Landscape and Critical Agency: Call for Papers

As far back as the 10th century the term ‘landscape’ referred to the ‘collective aspects of the environment’, as J.B. Jackson argues in Discovering the Vernacular Landscape (1984). But rather than the scenographic art it later became, landscape design was initially concerned with the production and organisation of agriculture, housing and infrastructure within its surrounding terrain. Today, whilst the ‘collective’ man-made terrain of the 21st century also encompasses the globalised movements of finance, media and digital technology, our most urgent questions still concern how physical landscapes are produced and organised. As Christian Parenti and others observe, the present environmental and financial crises have escalated conditions of inequality, pollution, scarcity, and precariousness throughout the globe.

Seeking to explore the relevance of contemporary thinking about landscape to such issues, this symposium asks the question:

What agency does landscape possess, as a means of territorial organisation and creative production, to engage critically with the conditions that define the collective aspects of our environment?

There is a growing body of literature, to which Parenti’s Tropic of Chaos (2011) is only the most recent addition, concerned with the critical analysis of territorial transformation and the models through which its complexity might be understood. Within this literature can be cited the radical geography of David Harvey’s Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference and Spaces of Global Capitalism (1997); the urban political ecology of Nik Heynen et al’s In the Nature of Cities (2006); the model of ‘social nature’ elaborated by Bruce Braun and Noel Castree in their Remaking Reality (1998); Stephen Graham and Simon Marvin’s incisive analysis of the social and political significance of infrastructural development in Splintering Urbanism (2011); and Mike Davis’s unflinching documentation of the global phenomenon of informal settlement in Planet of Slums (2007).

Yet instead of attempting to grasp the significance of these radical perspectives, contemporary landscape design seems largely content to gloss over its practice with a discourse about environmentalism and sustainability, whilst remaining within the scenographic approach through which it has served power elites for the past few centuries. The most celebrated recent landscape productions — Olympic Park in east London, Manhattan’s High Line, or the cosmological gardens of Charles Jencks, for example — attest to this fact. Rather than seeking to locate its own critical agency, landscape design continues to serve the idea of exerting ‘dominion’ over land.

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