dissociated from their practical applications, thus adding to the chaos. This a place that is as close as one’s backyard, but it is shut out, because it is unpleasant to experience.

By making images from inside drainage ditches near retail centers, I am raising consciousness about how people are conditioned to view the world around them. A child is curious about everything, because they recognize nothing as normal; everything is new and interesting. Adults grow used to certain aspects of their lives, such as retail stores, which they must look at and interact with frequently in order to participate in society. As they grow used to things, they cease to notice them, and think critically about them. This intellectual invisibility is a source great power for institutions, which often perpetuate themselves by avoiding scrutiny. My goal with all of my work, and with this series in particular, is to force the viewer to look at and contemplate the banal things of everyday life. By doing this, I am encouraging a sense of skepticism and critical thinking about the world. I want people to be able to recognize absurdities in the world, even if they have existed all of their life. This sense of skepticism should cause one to question the wisdom of contemporary society’s relationship with the land.

[1] Augé, Non-Places