Sunday, September 30, 2012

Woody Guthrie and Sherman Alexie Narrate the Columbia

My colleagues and I are developing an online journal "Cascadia Chronicle," in which we hope to integrate works of scholarship and literature into a geospatial matrix, closely tied to GoogleEarth.

I've written the following provisional essay, which I hope we'll be able to present on line in a form that easily moves back and forth between the written text and landscape sites in GoogleEarth, allowing users to explore how successive writers and artists have refashioned the meaning of the Columbian riverscape over tim.

See beta version of this GoogleEarth tour, engineered by REM graduate student Marco Thompson, at:

Narrating the Columbia

 1. Overview: River Narratives

In this emerging space, we collaboratively explore diverse efforts over time to narrate the Columbia river and its tributaries in media that include memoir, poetry, fiction, song, music, photography, film, painting, and public art.  Whenever possible we embed our critical discussions and dialogue in geospatial representations through GoogleEarth, highlighting commonalities and contrasts in narrative strategies engaged with this evolving riverscape.

The flows of river, plot, and narrative have presumably been intertwined from the earliest history of literature and poetics.  In the ancient Egyptian “Book of the Dead,” the current of river models the structure of the narrative and the movement of the soul through the domains of existence:

Ramses tomb: Book of the Dead with river imagery
“What a journey I have made, the things I have seen... In my hand I grasp the sailing mast, while my left hand trails in the water... I have separated myself from myself to sail again on the green Nile waters. I sail to the temple where the gods have gathered to gaze at their faces in deep pools. In my boat the souls of the years sail with me.... Give me air to breathe and a strong sailing wind when I rise from the underworld.”

In innumerable literary texts, the journey along or across the river is an epic process of self-fashioning and self-discovery.  One thinks of Huckleberry Finn and Jim rafting down the Mississippi; of the cyclical dreamer in James Joyce’s Finnegan Wake, beginning and ending at the edge of consciousness with the words, “riverrun, past Adam; of the four city dwellers canoeing down James Dickey’s Cahulawassee river in James Dickey’s Deliverance; of Sethe and Amy’s remarkable encounter on  the banks of the Ohio in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, just before the ferryman Stamp Paid takes Sethe across the river to freedom.

Let us begin by comparing two well-known texts about the Columbia River, Woodie Guthrie’s 1941 “Roll on Columbia, Roll On” (significantly, in several different versions), and Sherman Alexie’s 1996 poem “Powwow at the End of the World.”   Both texts are in important ways organized by the current of the Columbia; Guthrie’s proceeds down river, sequentially highlighting various sites of cultural and historic significance, while Alexie’s moves first downriver then upriver, following the path of a mythic salmon swimming up against the current.  The two text differ dramatically, of course, in their treatment of Native American history.

2. "Roll on Columbia" as a Colonial Narrative

Guthrie wrote “Roll on Columbia, Roll On” as part of a commission from the Bonneville Power Administration, which was seeking widespread popular support for the Federal system of hydroelectric dams.  Although Guthrie saw himself as celebrating the heroism of ordinary workingmen, in retrospect it is clear that the lyrics are embedded in classic colonial discourse, taking hold of the land and subsuming indigenous history under the dominant signs of colonial hegemony.

In the song, the river flow moves not only geographically from the northern and eastern interior towards the western coastline, but also in time, from the deep past towards the present moment.  The mythopoetic structure of the lyrics, in this sense, maps a continuous cyclical progression from nature to culture, from frontier wildness to industrially civilized progress.  This is especially evident if we consider the so-called “lost lyrics” of the song, in which Guthrie recalls the mid-19th century Indian Wars (verses that have been eliminated from the “official” version of the song, which was adopted as the official folk song of the State of Washington in 1987).

In both versions, Guthrie begins in mythic time,  prior to the era of dam construction--from the Canadian stretch of the river down to the Pacific. Significantly, the first two lines of the opening verse are set in the past tense, leading to the final line’s present day imperative (with which each verse concludes): 

"Green Douglas firs where the waters cut through.

Down her wild mountains and canyons she flew.

Canadian Northwest to the ocean so blue,

Roll on, Columbia, roll On!"

The celebrated chorus, repeated between each verse, continually brings us back to the present moment, as the technological harnessing of the river’s power brings electrification and progressive enlightenment to the region:

    CHORUS: Roll on, Columbia, roll on.
    Roll on, Columbia, roll on.
    Your power is turning our darkness to dawn,
    Roll on, Columbia, roll on.

