Beyond Surface Matters: Unsettling Views of a Western American Landscape

Laura Smith

Palavras-chave: Shoshone; Interstate 80; photography; formalism; settler colonialism; symbolic landscape

Participação: presencial

Euro-American photographer Glenn Rand's (b. 1944, USA) Nevada 1979 features a passing car on Interstate 80, an industrial site, and the Humboldt River Valley in Eureka County. This place appears through laconic title to be at once particular to a settler nation, history, and poetic imagination, as well as revelatory of no place at all. Rand's random western road trip that year offered him an opportunity to raise awareness of vision through kinesthetic sensation. Among many of his artistic peers, a photograph's geographic location was an arbitrary departure point for exploring surface matters. This paper redirects the attention on purely formalist concerns to investigate the complex and conflicted narratives Interstate 80 implicates.

Upon its completion in 1986, the interstate was designated as a symbol of American freedom, particularly the freedom of mobility. But to see the highway in this way depends on erasing the colonial encounter and Indigenous presence. The Humboldt River valley pictured in Nevada 1979 is part of the larger Newe (Western Shoshone) territory in the Great Basin region. It is not an arbitrary vista; it crosses through a symbolic landscape, a place that recalls and commemorates Newe values, identities, and memories. Further, Interstate 80 was built on top of an historical path that guided settlers westward to California. It was also aligned with the path of the first transcontinental railroad. The environmental and social impact of settler influx into this region was significant. Treaties allowed settlers to mine, cut timber, and extract other natural resources, but no royalties have ever been paid to the Shoshone. In 1979, when Glenn Rand took his picture on I-80, the Indian Claims Commission ruled that the Western Shoshone lost title to their land after years of dispute and arbitration.

By extending Rand’s concerns with motion to study of the various pathways, migrations, and roadblocks encoded in that landscape, this paper unsettles this image. It counters historical blindness and artistic disengagement with land that obscured Indigenous presence and authority in the Americas. Effectively, this essay contributes to a way of seeing that compels our responsibility to create more just and sustainable relationships.


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Laura Smith earned her PhD in 2008 from Indiana University, Bloomington and teaches classes in North American arts, Indigenous North American arts, and the history of photography. She is the author of Horace Poolaw, Photographer of American Indian Modernity (University of Nebraska Press, 2016). Her research largely focuses on Indigenous artists who have used technical inventions (such as photography, video, and digital media) to control representation, affirm and explore identities, and to challenge their disenfranchisement under American settler colonialism. Her writings have been featured in Locating American Art: Finding Art's Meaning in Museums (Ashgate Press, 2016), in For the Love of His People: The Photography of Horace Poolaw (The National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution, in association with Yale University Press, 2014), PUBLIC: Art, Culture and Ideas, Special Issue: Indigenous Digital and New Media Art, the Great Plains Quarterly, American Indian Art Magazine, and Third Text.