Guthrie next enumerates the river’s tributaries, naming the various confluences in turn:

"Other great rivers add power to you,

Yakima, Snake, and the Klickitat, too,

Sandy, Willamette, and Hood River, too;

Roll on Columbia, roll On!"

Guthrie then turns from geography to history.  A verse, evidently added after Guthrie’s recorded his initial version of the song, alludes to the Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery dispatched by Thomas Jefferson:

"Tom Jefferson's vision would not let him rest,

An empire he saw in the Pacific Northwest.

Sent Lewis and Clark and they did the rest;

Roll on, Columbia, Roll On"

The next verse (omitted from the official Washington State version)  is the first to name specific geographic locations, and the first to reference Native Americans:

"Year after year we had tedious trials,

Fighting the rapids at Cascades and Dalles.

The Injuns rest peaceful on Memaloose Isle;

Roll on, Columbia, Roll On!"

Note that that the “we” in the first line refers to early white EuroAmerican explorers, trappers, and frontiersmen, not to Native Americans. The reference to the traditional Native American burial ground on Memaloose Island,  just downriver from Lyle, Washington would seem to evoke the story of the white settle Victor Trevitt, who had married the daughter of a prominent American Indian leader and requested, “"I have but one desire after I die, to be laid away on Memaloose Island with the Indians. They are more honest than whites and live up to the light they have. In the resurrection I will take my chances with the Indians." --Source: History of Oregon Literature,, by Alfred Powers   (cited in  

[We might parenthetically that Guthrie’s assertion that the indigenous “rest peaceful” was manifestly untrue; the public attention to the island brought about by Trevitt’s burial led to extensive white looting of its gravesites in the years that followed.]

The next verse (retained in the official version) begins Guthrie’s account of the American Indian Wars, as EuroAmericans sought to ethnically cleanse indigenous communities in the Columbia basin and plateau during the mid 19th century.   Guthrie specifically references a skirmish near the Cascades lock on the Washington territory side of the Columbia. Native American military fores, seeking to enter into Oregon and the Willamette valley were repulsed when Lt. Phillip Henry Sheridan sailed with American dragoons from Fort Vancouver:

"It's there on your banks that you fought many a fight,

Sheridan's boys in the block house that night,

They saw us in death, but never in flight;

Roll on, Columbia, Roll On!"

The next two verses (omitted from the official modern version of the song) continue the account of the Indian wars.  Reference is made to an attack on March 26, 1856,  by Native Americans of the Yakama (also known as Klickitat) and Cascades tribes on American settlers residing along the Cascade Rapids.  Ten settlers and three dragoons were killed, but the attackers failed to destroy the steamer Mary, at the mouth of Mill Creek:

"Our loved ones we lost there at Coe's little store,

By fireball and rifle, a dozen or more,

We won by the Mary and soldiers she bore;

Roll on, Columbia, Roll On!"

The Indian Wars segment of the song concludes with a reference to Lt. Sheridan’s summary execution of Native American prisoners. Once again, the first person plural “we” clearly refers to white EuroAmericans:

"Remember the trial when the battle was won,

The wild Indian warriors to the tall timber run,

We hung every Indian with smoke in his gun;

Roll on, Columbia, Roll on!"
  • [Note: An intriguing oral history at casts light on the episode from a Native American perspective, in which Sheridan hanged a Native American he suspected of disloyalty, solely on the evidence that his gun was still hot.]

The song then proceeds from the frontier past to the technological present, celebrating two technological marvels of modern construction. First, to the Bonneville Dam, as Guthrie carefully reassures his listeners that the dams will not block river traffic  and will, rather, enhance commerce up the river.

"At Bonneville now there are ships in the locks,

The waters have risen and cleared all the rocks,

Ship loads of plenty will steam past the docks,

Postcard, c. 1940: Bonneville Dam
So, Roll On, Columbia, Roll On!"

The song then travels back up river to celebrate the enormous Grand Coulee Dam:

"And on up the river is Grand Coulee Dam,

The mightiest thing ever built by a man,

To run these great factories and water the land,
Grand Coulee Dam

It's roll on, Columbia, roll on."

The final  verse recapitulates the historical and geographic sweep of the entire text, conflating white trappers, soldiers and construction workers across the decades, emphasizing their common victory over nature and over the untamed indigenous:

"These mighty men labored by day and by night,
Matching their strength 'gainst the river's wild flight,

Through rapids and falls they won the hard fight,

Roll on, Columbia, roll on."

3. Sherman Alexie’s Postcolonial Vision: The Powwow at the End of the World (1996)

In writing "The Powwow at the End of the World," Sherman Alexie may or may not have been consciously responding to Roll On, Columbia, but his remarkable poem certainly does have the effect of shattering the colonial framework of the Guthrie song, while inverting many of the earlier song’s structural elements.  While Guthrie sets his song in the mythic frontier past and the industrial present, Alexie enters into visionary prophetic discourse, looking towards a mythic future.  Like Guthrie he names various geographical sites along the Columbia river, but with reversed intention, so as to undo the monumental structures of western industrial civilization in the Northwest.

While Guthrie concludes his song triumphantly with the Grand Coulee Dam’s construction, Alexie at the poem’s onset summons up an Indian woman overturning the dam.  As in Guthrie's text, the river’s current structures the unfolding narrative, but with opposite effect:

Hanford, WA nuclear reactors

Spoken ancestral territory along the Columbia

“I am told by many of you that I must forgive  
and so I shall after the floodwaters burst each successive dam  downriver from the Grand Coulee.”

Like Guthrie, Alexie early on traces the full course of the river to the Pacific:

“...I am told by many of you  
that I must forgive and so I shall after the floodwaters find  
their way to the mouth of the Columbia River as it enters the Pacific  
and causes all of it to rise.”

For Guthrie, the force of the rivers waters rushed towards the telos of the great hydroelectric dams; whereas for Alexie, the river’s purified essence is driven towards a single mythic salmon, resonant with the indigenous reverential understanding of Salmon as a life-giving mythic being:

“I am told by many of you that I must forgive  
and so I shall after the first drop of floodwater is swallowed by that salmon  
waiting in the Pacific.”

Alexie then reverses the river’s flow, following the salmon upriver along the annual route of migration back to the originary spawning grounds.  It passes the “flooded cities” and “the abandoned reactors” of the Hanford nuclear reservation, past the confluence of the Columbia and the Spokane, and to a “secret bay” of a reservation that is presumably the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington where he was born.

Guthrie celebrates the soaring shapes of the dams above the river,  having rendered the Native American presence over and done with ("sleeping peacefully).  In turn, Alexie’s salmon bursts above the river surface in a very different way, to re-awaken the indigenized landscape;

“I am told by many of you that I must forgive and so I shall after  
that salmon leaps into the night air above the water, throws  
a lightning bolt at the brush near my feet, and star
ts the fire  
which will lead all of the lost Indians home.”

For Guthrie the Columbia’s energy is captured by the dams’ dynamos and domesticated into electrical powerlines, which are “turning our darkness to dawn”.  In turn, for Alexie the movement of river and salmon are translated into three narratives that are to be told at night, before dawn:

“I am told  
by many of you that I must forgive and so I shall  
after we Indians have gathered around the fire with that salmon  
who has three stories it must tell before sunrise: one story will teach us  
how to pray; another story will make us laugh for hours;  
the third story will give us reason to dance.

Guthrie concludes with white victory, synthesizing Westward expansion with the technological mastery of electrification; for Alexie, in his closing near-shamanic vision, the energies of flowing water and swimming salmon culminate in a great collective dance, that cyclically returns us to the poem's title line:

    “I am told by many  
    of you that I must forgive and so I shall when I am dancing  
    with my tribe during the powwow at the end of the world.”

 For all the differences, Guthrie and Alexie may be conceived of as creative bricoleurs, each contributing to the endless mythical refashioning of the Columbia riverscape. It is hard not to think of Franz Boas’ commentary on Northwest Native American mythology, famously repeated by Claude Levi Strauss: “It would seem that mythological worlds have been built up only to be shattered again, and that new worlds were built from the fragments.”


We invite further commentaries and reflections on how successive writers and artists have narrated the Columbian riverscape.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Particles on the Wall at the Museum

For the past three weeks, the Museum staff has been intensely engaged in designing and installing the traveling exhibition, “Particles on the Wall,”  (POTW) a show curated by a group of Seattle-based artists, poets and scientists, which has had several previous installations around the state of Washington, in venues ranging from cafes to libraries. I first saw the exhibition last spring at the UW Undergraduate Library in Seattle, and was enormously excited by it and by meeting its science curator, the neuro-toxicologist Steve Gilbert (I’m very grateful to art historian/activist Susan Platt for bringing the project to our attention).   The exhibition  has been a labor of love for several years by the collective that has nurtured it, which includes visual artist Dianne Dickeman, and poet Nancy Dickeman.  We feel really privileged  at the Museum of Culture and Environment to be working with the "POTW team" on this iteration of the show.

At our Museum, Lynn, Hope and I decided we would work hard to give the exhibition, which features a great deal of visual art and poetry, along with various scientific labels, a highly professional “museum” look and feel.   That meant, among other things, figuring out ways to more closely integrate the narrative “flow” of the installation, more explicitly bringing together the art, poetry, science and social history whenever possible.  I worked with Steve Gilbert  to develop an entry panel for the exhibition, giving a more explicit conceptual frame than had been apparent in previous versions; we also gave the  major sections of the show short, punchy titles, to help orient visitors, such as “In the Beginning”, “Nuclear Nation,”and  “Aftershocks.”  [Our favorite section title, in Miiltonian vein, is  “Dark Materials” --for the section that highlight Lynda Rockwood’s dazzling Vitrification cabinet of curiosities, from her famous Atomic West series. ]

POTW team with Mark Auslander at exhibition entrance
Whenever possible, we tweaked the wording on the science and history “factoid” labels to reference adjacent art and poetry, and to signal, sometimes subtly, a continuous narrative through the gallery space.  It has been a lot of fun working with Steve and the rest of the POTW team to ensure that the scientific content valid of the revised signage is valid and that the tone of the revised installation is consistent with the overarching sensibility of the project, which runs the emotional gamut from shock, to tragic loss, to whimsy and quiet irony.  (Hope came up with the clever idea of inserting signage on the infamous "Green Run" radiation release experiments within a red folder marked "Top Secret" tantalizingly hanging from the wall; she and Lynn also develop a witty 'no touching" sign to help protect the artworks, incorporating the familiar radiation danger logo.)

Early on, we decided that we would in most cases display the poems, which had in previous iterations been on 8 by 11 inch typescripts in small frames, in large format, in black vinyl on the walls. This turned out to be an enormous amount of painstaking work, and I don’t think we quite knew what we were getting ourselves into. Working in vinyl requires carefully “weeding” the machine-generated print outs, then covering the text in masking tape, peeling the letters off and then applying them to the wall. Placing poetry on walls posed particular challenges: we had to think through font and size carefully, ponder aesthetically pleasing alignments, measure and level each stanza, and ensure that each poem was presented with integrity and sufficient framing space. There are some stunning works of poetry in the show, and we’ve worked hard to honor each and every one of them.

Late in the summer, we removed the old Mammoth foam board installation from the atrium’s main wall, and slowly put up four remarkable poems -two by Washington state poet laureate Kathleen Flennikan, one by Debra Greger and one by Bill Witherup. The installation was exhausting, but the results were worth it!

We decided to place the show’s title in blue vinyl along the lower center of the wall, which really pops. Finally, Lynn figured out a way to print out a large logo of an atom in blue vinyl in three sections, for the precise center of the well. Within that, she and Ellen placed a great paper crane in silver vinyl as the atomic ‘nucleus’; it is a striking image which recalls the story of Sadako, the famous Hiroshima young victim of radiation-induced Leukemia and the origami crane that continue to be made around the world in her memory. Ellen and Hope also placed a series of silver cranes on the side door within the gallery, flying in a beautiful, wistfhul flock, starting just above the door and the continuing beyond it. This area will be occupied by a worktable where children and others can learn how to make origami paper cranes in memory of Sadako and other victims of nuclear weapons. 

We had long puzzled over how to give objective correlative to the exhibition’s rather enigmatic title, “Particles on the Wall.”  We moved one of our mobile walls to the front of the gallery, and placed the new framing text in its center, and then decorated the wall with a set of variously sized atoms; the effect is rather one of falling snowflakes or flower petals, giving tangible visual expression, we hope, to the exhibition title.

In some instances, we found ourselves consolidating items that had been scattered through previous versions of POTW. For instance we decided to devote one mobile wall to a range of pro-nuclear and anti-nuclear images and posters, brought together under the rubric sub-title of “Nuclear Nation.”  (Our intern Erin gracefully designed and hung the various artifacts on the wall to play off of one another in striking ways.)

Rather late in the exhibition development process, we got the exciting news that the co-curators had secured permission to exhibit’s Sherman Alexie’s dazzling poem, The Powwow at the End of the World, which may be read at:

How, we wondered, could we do justice to this substantial literary work, which among other things, chronicles in prophetic language the journey of a life-giving salmon from the ocean to the river's headwaters? We decided to place it within an alcove space formed by three of our mobile walls.  After consultation with our Wanapum community partners (who had been forcibly relocated from their ancestral homeland by the construction of the Hanford Engineering Works in 1943) we placed a striking large photograph of a Wanapum canoe at what appears to be the White Bluffs section of Hanford Reach, along with a new label on the history of Native American removal from the Hanford site.

We also developed a small new segment on racism and Jim Crow at Hanford and the Tri-Cities, adapted from the scholarly work of historian Bob Bauman, who kindly shared some of his striking archival photographs, including a tri-cities sign forbidding African Americans from entering a local business.

It has for our staff been a fascinating collaborative process working with the Seattle-based POTW team, as we have together discovered new aspects of the art and poetry, and pondered the challenges of telling this momentous story in an accessible and engaging fashion.

Tonight will mark the exhibition’s official opening and we can’t wait to see how our visitors respond. We’ll debut a short musical composition inspired by the exhibtion, by our Museum Studies student Justin, and hear from the co curators and artists and poets involved in the project, as well as from a Wanapum elder. We’ll be doing public programming with our POTW colleagues and others through the quarer, and are eager to find out what new conversations , arguments, and projects will emerge!

Monday, September 24, 2012

Twilight Longings: Little Red Volvo Ad

Students in my American Culture seminar  (“New Frontiers: Power and Fantasy in American Culture”) recently directed me towards this latest twist in mass culture’s perpetual reworking of the “Twilight” old growth Northwest forest mythscape, the recent Volvo S60 R-Design “Little Red" commercial, at:

The ad builds on Volvo’s product placement in the Twilight Saga films, in which the upper class vampire Edward drives a Volvo S-60 through these dark, moody woods.

The ad opens with a red Volvo S60 driving through the familiar nocturnal rain forest of Twilight fame.  Portland-based Laura Gibson performs a seductive cover of Sam Sham and the Pharoahs’ 1966 hit, “Lil Red Riding Hood”:  Hey there Little Red Riding Hood /You sure are looking good /You're everything that a... Big Bad Wolf could want.  The scarlet Volvo brakes in front of a menacing, growling wolf.  The car revs its engines, the wolf backs off, and the car continues its journey. Cut to inside the car; the handsome bearded driver says to the little girl behind him, in a bright red hood, “What does the Wolf say?” To which she responds with a howl.

The song and commercial both give a knowing nod to Bruno Bettleheim’s well-known reading of the fairy tale in The Uses of Enchantment: the red hood signals the girl’s transition to menarche and sexual maturity, and the wolf’s threat of devouring is a coded allusion to sexual congress. The ad thus seems equally geared to male and female demographics. For men, the car promises to conflate a reassuring image of paternal, nurturing competence with edgy aggressiveness; for women the car promises an erotic, seductive charge.  The underlying imagery is perfectly consistent with the sexualized landscape of Twilight, intertwining sexual awakening with oral aggression (not to mention elite, refined commodity consumption). Indeed, the little girl in the car’s backseat, as a Bella-in-training, might be seen as equally drawn to her Volvo-driving bourgeois-yet-cool father (in the structural position of Edward) and the wolf-shapeshifter, Edward’s perpetual rival the Native American Jacob.

Most intriguing, for those fascinated by the symbolism of the “Cascadian” coastal wilderness, is the ad’s positioning of the Volvo in the Olympic-ish rain forest.  As cultural theorist Pete Richardson has argued, as the most cloud-covered biozone in North America, the Pacific rain forest is the archetypal topos of our waking dreams, suspended between unconscious drives and the tantalizingly near-fulfillment of fundamental fantasy.  (The rain forest also makes an appearance in Audi's vampire-themed Superbowl ad,

which evidently conflates Twilight and True Blood imagery.)

 How striking that the Volvo ad’s descent into the psychic depths of the wild depends on a sophisticated piece of automotive technology. In this latest twist on Leo Marx’s classic American “Machine in the Garden,” the mechanical takes us not into utopian paradise but into the menacing territory of nightmare, while also promising a safe highway back to our waking lives.   As in the Twilight novels and films, this logic of psychic descent and ascent “works” through conflating the moody outer wilderness of the woods with sophisticated class privilege: only the special (sparkling?) kind of people who drive the Volvo S-60 can become one with their unconscious longings while safely finding their way back to the daylight.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Luke Blackstone’s A Gesture for Planetary Alignment

Artist Luke Blakstone within sculpture
Yesterday, at Central Washington University we dedicated a marvelous piece of public art, Luke Blackstone’s ‘A Gesture for Planetary Alignment” (2012). This kinetic sculpture has been erected to the immediate southwest of the newly refashioned Hogue Hall, our engineering and technology center, which was also formally dedicated yesterday. The piece is part of the Washington State art collection, and Mike Sweney,  program manager for the Washington State Arts Commission’s Art in Public Places program, was on hand to speak at the dedication and introduce Blackstone.

At the sculpture's base, a plaque reads, “This work links the creative spirit of Leonardo da Vinci with the students of Hogue Hall, who strive to integrate the elements of engineering with ever-changing forces and values of life.”  The work was developed in consultation with the university’s Art Selection Committee. (I am a rather new member of this committee, having joined after the consultation process had been completed.)

Blakstone’s work is built of stainless steel, glass, polycarbonate, and electrical components. It is organized around a stainless steel grid-like mesh that slightly curves, rising to a height of about fourteen feet.  Set within the mesh are three circles of varying sizes.

The largest circle, set near the ground, overlaps with a square frame from which project two levers (on which are affixed skateboard wheels). This configuration invites a person to stand within the circle, in the manner of the well known image of Vitruvian Man, spreading one’s legs and extending one’s arms.

Moving the levers activates a complex “Planet gear” assemblage in an upper circular component which is set within a second circular shape. (A planetary gear system, which became prominent during the Renaissance, consists of a central “sun gear” around which rotate several identically sized “planet gears”, set within an “annulus” or meshed circular gear frame.)  Blackstone has decorated his planet gear system with various symbols drawn from engineering and other conceptual domains.
Middle Circle:  "Planet Gear" system

The third circle of the work is an empty circle, set at the very top of the curved metal grid complex. Atop this circle are two solar panels, which, along with the muscle power from the work's human occupant, provide  the energy that moves the planet gear system.
The top circle/solar panels

The concept of Vitruvian Man, most famously associated with Leonardo da Vinci’s 1490 drawing, dates back to the ancient Roman scholar Marcus Vitruvius, who in his classic work on architecture described the circle and square figures generated from the idealized proportions of the human body:

“Similarly, in the members of a temple there ought to be the greatest harmony in the symmetrical relations of the different parts to the general magnitude of the whole. Then again, in the human body the central point is naturally the navel. For if a man can be placed flat on his back, with his hands and feet extended, and a pair of compasses centered at his navel, the fingers and toes of his two hands and feet will touch the circumference of a circle described therefrom. And just as the human body yields a circular outline, so too a square figure may be found from it. For if we measure the distance from the soles of the feet to the top of the head, and then apply that measure to the outstretched arms, the breadth will be found to be the same as the height, as in the case of plane surfaces which are completely square. “  (Marcus Vitruvius, De Architectura, Book III, Chapter 1, p 3)
Leonardo da Vinci, Vetruvian Man, 1490

Many other artists had drawn versions of Vitruvian Man, but Leonardo’s differed from previous iterations in being based upon careful anatomical observation, and in that the arms and legs of the male figure are so configured as to generate a square and circle that neatly overlap. The drawing exemplifies Leonardo’s commitment to the principle of “cosmografia del minor mondo” (cosmography of the microcosm)--that in the working of the human body are to be found the keys to the mysteries of the greater universe.

In his artist’s talk, Blackstone emphasized that the “alignment” referred to in the work’s title is not so much that of the external cosmos, as it is a plea that we here on earth will succeed in an ethical alignment of ourselves and our immediate environs, a goal surely in keep with the new engineering hall, a LEED-certified structure incorporating solar and wind-derived energy sources. (In a highly suggestive irony, the afternoon of the dedication proceeded under a sky filled with thick, acrid smoke from the surrounding wildfires, a local crisis that may well be a symptom of human-caused global climate change.)

There are many fascinating aspects to the Blackstone piece.  I love that there are no explicit instructions on how to position one’s body within the work; this is something successive passers-by will need to work out on their own. In that respect the sculpture calls forth the processes of experimentation and creative trial and error  that underlie all technological and scientific advancement.  A bit reminiscent of a jungle gym, this moving work of art invites us to play with our bodily being, within the infinite possibilities of science, engineering and technology.

Most of the time, the work is unoccupied by a human body, and in that sense remains unfinished; only when a person stands within the great circle and square and works its levers, activating the upper planet gear system, can the work be said, for a few seconds of minutes, to be “complete.”   Blackstone explains to us that the curving grid system was inspired by the grid paper found on the desks of engineers; on these sheets the engineer or technologist gives visual form to their technological imaginings, through a creative process that moves in an instant from eye and brain to hand and pencil to paper.  "A Gesture for Planetary Alignment" exemplifies this meshing of the  moving human body and its hands with the grid of creative expression and the technological products of the imaginative gesture.
Sculpture with Hogue Hall in background

I am struck as well that the three circles described in the sculpture may be read as proceeding upwards, from the largest, lower circle, which invites occupation by an active human body, to the middle circle, which contains the rotating clock-like mechanism of the planet gear system, to the highest circle on which is affixed the solar panels, oriented towards the great orb of the sun, source of all life on our planet.

Alternately, the work might be viewed as describing a downward descent of energy, from the sun, to the planets of the solar system (evoked in the middle circle’s planet gear system), to our own planet and our own bodies--and ultimately to the microcosmic circle set within our own torsos, our navel or belly button, from which Vitriuvius and Leonardo calculated their encompassing geometric shapes.

Read in either direction, the work evocatively links our own bodies to our technological creations, and in turn to the cosmos beyond.  One of my students remarked that she saw in Blackstone’s curving stainless steel grid system an evocation of Einstein’s vision of gravity as the curving of the four dimensional fabric of spacetime itself. (I believe Blackstone looked pleased when this line of interpretation was suggested to him.)  Our Art Department chair Gregg Schlanger, noting that a student had simply stepped through the circle, compared it to a “Star Gate-- a veritable wormhole cutting through vastness of the cosmos.

I am fascinated as well by the enigmatic symbols which proliferate within the rotating disks of the planet gear system--including the Omega constant, the infinity sign, and the biohazard symbol.  To my mind these evoke in part the secret signs of alchemy and astrology, born of an earlier epoch’s efforts to discern dynamic inter-relationships between the trajectories of the cosmos and the shape of human lives. People standing within the sculpture’s great circle tend to turn their eyes towards the planet gear assemblage, trying to make out the puzzling rotating symbols, which defy easy deciphering.

These mysterious signs impart a sense of the Sacred to this matrix, which hearkens back to Vitruvius’ classic observation, two millennia ago, that “in the members of a temple there ought to be the greatest harmony in the symmetrical relations of the different parts to the general magnitude of the whole.”   Universities historically are derived, as we all know, from temple precincts and ecclesiastical institutions, set apart from the tumult of ordinary life so that humans might be reflect upon the great mysteries of the universe and our place within it.  What better symbolic anchor for the university and our newly reborn technology center than Blackstone’s miniature temple of inter-meshing circles, centered on the moving arcs of the human body?
Gregg Schlanger in the circle

In the end, it is to those mysterious symbols my mind keeps returning to as I contemplate A Gesture for Planetary Alignment. I am reminded of Georg Simmel’s foundational observation that the secret always has two faces, one which is forever closed to us and one which calls active attention to the presence of mystery, and which thus compels our attention. For Simmel, the secret as a sociological phenomenon is the ultimate source of social power, causing us to revolve around that which we discern but cannot fully uncover.  It is this energy, our drive to make sense of exterior and internal mystery, as much as the photons streaming from the distant sun, that activates Blackstone’s work--and which activates our own ceaseless works of art, scholarship and scientific pursuit.


Please see Luke Blackstone’s home page at:

and please share your own reflections and reactions to Luke Blackstone's captivating work.